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Listener Feedback: Natural History

Today we're going to answer questions sent in by listeners pertaining to episodes having to do with our natural world.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #478
August 4, 2015
Podcast transcript | Download | Subscribe



Who doesn't love the wonders of our natural world? Nobody, that's who. And fortunately, it offers plenty of opportunities for learning. Not only does our natural world present a nearly limitless encyclopedia of observable facts, it also gives us plenty of mysteries to ponder. So today we're going to our listener feedback mailbag to answer some questions sent in by listeners pertaining to Skeptoid episodes having to do with our natural world, which are always among my favorites.

My episode on the biggest, the oldest, and the baddest living things on the planet drew lots of feedback of the "What about this or that creature?" variety. It turned out to be really hard to categorize things. Just as an example, when we ask what's the oldest living thing, do we include plants and animals and other things? Do we include clonal organisms? Do we have different categories for single-celled and multiple-celled creatures? I broke it down as best as I could to squeeze all three big, old, and bad categories into an episode, but it would have been impossible to do a truly comprehensive breakdown.

One of the sad stories of old trees is when a researcher trying to date a tree with a coring bit got the bit stuck, and had to have the forest service cut the tree down to retrieve the expensive bit. He was later horrified to count the rings and see that he'd just killed the oldest tree ever recorded. However, Ron from Mountain View, CA brought a piece of good news that I hadn't heard:

I, too, was saddened to read about how a graduate student in the 1960s inadvertently cut down "Prometheus" - believed to be the oldest tree in the world. It is of some slight consolation, however, to learn that another (still-living) bristlecone pine, in the same area, was recently measured as being even older; it's currently 5062 years old.

In my episode on whether the thylacine, aka the Tasmanian tiger, still exists on that Australian island, a number of listeners noted that much of Tasmania is so densely forested that it's impossible to do a real survey. Here's one such note from Hemlock in Australia:

For those readers who have not actually visited Tasmania however, I must point out that the statement "Tasmania is only about the size of the state of Maine, and although it's considerably less developed, even its remotest locales are simply not all that remote" is in no way a fair or valid geographical assessment. A great deal of Tasmania is not only densely forested, but also extremely mountainous; it is thus reasonable to characterise many thousands of square kilometres of the state as being remote wilderness, where humans never venture... While there are many valid reasons to be sceptical in regard to the possibility of surviving thylacines in Tasmania, the lack of suitably "remote" habitat is certainly not one of them!

Thus, it might be a like a crashed plane in a jungle so dense that it will literally never be found. But a couple of other listeners answered this better than I could, so I'll let them respond. Zeph from Sonoma County said:

But unlike the downed plane, a large predator has to cover substantial territory, and if there are a lot of automatic game trail cameras sufficient to capture all other large species, but not finding Tas Tigers, that would be counter-evidence. A crashed plane doesn't have to hunt. And as Brian notes, to survive for long there must be a population, not just one.

Rob in Colombo, Sri Lanka added:

Thylacine lived in thinly wooded areas; it was a creature of the open plain. Asking a Thylacine to survive in the densely wooded centre of Tasmania (which I have walked, unlike most of you) is like asking a whale to become at home on the seashore.

One episode that surprised me with the amount of controversial feedback that it generated was the one examining the predicted nuclear winter that would follow a nuclear war. Later research indicates that the short-term effects on climate would almost certainly not be as dire as originally calculated, and that it would probably be more like a nuclear autumn. But as I quoted Freeman Dyson at the end of the article, this is a very difficult point to make without sounding like you're in favor of nuclear war. Jon from Tokyo said:

Funny, but nuclear war is one of those topics where I don't mind a bit of excess fearmongering. Whether it's 3rd degree burns, nuclear winter, disease, starvation, gangs of mutants or giant scorpions, anything that might make someone think twice before pushing the button is fine by me.

The Alpha Geek from Long Island said:

Thank you for allaying my fears, Brian. Nuclear Autumn will be so much better than Nuclear Winter.

Febo from Manchester said:

It seems to me the only possible purpose of this article is flame-baiting; an excuse for Brian to act all superior and condescending as soon as the inevitable misinterpretations of it as a defense of nuclear weapons begin.

So, evidently, it's my turn to be all superior and condescending now. Freeman Dyson was right, it's a subject you can't talk about without being made out to be the bad guy. But I still say the fundamental tenet of scientific skepticism should apply here too: If you want to be able to make the right decisions, you have to know the way the world really works. I think you'd have to be pretty thick to conclude that the best way to prepare for a nuclear war is to prepare for the wrong scenario. We have limited resources, and we have to know how best to allocate them. For example, if it turns out that crops are not likely to be affected as much as we initially feared, maybe we can instead focus on stockpiling other commodities like uncontaminated water. I don't know what all of these resources and commodities are going to be, but I do know that mischaracterizing the nature of an impending disaster will not lead to the most effective preparations.

The Yonaguni Monument is the name given to a natural underwater rock formation off of Japan that some people insist is a manmade city. An anonmyous listener wrote:

In this case it appears that the skeptic's explanation is just as much based on speculation. No one has absolute proof as to how these rock formations were created. But if you declare yourself a skeptic, suddenly you're granted credibility?

This is a common response that we all receive when we offer a science-based perspective of something perceived to be a mystery. No, neither I nor anyone else should be granted credibility based on who we are or what perspective we tend to embrace; rather, our statements should be individually evaluated based on their content. I make no assertion that Yonaguni is a natural formation because I came to that conclusion. But I can tell you how I came to that conclusion. Just like every other piece of ocean floor, the area around this particular Japanese island has its own type of geology. What's been called the Yonaguni Monument fits in very well with its surrounding geology and offers no reason to doubt that it's simply more of the same. As Joseph from London pointed out:

All you need to do to realise that the site was never a functional human site is to look at 3D plans of the "structure". It has no visible logical layout or evidence of planning. Even with covered over Roman settlements in the UK, you can get an idea of layout and function. With Yonaguni, there is no evidence of any functional construction, no matter how much a single part of it may look like a set of steps etc.

Beyond the anthropological and archaeological evidence that tells us that it's a virtual certainty nobody was living there at the time Yonaguni was last above sea level, we simply have a lack of any evidence that it's manmade. It matches its surrounding geography, even though it has some impressive individual features — just like how the Swiss Alps have the Matterhorn. We've no reason to suspect that's manmade either.

The Bell Island Boom was a lightning superbolt that struck Bell Island, Newfoundland, in 1978, damaging a farmhouse and the electrical grid, and creating a terrific noise. Though the cause was quickly identified by atmospheric researchers, the explanation that has persisted in pop culture was that it was some kind of secret weapon test. Investigators asked lots of people lots of questions and got mountains of information, much of which probably had nothing to do with the actual event. Colin from Frederick, MD said:

What I don't like about your explanation is to dismiss the "boy's story" and the "high-pitched tone" because it doesn't fit with your theory or the researched theories. That's dirty pool mister, or in this case selective science. Hopefully you'll come back with why this is considered "anecdotal." There's no reason to believe that the boy or those people had any reason to make up fact or embellish this story when it was already pretty wild. It seems to me that these instances were brought up by people that had no reason to lie and their credibility was not questioned either.

I will gladly explain anecdotal evidence. It simply refers to evidence that's not testable. The fact that we can't verify the boy's report of a hovering orb, or see a picture of what he reported, doesn't mean we think he's lying; it only means we have nothing that we can examine and learn from. Either way, there's nothing connecting his story to the event. Similarly, the reports from the few people who said they heard a high-pitched tone simply didn't tell us anything. There's no implication that any of these people were lying. One possibility is that all of their reports were unerring, literal accounts of what happened. Another is that some people were mistaken or heard sounds unrelated to the event. Possibly some of them were exhibiting the "bandwagon effect" and just wanted to be a part of the action. No matter how much we wish we could, we have no way to test anecdotes, and so they're simply not useful in helping us prove what happened. They can suggest directions for research, but in none of these cases was anything found that could have produced high pitched noises or floating orbs.

In conclusion, I'd like to echo what Murray from Saskatchewan said on the Yonaguni Monument episode, as it aptly represents my view as well:

Why pollute the wonder of such a natural formation? It's like labelling the redwoods of California as erected by "The Great Tree-Builders of Prehistoric Times" or the Grand Canyon as dug by "The Mysterious Hole-Makers of Long Ago".

Appreciate the natural world for what it is, don't make up nonsense about it to satisfy the need for meaning. Features on our Earth do not need to have mysterious origins in order to be meaningful. That meaning doesn't have to be metaphysical or alien or anything else; it can simply be enjoyed for its majesty, its drama, its tranquility, or whatever it is you get out of it. Overlooking what's actually there in search of something that isn't is to miss the whole point of the study of our beautiful blue world.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: Natural History." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 4 Aug 2015. Web. 18 Jan 2017. <>


References & Further Reading

Fleming, A. "The Bell Island Boom." Suite 101. Media Inc., 16 Jan. 2010. Web. 17 Sep. 2010. <>

RMTRR. "OldList." Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research. RMTRR, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2014. <>

Sagan, C. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1995. 257.

Schoch, R. "An Enigmatic Ancient Underwater Structure off the Coast of Yonaguni Island, Japan." Circular Times. Dr. Colette M. Dowell, 19 Apr. 2006. Web. 20 Aug. 2010. <>

Shuker, K. "The New Guinea Thylacine: Crying Wolf in Irian Jaya?" Shuker Nature. Dr. Karl Shuker, 8 May 2013. Web. 25 Oct. 2013. <>

Thompson, S., Schneider, S. "Nuclear Winter Reappraised." Foreign Affairs. 1 Jun. 1986, Volume 62: 981-1005.


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