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2 Listener 2 Feedback

I respond to some listener feedback that enhances some recent episodes of the show.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #568
April 25, 2017
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Once again we're going to run out to the mailbox and see what the mail carrier left, and why I always start these feedback episodes with a reference to physical mail I don't know, because I don't think I've ever actually received listener feedback that way. It's usually email, or Twitter, or Facebook, or a note tied to a stone crashing through my front window. However it comes in, here is the latest batch of interesting feedback that enhances some recent episodes. Let's dive right in.

In my episode about the Norse berserkers, I proposed a rational psychology-based explanation for these mythical frenzied warriors: that their behavior as described in the sagas could be explainable by acute PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) episodes that, when triggered by fighting or stress, could launch them into a dissociative state. Listener Eve said:

Interesting argument, but I have a number of problems with it. In general, I am skeptical about diagnoses of the long dead, especially a whole class of the long dead, even more especially a whole class of the long dead who appear primarily in works of fiction. Very few of the descriptions of berserkers or berserkergang are reliable. They generally combine mythology, folklore, and literary motifs with history.

She's absolutely right, of course, with regard to fictional characters with fantastical behavior. But the behavior displayed by berserkers wasn't fantastical, it was quite believable within the context of PTSD. Moreover, I cited three or four other cultures which, today, regard certain sufferers in their own societies as berserkers, albeit by different names. There's nothing fictional about this, despite the great fictionalization in the sagas. There is no serious historical doubt that either berserkers or berserkergang — which is the Old Norse name for the behavior — were real, keeping in mind Eve's qualification.

However, from the standpoint of pure diagnostics, I heard from a number of psychologists who heartily agreed with my proposal. Here's an email from Jason:

I liked the Berserker episode because I am a clinical psychologist who treats veterans with very complex PTSD with severe dissociative features. I can tell you from my clinical experience that your description was very accurate. In fact, many veterans return to combat because that berserker feeling is more comfortable for them than being at home.

Thanks to both Jason and Eve, and to all the others who wrote in as well. There is always room for improved public education on PTSD. In recent years the word "trigger" has come to be diluted by some who misuse it to mean "offended by", when it has a very different clinical meaning. This episode probably made a lot more sense to those listeners with direct experience with PTSD sufferers during true dissociative episodes.

Let's head over now to the episode about a legend of ancient atomic blasts in India. In short, what we found is that these stories are not only purely the invention of western authors, they're not even known inside India, either by Indian locals or by the archaeologists who actually work at the sites described in the stories. In support of that finding, I got the following interesting note from listener Gary:

I just thought I'd let you know that our family happened to be vacationing in India and en route to Jodhpur when last week's podcast came out... I did ask several people including our driver, various guides, and hotel staff about the desert and the nuclear rumours. As you'd correctly guess, none of them had any idea what I was talking about. They'd literally never heard about it. Best regards,

Gary
Unofficial SE Asian Field Researcher for Skeptoid!

I wish I could always have feet on the ground for these flyaway episodes, a privilege I get all too rarely. Thank Odin for the corps of Skeptoid field researchers.

OK, heading back a bit further into the 20th century, to a minor but enduring mystery that happened while Americans held down the Home Guard duties during World War II. Dubbed the Mad Gasser of Mattoon by the local papers, someone may or may not have pumped a few sprays of some unknown compound into the open windows of a number of houses in Mattoon, Illinois in 1944. No suspect was ever identified, but a local teacher wrote a book about his own informal investigation into the affair in 2003. His theory had no proof, but he collected local stories and pointed the finger at a loner, chemical addict Farley LLewellyn, who lived in a trailer behind his parents' house, apparently running a personal meth lab. I found no records for any such person, and left his existence an open question. But then I heard from listener Walter:

I have access to Ancestry.com. I found Farley Lewellen immediately, right there in Mattoon. He is in the censuses from 1910 through 1940, which is the latest available publicly. He was apparently born in 1909, so was about 35 when the "attacks" took place or didn't. Below is the 1940 census with a summary of his data from the other years. There is no doubt about his being the same person, as he is always with the same parents.

Why did Walter find him, and I didn't? Simple: Walter spelled the name correctly. I had searched for Llewellyn with two initial Ls; Walter had searched for one, which it turns out, is how the Lewellyn family spelled it. Given this new information, everything that the more recent author wrote checked out, but with the following provisos: We still don't know if the Mad Gasser attacks actually happened or were just a local rumor promoted by the papers; and even if they did occur, only hearsay connects the hapless Farley Lewellyn to them. If Skeptoid were a court of law, Farley would walk. If he could stay on his feet.

The episode on Beethoven's Hair looked at the popular claims that testing of surviving locks of his hair revealed toxic lead poisoning that probably killed him, and those claims failed. Not only is such testing almost uselessly unreliable, Beethoven's reported symptoms didn't match those of lead poisoning. My conclusion was bolstered by Prof. Robert Greenberg, whom you may know from his many Great Courses DVDs on music and music history. Bob wrote to me:

Regarding plumbism as an explanation for Beethoven's deafness, gastric issues, and death: it was BS from day one. For the record, it could very well be that Herr B. had "100 times" more lead in his system than we currently consider normal when he died, but then many of the medicines he took during his final three months were filled with lead (and mercury), which would have boosted his lead levels tremendously. Besides, to a certain degree, everyone in contemporary Europe probably had a degree of lead poisoning: their water traveled in leaded pipes; they ate off crockery in which lead was a basic part of the glaze, and drank from glasses made of lead crystal. Lead didn't kill Beethoven; congenital cirrhosis of the liver got him.

I didn't want to take this particular detour in the episode, but through my personal correspondence with the doctor who did the lead testing of Beethoven's hair, I became persuaded that he was motivated largely by marketing his own services. He runs a clinic that tests people's hair for "toxins" and then prescribes special detoxifying diets for them. These are all concepts that are solidly outside the mainstream of science-based medicine, and for which there is next to zero evidence or plausibility. So when it comes to Beethoven, stick with the liver disease diagnosis.

A slight change of gears. I present the following email from Jake, who gives his location only as "America":

Oh my goodness. You are asking for Money, too. This not only goes out of its way to silence any kind of true skeptical thought about anything from central banking, to vaccines, to medicine, to civil liberties, but it's now trying to extort money from people. I am just embarrassed by you, Brian. If I were going to go down the rabbit hole, I'd guess you are wanting real names and emails and money details so you can compile a list of those who agree and who do not and then sell it somewhere. this is embarrassing to free thought and ethics.

What can one say. The scary thing is this is not a unique email. I hear from someone like this about once a week, making essentially the same fantastic accusations. Think about that. There is a non-trivial portion of the population out there whose thought process is truly reflected in this email. Friends, this is why we do what we do, and why we need to keep doing it. Using science to learn more about how our world works is not only fun, it's crucial to our ability to make good decisions. But while everyone thinks their own thought process is science-based, everyone wants to be pro-science; the trouble is that the majority of people live their lives outside of exposure to the scientific method and accept their daily anecdotes as a good-enough substitute. Jake probably does think that a group of Rothschild bankers are sitting in a supervillain lair somewhere tallying his name up on some list, and that's not a joke.

How would one reach somebody like Jake? My strategy is to try and offer something for everyone, and especially try not to make anyone feel unwelcome. Here's another email, and it's also one that I get at least once a week, from listener Ray:

I'm on board for a humble $5/mo but plan to increase it in July. I was listening to "Screwed!" as I was driving to work and it was so creative and beautifully done that I detoured to my home to set up auto-payments immediately. 

By the way, I'm a strong theist (Christian), yet I have a BS in physics from Duke. Of course, my doctorate is in New Testament studies, so there's an offset. But I believe that evolution is real, that the universe is as old as the scientific evidence says it is, that the Earth is ditto, and that *way* too many of my fellow believers (in all branches: Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and Orthodox) believe things against evidence and reason instead of having a reason-based faith.

Ah, so much common ground!

And right there, he nails what he and Jake have in common, which at first you might suspect is zero. Common ground, in the desire to know what's true in the world. It's what we all share, though quite obviously, many of us come to radically deviant conclusions. But as we say, it's the process that's most important. Let's all continue enjoying and encouraging the best process we can, and inevitably, our conclusions will eventually converge.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "2 Listener 2 Feedback." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 25 Apr 2017. Web. 17 Nov 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4568>

 

References & Further Reading

Dales, G. "The Mythical Massacre at Mohenjo-Daro." Expedition Magazine. 1 May 1964, Volume 6, Issue 3: 36-43.

Harkins, D., Susten, A. "Hair Analysis: Exploring the State of the Science." Environmental Health Perspectives. 1 Apr. 2003, Volume 111, Number 4: 576-578.

Lorenz, M. "Commentary on Wawruch's Report: Biographies of Andreas Wawruch and Johann Seibert, Schindler's Responses to Wawruch's Report, and Beethoven's Medical Condition and Alcohol Consumption." The Beethoven Journal. 1 Jan. 2007, Volume 22, Number 2: 92-100.

Maruna, S. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria. Jacksonville: Swamp Gas Books, 2003.

Rees, O. "Going Berserk: The Psychology of the Berserkers." Medieval Warfare. 9 Mar. 2005, Volume II, Issue 1: 23-26.

Siebert, E. "Going Berserk." Skeptical Humanities. Bob Blaskiewicz, Eve Siebert, Mark Newbrook, & Jenna Marie Griffith, 19 Apr. 2011. Web. 29 Jan. 2017. <https://skepticalhumanities.com/2011/04/19/going-berserk/>

 

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