Things I'm Wrong About
A look back correcting some of the facts and figures that Skeptoid has gotten wrong.
by Brian Dunning
May 20, 2008
Now that there are 100 episodes of the Skeptoid podcast, I have had 100 chances to get something wrong. And I've succeeded, in many cases; getting the odd fact or figure wrong, saying something backwards, looking at a map upside down, or just being an idiot. And since I do try to follow the scientific method here, at least in as minimally abbreviated a way as practical in a 10-minute podcast, the responsible thing for me to do is to report corrections and improvements to the information presented.
I have to start with the one error that I got the most grief for. Skeptoid #31 was about the 1855 incident in Devon, England where a 100-mile long set of footprints was found in the snow one morning, ostensibly laid by the devil himself. Devon is a county in southwestern England. However, when I recorded the episode, I said southeastern England, even though I was literally staring at a map while I spoke the words. No idea why, just one of the unaccountable brain farts. Probably the E in England threw me and I said southeastern even as I was thinking southwestern. Anyway I must heard from a hundred listeners, many of whom said things like "If I did so little research that I didn't even know where Devon was, how could they trust the accuracy of anything else I said?"
But I also caught additional flak. Among the stories dating from 1855 were that the trail of footprints spanned a two-mile stretch of water at one point. Now, I had looked over Devon pretty thoroughly using Google Earth to get a sense of the terrain, having never been there myself, and I couldn't find any lakes or rivers that looked like they might possibly offer a two-mile stretch. Nevertheless, I repeated the claim as it was reported, and, as I should have expected, listeners blamed me for the error. "If I knew so little about Devon, how could they trust the accuracy of anything else I said?"
One newspaper report suggested raccoons among a list of possible culprits. There are no raccoons in England, but I was merely repeating the newspaper report. And, as before, listeners blamed me. "If I knew so little about the fauna in England, how could they trust the accuracy of anything else I said?"
I usually spend a few weeks researching each Skeptoid topic, split among several episodes at a time, until I have enough notes on one to expand it into a full episode. Once I have enough, I cut it off, trying to keep each episode to around 10 minutes or about 1500 words. Sometimes I have to leave out important information that I simply have to choose to cut. Sometimes I miss things because I have enough and need to stop researching. This is what happened in Skeptoid #40 when I addressed the question of Zana, the Russian 19th century wild woman suspected of being part Neanderthal. Most of this research was done online, bookmarking and digesting everything I could find on the topic. I reported in the episode that Zana's skull had never been found, only that of her son Khwit, and at the time, no DNA research had been done on it. Unbeknownst to me, five months before my episode, National Geographic aired an episode of Is It Real? where they actually did find Zana's skull, and did DNA tests on both of them. The results confirmed what I reported, that there was no non-human ancestry found in Zana or Khwit. I guess five months was not long enough for the info to propagate to the Internet very deeply. Anyway, this illustrates one risk of doing Internet research.
I did make a good solid error in my discussion of the Kinoki footpads in Skeptoid #83, the Detoxification Myth. Kinoki footpads are adhesive pads that you stick to the bottom of your feet, and they turn dark brown. Kinoki claims this coloration is caused by toxins that are sucked out of your body through your feet, which is of course medically impossible. In the episode I opined that they changed color because they are damp and adhesive, and this loosens and removes dead, dirty skin cells. In my research I missed the real reason. The active ingredient in Kinoki footpads is powdered wood vinegar. When it's dried, it forms a colorless powder. In its normal liquid state, it's dark brown or black. Contact with perspiration from your foot reconstitutes the acetic acid in the wood vinegar, and the dark liquid stains the pad. Presto, science in action, and no magical transport of mysterious "toxins" through non-permeable skin is needed to explain the effect.
There was also an error of omission in the detoxification episode that's caused me plenty of trouble. Alternative practitioners also sell pills that flush long rubbery snakes out of your bowels. They claim that these snakes are made of accumulated toxins, and that everyone has them inside them, and they call them mucoid plaque. In fact, the pills are what create these rubbery bowel castings, so it's no surprise that whenever you take such a "cleansing" pill your body will excrete a long rubbery snake. I described the process by which these pills create the castings. They contain primarily bentonite and psyllium, used to make mucilage polymer. These pills literally rubberize your bowel contents, which then comes out in one big piece. Well, apparently not all of these pills contain bentonite and psyllium, so I got a barrage of emails from believers calling me a liar and charging that I'm on the payroll of Big Pharma trying to keep people sick by making stuff up about these miraculous natural cleansing systems. My mistake. The other popular formulation in these pills is guar gum and pectin. Swallow some guar gum and pectin, and then see what comes out of your bowels. Guess what, it's a big rubbery snake.
Probably the biggest error I've made for which there's no excuse was my characterization of the carbon cycle when burning ethanol in Skeptoid #51. Per unit of volume, burning ethanol produces slightly less carbon than burning gasoline. No surprise, since it has lower energy content. Per calorie of energy, burning ethanol produces slightly more carbon dioxide than gasoline does, because you have to burn half again as much of it. But the alternative fuel people say that's OK, because (as they rightly point out) the ethanol came from corn or sugar or some other crop that took that carbon out of the air to begin with, so it's actually a zero sum gain. Although I omitted this obviously very important qualification, my point still stands. When you take the complete fuel cycle into account, including driving the International Harvesters and delivering the ethanol by truck since it can't go through pipelines, driving a car with ethanol still puts more fossil fuel derived carbon into the atmosphere than driving a gasoline car.
In Skeptoid #44 about remote viewing, I described how James Randi got two kids, Steve Shaw and Mike Edwards, to fool some researchers at Washington University into thinking they had psychic powers by doing simple magic tricks. I reported that Randi taught the tricks to Shaw and Edwards. Not correct. One day I got an email from Banachek, the stage name of Steve Shaw, now a successful stage mentalist, and all-around cool dude. Banachek informed me that he and Mike Edwards developed all their own deceptions to fool the researchers, Randi did not teach them the tricks. I enjoyed emailing with him, but had to break it off in disgust when he refused to divulge the secret of Penn & Teller's bullet catch trick, which Banachek himself devised for them.
Skeptoid #97 discussed the face on Mars, in which I stated that the latest highest resolution image came from the Mars Global Surveyor in 1991, with a resolution of six feet per pixel. I was informed that there is an even later and better picture, from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) with a resolution of 30 centimeters per pixel, from April 2007. There is a link to that image on the transcript page for this episode. To me, the image looks exactly like the one I posted from Global Surveyor. Maybe it is, and maybe that constitutes a second error from the same episode. The harder I look, the worse it gets. Errors compounding errors. It's a wonder anyone ever listens to me anymore.
In Skeptoid #95 about self employment business opportunities, I glibly mentioned Starbuck's as a franchise company. It's the kind of thing that seemed so obvious that I never even thought twice about it, and so didn't even bother to verify it. And, due to Murphy's Law, that's just the occasion where you'll end up being wrong. Starbuck's is not a franchise, just a ridiculously successful company. This is actually kind of interesting, because of all the facts I've ever discussed on the show, this is one of the most obvious, and I got it wrong. A lot of facts are really obscure, and really hard to find: One example that springs to mind was when I searched the birth and death certificates for the Navajo Nation in search of the Hopi Indian named Little Chief Greenleaf. That was some obscure research. And yet what do I get wrong? Something obvious about Starbuck's.
If anything, this should underscore the advice I give all the time: Don't take my word for anything. When something comes from me, you can be assured that it was generally well researched. But, that doesn't make anything infallible. Words coming out of my mouth on a podcast constitute no better than anecdotal information. You can use this anecdotal information to suggest a direction for you to research further, if you're truly interested in a subject. But always assume that I could be wrong about anything. If you want to follow a truly skeptical process, you should find out the facts for yourself.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Things I'm Wrong About." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
20 May 2008. Web.
19 Jan 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4101>
References & Further Reading
DTB. "Devon Tourist Information." Visit Devon. The Devon Tourist Board, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 6 Mar. 2010. <http://www.visitdevon.co.uk/>
Ernst, E., Singh, S. Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine. London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd, 2008.
Kelly, L. The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal. London: Allen & Unwin, 2004. 139-140.
Plait, P. Bad Astronomy. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002.
Starbucks. "Investor Relations FAQ." Starbucks.com. Starbucks Coffee Company, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 12 May. 2009. <http://www.starbucks.com/customer-service/faqs/investor-relations>
Wilmar. "Carbon Cycle." Ethanol Facts. Wilmar BioEthanol Australia, 1 Jul. 2014. Web. 8 Aug. 2015. <http://www.ethanolfacts.com.au/learning-centre/carbon-cycle>
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