Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Death by urban legend

A recent article on LiveScience, the science blurb news site, asks the question, “Can You Really Die in Your Nightmares?”

The answer is “probably, but how on earth would anyone know?”  It’s a little like the urban legend that if you dream you’re falling, and you hit the ground in your dream, you’ll die.  Okay, that could be true, but the only way to verify it would be to chat with people who’ve had it happen, which would be a little hard to do because they'd all be dead.

The article goes on to describe SUNDS, or Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome.  This rare disorder, affecting for some reason mostly Southeast Asian males, basically is exactly what it sounds like – in the middle of sleep, these people simply die because their heart stops.  The article implies that the disorder could arise from an abnormality in the neural circuitry between the brain and the heart.  However, a headline saying, “A Few People Die Because The Nerves To The Heart Stop Working” doesn’t have nearly the cachet as implying that the affected individuals died in the midst of a scary dream, à la Nightmare on Elm Street.

I have some issues with sensational headlines and pointless speculation.  It may seem like harmless entertainment, but think about it from the standpoint of a science teacher.  I spend enough time in class trying to disabuse people of “facts” they learned from various sources of dubious credibility without having sites like LiveScience make it worse.  Besides the dying-if-you-dream-you-hit-the-ground thing, here are a few other urban legends that retain currency despite repeated debunking:

1) Daddy-longlegs have a really horrible venom, enough to kill you INSTANTLY, except that fortunately their fangs are too weak to penetrate human skin.  But if they could, they’d be the deadliest spider in the world.

2) Don’t throw rice at weddings, because if birds ate it, it would expand in their stomachs and they would explode like little feathery grenades.

3) The appearance of a “dark circle” around the moon means that we are going to have a period of acid rain.  Being caught in acid rain will give you skin cancer.

4) Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners cause lupus erythematosis and multiple sclerosis, and there is a systematic government cover-up to keep the public from knowing about it.

5) Pepperoni, and other salted/preserved meats, contain ground-up earthworms, and it SAYS SO RIGHT ON THE LABEL.

Okay, I’m hopeful that none of my readers actually believed any of these, even prior to this post, but in the interest of taking no chances, here are my standard responses to students who make these claims:

1) Apparently the whole daddy-longlegs thing apparently came about because there is a mildly toxic spider native to western Europe that is called the daddy-longlegs, and its superficial resemblance to the North American daddy-longlegs (actually not even a true spider, more accurately a harvestman) led to the confusion.  North American daddy-longlegs are harmless to anything larger than a mosquito.

2) Seed-eating birds in their natural environment eat all sorts of grains, including rice; in fact, in Asia, birds are a major pest in rice fields.  I have yet to hear of a single one exploding messily in mid-air.

3) I have also yet to hear of the moon at night not having a dark circle around it.  The night sky is, more often than not, dark.  There’s no connection between it being dark at night, and an incoming bout of acid rain.  Nor does acid rain cause skin cancer.  Lemonade, for example, is far more acidic than most acid rain, and I have never heard of anyone getting skin cancer from being splashed with lemonade.

4) Some people consume aspartame and get lupus or MS.  Some people consume aspartame and don’t get either.   Some people don’t consume aspartame and get lupus or MS.  Some people don’t consume aspartame and don’t get either.  There you are.  Also, I seriously doubt that the government is involved in some massive artificial-sweetener conspiracy.  They have much better things to do with their time and the public’s money, such as holding a Senate hearing to determine whether the pace of the economic recovery is "dismaying," "distressing," or just "disappointing."

5) The only explanation I’ve heard for the earthworms-in-pepperoni thing is that some semi-literate or another thought that sodium erythrorbate, a preservative, was the chemical name for earthworms.  My general opinion is that if you think that sodium erythrorbate is the chemical name for earthworms because “erythrorbate” and “earthworms” contain some of the same letters, you are dumb enough that my feeble attempt herein to combat your ignorance is doomed to failure.

Anyway.  I realize that I’m coming off as a grumpy curmudgeon here.  This is partly because I am a grumpy curmudgeon.  It is also because I feel like I spend enough time in class attempting to remedy ignorance without the media making it worse.  So if you have ever been guilty of forwarding a link to a website which implies that spiders will explode if they eat artificially-sweetened ground-up earthworms when there’s a dark circle around the moon, I’d appreciate it if you’d just cease and desist.  Thank you.

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