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Listener Feedback: The Plot Thickens

Donate Listeners offer some updates and new information to previous episodes.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #705
December 10, 2019
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Listener Feedback: The Plot Thickens

Skeptoid episodes are always based on "evergreen" topics, the idea being that you can stumble across a show (or its transcript page) five years from now and the subject will still be equally relevant. That's to give every show as long a shelf life as possible. However this does bring one downside: occasionally, new information emerges; and now suddenly I've got to go back and update the old shows, to whatever extent is practical. And whenever I have enough of these bits of new information to fill a show, you get one just like today's. So let's dive straight into the newest updates.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Episode #245 was about the Lost Colony of Roanoke, an early and failed attempt to settle the Americas. The colony was on the North Carolina island of Roanoke, and a relief party that arrived in about 1590 found that the entire population had simply disappeared, leaving tantalizing clues. Our best evidence today is that most were either killed in fights with the indigenous, or were assimilated into their populations — something for which we're developing genetic evidence.

But as so often happens with such mysteries, people succumb to their confirmation bias when it comes to anything that could be an artifact helping to solve the mystery. One such artifact was found in 1998, a gold ring apparently bearing the crest of one of the Roanoke families, found on the island of Hatteras, one of the places some think the colonists went. This ring was reported in my episode as one of the pieces of possible evidence.

However there was always a bit of an odor about this ring, as it was found with other items that dated to about a century too late to have been associated with the lost colony. And in 2017, a team of archaeologists tested the ring — and found it to be merely a cheap brass trade item, consistent with other trinkets that were brought in later years to trade with Native Americans. That family crest turned out to be just a generic image of a lion.

Thanks to a number of Skeptoid listeners who emailed me this paper when it was published. The episode transcript has been updated with the information, and the lost colony of Roanoke remains as lost as ever.

The Greenbrier Ghost and Fisher's Ghost

Episode #679 was about the Greenbrier Ghost, a case from 1897 in which it's claimed that the ghost of a murdered woman appeared to point out where her body had been buried, leading to the conviction of the killer. The claim was made by her mother, and in an interesting twist, it's been found that on the same page of the newspaper in which her daughter's obituary was published was an identical version of the ghost story, leading to the obvious conclusion that that article is what inspired the mother to make up her ghost story.

The article gave only that the identical story came from Australia, but no other specifics. However, there are many Australian listeners to Skeptoid, many of whom are familiar with folk legends. One such listener, Kirk, wrote:

The unnamed Australian ghost story sounds a lot like the legend of Fisher's ghost. This legend takes place at Campbelltown, southwest of Sydney, NSW. In this story, the ghost of a murdered guy was said to have appeared sitting on the hand rail of a bridge, pointing to the adjacent paddock where his body was buried. The discovery of the body led to the conviction and execution of the murderer. Keep up the great show.

And indeed the Fisher's Ghost story matches all the essential details of the Greenbrier Ghost. In both cases, a person made up a ghost story in order to ensure the conviction of a killer they knew to be guilty. In the Fisher's Ghost version, a man named Farley had knowledge of the murder, but perhaps not wishing to implicate himself, simply said that he saw the ghost of Fred Fisher pointing to a paddock. The paddock was searched, the body found, and the murderer soon convicted and hanged.

Luis Elizondo and UFOs

Episode #621 was about the Pentagon's $22 million Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP), widely reported in the news in December 2017. The entire story began raising suspicions as soon as it was published, as it quickly became clear that it was a vanity project entirely run and publicized by a small number of lifelong believers in alien visitation, led by hotel magnate Robert Bigelow and UFO documentary filmmaker Tom DeLonge. Even the New York Times articles that launched everything were planned by the group and written for them by three members of their UFO community.

The update here is that further investigative reporting has been done (like this and this), much of it focused on Luis Elizondo, the man who claimed to have been the head of AATIP. However, the only official statement that he ever worked for the Department of Defense at all was made just once, by a briefly-employed Pentagon spokesperson named Dana White. Multiple Freedom of Information Act requests have failed to find any connection between Elizondo and AATIP.

All we know for sure about Elizondo is that he now works for DeLonge's film production company, called To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science (TTSA). Although TTSA makes grandiloquent claims of doing research and so forth, they're registered as a film production company with the Securities and Exchange Commission and their only significant project to date is a UFO series for the History Channel.

So in short, reserve your gravest skepticism for any news reports you might read attributing shocking discoveries to either AATIP, TTSA, DeLonge, or the ever-elusive Luis Elizondo.

The Moving Coffins of Barbados

Episode #399 was about an infamous crypt called the Chase Vault in a cemetery in Barbados, with a story that every time someone would go into it to inter a new family member, they found it in disarray as if the spirits had busted up all the family caskets. What I would describe as "lazy skepticism" had always proposed that flood waters inside the vault would float the caskets and leave them helter skelter; but deeper research into the origins of the story reveal that it's most likely just a story, with no evidence that anything like that ever actually happened. In fact, there isn't even any real proof that any caskets were ever interred in the vault.

Listener Jake wrote:

My family and I made a pilgrimage to Christchurch Cemetery in March of this year, having heard this particular legend since I was about twelve. I'm no expert, but having stood inside the open Chase vault and barely being able to stand upright (I'm only 5'7"), I came to the disappointing conclusion that no more than two coffins could have easily fit into that vault, especially given that there are three extremely steep stairs and a doorway so small that I had to contort myself sideways to gain entrance. It's a fun story, though!

Jake's account is purely an anecdote, of course, but it's the same as I'd heard one other time from a friend who visited the famous crypt. But at least it's a first-hand account, and it dovetails nicely with photographs of the crypt, which are widely available online. So take it as a bit more reason to consider the entire story apocryphal.

Carbon Taxes, Economics, and Behavioral Economics

Episode #695 was about a carbon tax, the solution to global warming proposed by most economists. Tax carbon emissions, and the idea is that people will make choices that save them money, with the tax revenue returned to everyone equally as a dividend. This will cause highly taxed carbon-emitting products and services to die, and it will cause carbon-neutral solutions to flourish. The idea is based on the economic principle that behaviors we want to discourage should be taxed, and behaviors we want to encourage should be incentivized.

I heard from quite a few listeners who felt that the economists who propose this are wrong, that people do not necessarily make rational decisions that will save them money. Here is one representative email, from listener Chris:

A month or so ago you had an episode wherein you seemed (to me) to treat as settled science the idea that the nature of people tends generally toward making decisions in line with their own self interest. This idea has guided economic theory for nearly as long as it has existed but has been challenged over several decades now — with extensive and peer-reviewed scientific research. Kahneman and Tversky come to mind, insofar as Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for their work.

Chris is raising a lot of points here. But first, let me dispense with his recollection that I implied it's "settled science" that people always act in their own self interest. I implied no such thing, and wouldn't; regular Skeptoid listeners have often heard me talk about behavioral economics — the field upon which Kahneman and Tversky's work is founded. Behavioral economics is the study of how and why people make irrational decisions, which we all do every day.

The idea that Kahneman suggests a carbon tax wouldn't work because people don't act rationally misstates what Kahneman argues. Kahneman does think that a carbon tax wouldn't work, but for an entirely different reason. Kahneman doesn't say that the tax wouldn't change people's behavior; he says people wouldn't accept the tax to begin with. He's big on what he calls "loss aversion theory". Nobody likes a new tax because it's an immediate loss that's in your face, so he thinks such a tax would be impossible to pass. Global warming is not immediate and in your face to many people; Kahneman believes people would rather sit back and let a nebulous threat like global warming happen, than agree to the immediate loss of a new tax. He's probably right.

But the economists are also probably right. Go back to the transcript page for my episode and look through the references, you'll find that carbon taxes do work, not just in theory but in practice, in places in the world that have had them for a long time. Moreover, note that in January of 2019, over 3,500 U.S. economists — including 27 Nobel Laureate economists — signed the Climate Leadership Council's Economists' Statement on Carbon Dividends, the largest public statement of economists in history, calling for a carbon tax to solve global warming. There is no meaningful scholarly dispute on this subject. Daniel Kahneman is among the signatories (Amos Tversky died in 1996). It's a short document, and you should read it.

So, listeners, keep that feedback coming in. If you've got more information that enhances a past show — or especially if you have a correction to something I got wrong — send it in. Email me at brian@skeptoid.com. I'm here at the desk working for you, but at the end of the day, Skeptoid is only as good as you make it.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: The Plot Thickens." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 10 Dec 2019. Web. 29 Oct 2020. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4705>

 

References & Further Reading

Brewer, J. "Wicked Webs: Media Portrayal of Tall Tales, TTSA and Luis Elizondo." The UFO Trail. Jack Brewer, 7 Aug. 2019. Web. 4 Dec. 2019. <http://ufotrail.blogspot.com/2019/08/wicked-webs-media-portrayal-of-tall.html>

Climate Leadership Council. Economists' Statement on Carbon Dividends. Washington, DC: Climate Leadership Council, 2019.

Halstead, T. Unlocking the Climate Puzzle. Washington, DC: Climate Leadership Council, 2016. 2-8.

Kloor, K. "The Media Loves This UFO Expert Who Says He Worked for an Obscure Pentagon Program. Did He?" The Intercept. First Look Media, 1 Jun. 2019. Web. 4 Dec. 2019. <https://theintercept.com/2019/06/01/ufo-unidentified-history-channel-luis-elizondo-pentagon/>

Lawler, A. "The Mystery of Roanoke Endures Yet Another Cruel Twist." Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 7 Apr. 2017. Web. 3 Dec. 2019. <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/mystery-roanoke-endures-yet-another-cruel-twist-180962837/>

Nickell, J. "In Search of Fisher's Ghost." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 May 2001, Volume 25, Number 3: 20-21, 66.

 

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