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 Cracked.com 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?
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.