Things About Which I Have In Error Been
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Feedback & Questions
June 29, 2010
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Every so often I need to nudge myself back onto the straight and narrow. When you catch an error in a Skeptoid episode, let me know, and if I can verify that you're right, I'll gladly include the correction in an episode like this one. Of course most of the suggested corrections I receive are like "My very reliable Uncle Bob saw a UFO once, so you should retract your episode about Roswell." I can't do that, because the government pays me to keep that covered up; but here are some others where the corporate paymasters' checks either bounced or were short.
Let's start with something that I need to fully retract, and for which I should be tied to a chair and punched repeatedly. I gave a list of ten celebrities who promote harmful pseudoscience. At number 5 I put Larry King, and rightly criticized him for providing an unchallenged platform for anyone who promotes an alternative medicine product and advises the public not to trust medical science. But I think I gave Larry too much credit. I also said that when his guest is some head of state or other top official, he "hits them hard, asks them the tough questions, puts them on the spot." In fact, I don't think Larry has asked anyone a hard question in decades. He pretty much lobs nothing but softballs, which is probably why everyone wants to go on his show. And I also failed to take him to task for something else he does. When he has a guest on who's promoting something that's scientifically wrong, he gives them the stage all alone; but when he has a doctor or scientist on, more often than not King "provides balance" by bringing on a guest charlatan to discredit any true statements the main guest might make.
Some commenters rightly pointed out that Pamela Anderson doesn't really belong on the list. I included her for her tireless support of PETA, which in turn financially supports certain domestic terrorist groups. That's an ideological position, not pseudoscience. I intend for episodes like this to be ideology-neutral, so I agree a mere PETA supporter should not have been included for that reason alone.
Number 3 on the list was Prince Charles, whom I placed under fire for lending his royal influence to the cause of replacing medical science with witchcraft, in one form or another. I got in trouble with my UK listeners for describing him as "perhaps the most influential man in the United Kingdom". Apparently, not a single one of my UK listeners thinks Charles has any influence or credibility at all. I offer this correction based on their word; my listeners are generally not fans of his. However I still suspect that outside the choir of my listeners, there are plenty of old school, traditional Brits who think the world of Charles, even though this may gall those who can think clearly.
I offer a blanket apology for sometimes otherwise imposing my American citizenship upon my listeners. Yes, I do know that many of you do not use inches, feet, miles, pounds, firkins, or scrupula. And I also know that World War II had already been underway for some time in Europe before we Yankees entered the fray. September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, was when it really started, with the first formal declarations of war coming two days later on September 3. However, in my episode on the Battle of Los Angeles, I described February, 1942 as "the opening days of World War II". Many European listeners were not huge fans of this statement. How could I be so far off? It's because I was speaking within the frame of reference of the United States' entry into the war, which had only been declared less than three months earlier following Pearl Harbor. I do have a vague, general knowledge of little things in history like World War II, I'm not completely dim; but I could have used better language to make it clearer what I meant.
In my episode about the Pacific Garbage Patch, I misstated the definition of neuston plastic. I said it refers to particles that have been broken down to microscopic size. In fact, neuston describes something that floats right at or below the surface of the water, at what's called the air-water interface. Usually the term neuston refers to plankton that live in this range. I was also not quite right in defining the plastic as microscopic. It does break down that small eventually, but the plastic that can found in the Garbage Patch through the use of skimmer nets is bigger. It's often described as tiny flecks, about the size of really coarse sand. It's not what we like to see in the ocean.
In my episode looking at whether Jewish slaves built the pyramids, or were in fact slaves at all in ancient Egypt, I cited the Greek historian Herodotus as the originator of the claim. We now know that the pyramid builders were not slaves, but rather relatively well paid laborers living in not-half-bad conditions. Actually, Herodotus was more correct than I gave him credit for. He never mentioned slaves at all. Instead, he reported that gangs of 100,000 "workers" worked three month shifts and spent ten years on the Great Pyramid's foundation and causeway, then twenty years on the pyramid itself. This is roughly equivalent to today's best estimates.
It was not my only error involving people of the Semitic persuasion. In my episode on the Georgia Guidestones, I attempted to analyze why Hebrew was one of the eight languages in which the Guidestones' messages are inscribed. In today's world, Hebrew is a fairly minor language despite its historical importance, with only about five million people who speak it as their first language. You'd expect that the eight most popular languages would have been chosen. In attempting to figure why they'd done this, I added Hebrew and Yiddish together and found the total was still way short of the top eight. Hebrew and Yiddish are not the same language, although they do both use the Hebrew alphabet. Listening to the episode, it sounded like I thought they were two different names for the same language. I didn't actually think that, but it sounded like I did; and in any case the attempt to add them together was clumsy and made no sense. The inscription is in Hebrew and unequivocally not in Yiddish.
In a student questions episode, I said that the ideal amount of alcohol you should drink is zero. I was talking about how a lot of things that are bad for you can still be consumed at low levels without any harm, even though ideally you should take in none. Alcohol was a bad example. Most doctors agree that something like a drink a day has definite benefits for the heart, and helps in other ways too. Too much alcohol, and any alcohol at all for people with some conditions, is clearly bad; but the blanket statement I made in the episode was careless and incorrect.
I was also careless in my episode about bizarre natural wonders and other interesting places in California. There's an old phrase "In like Flynn" referring to Errol Flynn's successful lifestyle. Some of you may remember the 1967 parody spy film In Like Flint starring James Coburn. I thought I would be cute in the episode and say "In like Flint" when I meant "In like Flynn", but apparently not enough of you remember the movie. My attempted pop-culture reference was a resounding failure, burying me under piles of emails telling me that I got the saying wrong. I promise to restrain my obscure references in the future.
My very popular episode on martial arts magic also generated a lot of email, mostly from martial artists who hadn't heard Skeptoid before and were thrilled to see someone finally call out the practitioners of bullshido. Many of them also politely offered a correction. In the episode I said that boxers refer to the temple as "the button", as in getting hit on the button. I am informed that the button is actually the chin. I will freely confess to slipshod research on this one. I got my bad info from watching an Ultimate Fighting Championship episode, wherein some dude got knocked cold by a punch to the temple, and the announcer said he was hit right on the button. So I'll take 50% blame for being lazy, but I assign the other 50% to that announcer whose own button was probably pushed a few too many times.
It's hard for me to get away with errors on Skeptoid, because my weekly listenership includes scientists in every possible discipline. This nailed me on my episode about ancient manmade depictions of dinosaurs. When I make a bold assertion in the field of anthropology, I am descended upon by throngs of anthropologists. The day on which this episode came out was one such day. The art in Bernifal Cave in France was painted 14,000 years ago, and despite none of the art being carved, some Young Earthers point to one small area of natural contouring and claim that it's a carved dinosaur. I said that Cro-Magnons were not known to have made any 3D figure carvings. I was in error. There are a number of such pieces, including the 18-inch tall Venus of Laussel dated to 25,000 years ago; and the Venus of Galgenberg, made 30,000 years ago. My thanks to my legions of anthropologists.
But my legions are not always so charitable. My episode on the North American Union included a comparison with the Soviet Union, and one of the differences I pointed out was that while the North American Union is claimed to be arising in secret, the Soviet Union came as the result of a popular uprising. The Bolsheviks were a majority party. As soon as I said that, the emails started flowing in, saying that the Bolsheviks were not a majority. On this one I'm going to say we're both right. First the word bolshevik actually means "majority", but that doesn't make it so. This is a sticky point to research. The Soviet states were fractured every which way, and Bolsheviks were equally so. Factions were subfactions of other factions and breakaway factions were fractional. But most accounts generally agree Lenin's Bolsheviks held majorities in the soviets of most major cities in October of 1917, but then lost most of those majorities in elections. And that's what triggered the October Revolution, a major part of the larger Russian Revolution, which led to the creation of the Soviet Union. The point is it was hardly a secret few behind closed doors, as the North American Union is claimed to be. It was very much a popular uprising.
So keep those corrections coming in. Uncle Bob, we're still waiting to hear from you personally, although there's a chance the reason we haven't is that the Men in Black have bundled you off to a secret CIA prison to have your memory erased. As for the rest of you, please keep listening, but don't take anything I say for granted: Remember, there will always be a need for more episodes like this one.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Things About Which I Have In Error Been." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
29 Jun 2010. Web.
26 Nov 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4212>
References & Further Reading
Allan, T., Bean R. World and Its Peoples. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2009. 351-352.
Ammer, C. Southpaws and Sunday Punches: And Other Sporting Expressions. New York: Plume, 1994. 155.
Johnson, J. "Study: A Drink a Day Reduces Risk of Death Twenty Percent." Johnson Publishing Company. 5 Jan. 1998, Volume 93, Number 6: 23.
Sakwa, R. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union:1917-1991. New York: Routledge, 1999. 56-62, 74-76.
Smart, B. Consumer Society: Critical Issues and Environmental Consequences. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2010. 171.
Witcombe, C. "Women in Prehistory: The "Venus" of Laussel." Images of Women in Ancient Art. Sweet Briar College, 8 Aug. 2000. Web. 29 Jun. 2010. <http://www.arthistory.sbc.edu/imageswomen/laussel.html>
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