What the Feedback
One of the great strengths of the scientific method is its self-correcting nature. By design, it accommodates new information and new evidence, and theories are reshaped accordingly, such that our current theory is always our best. In a modest way I try to make Skeptoid operate in the same manner. It's very open to feedback and corrections, which are incorporated onto the web transcripts as often as they come in. Thus is its body of work constantly in motion as it improves incrementally. This week I have another raft of such improvements, as we get feedback, updates, and improvements from those of you who have written in with newer and better information.
Let's get started with this old classic from the annals of UFOlogy:
The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Abduction
This email followed one of our Pop Quiz episodes, the one about aliens and UFOs. Now my thought on the pop quizzes was to have all the answers come from Skeptoid episodes, so if you are a perfect listener you should have been able to get every answer right. This came from quiz taker Matt:
The famous Betty and Barney Hill case was the first widely reported alien abduction story, and it happened in 1961, covered in episode #124. Several years after their experience, during which Betty wrote and refined her version of the story, the Hills underwent hypnosis to tell what they recalled. Barney described in detail what he saw through binoculars when they pulled off the highway. It was about 100 feet above the trees, and about 1000 feet away: a large craft with a row of windows all the way across, almost like one solid long window with the glass panes separated by struts, and people inside looking out the windows. From where they were and the direction they were looking, they would have been facing toward the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, and the distance Barney estimated more or less matches what you might see if you looked at the tram car through binoculars. So far as researchers have been able to determine, it was likely running at the time. Therefore it is generally accepted by all but staunch alien abduction advocates that the tramway is probably what Barney saw. If he was seeing an actual alien spaceship that matched the tram cars so well, then he should have seen both; but this is not what he reported.
So I thought it was a fair question for the pop quiz. But, as Matt pointed out, I had not mentioned the tramway at all in my original episode! So he's absolutely right, it was an unfair question. My apologies.
We have one more addendum on the Betty and Barney Hill story, and it comes from listener Zach. Historically, it's often been pointed out that Barney's description of his aliens appears to have been informed by a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits called "The Bellero Shield". It aired just before Barney's hypnosis session, and it's entirely possible that he did watch it and described his aliens accordingly. However, when you look at pictures of the aliens in the show, they didn't look all that much like what we call a gray alien today, as described by Barney. Zach posted to Facebook:
And that alien looks much more like the one Barney described. It's a much better pop culture precedent that could have informed Barney, except for the fact that you couldn't record television in those days. This episode aired two years before Barney's hypnosis, by which time he likely would have forgotten what it looked like. From a cursory search online, I couldn't find records of whether that show may have repeated in the weeks or months before Barney's hypnosis. It may or may not, and who knows how big of an impression the character may have had on him. Either way, the alien from "Hocus-Pocus and Frisby" adds a bit more detail to this classic UFO story.
This next email came in reference to episode #610 about the lighthouse keepers who vanished from Flannan Light off the coast of Scotland in 1900. The true story has been graffitied by a sensational fictionalized version which includes a fake log entry. The fake log entry gets all pseudo-spiritual and suggests a paranormal ending for the lighthouse crew. The main reason we know it's fake is that the real logbook, while it no longer exists, was read by a rescuer who recorded the last entry on December 13th. The popular fake entries go up through December 15th, so we know they were made up by the novelist who first wrote about them some two thirds of a century later. This all seems cut and dried, however I received the following email from listener Tom:
And he gave a link to the Northern Lighthouse Board website that provides these archives. What happened is that the rescuer found the logbook, which did end on the 13th; but he also found notes on a chalk slate, notes which extended through the 15th. The practice was to jot notes down on the slate, and then at the end of the day, transfer them into the logbook. Correspondent Tom was confusing the slate and the log. In the popular fiction, the weird quasi-spiritual story was all in the log, so we know it's fake. When I wrote the episode, I elected to omit the information about the slate, both because the episode was running long, and because I felt it was a bit confusing. But an addendum is now on the transcript page to prevent anyone else from making the same mixup.
Bee Colony Collapse Disorder
Next we have an update to episode #524 on Colony Collapse Disorder, the worldwide decline of bee populations since about 1989, since stabilized. We know it has multiple causes, and at the time of the episode, a class of pesticides called neonics was one of the main suspected culprits. Well, it's been a few years since that episode came out, and we have better information. Neonics had been banned in places like Europe, and data now shows that the bans had no effect at all, and so they're being relaxed around the world. Research published in the Journal of Economic Entomology found that while most insecticides (including some neonics) killed 99% of bees exposed, other neonics are among those that killed less than 1%.
Yet opposition among consumer activists persists. If all neonics were to be banned as a class, then farmers would have be left only with options that force them to turn back the clock and return to older pesticides known to be substantially more harmful to bees, such as organophosphates, carbamate and pyrethrins. This is usually how it works over the course of human invention. Newer products are usually improved over the older ones they replace; and when activists demand the elimination of newer technology — as we see so often in so many walks of life — we're often forced to return to worse alternatives.
The Coso Artifact
Here's another update, this time to episode #403 on "out-of-place" artifacts; items found by amateur archaeologists who misidentify or mischaracterize, and believe that they constitute proof that history is wrong and real archaeology is a sham. One such item is called the Coso Artifact, a 1920s Champion spark plug found inside a rock from the Coso Range near Death Valley. Young Earth Creationists tried to frame it as proof that rock can form very quickly, therefore the geologic age of the Earth as understood by science is wrong by billions of years and therefore the Bible is literally true. Geologists, on the other hand, understand that metals like those in a spark plug can corrode quite rapidly, sometimes combining with the minerals in which they're buried to produce rocklike accretions like those covering the Coso Artifact.
Unfortunately, the original artifact had been long lost for decades, so we couldn't examine it to prove it. However, in 2018 — four years after my episode — the original artifact was produced by the family of one of the original co-discoverers, and was examined by geologist B. Charlotte Schreiber of the University of Washington Earth and Space Science department. It was found to be exactly as expected — a 1920s Champion spark plug with the expected concretion. Other claims made by the original Young Earth Creationists who examined it in the 1960s were found to be false, in particular that the concretion contained seashells, which would have been anomalous indeed.
It's worth mentioning that I have a similar old spark plug in my possession also found in Death Valley, with a similar concretion on it. It was found by my son, Andrew Dunning, a geologist at Portland State University.
The Historicity of Jesus
We have time for one more quick one, and what subject is best for a quick treatment than the historicity of Jesus Christ, perhaps the most debated topic of all time, and covered in Skeptoid episode #666.
When I produced it I predicted that I would hear from staunch supporters of Jesus being an actual person, and staunch opponents of Jesus being an actual person, and that both types of respondents would claim theirs is the universally accepted position so I should retract the episode. That proved true to the letter. I got equal hate from both sides: supporters who were shocked that my research could have been so poor as to miss that all the world's academics agree that Jesus was an actual living Messiah, and opponents who were equally shocked that my research was so poor as to miss that all the world's academics are in lockstep that Jesus was purely mythical. Nevertheless, I did distill one valid point from all of this, and that's that I was amiss not to mention the references to Jesus and the crucifixion found in the works of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian who chronicled the first decades after the year 0 in the land where Jesus would have lived. Of my assertion that no reliable record exists of the crucifixion, listener Sean wrote:
Very true. Josephus' writings overall have a fine reputation for reliability, but it's the two specific mentions of Jesus that differ in their style a bit from the rest of the books, and that have most scholars doubting their authenticity. Opinions run the gamut, everything from they are an outright forgery at worst, to having been rewritten and spun by early Christian apologists at best. So even though Josephus' evidence doesn't take us in the direction of solving the riddle, it is one of the most prominent citations in the debate over the historicity of Jesus, so I shouldn't have left it out.
So that's all for this week, but please keep that feedback coming: Make sure we stay squarely on the tracks of keeping Skeptoid a resource that's always evolving in the right direction. So far it is, thanks to all of you.
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