Your Phavorite Phollowups
Updates and newer information to some of the conclusions in your favorite Skeptoid episodes.
It's time again for another episode of followups to previous shows, this time addressing some of the fan favorite shows and some other more recent ones. Today we're going to shine some new light on episodes about Jewish slaves and the claim that they built the pyramids; the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370; new insight into Frank Stranges, creator of the Valiant Thor mythology; the famous Judica-Cordiglia brothers' recordings of Soviet space flights erased from the history books; and Mother Teresa. Let's begin.
The Exodus and Passover
We'll get started with an episode that has consistently been a lightning rod for haters on the Internet, #191 titled "Did Jewish Slaves Build the Pyramids?" But moreover it talked about the larger question, showing the evidence that there were never Jews in ancient Egypt at all. There's no longer anything controversial about this, as nearly all historians and archaeologists agree that the entire Exodus story is mythical and cannot be reconciled with known history. In the episode we discussed the earliest Jewish settlement in the region, the garrison on Elephantine Island. Among its relics were papyri that mentioned, among other things, Passover. Here's an email from listener Byron:
I've received many emails over the years pointing out this same apparent contradiction. Passover commemorates the Exodus; so how can we say both that the Exodus never happened and that the ancient Jews still celebrated Passover?
It's actually quite simple, and it's not a contradiction at all. The referenced earliest mention of Passover comes from a papyrus discovered in 1907, a very short letter from a guy to his brothers, known as the Passover Letter. It was written on Elephantine Island in Aramaic in 419 BCE. By that time, the Exodus story had already existed as an oral tradition for centuries, though we don't know for sure how many. The story was that the Exodus had taken place in the year 1313 BCE, a story which was finally put into its final Biblical form during the 5th and 6th centuries BCE. So when the Passover Letter was written, many Jews believed that their people had been enslaved in Egypt, and all left during the Exodus, nearly a thousand years before. The fact that it never actually happened was consistent with there being no Jews in Egypt by the time of the Elephantine garrison.
But this is only half the reason why it's not surprising that the region's earliest Jews would have celebrated Passover regardless of the Exodus. Passover is a complex holiday with a complex history, and it underwent many changes over the centuries. It began as separate springtime rites, one celebrating the harvest and the other the sacrifice of livestock. Later these celebrations were merged into one, and later still, the Seder was added — the recognition of the Exodus. The Passover observed by the Jews at the Elephantine garrison bore little resemblance to what is celebrated today.
In summary, that the Passover Letter papyrus mentioned the holiday is in no way evidence that the Moses Exodus was a literal historical event.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370
Now we're going to move on to recent claims published about Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 that disappeared in 2014. As of this episode, the wreckage of MH370 has still not been found since its crash into the ocean, nor has a cause for that crash been determined. But an update to my 2017 podcast is warranted, as misinformation continues to persist in the media.
The worst offender has been the periodic re-reporting of a claim that one of the pilots crashed the plane on purpose to commit suicide. This story pops up in the news every few months, often with headlines proclaiming that the mystery has been solved. In fact, this has never been a leading theory among the investigators, and is inconsistent with much of what took place.
There have been a number of cases of pilot suicides, including on board commercial airliners. The typical profile of the event is that the pilot waits for his partner to go to the bathroom, locks the cockpit door, then puts the plane into a dive and it's all over. MH370, on the other hand, gradually stopped making various telemetry and radio transmissions as it continued flying for hours — as if David Bowman had been methodically disconnecting HAL's circuits one by one. Most of its flight was on a standard return to the primary backup airport, indicating some onboard failure; and then a long autopilot-controlled trek south across the ocean until its fuel ran out, during which time the crew would have had the maximum time to break through the cockpit door and regain control — a terrible suicide plan. Basically, nothing about MH370's flight profile was ever suggestive of a suicide. The discovery of a route on the pilot's home flight simulator claimed to be similar to the one MH370 flew is the only evidence; but any commercial pilot will tell you they all have such routes on their flight simulators, and anyway it cannot be established that the route was similar to the one taken because we have very limited information on MH370's actual route, which is why we haven't found it.
The few pieces of debris that have been recovered also support the leading working hypothesis, which is that some failure prompted the pilots to return to a backup airport, but they were overcome by either smoke or decompression, and were incapacitated until the fuel ran out. The debris included control surfaces that were configured for cruising, not for a ditched landing. We now have enough data on ocean drift patterns to confirm that the plane crashed along that final autopilot course that's also confirmed by satellite data. The room remaining for the goofy pop-sensationalism explanations like pilot suicide has gotten smaller and smaller.
Of course we can't prove it wasn't a suicide, but we also can't prove a trans-dimensional Bigfoot didn't materialize inside the cockpit and eat off both pilots' heads.
Franks Stranges and His Pedigrees
Recently we talked about the urban legend of a Venusian guest of the US government named Valiant Thor. He was the invention of author Frank Stranges, and in the episode, we looked at Stranges' suspicious list of degrees, honors, and appointments. It turns out they were all from nonexistent institutions or were nonexistent degrees, and apparently, even his family didn't know that he made them all up.
Turns out that rabbit hole was deeper than I knew. Listener Karl wrote in with some information about the UFO-based religion "The Aetherius Society":
This is apparently all it took for TV's Ancient Aliens to describe Stranges as "A federal marshal and chaplain who had top secret security clearance at the Pentagon," not one word of which was true.
The "Ludmila" Recording
So now let's go all the way back to 2008 to an early fan favorite episode, Skeptoid #115, the "Search for the Missing Cosmonauts", about a series of audio recordings made by a pair of Italian brothers, claimed to have captured Soviet space flights that failed and were erased from the history books. The recordings include both dog and human heartbeats (including one in evident distress), gasps that sound like final breaths, Morse code that fades off into oblivion, and even Sputnik's signals. But the most dramatic of these recordings was of a woman dubbed Ludmila, and from the recording, it's been suggested that she was an early female cosmonaut who flew before Valentina Tereshkova, but had some problem and died in the attempt. It's said that she is talking about burning up on re-entry, seeing flames, and fretting about the impending crash:
Now in my live show "Solving the Missing Cosmonauts" I go into this recording and its historical context in really good detail. But I left the podcast listeners hanging, with no resolution as to what the Ludmila recording actually is. Spoiler: due to multiple lines of evidence, we can be assured that whoever she was, she was not personally flying in a space capsule. So who was she?
The breakthrough came when I brought in my own Russian translators, three of them. It's hard to make out a lot of what she says, but it was clear that she wasn't saying anything like what the Internet attributes to her. Mostly, she was reading off numbers, and occasionally throwing out words of encouragement.
We still don't know who she was or what she was doing, but we do know that this was broadcast on a legitimate Soviet space frequency. The consensus of our group was that she may have been doing capcom for a cosmonaut undergoing some sort of difficult training exercise. It's unlikely we'll ever know, of course, but this explanation seems to fit better than any others.
Finally, one brief followup. In episode #512 I talked about Mother Teresa and all the criticism she receives for what her true practices and beliefs were: ministering to the sick, not treating them as pop culture has misrepresented her. She felt very strongly that the sick and the poor should suffer, as these were crucial to their salvation. She baptized the critically ill, she did not treat them or make them comfortable. Nevertheless, Western esotericism wove a mist of fiction around her that depicted her as some sort of angel who healed the sick. In fact, miraculous healings were the basis for her 2003 beatification. My episode came out in 2016, and in it I mentioned that it seemed likely her canonization into actual sainthood — scheduled for later that same year — would likely sail right through without a problem. The update is that it did... no great surprise. It's a great irony that she received both a sainthood and a Nobel Peace Prize — among countless other honors — for doing exactly the opposite of what she deeply believed and practiced.
So everyone, please keep that feedback flowing in. I do my part but at the end of the day, Skeptoid is only as good as you make it. If you pick up newer information relevant to a past show, email it to me at email@example.com, and I'll include it in a future followup show.
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