Business Day column: The disturbing propensity of error to endure

CHIMPANZEES know more about the world than educated people and about the same as Nobel committee professors, according to Swedish professor Hans Rosling.

When chimps selected answers to important questions, they gave random answers. Sophisticated people scored well below chimps by answering with "facts" that conflict with readily available information. This demonstrates the disturbing propensity of error to endure. Myths become so entrenched that unsuspecting parents, educationalists and journalists pass them on as facts to children, students and readers.

Wherever we look, the phenomenon repeats itself. No matter how often they are proven wrong, catastrophists and trivia junkies promote a climate of opinion in which ignorance prevails and governments do the opposite of what they should.

"Overpopulation" mythology illustrates the point. Paul Ehrlich produced idiotic scare stories in his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. He is one of the world’s most famous policy advisers. He lamented the "population explosion" and "overpopulation", which, he said, would cause scarcity, hunger and starvation, even in rich countries. What exploded instead of population was abundance. Half a century after the disproof of the overpopulation myth, it lives on as if proven. Population growth has fallen to zero in rich countries and is heading towards zero globally by 2050. Equally antiquated nonsense includes the Club of Rome’s "resource scarcity" and "limits to growth" prophesies.

Many myths are popular "factoids", such as the idea that the Great Wall of China is the only human-made object visible from space, that according to science bumble bees should not fly, that Eskimos have many words for snow, that a duck’s quack does not echo, that the origin of the f-word is "fornication under consent of the king", and that we use only 10% of our brains (which might be the people who believe it speaking for themselves).

Apart from the fact that many human-made objects are visible from space, the Great Wall myth dates from when telescopes were too crude to tell that "lines" on Mars were neither lines nor canals. As anyone who looks from a plane can see, roads wider and longer than the Great Wall are scarcely visible from much closer than orbiting astronauts. To see the wall from space and the moon would require visual acuity 10 times and 17,000 times better respectively than normal.

The list is longer than that covered in the encyclopaedia of misinformation. Napoleon was not short; George Washington was not the first US president; Jesus was not born on December 25; Christopher Columbus never proved the earth was round; Ferdinand Magellan never circumnavigated the earth; Thomas Edison did not invent electric light; July 4 1776 is not when the US became independent; hair and nails do not grow after death; water does not drain clockwise in the north and anticlockwise in the south; Henry Ford invented neither the car nor mass production; Al Gore never invented the internet; James Watt did not invent steam engines; there is no evidence of anyone making a "snuff" movie; the Bible does not say Eve tempted Adam with an apple and mentions other people besides Adam and Eve; there were 31 condemned "witches" of Salem, not hundreds, none of whom were burnt at the stake and some were men. Marie Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake". She was 11 and living in Austria when, 23 years before the French Revolution, Jean Jacques Rousseau cited an unnamed "princess" as having said that.

Next week’s column will expose weightier myths and their implications, such as the impossibility of a water shortage, more whites being enslaved in Africa and Asia than blacks in the US, global inequality and poverty vanishing not increasing, black empowerment in SA far exceeding what most people imagine and life expectancy more than doubling. It will refute established assumptions about health, such as whether stress causes ulcers, smoking has benefits and French kissing transmits colds and flu.

• Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation.

This article was first published in Business Day on 11 March 2015

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