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More Things I'm Wrong About

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

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #186
December 29, 2009
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More Things I'm Wrong About

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:

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 a foolishly derived number that's ridiculous. Our erroneously derived number was no less ridiculous, so I hereby decree that it stand.

By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "More Things I'm Wrong About." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 29 Dec 2009. Web. 21 May 2024. <>


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.


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