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by Guy McCardle

September 23, 2011

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Donate The term 'debunk' originated in the 1923 novel Bunk, by American novelist William Woodward, who used it to mean to "take the bunk out of things." A debunker is one who pulls away the curtain exposing the true nature of "the great and powerful Oz". That said, the word seems to carry a somewhat negative connotation. You think that a homeopathic remedy cured your headaches only to find out later that Homeopathy is just pure water. You buy a $6000 Kangen water system and attribute it to your recent weight loss only to find out later that it is just slightly alkaline water. Your pool is filled with thousands of gallons of the stuff. There is a reason why the statement "ignorance is bliss" is a cliché.

Debunking, however, is a good thing. A positive thing. It is the revelation of truth and the putting aside of ignorance. As scientists, what greater aspirations should we have than these?

What follows are five beliefs of the past that have been properly re-truthed.

California Island-The legend of California Island dates back to the 1510 romance novel Las sergas de Esplandin in which California is described as an island and an earthly paradise much in the same manner as Atlantis or the Garden of Eden. The author writes:
Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.
This myth is of probably one of the most famous cartographic errors in history. On many maps of the 17th and 18th centuries, California is depicted as being off the coast of North America and separated from the mainland by the strait now known as The Gulf of California. The matter was finally put to rest indisputably on the 1774-1776 expeditions of Juan Bautista de Anza.

The Four Humors-From the time of ancient Greek and Roman physicians and philosophers until the advent of modern medical research in the nineteenth century, this theory was the standard explanation of the makeup and workings of the human body. The concept of humors was not fully replaced until 1858 when Rudolf Virchow published his theories of cellular pathology.

It was believed that the body contained four basic substances. These were known as humors. The word humor is a translation of the Greek word chymos (literally juice or sap, metaphorically flavor). The four being: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. It was thought that the right balance of these humors made a person healthy but an excess or decrease in any one of these would cause illness and/or personality changes. Because of these beliefs, the treatment of disease was all about balancing the four humors. This was done through treatments like bloodletting, purges, and emetics. Sometimes herbs would be used to restore the balance. More powerful herbs and elements were used to cure common ailments and even the plague. For example, chamomile was used to treat any sort of swelling or fever. Also, arsenic was used in a poultice bag to 'draw out' the evil vapors that caused the plague.

A few leftovers from the heyday of the four humors persist in our medical lexicon to this day. For example, a humoral immune response is one mediated by secreted antibodies that are produced in a type of white blood cell. The secreted antibodies bind to antigens on the surface of the invading virus or bacteria and flags them for destruction. The word 'humoral' is derived from the fact that the response originates found in body fluids.

Maternal Impression-This is the belief that a mother's thoughts (or sometimes physical experiences) while pregnant can impart special characteristics on the child in her womb. For years this idea was used to explain birth defects and congenital abnormalities. The condition of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, was thought to be a matter of maternal impression. His mother was said to have been frightened by an elephant while pregnant with him and this was somehow supposed to have imprinted the memory of an elephant on her child. Depression was said to be inherited in this same manner. If a mother had times of extreme sadness during her pregnancy, this was thought to be transferred to her unborn baby.

Probably the most famous example of maternal impression comes to us from the story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis:
Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted.
The theory of maternal impression was largely abandoned by the 20th century, with the development of modern genetic theory.

Phlogiston-This theory dates back to 1667 when alchemist and physician Johann Becher postulated that there was a fifth element (phlogiston) to go along with the four classic elements (air, earth, fire, water). Phlogiston was supposed to be contained within any objects that could burn. It was believed that when an object burned, it released its phlogiston (an element without taste, mass, odor or color) and left behind a powdery substance called calx (what we now know to be oxide). The fact that a fire burned out when deprived of oxygen was seen as proof that air could only absorb so much phlogiston. Another idea was that the sole function of breathing was to rid the body of phlogiston. The entire concept was superseded by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier's discovery that combustion could only occur with the help of a gas such as oxygen.

by Guy McCardle

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