The Emperor's New Clothes: We debunk 50 received wisdoms of modern Britain

Just because we're told something countless times doesn't make it true. But how much of what we take for granted has any basis in reality? It's about time the IoS killed some sacred cows

1. David Beckham was man of the match against Belarus

Steve Bruce, what were you thinking? Mr Posh Spice was on for a few minutes, did that thing he does of taking the ball off the defenders in his own penalty box, and beautifully pinging fabulous long passes... straight to the opposition. Could it be that Mr Bruce spurned the claims of two-goal Peter Crouch because he turned down his offer to go to Sunderland in the summer in favour of Spurs?

2. Boris Johnson is a buffoon

The London Mayor certainly has his detractors – and his decision last week to raise bus and Tube fares might turn a few more in that direction – but he was a King's scholar at Eton, a Brackenbury scholar at Oxford and was clever enough to fend off the handful of supposedly stronger contenders to his current job. Still, he is irritating.

3. Damien Hirst is a brilliant artist

He's plummeted 50 places down the list of contemporary art movers and shakers and The Times's review of his latest paintings declared them "dreadful. Think Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole". Those attention-grabbing works of yore are looking more and more like a one-trick pickled shark.

4. Twitter is cool

"Twitter is without a doubt the best way to share and discover what is happening right now." So says Twitter. Say we: sure is, as long as you don't want to know anything in depth. And by in depth, we mean more than 140 characters. OK, it might have usefully targeted the homophobia of the Daily Mail's Jan Moir last week, and yes, it is quite useful when it comes to marshalling opponents to the crackdown in Iran. But do we care you had spaghetti for your tea? We do not.

5. David Cameron's address to his party conference was a clear-sighted call to arms

"Low-key", "pedestrian", "subdued"... See the IoS's "Why his speech failed to inspire" (11 October).

6. George Clooney is a natural good-looker

Does no one remember Clooney as the boss in Roseanne? Chubby-cheeked, badly dressed, terrible hair ... no, of course they don't: all they want to think about is that dashing silver-fox style that, if you look closely, is nothing more than catalogue man for Grecian 2000. And reports last week suggested he'd had his eyes done.

7. The Wire is the best television programme ever

When The Wire started, a rumour went round the US that, when the show was on television, actual police work slowed down because all the dealers were watching the show. Though blatantly (and later confirmed to be) an urban myth, it gave The Wire the air of authenticity that blinded people to the fact that it was convoluted, full of stereotypes and clichés and urban porn for middle-class white people.

8. Political correctness has gone mad

It was never OK to call people pakis, yids and niggers. Wasn't then. Isn't now. Was abolishing slavery and child labour political correctness gone mad? No. It was putting right ancient wrongs. "It's political correctness gone mad" is the 21st century's "I'm not a racist, but...".

9. The milk goes in first

Partially true: milk will degrade (or "denature") if added to scalding-hot water. However, as George Orwell pointed out, if you let the water cool slightly before adding the milk it is easier to gauge the exact amount needed.

10. You should drink white wine with fish

The tannin in red wine is generally thought unsuitably paired with the delights of the sea, but what about meatier fish, such as tuna or swordfish? A merlot or pinot noir sets the palate alight.

11. Don't eat before you swim

Eating before swimming may not be the best idea if you're elderly, have a heart condition or are overweight, but for most people, food is the essential fuel that will keep strokes strong and bodies warm – vital in open water.

12. Foreign players dive. English players don't

"It's something we don't do," said England captain John Terry following the Eduardo "dive" furore. Maybe he should have a word with international colleague Steven Gerrard, whose "tumbles" against teams from Sheffield United to Milan have been worthy of Tom Daley.

13. A-levels are getting easier

Grades have been rising for 27 years in a row and 26.7 per cent of all papers now receive an A – but that's not to say the questions are any easier. Could it be that the marking has got more lenient? Perhaps, but that's another matter.

14. "We're all in this together"

Tory mantra forwarded by Shadow Chancellor George Osborne in his grown-up speech designed to suggest a Conservative government will be fair about how recession impacts on everyone. What about those bankers and their bonuses, then?.

15. Stephen Fry knows everything

Anyone who saw the BBC's Last Chance to See would have realised that Fry is less than omniscient, as zoologist Mark Cawardine consistently showed him up as a wildlife neophyte. And he does have a bunch of researchers helping him on QI, you know.

16. A degree is still worth something

Geoff, Attila, Desmond or Douglas? If you're wondering who we are to ask and what on earth we are on about – exactly. In the majority of people's lives and careers, no one cares what degree they got, where they went to university or even if they went at all.

17. Religion is the cause of all wars

Did someone say oil?

18. High income tax is a bad thing

The Danes have the highest income tax band in Europe, at 59 per cent, but consider themselves the happiest nation in the world, 40 places above the UK in the World Map of Happiness.

19. Kids are feral and anyone wearing a hood is dangerous

Since the explosion of teen culture in the 1950s, certain sections of society have been hardwired to respond with fear and loathing at young people's hair, clothes and attitudes. Ask yourself this: would anyone these days cross the street to avoid James Dean?

20. The world is full of paedophiles

Although reporting of and concern over paedophilia has increased dramatically in the past decade, studies by the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry show that the prevalence of child sex offences has not increased since the 1960s.

21. Jade Goody was a national treasure

The books, the perfume, the "race row", the tragic early death.... All great material for the proposed film of her life but – even if you had not paid attention at the worst school in the country – how is it possible to come out thinking that Rio de Janeiro is a person, "East Angular" is abroad and Cambridge is in London?

22. Democracy is a viable form of government in Middle Eastern states

After a history of imperial rule, military intervention, relationship between religion and state and intractable difficulties of marrying modernisation with centuries-old culture, "Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation," George W said in 2003. The world is still waiting.

23. Recession is the perfect time to make investment fashion purchases

Got less money? Then spend more of it on extortionately priced designer clothes. Such is the credit-crunch logic of most of the fashion press. We'd all love to drop a grand on a coat; there's just the small problem of what else we are going to wear to keep us warm this winter.

24. Michael Jackson was the King of Pop

Presenting him with the Soul Train Heritage Award in 1989, Jackson's close friend and confidante Elizabeth Taylor proclaimed him to be "the true king of pop, rock and soul". But while that may have been true at the time (with seven US No 1s in the US in the 1980s alone), from 1992 onwards, Jackson would manage to hit the top of the charts only once more until his death.

25. Adding a belt improves any outfit

Blame for the current accessory epidemic lies at the dressing-room door of TV stylist Gok Wan, who somehow convinced a nation of women that slinging a belt around your hips transforms you into a goddess. Au contraire, Auntie Gok; it makes most of us look like a string of Wall's sausages.

26. A bit of hard work never killed anyone

Japanese salarymen might disagree – 32,000 Japanese nationals committed suicide in 2008, above the 30,000 level for an 11th consecutive year. Given the economic problems of 2009, expect that mark to be hit again: in January alone, there were 2,645, up from 2,305 in 2008.

27. Southerners are softies

Try telling that to Chris Eubank, Vinnie Jones, John Terry, Lawrence Dallaglio, etc.

28. Dressing up will bag you a man

Towering heels, short skirt, va-va-voom make-up and blow-dry – it's the magic sartorial formula for ensnaring a man, right? But why do we bother when the greatest compliments from our male paramours always seem to be directed at our off-duty jeans and T-shirts, old pyjamas and genuinely just-got-out-of-bed hair?

29. Noel Edmonds has no discernible talent

Though best known for his beard, helicopter and being overshadowed by a pink and yellow-spotted blob, Edmonds is perhaps surprisingly also a man with a hypnotic hold over the general public. How else to explain the execrable Noel's House Party being a roaring success for eight seasons? Or the Deal or No Deal format being sold to more than 70 countries worldwide?

30. Organic food is better for you

In fact, a year-long study by Dr Alan Dangour and his team at the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Diseases found that any differences between organic and conventionally produced food were minimal and of no perceptible health benefits.

31. Everything Ricky Gervais does is pure comedy gold

The portly comic, in his recent Science stand-up tour, introduced one gag by explaining how he nearly knocked over an old lady. "I didn't though... I raped her." He adds that this is his favourite joke.

32. You'll never beat Des Walker

Holland winger Marc Overmars, for one, seemed to think differently as he sped past the defender in qualifications for the 1994 World Cup, earning the Dutch an equalising goal and effectively dumping England out of the finals. Did we not like that?

33. Electric cars can save the planet

The average car in the UK emits 260g of CO2 per mile. China, meanwhile, builds one new large coal power plant every week, and every year adds enough plants to light up the British Isles. Your Prius isn't going to offset that.

34. Keira Knightley is as talented as she is beautiful

There's a reason young Ms K was dubbed Ikea Knightley by a listener to film critic Mark Kermode's BBC radio show: beyond the hollow cheeks and pout, she has the acting prowess of a Billy shelving unit. Could her West End debut in an update of a Molière comedy change our minds? Her performance in The Duchess suggests ... maybe.

35. Monty Python was funny

So, that's a man with long legs walking as if he's being attacked by wasps, a man with a hanky on his head acting stupid, some transvestites and a smattering of sub-Dali surrealist art. Excuse us while we sew up our sides. Not that we would want you to desist from enjoying our fine piece in The New Review today.

36. The internet makes life more efficient

How did we ever live without people going off to Google something while we were mid-sentence? And where did we find that plumber/phone number/fact/gossip/film showing time? Oh yes, we looked in books and magazines.

37. Vitamins are good for you

"The bottom line is [that] current evidence does not support the use of antioxidant supplements in the general healthy population or in patients with certain diseases," concluded Dr Goran Bjelakovic and his colleagues after trials involving 232,550 people at Copenhagen University.

38. The Rolling Stones are the best rock'n'roll band in the world

While this might arguably have been true in the mid-1960s, the evidence of no top 10 UK hits since "Start Me Up" in 1981 appears to suggest that the group are some way past their peak.

39. Terry Gilliam is a directorial genius

The credit side read Brazil and, perhaps, Twelve Monkeys. The debit side reads Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus... Need we go on? OK, Tideland.

40. Americans don't get irony

See Larry David, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Demetri Martin... Canadians, on the other hand: see Alanis Morissette.

41. Remember, remember, the Fifth of November...

But can anyone name any of Guy Fawkes's co-conspirators?

42. Gardens need constant maintenance and attention

True, if you stock them with needy, attention-seeking plants and are prone to bouts of OCD. For everyone else, nature is nature and is at its most glorious when it's, well, natural.

43. The nanny state is destroying this country

We drink too much, smoke too much and drive our cars too fast – and if we don't think the Government shouldn't do its reasonable best to curb these excesses, then we shouldn't expect the NHS to pick up the bill when we can't handle our vices.

44. The 1960s was the best decade for music

Sure, the decade of pop's explosion produced some fine acts, but all were defiantly pop. Fans of funk, soul, disco, rock, electric folk, funk, psychedelia, punk, new wave and hip-hop had to wait till the following decade – the much maligned 1970s.

45. American football is for wimps

Between 1931 and 2006, there were 1,006 direct and 683 indirect fatalities attributed to participation in gridiron, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. Apparently, that padding exacerbates blows as much as it absorbs them.

46. The Turner Prize is a waste of time

One small, annual exhibition at Tate Britain selects a handful of artists working in Britain to "celebrate new developments in contemporary art", and, unfailingly, every commentator in the national media has to choose which side they're going to swing for in the great Turner ding-dong. Which is exactly what the Turner Prize is for. Job done.

47. Chanel No 5 is the world's finest perfume

It's the last-minute gift from desperate husbands lured in by tales of Marilyn Monroe. Unfortunately, the overpowering floral contents smell like your grandmother and are sexy only to people with first-hand memories of the Second World War.

48. Modern architecture is rubbish

Yes, let's all live in a fetishistic neo-Victorian theme park, in which planning policy is governed by Prince Charles – a man, lest we forget, who each morning insists on being dressed by several valets.

49. England can win the World Cup

While there finally seems to be a no-nonsense manager who can rein in the players' more extravagant tendencies, the brutal fact is that the golden generation is long past its sell-by date and the bank of young players biting at their heels is virtually non-existent. Need proof: watch Spain's young tyros run rings around our boys in the 2-0 victory last February.

50. Newspapers are a thing of the past

Yes, yes, and Kindle would kill reading, TV would kill radio, cinema would kill theatre and video would kill the radio star, etc. And while we're at it, the IoS might sell a little less than our competitors, but aren't we a lot more fun?

Compiled by Robert Epstein, Rhiannon Harries, Simmy Richman and Mike Higgins

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