Into Thin Error
In the immortal words of Victor Hugo, "To rise from error to truth is rare and beautiful." And so, let it not be said that Skeptoid is not both of those things, for today we're going back to previous episodes which contained — shall we say — statements that fell outside of the margin of error. "Delay," said Thomas Jefferson, "is preferable to error." But he was probably not referring to shows with a weekly broadcast schedule. Once each week I'm forced to strike the gavel and declare an episode as factual as I have time to make it. This week we're going to take a breath, and spend the time instead going back and making as many corrections as we can find.
The typical correction email that I receive, as I've described before, is, unfortunately, usually just a bombastic assertion, blurted forth and accompanied by a link to a YouTube video, and an exhortation that I should "do sum resrch b4 spouting my opinons". I concur. Few such emails make it into these corrections episodes. Fortunately, every week there are also plenty of listeners more expert on that week's topic than I am. One such person is Dr. Peter Vamplew, who was a subject of our episode on white hat journal hoaxes. Peter is the guy who challenged a predatory pay-to-publish journal in India to publish a paper consisting of the phrase "Get me off your f**king mailing list" repeated 772 times. They agreed, for a fee of $150, which he elected to keep in his pocket. In the episode, I noted that fortunately, this journal had since folded and disappeared. However, shortly after the episode came out, I got this note from Peter:
Oh well. I guess such high journalistic standards are an immutable pillar of marble. I wonder if they'd publish a transcript of that episode? Hmmm...
The episode Al-Ghazali and Arab-Islamic Science examined the pop culture belief that 12th century Persian theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali was, in large part, solely responsible for the Arab-Islamic world's abandonment of scientific achievement following their Golden Age. I made reference to the quote "The scholar's ink is more sacred than the blood of martyrs", somewhat reminiscent of the 19th century English quote "The pen is mightier than the sword." I attributed it to the Quran, as do some online sources. Listener George wrote in:
And sure enough, it only takes a spot of research to see that the saying is attributed to at least two other authors, in addition to Mohammed and the Quran. It does not appear that there is a clear attribution, but it is clearly not in the Quran. Let the correction be noted.
A fan favorite episode was the one about the Min Min Light, a ghost light reported in the Australian outback for a long time. In the introduction to the episode, I read a popular account, said by a number of sources to be the earliest known report of the Min Min Light. But then, listener Guy wrote in:
Very true. The Ovens River area is nowhere near the "channel country" with its unique terrain that traps warm air as the evening grows cooler. This can trigger a superior mirage, like those visible out to sea when the water is warmer than the air, and a ship or a light below the horizon can be seen above the horizon. I can't say anything at all about the Horton James account, and it should not be associated with the very-far-away Min Min Light.
So now let's head northwest of Australia to India, where we talked about the urban legends of evidence of ancient atomic blasts having been discovered. Turns out it was all completely fabricated circa 1992, giving fake quotes from a real ancient Indian text called the Mahabharata. Listener Ben wrote in to advise me that someone else had also written about it decades earlier:
Well, so he did. I dusted off my trusted copy of Chariots of the Gods — as one does — and found the chapter Ben directed me to. However I found nothing that could reasonably be interpreted as an atomic blast. I did find, however, that all the Mahabharata quotes given by Von Daniken were fake. So the tradition of making up fake content claimed to be from an actual ancient text was not, in fact, original with the anonymous 1992 author, but it does appear that the atomic blasts were.
A quick note on the episode about the doomed Lost Expedition of Sir John Franklin. This was the mid-19th century British expedition to the Canadian Arctic, in which — unfortunately — all hands were lost, and some were even cannibalized. Several times in the episode I referred to "Sir Franklin". Listener Mark wrote:
No problem, if the label fits, wear it. I am undoubtedly ignorant of many aspects of royal protocol. However, as soon as Mark mentioned this, I did remember having heard it before. Must have slipped into one of those brain cracks, along with the name of the magician bad guy on that weird old Saturday morning TV show where everyone's a hat. But I digress.
In the episode about the infamous Majestic 12 UFO papers, I offered an example of government disinformation: that during the Battle of Britain, the Allies wanted to prevent the Nazis from discovering the true reason their night fighters were so successful against the German bombers of The Blitz. So they concocted a disinformation cover story: that they fed their pilots a lot of carrots, and carrots are good for the eyesight; a myth that was so successful it persists even today. The real reason, of course, was the British radar.
Listener Steve pointed out:
Steve is exactly right. Ground based radar was no secret by then, and the Germans had it too. It was the British Mark IV Airborne Interception radar, installed on twin-engine Bristol Beaufighter aircraft, that allowed them to find German bombers in the sky, day or night, clear or cloudy, and shoot them down.
Now let's jump ahead a few decades and a continent away, and go to Washington state, in the late 1990s. My episode about Mel's Hole described the legend of a mysterious bottomless pit, said to be on the property of some guy named Mel, and a bunch of paranormal phenomena associated with the pit. It turns out that the entire thing was based only on a series of crank calls made to the Coast to Coast AM radio program between 1997 and 2002. But among those who preferred to take it as a literally true account, some parts of the tale were quite foreboding. For instance, Mel claimed that government agents removed the entire location from Google Earth as part of their campaign to cover up its existence. Listener Alan caught me on this, and said:
So although I briefly considered doubling down and insisting that yes, Mel was a time traveler, instead I concede that Alan is exactly right. Going back to the transcripts and online communities of bottomless pit enthusiasts, it transpires that TerraServer is what was claimed, not Google Earth. The erroneous substitution was mine. TerraServer, launched in 1997, made aerial imagery available to the web at the time of Mel's crank calls to the radio station. Thus, the nonexistent government agents didn't remove the nonexistent pit from TerraServer, not from the nonexistent Google Earth. I hope that clears things up.
So those are the corrections for this week. It's noteworthy that none of these are substantive. Yes, of course it's important to get smaller details right, but not nearly as important as it is for the overall conclusion to be right. And in all of these corrections episodes I've done, I don't think there's ever been one where the overall conclusion of the episode had to be overturned. Why not? Well, it's really because a fundamental knowledge-based finding is relatively easy to track down. It's much easier to say "Bigfoot's not real" — which is true — than it is to give all the many reasons why we know that's the case, which may dip into many sciences and documentary research, every one of which is a potential pitfall. It's the old example of a science field being like an onion. The core is usually pretty solid; it's all those layers that get progressively flakier the further out you go.
Although I seldom have time to go back and re-record old episodes to correct these errors, I do try to always update the online transcripts with a note about what was corrected. Do also keep in mind that transcripts for all episodes on the website print out into nicely formatted PDF documents, suitable for sharing or printing.
In the meantime, please keep the corrections coming in. Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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