How to Surprise a Skeptical Podcaster: Part 2
If you've ever surfed the Internet, you know that Nikola Tesla was (secretly) the most brilliant genius in history, who solved all the world's energy needs; but whose work is suppressed by the government (in favor of oil and gas) because free energy cannot be sold at a profit. That's the popular history of Tesla, and it seems to occupy about 90% of what's written about him online. Then when you read the legitimate literature, you find that he did indeed hold patents for many of the most successful innovations in electricity: some for the distribution of alternating current, some for induction motors, some for radio, and so on. And then you go deeper, and you learn that virtually all of Tesla's patents were for inventions made by other people, in many cases decades previously, and mostly in Europe; and Tesla's own contribution was merely to change them enough to qualify for patents — patents which he filed in the United States, to great profit. And you find that the most incredible inventions attributed to him by the Internet — free energy, superweapons, scalar energy — don't exist, and never existed; and the closest to reality any of them ever came was when Tesla wrote nonsensical musings as he descended into insanity in his later years. My own discovery that Tesla was 90% showman and 10% inventor, and that his legacy is 90% fiction and 10% fact, was one of the great surprises of my career here at Skeptoid. It taught me that even the most common knowledge is always subject to a double-check, and that anything that sounds too amazing to be true probably is. Today we're going to look at some of the other such surprises.
Last week I talked about stories which surprised me for how little there was to them, and stories which surprised me because the fringe explanation turned out to be the true one. Today's mysteries are those which have surprising conclusions from which interesting lessons can be learned.
I'll start with two stories that came out of Asia. For a long time listeners encouraged me to do an episode about the "Free Tibet" movement, which I resisted because it sounded political and thus outside my scope, and because of course Tibet should be free. But I finally relented and read some of the literature, and found — to my surprise — that this was a more a case of pseudohistory than of politics. "Free Tibet" is almost entirely the invention of Westerners who crave Eastern validation. Not even the Dalai Lama wants Tibet to be free. Tibet is entirely dependent upon China for all of its economy, infrastructure, and social services. Tibetans don't want a "Free Tibet"; what the Dalai Lama lobbies for is conversion from a Chinese Autonomous Region to a Special Administrative Region, the same as Hong Kong. Try fitting that on your Hollywood protest sign.
The other great Asian myth that surprised me was the true history of Traditional Chinese Medicine as, supposedly, naturalistic and based on herbs and mysticism. Again I was surprised to find that this was — again — invented by Western authors. In this case it was editors, intent on capitalizing on the All Things Eastern craze of the nascent New Age Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and who took the 900-page Barefoot Doctors Manual published by the Mao administration, cut out 600 pages of actual medical care including First Aid and prescription medications, and left only the 300 pages of herbal medicine that was originally included only as a backup for what to do when actual medical care was unavailable. The intention was to satisfy the thirst among Western New Agers to have their belief in Eastern traditionalism, mysticism, and naturalism to be confirmed. As we now know, this campaign was radically successful, and Western belief persists today that Chinese have never had any need for "Western" medicine because of their superior traditional methods. Having grown up in the 1960s and 1970s, this one was a great surprise to me, and still makes me shake my head.
From that same period I also remember the classic episode of In Search Of about how a new ice age was coming. I clearly recall it being a popular belief in the late 1970s; we all thought scientists predicted an oncoming ice age. And so, through the early years of broad cultural awareness of global warming, made popular by Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, I fully accepted the argument made today that if scientists were that wrong about global cooling in the 1970s, they're just as likely to be wrong about global warming today. But then I learned the science. And when I did an episode investigating this claim, I learned that it was only pop culture and the mass media who talked about an oncoming ice age, and really only in the sense of it being good sensationalist grist for the mill. And it stuck. The vast majority of science publications on climate were, however, measuring and predicting the same warming caused by CO2 emissions that we are still measuring and predicting today. Where did the cooling belief come from? A minority of climatologists were wondering if cooling caused by sulfate aerosols might overwhelm global warming for a time, which they soon learned wouldn't happen; and it was the mass media reporting and hyping of those few speculations that caused the whole thing. A great surprise for me, as I'd grown up with this, and it was thoroughly lodged in my consciousness.
Another story I'd embraced for most of my life was the Betty and Barney Hill UFO abduction, the original case where they experienced missing time. When they underwent hypnosis to find out what happened during those missing hours, they both told exactly the same story, identical in all details, of having been taken aboard an alien spaceship for experiments. It was this hypnosis result that sealed the deal for me. But then I did two episodes that changed everything for me. First, I learned that there's no good evidence of hypnosis recovering repressed memories, and that this is almost entirely pseudoscience. Second, I learned that Betty Hill was a lifelong obsessive about aliens and UFOs who spent a full two years writing and rewriting her version of the story, and telling and retelling it to Barney until he was blue in the face, before they went in to see Betty's hypnotist. Is it any great surprise that Barney knew her story by then?
Here are two from the world of medicine. I was completely surprised to learn that Vitamin C does nothing for a cold. Why? Because I had always placed too much faith in folk remedies — and, apparently, in confirmation bias. Whenever I took Vitamin C for a cold, I noticed that I got better within a mere several days. Compare that to the times I didn't take Vitamin C, and it always took a full several days before I got better.
The other one is the popular Hollywood moment of dramatically stabbing a cardiac arrest patient in the heart with a huge syringe of adrenaline. It's always done with great speed and violence due to the need to punch through the rib cage. Well, there is no such medical treatment, though it makes for a fine shock on screen. Why did this surprise me? Evidently I place far too much faith in the scientific accuracy of Hollywood movies. Don't follow that example.
Here are a couple stories about the military's impact on nature. I don't need to point out that certain demographics hold a default position that just about anything mankind does is destructive to the planet, while others take the default position of the planet being resilient and more than capable of withstanding anything this insect race could throw at it. I was raised in the former group, so I was always eager for information confirming my preferred perspective that just about any human interaction with nature was destructive and morally corrupt. So I was surprised to get the data on these two stories.
First was the finding that there is little, if any, correlation between the sonar used by naval vessels, including submarines, and mass stranding of whales. Virtually none of the popular claims you read about this are borne out by the research. Whales aren't driven insane, their hearing is not damaged (proven by necropsies on stranding victims), and their behavior does not appear to change. Mass strandings don't take place in areas of high naval activity, they take place in areas with very specific underwater geography (called bathymetry). Efforts to correlate the strandings with sonar use don't stand up to scrutiny of the full data set. A lot of listeners from my demographic tried to mischaracterize what I said in the episode with a straw man argument that I was saying sonar is harmless to marine life — of course I said no such thing. Rather, the episode simply said that it does not appear to be the cause of mass strandings. That one really rocked my world, as I'd always accepted it as a basic axiom of life.
The second of these two military vs nature stories was the one about the Downwinders, the residents in Utah who were downwind of the Nevada Test Range during the days of our nuclear bomb tests. The popular belief has always been the common-sense-sounding position that the radioactive fallout caused a higher incidence of cancer among this population. But after more than sixty years, the long term studies have given us a definitive answer that there was no increased incidence of any cancers. The reason was pretty simple: the exposure was very brief each time, only about one day, and not all that high, according to the measurements. Downwinders probably did get increased exposure, but so little of it that any effect there might have been was lost among the background noise. As with so many cases of claimed poisoning, we have to keep the dose-response effect in mind. Even plutonium has a safe level. Remember that just by existing on Earth, you have about 20,000,000 plutonium atoms in you right now.
If some of these seem surprising to you, and you haven't heard the full Skeptoid episodes on each of them, then do what I did and take that wild journey. Finding myself proven wrong is the most exciting part of my job. When we learn that some cherished belief we have is factually incorrect, it can be a lesson in humility. But beyond that, it brings the fascination of learning what's real to replace the folly of believing what's wrong. Never stop challenging what you think you know.
Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly identified plutonium as "the most toxic substance known". It is not, this is a popular myth. You still don't want to stir it into your coffee or anything. - BD
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