Tuesday, May 27

The Debunker: Is Presidents Day a National Holiday?

by Ken Jennings

In a series of “Debunker” columns from a few years back, Ken Jennings shattered a few beloved myths about the presidency—Abraham Lincoln didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on an envelope, JFK didn’t kill the hat. So why take on four more White House whitewashes this month? It’s a matter of some urgency: Ken has a fun new book out this month about such matters. So get ready to whistle along to “Fail to the Chief” as KJ blows up everything you thought you knew about the leader of the free world.

The Debunker: Is Presidents Day a National Holiday?

The presidential holiday in February was created not by the mattress and used car salesmen who are so fond of it today, but by an act of Congress in 1879. The holiday was officially named “Washington’s Birthday,” just as it is today. Since Abraham Lincoln was born in February, there’s been some movement toward making the holiday a day to celebrate both presidents, or all presidents (even the loser ones), or the presidency in general. Many states have followed suit: 17 call it “Presidents’ Day” (check the apostrophe—multiple presidents), 4 call it “President’s Day” (just one president, no indication of which one), and 5 call it “Presidents Day” (no apostrophe, anyone’s guess). Only fifteen states call it “Washington’s Birthday,” as the U.S. government still officially does.

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Tuesday, May 20

The Debunker: Did Teddy Roosevelt and His Rough Riders Take San Juan Hill?

by Ken Jennings

In a series of “Debunker” columns from a few years back, Ken Jennings shattered a few beloved myths about the presidency—Abraham Lincoln didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on an envelope, JFK didn’t kill the hat. So why take on four more White House whitewashes this month? It’s a matter of some urgency: Ken has a fun new book out this month about such matters. So get ready to whistle along to “Fail to the Chief” as KJ blows up everything you thought you knew about the leader of the free world.

The Debunker: Did Teddy Roosevelt and His Rough Riders Take San Juan Hill?

“It was a splendid little war,” ambassador John Hay wrote to his friend Theodore Roosevelt in 1898, reminiscing about the eight weeks of the Spanish-American War. Leaving aside the little matter of 17,000 deaths, the war with Spain was indeed splendid for the political career of Roosevelt, who had resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to fight in Cuba. The legend of Roosevelt leading his “Rough Riders” up San Juan Hill and saving the day is probably the most iconic thing people remember about the war. But most people’s knowledge of Teddy’s ragtag band of volunteers is a little, well, rough.

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Tuesday, May 13

The Debunker: Can the President Serve Only Eight Years?

by Ken Jennings

In a series of “Debunker” columns from a few years back, Ken Jennings shattered a few beloved myths about the presidency—Abraham Lincoln didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on an envelope, JFK didn’t kill the hat. So why take on four more White House whitewashes this month? It’s a matter of some urgency: Ken has a fun new book out this month about such matters. So get ready to whistle along to “Fail to the Chief” as KJ blows up everything you thought you knew about the leader of the free world.

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Tuesday, May 06

The Debunker: Did George Washington Chop Down a Cherry Tree?

by Ken Jennings

In a series of “Debunker” columns from a few years back, Ken Jennings shattered a few beloved myths about the presidency—Abraham Lincoln didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on an envelope, JFK didn’t kill the hat. So why take on four more White House whitewashes this month? It’s a matter of some urgency: Ken has a fun new book out this month about such matters. So get ready to whistle along to “Fail to the Chief” as KJ blows up everything you thought you knew about the leader of the free world.

The Debunker: Did George Washington Chop Down a Cherry Tree?

It’s the most morally edifying story from American history involving a hatchet. (Distant second place: Lizzie Borden.) A six-year-old George Washington, “immoderately fond” of his new present, uses it to chop down a “beautiful young English cherry-tree” on his family estate. His father is angrily trying to track down the culprit…when master criminal George walks into the room still holding the hatchet. “George, do you know who killed that cherry tree yonder in the garden?” Dad asks. “I can’t tell a lie, Pa,” says young George. “I did cut it with my hatchet.” Of course his father is so proud of his son’s guileless honesty that George suffers no consequences for his vandalism.

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Tuesday, April 22

The Debunker: Did Elizabethans Really Talk Like Americans?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did Elizabethans Really Talk Like Americans?

The great Shakespearean stage director Trevor Nunn opined a few years ago, after directing Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic theater, that he’d like to see Shakespeare done only in American accents from now on. “Today's American accent is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing,” he said. Specifically, it’s been claimed since the late 19th century that parts of Appalachia still speak in an accent that’s a virtual time capsule of Elizabethan English. Gadzooks! Hillbillies talking like Hamlet? Can this in truth be so?

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Tuesday, April 15

The Debunker: Did King John Sign the Magna Carta?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did King John Sign the Magna Carta?

In 1215, a group of feudal barons had enough clout to get King John on board with the Magna Carta, a document that for the first time limited the powers of the English crown. The charter enshrined rights like due process of law, making it the direct ancestor of the many future constitutional documents both in Britain and abroad, including the U.S. Bill of Rights. So powerful is the symbolism of the Magna Carta even overseas that in 1957 the American Bar Association placed a monument to the Magna Carta at Runnymede, the meadow near the Thames where the document was signed.

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Tuesday, April 08

The Debunker: Do Londoners Check the Time on Big Ben?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Do Londoners Check the Time on Big Ben?

When I got married back in 2000, we spent our honeymoon in London. A friend of my wife’s asked her, “What are you guys going to do all day, besides look at Old Ben?” I was a little aggrieved at this description of my anatomy, until I realized she had meant to refer to “Big Ben,” which as everyone knows is the clock tower at the north end of the Houses of Parliament, right? Wrong. Yes, the clock tower is an iconic symbol of London. But no, it’s not called Big Ben.

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Tuesday, April 01

The Debunker: Did Henry VIII Divorce Any of His Wives?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did Henry VIII Divorce Any of His Wives?

“Divorced, beheaded, died, / Divorced, beheaded, survived.” That’s the mnemonic rhyme we used in school when we were studying the life of Larry King. Oops, that’s wrong. Just dug out my old notes. King Henry VIII of England.

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Tuesday, March 25

The Debunker: Are There Super-Smart People with Photographic Memory?

by Ken Jennings

Did you know that the second week of March is Brain Awareness Week around the globe? You didn’t? You weren’t aware of your brain? Conscious of your consciousness? Well, get with the program. March is perhaps the brainiest month of the year—it’s also when we celebrate the 1879 birthday of famous smarty-pants Albert Einstein, and the 1946 beginning of Mensa intelligence testing. But it turns out people will believe just about anything they hear about what’s going up between their ears. We’ve asked Ken Jennings to fact-check some particularly lame-brained misconceptions about gray matter.

The Debunker: Are There Super-Smart People with “Photographic Memory”?

When people recognize me from my streak on the quiz show Jeopardy!, it’s one of the most common questions I get, right up there with “What is Alex Trebek really like?” and “Why do you still dress so badly?” People always want to know, “You have a photographic memory, right?” I don’t! What a useful thing that would be, to be able to casually glance at a page of text, or a map, or a painting, and remember it forever. I think the NSA would pay for that skill.

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Tuesday, March 18

The Debunker: Do We Use Only 10 Percent of Our Brains?

by Ken Jennings

Did you know that the second week of March is Brain Awareness Week around the globe? You didn’t? You weren’t aware of your brain? Conscious of your consciousness? Well, get with the program. March is perhaps the brainiest month of the year—it’s also when we celebrate the 1879 birthday of famous smarty-pants Albert Einstein, and the 1946 beginning of Mensa intelligence testing. But it turns out people will believe just about anything they hear about what’s going up between their ears. We’ve asked Ken Jennings to fact-check some particularly lame-brained misconceptions about gray matter.

The Debunker: Do We Use Only 10 Percent of Our Brains?

Harvard psychologist William James used to claim that people “use only a small part of our mental and physical resources.” This is hard to argue with: of course, humans are born with an abundance of time and talent and possibility and sadly, most of us spend a lot of it on dumb stuff like Facebook or fantasy football. But in 1936, Professor James’s soundbite suddenly went viral. Journalist Lowell Thomas misquoted James to say that “the average person develops only 10 percent of his latent mental ability”—and then added the now very scientific-sounding claim to his introduction to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book, with Thomas’s information attached, became the biggest bestseller of its time.

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