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The Wisdom of the Future

Donate Skeptoid corrects a round of past errors, that they might become the wisdom of the future.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #597
November 14, 2017
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The Wisdom of the Future

"The errors of the past are the wisdom of the future" is a quote that has been said in one form or another various ways, and is variously attributed, but is nowhere more relevant than it is right here. As Skeptoid professes to research and present the true facts about any given controversial topic, it's pretty important that I get stuff right. Research is hard work and it's fraught with countless unforeseeable pitfalls, so I inevitably get stuff wrong. Sometimes I'm led astray by a bad source, sometimes I repeat something I've heard that I'm so sure about that I don't even bother to verify it, and sometimes I even just have a brain fart while talking. Fortunately, the 200,000 of you who listen to each show include numerous experts in just about everything, so corrections are always quick to come. I now present the latest round of corrections to errors that I have made in recent episodes of the show — and rest assured that all of these errors are also noted on the online transcripts.

JFK Assassination

We'll get started with listener Adrian, who wrote in about the episode on the JFK conspiracy theories:

It's only a minor thing, but you don't want to raise the ire of the rabid JFK conspiracists if you can avoid it. Your episode on the JFK assassination conspiracy analysis (excellent, by the way) suggested Lee Harvey Oswald brought both his rifle and revolver to work with him at the Book Depository that morning. It is generally accepted that he escaped the Depository after shooting at the motorcade, and got back to his rooming house and retrieved his revolver — and shot J.D. Tippit minutes later.

Adrian is correct on both points. After shooting Kennedy, Oswald took a cab back to his room and ran in just quick enough to grab his pistol, and off he went again. Adrian's other point is important too: if one gets anything wrong on this subject, the vituperation of the conspiracy theorists falls thick and fast. Jeering, ridicule, I got it all. Few conspiracy theories provoke as much emotion in their believers as this one. You need a very thick skin to even open your mouth about it.

Personally, I find the conspiracy theories about assassinations and mass murderers pretty distasteful, and it's probably my least favorite thing to talk about on Skeptoid. The reason I do is that it's always in high demand; the people who believe and promote these claims are vocal and a lot of my listeners request episodes addressing it. So I've got another here all ready to go.

Mass Murderers of Children

In episode #160 "Sarah Palin Is Not Stupid" about misinformation about rival political figures, I mentioned Timothy McVeigh, the guy who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building which killed 15 children, and I named him the nation's worst mass murderer of children. I was in error. Listener Bruce wrote in:

I am thrilled to have caught you in need of a correction! I say that with all respect and admiration for your work… But in Bath, Michigan in 1927 there was an equally horrific bombing which resulted in 39 children's deaths, making Andrew Kehoe America's greatest mass murderer of children.

Andrew Kehoe was on the school board and, under cover of his job as a maintenance worker, spent weeks wiring the school's basement with 1,000 pounds of dynamite, all on timers. On the day of the blast he also blew himself up in his truck full of shrapnel.

Finland Does Not Exist?

A quick correction on episode #573 about the claim that Finland doesn't actually exist. At one point I mentioned that Finland can be seen from northern Europe. As Finland is part of northern Europe, this would have been a vortex of logic that caused the universe to collapse in on itself and explode like an evaporating black hole.

Fire Melting Steel?

Listener Paul wrote in with a correction to episode #54 about the collapse of the twin towers. I commented that blacksmiths melt steel for casting all the time. Well, no they don't. Paul said:

Blacksmiths forge iron they do not cast it.

I stand corrected, to the delight of blacksmiths everywhere. They heat steel to soften it for forging — which is a more accurate description of what happened to the twin towers' steel trusses than what I said the first time.

Toxicity of Plutonium

In episode #575 about episodes whose conclusions surprised me the most, I mentioned plutonium as being the most toxic substance known. I've said this a number of times, so it's probably been in other episodes too. It's one of those bits of pop culture knowledge that I uncritically parroted. Thankfully, listener Hans, who is a nuclear engineer at one of our fine national laboratories, wrote in and said:

I am sensitive to such claims given the extensive number of myths attached to nuclear science and technology… The Priority List of Hazardous Substances…is a list of substances…which are determined to pose the most significant potential threat to human health due to their known or suspected toxicity and potential for human exposure. Plutonium appears at number 120.

The myth of extreme plutonium toxicity can be traced to unsubstantiated statements made by Ralph Nader and other anti-nuclear activists of the 1970s. He was challenged by renowned health physicist, Dr. Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh, who offered to ingest the amount of plutonium that Nader considered lethal.

And then, importantly, he adds:

I have enjoyed your show for years but I urge you to be careful with offhand claims thought to be common wisdom.

...which is exactly one of the things I mentioned at the top of the show! We all do it, and we all need to be more careful. Thanks for the reminder, Hans.

Addendum: Some of you have pointed out that the above Priority List is slanted because it incorporates how likely one is to encounter the substances on it. For more info, see other articles that list substances by their LD50 (the amount per unit of body weight that it takes to kill 50% of victims) and you can see plutonium is still not very near the top: here here here and even here —BD

Exoplanets and Lagrange Points

And as long as we're talking physics, let's hear from Richard, who explained that he was sitting in his observatory on a cloudy night and thus had time to write. In episode #570 "More Space Missions You Should Know", I said "Nobody expected Kepler, with its dedicated photometer pointed at a single patch of the milky way, to find so many exoplanets." Richard replied:

I beg to differ. Almost everyone with any knowledge of exoplanets expected Kepler to find 100s if not 1000s of exoplanets orbiting the 150000 or so stars that it surveys. Here's a quote from [a] paper from 2005 (4 years before the launch date):

"The predicted number of discoveries varies from 10,000 to 100 as the fraction of stars with planets in inner orbits varies from 1 to 0.01."

As of this writing Kepler has found 2,337 confirmed exoplanets and 4,496 candidate exoplanets, so right in that range that astronomers were expecting.

And it must have been an extra cloudy night, because he had time to hit me with another one, and this one spaced me out (pun intended). In the same episode I referenced the Earth's L2 Lagrange point as a "gravitationally stable spot".

L2 is one of three unstable Lagrange points. The only two stable ones are L4 and L5. Here's a quote from the WMAP page on Lagrange points:

"The L1 and L2 points are unstable on a time scale of approximately 23 days, which requires satellites orbiting these positions to undergo regular course and attitude corrections."

I'd had no idea there was such a thing as an unstable Lagrange point. I thought their stability was the whole idea. He linked to a NASA page that explains everything, and you'll find it in the references at the bottom of this page. Guess I have some reading to do.

And yes, I know I called them Lagrange points instead of Lagrangian like most astronomers. But that NASA page calls them Lagrange, and that's what Arthur C. Clarke called them when I first heard of them, so that's what I'm going with, and if it's an error too, it's one I refuse to correct. Even I have my religion.


Episode #378 was a true-or-false episode about mythical civilizations, and in the entry on Utopia, I cheated and went with Wikipedia. Two of the things I said about Utopia (a fictional civilization from Sir Thomas More's 1516 novel) were that it had a totalitarian dictator and strict state religions. I quickly heard from listener Elizabeth, a university professor in an intellectual heritage program who teaches the book every semester. She said, in part:

First, there actually was freedom of religion in Utopia and female religious leaders as well... Second, the place is not ruled by a dictator but instead a very loose network of syphogrants (made up term) who are all equal and have no explained legislative or governing power. The rest of your description is accurate...

Far be it from me to question a professor on her area of expertise — or, for that matter, to actually read the book for myself.

Flight MH370 and ADS-B

Listener Dave wrote in response to my episode on the fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. A small error, but significant. In the conclusion I talked about next-gen tracking technology called ADS-B, which, if MH370 had had it, we would have known exactly where it went down. Dave wrote:

Just to let you know MH370 did have ADS-B running. However ADS-B runs on at 1090mhz and only a range of 250nm or so.

Quite correct, and my mistake. Regular radio-based ADS-B has already been around for a while. What I needed to have specified was space-based ADS-B, which uses the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation, so provides coverage of 100% of the Earth's surface.

Nuclear Winter and the K-Pg Boundary

OK we've got time for one more. This is one that nobody wrote in about, but you all should have, because I was totally wrong. Episode #244 was about how the theory of nuclear winter became the theory of nuclear autumn, and one of the historical events I talked about was the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. All of this dust and debris kicked up into the atmosphere left a telltale sign, which is now a layer of gray rock about 3 centimeters thick, all over the world, except where erosion wore it away. I referred to this layer as the K-T boundary, so named because it divided the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. Now, if you're on top of these things, you know that in 2008, the International Commission on Stratigraphy decided to dump the Tertiary period, cut it in half, and replaced it with the Paleogene and Neogene periods. So ever since then, updated charts of the geologic time scale no longer show the Cretaceous as bordering the Tertiary, but as bordering the Paleogene. So what was the K-T boundary is now the K-Pg boundary.

Incidentally, if you're wondering why K is used for the Cretaceous, which starts with a C, it's because C was already used as the abbreviation for the Cambrian, so to abbreviate Cretaceous they went with a K for the German word for chalk, Kreide.

Keep Those Corrections Coming!

So don't make me have to catch myself again. If I get anything wrong in an episode, there are some 200,000 of you listening, so pipe up. Email me instantly at, provide a solid reference or two for verification, and the Skeptoid record shall be duly improved.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Wisdom of the Future." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 14 Nov 2017. Web. 24 Apr 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Allmon, W. "Tertiary Period." Science. Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc., 11 Aug. 1998. Web. 9 Nov. 2017. <>

ATSDR. "Substance Priority List." Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 Nov. 2011. Web. 7 Nov. 2017. <>

Borucki, W., et. al. The Kepler Mission: Design, expected science results, opportunities to participate. Baltimore: Proceedings of the Space Telescope Science Institute Symposium, 2005.

Bugliosi, V. Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. 99.

Cornish, N. "The Lagrange Points." Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1 Jul. 2012. Web. 7 Nov. 2017. <>

Gillett, B. "The Bath Disaster." Affordable Acadia. Affordable Acadia, 16 Dec. 2012. Web. 7 Nov. 2017. <>

Kalif, W. "Blacksmithing Terms and Definitions." Stormcastle Blacksmithing. Will Kalif, 6 Jan. 2011. Web. 7 Nov. 2017. <>

More, T. Utopia. Habsburg: More, 1516.


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