The Ecphorizer

What Do They Know?
Gareth Penn

Issue #39 (November 1984)

Beware strange books bearing offbeat facts

It was half past eleven in the evening, and I was getting smashed. Not drunk, clobbered. We had just acquired a Trivial Pursuit set, and it was becoming very clear that the editors of the game and I had completely different ideas about what constitutes [quoteright]trivia. I was all set for

They were wrong. There was no room for interpretation about it. I had them dead to rights.

questions like, "Who sang the world's first singing telegram?" (Western Union operator Lucille Lips) and "Who was originally cast as the Tin Woodman?" (Buddy Ebsen).

Instead, it seemed that I was always landing on the sports thing, and the questions ran along the lines of, "How old does a goat have to be before it is allowed to play buzkashi in Afghanistan?" I was beginning to feel downright depressed when, with a flip of a card, my spirits were restored and I was suffused with a glow of triumph. They were wrong. It wasn't something you could quibble over --there was no room for interpretation about it. I had them dead to rights.

Question: "Who called his steam boat the Clermont?" "Robert Fulton." Before you say anything, Robert Fulton is right; what is wrong is the name Clermont

Fulton called his steam boat, quite simply, the North River Steam Boat. Why it was called the Clermont by posterity is an involved story, and it belongs in the same genre of literature as Parson Weems's whopper about George Washington and the cherry tree.

I had been reading about Fulton and the Clermont since boyhood, and it came as kind of a shock to find that it was so much b. s.; but it was accompanied by a perverse kind of satisfaction at seeing the authorities, who are supposed to know everything, take a great big pratfall.

This information came to me in a 1967 publication by Ashley Montagu and Edward Darling, The Prevalence of Nonsense, whose professed aim is to scatter to the four winds all manner of traditional folklore. One of these pieces of folklore is the one about Fulton's steam boat. While it is pleasurable to see people like Montagu and Darling expose misinformation for what it is, it is even more pleasurable to catch the misinformationists doing the same thing that they so deplore in others.

Hardly thirty pages after they set you straight about the nomenclature of Fulton's steam boat, the authors identify the Monitor as a Confederate warship and the Merrimac as a Union vessel, and that doesn't even scratch the surface: as I am sure you remember, the Merrimac had been a Union warship, but it was rebuilt and renamed by the Confederate States Navy. The famed (and inconclusive) battle was between the Monitor and the Virginia.

Having been so smug about the Clermont misnomer, Montagu and Darling deserve some kind of award for that blunder. Not content, however, to rest on their laurels, they proceed to commit a number of other bits of egregious misinformation to paper. Just to select two on the same theme, they inform us that what makes shellfish poisonous in months without the letter "R" is spoilage due to the heat of summer, and that whereas drinking whiskey is not a good way to treat oneself for snakebite, autosurgery with a pocketknife is. I mention these two in particular because insofar as people may allow themselves to be guided in their everyday lives by what they read in books, these two bloopers could actually do someone a great deal of harm.

Shellfish become poisonous, as I am sure you already know, because they filter out of seawater minute organisms called dinoflagellates, so-called "red tide" creatures, which are quite toxic. The red tide runs mainly in the summer months because dinoflagellates like to reproduce in hot weather. The "R" that counts is the one in "warm." No amount of refrigeration will detoxify dinoflagellates, and even the freshest shellfish can kill you. As for snakebites, I have seen photographs of the hands of people who had tried out the old Boy Scout remedy on their rattlesnake hickeys. What they showed was shriveled, twisted, useless appendages crippled because their owners had severed a nerve while digging around in the wound with a pocketknife. Just in case there is any doubt in your mind, the best tool to use on your snakebite is the ignition key of a car. Drive to the nearest emergency room and get an M. D. to give you an injection of rattlesnake antivenom. Then go home and pour yourself a stiff belt of whiskey. It works every time.

If misinforrnationists like Montagu and Darling are to have any literary value, they should at least produce original misinformation and not just pass along old, shopworn material inherited at several removes from Pliny the Younger and other fountains of falsehood. Where these two authors fail in that attempt, Tom Burnam more than succeeds. Professor Burnam published some years back a book with the title Dictionary of Misinformation. The title is ambiguous, and deservedly so. It is hard to tell whether Burnam is trying to clear up or create misinformation. Because of the constraints of space, and because none of Burnan's misinformation is life-threatening, I will mention only that he etymologizes the phrase "humble pie" out of an imaginary Middle Ages in which the feudal barons forced their subjects to eat dishes made of nasty stuff like the umbilical cords of animals. This entry is supposed to clear up confusion; what it succeeds in doing is leaving behind ten times as much as there was before.

We are surrounded by sirens of error posing as beacons of enlightenment that seduce us into steering onto the rocks of confusion. Even reference works cannot be trusted. On one occasion, I checked no fewer than seven standard works on quotations for the correct wording of the Santayana saying about what happens to those who have the effrontery not to learn from history, which JFK is supposed to have had engraved on a brass paperweight for his desk in the Oval Office. Are they condemned to relive it or repeat it? If you take the democratic approach it would be "relive," because that is what four out of the seven standard works say Santayana said. The other three say "repeat," and this time, the minority is right, as an examination of the original essay proves. How many desks out there are propping up erroneous paperweights?

The authorities have a treacherous way of turning on you. First they tell you one thing, and, after you have convinced yourself that if so many authoritative people say so, it must be right, they suddenly do an about face and tell you the exact opposite. I remember when certain brands of cigarettes used to get the endorsement of thousands of medical doctors, not because the particular brand was flavorful or cheap, but because it was good for your "T-Zone" (an organ shaped like a letter "T" found in the thoracic cavity of the male model depicted over the advertising copy). Twenty years later, a number of M. D.'s were trampled to death in the stampede to cast the first stone at cigarettes. I have no doubt that in another thirty years, medical science will discover that two packs a day are good for you after all.

Today's received wisdom is tomorrow's boner. There is no finer--or more poignant--illustration of this principle than the following passage from a most revered and authoritative reference work:

Surely with all the existing activity in the removal of the causes of war, in the reduction to precise expression of the rules of law governing the relations of states with one another, in the creation of international judicatures for the application of these rules, in the concluding of treaties specifically framed to facilitate the pacific settlement of difficulties diplomacy may have failed to adjust, in the promotion of democratic civilian armies with everything to lose by war . . . the hope seems warranted that, in no distant future, life among nations will become still more closely assimilated to life among citizens of the same nation, with legislation, administration, reform all tending to the one great object of law, order and peace among men.

The work is the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The entry is "Peace." The copyright date is 1911. The content of the article is largely inspired by the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. There were only three years to go before the most horrendous and awful bloodletting the world has ever seen, and the third part of a century before civilization was to stop teetering, at least for a moment, on the brink of the most ghastly barbarism imaginable.

What did they know?

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