Can going out in the cold give you a cold? Is life getting worse? 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.
Myth No. 10 — Getting Cold Can Give You a Cold
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.
People 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 colds than did 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.
Myth No. 9 — We Have Less Free Time Than We Used To
Countless news stories tell us we're "running ourselves ragged." And everyone thinks it's true.
Lots of Americans say they 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 almost 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 Sherri 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 go camping, and hundreds of millions go to the beach, the movies, and sports events.
Steve Moore, co-author of Things are Getting Better All The Time, says, "One of the reasons that Americans feel so pressed for time is there's so much more to do in life today."
Myth No. 8 — American Families Need Two Incomes
Many families in America say both husband and wife have to work, because they can't make ends meet without both incomes. It's the reason Sherri Kowalski and her husband say they both work.
Sherri gets up every morning at 4:00 a.m. because she took a job delivering newspapers. She also sells things on Ebay. Her husband works as a lab technician, but they say it's not enough money for the family. But does she really need this job?
Contrary to what we always hear, Americans make more money these days. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that even after accounting for inflation, personal disposable income has tripled over the past 50 years. And Sherri's husband makes an above-average income.
The Kowalskis feel they need the extra income because they say they need to buy more things for their family. They recently bought a new, fully loaded minivan. But they have already have an Escort and a pickup truck.
"I wanted the better van; I didn't want the van with the cloth seats and the no entertainment system. Everybody wants more," Sherri said. A lot more.
Fifty years ago, the average family in the United States had one car. Today the norm is two or three. Houses have more than doubled in square footage, and shoppers just seem to spend as much as they want.
"Most families don't have to have both parents working. They do this by choice. People have decided they want to maintain a very high income lifestyle on two incomes to have all the things to keep up with the Joneses," Moore said.
Myth No. 7 — Money Can Buy Happiness
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. But that's myth No. 7.
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.
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.
Myth No. 6 — Republicans Shrink the Government
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. Republican congressman Terry Everett 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."
Myth No. 5 — The Rich Don't Pay Their Fair Share of Taxes
We've all heard this one during the presidential campaign. When it comes to income taxes, the Democratic presidential candidates keep telling us, the rich don't pay enough. That's a widespread belief, but do the politicians even know how much of the income tax burden the rich pay now?
According to presidential candidate Al Sharpton, "The top one percent in this country pays very much less than ten percent, very much less than five percent."
Sharpton said he thinks the wealthy should pay "somewhere around 15 percent."
But that's so silly because — and I bet most of you don't know this — the IRS says the richest 1 percent of taxpayers already pay 34 percent of all income taxes. Twice what Sharpton wanted them to pay.
Still you may feel the rich should pay even more. It's a tempting thought, since they have so much.
But let's remember the facts: the top 1 percent of Americans — those who earn more than about $300,000 a year — pay 34 percent, more than a third of all income taxes, and the top 5 percent, those making over $125,000, pay more than half.
Myth No. 4 — Chemicals Are Killing Us
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 at times to obsess needlessly 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 death rates 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 two million to three million people may die annually 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 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 — most children — since the U.S. banned DDT.
"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 from malaria."
The U.S. Agency for International Development defends its approach saying its programs are as effective as DDT. Yet, it fights malaria with drugs that the government's own Web site admits fail up to 80 percent of the time. USAID acknowledges DDT is safe as currently used, but won't pay for it.
Myth No. 3 — Guns are Bad
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 things 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.
Many people 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.
Myth No. 2 — We're Drowning in Garbage
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 jump-started 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 be shipped to a landfill in Louisiana, but on the way, the shipper tried to save money by dumping his 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.