Botches and Bungles
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Feedback & Questions
June 12, 2012
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Try as I might, no Skeptoid episode is perfect. They're all too short to be comprehensive, which is expected fallout from the short format. They're colored by my own personal biases and preconceived notions, which is a fact that I have to be honest about since I'm the one who's always advising everyone that they're probably guilty of the same thing. But most significantly, they have errors. I'm only one guy, I have to crank out an episode a week, and the depth to which I'm able to dig each week only goes so far. And I even make straight-up typos and I misspeak. So whenever I can, I correct such errors in an episode like this one. So let's turn back the clock and give me a retroactive wrist-slap wherever appropriate.
One of the dumb typos came in my recent episode about the Rothschild banking family. Its founder, Mayer Rothschild, sent his five sons to five major financial cities across Europe to open new branches of the family business. In listing which of the sons went to which cities, I screwed up and sent two of the sons to Vienna, and never caught the error even when I recorded it. Salomon Mayer, the second son, went to Vienna where his Rothschild banking family of Austria did well until the entire affair was seized by the Nazis. Jacob Mayer, the youngest son who went by the name James, went to Paris and founded the Rothschild banking family of France. With one slip-up, I nearly handed a second 20% slice of the entire Rothschild fortune over to the Nazis, which certainly would have altered the course of the war. I'll be more careful next time.
And speaking of Skeptoid drastically affecting the world's population, let's go all the way back to 2008 for my ever-popular episode on the alleged 2012 apocalypse. In part of the episode I discussed things that actually do happen in 2012, including the London Olympics, a US presidential election, the transit of Venus and the 11-yearly reversal of the sun's magnetic field. But I also threw one more event in there that didn't belong: The Earth's population passing 7 billion people in October. My notes don't include a record of where I got this, so I'm not sure if I misread something or if I found a bad source. But, as you probably know by now, the population passed 7 billion in October of 2011, not 2012. (The United States Census Bureau estimates that it happened in March 2012, but October 2011 had been the best-known prediction for a long time.) In more than four years, nobody ever caught this, at least not that got back to me; which is kind of amazing in itself.
Less amazing to particle physicists was the observation of faster-than-light neutrinos at the OPERA particle detector in 2011. I did a student questions episode in which I said this was a really exciting possibility. If not quite an error, this was a total overstatement. It turns out that few people in the know were actually moved by the odds of this being true. The speed of light as an impassable barrier is so firmly established that almost everyone was convinced the observation would turn out to have been an error. And so it was; the very next day after my episode, OPERA announced that they'd traced the fault back to a defective computer cable. It had been slowing down a signal just enough to make it look like the neutrinos were arriving at the target just slightly too soon. Something like this was pretty much what most particle physicists expected we'd find; not too many would have agreed with my description of "very exciting times".
But what would have really ticked off the physicists was my confusion of brewing and distilling in the episode about the Brown Mountain Lights. One of the solutions that a few authors have suggested over the years for the cause of the lights is that the moon could have reflected off of moonshine stills hidden on the hillside. I made a crack about how the "shrewd brewer" would not be likely to hide his still in such a public place. Brewing is the fermentation of a steeped starch solution to make beer; distillation is the boiling of a fermented solution to produce an alcoholic beverage. Distillation is, of course, what said moonshine producers would be up to, not brewing. In penance, I shall strip myself of my right to sip Laphroaig whisky for one full week.
And while we're on the subject of grains, attend my episode on the gluten-free diet fad, wherein I characterized gluten-bound bread as the invention that made it possible for "humans to migrate, for armies to march, and for history to be made." Prior to the cultivation of strains of grain that contain gluten, bread made from corn or roots was crumbly and couldn't effectively be stored or transported. While what I said was true in the larger picture, bread was not the first transportable, storable food. That would have been dried meat. What little tribal scuffles humans may have had prior to the development of wheat agriculture some 10,000 years ago would have been fueled primarily by dried meat. Populations weren't really large enough yet that you could have accurately referred to these bands as "armies on the march", but it is a worthy footnote in the history of bread's importance.
An unworthy footnote is my inexplicable citation of 0-65,536 as the numeric range of a 16-bit word in my episode comparing vinyl to digital sound recordings. As a computer scientist, I've known the exponents of 2 up through at least 16 backwards and forwards since I was a teenager, and properly received avalanches of guff for this bizarre error. 0-65,535 is correct, giving a total of 65,536 possible values in a 16-bit word. In penance, I shall strip myself of my right to use an RPN calculator for — well, I can't go a full week on that one, but I will restrict myself to infix immediate execution mode for the rest of today. I think there's an app for that on my phone.
While I have the majority of you beginning to drift off and lose interest, here's one that could only hold the attention of the most obsessed of WWII weaponry junkies. In my episode about Nazi Wunderwaffen, I discussed the P.1000 Ratte and P.1500 Monster tanks, and described their principal armament as the 800mm railroad gun. This gun, of which the Nazis actually used two during the war, were the largest caliber rifled weapons ever used in the history of warfare. The shell was 80cm wide (almost three feet) and weighed 7 tons. The gun itself weighed over 1,300 tons, and so was actually designed into the P.1500 tank (designed to weigh a total of 1,500 tons) and not the P.1000 (designed to weigh a total of "only" 1,000 tons). The P.1000's main armament was planned to be a pair of 280mm naval guns, similar to those used on their Scharnhorst class battleships. My assertion that the P.1000 would have carried a gun weighing more than the complete vehicle would have been possible only if it was also four-dimensional. Perhaps we'll look into that possibility in a future Wunderwaffen episode.
I also twisted the laws of nature a bit in my episode about the supposed danger of using Wi-Fi and other common radio devices. In comparing the relative strength of natural sources of radiation, I mentioned cosmic rays. This is not really an appropriate comparison, since cosmic rays are particles and not electromagnetic radiation. I also said they can penetrate the Earth. Not so. Cosmic rays penetrate the atmosphere, causing collisions that produce other particles, and some of those, such as muons, can penetrate a little bit into the Earth, but only a few kilometers at the most. Neutrinos are about the only particles that can actually go all the way through the Earth. They go through us, too, but do not interact; and so are harmless.
I also gave cosmic rays a bit too much credit in my episode on whether CERN's Large Hadron Collider can be expected to destroy the Earth. It still can't, so don't worry, that's not the correction. What needs correcting is that I said cosmic rays have been hitting the Earth for 14 billion years. Cosmic rays have indeed been zapping around out there for 14 billion years, but for most of that, there was no Earth to strike. The Earth's only been around for 4.5 billion years, so it would have been quite a trick for it to be struck by cosmic rays, or anything else, for the past 14 billion.
Moving on to the Georgia Guidestones, a conspiracy-laced erection of granite monoliths, I made yet another language error confusing written and spoken languages. The stones bear an inscription given in eight different languages, but the eight that were selected don't seem to conform to any discernible criteria. I noted that one of the languages is Mandarin, when one of the eight most common spoken languages in the United States is Cantonese. In fact, in written form, Mandarin and Cantonese are the same, at least over as short a manuscript as this inscription. It's only when spoken that they are different. I wasn't aware of this, and the Guidestones' documentation calls it Mandarin. Really the inscription is in Chinese, and is legible to both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.
So please keep those corrections coming in. If you catch an error in a Skeptoid episode, email it to me, which you can do through the contact page on Skeptoid.com. Make sure you send proper citations. But I'm going to check: So if you send me a citation that represents a minority opinion, it's not going to make the cut. It's easy to find a reference that supports anything you want to come up with, and a big part of my job is making sure that the info I present truly does represent the best-accepted scientific or historical understanding. So if you expect me to do my homework, do yours as well.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Botches and Bungles." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
12 Jun 2012. Web.
29 Nov 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4314>
References & Further Reading
Bridges, B. The Georgia Guidestones. Elberton: Elberton Granite Finishing Company, Inc., 1980.
Gaisser, T. Cosmic Rays and Particle Physics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 105-114.
Parsons, Z. My Tank Is Fight! New York: Citadel, 2006. 13-23, 61-68.
Powell, D. "Loose Cable Blamed for Speedy Neutrinos." ScienceNews. 7 Apr. 2012, Volume 181, Number 7: 9.
Reeves, J. The Rothschilds: The Financial Rulers of Nations. London: Sampson Low Marston Searle and Rivington, 1887.
Thomson, T. Brewing and Distillation. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, North Bridge, 1849. 1-6, 325-329.
UNFPA. "Day of 7 Billion." United Nations Population Fund. United Nations System of Organizations, 16 Oct. 2011. Web. 7 Jun. 2012. <https://www.unfpa.org/public/home/news/events/pid/8533>
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