The Book of Common Fallacies: Falsehoods, Misconceptions, Flawed Facts, and Half-Truths That Are Ruining Your Life

The Book of Common Fallacies: Falsehoods, Misconceptions, Flawed Facts, and Half-Truths That Are Ruining Your Life

by Philip Ward, Julia Edwards

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An A-to-Z compendium of the misleading, the oversimplified, the exaggerated, and the just plain wrong.
In an era when truth can be hard to track down, The Book of Common Fallacies debunks a wide variety of popular beliefs and set the record straight. By carefully researching the facts and citing experts in a multitude of fields, Philip Ward points out the senseless ideas that we have come to accept as fact.
Newly updated with today’s popular misconceptions, The Book of Common Fallacies exposes the truth behind hundreds of commonly held false beliefs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620873366
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 490,186
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Philip Ward is a librarian, playwright, writer, poet, and world-traveler. He lives in the United Kingdom.

Julia Edwards is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she concentrated in creative writing and nineteenth-century literature. In addition to personal writing and blogging, she has contributed writing, editing, and research work to various projects at Skyhorse Publishing, most significantly The Book of Common Fallacies. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt



"Are you clear in your mind in regard to the following (some people would call them platitudes)?

That an idea or belief is not necessarily true or false because your parents, your friends, or you or your children have believed it.

That an idea is not necessarily false because you would hate to believe it, or true because you would like to believe it.

That an idea is not necessarily true or false because it is new, or because it is old.

That asserting a statement an infinity of times does not in itself make that statement true.

That the repeated denial of the existence of a thing does not dispose of its existence."

— ABEL J. JONES, In search of truth (London, 1945)

"The age of miracles is past; the age of miracles is forever here."



Absinthe, to most people, is fascinating and desirable, both for its literary and cultural prevalence, as well as for the fact that it is said to possess hallucinogenic properties. However, this isn't necessarily true. Absinthe as a hallucinogenic drug that drives people to insanity has been greatly exaggerated, while its dangers related to high alcohol content have gone, by and large, under the radar.

Extracts of one of absinthe's most notable ingredients, worm-wood, were said to have been used as medical remedies as far back in time as the ancient Egyptian period (for gastrointestinal worms). Apparently, wormwood oil in itself is used as an herbal cure for loss of appetite, liver and gallbladder problems, and dyspeptic disorders.

The rise of absinthe as an alcoholic beverage appeared and took off in the late 19th century in Europe. The beverage was "invented" by a doctor in Switzerland, whose recipe was subsequently obtained by Henri-Louis Pernod, who began the commercial production of absinthe in 1797 and soon after brought it to the French market.

Due to an increased public interest, advertising, and a temporary decrease in red wine production due to a vine-pest, Pernod increased absinthe production from 16 liters per day to 125,000 liters in the span of 100 years. Not to mention, annual capita per consumption of absinthe in France increased a whopping fifteenfold in a mere thirty-eight years (between 1875 and 1913). Pure alcohol consumption in France was so high that if the product was spread evenly among the population, each French citizen would have been consuming 60 liters (that's almost 16 U.S. gallons) per year. In other words, if you lived in France in this time period, it would be standard practice for you to singlehandedly finish a personal gallon of straight liquor every three weeks or so.

Not surprisingly, representatives from a number of different professional backgrounds (the church, the medical field, winegrowers ... etc.) took action around the same period to ban alcohol consumption. Medical studies began to provide proof that absinthe caused mental and other illness (insanity). The movements to ban alcohol were ironically backed by winegrowers and the wine industry in order to "stop alcoholism" but obviously just to eliminate the domination of absinthe in the marketplace.

Although the French government ignored the protests at first, anti-alcohol campaigns became widespread through educational programs and public awareness demonstrations, so a bill was passed in 1908. But once again, instead of banning alcohol because of its growing dangers to human health that everyone was so concerned about, the alcohol content in absinthe was raised, the logic being that if absinthe makers had to use more pure alcohol, there would be less potential for other more "artificial" ingredients to be added, and the strength of the pure alcohol would eliminate other negative additives.

Finally, not public health concerns but rather the weakening strength of the French military army due to absinthe consumption triggered the government to ban absinthe altogether in 1915. A bunch of other countries, including the United States, had already banned the drink. Not shockingly, the French public health did not improve much after this action, as they simply just switched over to other alcoholic drinks.

Before the ban on absinthe, the beverage was originally categorized officially as any drink that contained compounds taken from wormwood. Thujone was the main compound taken from wormwood and put in absinthe. This compound was said by some to be the cause for the hallucinogenic properties of absinthe back in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Thujone, not alcoholism and mental instability, was blamed for driving Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh to insanity and Edgar Allen Poe to death. Oscar Wilde drank absinthe and so therefore was clearly delusional. "We lost another great one to absinthism," fine people would lament.

However, there is still really no concrete evidence that proves thujone, or even wormwood in general, leads to hallucination. In popular culture, absinthe was extremely demonized. Doctors attributed absinthe specifically as the cause of everything from auditory and visual hallucinations and loss of consciousness to seizures and cancer. At the First International Eugenics Conference, the differences were laid out plain and clear between the alcoholic and the "absinthe-oholic." For the latter, hallucinations were said to be more extreme, terrifying, sudden in onset, and often provoking serious and dangerous acts of violence. Sounds a little like the typical raging alcoholic symptoms, if you ask us.

Furthermore, between 1867 and 1912 in Paris, 16,532 people were treated for alcoholic intoxication. Of them, 70 percent were diagnosed as chronic alcoholics, while only 1 percent were reported to have cases of "absinthism."

Absinthe is now allowed again in some European countries and the United States. It is basically made the same way with the same herbal ingredients, but there are limits in place on how much thujone can be included. Kids order absinthe online or smuggle it back from their family trip abroad in Listerine bottles in the hopes of drinking it and seeing all kinds of green fairies and psychedelic visuals as if they were tripping on LSD. However, it is not at all surprising that no one has reported hallucinatory effects of absinthe since it has been recirculated on the market. Although there is less thujone than previously, which is the factor that most young thrill seekers blame their nonexistent psychedelic trips on, people continue to get significantly more intoxicated more rapidly from drinking absinthe. This is probably because thujone alone cannot be consumed with the inclusion of copious amounts of ethyl alcohol as well.

In conclusion, drinking tons of ethyl alcohol, with or without thujone, is an obvious enough explanation for why people tended to go crazy, experience bodily dysfunctions, and remember seeing things that were never there.

Sources: BioMed Central:Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, "Absinthism: a Fictitious 19 Century Syndrome with Present Impact," Stephan A Padosch, Dirk W Lachenmeier, Lars U Kroner, 2006; Science News, "Toxin in Absinthe Makes Neurons Run Wild," Corinna Wu, 2000.


As far back as the 1980s, experts and scientists have been looking into the effects of the active ingredient in acne treatment product, Accutane, on depression, psychological disorders, and suicides. The main drug in the product, Isotretinoin, has been accused by many of actually causing or triggering depression in those who use Accutane on a daily basis.

According to the FDA, Isotretinoin has been directly linked with reported suicides and those suffering from depression. Between 1982 and 2000, the FDA recorded 37 suicide cases, 110 hospitalizations based on patients who had attempted suicide, and over 200 other reports of nonhospitalized depression patients related to this drug. However, there was still no concrete evidence proving that Accutane was the sole cause.

Depressingly, there are some who continue to stand by the conclusion that it is not the drug that causes teens and other people to become suicidal, but the severity of their acne. For instance, a fairly recent study by researchers in Sweden reviewed almost 6,000 cases of people who had been using Accutane in the 1980s compared to people who had been hospitalized. Of the 150ish people who were hospitalized, 32 of them had attempted suicide before they began acne treatment, while only 12 were reported to have done so afterwards.

The issue is controversial, as teen suicide is tragic and all measures possible should be taken to prevent it. But that an acne medication changes brain chemistry so drastically that its users suddenly become suicidal seems less likely than the frightened public assumes it to be. But for the record, we advise switching to Proactiv.

Sources: Diane K. Wysowski, PhD., "An analysis of reports of depression and suicide in patients treated with isotretinoin," Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 2001; Traci Pedersen, "Severe Acne, Not Accutane, Related to Increased Suicide Risk," Psych Central, 2010.


Here is a list of some common misconceptions on how daily habits influence pimples:

1) Chocolate

As discussed later in CHOCOLATE IS UNHEALTHY, chocolate has a pretty bad reputation in the health world. Worse than it should, we have seen. Here we go with another defense in the name of chocolate. Consuming chocolate and other sugary foods really contributes very little to the rate or severity of acne. In fact, diet itself is said to have little effect on pimple occurrence overall, or at least, there is hardly evidence to prove whether it does or does not. Therefore, we figure there are already a number of reasons to restrict diet, many of them artificial in motivation, so, why add another?

2) Stress

Stress is always problematic. Who wants to spend time stressing about arbitrary things that you are probably unable to change? No one. So the fact that psychological stress is so often listed as a trigger for physiological health issues is not just sometimes overemphasized, but it is also frustrating, as it is not an emotion that anyone adopts by choice (as far as we know). That being said, cutting out excess stress will probably not do much to prevent acne. Although stress can be related to hormonal change, which can bring about acne, stress itself is not the cause. So, if you do try and fit thirty minutes of meditation into your stress inducing daily schedule, it should be motivated by a search for peace of mind rather than a way to clear up blemishes.

3) Smoking

Obviously, smoking is bad for you. Smoking has been shown to cause wrinkles and premature signs of aging. It is also proven to have negative effects on teeth, gums, and a number of other less appearance based health problems. However, when it comes to smoking and pimples, the correlation is less clear cut.

In fact, recent studies have shown that smokers are just as likely, if not less likely, than nonsmokers to break out. For instance, a notable study was conducted in 2006 and published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, where it was found that in men, there was no correlation between acne and smoking, while in girls, smokers actually had significantly less acne than non-nicotine addicts. Supposedly, the reason for this is the nicotine. Nicotine itself is not harmful to skin, while smoking tobacco and its additives obviously are. But experts speculate that the reason some smokers have less acne is because of the drug, as it constricts blood vessels.

There you have it and there we said it., "Acne Myths Explained" and "Smoking and Acne – How Cigarettes Affect the Skin"; Acne, "Does Eating Chocolate Cause Acne?"; NIAMS, "Acne."


Many Greek cities, whether on the mainland of Greece and Asia Minor, or on the islands, had an akropolis, largely for purposes of military defence. One thinks of Tiryns on the mainland, say, or Lindos on Rhodes. Akros is the Greek for "topmost, highest," and polis means "city," so the akropolis is that upper city which is most easily defended against a besieging force. The example at Athens is merely the best-known of hundreds.


Though aging is of course a process which often involves deterioration of certain abilities, there are brilliant exceptions which make this observation no reason for complacency among the elderly.

Mrs. Winifred A. Mould took the BA at London University at the age of seventy and was reported in the Times of London July 6, 1976 to be continuing her studies, while Havergal Brian wrote his Symphony no. 30 in 1967 at the age of ninety-one (one of three written that year).

Some of Robert Graves's most passionate and sensitive love poems were written in his sixties and seventies.

These examples could be multiplied a hundredfold.


Not unless they lose their way they don't. "Aisle" (from the French aile, wing) is one of the lateral passages of a church. The bride walks along the central passage.


1) Algebra Is an Invention Particularly Useful to the Army We owe to the breathtaking fantasy of Jean de Beaulieu (who of course intended it for fact) the notion that "Algebra is the curious science of scholars, and particularly for a general of an army, or a captain, in order to draw up an army quickly into battle array, and to number the musketeers and pikemen who compose it, without using arithmetic."

How does the celebrated 17th-century French mathematician, engineer, and royal geographer arrive at this conclusion? "This science has five special figures: P means plus in commerce and pike-men in the army; M means minus in commerce, but musketeers in the art of war; R signifies root in the measurement of a cube, and rank in the army; Q means square [then spelled quaré in French] in both commerce and the army; C means cube in calculation, but cavalry in the army." And how then might this dual-purpose algebra work?

"As for the operations of algebra, they are as follows: if you add a plus to a plus, the sum will be plus; to add minus to plus, take the lesser from the greater, and the remainder will be the number required. I say this only in passing, for the benefit of those who are wholly ignorant of it."

Among whom, presumably, is the Sieur de Beaulieu himself, who indeed goes on to attempt the impossible — squaring the circle — in the same remarkable book. He also wrote La lumière des mathématiques (Paris, 1673), and Nouvelle invention d'arithmétique (Paris, 1677).

2) That by algebra one can make 2 = 1

The notion has been current since George Bernard Shaw first admitted to being hoodwinked by a schoolboy friend.

Mr. Shaw's youthful experience about x and a are so highly instructive that I cannot refrain from dwelling upon them for a moment. His friend induced him to "let x = a" and Mr. Shaw — not expecting that x would take any mean advantage of the permission — granted the request. But he did not understand that in letting x = a he was also letting xt –a = 0, and the proof (of the proposition, 2 = 1) that "followed with rigorous exactness," assumed that x –a did not equal 0.

3) The algebra of William Frend

William Frend (1757-1841) was a famous Cambridge figure, who denounced the abuses of the Church and was banished (not expelled) from the University for sedition and opposition to the Liturgy following his trial of 1792. Though a mathematician of ability, Frend wrote a peculiar treatise, The principles of algebra (2 vols., London, 1796-9) in which he refused to use negative quantities in algebraic operations.

Indeed, Frend objected to algebra itself and — in the words of Augustus de Morgan — made "war of extermination upon all that distinguishes algebra from arithmetic." In this he was following the same line of attack as were Robert Simson (1687-1768) and Baron Francis Maseres (1731-1824).

George Peacock (1791-1858), Lowndean Professor of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, poked gentle fun at Frend's Algebra for its "great distrust of the results of algebraical science which were in existence at the time when it was written."

Sources: Jean de Beaulieu, La géométrie françoise ... (Paris, 1676); Philip H. Wicksteed, The common sense of political economy (Rev. ed., 2 vols., London, 1948, vol. II, p. 726); Augustus de Morgan, A budget of paradoxes (2nd ed., 2 vols., Chicago, 1915).


Excerpted from "The Book of Common Fallacies"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Philip Ward and The Oleander Press.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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