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Wednesday, April 24

The Debunker: What Did Ralph Waldo Emerson Recommend You Invent?

by Ken Jennings

THE DEBUNKER April is National Poetry Month in the United States and Canada! Dreamed up in 1966 by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month is a chance to celebrate poetry of all kinds and get the poetry-skeptical to read or write some of their own. But Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! is here this month to tell you that not everything you think you know about American poetry is historically accurate. Here's the poem he sent us for the occasion: "This is just to say / I have corrected the false poetry facts / that were in your brain / and which / you have probably / believed since high school / Forgive me / they were irresistible / so wrong / and so easy to Google."

The Debunker: What Did Ralph Waldo Emerson Recommend You Invent?

The poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was a true American original. But his Transcendentalist writings have turned out to be less influential on the American mind than his famous adage "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door." Taking the quote incredibly literally, around forty thousand inventors have applied for mousetrap patents to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, waiting for the inevitable rush of investors to appear at their door. The patent office still grants about forty patents a year for mousetrap designs, for a grand total of over 4,400 patents, more than any other device.

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Wednesday, April 17

The Debunker: Was Emily Dickinson a Mysterious Recluse?

by Ken Jennings

THE DEBUNKER April is National Poetry Month in the United States and Canada! Dreamed up in 1966 by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month is a chance to celebrate poetry of all kinds and get the poetry-skeptical to read or write some of their own. But Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! is here this month to tell you that not everything you think you know about American poetry is historically accurate. Here's the poem he sent us for the occasion: "This is just to say / I have corrected the false poetry facts / that were in your brain / and which / you have probably / believed since high school / Forgive me / they were irresistible / so wrong / and so easy to Google."

The Debunker: Was Emily Dickinson a Mysterious Recluse?

Everyone knows the legend of the mysterious "Belle of Amherst," Emily Dickinson, writing her striking and inventive poetry alone in her upstairs bedroom, refusing to leave her seclusion for any reason. Often this version of Dickinson paints her as a lovelorn spinster, and can border on a patronizing condescension we rarely see in the treatment of male writers.

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Wednesday, April 10

The Debunker: Is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" about Individualism?

by Ken Jennings

THE DEBUNKER April is National Poetry Month in the United States and Canada! Dreamed up in 1966 by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month is a chance to celebrate poetry of all kinds and get the poetry-skeptical to read or write some of their own. But Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! is here this month to tell you that not everything you think you know about American poetry is historically accurate. Here's the poem he sent us for the occasion: "This is just to say / I have corrected the false poetry facts / that were in your brain / and which / you have probably / believed since high school / Forgive me / they were irresistible / so wrong / and so easy to Google."

The Debunker: Is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" about Individualism?

Okay, first of all, it's "The Road Not Taken," not "The Road Less Traveled." Robert Frost's yearbook and dorm poster and graduation speech staple is, according to Google search metrics, the most famous poem of the 20th century by a wide margin. But, as the New York Times Book Review critic David Orr convincingly argued in a 2015 book, the poem probably doesn't mean what you think it means.

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Wednesday, April 03

The Debunker: Are You Supposed to Style His Name as "e. e. cummings"?

by Ken Jennings

April is National Poetry Month in the United States and Canada! Dreamed up in 1966 by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month is a chance to celebrate poetry of all kinds and get the poetry-skeptical to read or write some of their own. But Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! is here this month to tell you that not everything you think you know about American poetry is historically accurate. Here's the poem he sent us for the occasion: "This is just to say / I have corrected the false poetry facts / that were in your brain / and which / you have probably / believed since high school / Forgive me / they were irresistible / so wrong / and so easy to Google."

The Debunker: Are You Supposed to Style His Name as "e. e. cummings"?

Edward Estlin Cummings was one of the great modernist poets, famously fooling around with syntax, spelling, and typography in much-anthologized poems like "in Just-" and "anyhow lived in a pretty how town." As you can tell from the titles of those verses alone, Cummings had a predilection for lower-case letters—though not exclusively. "in Just-," his poem about spring that often makes its way into children's textbooks so kids can freak out about the crazy spacing, has two capital letters, including the one in the title. His work uses capital letters all the time, in fact—just not always in places your English teacher would approve of. For example, he almost always wrote the pronoun "I" as "i."

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Wednesday, March 27

The Debunker: Are You Within Three Feet of a Spider Right Now?

by Ken Jennings

Mathletes probably know that March 14 is celebrated as "Pi Day," because 3/14 is a natural time to salute the decimal approximation of pi, 3.14. But if you're a science nerd who's more into biology than physics, you'll be happy to know that March 14 is also National Save a Spider Day in the United States. March is the perfect month to thank our arachnid friends for all they do for us—especially because they're so often misunderstood. Here, let's allow Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to smooth out the tangled web of spider myths that might have you deceived.

The Debunker: Are You Within Three Feet of a Spider Right Now?

I debunk a lot of weird stuff on this website, but this oft-repeated factoid is a unique kind of a thing even for me: a trivia fact that presumes to know an awful lot about my current situation. Really? I'm three feet from a spider at all times? Even if I'm swimming in a hotel pool? Skydiving from a plane? Trudging across the Antarctica tundra? How does nature guarantee my spider proximity in situations like those?

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Wednesday, March 20

The Debunker: Who Told Spider-Man that "with Great Power Comes Great Responsibility"?

by Ken Jennings

Mathletes probably know that March 14 is celebrated as "Pi Day," because 3/14 is a natural time to salute the decimal approximation of pi, 3.14. But if you're a science nerd who's more into biology than physics, you'll be happy to know that March 14 is also National Save a Spider Day in the United States. March is the perfect month to thank our arachnid friends for all they do for us—especially because they're so often misunderstood. Here, let's allow Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to smooth out the tangled web of spider myths that might have you deceived.

The Debunker: Who Told Spider-Man that "with Great Power Comes Great Responsibility"?

Peter Parker's Uncle Ben is destined to accomplish two important things in the Spider-Man mythos: first, to tell his nephew Peter that "with great power comes great responsibility," and second, to die at the hands of an anonymous gunman. That's about it. Those two acts—and Peter's guilt at not having prevented Uncle Ben's death—are what seal the deal on Spider-Man's future. Peter Parker will now spend his spare time as a selfless, wall-crawling friendly neighborhood super-hero, one who looks out for the little guy and never gives up.

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Wednesday, March 13

The Debunker: Do You Swallow Eight Spiders Every Year While You Sleep?

by Ken Jennings

Mathletes probably know that March 14 is celebrated as "Pi Day," because 3/14 is a natural time to salute the decimal approximation of pi, 3.14. But if you're a science nerd who's more into biology than physics, you'll be happy to know that March 14 is also National Save a Spider Day in the United States. March is the perfect month to thank our arachnid friends for all they do for us—especially because they're so often misunderstood. Here, let's allow Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to smooth out the tangled web of spider myths that might have you deceived.

The Debunker: Do You Swallow Eight Spiders Every Year While You Sleep?

I mean, I guess you could, but you'd have to really want it. They're not going to just wander into your mouth. As University of Washington arachnid expert Rod Crawford says on his museum's website, "No such case is on formal record anywhere in scientific and medical literature," despite people having slept and watched each other sleep for millennia. He points out that this is an urban legend that goes back decades, with a wide variety of phony "statistics" on offer. Sometimes it's a mere four spiders snacked on per year; other times it's given as a full pound eaten in a lifetime.

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Thursday, February 28

The Debunker: Did Pinocchio's Nose Grow Whenever He Lied?

by Ken Jennings

In February, Americans celebrate the birthday of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—not just beloved leaders but famous symbols of truth-telling as well. Washington wouldn't even lie about his child vandalism of cherry trees (even if that story never really happened) and Abraham Lincoln was "Honest Abe," a lifelong symbol of candor and integrity. Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings believes that honesty is the best policy, so he's here all February to tell us the truth about the art of lying. 

The Debunker: Did Pinocchio's Nose Grow Whenever He Lied?

It's probably the one thing everyone knows about Pinocchio: when he tells a lie, his nose grows. Memorably, in the 1940 Walt Disney film, Pinocchio's wooden nose gets so long after a series of lies that it sprouts leaves, branches, and even a bird's nest. Today, novelty stores sell "Pinocchio noses" for Halloween costumes, and even The Washington Post's Fact Checker column rates untruths on a scale of one to four "Pinocchios."

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Wednesday, February 20

The Debunker: Do Lie Detectors Detect Lies?

by Ken Jennings

In February, Americans celebrate the birthday of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—not just beloved leaders but famous symbols of truth-telling as well. Washington wouldn't even lie about his child vandalism of cherry trees (even if that story never really happened) and Abraham Lincoln was "Honest Abe," a lifelong symbol of candor and integrity. Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings believes that honesty is the best policy, so he's here all February to tell us the truth about the art of lying.

The Debunker: Do Lie Detectors Detect Lies?

The story of the modern "lie detector" test began in 1920 with psychologist William Moulton Marston. He theorized that measuring systolic blood pressure could predict a subject's emotional state. Later in life, after a police officer in California had adapted this test into the first polygraph machine, Marston became much more famous for his work in, of all fields, comic books. He created the superhero Wonder Woman for DC Comics, and even gave her a Lasso of Truth. This was a handy accessory that combined Marston's two great loves: lie-detecting, and bondage.

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Tuesday, January 22

The Debunker: Did Nobody Expect the Spanish Inquisition?

by Ken Jennings

On January 16, 1786, Thomas Jefferson's "Statute for Religious Freedom" was enacted into Virginia state law. The new law, which guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all faiths, later became the basis for the Constitution's establishment clause, and was one of the three accomplishments Jefferson felt enough pride in to put on his own tombstone. (He didn't even mention his presidency!) To this day, January 16 is still observed as Religious Freedom Day in the United States, but does that mean everything you think you know about church and state is God's own truth? It does not! Let Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings bless your souls with a little knowledge from on high.

The Debunker: Did Nobody Expect the Spanish Inquisition?

"In the early years of the sixteenth century, to combat the rising tide of religious unorthodoxy, the Pope gave Cardinal Ximenez of Spain leave to move without let or hindrance throughout the land, in a reign of violence, terror, and torture that makes a smashing film. This was the Spanish Inquisition!" Or so begins the beloved 1970 Monty Python sketch about the notorious medieval tribunal, anyway.

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Thursday, January 03

The Debunker: Has the Pledge of Allegiance Always Name-Checked God?

by Ken Jennings

On January 16, 1786, Thomas Jefferson's "Statute for Religious Freedom" was enacted into Virginia state law. The new law, which guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all faiths, later became the basis for the Constitution's establishment clause, and was one of the three accomplishments Jefferson felt enough pride in to put on his own tombstone. (He didn't even mention his presidency!) To this day, January 16 is still observed as Religious Freedom Day in the United States, but does that mean everything you think you know about church and state is God's own truth? It does not! Let Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings bless your souls with a little knowledge from on high.

The Debunker: Has the Pledge of Allegiance Always Name-Checked God?

The Pledge of Allegiance seems like such a deeply ingrained part of America's national myth—right up there with Betsy Ross, the Constitution, and "The Star-Spangled Banner"—that many people are surprised to learn that no American ever had to hear or say it for the first century of the nation's history. It's a surprisingly recent invention, newer than the telephone or the ballpoint pen.

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Wednesday, December 19

The Debunker: Does the Post Office Vow Never to Be Stopped by Snow or Sleet?

by Ken Jennings

It's December, and the weather outside is frightful—unless you're like Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings, in which case you look forward all year to the promise of snow. Magical snowscapes, snow angels, snowmen, school cancellations, hilarious skidding cars—what's not to like? As you're walking through your winter wonderland this year, Ken will educate you with a flurry of knowledge to correct all your cold-weather confusion. We've been snowed in by misinformation long enough.

The Debunker: Does the Post Office Vow Never to Be Stopped by Snow or Sleet?

There's an old episode of Cheers where Cliff, the know-it-all letter carrier, stops by the bar during the middle of the afternoon. "Aren't you going to finish your mail route, Mr. Clavin?" asks the confused Woody.

"Are you kidding?" says Cliff. "There's too much snow and sleet out there. Besides, it's getting a little dark."

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Tuesday, December 11

The Debunker: Did Napoleon and Hitler Invade Russia in the Winter?

by Ken Jennings

It's December, and the weather outside is frightful—unless you're like Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings, in which case you look forward all year to the promise of snow. Magical snowscapes, snow angels, snowmen, school cancellations, hilarious skidding cars—what's not to like? As you're walking through your winter wonderland this year, Ken will educate you with a flurry of knowledge to correct all your cold-weather confusion. We've been snowed in by misinformation long enough.

The Debunker: Did Napoleon and Hitler Invade Russia in the Winter?

Have you noticed this thing where young internet people are Very Into History, by which I mean they keep retelling the same six military history stories that were on a podcast or something? I'm actually not as annoyed by this as you might think because hey, at least they know six things about history! It's just like the people posting "SCIENCE, F YEAH!" Sure, that's a little dumb, but would you rather they not be into science? At least they're vaccinated.

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Wednesday, December 05

The Debunker: Does It Snow a Lot in Antarctica?

by Ken Jennings

It's December, and the weather outside is frightful—unless you're like Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings, in which case you look forward all year to the promise of snow. Magical snowscapes, snow angels, snowmen, school cancellations, hilarious skidding cars—what's not to like? As you're walking through your winter wonderland this year, Ken will educate you with a flurry of knowledge to correct all your cold-weather confusion. We've been snowed in by misinformation long enough.

The Debunker: Does It Snow a Lot in Antarctica?

"Is Antarctica snowy?" sounds like the polar equivalent of "Is the pope Catholic?" (The polar equivalent of "Does a bear poop in the woods?" is, of course, "Does a polar bear poop in the woods?") But the answer isn't as obvious as it sounds.

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Tuesday, November 27

The Debunker: In 2016, Did Ten Thousand People Vote for a Dead Gorilla?

by Ken Jennings

If spring is, as the poets tell us, a season of rebirth, then it stands to reason that autumn is a season of death. November is when Christians observe All Souls' Day, the "Day of the Dead," celebrating the souls of the faithful departed. It's also the month that brings with it the most dead leaves, and probably the most dead turkeys as well. But a lot of what you think you know about death in the natural world is "gravely" mistaken. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is with us all month to debunk a lot of myths about our furry friends who encounter the undiscovered country…or at least a "farm upstate."

The Debunker: In 2016, Did Ten Thousand People Vote for a Dead Gorilla?

Content warning: dead gorilla! You probably remember the bizarre news cycle from May 2016 in which a three-year-old boy visiting the Cincinnati Zoo climbed into the gorilla enclosure and got grabbed by a 450-pound silverback named Harambe. (That's the Swahili word for "working together.") Zoo employees, seeing little alternative, were forced to shoot and kill Harambe. Your Honor, these are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

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Tuesday, November 20

The Debunker: Did an Positive Pregnancy Test Mean the "Rabbit Died"?

by Ken Jennings

If spring is, as the poets tell us, a season of rebirth, then it stands to reason that autumn is a season of death. November is when Christians observe All Souls' Day, the "Day of the Dead," celebrating the souls of the faithful departed. It's also the month that brings with it the most dead leaves, and probably the most dead turkeys as well. But a lot of what you think you know about death in the natural world is "gravely" mistaken. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is with us all month to debunk a lot of myths about our furry friends who encounter the undiscovered country…or at least a "farm upstate."

The Debunker: Did an Positive Pregnancy Test Mean the "Rabbit Died"?

Maybe this term is dropping out of sight in the rear-view mirror of time nowadays, but for decades, pregnancy tests were colloquially called "rabbit tests." "The rabbit died" was a winking, jovial way to announce you were expecting a baby, which is pretty weird if you think about it. "We have a joyous event on the way, the beginning of new life! Allow me to metaphorically compare it to the death of a cute, innocent animal of a type normally associated with vitality and fertility!"

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Tuesday, November 13

The Debunker: Do Opossums "Play Dead"?

by Ken Jennings

If spring is, as the poets tell us, a season of rebirth, then it stands to reason that autumn is a season of death. November is when Christians observe All Souls' Day, the "Day of the Dead," celebrating the souls of the faithful departed. It's also the month that brings with it the most dead leaves, and probably the most dead turkeys as well. But a lot of what you think you know about death in the natural world is "gravely" mistaken. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is with us all month to debunk a lot of myths about our furry friends who encounter the undiscovered country…or at least a "farm upstate."

The Debunker: Do Opossums "Play Dead"?

In metaphorical human terms, "playing possum" means feigning injury or vulnerability for tactical purposes. It's a ploy, a scheme, a little rope-a-dope. You're lying low to put your opponent off their guard, and maybe strike back when it's least expected.

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Wednesday, November 07

The Debunker: Do Dying Elephants Go to an "Elephant Graveyard"?

by Ken Jennings

If spring is, as the poets tell us, a season of rebirth, then it stands to reason that autumn is a season of death. November is when Christians observe All Souls' Day, the "Day of the Dead," celebrating the souls of the faithful departed. It's also the month that brings with it the most dead leaves, and probably the most dead turkeys as well. But a lot of what you think you know about death in the natural world is "gravely" mistaken. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is with us all month to debunk a lot of myths about our furry friends who encounter the undiscovered country…or at least a "farm upstate."

The Debunker: Do Dying Elephants Go to an "Elephant Graveyard"?

The legend of the elephants' graveyard—a place old elephants head toward when they sense Time's wingéd chariot hurrying near—goes back at least to the tales of Sinbad the Sailor. As Europeans colonized Africa in the 19th century, the myth of these jungle bone-piles became a kind of El Dorado for eager ivory hunters, and elephants' graveyards were cemented into the public consciousness in movies from Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan and His Mate to Disney's The Lion King.

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Wednesday, October 31

The Debunker: Did Wilt Chamberlain Sleep with 20,000 Women?

by Ken Jennings

It's October and, sports fans, basketball is back. The NBA tips off this month, and college ball is just a few weeks away. To celebrate the return of America's greatest invention (even if Dr. James Naismith, who dreamed up the game in 1891, was Canadian-born) we’ve invited Jeopardy! all-star Ken Jennings to join our team. He'll be on the court here all month blowing the whistle on a lot of hoops hoodoo that may fool a lot of fans. Is your basketball knowledge a slam-dunk or an alley-oops?

The Debunker: Did Wilt Chamberlain Sleep with 20,000 Women?

Almost twenty years after his death, Wilt Chamberlain is famous for his larger-than-life basketball stats: averaging fifty points a game over the course of one season, or shooting 73% from the floor in another, or averaging 27 rebounds per game in another. Not to mention that 1962 game in Hershey, Pennsylvania when he scored 100 points, a record that nobody came within 20 points of for half a century. (Kobe had an 81-point game in 2006, and is currently in second place.) But the amazing stat that people might think of first when it comes to "Wilt the Stilt" is the claim, in his 1991 memoir A View from Above, that he had slept with 20,000 different women over the course of his life.

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Wednesday, October 24

The Debunker: Can Fans Distract a Free Throw Shooter?

by Ken Jennings

It's October and, sports fans, basketball is back. The NBA tips off this month, and college ball is just a few weeks away. To celebrate the return of America's greatest invention (even if Dr. James Naismith, who dreamed up the game in 1891, was Canadian-born) we’ve invited Jeopardy! all-star Ken Jennings to join our team. He'll be on the court here all month blowing the whistle on a lot of hoops hoodoo that may fool a lot of fans. Is your basketball knowledge a slam-dunk or an alley-oops?

The Debunker: Can Fans Distract a Free Throw Shooter?

When it comes to participation, baseball fans not named Steve Bartman are pretty much limited to one role: root, root, root for the home team. But in basketball, fans with the right seats often believe they can change the course of the game! If they sit behind the visiting team's backboard, they can attempt to distract free throw shooters as they step to the line. When this practice began decades ago, it was fairly primitive: fans waggling signs or pom-poms or foam noodles in hopes that the resulting sea of motion, viewed through a glass backboard, would brick a few foul shots. But in recent years, the science of free throw distraction has advanced in bizarre and baroque ways. Today, a player attempting a foul shot on the road might be facing fans spinning hypnosis wheels, hoisting a giant 3D-printed puppet, or wearing masks of the foul shooter's own supermodel wife.

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