When I was little, we were always told to put butter on a burn to soothe it. Of course, if you do that, it fries the skin, so you end up with a worse scar. Cold water and lots of it is the best first aid. I also remember the advice about putting a key down your back for a nosebleed, or sitting with the head forwards. Not sure about the former, but the latter puts extra pressure on the blood vessels and hampers clotting. Head straight upright is best.

Old wives and their tales, eh? Some of them may have proved to be excellent – red sky at night really does mean you’re likely to have good weather the next day, it’s been meteorologically backed up – but some of them are a positive menace. Wrap up a fever patient. Well, yes, I suppose you sweat the infection out (it’s part of the body’s reaction to bugs) but you might perilously overheat the poor patient in the process. And where the heck did the ‘wisdom’ come from that it was dangerous to wash your hair during your period? Anyone else remember being told that little gem?

Not just the medical stuff has changed, though. What was presented as ‘fact’ (or what I remember as fact) is not longer factual. Dinosaurs don’t have two brains, one in their heads and one in their pelvis. White spots on your nails aren’t due to calcium deficiency. There are no canals on Mars and, despite what my granny told me, I won’t get the smit if I rub my face against a cat. No wonder I’m bewildered.

I guess one of the problems is that some of these pronouncements (like the Martian canals) come from scientists. Cool, objective, logical, infallible (or so they like to present themselves) scientists. Except, of course, scientists can make as much of a cock-up as the rest of us. They get things wrong, sometimes because they’re so besotted with their pet theory they can’t or won’t recognise anything which contradicts it. Clearly knowledge moves on, so we can look back at scientists who pronounced that rail travel couldn’t work as people would be suffocated if they travelled at speed and laugh. We wouldn’t be so silly! Or would we…

Take eggs. When I was younger, they were good for you. Experts said so, the egg marketing board told you to go to work on one (an egg, not an expert). Then they were bad for you – experts said so. Then they were good for you again because…you get the drift. Now I don’t know if they’re bad for me or good for me, although I do know they’re delicious. Almost weekly there seems to emerge a new bit of research that contradicts another recent bit of research; if I’m struggling to keep up (and I’ve got a degree in applied Biology) how does everyone else cope?

Maybe we don’t try to. Maybe we just go along and do our own thing, relying more on old wives than New Scientist. Now, what colour’s the sky today?

Advertisements