Sept. 17 2012 06:03 PM

Think twice before believing everything you hear

Ed Decker

Lounging at a cocktail table with the gang, my friend V. was griping about her significant other. For some reason, the guy wouldn’t stop doing this thing that was pissing her off and acted surprised every time she got mad about it.

“And you all know what the definition of insanity is, right?” she asked the group. Without missing a beat, everyone blurted the answer: “The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting a different result.”

This particular myth has been irking me for years, but the fact that a whole table of people repeated it unflinchingly was the final straw. So, in my sweetest, most gentle tone of condescension, superiority and self-righteous know-it-allness, I informed the group that this was most definitely not the definition of insanity.

They seethed with contempt.

“Are you an idiot?” barked X.

“Don’t you read?” snorted Y.

“Well, then, my breathtakingly oblivious comrades,” I said, while pecking “insanity” into my iPhone dictionary, “I invite you to read this and weep,” then passed the iPhone around the table.

Being that years of alcohol abuse had caused all my friends’ brains to degenerate into sticky blobs of demagnetized pulp, they were unconvinced. Z. even argued that the insanity / repetition definition was technical in nature, as if he’d ever actually consulted a medical, or any other scientific-type dictionary. Well, I have consulted, many times over the years (mostly to win bets), and have yet to find anything that resembles what y’all keep insanely repeating. In fact, Z., there is no official medical definition of insanity. The psychiatry field has deemed the word obsolete. There are legal definitions and lay definitions—and they all pretty much say the same thing: Insanity is when you’re totally whacked in the head, yo!

The maxim, by the way, is commonly misattributed to Albert Einstein, who didn’t coin that theory any more than he coined the Theory of Rap-ativity (Eazy-E = Run DMC²). And that’s what this column is about: how many fallacies are flying around out there, and how inclined we are to believe something if it’s repeated enough, and how eager we are to share it—completing the vicious cycle of misinformation.

At this point, I would ask the reader to note my use of the pronoun “we” in the preceding paragraph. That’s because I can’t count all the times I, too, repeated some bogus myth without looking it up. So, I’m not pointing fingers here. I’m just advocating that we scrutinize any new information that comes forth and re-scrutinize everything we thought we already knew—at least before passing it on to others.

This is my mission. It has been my mission ever since discovering that the oft-repeated apothegm “Humans use only 10 percent of their brain” is nonsense. Turns out, we use the whole of our brains! And when you think about it, wasn’t it utterly idiotic to believe otherwise? There’s a ton of credible science and technologies that debunk this theory (functional-magnetic-resonance imaging, for one) but said it best: “How come we never hear doctors say, ‘Luckily when the bullet entered his skull, it only damaged the 90 percent of the brain he doesn’t use’?”

Incidentally, the 10-percent-brain theory is also misattributed to Einstein; sure as wormholes ain’t where fishermen get bait, he said no such thing. And, wow, doesn’t it boggle the mind how much and how often misinformation has been repeated over the years, decades and centuries?

Well, it just doesn’t matter how many school books claim otherwise, Columbus did not discover America. It doesn’t matter what the plaque at Cooperstown tells us, Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. And while we’re at it: Napoleon was not short; shaved hair does not grow back thicker; you cannot copyright something by mailing it to yourself; a cannonball did not crack the Liberty Bell; menthol cigarettes do not contain fiberglass; coffee does not come from beans; Mama Cass did not choke on a sandwich (or anything else, for that matter); undercover cops do not have to admit it when asked; S.O.S does not mean “Save Our Ship”; Mars is not red; ostriches do not hide their heads in the sand; THIS is an acronym (not THS); Twinkies do not have a shelf life of 30 years (or even 30 days); America did not become independent on July 4, 1776; Christ was not born on Dec. 25; mano-a-mano does not mean “man to man”; Mr. Green Jeans was not Frank Zappa’s father; Ozzy Osbourne did not bite off the head of a bat during a concert; and, for cryin’ out loud, people—you cannot catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar! Sure, you attract more flies, but catching them is another thing entirely. (Tip: If you want fewer flies, put away the honey.)

By the way, of the preceding list of fallacies, one of them is actually a truth. It’s cruel, yes, to make you look them all up to discern which one it is. But if you trusted my refutation of these myths as readily as you believed them in the first place, then you’ve missed the point. Consider it practice for the task at hand: No more automatically believing shit! Not even the small stuff like Mr. Green Jeans Zappa or Twinkie shelf life.

As our pal Albert Einstein actually, factually, truly and provably did say, “Anyone who doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones, either.”

Write to and Edwin Decker blogs at Follow him on Twitter @edwindecker or find him on Facebook.