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I Think, Therefore I Err

Donate Skeptoid corrects a bunch of errors made in previous episodes.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #379
September 10, 2013
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I Think, Therefore I Err

Producing Skeptoid is a full-time job. That means I have 40 hours of opportunity every week to screw something up; and given such a generous window, I make plenty of mistakes. Some I catch myself, usually after the fact when the episode is already broadcast; most are caught by listeners who tend to waste no time in bringing it to my attention. As often as I can fill an episode with corrections, I do; and today we have reached that point. Today I present the latest batch of corrections to past Skeptoid episodes.

The easiest way to make a mistake is to state what appears to be obvious. Whenever I spend serious attention investigating a really obscure detail, I generally get it right. It's when I casually say something that seems to me to be common knowledge that I get into trouble. We tend to think of obvious facts as those which do not need to be researched or verified, and the natural result is the paradox that statements of obvious facts are the ones most likely to be wrong.

A perfect example of this happened in the recent Student Questions episode. The question was whether different alcoholic beverages produce different intensities of hangovers. I answered by stating the obvious: that hangovers are mainly caused by dehydration resulting from the consumption of alcohol. And as I quite quickly heard from numerous sources, dehydration as the cause of a hangover is something of an urban legend.

The fact is that a "hangover" is not really one precisely defined condition. A hangover consists of a whole set of symptoms, each of which is caused by a set of responses to a set of inputs. So the best answer is that hangovers are complicated, and the exact mechanisms that cause them are not completely understood. But we still know a lot: we know the differences in chemistry between a sober person, a drunk person, a person with a hangover, an alcoholic, and a person in alcohol withdrawal. We know the components in alcoholic beverages and the biochemistry behind how each is metabolized. We know that congeners — byproducts of fermentation that differ among the various types of alcoholic beverages — are responsible in large part for hangover symptoms. We know that ethanol (the alcohol in drinks) is first metabolized into acetaldehyde, and when acetaldehyde builds up quicker than your body can get rid of it, you end up with acetaldehyde toxicity. This affects various parts of the body in different ways, thus the varied symptoms; but this is the main driver of what we commonly call the hangover. Since it's so nonspecific, there's no single cure. That's why drinking a lot of water to rehydrate yourself has never worked, in case you're like me and have always fallen for that.

In the episode Is She Real, or Is She Fictional? we checked the historicity of various famous women. One of these was Scheherazade, the storytelling heroine of the ancient book One Thousand and One Nights. In the episode I made a common mistake, and said that she told 1,001 tales. Incorrect. She told tales over the course of 1,001 nights, and since many of the stories took more than one night to tell, there were actually a lot fewer stories.

In the episode about the Mongolian Death Worm, I was explaining why we need substantial evidence of a creature's existence before we can add it to the accepted taxonomy. No one's ever caught or found evidence of a Mongolian Death Worm, and so we don't yet bother trying to decide what kind of animal it is. Similarly, I said, we don't bother trying to find out what kinds of animals are dragons, snipes, or Yowies. Three fictional animals, except — as you can probably tell right away — one of them is real. Snipes are a type of wading bird. Unfortunately, what I was thinking of when I said it was the fictional snipe, the object of snipe hunts, a popular hazing activity inflicted upon newcomers to camping. The initiates are instructed to catch snipes, a nonspecific kind of animal which they're told will be found running around in the woods at night. They're usually told to make some funny noise or do something goofy to attract the snipes. If it sounded like I was suggesting there is no real animal called a snipe, then I apologize for the error.

So we had a recent episode about legendary places, and whether they're real or fictional — like Xanadu or El Dorado. This was a huge boner: I said twice during the episode that this is a list of eleven such places. One commenter on the website very quickly pointed out that there were twelve in the list, not eleven. When I wrote the introduction, I actually ran my finger down the screen and miscounted eleven. I was reminded immediately of a comment that's been posted virtually every time I've made an error in an episode: "If he makes a mistake as huge as this, how can we trust anything he says?" At least I admit that I don't know the difference between eleven and twelve. And now, let's move on to our sixth correction.

In the same episode we probed the historicity of the legendary city of Troy — as I described it, the "home of Ulysses". In my mind I've always associated Ulysses with Troy, and so I just wrote that without further reflection. And, as carelessness would have it, it's wrong, as most of you probably know. To start with, it probably would have been more appropriate to refer to him by his Greek name Odysseus rather than his Roman name Ulysses, as his origin was as a character in the Greek tales attributed to the author or authors collectively known as Homer. Odysseus was the mythical king of the real Greek island of Ithaca. His adventures were told in Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, and also those of other authors who wrote related tales in books today known as the Epic Cycle. In The Iliad, Odysseus was a pivotal figure in the apocryphal Trojan War. Building the Trojan Horse was his idea, and he commanded and led the soldiers inside it. So Troy was not the "home" of Ulysses, but rather it was his best-known battlefield.

In the episode called Prove Your Supernatural Power and Get Rich, I talked about a number of organizations that offer cash prizes to anyone who can prove a supernatural ability under controlled conditions. Among the groups I mentioned was the IIG, the Independent Investigations Group, which is probably among the busiest in terms of the actual number of tests conducted. I said their prize is $50,000, but was quickly corrected that it's been upped to $100,000. So, psychics and dowsers and witches, head over to Los Angeles (those of you who aren't already there).

An episode I really enjoyed was about the supposed Black Knight Satellite, an alien construction that some believe has been orbiting the Earth for thousands of years. The whole canon of belief about this object has it on a polar orbit, and the most famous photographs of it were taken from the space shuttle on a semi-equatorial orbit. Now the physics-savvy among you will immediately see the impossibility of that: objects on nearly perpendicular orbits that happen to pass close enough for photographs are moving much too fast to be visible; literally gone in the blink of an eye, no time for pointing a camera. But as fast as it is, I overstated it in the episode. I said the passing speed would be thousands of kilometers per second. In fact it would be slower, some tens of thousands of kilometers per hour. Most calculations sent to me ranged 36,000 to 40,000, depending on the angles and the altitudes. Suffice it to say it's really darn fast.

The photo was taken by the STS-88 astronauts aboard the Endeavor, so we know that the object was moving at very nearly the same speed and along the same path as the orbiter. It was a piece of thermal blanketing that broke loose from the cargo bay during an EVA, sort of a ragged chunk of metal foil and insulation. I erroneously said in the episode that it had been discovered during a post-launch inspection. Right object, wrong time.

While we're on the topic of aerospace, let's move over to the episode on Area 51. We played an audio clip of air traffic control recorded by some amateur enthusiasts that appeared to catch mention of code-named vehicles, "fast mover" and "slow mover". Here's a sample:

Two five, we'll be ready for departure when this fast mover gets past us.

It turns out that fast mover and slow mover are nothing special. They are common terms in military aviation, and are exactly what they sound like. A slow mover is usually a helicopter, and a fast mover is usually a jet. Targets on radar, especially in a high collision risk situation such as landing at an airport, need to be understood as either fast moving or relatively stationary like a helicopter. So, no big deal, and no secret aircraft discovered today.

The Antikythera Mechanism is an ancient mechanism found on a shipwreck in Greece. It was built about 150 BCE of mostly bronze, and shows the positions of the planets and has advanced calendaring functions, and does other things as well. One of the mysteries about it is the reason it was built. Was it an educational tool? A navigational tool? A gadget for the wealthy? In trying to answer this question, I pointed out that its main material, bronze, readily corrodes in seawater and thus it would have been an entirely inappropriate choice for a navigational instrument intended to go to sea.

In fact, the opposite is true. Bronze is commonly used for underwater components on boats, even today, for its excellent resistance to corrosion. Many ship propellers are bronze. So if had been intended for use at sea, bronze would have been an excellent choice. There are other good reasons why historians have determined that it probably was not a naval instrument, but my argument was not one of the good ones.

Going all the way back to the early episode about fast food phobia, we discussed a study by Swedish scientist Fredrik Nyström in which he put eighteen subjects on an all-fast-food diet. In the episode I incorrectly said that his study included only seven subjects. I have no idea where I got seven; the article is very clear that eighteen were involved. I guess for me, seven and eighteen are as hard to distinguish as eleven and twelve.

Finally, one item that I will not correct: In the title of this episode, I Think, Therefore I Err, it is perfectly permissible to pronounce the word "err" like "heir".

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "I Think, Therefore I Err." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 10 Sep 2013. Web. 19 Apr 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Burton, R. The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. New York: Limited Editions Club, 1934.

Freeth, T. "Decoding an Ancient Computer." Scientific American. 1 Dec. 2009, Volume 301, Number 6: 70-83.

Homer. The Iliad. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.

IIG. "The IIG $100,000 Paranormal Challenge." Independent Investigations Group. IIG, 18 Dec. 2003. Web. 22 Jul. 2013. <>

Nyström, F.H., Lindstron, T., Kechagias, S., Ernersson, Å., O Dahlqvist, O., Lundberg, P. "Fast food based hyper-alimentation can induce rapid and profound elevation of serum alanine aminotransferase in healthy subjects." GUT. 14 Feb. 2008, Volume 57, Number 2: 649-654.

Wiese, J., Shlipak, M., Browner, S. "The Alcohol Hangover." Annals of Internal Medicine. 6 Jun. 2000, Volume 132, Number 11: 897-902.


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