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Listener Feedback: Death of the Lefties

Skeptoid gets some interesting letters from listeners pertaining to radioactive skeletons and lefties.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #631
July 10, 2018
Podcast transcript | Download | Subscribe

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Once again we open the mailbag and hand the microphone over to you, the listeners. We have two types of feedback episodes here on Skeptoid: those correcting errors in regular episodes, and those like this one where you provide additional information that enhances some of the past shows. Or, as you'll see in one or two examples today, say something nutty that's neither helpful nor a correction, but that still bears a mention for the purpose of discussion. And so without further ado, let's open our first envelope.

I'd like to start with something that I heard about a thousand times following the last Listener Feedback episode, which I titled "Provisos, Addenda, and Quid Pro Quos". Suddenly everyone fancied themselves a latin pedant, and had to correct me that it's properly quids pro quo, not quid pro quos. Is it? Don't know, don't care; I was paraphrasing Robin Williams' Genie in Aladdin when he did William F. Buckley:

So if you really have nothing better to do than to be pedantic about Aladdin, then I'm going to stuff you into a lamp with Gilbert Gottfried and flick you hundreds of miles out into the desert:

OK, shifting gears. Here's one that I heard from two people, and it's interesting enough that it bears a mention. This one comes from listener James, and it refers to Part 3 of the "Debunking the Moon Truthers" episode series:

You referred to folks who were tracking various events during the Apollo missions, including the explosion of the external oxygen tank on Apollo 13. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but any diagram or image of the Apollo Command-Service Module will show that there is no external tank of any kind on the spacecraft. All of the cryo tanks were internal. Had that oxygen tank been external, it may not have caused the crippling damage that it did.

This is, of course, correct. The tank that blew up was the No. 2 oxygen tank, and it fatally damaged the No. 1 oxygen tank, and blew off module bay cover #4 which sealed them both up inside the service module. The tank was certainly not external, as it was clearly located inside the service module; and yet, it is commonly referred to as the "external oxygen tank". The service module was separate from the command module which held the astronauts, so in that sense I guess we could refer to the tanks as external. The one place I don't see it ever called "external" is on the NASA website, so I'm going to call it officially wrong, and I've updated the transcript.

Next we'll move onto the episode on "Alcohol Myths", wherein we discussed the efficacy (or lack thereof) of the "hair of the dog" hangover cure. Will drinking more alcohol in the morning help you get over your hangover faster? The answer is no; the best it might hope to do is give you a new buzz which may make you not care about the hangover.

However, you will still get the same hangover, it will just be delayed a little bit. Much of the reason for this has to do with methanol. Nearly all alcoholic drinks contain at least a little bit of methanol, which is really bad for you. Ethanol is the alcohol that makes you drunk and that is metabolized faster by the body. Without going into biochemical details — which get really complicated, too complicated for me — it's this addition of new methanol to your system that largely contributes to the big new delay in the process of metabolizing the alcohol out of your system. When I said this, quite a few of you — perhaps a few dozen — emailed to correct me that methanol is not the cause of hangovers. This is correct. Hangovers are basically acetaldehyde toxicity, not methanol toxicity. I've written on this before, so obviously I already knew that; so I went back to the transcript to see what I might have said in this episode that pinned hangovers on methanol.

Nothing. I didn't say that. So I'm at a bit of a loss to see how so many of you got that impression. What I think is that the subject was about curing hangovers, not the cause of them; so I never discussed acetaldehyde at all. Maybe some listeners were trying to connect dots that I didn't draw. Regardless, sorry for the confusion: acetaldehyde toxicity is the major culprit behind hangovers; and adding methanol to the system is a major way that processing that hangover through the system can get hung up and delayed. Two different things.

Next I'd like to move on to a wonderful addition to an episode, my favorite type of feedback to receive. This had to do with the episode on "Defusing India's Ancient Atomic Blasts" which addresses the urban legend promoted by some wooists that there is evidence of atomic weapons being used in ancient wars thousands of years ago in India. It's not true, of course, and the episode shows that; but one listener, Philippe from France, dug a bit deeper (actually a lot deeper) to find the source of one of the specific claims. That claim was that skeletons have been found in India with a radioactivity level 50 times higher than normal. This is an incredibly vague assertion. I didn't bother to track it down, but Philippe did. He wrote:

In the article "Defusing India's Ancient Atomic Blasts." there's mention of radioactive skeletons, with a radioactivity rate 50 [times higher] than expected. I'm a french "sceptic", and love those kind of stories. It seems nobody took time to find where this information comes from, so I did it, and think I succeeded :)

And indeed, Philippe's blog post is an impressive piece of documentary research.

In the urban legend version of this tale, the radioactive skeleton is usually cited as one of 37 that were uncovered at a dig at the Indian city of Mohenjo-Daro in the 1920s. Philippe tracked this down to a 1965 book written by Russian metaphysical author Alexander Gorbovsky, Riddles of Ancient History. In a feat of documentary research so humbling that it makes me want to crawl into a cave and hide under a blanket, Philippe tracked down Gorbovsky's source to a 1962 Russian science journal article titled "Problems of Radiation Safety in Cosmic Flights". This compared the radiation levels suffered by cosmonauts in orbit to what we can be exposed to on Earth, particularly in a region in India where there's a lot of monazite sand high in thorium. The Russian authors appear to have made multiple translation errors of their source, which was an English-language article from 1960, "Hazards of Nuclear and Allied Radiation". The article discussed the radioactivity of a rib borrowed from an Egyptian mummy in the British Museum. Its alpha radioactivity was measured at .34 µµc/g (picocuries per gram), which is in the range of present-day bone specimens. Philippe drew three conclusions about this claim of highly radioactive skeletons in Mohenjo-Daro:

    1. There are not many but only one skeleton.
    2. This skeleton is Egyptian and not Indian.
    3. Its radioactivity is absolutely normal.

Ever since the episode on left handed myths, I've been getting fairly constant emails disputing one of the episode's conclusions, namely that left-handed people have life spans that are, on average, shorter. There are several really interesting reasons for this, which are all in the episode and no need to repeat here. My episode drew in part upon the work of Coren and Halpern. Listener John wrote me a lengthy, detailed email — complete with citations — which was a fair representative of many of those I periodically receive. He concluded:

...The connection between left handedness and early death... has been dropped by the scientific community due to a mountain of contradictory evidence and methodological criticism. Even Coren and Halpern have abandoned the cause. Coren's last papers on the subject were published in 1996, he now writes on dog intelligence and behaviour.

It so happens that I know Diane Halpern, and passed along this email. Stan Coren personally wrote me a detailed reply to John, from which I excerpt:

Despite the contentions of your correspondent, the hypothesis that left-handedness is associated with a number of health problems and behavioral problems which ultimately are associated with reduced life span, is still receiving widespread support.

He then added a list of current research, complete with references, showing:

    • Left handed drivers have more accidents
    • Left handed locomotive drivers have more accidents
    • A major paper in the journal Laterality confirms Coren & Halpern's lifespan findings
    • New evidence correlating heart disease and left handedness
    • Links between left handedness and cognitive deficits including dyslexia, learning disabilities, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, all of which correlate with shorter life spans.

Stan continued:

Since I'm really not into ad hominem arguments, I really do have to respond to your correspondent's comment "Even Coren and Halpern have abandoned the cause.  Coren's last papers on the subject were published in 1996, he now writes on dog intelligence and behaviour."

Both Diane and I have had a varied set of research interests over our careers, many of which we were pursuing long before we became interested in the issue of life span and handedness. Diane had numerous experimental studies including research in sex differences and education. Those educational interests became more salient over time and she shifted her emphasis away from laterality as a result. In my case I had also been studying other areas of neuropsychology and had been publishing on dog behavior since the early 1990s.

In other words, shooting down what John appeared to be implying, that research is less valid if the researcher has also studied other areas. Interestingly, John's email to me also said this:

Coren persisted in his views for some years despite objections from actuaries, epidemiologists and statisticians. I myself had an exchange of letters with him in which I tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to reconsider. My view is that this episode is a classic example of confirmation bias and of the dangers of venturing into areas outside one's professional competence without guidance from relevant professionals.

I did do some journal index searches and could not find any research papers on handedness written by anyone with John's full name, so this does make me marvel at his boldness in attacking the field's most prominent author with a charge of "venturing into areas outside one's professional competence."

Stan also added this postscript, which is worth a mention:

One of my motivations for doing this kind of research was to point out that left-handers have problems, some of which could actually be remediated. I was quite happy to learn that several ergonomic textbooks are recommending that large industrial machines and equipment be re-designed so that they are equally safe for both left and right-handers based on a set of studies that I had done about accident susceptibility in left-handers, and the scary finding from the California death study that Diane and I did which showed that left-handers were five times more likely to die of accident related injuries. Keeping a few lefties alive longer would be the best payback for the work we did.

So, listeners, keep that feedback coming. It keeps the show honest and keeps everyone engaged. Just be aware that you're putting yourself on the stage, and if you haven't done your homework, everyone's going to know.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: Death of the Lefties." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 10 Jul 2018. Web. 18 Jul 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4631>

 

References & Further Reading

Coren, S., Halpern, D. "Left Handedness: A Marker for Decreased Survival Fitness." Psychological Bulletin. 1 Jan. 1991, 109: 90-106.

Himsworth, H., et. al. The Hazards to Man of Nuclear and Allied Radiations: A second report to the Medical Research Council. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1960.

O'Callaghan, M., Tudehope, D., Dugdale, A, Mohay, H., Burns, Y., Cook, F. "Handedness in Children with Birthweights Below 1000 g." Lancet. 16 May 1987, Volume 1, Number 8542: 1155.

Roth, K. "Chemistry of a Hangover: Alcohol and its Consequences, Part 3." Chemviews Magazine. Wiley-VCH and ChemPubSoc Europe, 6 Jul. 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2018. <http://www.chemistryviews.org/details/ezine/1080019/Chemistry_of_a_Hangover__Alcohol_and_its_Consequences_Part_3.html>

Stavely, B. "Ancient City Found In India Irradiated By Nuclear Blast 8,000 Years Ago." Rense.com. Jeff Rense, 10 Sep. 2000. Web. 10 Oct. 2016. <http://veda.wikidot.com/ancient-city-found-in-india-irradiated-from-atomic-blast>

Williams, D. "The Apollo 13 Accident." NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 12 Dec. 2016. Web. 2 Jul. 2018. <https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/ap13acc.html>

 

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