Mythbusters topics, from the Skeptoid files

The new Mythbusters: Jon Lung and Brian Louden

Awesomely, a new season of Mythbusters is afoot, with new hosts Brian Louden and Jon Lung. They were selected by winning Mythbusters: The Search hosted by Skeptoid friend Kyle Hill (you may have also noted Skeptoid Media’s The Feeding Tube host Tamara Robertson on the show).

And, equally awesomely, Brian and Jon are super friendly and approachable, and love engaging with us on social media. (This is soooo important, especially considering Mythbusters’ potential for impact on society and the world.) And recently, Brian asked me the following question:

I told him it was a glorious question, one deserving of some deeper thought. Rather than just throw out ideas, I wanted to give them in context of what I think separates a program that’s merely entertaining from one that’s truly a piece of important work. I wanted to find ideas that fall somewhere in between the best that Mythbusters can possibly be, and its baseline:

  • When Mythbusters is at its best: When it truly challenges real pseudoscientific beliefs — real beliefs, believed by real people in the real world. (Educational and entertaining)
  • When Mythbusters is at its baseline: When it devolves into little more than “Will It Blow?” How much dynamite does it take to blow up a cement truck, a fake shark, a car. (Merely sensational)

I get that blowing stuff up, and crashing trucks into each other, and shooting things, is fun; and Mythbusters will always have that element. I’m saying it shouldn’t just have that element.

In an interview with CSI, Adam Savage once said:

There are several categories we don’t touch: what [James] Randi would call woo-woo [and] what we call oogie-boogie. I’m still ashamed we ever went near pyramid power as a story to test. All of those mystical things. Dowsing is an open question that we’ve been thinking back and forth about for years whether or not to do it on the show.

I think that was a mistake. Those are the myths people really believe. In life, it doesn’t matter how far you have to drop Buster before his arm will break off, but it does matter if you believe a miracle juice cleanse will confer magical super-health on you — or you give away your money to charlatans for some other reason. [Randi actually did do the dowsing test with the Australian Skeptics, and the result was both entertaining and educational.]

With regards to its science, Mythbusters has always done as good a job as is reasonably possible within the constraints of their program, and they deserve high marks for that. They’ve always followed the scientific method, even if informally; and they’ve always gone out of their way to explain how it could have been done even better given more resources. And that’s really what makes Mythbusters great. But science is of little value until it becomes applied science. That’s when it impacts us. Does it do anyone any good to apply science to shooting a raccoon out of a drainage pipe? No. But it DOES do good when we apply science to improving the world, or improving the viewer’s ability to interpret the world. That’s the difference between programming that’s fun and educational, and programming that’s just fun.

Mythbusters will never be in danger of running out of fun.

So with all that in mind, in accordance with Brian’s request, I run my eye over the Skeptoid catalog, and offer what I think would be the best topics I’ve covered that Mythbusters could do a live-action test of. I offer these without regard to whether the first Mythbusters series may have already covered them.

  1. Quantum Mechanical Bomb Tester: A simple lab rig ought to be able to detect whether a bomb is a dud or not by actually setting it off — but, through the magic of quantum mechanics, it both sets it off and doesn’t set it off. It’s complicated. But do it right, and you can actually test the bombs without dying.
  2. Hypnosis: The Stanford scales tell us that everyone is susceptible to between 0 and 12 of 12 possible tests under hypnosis. Can we find out the answers to popular questions, like whether you can hypnotize people to do certain things?
  3. Lie Detection: Can the Mythbusters fool a polygraph machine? Can the polygraph machine fool a jury?
  4. X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys: Did the popular toys sold in the back pages of comic books actually work?
  5. White Hat Journal Hoaxes: Can our Mythbusters get nonsense science papers published in predatory open-access journals?
  6. Feng Shui: Will people in rooms designed by various Feng Shui masters realize any benefits from being in there?
  7. Organic Produce: Is organic produce actually more nutritious, or actually contain less pesticide and herbicide?
  8. Locally Sourced Produce: Can local sourcing of food actually result in a lower footprint of delivery and logistics costs?
  9. Gluten free dieting: Can non-celiac people who self-identify as gluten sensitive still feel any ill effects once blinding and controls are applied?
  10. The Rorschach Test: Can experts match subjects to their dossiers based on Rorschach inkblot tests?
  11. Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Can people who self-diagnose as sensitive to electrical equipment still retain their ability when blinding and controls are applied?
  12. Cryotherapy: Can subjects realize any benefits from cryotherapy once blinding and controls are applied? (The same test could be done for other New Age therapies: salt caves, etc.)
  13. Chemicals: Are people more or less likely to embrace a food (or other product) when its ingredients are given with chemical names rather than common names?
  14. Memory Myths: Are our memories really as perfect as we all think?
  15. Sailing directly downwind faster than the wind: Even professional aeronautical engineers say it’s impossible, but the record so far is more than 4x wind speed. Act now, because I know the guy selling the Blackbird cart.

There are 15 ideas for you. (The well is deep, so there are plenty more where those came from.) Have fun!


The news on the new film is…

My new film from Skeptoid Media, Principles of Curiosity, is finally in post production. This is the long-awaited sequel to my 2008 amateur film Here Be Dragons, and it is what I had originally hoped that film would be and more. It is professionally produced, super amazing, and will be released free worldwide under a Creative Commons license allowing free public and private showings. It teaches a simple method anyone can follow to learn to determine what’s real and what’s not. Think of it as a practical guide to scientific skepticism and critical thinking, enjoyable for general audiences, and optimized for classrooms. / read more…


If Vaccines Work…?

I… I can’t even believe I’m writing this.

That image up there showed up in my Facebook feed, posted by a smug JAQer who—I assume—hates the idea of health and not dying of horrible diseases. And who possibly hates children as well. Thankfully, I saw it because a friend of mine who does not pine for the glory days of 16th-century medicine had laid into the JAQer with a will and a vengeance.

Distressingly, this is a trope. It’s a common tactic used by people who hate health and children and science and reason (also known as “antivaxxers,” the term I used is longer but probably more accurate) to sow confusion and spread misinformation about the benefits of vaccines by “just asking questions.” Questions that have answers, mind, but JAQers are often too intellectually dishonest to bother acknowledging those answers. It gets in the way of the soundbite.

If vaccines work?

If vaccines work?

This… this will require more than one article.  Because there’s a couple of questions to address here:  “Do they work?” and “How are unvaccinated children a threat?”.  And answering a JAQoff’s questions takes time and effort.  So, let’s just jump into the first question.

“Do vaccines work?”

Yes they work, you primitive screwhead.

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Don’t Feed the Trolls?

Why did that poster deserve a cogent reply?

Here’s the context: I’d written about “birth certificate bonds,” and someone had come along to attempt a rebuttal that essentially started with “wake up, sheeple” and ended with “you are all fools.” It’s classic trolling behavior, really. Brian Dunning responded to him first, and I weighed in as well. Shortly thereafter, Fred asked the above question and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Why did that poster deserve a cogent reply?

It was obvious that the poster here wasn’t asking genuine questions, or hoping for answers, or even engaging in a genuine discussion. But I answered him anyway, and in retrospect, Fred’s question is a good one. Why did I respond? Was it out of sheer bloody-minded belligerence, or did I have some other motive? And, to be honest, the answer is “yes.” I am bloody-mindedly belligerent (online, at least), but I did have another reason. But to understand it, we’ll need to talk about a couple of dishonest debate strategies.

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Jade Eggs for Your Kegels

There is no shortage of health fads and nonsense on the Internet, but when it comes to women’s health, actress Gwyneth Paltrow seems to lead the charge on the wackiest and most dangerous woo. Her lifestyle website and newsletter, called GOOP, recently promoted (and began selling) a dangerous and implausible practice for improving female genital health and sexual performance: the vaginal insertion of egg-shaped pieces of jade.

Jade eggs for use in Kegel exercises. Via Wikimedia

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Can You Lose 5kg in Three Days With This One Weird Trick?

So many of my article ideas come from social media. “You Can Lose Up To 5 Kg in 3 Days With Potatoes & Yogurt!” the headline on the shared post declared. Well, naturally that got my attention. I write a lot about my own efforts to lose weight, so both food science and food woo are a topic of interest for me. So, gritting my teeth, I clicked the link. The new page informed me that:

The main ingredient of the potato diet, as you can conclude is the potato. This diet also includes low-fat yogurt.

Potatoes will keep you full for a longer period of time and that way you will consume less calories. While you are on this diet you will need to eat only cooked potatoes and to drink yogurt but only the one with low fat.

Varieties of potatoes. From Wikimedia

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But You Should Question Some Things…

I’m ashamed to admit that, recently on Facebook, I failed as a skeptic.

Here’s how it went down: I logged onto Facebook as I do, checking my feed to see if anything interesting had been posted. And I saw the following image:

Wait! Come back! I promise this isn’t about politics!

Without stopping to think about it, I hit the button to share the image. Yes, I have certain political leanings that may be safely inferred from that statement. Relax. This isn’t about those political leanings, and I’m not trying to turn this site into a soapbox for any specific political agenda. This is about a failure in critical thinking. Because I failed to think critically, when I shared that image. Because there’s a single, important question I should have asked first.

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I Got Trolled by My First Anti-Vaxxer!

Recently, I logged onto Facebook and found the following article in my feed:

Screen capture from www.washingtonpost.com

I was in a bit of a sour mood at that moment, so when I hit the share button I wrote a vitriol-filled post to accompany it. To my surprise, it got shared quite a bit—meaning 15 or 20 reshares compared to my typical two. Honestly, I was a little surprised. And then, I got my very first screed from anti-vaxxer troll, a self-described “old school hippie, loving mother and proud grandmother, happy and joyous and free” who “studied at the School of Hard Knocks”:

richard, please let me inject you and your babies with mercury ok?

I replied, of course. But the response got me thinking, and it got me wondering, and it got me asking questions.

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Birth Certificate Bonds: What’s the Motivation?

Originally, I hadn’t planned to write a second part to this “birth certificate bond” thing. I figured it was a “one and done” deal, and I’d move on to trying to decide what to write for the next week. But then, a reader named Menzo made this comment about my article:

You truly are a financial geek. TMI to the extreme. What I wanted to know almost immediately, but never got answer to, is what is the motivation for a person to post a website about “birth certificate bonds”? Is this a scam or some kind of a silly joke or a conspiracy theory?

I’ll cop to the charge of being a “financial geek.” But, in retrospect, I have to confess I’m not geek enough. It never occurred to me to ask why someone would believe what is, on the surface (as well as after a deeper dive), patently obvious nonsense. But now, thanks to Menzo, I can’t stop wondering. So fasten your seatbelts: we’re about to wade deep into the woo.

This simple chart explaining a “birth certificate bond” somehow overlooks the why of this scheme.

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Your Birth Certificate Is Not a Bond. Really.

If you’re like most people, you read that title and scratched your head in confusion. “Rich,” you may have said, “what on earth are you talking about? Of course my birth certificate isn’t a bond. It’s a birth certificate.” And now you’re reading this, because you’re wondering what sort of foaming madness I’m spewing forth onto your screen.

I work in the financial sector in my day job, and I come into contact with a broad slice of the general public on a daily basis. That’s how I first encountered this nonsense. About six years ago, I received a call from a gentleman who said he wanted to redeem his bond. So I got the particulars of his account, looked it up, and scratched my head in confusion. There were no bonds. There weren’t any bond-based mutual funds. He had nothing that even looked like a bond. All he had was a checking account, and that held less than a hundred dollars.

“Sir,” I said, probably sounding extremely confused, “did you mean you wanted to take a withdrawal from your checking account?”

“No,” he assured me. “I’ve got a bond, and it’s worth a million dollars, and I just need to get enough out to buy a new car.”

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