Can going out in the cold give you a cold? Are we losing our national forests? Can money buy happiness? You may be among the many who would answer yes to these questions. You'd be wrong. There are a lot of popularly held beliefs out there that simply aren't true. Yet the media tend to report on many of them as though they were hard facts.
Countless news stories tell us we're running ourselves ragged. And everyone thinks it's true. Lots of Americans say have no free time. We all seem to be rushing everywhere.
Sherri Kowalski is busy. She's a working mom, who's in a constant struggle to get everything done.
She has two kids, and a husband who helps. But there's a lot to do: laundry, cooking, cleaning, helping kids with their schoolwork. When we visited her home, she was so busy she didn't even sit down to eat her meals.
Everyone we interviewed said they were pressed for time.
It made me want to seek out some real data on this. I talked with sociologist John Robinson of the University of Maryland, who's been trying to measure how much time we have for several decades. Since 1965, Robinson has had people keep time diaries, so he could calculate how much free time people really have.
I assumed that we've lost free time since 1965, but Robinson said that's not the case.
Surprisingly, since 1965 we've gained an hour more free time every day.
"There is a discrepancy between what people say and what they report when they keep a time diary," he said.
Sure enough, when Kowalski and some of the other people we met at the mall kept Robinson's time diaries, what they wrote down didn't always match what they'd said.
Sherri had twice as much free time as she'd estimated. She finds time to exercise every day, and she often goes to a tanning salon. Kowalski also watches some TV; that's the No. 1 free time activity in America.
We have more free time now, say the experts, because we're working less, marrying later, having fewer children, and retiring earlier.
If we're so stressed for free time, it's hard to explain how 36 million people can find time to golf, and 65 million people can go camping, and hundreds of millions go to the beach, the movies, and sports events.
Economist Stephen Moore says, "One of the reasons that Americans feel so pressed for time is there's so much more to do in life today."
I guess politicians are no different than the rest of us. Politicians want federal money for nice things like museums and senior centers and highways in their states. We want more money too, because we think it'll buy us things that make us happy.
We get a lot of messages from television and movies telling us that more money will make us happy. Lottery winners have press conferences, reality shows have pretty women lining up to marry rich guys.
But in fact, one lottery winner told us she was very happy for several days, then the thrill wore off.
Milionaire hip-hop promoter Russell Simmons told me wealth didn't make him or his friends happy either. "If I know 15 billionaires, I know 13 unhappy people," he said.
Simmons' brother, Reverend Run was the lead rapper for Run DMC. He said he suddenly realized money wouldn't buy happiness when he was at the peak of his career.
"I get to L.A., and I've got the presidential suite," he said, "and it all came at once. … And it was too much. I realized, 'OK, I got it, God. I got it. I got it. This will not work. It is not gonna make me happy.' … The only thing that's gonna make me happy is the joy that's on the inside of me."
Research suggests that Reverend Run and Russell Simmons are right. A survey of 49 of the Forbes richest found that they weren't any happier than the rest of us.
Money magazine columnist Jean Chatsky polled 1,500 people for her book "You Don't Have to Be Rich" and found that more money makes people significantly happier only if their family income's below $30,000, but by $50,000, money makes no difference.
"Once you get to that $50,000 level, more money doesn't buy more happiness," she said.
Happiness researchers agree with Simmons and Chatsky: Purposeful work is what makes people happy. And finding religion. And family.
Republicans always trot out the slogan that they oppose big government and want to shrink the federal payroll. President Bush tells us that "big government is not the answer."
President Reagan told us, "Our government is too big and it spends too much."
But for more than 75 years, no Republican administration has cut the size of government. Since George W. Bush became president, government spending has risen nearly 25 percent.
And the spending increase isn't just tied to the war on terrorism. The Office of Management and Budget says spending at the Environmental Protection Agency is up 12 percent; it's up 14 percent at the Agriculture Department, 30 percent at the Department of the Interior; 64 percent at the Department of Labor, and 70 percent at the Department of Education.
And the pork keeps pouring out. Even the Peanut Festival in Dothan, Ala., got $200,000.
Alabama congressman Terry Everett, a Republican, got them the money. He wouldn't talk to us about it, but the locals said they like getting your money. "I think it's a waste of money, but if they're going to waste money, I guess it's better to waste it here than anywhere else," one man told me.
Economist Stephen Moore, a Republican, says, "We fought a war against big government and you know what? Big government won."
He noted, "You look at what's happened to the government in the 10 years since the Republicans took control of Congress, the government is twice as big."
We've heard protests about this for decades: News articles warn of "the population bomb," and "a tidal wave of humanity," and plead: No more babies.
The world population today is more than 6 billion. It seems like so many people. But who says it's "too many?"
There are lots of problems all over the world caused by too many people
But there's no space problem. Our planet is huge. In fact we could take the entire world population and move everyone to the state of Texas, and the population density there would still be less than that of New York City.
But, you might wonder, won't we run out of resources, like food?
Paul Ehrlich wrote the book "Population Bomb," and warned 65 million Americans would starve in a "Great Die Off" in the 1980s. The 1973 movie "Soylent Green" predicted food riots would erupt in the year 2022 but it doesn't look like that will happen.
According to media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner, population growth is "a time bomb waiting to happen." If it continues, at the current rate, according to Turner, "Eventually you stand around in a desert with nothing to eat." But that too is a myth. We see the pictures of starving masses in populous places, but the starvation is caused by things like civil war and government corruption that interfere with the distribution of food.
With more people, we also have more smart ideas. Every year we learn how to grow more food on less land. Thanks to improved technology, the United Nations now says the world overproduces food.
About 15,000 babies are born every hour. But they are not a burden, they offer more brains that might cure cancer, more hands to build things, more voices to bring us beautiful music.
In America today, there's this myth that quietly, secretly, everywhere, chemicals are gradually poisoning us. Of course some chemicals, in high enough doses, do kill people.
Americans' fear of chemicals has caused us to obsess about everything from hair dye and dry cleaning to coffee and artificial sweeteners even though there's no proof that the small amounts of the chemicals in those products have harmed anyone.
Cancer deaths are actually declining in America. But our fear is contagious and sometimes deadly.
Health Minister Jim Muhwezi of Uganda points out that as many as 2 million to 3 million people may die because of DDT. But not because DDT is bad, but because Americans' fear of it has deprived much of the world of the DDT that could have saved them.
How did this happen? Well, 50 years ago, Americans sprayed tons of DDT everywhere. Farmers used it to repel bugs, and health officials used it to fight mosquitoes that carry malaria. Nobody worried much about chemicals then.
Today DDT is rarely used. America's demonization of it caused others to shun it. The U.S. government does spend your tax dollars fighting malaria in Africa, but it will not spend a penny on DDT.
The result has been a huge resurgence of malaria. More than 50 people million have died, mostly children.
"If it's DDT, it must be awful. And that's fine if you're a rich, white environmentalist," says Amir Attaran, a scientist leading a campaign urging the use of DDT to fight malaria. "It's not so fine if you're a poor black kid who's about to lose his life to malaria."
The United States fights malaria with drugs that the government's own Web site admits fail up to 80 percent of the time. But we will not use DDT, even though USAID acknowledges it's safe to use.
America is notorious for its culture of gun violence. Guns sometimes do cause terrible harm, and many kids are killed every year in gun accidents. But public service announcements and news stories make it seem as if the accidents kill thousands of kids every year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, fewer than 100 kids 15 and under are killed in gun accidents every year. Of course that's horrible, and I understand why demonstrators say we need more gun control.
But guess what? The Centers for Disease Control recently completed a review of studies of various types of gun control: background checks, waiting periods, bans on certain guns and ammunition. It could not document that these rules have reduced violent crime.
The government wants to say regulations and laws like the Brady Gun Control Law are making a difference, but they aren't. Some maximum security felons I spoke to in New Jersey scoffed at measures like the Brady law. They said they'll have no trouble getting guns if they want them.
A Justice Department study confirmed what the prisoners said. But get this: the felons say that the thing they fear the most is not the police, not time in prison, but, you, another American who might be armed.
It's a reason many states are passing gun un-control. They're allowing citizens to carry guns with them, it's called concealed carry or right to carry. Some women say they're comforted by these laws.
But many people, including Rev. Al Sharpton, are horrified at the idea of concealed carry laws, and predict mayhem if all states adopt these laws.
But surprise, 36 states already have concealed carry laws; and not one reported an upsurge in gun crime.
We've been told we're running out of places to put our garbage. We do produce a lot of it — more than any other country in the world. But it's not the crisis described in so many media reports.
Analysts say this myth was jumpstarted by a 1987 story about a garbage barge on the Mississippi River.
The barge was filled with 3,000 tons of compacted trash and garbage from New York. It was supposed to have been shipped to a landfill in Louisiana, but on the way, the shipper tried to save money by dumping the trash in North Carolina.
Suspicious local officials said no thanks. Their response got so much publicity that by the time the barge reached its original destination, the Louisiana dump wouldn't accept it anymore.
The publicity over the barge ignited 10 years of activism.
Cynthia Pollack of the WorldWatch Institute said back in 1987 that we were approaching an emergency situation. But it wasn't true.
The EPA says while some cities have to ship garbage out, overall landfill capacity is actually increasing. All around America, people are building bigger landfills. Some landfill owners are competing for our trash.
Jeremy O'Brien, of the Solid Waste Association of North America, said some of his group's members are actually looking for waste.
Some communities put parks and golf courses on top of trash sites.
O'Brien said, "In the United States, there's plenty of land to properly dispose of our solid waste for hundreds and even thousands of years."
We hardly have a garbage crisis.
Lots of Americans feel bad when they see images of trees being cut down, because they've been told that America's running out of forestland.
Carl Ross, of the group, Save America's Forests, says we've cut way too much.
"The loss of natural forests in America is a crisis," he said. "And we will lose species forever, and they'll go extinct, if we don't take action now."
Other environmental groups run ads warning of the dire consequences.
But The U.S. Agriculture Department says America has 749 million acres of forestland. In 1920, we had 735 million acres of forest.
We have more forest now. How can that be? One reason is technology that allows us to grow five times more food per acre — so we need less farmland. Lots of what once was farmland has reverted to forest.
But Ross says we don't really have more forests. "We have more areas, in America, with trees on them, that's true. But we have less that are natural," he said.
He's right that many of the oldest trees have been cut down, and about 7 percent of America's forests have been planted by man, but that still means that 93 percent are natural.
Ross is also concerned that loss of old-growth forest is leading to a loss of biodiversity. But while some species have decreased, the populations of many others animals have actually increased in the past 75 years.
Michael Shermer says many people believe America is destroying the forests because environment groups need to scare people to raise money.
"The fear is there," he said, "because, if your goal is to raise funds you have to scare people. You can't tell people things are getting better, and here's the data. You have to tell people things are worse."
The truth, however, is that today in the United States there are two acres of forestland for every single person, and America is growing more trees than it cuts.
All through my childhood, I had to watch health movies which sold us the old wive's tale: being cold will give you a cold.
I spoke with some adults who still think that's true, and they make sure their kids are more than prepared for nasty weather. So what happens when kids play a game of football without any coats — some without any shirts — on a 40-degree day? Probably nothing.
Public health expert Dr. Mark Callahan explained being cold has nothing to do with getting a cold. "Running around outside in the cold won't give you a cold. You have to get exposed to a virus, pick it up and then you'll get a cold," Callahan said.
I learned about this myth years ago, when "20/20" sent me to a cold part of England. Scientists there found that dropping cold viruses into people's noses often made them sick. But getting them cold and wet made no difference.
The researchers had people walk outside in the winter rain and then sit in unheated rooms in various stages of undress, and those chilled people got no more olds than anyone else.
The cold is caused by a virus, not by temperature. And people get more colds in the winter, only because then we spend more time indoors passing the virus back and forth because we're closer to each other. Being cold has nothing to do with it.
I can see why people think life is getting worse. Anyone who watches television news regularly will hear stories about child abductions, muggings, murders, deadly new diseases. It's enough to make anyone feel frightened.
Kids I talked with told me they think crime is on the rise. They say they're worried about being kidnapped.
I find it so sad that they're scared when they are actually safer than ever. The crime rate is close to the lowest it's been in 15 years, and a Justice Department study showed no increase in kidnapping.
But Americans are living longer, better lives than they ever have. "These are the safest times ever to have lived on the Earth," economist Moore said, "and America is the safest place to have ever lived."
Today 70,000 Americans are at least 100 years old.
The average American today lives 30 years longer than the average American 100 years ago, according to Moore.
Today, we worry about SARS, but SARS hasn't killed a single person in America. Fewer than a thousand people have died worldwide. Compare that to the flu epidemic of 1918, which killed 20 million people.
Today's kids haven't even heard of many mass killers like diphtheria or rheumatic fever.
And today, we complain about work, forgetting that in the old days most Americans worked on farms.
We romanticize the farm, but life on the farm 75 to 100 years ago wasn't so wonderful. "One of the reasons people left the farms," according to Moore, "was because their lives were so tough and it was back-breaking toil."
Mines were worse, and life in the factories was hardly any better.
And we still have poverty, but in recent years, what Americans call poverty has changed. Some people living at the poverty line have apartments with cable television and microwave ovens. So, we are making progress for every segment of our society.
And finally we worry a lot about pollution. But the air is actually getting cleaner.
"Fifty years ago," Moore noted, "many American cities had permanent black fogs over them." All emissions have been cut 48 percent since 1970. Every major air pollutant is down dramatically. And lakes and rivers are cleaner too.
People still joke about the rivers that surround my home in New York City. The East and Hudson Rivers were once disgusting. After all, millions of people live here and when they flushed, all of it went directly, untreated, to the rivers.
But now treatment plants clean the sewage, so the rivers around Manhattan are 98 percent cleaner than 30 years ago. Even within sight of the Empire State Building, within a short distance of millions of people flushing, I'm willing to jump into the Hudson River.
It's cold. And officials do fish, on average, two bodies out of the river every year. But it is clean enough that it's now legal to swim here.
Moore sums it up nicely, "Every generation has always felt like things are getting worse rather than getting better, when in fact every objective standard of life on Earth and safety and health is showing much improvement. We should feel so lucky to be alive today."
This report originally aired on "20/20" Jan. 23, 2004.