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