Hmmmm – I’ve always thought this was true, too.
I don’t know if 10 percent of the Russian government’s income comes from the sale of vodka. I don’t know if a cow can go upstairs, but not downstairs. And I certainly don’t know if a duck’s quack doesn’t echo.
But I do know the following statement is false: The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System requires that one mile in every five must be straight. These straight sections are usable as airstrips in times of war or other emergencies.
False though it is, this “fact” has become a fixture of Internet Web sites with names such as “You Probably Didn’t Know That …” and “Weird Fact Heaven.”
For a historian, even an unofficial one, who believes that a fact should be, by definition, factual, what is particularly frustrating is that everyone seems to know this “fact.” People — including those whose eyes glaze over if I even mention Gen. Roy Stone1 or the vitally important statewide highway surveys of the mid-1930s2 — get a twinkle in their eye when I mention the Interstate Highway System. “Did you know,” they say to me cheerily as I grit my teeth, “that one in every five miles …”
When that happens, I feel like the staffer at the information desk of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum who told me the most frequently asked question she receives is, “Where’s the rest room?” Like her, I try to reply patiently without rolling my eyes or groaning, and I try not to give the impression I’ve heard this “fact” once or twice or maybe a hundred times before.