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Listener Feedback: History vs. Pseudohistory

Donate Brian responds to listener feedback about past history episodes.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions, History & Pseudohistory

Skeptoid Podcast #475
July 14, 2015
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Listener Feedback: History vs. Pseudohistory

The longer I do Skeptoid, the more I wish I'd studied history instead of computer science and writing. Inside every piece of history is a lesson that's relevant today; and inside every piece of manufactured pseudohistory is just the opposite, a crime against the understanding of our own nature. Skeptoid episodes dealing with the separation of real history from pseudohistory almost always turn out to be among my favorites for this very reason; I almost always learn something about human nature. Today we're going to answer a few emails sent in by listeners who had responses or questions to some of these particular Skeptoid episodes.

The Santa Barbara Simoom

The first came from Gratto in Fresno, CA, in reference to the episode on the Santa Barbara Simoom of 1859, a legendary event of extreme heat on the California coast. The consensus is that it was a greatly exaggerated occasion of a normal seasonal hot wind at that location, but Gratto asked:

Not that it would cause "the great simoon of 1859", but could this anecdote have any relation to the solar storm of 1859?

It's a worthwhile question. First of all, there's a quick "No" because the apocryphal Simoom happened in June, and the solar storm happened from late August through early September. But the larger question is can a solar event affect the Earth's weather? Well, we can't say for sure that it can't, but we do know that we've never observed it to happen. Solar events affect the ionosphere, and only in the very strongest events (such as the 1859 one) do many charged particles make it to the ground to wreak havoc with electrical equipment. But the daily weather is one thing; long-term trends that we call climate are another. There is some evidence that during the peak of the sun's 11-year solar activity cycle, stratospheric temperatures might be slightly warmer or slightly cooler above and below the poles, depending on which way the Earth is tilted relative to the solar wind. The mechanism for this is not well understood. But, so far as we know, there is no evidentiary basis to try and correlate specific weather events with solar storms.

Who Was the First to Climb Everest?

A disproportionate amount of the feedback I got on the episode studying whether George Mallory and Sandy Irvine may have beaten Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to the summit of Everest by 30 years had to do with the fact that it still wouldn't "count" because they didn't make it back alive. I tried to make the point in the episode that this was not the question we were trying to answer, but I guess a lot of listeners didn't get it. We were considering only the question of whether Mallory and Irvine got to the summit. From my own non-expert analysis of the history, the evidence seems overwhelming that Mallory and Irvine could not have, and probably didn't get anywhere close. Here's a comment from Rob in Kent:

I know people who've climbed Everest from the Tibet side, good climbers, too, not people who've paid to be nursemaided up by Sherpas, and they're pretty unanimous in believing that it's almost certain that Mallory and Irvine would have fallen attempting the Second Step. The only people I know of who've climbed the Second Step "clean" are American Conrad Anker and Brit Leo Houlding, in 2007. I don't keep up with Everest news that closely, so this may have been repeated since, but suffice it to say that both are much better technical rock climbers than even Mallory was, never mind Irvine. The Second Step is graded as either 5.10 (US) or E1/E2 (UK). The hardest technical climb Mallory did, at low level, in the UK, was HVS or US 5.9...near sea level without cold/altitude issues. A whole grade lower than Second Step.

This is just more evidence against Mallory and Irvine having made it. Nobody is known to have climbed the 30-meter sheer Second Step until 1960, when it took a team of five experienced climbers actually standing on each other's shoulders. That Irvine could have made it all, with virtually no technical rock climbing experience, strains credibility. This compounds the whole time problem, that at the time and place they were last seen it would have been impossible for them to be either en route to a successful summiting, or on their way back from the summit. The scenario that seems most likely is that they made it to the Second Step, spent some time reconnoitering for a way around, and then headed back toward Camp VI, during which they both fell and perished in unknown circumstances — Irvine's ice axe left where he fell, and Mallory's body found tumbled a long way down the slope.

Incidentally, I reported in the episode that the precise location of Irvine's ice axe is not known because it has not been re-found since it was discovered by a 1933 expedition. In fact the axe was collected by the expedition with notes made on its location, and it's now on display at the Shrewsbury School Archive where Irvine had attended.

The Missing Flight 19

Flight 19 was the loss of all five aircraft in a Navy training accident off the coast of Florida in 1946, that was extensively fictionalized by author Charles Berlitz in his creation of the Bermuda Triangle legend. Radio transcripts show that the only cause of the loss was the flight leader's own inexplicable loss of sense of direction and location, and he simply led his planes out to sea until they ran out of fuel. But Ralph from Nottingham put forth an alternate explanation I'd never heard before:

One rather creepy theory about Flight 19 is that they accidentally flew into a British secret experiment which was being conducted to mess up enemy navigational equipment, i.e. it was a 'friendly fire' incident. Bermuda is a British colony, much used by the Royal Navy for all sorts of secret stuff... They would hardly have publicised such an occurence, giving everything away to the Russians. Electronic warfare is now the big killer.

It's intriguing but I wouldn't give it much credence. Even 70 years later there's no known technology that could have remotely caused a single pilot to become disoriented without harming the other pilots or causing any equipment failures. It is true that the Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda existed there until 1958, but I've found no record that the dockyard had anything to do with secret weapons testing.

John Glenn's Fireflies

In our episode about out of place artifacts — usually objects that are apparently modern but found in ancient locations — most respondents appreciated learning about what proper analysis of these objects revealed. But there are always some listeners who can never be satisfied. One was Clyde23, who obviously has a very specific sacred cow, and thinks Skeptoid is afraid to address it because it overturns accepted science. In Clyde23's case, it's video from a 1991 space shuttle flight that shows objects moving around space in an extraordinary manner:

I've noticed this site has avoided the infamous NASA STS 48 video like the plague... It's easy to primp and preen and stroke one's own ego while attacking ambiguous mystery subjects — quite another to deal with real-deal evidence of the EXTRAordinary... I know how sites like this work, you will ONLY deal with subjects and stories that CAN fit into your already preconceived notions of the nature of reality (and can "reasonably" be explained), those that don't, you you steer completely clear of...

But the explanation for these moving objects was never a mystery. They were never surprising to anyone who understood spaceflight, and were never unexplained. They were simply ice crystal debris from the orbiter, which appeared in the video when they drifted out of the orbiter's shadow and into the sunlight, and then suddenly moved when one of the orbiter's aft attitude control rockets was fired. Not too dissimilar from the "fireflies" that John Glenn reported seeing outside his window when he first orbited the Earth in his Mercury capsule.

In the next Mercury flight, astronaut Scott Carpenter was supposed to see if he could duplicate Glenn's fireflies, which he found he could do easily by thumping on the hatch, producing what he described as hundreds of them, and surmised them to be frost covering the capsule. These small crystals also form when a spacecraft dumps liquid waste — the nickname of which (given by astronaut Wally Schirra) may help you guess the source: constellation Urion.

In all my years of doing Skeptoid, I've never once come across a topic where the paranormal or fringe explanation turned out to be so likely true that it would upset my worldview and make me fear to report it. I was only able to squeeze a few of the best known out of place artifacts into this particular episode, but the STS-48 UFOs did not make the cut.

Hearst & Hemp

Perhaps the most controversial of our dives into pseudohistory was the exploration of whether the hemp industry in the United States was indeed killed by a conspiracy led by William Randolph Hearst in the early 1900s. The short answer is that it wasn't, but Rick from Framingham asked a common question:

My question for you, Brian, is what research has been done on hemp as a replacement for disposable paper products: paper towels, toilet paper, paper plates, napkins, etc? Those always seemed to me to be a ridiculous waste of timber, so they would be ideal candidates for hemp replacement.

Remember that the days of Hearst are nearly a century behind us. Monopolies and trusts are a thing of the past. The paper industry has been free for a long time to do whatever it wants to do, within environmental law; and industrial hemp is just as legal to grow as timber. Both are renewable resources (people often forget that trees are just as renewable as any other crop). If one were cheaper and better to use than the other, you'd see competing paper companies taking advantage. The fact that they all still rely almost entirely on wood is that its fibers are simply far superior for making paper. However, there are plenty of boutique companies that make hemp paper products. You're free to buy them. Check them out, and see which you prefer. First you might want to read some online reviews of hemp toilet paper though: to be remotely usable it has to incorporate a lot of cotton, and even so, many reviewers report that it's quite coarse. But, knock yourself out.

Remember: understanding history means understanding ourselves. Promoting false history, even with the best of intentions, is always harmful. When you hear a rumor about something weird from history, never assume that it's true. The Internet has, unfortunately, become the world's largest repository of bad information and untrue historical claims, so you have to take everything with a giant grain of salt. Keep your questions and comments coming in to Skeptoid, and I'll do my best to find the answers.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: History vs. Pseudohistory." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 14 Jul 2015. Web. 27 May 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Adams, C. "Is Hemp the Answer to Our Environmental Problems?" The Straight Dope. Sun-Times Media, 31 Jan. 1997. Web. 4 Feb. 2014. <>

Gieringer, D. "The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California." Contemporary Drug Problems. 1 Jul. 1999, Volume 26, Number 2.

Holman, G., Benedict, S. "Questions and Answers: Do Solar Flares Affect the Weather?" Solar Flare Theory. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 29 Jan. 1997. Web. 19 Aug. 2014. <>

Kusche, L. The Disappearance of Flight 19. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Norton, J. "What Really Happened to George Mallory & Andrew Irvine?" The MountainWorld Blog. MountainWorld Productions, 2 May 2010. Web. 18 May. 2014. <>

Pearlman, R. "John Glenn's Fireflies and the Astronauts' Constellation." 365 Days of Astronomy. CosmoQuest, 20 Feb. 2009. Web. 19 Aug. 2014. <>


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