This past year was a strange one, with a variety of popular beliefs being busted. Some were welcome news: Other myths left a funk like a fart-filled balloon when they burst. Here, in no particular order, are seven popular stories and myths busted in 2013, ranging from the scientific to the sublimely pseudoscientific ...
Childhood Obesity Drops
The news from the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been a steady stream of gloom and doom for years when it comes to obesity in America, and childhood obesity in particular. The obesity rate for children and adolescents has tripled in the past three decades and now stands at just under one in five. Many experts believed that the rate would continue apace, but a new CDC study found instead that obesity levels actually dropped slightly in 18 states, remained the same in another 19, and increased in only three.
It's not clear what caused the unexpected decline, but some experts credit public awareness initiatives such as Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign aimed as school-age kids and their parents. The surprising success, however, may be temporary. The CDC emphasizes that unless both kids and adults need eat healthier and get more exercise these gains will be lost.
Dayna Morales, a New Jersey waitress, made national news in November when she claimed she was left a hate-filled, anti-gay note instead of a tip. She produced a receipt on which a message was written, "I'm sorry but I cannot tip because I do not agree with your lifestyle & how you live your life." This created an outpouring of sympathetic support and donations from around the world.
Several weeks later, however, the family that she'd served came forward with the same receipt -- except with an $18 tip and no homophobic message. Morales was accused of faking the incident, as well as making other false claims, including that she had brain cancer. Morales was fired from her job at the bistro after the restaurant completed its investigation and determined that her story was a hoax.
A team of researchers led by Melba Ketchum, a Texas veterinarian, claimed to conclusively prove the existence of Bigfoot through genetic testing. Ketchum says the mysterious monsters are half-human hybrids. The claims had circulated for several years, but Ketchum did not publish her study until February of this year -- though "publish" is not quite the word for it. Instead, because reputable scientific journals rejected her research, Ketchum decided to create her own online publication, the DeNovo Scientific Journal, and publish her findings there.
Unfortunately the study was badly flawed, including a fake April Fool's citation in its references. Scientists and geneticists who examined her claims found it riddled with errors, tainted evidence and incorrect conclusions. Undeterred by the scientific rejection of her work, Ketchum continues her fight to obtain legal status for Bigfoot. She says the elusive creatures are an undiscovered Native American population.
A drawing of how Homo erectus, a.k.a. "Upright Man" may have appeared.Art courtesy of J.H. Matternes
A 1.8-million-year-old skull -- the most complete early Homo genus skull ever discovered -- found in the Republic of Georgia earlier this year has scientists reconsidering what our family tree really looks like. It was one of several skulls found together at the same place, suggesting that the characteristics that anthropologists have used for decades to distinguish one species from another may be all wrong. The different skulls, and parts of the same skull, may not have been from distinctly different species of humans as previously thought but instead simply a result of normal variation within a single species, Homo erectus.
Scientists are elated that this myth may have burst because it provides a clearer picture of our human lineage and, if true, consolidates three different species branches -- Homo ergaster, Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis -- into one. An article on this find, "Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early Homo," was published in the Oct. 18 edition of Science.
A weird news story appeared in June warning parents about a bizarre fad sweeping through Japanese schools: children licking each other's eyeballs. This unexplainable behavior threatened the kids' health by spreading highly contagious pink eye, and could even cause blindness. Many news organizations ran with the story, despite the fact that the only source for it was an anonymous teacher at a primary school in Tokyo. Finally Mark Schreiber, an American journalist living in Japan, researched the story and discovered what some had suspected: The whole story was an urban legend. There was no eyeball licking fad, no trend, no scores of children arriving in hospitals with pink eye or blindness.
This particular myth gained traction because it was also part of a moral panic, which tapped into universal social concerns about kids' behavior. Every year or two a story circulates widely in the news about some dangerous new trend that parents and teachers need to be aware of, some hidden threat to the safety of children based on some strange behavior. Teens face many dangers, but eyeball licking is not among them.
In April, a line of seemingly high-tech bomb detectors used around the world were revealed to be a myth. Their creator and marketer, James McCormick, was convicted of three counts of fraud in a British court and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The so-called bomb detector, marketed as ADE 651, was said to be able to detect not only bombs but guns, ammunition, money, drugs, human bodies and even illegal ivory. The detectors were also said to work through walls and underwater. The devices were neither faulty nor defective: They were instead completely useless. They had no working electronics in them that could detect bombs or anything else.
McCormick sold the devices for up to $40,000 each. At least 800 of the detectors were purchased by the Iraqi government and used at military checkpoints throughout the country, as well as in Mexico, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon and Niger. It's unclear how many innocent lives McCormick's bogus products cost, but with the fake detectors off the market and this myth busted, the world is a safer place.
In August, a 4-month-old boy was admitted to a hospital in India with burns on his chest, head and abdomen. The baby's mother offered a strange explanation: Her son Rahul was burned by a mysterious phenomena called spontaneous human combustion (SHC), in which people are said to suddenly and inexplicably burst into flames. She claimed that there was nothing flammable near him when he was burned and suggested that there must be something special about the boy's body chemistry that triggered the burns.
Scientists were skeptical since SHC has never been proven to exist, and cases typically occur when the elderly, young or infirm are left alone near flammable materials and sources of ignition. Medical tests found nothing unusual about the boy that would cause burns, though investigators did find a hidden source of flammable material in the family's home: dried cow dung, which contains phosphorus and can spontaneously catch fire. With this myth debunked, Rahul recovered from his injuries and his parents were warned to keep a closer eye on him.