More Things I'm Wrong About

Going back over a few previous Skeptoid episodes to correct errors (head is hung in shame).

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #186
December 29, 2009
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Disarticulated Skeleton
A disarticulated skeleton, a victim of Hopewell corpse mutilation
(Photo credit: Unknown)
Hopewell Jawbone Jewelry
A partial jaw with two holes visible, used for the insertion of leather strands
(Photo credit: Unknown)

Every once in a while I like to do an episode to correct statements I've made that were less than accurate. In other words, wrong. As you might expect, when I've done this in the past, I get emails saying "You claimed there were no such things as ghosts, but I've seen one, so you should retract that episode" or "You claimed a raw diet won't cure cancer, but it cured mine, so you should retract that episode." Well, not quite so much. It takes more than one emailed anecdote to overturn an entire body of research confirmed by decades of study. Rest assured that when an entire field of science is found to be wrong, and water stains are indeed proven to be the divine image of Jesus, my opinion will indeed shift with the evidence and I will happily do a new episode reversing the older one. But that day is not yet today.

I'm going to start with some piddly little nitpicky things, and build up to the bigger, most egregious errors for which I should be beaten with a wet noodle. Or with whatever your bludgeon of choice is. But for some reason, the littlest things always generate the most feedback. Usually it's something like pronunciation. Now I'll freely admit to being the world's worst offender when it comes to pronunciation [this comment not supported by scientific evidence], but come on, it's not like it's the number one most critical thing you should complain about. Or, if it really is the worst thing about Skeptoid, I guess that's good.

David Icke is a real piece of work. He believes virtually every conspiracy theory, and makes a career out of promoting them. He's big on the idea that U.S. Presidents and other world leaders are actually reptilian beings, possibly from another planet, wearing some sort of electric disguise that makes them look human. Not having been a lifelong devotee of his, and not having spent days sitting at his feet absorbing his wisdom, I had no idea that his name was pronounced Icke (ike) and said it the way it's spelled, Icke (ick). My apologies to all who were so deeply offended by this sacrilege.

Throughout my episode on Daylight Saving Time, I said it the way it's spoken nine times out of ten in real-world conversation, and called it Daylight Savings Time, with an S. This is how we normally use the word savings in language, and it's how I heard it spoken my entire life. So it's technically wrong, but I claim it's colloquially acceptable, which you may debate among yourselves at your leisure.

In my episode about the 2012 apocalypse I discussed an ancient Sumerian carving, and made reference to the artisans living in ancient "Sumeria". Of course, there is no such place. The correct name of the civilization is Sumer. Sumer lasted from about 5300 BCE to about 2000 BCE, and is the earliest civilization we know about. As it was the "Cradle of Civilization", you'd think I would have the courtesy to at least get their name right.

And now, from the malaprop files, we have an item from my recent episode on vaccine ingredients. I discussed the use of aluminum as an adjutant. This was just a total brain fart and I offer no excuse. An adjutant is, as you probably know, a military officer whose role is to act as an aide to a more senior officer. It wouldn't do much good to try and stuff one of those guys into a vaccine. What would be more useful would be an adjuvant, which is a substance added to a compound to enhance the effect of the active ingredient. In the case of vaccines, adjuvants cause the body to react more strongly to the immunological agent.

Now here's one that comes not from a Skeptoid episode, but from Here Be Dragons, my free 40-minute video introduction to critical thinking, aimed mostly at schools. Since the video does not offer a way to include followup comments, I'll give it here. The very first words of the film are:

In ancient times, unexplored regions on maps would often be given fearsome legends, like "Here Be Dragons."

Unfortunately, I fell victim to what is, largely, an urban legend. Apparently this was not "often" done. In fact, there is only one known ancient usage of the term, the 500 year old Lenox Globe, where it was written in Latin over eastern Asia. And even then, it was not referring to dragons, but to what Marco Polo called the Kingdom of Dagroian (there's another one you can chalk up in my mispronunciation column). But there are cases of dragons or sea serpents or other mythical creatures being drawn on maps, probably more as decoration than as honest attempts to depict that part of the world. However, in my own defense, I did not make the remark as a factual claim, but rather as an illustration of our tendency to assign quantifiable explanations to those things we don't understand. This encourages us to blame unknown sounds on ghosts, or to identify specks in the sky as alien spacecraft.

Now we're starting to get into some more serious blunders. This next one was an error of omission. When I talked about strange skulls and other bizarre human skeletal remains, I made many mentions of 7-foot-tall skeletons and creatures with double rows of teeth having been discovered in the United States in the late 19th century. It was almost a fad: Just about every time a railroad crew cut into a hillside, they'd turn up some such oddity. The best I could do was to ascribe this to the PT Barnum mentality that was sweeping the nation at the time. It seemed everyone and his brother were trying to make a buck exhibiting some strange oddity, but every time a scientist or museum wanted to take a look, suddenly the specimen was lost or stolen or otherwise absent. In short, the best explanation I could find for 7-foot-tall skeletons and double-toothed skulls was a lot of tall tales.

But then I heard from archaeologists, and learned that many of these finds were real, just really hard to find pictures or documentation of, especially when you don't know what to search for. For about 700 years the eastern United States was dominated by various cultures from the Hopewell Tradition, and these included the mound builders and other societies. There were cultural practices that can account for all the strange skeletal remains I described. They liked to mutilate the bodies of their slain enemies. One method was the disarticulation of the limbs of a corpse, so that its bones could be hung up as a sort of wind chime. Once finally laid in the ground, the separated bones gave the appearance that this person must have been seven or more feet tall.

Jawbones often received similar treatment. Holes were bored into them to accommodate leather thongs, and to non-expert railroad crews, such jaws appeared to have sockets available for a second row of teeth. Like we often find on Skeptoid, the true explanation is almost always far more interesting than any you can come up with when you stop your investigation prematurely, as I did when I did my original episode. The PT Barnum explanation was pretty humdrum and dismissive. The real reason the bodies appeared to be 7 feet tall, and that the skulls appeared to have a second row of teeth, gives a much more engaging view into history.

In my global warming episode, I made a fallacious blunder that's been repeated by many other people throughout the media. In discussing the difficulty of predicting weather, I made reference to NEC's Earth Simulator supercomputer. I tried to make the point that predicting weather decades in the future must be nearly impossible, because even with all this computing power, we still can't tell you whether it's going to rain tomorrow. This is grossly wrong. First, estimating general trends over time is far less complicated than predicting specific data points even as soon as tomorrow, and is an entirely different type of problem. Second, future trends are expressed as probability curves, not as specific predictions like it's going to rain 1.5 inches on such a date. I fully retract that argument, and urge you to be skeptical if you ever hear anyone else make it.

In a couple of different episodes, I've discussed radiometric dating. I actually gave different numbers for the half-life and accuracy threshold of potassium-argon (K-Ar) dating. When I discussed the experiment testing the Mount St. Helens lava dome, I gave the half-life of 40K as 1.2 billion years, and said the sample should be about 10,000 years old before such testing is reliable. But in Student Questions episode 142, I said 1.3 billion years and 100,000 years old. Why? Well, again, these numbers are all bell curves representing probabilities, they're not fixed numbers. Where does a bell curve start to get steep? There is no specific point. Every type of radiometric dating has a range where it's most accurate. Where this range starts depends on how accurate you need the results to be. I probably looked at different reference sources. K-Ar is best used for very old samples, so you'd typically start with a high number like 100,000 years. But the Mount St. Helens experiment was far too young, so we might be inclined to look at the extreme lowest end of the bell curve to judge the appropriateness of K-Ar for that application. So I wasn't really wrong, but it does deserve an explanation for why I'd give two different answers to the exact same question. Neither should have been answered with a specific number.

We'll conclude with my most horrible error to date. In Screwed!, the musical parody, I depicted the Illuminati admitting the truth promoted by Young Earth Creationists that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. They sang:

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Not such a long, long time ago,
Six hundred centuries or so,
The Earth formed in a single blow
Of some Designer’s breath.

Six hundred centuries. It does not take a mathematical genius to know that 600 centuries is 60,000 years, not 6,000. But then, I ask you this: Is it really any more wrong to say the Earth is 60,000 years old than 6,000? If we'd said sixty centuries, would that then have been correct? I say the hell with it (literally), since the Young Earthers' claimed age consists of an arbitrary, random number that's ridiculous. Our arbitrary, random number was no less ridiculous, so I hereby decree that it stand.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Ahrens, C. Meteorology Today: An Introduction to Weather, Climate, and the Environment. Florence: Cengage Learning, 2007. 349-354.

McDougall, I., Harrison, T.M. Geochronology and thermochronology by the 40Ar/39Ar method. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 9-12.

Perry, L. Ancient Spellcraft: From the Hymns of the Hittites to the Carvings of the Celts. Pompton Plains: Career Press, 2001. 51-52.

Seeman, M. The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, 2007. 167-189.

Singh, M. Vaccine Adjuvants and Delivery Systems. Hoboken: Wiley-Interscience, 2007. 54.

Weinberg, F., White, N., Otfinoski, S. Get Ready! for Social Studies: World History. Columbus: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2002. 7-8.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "More Things I'm Wrong About." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 29 Dec 2009. Web. 9 Oct 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 44 comments

Antoine, I dont believe you have a valid reference or have read it correctly.

to say;

We can argue till we're blue in the face the success rate or not of chemotherapy. We're not going to agree on this topic.

is a massive generalisation on your behalf. I don't give a dried dingoes donger if you agree with anyone or not. You may be just that sort of person who takes a lookey see on board and then goes to town.

You seem to really misinterpret chemotherapies.

I'll need to see your document and I'll need to analyse the data.

If its just a lookey see google site, forget getting the skeptoid prize for genuine argument this december.

Post up I will read.

Henk van der Gaast, Sydney
December 12, 2010 6:31pm

As someone based in Australia I'm sure you've seen the meta analysis study 'The Contribution of Cytotoxic Chemotherapy to 5-year Survival in Adult Malignancies'

I posted it above but clearly you cannot read. Skeptoidosis I know. It's a common complaint amongst your ilk.

Basically, the authors found that the contribution of chemotherapy to 5-year survival in adults was 2.3 percent in Australia, and 2.1 percent in the USA. They emphasize that, for reasons explained in detail in the study, these figures "should be regarded as the upper limit of effectiveness"

A truly abysmal decrepit and deceitful fiasco. Billions of dollars of research. Trillions of dollars of profit. Truly hideously low rates of survival and no quantifiable benefit when you take into consideration the dire effect this treatment has on patients. I don't want to hear jam tomorrow promises either. You have failed. You have not only failed science. You have failed your patients and you should be eternally ashamed of yourself.

As I said before no advice is ever given for preventative measures. Nothing. Zilch. Where is the hippocratic oath. The conventional medical profession like all professional bodies has been co opted by the military industrial complex. It exists to maim and profit, nothing more.

Antoine P, London, England
December 17, 2010 1:37pm

Yep I have read it and it is the sort of review some folk get their jollies from because they persist in avoiding math and refuse to read follow up.. one lookey see paper with holes asking to be blown in it would be enough for most.

As I have stated before, I have no problem querying the authors now on what they wrote then.. I would have done the same in 2006 after having done a reasonable review (just for you!)

Since hat paper, specific therapies have shown where chemotherapies do well and some do not perform to original expectations.

General chemotherapies do not work well in situations (and the paltry reviw numbers do not even reflect those cases).

What is remarkable is that as chemotherapy is becoming more specific with more reliable technologies and methodologies it becomes apparent;

The chemo methodology was far more robust than the review period (please, save me from giving you a Mike from ashville kicking, do some leg work rather than opinionating after I write this). In fact, various cancer therapies were ACCELERATING during the review and the data sperad as a linear EBM and review is...void).

Chemo is about to undergo its most rapid advance and may be even sidelined over the next 50 years as good old biotech gets its claws into human life expectancy.

Please , the emotional rot about chemo> who ever wrote that should be shot. There are plenty of therapies that are worthwhile that make you absolutely sick.

Who ever wrote that, please go on the parsley diet.

Henk O\\\' vd G, Sydney Potato Farm
December 22, 2010 1:01am

All about absolute risk rather than relative risk chemo quacks like to spout ad infinitum. It's all about the way a drugs effeciveness is relayed to the patient. What the average patient is told is misleading. It's a statistical sleight of hand. It's fraudulent and in any other professional field it would be exposed for what it is. What annoys you most about this study is precisely that. This study went on absolute risk which is why it never sees the light of day and has been shunted into obscurity. As I said I don't want to hear about jam tomorrow. Any quack can come out and say in ten years time so and so disease will be a thing of the past. It has happened too many times in the past for any sane person to actually believe in it. When you look in depth at the newer chemotherapy regimens including the taxanes and anthracyclines for breast cancer. They may raise survival by an estimated additional one percent, but this is achieved at the expense of an increased risk of cardiac toxicity and nerve damage. We also get these ridiculous 'surrogate end points' where patients are only really kept alive to prolong their chemotherapy treatment and therefore make more money for the big pharma companies.

Chemotherapy is legalised genocide. If you spill chemo drugs on the floor it's a biohazard. If you spill them on your skin they cause horrific burns. Radiologists and the practitioners who prescribe them are statistically more likely to develop aggressive cancers. Wasteland.

Antoine P, London, England
December 23, 2010 12:25pm

I'm not sure it's even worth the response, because you can't have rational arguments with drunks or with deluded nuts, but I'd like to address these comment to Antoine P of London. 1. The benefits of chemotherapy (which just means a chemical therapy - ie not surgery or radiation) in the treatment of Lymphoma, for example, are as plain as daylight. If you deny the wealth of proof for that then you are just plain ignorant.
2. Of course spilled chemo agents are biohazards - that's how they work idiot! Otherwise how would they kill cancer cells? They are designed to be given in a dose that damages cancer cells more than good cells, then again when the good cells have had a chance to partially recover, but the cancer cells haven't.
3. If the whole world is such a conspiracy - what's your suggestion for treating someone with lymphoma?

Mike, Gold Coast, Australia
March 23, 2011 7:30pm

I would also suggest for Antoine to also see how much preventative advice is in fact out there, and how in fact cancer does work. What is that warning again on your pack of smokes there?

To sum it up, if we were all to live long enough we would all develop a cancer at some point. It really is a genetic crapshoot where you can either lower your risks, or raise them, but you will never have a 0% chance of cancer. You will always have a born liklihood to develop it that is slightly or even sometimes greatly different from those around you.

Treatment works. If you want to do a proper literature review, you do NOT LOOK AT JUST ONE STUDY AND SCREAM TO HIGH HEAVEN!! You look at n, dozens, even hundreds to find the general consensus. Henk is right, that is one smaller end study and full of questions they didnt address.

Educate yourself Antoine before making pronouncements.

Cam, Thunder Bay
March 25, 2011 6:34am

Dammit Cam, stop making me look as If I am reasonable..

Great post!
It really is a pity that folk do not understand stats or risk assesment and analysis.

After all, all my bodily dysfunctions should be normal to you all if personal stats we an encumbrance on humanity.

I got to be older, wiser and financially responsible because I was lucky to do so.

For the rest of you? FGS use Qantas for your personal transport needs. A blown head gasket over indonesia dint kill nobody!!

The same goes for Fukushima. That is another debate all together. Another I will gladly field in a Brian debate elsewhere. Cam, Brian and Tom... keep on rocking!

God mod? get real, do a frikken degree! Hopefully in theology!

Henk van der Gaast, sydney, Australia
March 31, 2011 2:08am

On the biohazard of chemo: blood is also classified as a biohazard, as is spit, urine, feces, antifreeze, gasoline, decomposed bodies of any kind, the chemical soup that is cooked on a stove to make methamphetamine, industrial floor cleaners, and so on. I point out that blood and blood products are CURES for certain otherwise fatal health conditions and organic body waste has been used for a few thousand years as fertilizer for growing the staples of life in many places to include corn, beans, squash, rice and other tasty nutritious delights. The label is a warning to handle the substance with due care, not a universal condemation of its existence.

Swampwitch, Gainesville Fl
October 29, 2013 8:30am

I have known of people who didn't shed their baby teeth and grew a second set. I've had students with extra teeth. In this time and place such issues are corrected but in the past that isn't all that likely. One student shed a baby tooth, grew a tooth and had to have it pulled to make way for a third tooth which took its own sweet time coming in as a in a couple of years to completely erupt but his teeth looked normal the last time I saw him.

Dwight E. Howell, Lawrenceburg TN
November 2, 2013 6:31pm

Thanks for making me aware of this post. Your "jawbones with holes in them" idea is an interesting anecdote, but has very little explanatory power: it doesn't address the accounts from across the United States (i.e., outside of the Hopewell area) as well as from other parts of the world. A historical/linguistic explanation does. While there is a lot of confusion now about what these accounts were talking about with regard to the dentition, colloquial phrases like "double teeth all around" (used frequently, but not exclusively in accounts of large skeletons) had a particular meaning at the time that had nothing whatsoever to do with "double rows of teeth." It was a phrase that was referring to the mistaken interpretation of heavily worn anterior tooth as "double teeth" (molars) rather than "single teeth." I spell it all out here and in other posts on my blog:

Andy White, Ann Arbor, MI
December 22, 2014 5:39am

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