Shifting Science: Facts That are No Longer Facts

When I was in elementary school, I learned a few things. Sure, I didn’t learn everything I needed to know in elementary school, unlike Robert Fulghum, but I learned some stuff. In the intervening hummina-mumble-butt years, I have learned that some of these facts are not, in fact (ha!), true.  

Unlike James Loewen’s fantastic book, these are not lies my teacher told me, but evidence of the shifting face of science. PS ““ seriously, if you haven’t, go read Lies My Teacher Told Me.

[colored_box bgColor=”#7eb936″]Fact 1:[/colored_box]

The Brontosaurus thunder lizard is a bad-ass dinosaur and so is the Triceratops and they are cool as hell.

[colored_box bgColor=”#3ba6cb”]Fact 1 Updated:[/colored_box]

Dinosaurs are still objectively cool, but it turns out that figuring out the taxonomy of species that have been extinct for literally millions of years using only the fossil record is really hard. As it turns out, the Brontosaurus is just an Apatosaurus and there is fierce debate about whether the Triceratops is actually its own species or if it is a young Torosaurus. As more fossils are found and as scientists communicate and work on recreating skeletons of these intriguing beasts, these matters of taxonomical classification will be resolved. Heck, even extant species get recategorized all the time thanks to new information made possible with modern genetic analyses: just in the last few years, the plant family Scrophulariaceae saw many of its species reclassified into different families.

[colored_box bgColor=”#7eb936″]Fact 2:[/colored_box]

My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas. If you were a child of the ’80s and ’90s, you might recognize this mnemonic device as a little trick to remember the nine planets in our solar system.

[colored_box bgColor=”#3ba6cb”]Fact 2 Updated:[/colored_box]

My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created an official and strict definition of planet. It had three conditions for an object to be a planet: that it orbits the sun, that is massive enough to be a sphere, and that it has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, which means that it is large enough to have its gravitational pull dominate the area around it. Pluto met the first two conditions, but failed on the third. As a result, it was downgraded to dwarf planet status and millions of school children had to create a new mnemonic.

[colored_box bgColor=”#7eb936″]Fact 3:[/colored_box]
Our tongues have specialized areas for each of the four tastes: sour, sweet, bitter, and salty.

[colored_box bgColor=”#3ba6cb”]Fact 3 Updated:[/colored_box]

There is no such thing as a tongue map. Unlike the other two facts, which show how even good science can change over time as more information becomes available, this fact is a big mess from start to finish. The tongue map came about from an unclear interpretation of a German paper that suggested minute little differences in taste sensitivity across the tongue. The original German paper was pretty accurate: even though all parts of the tongue can taste all tastes, some parts of the tongue may be more sensitive than others. So for decades, we were learning about a tongue map because of a poor translation.

Oh, and there are five tastes now: say hello to “umami.”

11 replies on “Shifting Science: Facts That are No Longer Facts”

I helped make my best friend’s three year old into a dino-obsessed little girl (bwahahahahaha), and she was the one that corrected me on the ‘Brontosaurus is an Apatosaurus’ thing while watching The Land Before Time. Meanwhile her daddy made watching Cosmos part of their night routine, and now every time someone draws filled circles she goes “Look- it’s a quasar!”

Also, I wonder if Neil deGrasse is still receiving kids letters asking him to re-instate Pluto into the planetarium.


I have a very distinct memory of an episode of Saved By the Bell where Screech remembered the planets as MVEMJSUNP pronounced phonetically sounding something akin to “mmmmvemjshunpt”. That hard syllabic ending of the ‘p’ is the key! When Pluto was downgraded I though how it just wasn’t the same without that dang ‘p’!

I always wondered about the tongue-map thing; I could never figure out any difference in how things tasted depending on where I put them on my tongue. I had to correct my kid’s friend’s mom about brontosaurus the other day; she had no idea it had changed. (We’ll gloss over the fact that I accidentally confused Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus. Shhh!)

Regarding the heated Triceratops/Torosaurus debate: I read 1491 recently, and it blew me away that there is so much bad blood between the dueling factions in the corn-origin debate.  (Was it bred from cross-breeding several species of teosinte or from selectively breeding a single species for desirable mutations?)


I was unaware that it was still a debate whether or not Triceratops was its own species; the way I had initially heard it, it was for sure!

Then again, I also remember when it was a huge debate over whether or not birds evolved from dinosaurs. When I was a dinosaur-obsessed child, I staunchly rejected the idea. But now it seems to be more or less accepted scientific fact.

Feathered dinosaurs are still pretty damn cool.

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