Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part IV

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Factoids Once again, I've received an e-mail list supposedly full of little bits of trivia. As usual, only some of the claims are true, while many don't hold up to investigation, and are either misleading or outright false.

A note on the references - for these factoid pages, I would prefer to include the full url, not a "pretty" link like I'd normally do on most web pages. That's because I've found that some people have copied and pasted some of my other factoid debunking pages, and in doing so have lost the url's to the references. If this page included the full url, people who copied and pasted would at least include the references. However, some of the urls are very long, which screws up the formatting of this page. So, in some cases where the url is short enough, I've included the full url. In others, I've included only the website's main link, or a partial, shorter description of the url.

One last note. I've put the claims in bold, and my responses in plain text.


The liquid inside young coconuts can be used as a substitute for blood plasma.
True Enough, maybe- It appears that a Prof. K. Rajasuriya of Sri Lanka experimented with uses of coconuts in the 1950s, and one of the uses he found was that coconut water could be used in a similar manner to saline. It contains many of the same chemicals and proteins as are already in our blood. It doesn't appear that it was ever a common practice, though.

No piece of paper can be folded in half more than seven (7) times. Oh go ahead...I'll wait...
False- It all depends on the ratio of length and width to thickness, in addition to the folding method. A high school student, Britney Gallivan, actually developed a formula to predict how many folds you can achieve based on those factors, and as proof, folded a piece of paper in half 12 times.

Donkeys kill more people annually than plane crashes.
Unsure- I really have no idea how to find a reliable source for death by donkey. Even Snopes doesn't classify this one. They did trace the claim back to an unsubtantiated statement in a 1987 article in the London Times, but nothing more than that. Snopes did list a good source for airplane mortality statistics. For anyone with a morbid curiosity, the CDC also has a very handy site for general mortality statistics for the U.S.

You burn more calories sleeping than you do watching television.
Probably False- To begin with, sleeping is not a single, steady state activity. Our brains and our bodies go through several different stages while we're asleep. In one of these stages, when we dream, our eyes move about quite a bit. Thus, this stage has been appropriately named, Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, sleep. The first link below is to a paper by Emmanuel Mignot examining why we sleep. In discussing the hypothesis that sleep evolved to lower energy demands, Mignot had the following to say:

Several aspects make the energy economics model insufficient to explain natural selection of sleep. First, if true, sleep would be similar to hibernation, selected to save energy [77]. Against expectation, however, animals coming out of torpor experience a sleep rebound, suggesting sleep deprivation [77]. Further, whereas NREM sleep may be associated with decreased energy expenditure, REM sleep is most often associated with increased whole body oxygen consumption [78,79]. In this latter case, however, it depends on how close ambient temperature is to the thermoneutral range, as REM sleep is a state where temperature is partially unregulated [79]. Overall, whereas it is possible that energy saving has been involved in the selection of sleep at earlier times during evolution or in specific circumstances (for example in mammals with high energy demands, such as mice), it is unlikely to be of primary importance in explaining its maintenance in all mammals.

So, considering that non-REM sleep is "associated with decreased energy expenditure," the increased expenditure of energy during REM sleep is dependent on ambient temperature, and that REM sleep is only part of the sleep cycle, anyway, I think it's most likely that sleep results in burning slightly less calories than when awake but inactive.

As one more note, I found several dieting sites that gave conflicting info on this, but none that listed their sources on where their information came from.

What Happens While We Sleep:

Calorie Calculators:

Oak trees do not produce acorns until they are fifty (50) years of age or older.
False- There's considerable variation depending on the environment and species, but typical time seems to be about 20 years, with 50 being the upper limit under most circumstances. However, some trees have produced vialbe acorns in as little as 3 years.

The first product to have a bar code was Wrigley's gum.
False- On June 26, 1974, at Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio, the first product to be scanned for purchase with a UPC bar code was a pack of Wrigley's gum, but that's simply because it was the first item pulled out of the cart at the checkout line. Other items in the store also had UPC bar codes. The first bar codes to be used were actually at a Kroger's in Cincinnati in 1966. These were proprietary stickers, though, that Kroger's employees had to put on each package, not the UPC bar codes. I don't know if any record still exists of the first product purchased with those original scanners.

The King of Hearts is the only king without a moustache.
Sort of True- I suppose someone discovered this 'fact' by simply looking at a deck of cards. If only they'd had a few other decks to look at, they'd have seen that the King of Hearts does sometimes have a moustache. It is true that the standard convention now is to show the King of Hearts as clean shaven, even if not all manufacturers follow it. However, that hasn't always been the case. Decks from the 1500s did have a moustachioed king as the standard.

American Airlines saved $40,000 in 1987 by eliminating one (1) olive from each salad served in first-class.
Probably True- I can't find a single good source on this, but many, many news stories mention this tidbit when discussing Bob Crandall, the former chief of American Airlines who supposedly instituted this change. Granted, being repeated often doesn't make a claim true, but this one seems reasonable enough. consider just how many flights a major airline like American has per year, and how many salads they were serving back when they still served food. Now consider how small $40,000 is in the grand scheme of things for an airline that big. It's only the cost of a single employee, even less if you consider higher paid employees like pilots.

Venus is the only planet that rotates clockwise. (Since Venus is normally associated with women, what does this tell you!)
True- Granted, this claim makes the implied assumption that you're only considering planets in our solar system, as well as ignoring more minor bodies, like the dwarf planet Pluto. Also, clockwise assumes a view from above the Sun's north pole (though it would still have a retrograde rotation no matter what your frame of reference). Interestingly, Venus rotates very slowly - it takes 243 Earth days to complete a full rotation, which, coupled with a 243 Earth day Venutian year, means that a solar day on Venus lasts 117 Earth days. A couple caveats - Uranus could technically be considered to have a retrograde rotation, but it's rotation axis is nearly in plane with its orbit, so it's usually considered to more or less rotate "on its side." Also, as mentioned above, the dwarf planet Pluto has a retrograde motion (and I'm sure we'll discover more Kuiper Belt objects with retrograde rotation), so a few years ago, before the IAU redefined planets, this factoid would have been technically false.

Apples, not caffeine, are more efficient at waking you up in the morning.
Unsure- I can't find any good sources on this one. Apples do contain glucose, which we can use for energy. Plus, the actual act of eating the apple forces you into action, which could have some effect on waking you up. Still, caffeine is definitely a stimulant. Perhaps there's some confusion because apples contain caffeic acid (which isn't a stimulant). If anyone has any good sources on this (uncited Yahoo Answers pages and the like are not good sources), please e-mail me.

Most dust particles in your house are made from dead skin.
Usually False- In fact, the composition of dust varies quite a bit depending on many different factors. The Wikipedia entry I've linked below quotes a 2003 report by Lidia Morawska and Tunga Salthammer, Indoor Environment: Airborne Particles and Settled Dust, which itself references several studies, which says that,

The proportion of organic matter in 318 house dust samples was found to vary between <5% and >95% (Butte and Walker, 1994). Fergusson et al. (1986) reported the organic content of house dust from 11 homes in Christchurch, New Zealand, to be within the range from 25.7% to 56.5%. Floor dust from seven Danish offices had a mean organic fraction of 33% (Mølhave et al., 2000).

Note that these ratios are organic vs. inorganic matter, and that organic matter would be composed of more than just skin. However, if the dust in some houses is composed of less than 50% organic matter, it can't possibly be made mostly of dead skin.

However, another stat cited on that Wikipedia page, is that "approximately 6 mg/m2/day of house dust is formed in private households, and that "it is estimated that the entire outer layer of skin is shed every day or two at a rate of 7 million skin flakes per minute, which corresponds to a mass emission rate of about 20 mg/minute." Running through a quick calculation, for a single person, assuming all of their dead skin went into dust (wasn't captured in clothes or linens to be washed out in the laundry), in a 140 m2 house (1500 sq. ft.), this works out to about 206 mg/m2/day. Obviously, there are a lot of assumptions there, but it makes it seem plausible that in some of those houses with upwards of 95% organic dust, that it could have been mostly dead human skin.

The first owner of the Marlboro Company died of lung cancer. So did the first 'Marlboro Man.'
Unsure- & Partially True- I haven't been able to find much information abut Philip Morris, the 19th century man who made his own cigarettes for his shop on Bond Street in London. If I had to guess, I'd say that this factoid is false, because it just seems too good to be true. On the other hand, the first Marlboro Man, Wayne McLaren, did die of lung cancer in 1992.

Walt Disney was afraid of mice.
False- According to at least two sources, Walt Disney actually owned pet mice, which was the original inspiration for Mickey. Plus, this sure does have the ring of the type of false information that would be perpetuated as an urban myth.

Pearls melt in vinegar.
True- Pearls are mostly calcium carbonate, the same stuff as sea shells and Tums. Calcium carbonate will react with acids, including vinegar.

The three most valuable brand names on earth: Marlboro, Coca Cola, and Budweiser, in that order.
False- Putting a price tage on brand names is a pretty complicated task, since there aren't really any direct measures. Two companies, Interbrand and Business Week, team up to publish a yearly list of the values of brand names. For 2008, the top three brand names were Coca-Cola ($67 billion), IBM ($59 billion), and Microsoft ($59 billion). Marlboro was ranked at 18th ($21 billion), while Budweiser was down to 33rd ($11 billion). It's possible that those rankings were accurate for some year, but I haven't found it, yet.

It is possible to lead a cow upstairs... but, not downstairs.
False- It may be difficult to convince the cow to do it, but all the arm chair theories on the Internet about a cow's anatomy preventing it are certainly wrong. Since seeing is believing, follow the YouTube link below to watch a cow walking down stairs.

A duck's quack doesn't echo, and no one knows why.
False- There's nothing magical about a duck's echo that allows it to break the laws of physics - it will echo just like any other sound. The University of Salford in Greater Manchester even carried out a research project on duck echoes in 2003 because this myth had become so prevalent. A few of the reasons they posit for why the myth may have gotten started include: quacks are quiet to begin with, so you might not hear the echo; the quack fades in and out, making it hard to distinguish the initial quack from the echo; and ducks tend to live in places (such as lakes) that don't have surfaces for the quack to reflect off of.

Dentists have recommended that a toothbrush be kept at least six (6) feet away from a toilet to avoid airborne particles resulting from the flush. (I keep my toothbrush in the living room now!)
False- Individual dentists (like this guy) may recommend it, but it doesn't seem to be an official position of the American Dental Association or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each has a page dealing specifically with toothbrush care, and neither mentions keeping the brush away from a toilet.

Richard Millhouse Nixon was the first U.S. president whose name contains all the letters from the word 'criminal.' The second? William Jefferson Clinton. (Please don't tell me you're SURPRISED!!!)
True You just have to look through a list of the full names of all the presidents. Abraham Lincoln came really close, though.

Something else interesting I learned while researching this was just how recently the practice of giving middle names became common. It started in 17th century aristocracy, and didn't become popular among the masses until the 19th century. Only three of the first seventeen U.S. presidents had middle names, with John Quincy Adams being the first.

And the best for last... Turtles can breathe through their rear end. (I know some people like that, don't you?)
True for some species- Wow, this one surprised me. I was fully expecting to research this and find out it was bunk. Some turtles have twin structures called cloacal bursae, and in a handful of species (in the branch that can't fully retract their heads), these bursae are full of "vascular, villose mucosa" which in effect act like gills. By pumping water in and out of their cloacas, which in turn pumps the water in and out of these bursae, the turtles can exchange gases from their blood with the water. In fact, according to the source listed, this method of breathing can account for 68% of the turtle's oxygen intake. There's a lot of other interesting information in the Straight Dope article, making it worth clicking that link.


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