Popular misconceptions

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For the misconceptions assignment for my Academic English 2 classes, see the full Misconceptions project page.

There are many kinds of popular misconceptions, which may fall into the following general categories. Some of these overlap; some misconceptions might fall under more than one category.

  • general popular myths, fallacies and misconceptions
  • scams
  • hoaxes
  • cover-ups (or actual conspiracies, e.g., by corporations or governments, in ways that adversely affect the public)
  • false, misleading, or fallacious advertising
  • fake news
  • popular rumors, Internet rumors, & urban legends
  • popular hoaxes
  • pseudoscience
  • superstition
  • conspiracy theories
  • pop psychology
  • alternative medicine
  • misconceptions about health, medicine, and health science research & news
  • misconceptions about science
  • historical misconceptions and fallacies: false beliefs and myths about history
  • racism, stereotypes (ethnic, racial, cultural, religious, etc.), xenophobia, homophobia, etc.
  • regular, consistent use of logical fallacies, e.g, in politics or advertising

These often are found in popular sources, particularly in more unreliable sources. Below are some examples (some categories overlap, and some examples may fall into two or more categories).

1 Popular myths and misconceptions

1.1 Some popular myths

  • Fan death (leaving a fan on in one's room can be fatal)
  • Anti-vaccine myths (anti-vaxers). Supposedly, vaccines contain harmful substances and may even cause autism
  • Certain company logos consist of pagan or satanic symbols, most notably, Starbucks and Proctor & Gamble
  • Flat earthers: the Earth is actually flat, not round
  • Cryptids, or cryptoozoological ("hidden / secret / unkown" animals) creatures, such as the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot / Sasquatch, the Yeti (abominable snowman), and others
  • Anti-gay or anti-LGBT beliefs, e.g, that gay people "choose" to be gay, that they deliberately spread HIV/AIDs, or that one's sexual orientation can be changed
  • Fake news stories
  • False popular rumors and SNS rumors

1.2 Urban legends / myths

An urban legend (or urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend) is a type of popular story that is circulated as true, and is often spread by word of mouth, social media or the Internet. Originally, urban legends were told among city people by word of mouth for entertainment, and often involved elements of horror, crime, paranormal events, mystery, danger, or humor, or story events that were designed to provoke moral outrage or social anxiety. In older urban legends, the story teller might claim that this happened to a friend or relative, in order to make the story more convincing. Some stories were inspired by horror movie scenes, partially based on true events, or entirely made up. Examples of older style urban myths include:

  • Stories of someone killed by a serial killer
  • A story of a woman who microwaved her dog in order to dry it off
  • Rumors that the famous Beatles musician Paul McCartney had actually died in the late 1960s and was replaced by an imposter
  • A famous Internet rumor in the 1990s that claimed that gang members would drive without headlights until a motorist responded by flashing their headlights, and then a new gang-member would have to murder the driver as a gang initiation requirement

Today, the term has come to refer to a wider range popular myths and stories, which are often spread via social media. There is often still some kind of story or narrative component. Some of those items listed above under general popular myths might also be called urban legends. Here are examples of modern-day urban legends.

  • A New York advertiser successfully used subliminal advertising in movie theaters to boost sales of soda and popcorn
  • UFO stories and sightings
  • Alien autopsy video (a famous fake video of an autopsy of an alien)
  • Alien abductions: People reportedly have been kidnapped by aliens, especially at night
  • Alligators living in sewers (usually in the US)
  • Certain popular stories about aliens, e.g., that a UFO crashed in New Mexico and was kept by the US military
  • Stories popular in certain areas about a ghost, monster, or other strange creature
  • Fake news and social media hoaxes
  • False crimes stories
  • Email chain letters (e.g., you must send this email to ten more people or you will experience bad luck)
  • False stories about company logos having secret meanings (often secret, evil meanings), e.g., false rumors about Proctor & Gamble, Starbucks
  • "Old wives' tales" — false and often old rumors or wrong beliefs, many of which pertain to health (e.g., swallowed chewing gum stays in the stomach for seven years, cracking knuckles causes arthritis)

See also the Wikipedia list of common urban legends


2 Superstitions, paranormal & supernatural

Paranormal refers to what is beyond the normal, e.g., supernatural occurrences. Those involving the mind are often called parapsychology, such as ESP and telepathy. below. Some beliefs pertain to what psychologists call 'magical thinking' or false beliefs regarding cause and effect, such as many beliefs in miracles and supernatural abilities. See also paraspychology below.

  • Supernatural phenomena
  • Various superstitious beliefs and practices
  • Ghost hunting, ghosts, and ghost sightings
  • Haunted houses or buildings
  • Angels, demons, and/or spirits
  • Belief in occult phenomena
  • Prophecy, predicting the future
  • Astrology and horoscopes
  • Fortune telling, tarot cards, mediums, seances and talking to the dead
  • Witchcraft
  • Miracles and miraculous healings
  • Parapsychology (see below)

3 False beliefs about science

This includes some general misconceptions about science.

  • Misconceptions about how science works, about specific fields of science
  • Misunderstanding of how terms like "theory" are used in science and academia
  • Misunderstandings and false beliefs about evolution, e.g., that it is not true or proven because it is called a "theory"
  • Confusing evolution (about life forms) with geological theories (the age of the earth and rock layers) and big bang theory (about the development of the universe)
  • Pseudoscientific beliefs

3.1 Specific false beliefs about science

  • Creationism and denial of evolution
  • Climate change denial (See www.climatefeedback.org, a website where scientists debunk climate change myths)
  • Alien / UFO beliefs
  • Cryptozoology (mythical animals like the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Yeti)
  • Alien sightings and UFOs

3.2 Medical and health misconceptions

  • Coffee leads to heart problems or bone problems
  • Popping / cracking knuckles cause arthritis
  • Alcohol (in normal or slightly excessive amounts) kills brain cells (actually, it can hurt the liver, and excessive drinking can be particularly harmful for teenagers' brain development, but only extreme levels of alcohol and extreme alcoholism causes brain damage)
  • Fad diets (popular diet / weight loss programs) can meaningfully help people lose weight
  • Certain foods or drinks can help people lose weight just by eating / drinking them
  • Certain foods or drinks are good for the brain (generally not true, though stimulants like caffeine in moderate amounts are helpful for boosting brain function)
  • Eggs are bad for health and contribute to heart problems, so people should not eat eggs
  • Copper bracelets can prevent arthritis
  • Magnets can prevent or treat health problems (like blood, bone, or joint problems)
  • Watching TV too close or in a dark room causes permanent eye problems
  • Eating sugar makes children hyperactive

3.3 Pop psychology

  • Hypnosis, especially as a means of accessing lost memories or one's deeper consciousness
  • Mozart effect: Classical music can supposedly make children smarter
  • Left brain / right brain beliefs that major cognitive functions divide neatly between two hemispheres of the brain; supposedly, the left is logical and handles language, logic and math, while the right is holistic and intuitive and handles music, art and creativity
  • People only use ten percent of their brains
  • Students learn better when classroom teaching is customized to their particular learning style
  • IQ tests are meaningful and accepted measures of intelligence
  • Men and women are fundamentally different, cognitively and psychologically (yes, there are differences, but these tend to be over-generalized and exaggerated; there seem to be more nuanced or complex differences, which are debated among research psychologists)
  • Conversion therapy: an attempt to get gay / lesbian people to change their sexual orientation; research shows not only that it does not work, but it can be psychologically harmful for LGBT people
  • Subliminal advertising works and can cause people to buy something they would not otherwise buy
  • Most or all dreams have some symbolic meaning that can be interpreted, e.g., regarding your subconscious desires, your future, etc. The truth is that most dreams have no special symbolic or predictive meaning, but are merely a result of the brain's information processing system.
  • False beliefs about learning or education, e.g., learning styles theories

3.4 Pseudoscience

  • astrology and horoscopes
  • fortune-telling
  • tarot card reading
  • palm reading (reading palm lines on the hand to predict one's future)
  • blood types (blood types determine or influence personality)
  • phrenology (head shape and bumps indicate intelligence and personality); also the older pseudosciences of physiognomy (facial expressions indicate personality) and constitutional typing (body shape reflects or determines personality), but physiognomy and constitutional typing are no longer common
  • graphology (handwriting style directly reflects personality traits)
  • neurolinguistic programming (NLP)
  • combining spiritual healing + New Age / Eastern religious spirituality and/or superstition and/or religious beliefs + some fake scientific vocabulary (like from physics) to make such beliefs sound respectable; the teachings of Deprak Chokra is a prime example
  • parapsychology
  • psychic surgery
  • creationism
  • flat earth beliefs

For more, see the Wikipedia list of pseudosciences.

3.5 Parapsychology

These are pseudoscientific beliefs related to alleged psychological phenomena.

  • ESP (extrasensory perception)
  • Telepathy (reading other's minds or emotions)
  • Telekinesis (moving objects with one's mind) or psychokenesis (e.g., bending spoons with one's mental powers)
  • Precognition, or sensing the future, e.g., through dreams

3.6 Alternative and quack medicine

A "quack" is a slang term for a fake doctor, and a lot of fake medicine or quackery exists in the world.

  • Alternative medicine
  • Essential oils (for treating health issues)
  • Psychic medicine / healing
  • Faith healing
  • Anti-vaccine myths: beliefs that childhood vaccines cause autism or contain harmful chemicals
  • So-called conversion therapy, which attempts to change gay / lesbian people's sexual orientation and behavior to make them "straight"

4 Stereotypes

False beliefs that one group of people (a significant number of people in a country or culture) have toward another group, especiall in a way that causes social problems, difficulties, or discrimination toward a disadvantaged group.

  • Racism, racist attitudes / stereotypes, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, religious stereotypes ...
  • Misconceptions about gender, gender roles, women, LGBTQ persons

5 Conspiracy theories

Sometimes these might be simple misconceptions, but often beliefs in a conspiracy behind the misconception are involved.

  • Global conspiracy theories (see below)
  • 9/11 conspiracy. Since exploding airplanes allegedly could not have caused the World Trade Center to collapse, the buildings were actually blown up by the US government, or Jewish interests, e.g., in order to start a war.
  • NASA moon hoax. The Apollo moon landings allegedly did not really happen; it was filmed in a studio and faked.
  • Weather control. Various versions of this theory state that major governments like the US or the former Soviet Union have and use technology to control weather patterns. A modern version of this implicates the HAARP program of the US Pentagon.
  • Mind control. Various versions of this theory claim that some entity has and uses technology to control people's minds, including things like making the general public believe in ideas or vote for candidates (which conspiracy theorists think are evil). Believers in such theories think that those controlling peoples' minds are the US government, the former Soviet Union, or evil aliens. In the mid-20th century, some who believed this wore tin foil (aluminum foil, 은박지 / 포일) on their heads because they though the foil would block mind control waves coming from their TVs or from satellites in space. For this reason, tin foil hats are stereotypically associated with belief in conspiracy theories.
  • Anti-vaxers. Anti-vaccine myths often go further to claim that the medical community, pharmaceutical companies (which manufacture vaccines), and/or governments are involved in a conspiracy to harm children somehow with vaccines. Some crazier versions claim that vaccines are part of a conspiracy to control people's behavior or to kill people.
  • Flat earthers: Not only is the Earth flat, but NASA, governments, and scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the truth
  • Climate change denial: Not only denying the reality of human-caused climate change, but claiming that climate change is something that scientists or leftists invented (e.g., for anti-capitalist motivations)
  • Chemtrails. Airplanes leave behind a white trail of condensation (water and other chemicals from jet fuel exhaust), which could be called contrails (condensation trails). Some claim these are actually chemical trails of harmful chemicals that are designed to kill or harm people, or chemicals that can alter people's behavior, and an evil government conspiracy is involved.

Also, some books, websites, and Youtube channels like InfoWars promote even crazier conspiracy theories -- too many to mention here.

5.1 Alien theories

These are often conspiracy theories, and are worth listing in a separate subcategory, since there are so many types of alien myths.

  • General UFO and alien theories. Aliens are supposedly real, and UFOs are actually aliens. Maybe aliens are kidnapping people and performing experiments on them. For some reason, governments are supposedly hiding this information.
  • Ancient astronauts / aliens. Aliens have been or were in contact with humans in ancient times, and are responsible for ancient human technological achievements, e.g., building the Egyptian pyramids.
  • Alien & government conspiracies. Often, beliefs in aliens go along with beliefs that aliens have infiltrated governments and are influencing events and/or are trying to take over the world. These are similar to X-Files type of views of aliens.
  • Claims that an alien spaceship crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, USA, and that the US government is in possession of alien bodies or alien technology
  • Reptilians or lizard people. This is a special alien conspiracy theory, which claims that major world leaders are actually shape-shifting lizard aliens who can disguise themselves to look like humans.

5.2 Global conspiracy theories

These theories claimed that secret organizations are directing national and/or world politics to bring about a one-world "socialist" or communist government or some kind of dictatorship (or some such evil scheme); or they claim that well known groups are engaging in secret global conspiracies. Below are some common variations. Combinations of two or more of these are also quite common.

  • Illuminati theories theories (see below)
  • Anti-Semitic theories. (a) Various anti-Jewish theories claim that Jews (e.g., Jewish bankers) are involved in some evil conspiracy to control the world or to influence the economy or politics. These are often combined with Illuminati theories. (b) Some theories link Jews with Marxism and advocate a theory of "cultural Marxism," whereby Jews, Marxists and liberals are attempting to take over universities, Western culture, and maybe even governments.
  • Anti-Catholic theories. Historically speaking, [1] the Catholic Church is the oldest major branch of Christianity (an historical fact). However, fundamentalist Protestants and others believe that the Catholic Church has been involved in a grand world-wide conspiracy to control governments. It is true that the Catholic Church and other churches have had great influence on governments in history, especially in medieval Europe, but such theories go further to claim that it engages in a number of secret activities to control events and governments. This may also involve false claims that Catholic beliefs are not Christian, and are even grounded in ancient paganism (e.g., Babylonian religion).
  • Political organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Trilateral Commission, which include world leaders, national politicians, members of the news media, bankers, and top business people. In reality, the CFR and TC are merely think tanks (NGOs that work on ideas for public policy), and many political leaders join these for social / political networking purposes and/or to learn on and work on public policy ideas for promoting democracy or social causes. The conspiracy theories claim that instead, these are secretive political organizations and/or "globalist" interests that work to bring a global dictatorship. These conspiracy theories are promoted by extreme right-wing groups in the US like the John Birch Society. Such theories may or may not be connected to Illuminati theories.
  • Freemasons. Freemasons refer to a number of fraternal, civic organizations. They have followed secret practices and beliefs, which has led to critics claiming that they are a secret society and a secret conspiracy. Such theories often claim that the Freemasons are connected with the Illuminati.

5.3 Illuminati theories

There was once a secret society in 18th century Bavaria (southern German) of intellectuals who were atheists, agnostics, rationalists, or humanists, who opposed the political power and influence of the Church (e.g., the Catholic Church) or other churches in politics and governments. Since at the time refusing to believe in God was harmful to one's career, they formed a secret society to meet together. Later, it was made illegal and was broken up. There is no evidence that they continued to exist afterwards, and there is no evidence that they had or continued to hold so much power and influence, especially through secret methods of controlling governments. Nonetheless, many conspiracy theorists claim that they continued to exist and have worked secretly to influence and control governments and events. Some claim that the Illuminati still exist today; others claim that they were superseded (taken over, pass on to) other organizations that continue today to do their evil work. Some often merge Illuminati theories with conspiracy theories involving other groups.

  • Attempts to connect it with other secret societies that started around the same time, such as the Freemasons
  • Attempts to connect it with older medieval secret societies, e.g., the Rosicrucians, the Knights Templar, etc. (e.g., as told in The Da Vinci Code)
  • Attempts to connect it with ancient paganism, e.g, Babylonian religion
  • Attempts to connect it with anti-Catholic conspiracy theories
  • Attempts to connect it with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories
  • Claims that the Illuminati still exist and control political leaders, major business leaders, and even entertainment stars
  • Claims that their work was overtaken by political organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Trilateral Commission. In reality, the CFR and TC are merely think tanks (NGOs that work on ideas for public policy), and many political leaders join these for social / political networking purposes and/or to learn on and work on public policy ideas for promoting democracy or social causes. The conspiracy theories claim that instead, these are secretive political organizations that word to bring a global dictatorship. These conspiracy theories are promoted by extreme right-wing groups in the US like the John Birch Society.

6 Explanations for false beliefs

Some reasons why people might believe in such fallacies may include:

  • logical fallacies and cognitive biases, e.g.: (1) false cause or false correlation: believing wrongly that X caused Y just because one occurred after the other, or (2) confirmation bias
  • magical thinking: misunderstanding cause and effect, and falsely believing that something is the result of a miracle, supernatural activity, or supernatural ability. This relates to false cause fallacies.
  • lack of education and/or lack of critical thinking and analytical skills
  • desire to see oneself as one of a small number of persons with special insight or understanding (those who do not believe are dismissed as foolish masses); a desire to see oneself as one of a special small group with special understanding
  • frustration with and/or lack of understanding of complex political, economic or cultural changes--especially if one feels powerless or left behind by society
  • pareidolia or apophenia

7 Resources for fact-checking false beliefs

  1. http://www.climatefeedback.org: A site where scientists debunk specific claims of climate change deniers
  2. https://www.snopes.com: A site that fact-checks popular rumors and fake news
  3. https://www.FactCheck.org: A site from a think tank about fake news rumors
  4. https://www.PolitiFact.com: A site that tracks false claims by political leaders (mainly for the US)
  5. https://www.TruthOrFiction.com: A site for debunking popular rumors, urban legends, and Internet hoaxes and rumors
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fact-checking_websites: Wikipedia list of fact checking sites