50 Facts You Learned in School That Are Actually Lies


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Facts Myths written on a chalkboard
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Mark Twain famously said, "Don't let school interfere with your education." Although the famed author who quit school at age 12 had more meanings in mind than calling out specific educational untruths, it turns out plenty of the "facts" learned in school are actually myths, propaganda, misinformation, or downright lies.

worker in safety boots about to step on a nail
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Any puncture wound, including one from a rusty nail, can lead to a tetanus infection — but not because of the rust. Tetanus infections happen when dirt, soil or manure that is contaminated with the Clostridium tetani bacteria becomes embedded in wounds. Oxidized metal, or rust, has no impact whatsoever.
Napoléon Bonaparte
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A self-conscious short person who overcompensates with an aggressive personality is said to have a Napoleon complex. The problem is, the famously short French conqueror wasn't short at all. He was measured at 5 feet, 2 inches tall — but he was measured with French inches, which are longer than English inches. He actually stood 5 feet, 7 inches — taller than the average European man at the time.
hand holding penny
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It someone dropped a penny off the Empire State Building and that penny hit you, it would hurt — but only a little. Because of their non-aerodynamic shape, pennies flutter to the ground like tree leaves and never go faster than about 25 mph. If it were dropped from the same height in a vacuum void of atmosphere, however, a penny could reach 210 mph, which could inflict significant damage, especially if you were hit with the penny's edge.
Benz Patent Motor Car
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In the world of automobiles, there was the time before Henry Ford and everything after — but the mind behind the legendary Model T by no means invented the car. That title likely goes to a man named Karl Benz, a German engineer who developed a working car by 1885 — the genesis of today's Mercedes-Benz.
woman drinking cocktail in a bar
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As part of their health education, most school kids learn that drinking alcohol kills brain cells. The truth is that moderate drinking doesn't cause any damage in most cases. Heavy drinking absolutely can damage the brain, as well as the liver and other critical systems, but that damage isn't the result of cell death. The amount of alcohol required to kill cells would kill the person first.
African American man cracking his knuckles
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For generations, parents and teachers alike terrorized children with the idea that cracking their knuckles would leave them with brittle, arthritic hands later in life. In reality, there is no connection. The "cracking" is actually bubbles bursting in the synovial fluid that surrounds the knuckles. Cracking knuckles can, however, diminish grip strength — and if you're not sure whether or not the habit is annoying, just ask the person next to you on the bus.
little boy jumping
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There are a whole heap of reasons to avoid giving too much sugar to children, but hyperactivity isn't one of them. The myth of a child spazzing out from a "sugar high" is exactly that — a myth. Popularized by an allergist's recommended diet and a flawed study in the 1970s, the connection between hyperactivity and sugar was debunked by a series of studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1995.
ostrich running on the open plains in Hwange
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Even to this day, many kids grow up thinking that ostriches bury their heads in the sand because they believe that if they can't see a predator, it can't see them. Ostriches have tiny heads that sometimes appear to submerge when they're pecking at the ground, and they actually do briefly put their heads in the ground to turn their buried eggs. But the ostrich did not evolve with the worst defensive survival strategy in the animal kingdom.
Lady Amherst's Pheasant
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Some 66 million years ago, virtually all species of dinosaurs went extinct — "virtually" being the key word. It's hard to imagine that giant Godzilla monsters the size of buildings once wandered around what is now your town. But there are 10,000 species of feathered animals flying overhead to serve as proof that not all went extinct — the dinosaurs that didn't die evolved into birds. Another relic from prehistory are alligators, which haven't evolved much since they walked, swam, and killed alongside dinosaurs.
little boy holding frog in hands
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You should definitely avoid touching frogs or toads, many of which secrete powerful toxins from their skin. But if the poison doesn't kill you, you're not going to have to worry about getting warts. In fact, the bumps that cover some frogs and toads aren't warts at all, and even if they were, warts can only be caused by a human virus.
Neil Armstrong on the moon
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Neil Armstrong's timeless quote — the first words ever spoken on the moon — is arguably the most famous sentence ever strung together by a human being. The problem is, a key word — a letter, actually — was omitted, probably due to a gap in the radio transmission. The famous astronaut always insisted he said "one small step for a man ...," which changes the meaning of the phrase — and makes more sense, considering "man" and "mankind" can be used interchangeably.

Great Wall of China in stratosphere fog
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Since it's the same color, texture and made from the same materials as the surrounding landscape, the Great Wall of China is nearly impossible to see with the unaided eye in low-Earth orbit. It is absolutely not visible from the moon, as many kids were taught in school. A 2004 image from the International Space Station might appear to show a tiny segment of the world's longest defensive fortification, but even Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei confirmed he couldn't see it while in orbit.

elephant and its baby walking in long grass
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There is a common schoolhouse misconception that old elephants nearing death instinctively wander away from the herd to meet their end at the same site that their ancestors went to die. According to the BBC, "elephants clearly show interest in the remains of the dead," but there is no instinctive homing device that draws them toward collective staging areas for death, or elephant graveyards — and also, elephants are not afraid of mice.
closeup view of a flushing white toilet bowl
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It's likely you were told growing up that in Australia, water runs down sink, toilet and bathtub drains in the opposite direction — and even that storms swirl in reverse — because Coriolis forces tug in the opposite direction on different sides of the Earth. Coriolis forces are real, but they only apply on a scale much larger than toilets or even hurricanes can produce. According to a tweet from superstar astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, "toilet bowls drain however they're designed to circulate water. It's irrelevant whether you live above or below the equator."
George Washington's dentures
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When he gave his first inaugural address in 1789, George Washington had just one remaining natural tooth. It is a fact he wore a series of dentures, some made from ivory, gold, and even lead. The common schoolhouse myth that the first president wore wooden teeth, however, is exactly that — a myth.

George Washington confesses to his father, Augustine Washington on engraving ca. 1846
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For generations, teachers have been telling students that George Washington was so virtuous that he couldn't tell a lie. The author of Washington's best-selling original biography was not bound by such moral hangups, and took significant artistic license with the facts. The cherry tree story is among the biggest whoppers.

young chameleon on leaf
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Chameleons have the remarkable ability to change color, but it's not to blend in with surroundings while hiding from predators. Some chameleons change with the temperature or amount of stress they're experiencing. Others change colors to warn other lizards of danger. And of course, some males brighten things up to attract female chameleons.

close up of old English dictionary page with word preposition
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The question "Where are you at?" would make any English teacher cringe — and for good reason. It's grammatically incorrect to end sentences with prepositions when the sentence would have the same meaning without it. But otherwise, it's perfectly fine. Not only is there no rule anywhere that says you can't, but sometimes not ending sentences with prepositions makes writing clumsy and unnatural ("On what did you step?" vs. "What did you step on?").

Newton and the falling apple
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Kids learn in school that scientific pioneer Isaac Newton had his eureka moment about gravity when an apple fell on his head. It never happened. Newton did observe apples falling in his family's orchard, but there's no evidence one bonked him on the head and turned on a lightbulb.

tongue with four different taste areas
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One part of the tongue senses bitter tastes. Another detects sweetness, and others sense salty and bitter tastes, according to the tongue map. The tongue map drawn back in 1901 is a lie. Scientists now know that the tongue works in concert to detect all tastes and sensations.

angry teacher
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Any kid who turned in a paper that contained a sentence starting with "and," "but," "yet," "or," "nor" or any other coordinating conjunction likely got the assignment back with a whole bunch of red ink. But style guides disagree that it's a grammatical sin. You can do it. And you can do it any time you want.

single cut diamond on a piece of coal
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Diamonds are formed when coal is under intense pressure for incredibly long periods? In reality, that's nearly geologically impossible. In fact, coal forms virtually no diamonds; they are created in a variety of ways and places, including in the Earth's mantle and at asteroid impact zones.

Christopher Columbus, American flag, and sailing ships
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Christopher Columbus did not discover America. He never even set foot on North American soil or made it past the Caribbean, whose inhabitants he terrorized, brutalized, and enslaved. Not only was Columbus not aware that he had "discovered" a new continent, but many historians believe Norse explorer Leif Erikson landed in Canada 500 years earlier.

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Neither Christopher Columbus or any of his colleagues believed the Earth was flat or that they would fall off the end of the world if they sailed too far. Virtually every educated person in the West, secular and religious, knew the world was round by the third century BC.

Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta of Christopher Columbus
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Every school kid learns that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and the ships he used. But the names we know are nicknames. The Nina was probably really called the Santa Clara; the Santa Maria was at the time called La Gallega, or The Galician.

human brain on blue background
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A persistent myth presumes that 90 percent of the brain lies dormant in humans, waiting for evolution to catch up, and leaves kids imagining what kind of telepathic super beings they could be if only they could harness the rest. In reality, humans use all of their brains, there is no scientific evidence to suggest otherwise, and the 10 percent myth probably comes from an misquote attributed to Albert Einstein.

phone with calculator app and math notebook on wooden desk
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In most cases, getting caught with a calculator during a math test before the mobile era was the same as cheating. The logic? You have to know this stuff. After all, you're not just going to walk around with a calculator when you're grown. But the Pew Research Center says a full 95 percent of Americans now own phones that should contain at least a basic calculator.

pilgrims and natives gather to share a meal at the first Thanksgiving, oil painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, 1932
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Virtually everything learned in school about Thanksgiving is a lie, including the central story of the feast celebrating a partnership between Native Americans and early European settlers. The Pilgrims were fanatical and violent religious zealots who considered indigenous Americans savages, and the Indians naturally resented their presence. The modern, feel-good story is propaganda that's only 120 years old, but there was a celebratory feast in Massachusetts in 1637 — proclaimed by Gov. John Winthrop for the return of Puritan gunmen from hunting and murdering hundreds of Pequot Indians.

cartoon Thomas Edison is sitting behind his desk
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Children learn early on that Thomas Edison's incandescent lightbulb is one of the most important inventions in U.S. history. That's half true — a brilliant marketer, Edison successfully sold himself as the lone genius inventor, but the lightbulb actually came from a group effort by scientists who were sometimes collaborating, sometimes competing to bring light to the world.

black text Democracy under the piece of torn paper
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The rise of America undoubtedly shattered the era of kings and queens ruling over monarchies, which had existed in Europe for centuries. But the common schoolhouse lesson that America invented democracy would be news to the Greeks, who introduced "demokratia," or direct rule by the people, which included three branches of government, in 507 B.C.

original 13 colonies American flag laying on a wooden bench
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Anyone educated in America knows the 13 stripes on the American flag represent the 13 original colonies. But there were only 12 at the start of the revolution, as Delaware was part of Pennsylvania until June 15, 1776, when the Assemblies of the Lower Counties of Pennsylvania declared themselves free of both Great Britain and Pennsylvania. Also, Britain had two loyalist Florida colonies that didn't take part in the revolution.

cartoon Ben Franklin flying a kite with a key
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One of history's most brilliant and prolific inventors, Ben Franklin is arguably most famous for flying a kite fixed with a metal key during a thunderstorm to harness electricity. That almost certainly didn't happen. The popular legend probably comes from a hypothetical key-on-kite-in-thunderstorm scenario Franklin wrote for a popular publication.

astronaut in outer space against the backdrop of the planet earth
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It's common knowledge that astronauts float because there is no gravity in space. Actually, there is gravity everywhere, including space, including the kind that keeps the moon in orbit around Earth. People and objects appear to float while in orbit because they are in a state of freefall.

food pyramid
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The standard for healthy eating taught to children for decades, the classic food pyramid, has contributed to epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets nutritional guidelines for schools and the military, but also represents the agriculture industry — and has a vested interest in promoting diets based on things such as corn and meat, which have proven unhealthy in large quantities.

cute boy in blue shirt holding glass of milk
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Milk is absolutely necessary for a strong, healthy body — if you're a growing cow. A series of studies have found no evidence that cow's milk improves bone health, but have shown dairy has a negative effect on overall health, including on bones. The milk myth has been pushed by the dairy industry, which lobbies the USDA (whose previous chief recently took a cushy, high-paying job as CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council).

blue blood puddle
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Generations of children managed to leave school believing blood is blue until it touches oxygen, when it turns red. Blood is always red. Veins appear blue only because of how light is filtered as it penetrates the skin.

map of D-Day Invasion of Normandy, France
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The bravery displayed by Allied troops on D-Day is undeniable, as is the historic impact of the battle. But up to 80 percent of German troops were killed by Russian soldiers in the East, and most historians consider the epic battles of Stalingrad and Leningrad as the death blows to Hitler's Germany. Contributing at least 26 million corpses to the calamitous death toll of World War II, it is certainly the Russians who paid much of the tab to defeat fascism.

hand doing algebra in notebook
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Year after year, legions of kids — many of whom aren't mathematically inclined — are forced to suffer through the chores of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry with the presumption multiplying numbers against letters in parentheses is necessary to hack it in the adult world. In reality, fewer than one in four Americans regularly performs anything above basic math at work.

Lincoln memorial at night
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History teachers are quick to remind students that Lincoln was the "Great Emancipator." In reality, however, Lincoln's views evolved over time and he came to anti-slavery movement late in the game. He said publicly and repeatedly that he would tolerate slavery to preserve the Union. His anti-slavery sentiments, at least early on, seemed more pragmatic than moral, as revealed in his famous "house divided" speech.

rusty old shackles with padlock, key and open handcuff
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Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was limited in effect — first limited to slaves in rebel states, and then not universally known. The holiday of Juneteenth, celebrates the moment June 19, 1865, that Union soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, to tell America's last remaining slaves they were free. This was news to the slaves, who had never heard of the proclamation, signed two and a half years earlier.

union soldiers fight during the reenactment of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
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The 13th Amendment supposedly ending slavery still allowed forced labor as punishment for a crime. Convict leasing existed in every Southern state for decades after the Civil War. Tens of thousands of Black Americans who committed no real crime were kidnapped off the streets by corrupt local sheriffs, convicted in informal local courts for vague "crimes" such as vagrancy, issued fines they couldn't pay, and sold to businesses to work in mines, timber yards, farms and railroads in conditions often worse than slavery.

teacher helping African-American ordinary schoolgirl in classroom
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One of the most common and easy-to-remember rhyming spelling lessons is "I before 'e' except after 'c' or when sounding like 'a' as in 'neighbor' or 'weigh.'" The rule is wrong at least 25 percent of the time. Need some proof? Science. Forfeit. Weird. Glacier. Albeit. Fancier.

man shrinks marijuana cigarette
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Anyone who went to school during the just-say-no era of the drug war knows that while marijuana itself isn't so bad, experimenting with it leads to addiction, incarceration, and death from street drugs. For years, educators accepted the "gateway" theory, a 1950s scare tactic that has since been widely debunked and acknowledged as myth in 2016 by then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Social ailments such as poverty, bad home environment, and early exposure are better indicators of future addiction.

American bald eagle and flag
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"It's a free country" is a mantra most kids probably hear before they even get to school. The reality, however, is that 22 countries are freer than the United States. The Human Freedom Index ranks America No. 23 on its global list, based on government size, religion, labor, trade, rule of law, and basic freedoms such as movement and association.

Pluto in the solar system
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Science classes said our solar system has nine planets, but in 2006, tiny, distant, and icy Pluto was reclassified and lost its planetary status. It is now classified as a dwarf planet — just the biggest object in a huge belt of rocks circling the farthest fringes of the solar system. Don't get too used to the classification, though. Some astronomers want to reclassify Pluto again, back to full "planet" status.

wax figure of Albert Einstein at Madame Tussauds, Unter den Linden, Berlin
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Many subpar math students have been consoled by encouraging teachers who remind them that even Einstein — history's most famous mathematical genius — flunked math class. He did not. He mastered differential and integral calculus by 15, and taught himself algebra and geometry with books his parents bought him before he was 12 so he could master the fields on his own over summer vacation.

human hands going to press a button on keypad
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If you learned to type in the era of typewriters, or even word processors and early computers, chances are good you were conditioned to click the spacebar twice after every period to make things easy for the reader. That once was true. It is no more. The AP Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style and the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual all recommend just one space.

older man's hand writes in cursive on a ruled yellow pad of paper
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Gen Xers and generations before learned that cursive handwriting is a critical tool for surviving the adult world. In the computer age, however, and amid discussions of a national Common Core, schools have abandoned cursive en masse.

young woman with daughter during teacher-parent meeting at school
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Generations of teachers and principals kept students in line with the most ridiculous threat in the history of U.S. education: The next behavioral infraction will go on your permanent record. There is no permanent record. Some districts do keep files on students that contain personal information and attendance records, but even in those cases, anyone who isn't the student or the student's parent — including college admissions officers — can't access the record without a written release.

water tower aerial view in Colorado
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It's true that some water towers store drinking water, but even in those cases, the main function of a water tower is to create water pressure. Most drinking water comes from wells, reservoirs, lakes or rivers. The reason water rushes out when you turn on your faucet is because massive stores of water in vertical, gravity-fed water towers apply enough pressure to force water to flow through your municipality's network of underground pipes leading to your house.

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