Corrections, Errata, Blunders, and Boo-Boos

Skeptoid revisits another batch of episodes with errors, and rights the wrongs.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #246
February 22, 2011
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

It's time once again for me to come to you with my hat in my hands and my tail between my legs, and confess all of my sins. Well, not all of them, I don't think I'd burden you with quite so crushing a load; just those having to do with errors I've made in recent episodes. My listeners don't let me get away with much; when it happens, sometimes I don't know whether it's that or the San Andreas fault opening up under my house.

The first thing I'd like to address was prompted by an email from Tom in Oregon, who quite elegantly laid out a case that I have habitually made invalid generalizations about "environmentalists" when speaking about the worst and most extreme cases. I think it is true that most of the major environmentalist groups, such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Earth First, and so on, have programs that promote anti-human and other ideological agendas by greenwashing them with environmental sounding rhetoric. Sometimes this includes flagrantly untrue science. Over the years, I've given examples of some of the worst of such cases here on Skeptoid.

What I fail to point out is that probably most of what most of these groups do is genuinely good for wildlife and frontier lands. And as I've said before, I spent a good portion of my life as a rabid supporter of several such groups. I sent money all the time. I put the stickers on my car. I hike and camp and use our National Parks far more than most people; I clean up and am careful and pay all the fees to support the parks. My experience is that the vast majority of ordinary environmentalists are good people with the best of intentions, who have little interest in anyone else's ideological agendas, and often little awareness of some of the unsavory things their favorite charity is doing with their money. Most people consider themselves environmentalists, myself included, and most who support environmental groups are no different. Good people trying to support good and important work.

So in one sense it's been wrong for me to constantly charge these groups with anti-science behavior. Most of the people my comments cover don't deserve the criticism at all. To all such people who have been upset by my poorly-aimed comments, I apologize, and will try to better qualify my judgemental rants against environmentalists in the future. I have not ever intended such criticism to apply to people who do put good environmental science first.

The reason I stopped supporting these groups was because I found that many of them were promoting bad science and distasteful ideologies, while at the same time also promoting responsible wildlife and lands managements. I found that they don't follow consistent standards. They say whatever serves their purpose. And it is this inconsistency that invalidates my generalized comments. I stand by all the specific charges I've made at these groups, but I fully retract those comments from being directed at those who didn't deserve them. That's the nature of the beast when you're dealing with a Hydra monster of conflicting ideologies and agendas. Some of the heads need to be chopped off, and some don't.

Moving on. In my episode about the Pearl Harbor advance knowledge conspiracy theory, I said that the two main Japanese cipher systems, Purple and JN-25, had been broken by the Americans. Purple had indeed been broken, but it was a diplomatic channel and did not provide any useful tactical or naval intelligence. In fact, the Japanese military didn't even trust their own Foreign Office enough to tell it much. JN-25, however, was a different matter. That was our name for the 25th cipher system identified from the Japanese navy. We had a good grasp on how JN-25 worked before Pearl Harbor, but they kept revising it, and our cryptographers were never able to make much progress before having to start over. So Purple was indeed broken before Pearl Harbor; JN-25, not so much. Obviously not well enough.

Going all the way back to my very first episode, discussing New Age Energy, I gave what I thought was an adequate ten-cent explanation of Einstein's famous equation E=mc2. The terms in the equation are energy, mass, and speed. Speed is a function of distance and time, so I said:

An object's energy equals the amount of work it takes to move a few grams a few meters in a few seconds.

That's not really accurate. I applaud myself for trying to use an immediately graspable concept to help people understand that energy is something other than a mystical cloud of power from which you can recharge your chakras, but I didn't properly explain Einstein's equation. It is correct that energy is a measurement of work capability, not a hovering glowing cloud; but that's not all that E=mc2 is telling us. That famous equation, defining mass-energy equivalence, is the foundation of relativity. The inclusion of speed in the equation tells us that energy, and thus mass, changes as an object moves faster. Chew on that.

In the episode about More Hollywood Myths, I quite casually repeated the popular anecdote that John Wayne smoked five packs of cigarettes a day. This was in reference to the question about whether or not his eventual death from cancer was caused by exposure to radiation on the set of one of his movies. And then somebody pointed out that five packs equals one cigarette every fourteen minutes, 24 hours a day. Clearly impossible, right?

Now I'm not what you'd call a big smoker, so I had no idea how long it takes to smoke a cigarette. I put the question out onto Twitter. A few people said five packs a day was improbable, but many more smokers came back saying it was perfectly likely. Some people said they could do a pack an hour in times of need. One guy said a cigarette takes three to five minutes. Overall, the consensus of smoking Twitter respondents agreed that five packs a day was probably not an exaggeration. So I'm going to withhold my correction on this, and let the anecdote stand.

There were a couple of mistakes in my episode about the facts and fallacies surrounding the use of DDT, both as an agricultural pesticide and as a control for malaria in developing countries. In one section I was discussing possible alternate causes of the deaths of pelicans in California, which was popularly attributed to DDT; and I completely misread a 1972 United Press newspaper article that discussed an outbreak of Newcastle disease, supposedly introduced by migrating pelicans from Mexico. 12 millions birds had to be euthanized to control the outbreak. I said these were California pelicans, but this was completely wrong. Can you imagine game wardens running around on docks catching and killing 12 million pelicans? The birds that were euthanized were poultry on chicken farms. So, complete utter inexcusable reading comprehension dopiness by me.

In the same episode, I mentioned Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book Silent Spring, which was about the danger to birds presented by DDT. I said her

...principal thesis was that DDT harms bird populations through eggshell thinning...

which was a wrong assumption by me — and is even repeated by Wikipedia. Although eggshell thinning is broadly considered to be the mechanism by which DDT can harm bird populations, Rachel Carson made no mention of this connection. It was discovered by later researchers after the publication of her book.

In my episode about locally grown produce, I criticized one of the heros of Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, farmer Joel Salatin, for needing 550 acres for only 100 head of cattle, when a typical ranch needs only half an acre per head. I heard from Levi, a professional rancher in Montana, who told me he'd love to be able to raise 100 head on Salatin's land. In Montana, 550 acres would support about a dozen. I seemed to have completely missed one of the central themes of my own episode: Growing conditions vary tremendously from place to place. 550 acres in the Sahara would support zero cattle. Only in places with the best conditions does one head of cattle require a mere half acre. This is one reason that buying locally rarely makes as small an environmental footprint as buying from a source with superior conditions.

I made a glib joke that fell flat in the episode about the STENDEC mystery, about a British airliner that crashed in the Andes. In expressing my admiration for the pilot, I quipped:

The pilot, Reginald Cook, had flown more than 90 combat missions (RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain didn't exactly have the luxury of going home after a mere 25 missions like the Americans).

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

This was a totally bizarre flub for someone who fancies himself an aviation enthusiast, and especially of wartime aviation. First, British bomber pilots were not involved in the Battle of Britain; that was fought by British fighter planes defending London from the Luftwaffe. Second, 25 bomber missions was no luxury, as bomber crews faced some of the highest casualty rates in the war. And third, RAF bomber crews did indeed have a finite tour of duty just like their American counterparts. So my snarky little comment was something like pouring a large tub of oobleck over your head.

The recent episode on gluten sensitivity quickly became one of the most popular ever, in part because it ruffled so many feathers in the alternative health community who are always trying to push miracle diets, and gluten is one of their newest and most favorite whipping boys. One of the three basic types of gluten sensitivity is celiac disease, suffered by less than one percent of the population. Exactly how many people have it is widely disputed. Many alternative health merchants say that it's underdiagnosed; and many of their customers who insist they have it actually don't. I reviewed a number of studies and found that even good, peer-reviewed, published estimates vary. I estimated about one-tenth of one percent as a good average among the ranges I found. But many people corrected me based on one article that was broadly trumpeted throughout the mass media, a 2003 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which found an overall prevalence of 1 in 133, or about 8 in 1,000., which sells products to people who believe they have it, says that the number is "at least 1 in 133", which is not what the study said. 1 in 133 is at the high range of most findings, but my estimate of 1 in 1,000 is probably low. The real number is most likely somewhere in between. Often, such numbers depend on whether the person you ask is selling something.

So keep it real, keep me in line, and keep those corrections coming.

Brian Dunning

© 2011 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Carson, R. Silent Spring. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1964.

Fasano, A., Berti, I., Gerarduzzi, T., Not, T., Colletti, R., Drago, S., Elitsur, Y., Green, P., Guandalini, S., Hill, I., Pietzak, M., Ventura, A., Thorpe, M., Kryszak, D., Fornaroli, F., Wasserman, S., Murray, J., Horvath, K. "Prevalence of Celiac Disease in At-Risk and Not-At-Risk Groups in the United States." Archive of Internal Medicine. 10 Feb. 2003, Volume 163: 286-292.

Lambert, T. "Skeptoid Fact Check (parts 1 and 2)." Deltoid. ScienceBlogs LLC, 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. <>

Pollan, M. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. 205.

Wilford, T. "Decoding Pearl Harbor: USN Cryptanalysis and the Challenge of JN-25B in 1941." The Northern Mariner. 1 Jan. 2002, Volume 12, Number 1: 18.

Willis, B. "E=mc2 Explained." Science and Mathematics. Worsley School Online, 1 Jan. 1999. Web. 29 Aug. 2012. <>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Corrections, Errata, Blunders, and Boo-Boos." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 22 Feb 2011. Web. 1 Sep 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 42 comments

"They will talk about the dangers to wild life using crop spraying data, while arguing against mosquito nets or interior spray."

I've not seen anyone arguing against mosquito nets, save for those insisting that indiscriminate DDT spraying is the way to go; can you provide a cite for that?

There *are* arguments against indoor residual spraying - principaly that it involves letting mosquitoes bite people, hoping that it's the first time they've bitten anyone and haven't yet aquired the parasite, and then hoping that they settle on the wall to digest their food rather than immediately leaving the house. Not to mention that it quicky becomes ineffective as the mosquitoes evolve resistance; Italy used indoor residual spraying as the first step of their eradication program from 1944, but by 1949 so many mosquitoes in the sprayed regions were resistant to DDT that it provided no further benefit.

In short, pesticide-treated bednets are an excellent strategy, IRS has its place, but needs to be used carefully, and indiscriminate spraying is almost useless.

But no matter what method is used to control mosquitoes, it needs to be backed up by a public health initiative to treat malaria *in humans*, or the mosquitoes will just bounce back the following season, and immediately become reinfected when they take their first drink. It is the difficulty in doing this in poor, rural regions with no infrastructure that means malaria remains a problem in Africa and Asia.

wintermute, Cincinnati, Ohio
February 25, 2011 10:03am

"Given that India has had massive DDT use for about 50 years now, the idea that it's going to become effective any day now seems unlikely"

Another example of misapplying correlation. HOW does India use DDT? WHERE? Under what circumstances? Until we have that data we have nothing to base any analysis on.

And you still don't get it. India uses more DDT BECAUSE it has more malaria. Sure, it's not perfect. But would it be better without DDT? Would it be the same? Or would it be drastically worse?

Please understand, I'm not arguing against your conclusion one way or another; as I said, I don't know the sitution in any depth and don't know the best way to correct the problem. I'm simply pointing out that your logic is flawed, and therefore your conclusions are untennable.

Gregory, Alabama
February 25, 2011 2:37pm

The rate of malaria infection in India was fairly constant at about 600,000 - 700,000 (6% of the population got malaria every year) per year. When DDT use was introduced, it dropped down to about 50,000 by the 1960's, but is now back up to 5,000,000 per year or more (5% of the population gets malaria every year). This does not imply that massive DDT use has done much to solve the problem.

It's interesting that your unwillingness to look up the data means that I'm making false correlations. I'm glad that you recognise that you don't have sufficient information to make a decision, but you are allowed to go and look for that information rather than just saying "I don't know and therefore you don't know either", you know.

wintermute, Cincinnati, Ohio
February 26, 2011 6:45am

Or it implies that ddt is being used by some portion of the 95%.

Tom H, Kent, UK
February 26, 2011 1:01pm

If that's the case, it's clearly working about as well as "not treating malaria" worked up until the 50's

wintermute, Cincinnati, Ohio
February 28, 2011 10:15am

Firstly, great episode Brian. Your review episodes tend to clear up a lot of the argument.

I must admit that the popularist position has to come under attack when running a podcast on skepticism.

I'd suggest an episode on "preventative" antibiotics to really throw a cat amongst the pigeons.

A popularist practice in medicine would be perfect for the podcast.

Henk van der Gaast, sydney, Australia
March 7, 2011 3:07pm

No, you still didn't get the E=mc², and it wasn't just "not really accurate" in that episode. But at least you tried to correct it. Maybe start with Newton like everyone else?

Kai Witte, Kiel
March 11, 2011 10:38am

Well, it depends how simply you want to take it. If he had just said "Mass /Energy equivelance" it would have been fine, but unsatisfying. Brians main fault was taking only one aspect of where the equation was used by Einstein, and I feel that was largely for comic effect.That mass travelling at the speed of light will be converted to an amount of energy calculated with the therum is cool enough, but it is relativity, not the therum itself, that states that C is constant regardless of relative speed, which I think Brian did not make as clear as he should.

But hey, if he wanted to talk about all the uses of mass energy equivelancy, like burning suns and nuclear fusion, he would need a fair amount of time, longer than the podcast, let alone a few lines, could give.

I'm sure Doctor Karl can offer Brian some elegant metephors to use next time they bump into each other (if we ask real nice).

Tom H, Kent, UK
March 11, 2011 1:48pm

Where Govt Conspirator theory is born.
In 2001 our then Liberal Party Sate Premier John Olsen who did an under the counter deal with Motorola.
After years of denying the rumours he appointed a investigator (with very limited powers). It was reported Olsen instructed his staff to move any damning evidence from one department to another the day before the investigator was due to arrive.
Eventually the truth came out in the final report which labelled Olson as misleading, inaccurate and dishonest but technically not illegal and he was obliged to resign.
Compounding the men in black look after their own theory the Federal Liberal Government gave Mr misleading, inaccurate and dishonest Olsen the job as Australian Consul-General in New York. In the USA you call it a conspiracy in Australia we call it a plot from “Yes Minister”.

Trev, Adelaide South Australia
April 9, 2011 4:08pm

I believe that E=MC^2 is referring to the amount of energy contained in an object. As far as I know, it has nothing to do with how fast the object is going. If you can convert the mass of an object to energy directly, you will acquire energy from the object equal to the mass of the object times the speed of light squared.

Ben, Denver
December 29, 2011 3:31pm

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