“Chasing the tale” (Old Wives Tales)

In a pair of delightful pieces for Skeptical Inquirer, science writer Ada McVean has examined Old Wives Tales to ascertain if there is truth, and if so, how much truth, there is in them.

One of the more ubiquitous is that a person should wait a couple of hours after eating before going for a swim. But McVean cites a six-decade old study in which 100 subjects swam at various intervals after chowing down and there were no cramps reported in any of them. Another study from the same time period showed no changes to heart rates during digestion. This is crucial became the supposed cause of the putative cramps were that blood was being diverted from the muscles to the stomach. So we have known (or should have known) for many years that there is no truth to this tale.

So eating before swimming if fine, but what about walking after sleeping? Should this be allowed to continue, or should sleepwalkers be awakened? McVean found the former to be the case, for the safety of the person doing the waking. She cited several cases of the person being woken inadvertently lashing out physically, sometimes fatally.

While the origin of most Old Wives Tales are lost to history, McVean feels we can pinpoint the one centering on not sitting too close to TV, lest the viewer harm their vision. She thinks it stems from a recall of color televisions in 1967. She explained, “The increased voltage found in new color televisions caused a radiation output that exceeded what the federal U.S. government deemed to be safe.”

These potential dangers only applied if a viewer spent excess sitting directly below the TV as opposed to the more eyes-and-screen horizontal norm. And even if favoring the viewing up from the floor method, the radiation danger has long since passed with changes to the televisions’ construction. If the viewer were watching show featuring maritime adventures, he or she may have heard the adage, “Red Sky at Night, Sailors’ Delight. Red Sky at Morning, Sailors Take Warning.” McVean rates this one as accurate.

That the sky has any color is the result of the sun’s light hitting the atmosphere, causing it to scatter. McVean explains, “We get a blue sky because these short wavelengths correspond to blue hues. At sunset and sunrise, the angle at which sunlight enters the atmosphere is significantly changed, and light must travel through many more atmospheric particles to reach us. As a result, most of the shorter blue and green wavelengths are scattered before reaching the lower atmosphere, meaning we see more of the orange and red colors in the sky.”

As this applies to the adage, a bright red sunset or sunrise means more charged particles are at play in the atmosphere. This is more likely to happen during systems of high pressure, which brings clear skies. And since weather in the western world usually travels west to east, a red sunset in the west means that a high-pressure system and associated clear weather is on the way. Conversely, red skies to the east indicate that a high-pressure system has passed, so a low-pressure system is incoming.

Now we move onto the notion that swallowed gum will rest in one’s digestive track for seven years. A high school classmate of mine ate gum in the same way other people would eat Smarties, gulping one bite-size piece after another. So was he walking around with a basketball-sized wad in his stomach? No. Our bodies have little trouble excising indigestible items, be it, seeds, glue, paper, or Bazooka Joe. All these will soon come out during a trip to the bathroom. There is one possible danger to swallowing the stuff, though it requires exercising zero gum control. A person could eat such a massive quantity that it could form an indigestible lump that would cause intestinal blockage.

I have swallowed gum before but we now move onto on Old Wives Tale that I have more experience with, the quaffing of alchol. It goes, “Beer Before Liquor, Never Been Sicker; Liquor Before Beer, You’re in the Clear.” I originally heard it with the words reversed, “Beer before Liquor, You’re in the Clear; Beer Before Liquor, You’re Never Been Sicker.”

As it happens, the worst post-drinking experience of my life involved me doing both of the above, so it would have applied either way. It took place over several hours in New Orleans and involved a relatively moderate four drinks. It started with a complimentary glass of wine at dinner, which was followed by a Budweiser in my pre-craft beer days while seated at the bar watching a college basketball game. One bar later, I downed a hurricane, and I then finished with a second beer. This modest amount of imbibing would lead to 20 of my most tortured bathroom visits ever. All night, I would wake up with the room violently spinning and my stomach seemingly ready to explode. Yet no vomiting relief was forthcoming. Instead, I had uncontrollable and massive dry heaves. On and on it went, all through the nightmarish evening. I had always attributed it to my mixing of the drinks. After all, I’ve been known to have four times that many in my alcoholic days without having near the displeasure.

The largest issue is the amount of alcohol consumed. Assuming no beer pong is used, a brew will take longer to drink than a glass of wine and still longer than a cocktail and even longer than a straight shot of scotch. A bottle of beer has eight times as much drink as a shot of liquor, not only taking longer to drink but also filling one up more. The key components are how quickly the drinks are consumed and how many there are. Those are far more consequential than the order, my anecdotal Big Easy queasy notwithstanding.


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