Ken Jennings v. Lore

December 16, 2012

In the course of writing this blog, I’ve referred to articles from quite a few different publications.  Until now, though, I have not referenced Parade magazine — the color supplement that comes in the advertising package with the Sunday Washington Post, and other papers.  It is not, frankly, a publication that I expected to be citing.  But this week, Parade has an article by Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy! game show champion†, addressing, and debunking, some hoary chestnuts of folk wisdom, the kind I refer to as “lore”, that parents often tell their children, without necessarily wondering whether or not they are true.  As Jennings puts it:

That’s the dirty secret of parenting: It’s a big game of Telephone, stretching back through the centuries and delivering garbled, though well-intentioned, medieval bromides to the present.

[“Telephone” is the American name for the game called “Chinese Whispers” in the UK.]

I suspect most readers will have heard most of these precepts at one time or another:

  1. “Stay away from the poinsettia! The leaves are poisonous.”
  2.  “No swimming for an hour after lunch. You’ll cramp up.”
  3. “When you start shaving, the hair will grow in thicker.”
  4. “Don’t eat snow—it’ll make you sick!”
  5. “Drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.”
  6. “It’s too dark in here. You’ll hurt your eyes.”
  7. “You are a special little snowflake.”
  8. “You need hydrogen peroxide on that.”
  9. “Take off the Band-Aid to let your cut air out.”
  10. “Don’t cross your eyes—they’ll get stuck like that!”
  11. “No soda! The sugar makes you hyper.”
  12. “Don’t wake a sleepwalker.”
  13. “Most of your body heat escapes through your head!”
  14. “You’re not fat. You’re just big-boned.”
  15. “If you pick up a baby bird, its mommy will reject it.”

Some of these, such as numbers 3 and 7, are just more or less harmless nonsense.  Others — number 12, on sleepwalking, is an example — embody basically correct conclusions for the wrong reasons.  (In this, they resemble the frequently given advice to get into a car in a lightning storm.)  Others are just nonsense from top to bottom.

For example, I have heard many people express their belief in number 5, the idea that one needs to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day.  As Jennings points out, many of these people have lost sight of the considerable amount of water that we take in every day in the form of food.   I’ve also heard the advice, mentioned in the article, that liquids like coffee or beer, don’t count, because the caffeine or alcohol acts as a diuretic.  At some level, this is true: if you drink a quart of straight whisky at one sitting, you probably will get a bit dehydrated, among other things.  On the other hand, the effect does have something to do with relative amounts: if I put one teaspoon of whisky, or coffee, into ten gallons of water, I am quite confident that you can drink as much of the resulting mixture as you want with no risk of dehydration.

One might argue that none of these adages is especially pernicious, so little harm is done.  But getting people to behave rationally, even once in a while, seems to be hard.  Reinforcement of irrational thinking is hardly constructive.

As Kin Hubbard said, “Tain’t what a man don’t know that hurts him; it’s what he knows that just ain’t so. ”


† Ken Jennings is a champion of the TV game show, Jeopardy!, who won more consecutive games (74) than any other player.  He was also one of the two human players involved in the Jeopardy! challenge match with IBM’s Watson computer system.

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