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An Exorbitance of Emendations

Donate Once again, Skeptoid corrects another round of errors found in previous episodes.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #639
September 4, 2018
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Today I present another roundup of corrections to past episodes. I keep a document with every verified correction that someone emails me, and every time that document fills up with a full show's worth, I put out an episode. At the same time, I post corrections to the online transcripts, so that Skeptoid.com does not become an offender in the insidious spreading of pop misinformation. Here now is this week's batch.

Lincoln - Kennedy Myths

Let's get started by correcting a misattribution that I made in episode 360 addressing the old urban legend of all the alleged spooky similarities between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. One of my quotes was from a 1995 Ann Landers column that gave a number of examples showing that any similarities were trivial and statistically probable, while there were, in fact, far more differences than similarities. My mistake was attributing the quote to Ann Landers. Then I got an email from listener Wendell in Greenbelt, Maryland:

No, someone who wrote to Ann Landers took on this question, and she published a portion of their letter. The person who wrote it is given in the column as W.W., Greenbelt, MD. That's me.

Oops. Sorry Wendell, my bad, and I clearly missed the byline from you that's there on the Ann Landers column. My transcript page has been updated to properly credit you.

Wheatgrass Juice

The next correction I received rolled our odometer way back — almost all the way back, in fact — to episode 6, from 2006, debunking popular myths claiming that wheatgrass juice is a healthy drink. In the episode I was talking about the molecular structure of chlorophyll, and mistakenly called it a carbohydrate, something I apparently just assumed because it's mostly made of carbon and hydrogen. Listener Andy wrote:

I enjoyed and laughed heartily at the episode about wheatgrass. Well done. At the risk of being labeled a pedant, I want to point out that chlorophyll is not a carbohydrate, but is in a class far removed from those compounds — porphyrins, as I assume you know — more like the heme in hemoglobin). Enough said.

Well, I didn't know. But far be it from me to make the same mistake twice, so I never take a correspondent's word for something, but I always go back to the books to double check. Here's what Wikipedia says[[]]:

Most chlorophylls are classified as chlorins, which are reduced relatives to porphyrins (found in hemoglobin). They share a common biosynthetic pathway as porphyrins, including the precursor uroporphyrinogen III.

Unfortunately I'm no chemist and I don't want the point of the episode to get lost in chemistry, so I'll just assert that chlorophyll is something — it's a thing, it's green, and I'm going back to debunking Bigfoot.

The Dark Ages

Or, debunking the Dark Ages. In the episode on Al-Ghazali and Arab-Islamic Science discussing the notion that the rise of Islam was responsible for the death of the golden age of science, I talked a bit about the period when the Crusades extended far enough east that they began battling Muslims instead of other Christians. Mentioning a period in history, I called it the Dark Ages. Listener Hugo from Sweden wrote:

...This implies that the Dark Ages began after the Crusades started (and even as a result of them). However, the Dark Ages usually refers to a period between the (western) Roman Empire to about the 9th or 10th century, brought on by the loss of Roman civilization, and originally referred to all of the Middle Ages (the term itself is not well regarded by scholars due to its overly negative connotations).

He is absolutely correct. "Dark Ages" is not a historiographic term, it's really just a disparaging term for the Early Middle Ages. There are no hard rules but historians generally break down the Middle Ages thus:

    • Early Middle Ages: 500 - 1000 CE
    • High Middle Ages: 1000 - 1250 CE
    • Late Middle Ages: 1250 - 1500 CE

The Crusades mostly took place in the High Middle Ages and the opening century of the Late Middle Ages, so either way, my statement was wrong and disparaging. The transcript now reflects both corrections.

Gilgamesh & Utnapishtim

Episode 618 threw out a bunch of random names from history and made you guess which were real figures, and which were fictional. One of these was Gilgamesh, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which includes an amazingly accurate carbon copy of the story of Noah's Flood, written centuries before Genesis. Listener Michael wrote:

Kind of a big mistake there, but you said that in mythological texts, Gilgamesh was the one who built an ark to survive a flood similar to Noah's Ark. In reality (or at least insofar as mythology can be considered real), the ark was built by Utnapishtim, who relayed the story to Gilgamesh when Gilgamesh came to ask how Utnapishtim obtained his immortality.

Absolutely correct; I accidentally rolled Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim into the same person. My bad. I hereby unroll them, and separate them into two distinct people, much in the way that Captain Kirk was separated in Star Trek episode 5, "The Enemy Within".

Plutonium

In several episodes over the years, when talking about how every compound has a safe level, and every compound has a dangerous level — an idea that many people continue to refuse to accept — I've pointed out that just by existing on Earth, your body probably has about 20 million plutonium atoms in it right now, and you suffer no ill effects. At various times, people have asked me where I got that number. Originally, it was something of a group calculation on an email chat, so it's not something where I've been able to provide a reference. But following one recent episode where I gave this figure, I received this via Twitter:

@opa_Platvink
Did some searching. This source suggests it's quite a lot more! 300 fmol of 239Pu equals 1,807x10^11 atoms (if I calculated correctly).
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/096980439500167C

...and he provided a link to a 1995 article in Applied Radiation and Isotopes which calculates that since 1945, environmental levels have risen to the point that the average human body has about 300 fmol of plutonium in them, and that's about 180 billion atoms. Live on a planet, and the law of entropy means that you will eventually have a tiny bit of just about everything else on the planet mixed in with you.

But fear not: the article's abstract reassures us that:

...from our present understanding of the radio-and chemical toxicity of plutonium, [these doses] are far too small to cause any recognizable health effects.

Everything has a safe level, and everything has a dangerous level. I wish the mass media would embrace this simple fact.

University of Arizona State University

A quick apology to Dr. Clive Wynne at Arizona State University. In the episode about apes alleged to have learned sign language, I erroneously put him at the University of Arizona, which is now corrected on the website. In thanks to listener Caroline, who alerted me to the error and who actually is from the University of Arizona, I will repeat what she had in her email signature: Go Wildcats!

Majestic 12

Episode 528 was about the Majestic 12 documents, some papers which surfaced in the UFO community in the 1980s, and which appear to have been classified documents from the Cold War era talking about how the government knows all about the aliens who live here on Earth and go back and forth to their planet. One reader, Martin from New Zealand who came across the transcript on the web, took issue with the very first sentence:

You open the article with the comment that the MJ12 documents are the "Holy Bible" for UFO enthusiasts. I strongly disagree. Most serious UFO enthusiast/researchers are very cognizant of the disinformation game and recognize the MJ12 papers for what they are. There's always going to be some who refuse to see, but please don't tar us all with same brush! Other than that I found the article factual and informative.

From my own experiences with UFO enthusiasts, Martin's comment is absolutely correct and very fair, so I've updated the transcript accordingly.

The documents were probably created by some branch of the US government — possibly the CIA, possibly the US Air Force Office of Special Investigations — as a smokescreen and to discredit the UFO groups. At the time, US intelligence was trying to keep the F-117A Stealth Fighter secret from the Soviets, and had a legitimate concern that Soviet agents might infiltrate the UFO groups in the United States, as they were the ones who were camped out around all the Air Force bases with their video cameras and long lenses. While the UFO people hoped to catch a glimpse of the aliens they believed the Air Force was harboring, US and Soviet spies were more interested in them catching footage of an F-117A.

As Martin aptly points out, belief that the Air Force harbors aliens is hardly universal among the general UFOlogist population, the Majestic 12 papers are generally known to be a hoax, although plenty of disagreement exists in the community about their origin. So they can't rightly be called anyone's Holy Bible.

Nobel and Economics

This next correction is great because it's one of those things that one just takes for granted, and I never in a million years would have thought to verify it. 2011's episode on the science of voting only seems to get more and more relevant: it explained why voting systems like that used in the United States — where voters may vote for only one candidate — are fundamentally unfair and susceptible to problems like voting blocs gaming the system, or third party candidates taking votes primarily from one of the two major candidates, and causing a candidate who is not necessarily the most favored to win. The problem has to do with Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, named for the economist Kenneth Arrow, and whom I described as the winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize in Economics. Enter listener Hugo who pointed out something I never would have thought:

The only reason I send this to you is that I have a close relative who works in the Nobel sphere who is really stingy about this. In the episode, you refer to the "Nobel Prize in Economics", but the economics prize is not a Nobel prize. The correct name is the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (or Prize in Economic Sciences for short). Though it is attached to the Nobel prizes and works in the same way, it is not a "true" Nobel prize since it was not established by Nobel but by the Swedish national bank in 1968-1969. If you read official material you'll also see that it is only ever referred to by its name or as a "prize", while all the others are referred to as "Nobel prize".

So, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Who knew that one of the Nobel prizes is not a Nobel prize? After this particular prize was endowed, the Nobel committee put a stop to it and decreed that no new prizes would be created — partly in response to pushback from the Nobel family, who argued that Alfred Nobel never created any such prize and it constitutes a misuse of his name.

So listeners, keep that feedback coming in, good or bad, especially when a correction is needed. I keep myself on track as best as I can, but there is always room for more bumpers to keep the show's path even straighter. The more help from you, the better Skeptoid can be. It is only all the many podcasts that don't correct themselves of whom you should always be skeptical.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "An Exorbitance of Emendations." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 4 Sep 2018. Web. 17 Nov 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4639>

 

References & Further Reading

Landers, A. "Lincoln-Kennedy Myth Debunked." A&E. Chicago Tribune, 20 May 1995. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. <http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1995-05-20/entertainment/9505200022_1_dear-ann-landers-detector-batteries>

May, P. "Chlorophyll." Molecule of the Month. University of Bristol, School of Chemistry, 19 Aug. 2000. Web. 22 Aug. 2018. <http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/chlorophyll/chlorophyll_h.htm>

Pilkington, M. Mirage Men. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2010.

Ringertz, N. The Nobel Prize: The First 100 Years. London: Imperial College Press, 2001. 195-216.

Sandars, N. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin, 1972. Introduction.

Taylor, D. "Environmental plutonium in humans." Applied Radiation and Isotopes. 1 Nov. 1995, Volume 46, Issue 11: 1245-1252.

 

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