The Dysology Hypothesis

Letting scholars get away with publishing fallacies and myths signals to others the existence of topics where guardians of good scholarship might be less capable than elsewhere. Such dysology then serves as an allurement to poor scholars to disseminate existing myths and fallacies and to create and publish their own in these topic areas, which leads to a downward spiral of diminishing veracity on particular topics.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Spinach Iron Decimal Point Error Myth Busted

The popular 32 year old myth that a misplaced decimal point in the published results of the iron content of spinach by Professor von Wolff, or else von Bunge, in the 19th century influenced scientists in the 20th century to fail to check the facts and to simply recommend spinach for its over-inflated iron content is finally busted.

Having spent several months of my spare time in 2010 researching turn of the 20th century German biochemistry journals and books on nutrition, I can reveal that several scientists, all working completely independently, came to very similar conclusions. The reason for their exaggerated measurement of the iron content of spinach, and other food, is bad science. They were, amongst several other things, contaminating the spinach in the laboratory with the vessels they used and the charcoal they used to heat it.

The bad science mistake was in fact (contrary to the nonsense contained in the myth) spotted by von Bunge in the 19th century and the fact that such errors occurred was disseminated widely by US Professor Sherman in the early 20th century.

The Spinach, Popeye, Iron, Decimal Error Story (SPIDES) is a myth that was ironically perpetrated by the famous myth busting nutritionist Professor Arnold E. Bender in his inaugural lecture at Queen Elizabeth College, University of London. Arnold E. Bender. Bender first mentioned it in that inaugural lecture in 1972 (Bender 1972) and later in an article in the Spectator (Bender 1977). In the Spectator, Bender started the myth when he claimed that a German textbook on nutrition (Noorden and Salomon 1920; 476) replicated an earlier decimal point data mistake made by generations of textbooks that unquestioningly replicated erroneous data first published in 1870 by the German scientist E. von Wolff:

For a hundred years or more spinach has been (and clearly still is) renowned for its high iron content compared with that of other vegetables, but to the joy of those who dislike the stuff this is quite untrue. In 1870 Dr E. von Wolff published the analyses of a number of foods, including spinach which was shown to be exceptionally rich in iron. The figures were repeated in succeeding generations of textbooks – after all one does not always verify the findings of others – including the ‘Handbook of Food Sciences’ (Handbuch der Ernahrungslehre) by von Noorden and Saloman[1] 1920.
In 1937 Professor Schupan eventually repeated the analyses of spinach and found that it contained no more iron than did any other leafy vegetable, only one-tenth of the amount previously reported. The fame of spinach appears to have been based on a misplaced decimal point.”
 Bender's myth was popularized as being true by Professor Terry Hamblin in the British Medical Journal in 1981 - perversely in an upbeat Christmas article entitled "Fake" about fake academic research. Furthermore, Popeye never ate spinach for iron, his creator E. C. Segar made it the source of his superhero's strength due to its vitamin A (beta carotene) content.

Here is Hamblin's (1981) new-spin dissemination of Bender's original spinach myth:

 “A statue of Popeye in Crystal City, Texas, commemorates the fact that single handedly he raised the consumption of Spinach by 33%. America was “strong to the finish ‘cos they ate their spinach” and duly defeated the Hun. Unfortunately the propaganda was fraudulent; German chemists reinvestigating the iron content of Spinach had shown in the 1930s that the original workers had put the decimal point in the wrong place and made a tenfold overestimate of its value. Spinach is no better for you than cabbage, Brussels sprouts, or broccoli. For a better source of iron Popeye would have been better off chewing the cans.”

So Hamblin, an orthodox expert, appears to be the first to brace the spinach myth because he did not check the facts behind it. Hamblin has been followed by many orthodox experts all believing the myth to be true and so, with excruciatingly unintended irony, using it as an example of the need to be sceptical of research findings and to check your facts. If ever that old saying "hoisted by your own petard" is very applicable then it is here.

Time Line for Spinach Popeye Iron Decimal Error Myth Busting

My essays on this topic

The full Spinach Decimal Error myth busting story can be read here:

1, The USDA is spreading dangerous 'bull' on the Internet. Here:

2, Does current USDA erroneous nutrition advice have its roots in a perverse scientific paper written in 1937? Here:

3. Popeye's creator chose spinach for its vitamin A content (beta carotene), never for iron. The start of the spinach myth busting. Here:

On Hamblin

Professor Hamblin sadly passed away on January 8th 2012.    As a immunohematologist, Hamblin was a notable and highly respected and regarded researcher and teacher. He is particularly notable as an early pioneer of stem cell treatment for cancer. He made a difference by making the world a better place.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

30 Year Old Braced Supermyth is Busted

My research into 19th and early 20th century biochemistry led me to finally bust the 30 year old myth regarding a misplaced decimal point influencing scientists to erroneously promote spinach consumption for its iron content.

You can read the results of the research here (click) on the BestThinking website:

The Spinach, Popeye, Iron, Decimal Error Myth is Finally Busted
Article by Mike Sutton

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Braced Myth Theory and the Self Defeating Prophecy Paradox. Mythbusting Problematized: The Problem of Zombie Cops in Voodoo Criminology

In the past few years a growing number of popular science and other non-fiction books seek to bust myths and conspiracy theories and encourage the public to be more healthily sceptical of news reporting. An underlying aim of these books seems also to be to help provide us with the necessary insight to spot dubious claims and research their veracity for ourselves. This is to be applauded, but does this movement present us with any risks?

The Self-Defeating Prophecy

I hypothesise that the growth of the informed healthy skeptic movement increases the risk of the literature on this subject creating braced myths. And braced myths may well prove more likely to become orthodox authority, that is in turn particularly difficult to debunk, because it is more socially entrenched. Braced myths are - for want of a better word - supermyths.

This hypothesis could be described as a self-defeating prophecy, which is the opposite of Robert Merton' s self-fulfilling prophecy. Because, by warning respected healthy sceptical authorities of the dangers of being hoisted by their own petards, I might diminish the chances of my hypothesis being supported by future evidence.

An example of a braced myth in criminology, which has had a major impact on policing and related policy making, is the Zombie Cop Model

Monday, 27 September 2010

What is Counterknowledge?

The crime novelist Stev Sherez is the originator of the term counterknowledge.

The concept has been developed considerably by the sociologist and journalist Dr Damian Thompson (Thompson, 2008).

Thompson (2008: p. 16), adopting the philosophy of Sir Karl Popper, defines counterknowledge as misinformation packaged to look like fact:

"The essence of counterknowledge is that its factual claims can be shown to be wrong. I say 'shown' rather than 'proven' because, in science, observable facts do not 'prove' a theory: they render it probable to some degree.

The difference between a false and true theory is one of probability. For example, hard-line Creationists believe the world is only a few thousand years old; geologists believe it is a few billion years old. We can say with confidence that the latter theory is true because there is a mountain of evidence supporting it. We can also say, with even greater confidence, that the 'young earth' theory is false, because the evidence offered in support of it is so laughably feeble as to be non-existent. We do not need an alternative explanation to knock down a false belief; if there are no facts making a claim even slightly probable, then it is false."


Thompson, D. (2008) Counterknowledge: How we surrendered to conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history. London. Atlantic Books.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Discovery of Braced Myths: The Most Disastrous Typo of all Time?

The Spinach Popeye Iron Decimal Error Story

For many years a myth has been circulating in academic text books, peer-reviewed scholarly journals, popular discourse, university lectures and on the Internet that an accidentally misplaced decimal point in 19th Century calculations of the iron content of spinach, exaggerated its iron content tenfold, which was then accepted as true and cited by a multitude of academic studies - all of which failed to check the validity of the figure. This, it is claimed, led to spinach being erroneously promoted as a good nutritional source of iron and the reason Popeye's creator, E.C. Segar, chose spinach as the source of his superhero's amazing powers. The famous Web site even has it as top of the list of the seven most disastrous typos of all time. A search on any search engine, such as Google, will reveal the extent to which this myth is believed and recycled.

In 2010 I published a primary research paper in the Internet Journal of Criminology that showed there was no published evidence to support this story and that the story appeared to be a myth. In that article I proved that Segar chose spinach for its vitamin A content (although in fact we know today that spinach contains beta carotene - which the human body converts to Vitamin A).

Since writing that primary research paper, I conducted several months of historical research on iron and nutrition - much of which involved translating old German nutrition text books and academic papers. This later research uncovered conclusive evidence for the source of the decimal point error story and how it occurred, and goes on to reveal that there most certainly was no decimal place error - but explains exactly why someone might think there was - and from whose early nutrition research the myth sprang. The detailed results of my research on this subject will be published in a book on braced myths. I am afraid that I cannot divulge more details of my findings here until they have gone into print.

In the primary research paper on the decimal error myth I traced the source of the decimal error story to Professor Terrance Hamblin. Subsequent research, sparked by clues sent to me by an extremely helpful U.S. neurologist, reveals that the original published source of this story was the famous nutritionist Arnold E. Bender. Bender first mentioned it in his inaugural lecture in 1972, and later in an article in the Spectator in 1977. My primary research paper cites many scholarly publications whose esteemed academic expert authors - writing on the very subject of the importance of healthy scepticism - unwittingly believe the spinach decimal error myth to be true and so with unintentional irony they use it as an example to support their exhortations on the need for scientists to be healthily sceptical inquirers and always check published 'facts'. Perversely, these respected sceptics failed to check the 'facts' behind the decimal error example. This makes the example self-defeating.

Professor Bender, like Professor Hamblin, is an orthodox authority on nutrition. With further irony, Bender is famously a renowned sceptic of junk science.

What is a braced myth?

A braced myth has two defining elements (1) its creation by an orthodox authority and (2) its reinforcement as "fact" by orthodox respected sceptics in scholarly publications, unwittingly using it as an example of the need to be sceptical. The original myth is thus braced by its unquestioning support from a respected sceptic. The bracing of the myth also forms a brace of myths - one myth is the original myth and the second is that the original myth is undoubtedly true and serves well as an exemplar of the need to be sceptical. For example, the spinach decimal error myth - created by Bender (an orthodox expert) - was compounded by many other respected academics who believed it to be true and so used it, unwittingly or disingenuously, and unintentionally ironically, in what turns out to be a self-defeating example of the need to be healthily sceptical of research findings.

So why do braced myths matter?

In order to determine whether the study of braced myths is something with which we should concern ourselves there are several questions that I wish to explore by way of this blog. Here are just nine of them to be getting on with:

(1) What is it about some myths that are so compellingly believable that even sceptics, writing about the need to be sceptical, unwittingly, or disingenuously, use them as self-defeating examples of the need to be sceptical?
(2) Are there any myths that have been disingenuously (as opposed to unwittingly) promoted as true by respected sceptics using them as examples of the need to be healthily sceptical?
(3) Are braced myths harmful, and if so are they more harmful than ordinary myths?
(4) Is there anything about braced myths, other than the fact they have been unwittingly or disingenuously compounded by skeptical authorities, that will help us to uncover them?
(5) What other braced myths can we identify?
(6) Will the growing myth-busting movement of healthy orthodox sceptics publishing scholarly books lead to the ironic unintended consequence whereby braced myths inevitably increase in number?
(7) Is academic pressure on academics to publish results and disseminate results and publishing industry pressure on sceptics to finish books sooner than they would wish in any way creating braced myths?
(8) Is the fact that myths and many 'debunking industry' books are published by respected publishing houses in any way to blame for the creation of myths and their being braced?
(9) What is the role of the media and popular press in creating myths and in facilitating the creation of braced myths?

Other braced myths

In my own field of expertise, which is criminology, I know of just one braced myth. The myth is that foot patrol based beat policing is proven to be ineffective at fighting crime. You can read about it in my post on the problem of zombie cops in voodoo criminology .


Bender, A. (1972) The Wider Knowledge of Nutrition. Inaugural Lecture. October 24. Queen Elizabeth College., University of London. Somerset. Castle Cary Press Ltd.

Bender, A. (1977). Iron in spinach. Spectator. p.18. July 9.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Introducing the Braced Myth Concept

Welcome to Supermyths. A primary aim of this blog is to explore the concept of braced myths.

The first blog post on the so called "greatest typographical error of all time" will be published soon.

A primary research paper that I wrote earlier this year, which led me to develop the concept of the bracedmyth, can be found here: