How to Surprise a Skeptical Podcaster, Part 1
Here are the podcast episodes with conclusions that surprised me the most (part 1).
For over a decade, I've spent my professional life answering the question "Is this weird thing I heard in pop culture true or not?" Typically, I then spend the next week fully immersing myself in every bit of previous research that's been done, digging through old newspaper archives, going to libraries, searching Reddit, even driving out to locations and — imagine — actually picking up the phone and talking to people who were there. A decade is a long time, so by now, I have a pretty good Spidey sense to tell me what's true and what's not. There's one thing that people always want to know. They want to know which stories I've investigated where the paranormal or supernatural explanation has turned out to be the true one.
As much as I hate to disappoint my audience, I must sheepishly admit that I have never encountered a case where the supernatural explanation proved true. At no time have I been forced to admit the reality of a ghost, an extraterrestrial spacecraft filled with little green men, an unapproved supplement or superfood that cures all disease, a secret cabal of Zionist Illuminati who control all the world's governments and money supplies, or a commonplace modern technology that is in fact giving us all the heebie jeebies, logus of the bogus, or the jim-jam-jeeters*.
So I haven't yet been forced to admit the reality of magic or other paranormalities, but that doesn't mean I've never been surprised by the outcome of an episode. As much as anyone else, I bring biases and preconceived notions whenever I approach a new story. When it's a UFO story, I always start from a position of being pretty confident that something unremarkable was mistaken for an alien spacecraft by some witnesses. If it's some ancient naturalistic medical treatment, I go in confident that it has no actual therapeutic value, and so on. I've developed such preconceptions because they tend to get borne out almost every time. So when they don't, I end up being surprised. And that surprise has happened often enough that just as I may have a preconceived notion, I also have an awareness that it could be wrong.
Take a story like the Flat Earth Theory. Like most people who never looked into it too deeply, I had always assumed that it was based on honest but obsolete science from people thousands of years ago. Turns out it's not. I was surprised to learn that the Earth was never really considered flat by any particular ancient cultures, and that it's a much newer concept which has its roots in 19th century Biblical fundamentalism. That was a surprise for me, though not to such a degree that I was left reeling in shock.
Not the case with other surprises, some of which have left me reeling in shock. Though not always for the reasons you might expect. This week I'm going to talk about some episodes that gave me the biggest surprises, and next week I'm going to tell you the ones where the surprise was most educational, and made me even more interested in the subject; and those are the ones with the best lessons. But for today, let's get started with a few shows that were so anticlimactic that that was in itself the surprise:
Subjects Surprising for How Lame They Are
Yes, even this counts as a surprise. Sometimes I go into a subject expecting to find something really interesting, only to be shocked at how little there is to talk about. You might be among those listeners who have emailed me a topic suggestion, and I replied "Gee, I don't know if there's really enough there to make into an episode." But apparently, sometimes that subtlety eludes me at the very beginning of the process.
An early case was biodynamic agriculture, and episode from way back in 2007. I had heard of this in passing and always assumed it was some legitimate farming technique. The words sound sciencey enough. In the back of my mind, I guess I figured it was some kind of hydroponics or something. Imagine my surprise when I learned what it really was. It is literally the casting of a magic spell over a farm, including a token sprinkling of a potion made from such ingredients as cow horn and deer bladder.
Remote viewing, a project to investigate psychic powers at which the CIA threw millions of dollars as Project Stargate, always had me wondering whether something concrete had been found. But no, turns out it was just a group of performers fooling the researchers using stage mentalism tricks familiar to today's magic show audiences. All they were doing was drawing what was on some photographs inside manila envelopes — today, that's not even a good trick.
I'll also include Flight 19, the famous flight of five aircraft said to have mysteriously disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle when their instruments all went crazy. As an aviation nut, I'd always been particularly intrigued by this, since it would have taken some real physical force to affect all their instruments. The surprise was that there was never anything mysterious about the loss of Flight 19. The whole thing about crazy instruments was invented out of whole cloth almost thirty years later by author Charles Berlitz, creator of the Bermuda Triangle mythology. In reality, the flight leader simply got lost and flew too far out to sea where he ran out of fuel, and the other four ditched as well because they were required to stay with their flight leader. I was definitely bummed out to learn that my hoped-for mystical force that could affect instruments was purely a work of fiction.
Stories that Never Happened at All
Here are four episodes about events that I'd grown up believing in, and was really disappointed to learn were as fictional as Berlitz's compass disruption. On the one hand, it's great to finally have the solution; but on the other, it's a bit of a letdown to learn it was simply made up.
Chief among these has to be the episode on the Philadelphia Experiment, the famous story of the US Navy's famous 1943 experiment to make an entire warship disappear, but ended up instead melting crewmen through the decks and all kinds of strange after effects. When I learned that it was 100% fiction made up by loner Carl Allen, literally writing from his parents' basement, I was bummed out.
Same with The Amityville Horror, which I grew up believing was a ghost story so compelling that there must actually be something real there to learn. Researching the episode, I learned that the homeowner and his attorney conspired to invent the whole story, and hired an author to write the book, all of which was proven in court when they sued each other for royalties.
Ditto for the famous advertising experiment where they flashed the words Drink Pepsi onto a movie screen imperceptibly fast, prompting mass purchases of the beverage, and forming the foundation for the book Subliminal Seduction. Turns out that experiment was fictional as well, and there's never been any evidence of subliminal advertising working or even existing.
The Fringe Explanation Turns Out to Be the True One
And now we move on to the ones you really want to hear, the cases where — to my surprise — the explanation I was most likely to dismiss out-of-hand turned out to be the true one.
The first of these was the episode on "numbers stations", shortwave radio broadcasts that read off strings of numbers on regular schedules. The fringe claim was that they were governments transmitting information to spies, but I came in leaning toward more realistic explanations like ocean research buoys transmitting their data. But the deeper I dived, the deeper the rabbit hole got. It turns out that numbers stations, wherever they are in the world, are almost all transmitted from inside secure military bases. And then I learned about a number of successful prosecutions for espionage where suspects were found to have been listening to these broadcasts and typing the numbers into decryption programs on their computers. Confirmed: At least one use for numbers stations is indeed for governments to transmit information to spies.
The Bell Island Boom was a loud explosion on a clear day on an island in Newfoundland in 1978. Explanations were all over the map, but the fringiest was that it was some secret test by the US government. The plot thickened when I researched and found out for a certainty that two men from Los Alamos National Labs were indeed poking around the island in the aftermath. That that part of the story was true was enough of a surprise by itself; but even more so when it turned out that they were connected, just as the conspiracy theorists claimed. But it had nothing to do with a secret weapons test. The two guys were researching the newly discovered phenomenon of lightning superbolts, and one of their satellites had actually picked up the one that struck Bell Island and was responsible for the boom. Shame on me for rolling my eyes when I heard that guys from a secret government lab were actually involved in the Bell Island Boom.
And finally, the Majestic 12 documents, a purported government memo admitting the existence of the alien spacecraft captured at Roswell. I'd done enough such episodes to be fully confident that this was some hoaxed paper made up by the UFO crazies hoping to sway people to their belief. But the more I researched, the firmer the evidence became. Majestic 12 almost certainly is a real government document — but not in the sense you'd think. Turns out it was probably part of a deliberate disinformation campaign by the USAF Office of Special Investigations. Wow, not even my skeptical radar had seen that one coming. It's since become one of my favorite episodes, as it reveals such an unexpected and fascinating piece of American history.
So there we have it, the first half of my answer to the perennial question about which episodes surprised me the most. Next week in part 2 we'll have the ones that are most interesting, and where the best lessons can be found. Of course the most important lesson of all is for me, and that's to be reminded that my preconceived notions are always susceptible to being disproven. If they weren't, this wouldn't be nearly as much fun.
* "Heebie jeebies, logus of the bogus, or the jim-jam-jeeters" appeared in a New Yorker cartoon more decades ago than I'm able to remember. I cannot give the author's name because I could not find it, but have fondly and humorously remembered it ever since, and wanted to share it here. —BD
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