Pop Quiz: History and Pseudohistory
Once again, you sit down expecting to enjoy a relaxing podcast, but are surprised instead by a pop quiz! Yes, it's another working day for you — no break. Today we're going to test your knowledge on a variety of topics from the world of false history: claims promoted in pop culture that distort what really happened. Just be aware that if you expect to do well based on having watched a lot of television science and history channels, you might be disappointed. So without further ado, let's get started.
The most famous secret society that called themselves the Illuminati was founded in Bavaria in the late 1700s, largely in opposition to the dictatorial power of the Catholic church. The founder, Adam Weishaupt, was which of the following in private life?
The correct answer is A, a law professor at the University of Ingolstadt. He was about the only faculty member who was not a Jesuit; consequently he was unpopular, in no small part because of his opposition to the church. Much of the recruiting into the Illuminati was targeted at public officials and other influential people, often from the ranks of Freemason lodges.
One of the most popular stories of the Bermuda Triangle tells about Flight 19, a training flight of five Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers that all disappeared in 1945, amid spooky stories coming over the radio of their instruments going crazy and incredible unearthly weather. What was determined to be the cause of the disappearance?
The correct answer is A, flight leader Lt. Charles Taylor had twice before gotten lost and had to ditch his plane in the ocean — apparently he was a man who had a staggering lack of any sense of direction. After leading his flight east from Florida over the Atlantic Ocean, he reported that they were west of Florida over the Gulf of Mexico! His students strenuously urged him to follow the standard procedure to fly west to get back to land, but he refused — and his third ditch at sea ended up being his last. The nonsense about instruments going crazy and strange weather was invented by the imaginative author Charles Berlitz.
There is a popular story — almost certainly egregiously exaggerated — that Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China, built himself an expansive underground tomb with a map of the world on the floor, complete with liquid mercury flowing to represent the rivers and oceans of the world. Like many of ancient China's elite, the Emperor consumed vast amounts of mercury during his lifetime. What was he hoping to accomplish?
The correct answer is B, he drank mercury hoping to achieve immortality. Although the stories say that ironically produced his early death from mercury poisoning, this is unsupported by evidence. The Chinese did not drink liquid elemental mercury, which would have of course been very dangerous. Instead, they ground up the mercury-containing mineral cinnabar and mixed it into their tea. In this form, the mercury is chemically bound to sulfur, making it more or less biologically inert.
While we're on the subject of heavy metal toxicity, we can turn to the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who is popularly claimed to have died from lead poisoning, possibly due to his heavy drinking of wine which was, in those days, fortified with lead. A popular book and documentary film advanced this theory, based on analysis of what kind of tissue samples from Beethoven?
The correct answer is B, Beethoven's hair. Locks of his hair were taken by many people upon the famous composer's death, and one particular sample that made its way to modern forensics resulted in some high profile X-ray fluorescence analysis that returned a verdict of acute lead poisoning. However the consensus disputes this. Beethoven exhibited few symptoms consistent with lead poisoning, and his drinking was not outside the standards of the day. Lead eagerly binds to the keratin in hair, and it's virtually impossible to tell forensically whether lead contamination was systemic from the body, or extraneous from the environment. The hair was stored for decades in a locket that had probably been soldered with lead. Skull fragments were also analyzed and found to be contaminated with lead, but it was subsequently proven that they did not belong to Beethoven.
Although Americans consider Orville and Wilbur Wright to have been the first to powered, controlled flight in a heavier-than-air craft with their flight of 260 meters, much of the rest of the world gives that honor to Brazilian-Frenchman Alberto Santos-Dumont when his airplane made its longest flight of 220 meters. Which is true of their relative accomplishments?
The correct answer is B, the Wright Brothers' flight of 260 meters was in December 1903, about three years before Santos-Dumont's November 1906 flight of only 220 meters. In fact, more than a year before Santos-Dumont, the Wrights had proven that they could fly as long as they wanted to, or until they ran out of fuel, with flights lasting more than half an hour and covering 40 kilometers. So why does anyone give the honor of first flight to Santos-Dumont? For the sole reason that his 220-meter hop was the first to take place in front of the newly-formed French aviation sporting body, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
There is a popular legend that gives an alternate theory for the end of World War II, which fits neatly with the false claim that Adolf Hitler survived the war and escaped to Argentina. This story claims that the Nazis founded a base on Queen Maud Land in Antarctica called New Berchtesgaden, serviced regularly by Nazi U-boats. It survived several secret attacks by the British and the Americans over the years after the war, but was finally destroyed by the American Operation Argus with three nuclear bombs in 1958. Which part of this fanciful tale is actually true?
The correct answer is A, Operation Argus was real but its nuclear tests took place more than 2,400 kilometers from Queen Maud Land. Due to the ice pack it was not possible for World War II era submarines to make it that far under the ice to approach Queen Maud Land, and certainly not to break through it. And although one Nazi ship did spend a month doing an aerial survey of Antarctica with seaplanes, the expedition was terminated with the outbreak of war and they never returned.
Few groups have been given a pop-culture overhaul as thorough as that given by modern fiction authors to the ninja, a class of spies and saboteurs from Japan's Sengoku period. They weren't even called ninja, they were actually shinobi. They rarely fought and they didn't use throwing stars. They were, however, stealthy. Which color clothing were the ninja taught never to wear at night?
The correct answer is C, black. Ninja always wore passable street clothes in order to avoid attracting attention, but colored to be low visibility while still looking normal. If it was a moonlit night, they wore mostly white clothes, and on dark nights, dark blue. Black was recommended against. There is no record of them ever wearing the black robes and masks popular in modern fiction, as obvious crime costumes would have given them away.
A darling of the TV networks that bill themselves as science channels are the Knights Templar, one of several monastic orders chartered by the Pope to secure territories seized during the Crusades. According to today's pop mythology, the Templars had the greatest treasure in the history of the world, and that a core of them survived their infamous mass execution on Friday the 13th, 1307, and that their successors today still hoard that vast wealth in secret. Which of these was the true fate of the Templars' treasure?
The correct answer is B. The order on Friday the 13th resulted in no immediate executions, but in many arrests, though almost all Templars were soon released on the condition that they either retire or merge into other orders. They had several years in which to do so before their order was formally dissolved, and during that time frame, those that were indeed actively engaged in lending and other financial pursuits had ample time to safely merge their assets with those of the orders they joined. There has never been a record of any sizable treasure that went missing or was unaccounted for.
A common theme we hear today among those who reject the scientific consensus that humans burning fossil fuels are responsible for global warming is that scientists in the 1970s thought we were headed for another ice age. So if they were wrong then, then they're just as likely to be wrong now. It is true that some percentage of science papers in the 1970s predicted global cooling. About what percentage of climate articles published between 1965 and 1979 predicted global cooling?
The correct answer is A, 10%. There was no doubt among climate scientists that burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases responsible for global warming; that had been known since 1896. But in the 1960s there arose a new concern that cooling caused by ozone-depleting sulfate aerosols might outpace warming in the short term. During the time period in question, 10% of published articles predicted the aerosol cooling would outpace global warming; 28% found the data insufficient to predict either way, and 62% maintained the consensus that warming would continue to be the dominant trend, which has proven true. The whole thing about this popular belief that we were headed into an ice age was largely created by the popular media and their sensationalist headlines; it never represented the state of climate science.
The question of who was the first team to summit Mt. Everest is something of a manufactroversy. There is little meaningful support for the claim that the team of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who disappeared during their 1924 attempt, could have made it to the summit, some 30 years before the acknowledged first successful summiting by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Which of the following statements is true?
The correct answer is B, the route taken by the earlier climbers, Mallory and Irvine, was much more difficult. Called the north ridge route, it's entirely within Tibet, and it was the one all the early attempts had to use because Nepal refused to allow access to the easier route — the southeast ridge route that Hillary and Tenzing took, and that almost all climbers take today. In good conditions, it's little more than an extremely strenuous hike; compared to the north ridge route which requires extreme Alpine climbing skills — which was the probable cause of Mallory and Irvine's demise.
So how did you do? As always, tweet me your score at @BrianDunning. If you got five or fewer right, you need to turn off the TV and listen to more Skeptoid. If you got nine or ten right, then congratulations, that's a gold Skeptoid star for you! Thanks for taking this month's pop quiz, and feel free to share it with anyone who watches too much pseudohistory network television.
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