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You've Got to Be Wrong to Be Right

Donate Skeptoid corrects another round of errors from past episodes.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #505
February 9, 2016
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You've Got to Be Wrong to Be Right

Well, you don't really have to be wrong to be right, but I'm running out of clever titles for my corrections episodes. This is another in my ongoing sub-series of episodes dedicated to correcting mistakes made on the show. Cicero once said words to the effect of "Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error." So in an effort to disguise the fact that I actually am an idiot, I hereby correct a number of errors.

The Mechanical Turk and Maria Theresa

Let's turn back to the episode about the Mechanical Turk, the automaton that traveled the world through the 1700s and 1800s and beat everyone at chess wherever it went. We had a couple of errors in this one, fortunately both were minor enough and did not impact the show's conclusions. I mentioned Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria-Hungary, who ruled when the Turk was originally constructed for her court. I received this email from David in Israel:

Finally I caught an error in one of your episodes - shame on you Brian. You should have fact-checked!

Maria Theresa was NEVER Empress of Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary did not exist until 1867 in response to political crises within the Austrian Empire. It was ruled by Franz Joseph until his death in 1916 then by his Grand Nephew, Charles until it was dissolved in 1918 at the conclusion of World War 1.

He's absolutely right, I should have fact checked. Often I'll read something in one source and put it down without double checking against other sources. She had about every other title, though. According to Wikipedia, her title was:

Maria Theresa, by the Grace of God, Dowager Empress of the Romans, Queen of Hungary, of Bohemia, of Dalmatia, of Croatia, of Slavonia, of Galicia, of Lodomeria, etc.; Archduchess of Austria; Duchess of Burgundy, of Styria, of Carinthia and of Carniola; Grand Princess of Transylvania; Margravine of Moravia; Duchess of Brabant, of Limburg, of Luxemburg, of Guelders, of Württemberg, of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Milan, of Mantua, of Parma, of Piacenza, of Guastalla, of Auschwitz and of Zator; Princess of Swabia; Princely Countess of Habsburg, of Flanders, of Tyrol, of Hainault, of Kyburg, of Gorizia and of Gradisca; Margravine of Burgau, of Upper and Lower Lusatia; Countess of Namur; Lady of the Wendish Mark and of Mechlin; Dowager Duchess of Lorraine and Bar, Dowager Grand Duchess of Tuscany.

Rather redefines "overachiever" for you, doesn't it? And as David notes, she was the ruler of Austria and of Hungary, but Austria-Hungary wouldn't be a thing until about a century later.

The Mechanical Turk and Kempelen's Epitaph

And while we're on the subject, I got the following email from Cat in Los Angeles, a classicist, regarding the inscription on the gravestone of Werner von Kempelen, the creator of the Turk, which I had as Non orbis moriar:

The quotation at the end of your podcast on the Mechanical Chess-Playing Turk should run: Non omnis morior. It means "I shall not die entirely" or "Not all of me shall die"... The problem I saw is that non orbis morior translates literally as 'I do not die as a circle'.

Cat is absolutely correct; apparently I had the James Bond family motto on the brain when I copied this down — Orbis non sufficit — so I accidentally substituted orbis for omnis. Moriar is apparently what Kempelen has on his gravestone, which is the subjunctive; while Cat and other might argue that the indicative morior is more appropriate. So Non omnis moriar it is.

Correction to the correction: In the podcast of this, I accidentally said orbis again when I meant omnis. I'm never going to get away from that one. And this is supposed to be a corrections episode!! Even in corrections lie error. —BD

Amadeus Theophilus Gottlieb

So long as we're speaking Latin, here's one where I uncritically parroted a belief made popular by a Hollywood movie: that Mozart's middle name was Amadeus. I gave it as such in the episode about whether Salieri murdered Mozart, another untrue belief popularized by the same movie. Scholars of the period know that neither was true. Mozart's baptism name was Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. Joannes Chrysostomus was St. John Chrysostom, whose feast day was Mozart's birthday; and it was a tradition in the Catholic Church to name children after a saint (called their saint's name) and also a secular name, which for Mozart was Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. Theophilus is Greek for "love of God". As Austrians, the family spoke German, and his father Leopold announced his birth giving the name Wolfgang Gottlieb, the German version of the name. This was the common name that he went by.

But as a multilingual musician in Europe, Mozart followed the tradition of other composers who published their work with localized names; for example, Ludwig van Beethoven was Luigi, Louis, or Ludwig depending on where he was. Mozart began playfully referring to himself as Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus from an early age, and from his letters throughout his life, it was clear that Amadeus was the version of his middle name that he preferred. So if we're splitting hairs, Theophilus was his legal middle name; Gottlieb was his common middle name; and Amadeus was his preferred middle name.

Correction to the correction: In the podcast of this, I accidentally said Mozart murdered Salieri, rather than the other way around, an absurd slip of the tongue. The playwrights didn't change history that much. —BD

The Ark of the Covenant and the Stone Tablets

And lest we stray too far from things I uncritically believed when I heard them in movies so never bothered to independently verify them, you may remember Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark describing the Ark of the Covenant's contents:

"The Ark of the Covenant, the chest the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments in."
"What do you mean, the Ten Commandments? You're talking about THE Ten Commandments?"
"Yes, the actual Ten Commandments. The original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing."

And that's the extent of what I knew about the contents of the Ark of the Covenant, and parroted the claim in the 2012 episode about where it is today. But then I got this email from Cindy in Germany:

Just a quick correction on an old article.  In Raiding the Ark of the Covenant, (Skeptoid Podcast #327, September 11, 2012), you say:

“…  the Ark of the Covenant, the holy box in which the smashed stone tablets of the original Ten Commandments were said to have been stored by Moses himself.”

but this is not accurate.  According to the story, the smashed tablets were replaced, and the replacements put in the Ark.  Don’t worry, Indiana Jones made the same mistake. :-)

She then gave exhaustive Bible references (Exodus 32:19, 34:1-4, 34:28-29, 40:20), verifying that the correct version of the story is that Moses brought two replacement tablets back up the mountain, spent 40 days and 40 nights with neither food nor water to write the commandments onto these copies, and then placed these replicas into the Ark. This is what happens when you believe, as I seem to, that every Hollywood movie is a perfect, unerring, literal account of true events.

Devil's Hole, Death Valley

Now we're going to go way back to an episode from 2007, Bizarre Places I'd Like to Go, which included a mention of the Devils Hole in the Nevada part of Death Valley. It's an underground water system, best known as the home of a unique pupfish species living only on a single shelf near the surface of the tiny puddle which serves as the only place this massive system sees the light of day. In the episode, I said the Devils Hole stretches underground all the way to Montezuma Well, a famous spring in Arizona, 450 kilometers away. This was ridiculously wrong, and I've no idea where I got that information. Common wisdom, which I should have found, was that the water originated in the nearby Spring Mountains.

But then, three years after my episode, geologists finally pinpointed the source of the aquifer that feeds Ash Meadows, the basin where Devils Hole comes to the surface. The water flowing from the Ash Meadows spring has just completed a 15,000-year journey along a fault called the Gravity Fault which terminates under the Nevada Test Site, about 75 kilometers away. The isotopic signatures of the water proved the match, and also proved that the aquifers were more compartmentalized than was previously known. So even if I'd gotten it right in 2007, it would have still been wrong, because science is continuously self-correcting and improving.

While the exact extent of the Devils Hole cavern is not known, it is proven to go down at least 300 feet and quite possibly further. At least three divers have lost their lives there, and none have been recovered.

The Newest Oldest Tree

Here's a correction that's some good news: in my episode on the Biggest, Oldest, and Baddest living things on Earth I mentioned Methuselah, a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine tree in the White Mountains of California, aged, 4,848 years. A number of people emailed to advise me that in 2012, two years before the episode came out, an even older tree in the same grove was discovered. This tree's location, and also its identity, have been kept secret, but it is known and verified by its core. It is 5,056 years old. It was actually cored in the 1950s, but the researcher who did it never got a chance to count its rings before he died. There it sat for some 60 years until a research tech from the University of Arizona discovered that he'd just found the new oldest tree in the world.

The Energy of Chemical Energy

Finally, we must correct a basic science error that I made in the episode debunking the concept of "energy fields" surrounding human bodies. I said:

A liter of gasoline has chemical energy stored in molecular bonds that, when broken, produce an exothermic chemical reaction.

I promptly received the following email from Matan in Israel:

The above sentence seems to support the common misconception that energy is released when chemical bonds are broken. In fact, breaking a chemical bond costs energy, and energy is released when a chemical bond is formed... When the total amount of energy released by the formation of the new bonds is greater than the amount required to break the old ones - the reaction is exothermic (this is the case with combustion of gasoline).

I stand corrected, and also note that this is a surprisingly common misconception. The same goes when you digest food: it costs your body energy to break those bonds, which is why cooking is largely analogous to digestion, it puts energy in to break those bonds. And then one of the basic forms of metabolizing food to produce energy is oxidation, which is the formation of a chemical bond.

Stand tall and take pride in keeping me on point: Keep those corrections coming in. Drop me an email any time you find an error, and if you're right, I'll gladly fix it. Especially if you tell me I need to retract my episode about ghosts because your friend's sister's very reliable Uncle Bob saw one once, and he's the kind of man who would never make anything up, and all third-hand reports of his observations are literal, unerring accounts unmarred by perceptual or memory errors.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "You've Got to Be Wrong to Be Right." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 9 Feb 2016. Web. 23 Apr 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Brown, P. "OldList." Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research. Peter M. Brown, 1 Jan. 2016. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. <>

Bushman, M., Nelson, S., Tingey, D., Eggett, D. "Regional groundwater flow in structurally-complex extended terranes: An evaluation of the sources of discharge at Ash Meadows, Nevada." Journal of Hydrology. 28 May 2010, Volume 386, Issues 1-4: 118-129.

Crankshaw, E. Maria Theresa. New York: Atheneum, 1986.

Deutsch, O. Mozart: A Documentary Biography. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965.

Miller, G. "Ending Misconceptions About the Energy of Chemical Bonds." AP Central. CollegeBoard, 6 May 2007. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <>

Standage, T. The Turk. New York: Walker & Co., 2002.


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