At heart, fiction is a made-up story. These stories draw on the real world for context, structures, settings, and even characters, however.
More often than not information gleaned from fiction can be educational about our own real world: mystery novels inform us that cyanide and arsenic are deadly poisons, one classic novel communicates the widespread rumor that the 1919 World Series was fixed, and a favorite modern film tells us that Teddy Roosevelt was our twenty-sixth president.
Sometimes, however, fiction leads us on to believe something about the real world that just isn’t so. For the sake of not embarrassing ourselves at a get-together or dinner party, here are five falsehoods that we can disabuse ourselves of.
(Spoilers below for Fahrenheit 451, Hamilton, Breaking Bad, and The Good Place.)
1. At what temperature does paper catch fire, and burn?
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s most memorable work, depicts a decadent dystopia whose “firemen” are responsible for burning any books that are discovered―as almost all books are illegal. It is so titled, as the cover will tell you, because that is “the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns . . .”
It could be. Bradbury had reportedly been told that that was the case. Studies have concluded, however, that paper ignites somewhere between 424 and 475 F, depending on the exact type of paper. In fairness to Bradbury, 451 is the average of that span and decidedly a more effective title than Fahrenheit 424-475. If you ever find your own home raided for contraband books, however, don’t think that by shoving them into an oven and turning it up to 450 that you’re being clever.
2. How many brothers did Angelica Schuyler have?
“My father has no sons so I’m the one / who has to social climb . . .” Angelica Schuyler laments in the musical Hamilton’s number “Satisfied.”
Definitely not. Writer Lin-Manuel Miranda himself explained as much later on: “I actually forgot that Phillip had 15 children. [Emphasis added.] But I think that my brain wanted me to forget because it’s stronger dramatically if societally she can’t marry you.”
There’s more: “And in reality, [Angelica] was married when [she and Hamilton] met.”
Nevertheless, Miranda defended his choice: “I definitely had to take a dramatic license.” So for artistic purposes the lapse remained—it gave enough thematic harmony to the story and characters to be forgiven. It is poetry, however, not history.
While we’re at it, let’s throw in a bonus: Alexander Hamilton never punched any bursar. Miranda didn’t misremember anything in this case; he just found the wordplay impossible to resist (even if premier Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow wasn’t quite on board).
3. How hard is it to get your hands on methylamine?
One of the plot drivers in the TV drama Breaking Bad―the story of a poor chemistry teacher in New Mexico named Walter White who receives a terminal cancer diagnosis and turns to cooking crystal meth to sock away money for his family―is how hard it is to get your hands on the necessary ingredient methylamine.
Methylamine is first derived in modest doses from Sudafed, purchased by a small army of associates known by Walt’s partner-in-crime, Jesse. When the profit from working with such quantities fails to satisfy Walter, the two steal a barrel of pure methylamine from a secure chemical facility. Soon the supply issue is resolved by a new patron who finances an entire superlab complete with ingredients, industrial-grade machinery, and utter secrecy. When the patron’s demise puts an end to the superlab, the cooks are prompted to rob a train carrying a shipment to Texas from its production in Guanzhou. That train heist propels the series’s closing arcs into motion…
…except real-life methylamine isn’t something you need to rob a freight train or go to China for. One writer over at Slate explains:
As a post on Reddit asks, since Walt is a brilliant chemist, couldn’t he just synthesize the stuff himself? Yes, and pretty easily. There are many different ways to make the compound; with little more than an introductory organic chemistry class, you could probably synthesize it in your kitchen sink. (Brow Beat doesn’t recommend trying to make methylamine in your kitchen sink). Chemically speaking, methylamine is just ammonia with one hydrogen atom swapped out for a methyl group—a carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms. Without getting into too much detail, an easy way to achieve this swap is to “bubble” ammonia (a gas) through methanol (a liquid) that’s been laced with a dehydrating agent like Silica gel. You could probably buy these chemicals at Home Depot and CVS.
Giving the drug cooks an external constraint on their supply chain and meth production was probably too useful for the writers to pass up. In fairness, Walter manufacturing as much methylamine as their drug operation was using by bubbling ammonia in the kitchen sink probably wouldn’t have been a great solution to their at-scale supply issues.
4. Is the world’s growing interconnectedness a force for good or for evil?
The NBC sitcom The Good Place, set in the afterlife, has a harsh revelation for viewers in Season 3’s episode, “The Book of Dougs”: The global economy has made your life hopelessly immoral. According to the show’s moral calculus, an action as simple as buying flowers for your grandmother or girlfriend now makes you complicit in such moral wrongs as exploiting the migrant workers picking your roses, transport trucks contaminating the environment, and the sweatshop that made the phone on which you ordered the flowers. All this moral evil is so pervasive that not one person, they reckon, has made it to “the good place” in five hundred years.
Tabling the moral philosophy here, the basic idea is that as the world has grown more interconnected, and as our actions touch more people and environments, everyone has been doomed to the bad place because those actions are so harmful. But this is a funhouse mirror distortion of the planet we actually live on.
The world is in fact getting far better in most important ways for most people. Even The New York Times, sometimes known for its alarmist reporting on the state of the world, has acknowledged as much. They reported last year on how “Only about 4 percent of children worldwide now die by the age of 5. That’s still horrifying, but it’s down from 19 percent in 1960 and 7 percent in 2003” [emphasis added].
What happens to this far greater number of people who survive infancy and go on to live their lives? The Times proceeds to note that “extreme poverty” (i.e., living on about $1.90 a day) dropped from 44 percent worldwide to less than 10 percent since Reagan’s first election.
Read that again, just to be sure you read it right.
If you wonder whether that percentile gain has been offset by humanity’s tremendous growth in raw numbers, rest easy; here’s a graph from Wikipedia on the absolute number of people living in extreme poverty:
Yup, that’s fewer.
Not to turn this into a full-on economics treatise, but maybe this powerful global improvement owes something to how interconnected the world has become. Maybe workers we pity as “exploited” don’t always feel so negatively about their own situation.
It’s easy to look at pictures of far-off lands from a smartphone or laptop and think that those people deserve better―except that more people being at liberty to pay cheap wages (thanks to freer markets and cheaper transportation and communication) to anyone on earth has meant that people creatively and energetically seek out those who will work for the least―in other words, the neediest people on earth―providing them with gainful employment.
This side of the story, though under-recognized, is so poignant that even the Left-wing Huffington Post has keyed into its dire alternative:
Many people in Bangladesh now fear the exit of Western brands, from factory owners down to line workers . . . Bakar, the dye worker, understands this trade-off all too well. After several years toiling in the garment industry without a raise, he quit his job in 2008 in quiet protest.
But after six hopeless months of looking for work, he was back inside a garment factory in order to survive. He may feel exploited by the system, but he prefers it to the alternative.
“Without the garment business,” Bakar said, “thousands and thousands of poor people would be jobless.”
Chaos is the default state of the world, and capitalism has been an engine for spreading opportunity and prosperity. The worldwide plummeting of child mortality and extreme poverty testify to that and to the idea that the world is―at least by the internal calculus of The Good Place―more suffused with good than ever before.
5. How many ribs does the Bible say we have?
You might expect the inerrant, Spirit-breathed, profitable-for-doctrine Word of God to be able to muster a little attention and respect when it comes to the straightforward narrative it relates about man’s origins. You’d be mistaken.
Human Form, Human Function: Essentials of Anatomy & Physiology is a college-level, respected, contemporary textbook on human anatomy and physiology that helpfully informs us, when discussing ribs, “Contrary to Biblical myth, females do not have one fewer rib than males.”
It might be from a textbook, but this is a line of pure fiction.
Even tabling the snide word choice of “myth,” there is no Biblical narrative that tells us that females have one fewer rib than males. The Bible instead tells us, in crystal clear manner:
“So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” (Genesis 2:21-22 ESV)
There is no etiological aside, such as when Adam then says “she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” [emphasis added] or after the Flood, when we read that “God said, ‘When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh’” (Genesis 2:23, 9:12-15 ESV). There is no such claim that number of ribs was a permanent distinguishing mark of the sexes.
It would have been beyond strange, in fact, had some ancient men fabricated this whole story and been at pains to include an incorrect anatomical detail that was so obviously wrong that any man anywhere had means to disprove it. Where would they have even come up with such an idea?
True it may be that some well-meaning but clueless Christians are mistaken about their own Scriptures and will repeat this as a truth (such Christians are not, at least by Google’s sifting, in the mainstream of commentary on Genesis anyhow). It is widely unacceptable, however, to judge a school of thought or religion by some acolytes’ factually mistaken notions of its teachings or holy books―and more unacceptable to lay that error with the text itself, as the phrase “Contrary to Biblical myth” does.
This textbook doesn’t even get the mistake right. The misconception is that men, because Adam had a rib removed, have “one fewer rib”―not females.
These are only a few of fiction’s missteps.
Fiction―and sometimes fact―is riddled with near-hits such as these. Keep this in mind the next time you’re enjoying a story and hear some alleged fact that, you think, you just might reference at a cookout or let influence your worldview.
Fact-checking all of fiction might be as difficult as boiling the ocean, but selectively cultivating your own intake should be a manageable course of action. That’s probably all you need to keep enjoying your stories, responsibly.