In Which I Am the Very Picture of Error Personified
Skeptoid corrects another round of mistakes made in previous episodes.
by Brian Dunning
May 20, 2014
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Skeptoid is 100% free of errors. There, I just made an erroneous claim. I make mistakes all the time, in fact. Each episode is the result of a full week's immersion in research of that topic, but mistakes still creep in: everything from slips of the tongue while recording, to getting information from an erroneous source in which I put too much trust, to just plain being humanly wrong about everyday stuff that seems so obvious I don't even bother to check. I've done over 400 Skeptoid episodes, and every one of them has been a lesson in the need to work harder. Here is my latest batch of corrections — usually even more interesting than the original mistakes.
My favorite correction this time around had to do with the old tale of the vanishing village of Angikuni Lake, which was the story of an old trapper in Canada who visited an Inuit village in Nunavut where he'd been many times, only to find it deserted with no trace of wherever the people had gone. It had many familiar story elements, like meals half eaten and evidence that people had left with no preparation. My conclusion turned out to be that the entire story had been made up by author Frank Edwards, who gave it three pages in his 1959 book Stranger than Science. He even came up with a backstory, that the event had been reported in 1930 in the Halifax Herald by a newspaperman named Kelleher. Kelleher's report had been thoroughly investigated by an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who concluded that Kelleher had made it all up — a conclusion that remains their official one today. Having brought enormous outside forces to bear, I found no evidence that Kelleher's article had ever existed, and thus claimed that Edwards himself was the fabricator of the entire story.
And then something happened that I absolutely love. Kelleher's 1930 article surfaced, but not in Canadian papers; in a place nobody thought to look. It was in a 1930 newspaper called The Bee in Danville, Virginia in the United States! What probably happened is that it was indeed published in Canada, probably the Halifax Herald as cited by Edwards, and was then re-reported or syndicated in some small way. Whatever Canadian articles from 1930 that may have mentioned it (and any articles at all by Kelleher) were probably either never microfiched or scanned, and eluded my researchers. So my conclusion that the article did not exist was premature and ultimately wrong; though in my experience, it was probably still the safer bet.
Therefore I retract my charge that Frank Edwards made the story up, and I place the blame back onto Emmett E. Kelleher, where the investigating officers originally placed it. RCMP 1; Dunning 0.
The episode about the disappearance of Frederick Valentich told the tale of a young Australian pilot who disappeared over water, with his final radio transmissions prompting many to speculate that his plane must have been abducted by an alien spaceship. He was en route to King Island, a small Tasmanian island that's about halfway between Melbourne, on the mainland, and the main island of Tasmania. Here was my terrible error that seemed to offend so many: I said "King Island is about halfway between Australia and Tasmania." Of course, Tasmania is part of Australia; so my wording, taken literally, doesn't make very much sense. But if I told you something was halfway between Hawaii and the United States, you'd know that I meant the mainland United States. I doubt if very many Australians were actually confused by my wording; but nevertheless, the correction was offered many times, so here it is. I meant to say mainland Australia.
I also make other geographical errors that are not quite so excusable. I did an episode on ancient mariners who came to the New World from Europe. There are a lot of claims about who was first, but which one was it? There are claims of attempts from Europe, Africa, Greenland, and elsewhere. Most of these, obviously, would have crossed the Atlantic Ocean. However, at least once in the show I said Pacific when I meant Atlantic. There is no excuse other than my own absent-mindedness. My only hope is that many listeners were equally absent-minded and didn't catch it.
Here's one where I made a personal charge against someone that was wrong, without fully investigating it. Pro tip to everyone: Don't do that. In 2008 I did an episode called Ten Most Wanted: Celebrities Who Promote Harmful Pseudoscience. Among them was comedian Joe Rogan, along with a list of conspiracy theories that he has discussed at length on his own show over the years. I went on his show as a guest in January 2014 to discuss this, and I blogged extensively about the conversation on the Skeptoid blog. One of the list of things I characterized in the old episode as pretty nutty was "He thinks Men in Black from Project Blue Book stole his friend's camera, even though Project Blue Book ended over 38 years ago." Blue Book, in case you don't know, was the US Air Force's project to collect UFO reports in order to determine if they represent any threat to national security. I read that he'd told that story, but failed to actually check Rogan's own words.
Joe preferred not to give me the full name of the friend whose camera was taken by Blue Book officers, so I couldn't look it up; but the important detail I missed was that the man is older now and was a young kid when the incident happened. Confiscating cameras said to contain pictures of UFOs is one of the things that Blue Book actually did. I'd very wrongly assumed that the friend was a buddy of his and that it had happened sometime during Rogan's adult life. There is not a single detail I'm aware of that's implausible about the story Rogan has actually told, so it was slipshod and irresponsible of me to rattle it off in a list of nutty things Rogan has said (and continues to say).
Conspiracy theorists continue to love to hate me, so they were quick to point out this next mistake of mine in my episode about the Rothschild banking family. You wouldn't have caught it by listening, but if you viewed the transcript page on the website, you'd have seen the episode was illustrated with a painting of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the original patriarch of the family. Here is the comment I received on the website:
I was going to read this, but when I saw that you didn't even get the correct portrait for Mayer Amschel Rothschild (the image above is for Amschel Mayer Rothschild, his second children and eldest son) I reasoned that this article was missing a competent fact checker.
I found that the picture I originally used was frequently misattributed on the web, and so found a portrait of Mayer Amschel to replace the wrong one of Amschel Mayer. (Both images are in the public domain, by the way; I do work to ensure that Skeptoid doesn't violate any copyrights.) It was significant mistake, but whether it was worth dismissing the whole of the content, as this web visitor says he did, is up to each individual to decide.
There were a pair of technical errors in my episode comparing the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima nuclear plant disasters (well, to be fair there was nothing "disastrous" about Three Mile Island). Nuclear plants come in a whole variety of designs, and even those of the same design have significant differences. They're complicated machines, so it's not surprising I got stuff wrong even though I did a lot of work to try and make sure I got everything right.
The first of these mistakes concerned what happened with the control rods at Fukushima. Control rods are of neutron-absorbing material that, when inserted into the core, can slow or even stop the chain reaction, by preventing enough neutrons from striking uranium atoms. They can be thought of as the "throttle" of the nuclear reactor.
The tsunami that struck Fukushima was catastrophic, actually completely submerging some of the buildings. All power was lost. In the episode, I incorrectly stated that this power failure made it impossible to insert the control rods in order to turn the reactors off. Not true. Recall that the tsunami was preceded by an earthquake. When the earthquake struck, Fukushima went into emergency shutdown mode, and all the control rods were fully inserted into all the reactors before the tsunami hit. But even though the reactors were throttled to minimum, they still get hot, and this older 1960s design required cooling water to be pumped. All backup systems had been disabled by the tsunami, no new cooling water reached the cores, water boiled away, and the cores melted down.
My error about Chernobyl pertained to the initial cause of the explosion that blew its graphite blocks all over the place. Chernobyl was an atomic pile (literally a "pile" of graphite blocks) completely unlike any other commercial reactor types ever designed. In the episode I said the explosion was triggered by the combustion of the graphite, due to heat expansion. In fact the explosion was triggered by steam that flashed when water was introduced, followed by a second larger explosion, and then the graphite became incandescent and fire was everywhere. Net result: huge amounts of radiation exploded into the atmosphere.
OK, one more today. It's not exactly a correction to something I said in an episode, but it does correct something that I, and probably most of us, always assumed. In the episode discussing the untrue miracle claims that you can run your car's engine on water, I referenced the size of the explosion when the external tank exploded during the 1986 launch of the space shuttle Challenger. I'd always believed Challenger was destroyed by the explosion, but it wasn't. Turns out the explosion we all saw was more bark than bite. The rupture of the main tank caused one of the solid rocket boosters to rip loose. The main tank then disintegrated, leaving the two boosters and the Challenger flying along at anomalous angles. Like any aircraft would, the Challenger broke up from aerodynamic forces when flying in a direction other than forward. So there you have it. The Challenger neither exploded, nor was it destroyed by an explosion.
Listeners, keep me honest. Keep those corrections coming. The more we can find, the better a resource Skeptoid will become.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "In Which I Am the Very Picture of Error Personified." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
20 May 2014. Web.
18 Jan 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4415>
References & Further Reading
Cowan, G. "The Last Flight of Frederick Valentich." The Skeptic. 1 Dec. 2009, Volume 29, Number 4: 26-30.
Edwards, F. Stranger Than Science. New York: L. Stuart, 1959. 34-36.
Kaplan, H. Nathan Mayer Rothschild and the Creation of a Dynasty: The Critical Years 1806-1816. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.
NASA. Implementation of the Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Washington, DC: Rogers Commission, 1987.
NEA. Chernobyl: Assessment of Radiological and Health Impacts. Paris: Nuclear Energy Agency, 2002.
WHO. Health risk assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2013.
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