Ex­plod­ing myths

Not all those things you’re told as a child — eat your car­rots, they’re good for your eyes! — are true, it turns out.

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Be­cause I Said So! Au­thor: Ken Jen­nings

Publisher: Scrib­ner, 254, non-fic­tion

WHEN I was a child, I used to be ter­ri­fied of es­ca­la­tors. “Watch your shoelaces,” my par­ents would warn me the minute I stepped close to one. “They might get caught in the mech­a­nism, and pull you in­side it.” In­no­cent as that warn­ing was, my fer­tile 10-year old imag­i­na­tion took over, and I avoided those mov­ing stair­cases as much as I could, ter­ri­fied at the thought of sliced toes or am­pu­tated feet.

Could things like that re­ally hap­pen? I had no clue. But if my par­ents said it, it had to be true, right?

“Parental wis­dom” takes cen­tre stage in Be­cause I Said So!, an in­for­ma­tive and en­gag­ing book by Ken Jen­nings aimed at un­cov­er­ing the truths be­hind what our par­ents taught us. Learn, for ex­am­ple, that con­trary to what you were taught, drink­ing eight glasses of wa­ter a day may not be good for you, al­co­hol does not re­ally kill brain cells, and that it is ac­tu­ally very dif­fi­cult to get trapped in a re­frig­er­a­tor.

Jen­nings is a trivia mas­ter: the au­thor holds the record for the long­est win­ning streak on the fa­mously dif­fi­cult Amer­i­can game show Jeop­ardy!, and is the all-time lead­ing money win­ner on sev­eral other Amer­i­can game shows. He is also the best­selling au­thor of knowl­edge books such as Map­head and Brainiac.

In Be­cause I Said So!, Jen­nings uses all the wealth of knowl­edge avail­able to him to an­a­lyse, crit­i­cise and de­bunk some of the most sa­cred com­mand­ments of parental wis­dom. Ac­cord­ing to him, most parental warn­ings are passed through the gen­er­a­tions with­out much thought to their truth or ap­pli­ca­tion.

“That’s the dirty se­cret of par­ent­ing: it’s a big game of Tele­phone stretch­ing back through the cen­turies and de­liv­er­ing gar- bled, well-in­tended me­dieval bro­mides to the present,” Jen­nings writes in the book’s pref­ace.

“Pos­si­ble mis­in­for­ma­tion ... never gets cor­rected; it just goes into hi­ber­na­tion for a few decades and then jumps out to snare a new gen­er­a­tion, like a 17-year-old ci­cada. Par­ents find them­selves in th­ese fac­tual blind al­leys be­cause they have no re­source than the dimly re­mem­bered 30-year-old lec­tures of their own child­hoods.”

Be­cause I Said So! is di­vided into sec­tions, each cov­er­ing a spe­cific area of mod­ern liv­ing. My favourite parts of the book were “Your Face Will Freeze Like That!” which touched on looks and groom­ing, and “What If Your Friends All Jumped Off A Cliff?” which han­dles adolescent pains. Can touch­ing your­self re­ally make you go blind? Does eat­ing choco­late make your skin break out? This book cov­ers all that!

The book (wisely) does not stray into ar­eas of su­per­sti­tion or the su­per­nat­u­ral, so things like “don’t stay out late or the ghosts will get you” are not cov­ered here.

Jen­nings’ re­search is com­pre­hen­sive and well pre­sented, and backed up with med­i­cal case his­to­ries, sci­en­tific find­ings and even the odd ex­per­i­ment. His style is light and hu­mor­ous, with witty ob­ser­va­tions and pop cul­ture ref­er­ences aplenty.

I learnt quite a few things from this book: my favourite fact, for ex­am­ple, is that dur­ing World War II, Bri­tain’s Royal Air Force greatly boosted the be­lief that car­rots were good for your eyes. Why? Thanks to radar, their pi­lots were shoot­ing down enemy planes with greater ac­cu­racy, a tech­no­log­i­cal ad­van­tage they wanted to keep as se­cret as pos­si­ble. So in­stead, they chalked up their pi­lot’s amaz­ing track records to them eat­ing ki­los of car­rots!

Per­haps the best thing about this book is that it could en­cour­age a spirit of in­quiry: read­ers, hope­fully, will be in­spired to ques­tion some of their be­liefs and not blindly ac­cept some­thing just be­cause some­one else told them.

My only is­sue with Jen­nings’ book is its pre­sen­ta­tion. The end of each ques­tion fea­tures a “Truth­ful­ness Bar”, which is filled up de­pend­ing on how true or false the myth is. This was of­ten dif­fi­cult to in­ter­pret (is a “False” bar filled up half­way, a more true than one filled up a quar­ter of the way?), and felt quite un­nec­es­sary.

Oh, and by the way: Be­cause I Said So! sadly did not have a spe­cific ques­tion on shoelaces and es­ca­la­tors. It did, how­ever, ad­dress the dan­gers of es­ca­la­tors. Its verdict was that while it was very pos­si­ble to in­jure your­self on one, es­ca­la­tors have be­come safer and they now have brushes to keep laces out. So thank good­ness for that!

Hope­fully, some­one will be in­spired to write a Malaysian ver­sion of this book some­day. I’ve al­ways won­dered, for ex­am­ple, if it’s true that the cock­les in char kuay teow are al­ways found near waste pro­cess­ing plants, or if drink­ing wa­ter from a durian’s skin re­ally cures heati­ness. Some­one work on this, quickly!

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