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Science Update’s New “Reality Check” Radio Feature Debunks Science-Related Myths

Chewing gum stays in your stomach for seven years. Gelatin comes from animal hooves. Vitamin C prevents colds.

We’ve all heard them before. But how much truth lay behind claims that, say, reading in low light or sitting too close to the television will cause us to need glasses?

According to “Reality Check,” a recently launched feature by AAAS’s award-winning, nationally syndicated radio program Science Update, not too much.

Bob Hirshon

Developed by Science Update executive producer and host Bob Hirshon and producer and reporter Susanne Bard, “Reality Check” is a 60-second feature investigating “paranormal claims, weird phenomen

a and science folklore.”

Taking questions submitted by listeners on topics from the danger of open-heart surgery during full moons to doomsday planetary collisions, the show takes a critical look at claims and myths found on the internet or heard around the kitchen table.

Susanne Bard

Hirshon said that many popular urban myths involve science, and exploring them is a way to engage listeners with scientific concepts.

“Myths are created as a way to explain the natural world when we don’t exactly know what is going on,” he said. “While the science in a myth can range from slightly misguided to downright wacky, the show offers an opportunity to explore a scientific concept and describe its use correctly.”

Hirshon said another goal for “Reality Check” is to encourage people to think critically. “It’s a valuable skill for young children to develop a curiosity about what they see and hear and say to themselves, ‘That doesn’t make much sense,’” he said.

In a December 2009 segment on chewing gum, Michelle Simms of Alexandria, Virginia, contacted Science Update to find out if her parents were correct that swallowed chewing gym, which is indigestible, would remain in her body for seven years.

To get an answer, they turned to Aaron Carroll, a health services researcher at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Carroll said that while gum isn’t digestible, it will normally be expelled in about 24 hours, as the human digestive system “is incredibly good at getting things from one end of the body to the other.”

First broadcasted in 1988, Science Update’s “quirky, entertaining and informative” 60-second features covering the latest discoveries in science, technology and medicine is heard on the national news show America in the Morning on over 200 stations nationwide, and is also syndicated daily on an additional 20 stations. They expect to broadcast their 5000th show later this year.

In addition to the daily radio show, Science Update is now also available as a podcast, available on iTunes and other audio providers.

Bard said that Science Update has four types of segments: reports on scientific discoveries; a weekly science news roundup; a Why-Is-It series in which listeners submit questions; and “Reality Check.”

She said that one of the most difficult parts of the Realty Check series is finding an expert to comment on the myth. Bard cited the “Reality Check” segment on the Ouija board—a game in which participants supposedly talk with spirits as words are spelled on a board.

While there are neuroscientists that can talk about the ideomotor effect which can cause people to perform actions unconsciously, Bard said that very few scientists have conducted experiments involving the ideomotor effect while using a Ouija board.

“There isn’t a lot of grant money for scientists to explain why words are spelled using a board game,” said Bard. She added that dispelling common myths is not something that comes at a high priority for scientists who are often more focused on activities that will help them advance professionally.

Despite their goal to do one “Reality Check” a week, Hirshon and Bard are confident that they will never run out of myths to explore.

“People’s imaginations are limitless,” said Hirshon, “and I’m sure they’ll think up new myths faster than we can debunk them.”

See a list of past “Reality Check” episodes on Science Update.

Got a myth you want checked out? Call 1-800-WHY-ISIT (949-4748) or visit Science Update’s contact page.

Find radio stations that broadcast Science Update.