Skeptoid corrects another batch of errors from previous episodes.
by Brian Dunning
July 26, 2016
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Today, once again, it's time to go back into some old episodes and correct some errors. I keep a log of these and every time there are enough to fill an episode, I put out a show of all the corrections. A few I catch myself after the fact, but most are sent in by diligent listeners whose expertise exceeds the bounds of my own research, something that's inevitable considering how many different subjects we try to cover on this show.
Let's begin with the recent episode on homing pigeons. We talked about some research that had been undertaken in the Ukraine. Oops! Faux pas. The correct name of the country is Ukraine. But back in the days of the Soviet Union, many people referred to that part of the Union as the Ukraine region, or just the Ukraine, the same way that people anywhere might refer to the southern part of their country as the South. But since 1991 they've been their own independent country, and entitled to be called by their own proper name, and not as "the" region of anyone else's country. My apologies to Ukrainians for this all-too-common slip-up. I hope to visit one day.
This next one is more of a clarification than an error, but certainly bears a mention. Going way back to episode 42 on chiropractic, we discussed the history of the profession as it was invented by its founder Daniel Palmer, and carried on by his son BJ Palmer. Palmer's basic principle was that all disease was caused by a hypothesized displacement of the vertebrae, which he called a subluxation, causing an interruption to the flow of a vital force he called innate intelligence. The Palmers may have been the first to call this chiropractic in a 1910 book, but the concept was not theirs. It came at least 30 years earlier, from another self-taught maverick, Andrew Taylor Still, the creator of osteopathy. It was Still who developed the concept of the spinal subluxation as the cause of disease, and of the practice of manipulating the spine and back to treat anything and everything. Still called it spinal rubbing, but it was basically the same as the Palmers' chiropractic. Palmer's book was little more than a regurgitation of Still's osteopathy.
By the way, don't confuse Stills' 19th-century osteopathy with today's osteopathic doctors. In the United States, modern osteopathic physicians are legitimate board-certified medical professionals, unlike chiropractors who have their own self-certification. Schools granting the DO degree provide essentially the same training as schools granting MDs, with the exception that they also include a few hundred hours of poorly-evidenced manipulative training. Most modern osteopaths do not practice this.
Jumping now to my episode on what kind of musical scale alien civilizations might use, based on certain universal constants, I made a basic blunder. I referred to a chromatic scale (all 12 musical notes in an octave) as a diatonic scale (the seven notes in an octave represented by the white keys on a piano). My bad, no excuse. And yes those are simplified explanations and in certain contexts the terms can have slightly different meanings — i.e., a diatonic scale is really five whole tones and two semitones, organized differently depending on the mode, but please let's limit the pedantry to — well, whatever I want to be pedantic about.
And I'm going to employ that now, self-pedantifying. I have contributed to a gross dereliction of optical science, and people have been burned at the stake for less. In at least three Skeptoid episodes, I have misused the term Fata Morgana mirage. I do not know to what degree my own misuse has been responsible for the now torrential misuse by every reporter in the world who now uses it to describe every optical phenomenon, sometimes those that aren't even mirages at all. In my episodes on the Marfa Lights in Texas, the Min Min Light in Australia, and the one on how to approach a subject skeptically I talked about how ghost lights may be the result of a Fata Morgana mirage. Wrong! The lights I was discussing may have been (and in the case of the Min Min Light, was proven to be) a simple superior mirage. A superior mirage is when light bends in such a way that an object is seen higher than it really is. In rare cases, such as Min Min, this can cause a light below the horizon to be visible. Superior mirages are also responsible for the double images you see of ships and islands out to sea, sometimes two stacked on top of each other. These are very common. What's not common is the rare type that we call a Fata Morgana mirage. When the viewer is inside the same atmospheric duct inside which the light is curving — meaning it's curving down from above you and also curving up from below you — it's possible to see a whole stack of four or five or even more repetitions, perhaps even superimposed upon one another. They can look confusing and jumbled and can appear to contain details that are artifacts only and not real. Fata Morganas are clearly not consistent with the ghost lights I was discussing, and they're not consistent with anything I've heard a reporter apply the term to. So please everyone: If you're discussing something that appears to be a superior mirage, don't call it a Fata Morgana if it isn't one.
Listener Lee wrote in to point out an error in my old episode about Conservapedia, a Young Earth Creationist online encyclopedia intended for evangelical Christian homeschooled students. Its founder was initially motivated to create it when he saw the international dating convention BCE/CE used instead of BC/AD, which he viewed as an attack on Christianity. In the episode, I said that BCE/CE was merely part of the international date standard ISO 8601, which I got from some online source, but failed to actually check the standard. ISO 8601 says nothing about using BCE/CE. Instead, it suggests using a positive or negative sign in front of the year if needed. Thanks to Lee for the correction.
Here's a small yet significant correction to the episode examining the popular claim that science in the Arab-Islamic world during the golden age of science circa 1000 CE (there's that term) was halted by a theologian named Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. In the episode, I said the Quran was written by Mohammed over a period of about 20 years. Strictly speaking, he dictated it, as opposed to physically writing it himself. Still his words, but I heard from a number of Muslims who took offense. So let the record stand corrected.
In our episode about albinism facts and fiction, I repeated the popular myth that people with the most extreme form of albinism — a recessive genetic trait called OCA1 — have red eyes, suggesting that their eyes are unpigmented. Not true. Although the amount of pigmentation is reduced, they have mostly blue eyes, though some have hazel or brown. In certain lighting conditions, the retinas can be more easily visible than in normally pigmented eyes, and they might sometimes appear to be red.
It can also do no harm to mention that they're people with albinism, not albinos. They are people defined by who they are, not by one genetic trait they have. This is another change I've made to the online transcript. The fewer denigrating labels we use for people who have done nothing to earn them, the better.
Listener William sent in a quick correction to my episode on "bullshido", martial arts woo. In it I said the term McDojo is sometimes applied to schools claiming to be too exclusive to let just anyone in. In fact the term means pretty much the opposite of that; it's used for martial arts schools that have low standards and operate on a purely commercial basis, handing out blackbelts to anyone who pays for one, for example. Judging by the number of blackbelts at my kids' local schools, I'd say there are probably a few McDojos in my neighborhood.
Finally, let's turn to Waco, Texas, to the episode about the conspiracy theory claiming the government deliberately murdered all the Branch Davidians and their children. Many of those who believe this do so with an almost religious passion, and some have built an encyclopedic knowledge of their preferred version of what happened there. It's like a subtle alternate reality, where everything is changed slightly, and some of these conspiracy theorists know every inch and detail of this bizarro zone. Going in, I had a heck of a job, because it was virtually hopeless for me to get every piece of minutia correct. Sure enough, I didn't, and heard about it instantly from dozens of listeners.
My two errors had to do with the Combat Engineer Vehicles (CEVs) that were used, commonly (and incorrectly) referred to as tanks. I said that the CEVs were not armed, but in fact, they are. Instead of a big tank gun, they have a stubby little M135 demolition gun, and they also have two machine guns. However, none of these were used at Waco, and not even the conspiracy theorists claim they were. Their claim is that they had some kind of flamethrowers on them. They did not.
The other detail I got wrong was that I said the CEVs inserted tear gas into the buildings via ferret rounds, which are plastic rounds that break on impact with no explosive. Ferret rounds were used, but they were launched from some distance away by soldiers firing M79 grenade launchers from Bradley fighting vehicles. The CEVs sprayed liquid tear gas directly into the buildings using a Mark V Liquid Insertion System, basically a CO2-powered squirt gun with a 15-meter range.
Neither of these errors was substantive or changed the conclusion, but it's important to get them right. Some 75 people died that day, and when I say that the CEVs were not armed when in fact they were, that casts a huge red flag on my work. All the subjects I cover on Skeptoid are, to some degree, controversial; and my job is to present the conclusions best supported by the evidence, be it historical or scientific. When I make errors that are provable, like this one, it undermines the credibility of the show, and by extension, of skeptical outreach in general. So when you catch me making an error, let me know right away; and if we can verify the correction, I'll include it in an episode like this. If we can be upfront with our errors and gladly correct them (as so few do these days), in my mind it more than makes up for any credibility lost. The process of correction and improvement is science in action, and while it's one thing to talk about it every week, it's another to actually do it.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Wrongy McWrongface." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
26 Jul 2016. Web.
22 Jan 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4529>
References & Further Reading
Danforth, J. Final Report to the Deputy Attorney General Concerning the 1993 Confrontation at the Mt. Carmel Complex, Waco, Texas. Washington, DC: United States Attorney General, 2000.
Gardner, M. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover Publications, 1957. Chapter 16.
Haleem, M. "The Qu'ran - Introduction." Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford University Press, 17 Sep. 2008. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/book/islam-9780192831934/islam-9780192831934-miscMatter-6>
ISO. "Date and time format - ISO 8601." Standards. ISO, 5 Mar. 2013. Web. 21 Jul. 2016. <http://www.iso.org/iso/home/standards/iso8601.htm>
NOAH. "What is Albinism?" Information Bulletins. National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <http://www.albinism.org/site/c.flKYIdOUIhJ4H/b.9253761/k.24EE/Information_Bulletin__What_is_Albinism.htm>
Steinmetz, K. "Ukraine, Not the Ukraine: The Significance of Three Little Letters." World. Time, Inc., 5 Mar. 2014. Web. 21 Jul. 2016. <http://time.com/12597/the-ukraine-or-ukraine/>
Young, A. "Types of Mirages." An Introduction to Green Flashes. San Diego State University, 13 May 2015. Web. 21 Jul. 2016. <http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~aty/mirages/mirtypes.html>
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