The Bogus Tongue Map and the Failure of Science

I read about the myth of the tongue map on reddit a few weeks ago. The tongue map or taste map is that idea that certain parts of the human tongue are responsibility for the various tastes. The tip of the tongue is supposed to taste sweets, the sides to taste sour and salty, and the back bitter. But this once-commonly taught theory is now considered totally bogus. Wikipedia calls it a “common misconception” “widely taught in schools,” that originated in a 1901 Harvard psychologist’s paper.

I was mildly surprised when I heard that this theory has now been deemed bogus. But I was more curious the other day when I found the theory reproduced in a book I was reading to my kids, The Magic School Bus: Inside the Human Body, published in 1990. At the time it was published apparently the theory was still in vogue. The wikipedia article on the tongue map confirms that the theory was taught “into the late 1990s” with tongue experiments in high school biology classes where “students were given strips of paper with different tastes on them and told where each sweet/salty/etc. taste should be more noticeable.” I don’t remember if I did that experiment exactly, but it matches the type of dumb things we often did in public school, and it confirms the propriety of my regular befuddlement of being unable to distinguish differences in such tests.

But all of this is particularly instructive, especially in an age where the very worst people often say “trust the science.” It is instructive in this way; if we are so deceived and wrong about something as close to us as our own tongue, how can we possibly have trust in theories far more afield like plate tectonics and evolution?

Well, I intend to teach these views to my children, but only as examples of error and of the gullibility of people.