Listener Feedback: Endgame
Skeptoid is the podcast the looks for the real science behind urban legends and popular beliefs, things that never stop growing. So something we might say this month about a particular belief might not tell the whole story six months from now. Today we've got just some such additions to tales you thought you knew, but now we've got an even better focus on them.
In a typical Listener Feedback episode, I'll go through perhaps half a dozen emails from you that add some context or new information to stories from past shows. Today, though, we're going to do just two, because these required a deeper dive. They are a bizarre wrinkle that followed our story on the history of the popular belief that monosodium glutamate can cause all kinds of foul side effects, and on some perpetual mythologies that the supporters of one particular Catholic miracle cannot seem to let go of.
But before we get to those, I want to give a general answer to the many of you who have, over the years, written me some version of the following email, and for which I thank you. This example is from Pam:
The sad thing is I get some version of this email every week or two, and it's always fluoride or 5G or WiFi or smart meters; the anti-science activists are out in force in every city, county, state and nation.
While I appreciate your confidence in my powers of persuasion, I have a better idea that could lay a much bigger footprint than I could by myself. Every episode transcript on the website prints out into a nicely formatted PDF document, suitable for reproduction and distribution, and it even includes all the references at the bottom. If you have a need like this, please save that PDF and send it to your local government council. Read it at their next public comment meeting. Bring the references with you. What we need are thousands of locals in the community making a grassroots effort to promote science and fact, not just one guy.
So now, on to our two bits of important feedback for this week.
The Letter that Killed MSG
Episode #706 was about the popular — and totally false — belief that the food additive monosodium glutamate causes a variety of unpleasant symptoms in some people. But the interesting part of the episode was the history of how this belief arose: a nuanced story involving multiple attitudes and movements at a complex time in history. One of the triggers that made the belief mainstream was a 1968 letter written to the New England Journal of Medicine by a Chinese-American doctor named Robert Ho Man Kwok, and we gave an excerpt from his letter in the episode — a letter in which he detailed the ill effects he suffered whenever he ate Chinese food.
Then, a popular article came out in the magazine of Colgate University in February 2019. It told how the author of an influential article debunking MSG syndrome as racist nonsense got a call from a guy named Dr. Howard Steel (since deceased), who claimed that he had written the Ho Man Kwok letter himself — it was all just a hoax; he even made up the name as a play on the words human crock. In fact, if you do any Googling about this subject, you are likely to learn that the Ho Man Kwok letter was a hoax. I received half a dozen emails to that effect after my episode came out, advising me that I better update it ASAP.
However, this was not the final word. Only a few days after Colgate published their article about Dr. Steel's hoax, the podcast This American Life fact checked it. Turns out Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok (also since deceased) had been exactly who he said he had been in his letter to the editor, and that it was Dr. Steel's claim of having written it that was the real hoax. This American Life spoke with Dr. Ho Man Kwok's children who confirmed that he had written the letter and had always been proud of it. They spoke to Steel's daughter too, who described her dad as a hopeless prankster and she didn't believe his authorship claim for a minute.
So the Ho Man Kwok letter was indeed genuine — but the funny thing about this whole affair is that it makes no difference at all. What's significant is the impact that the letter had on the birth of the MSG mythology; even if it had been hoaxed, it still had the same effect driving the myth. Thus, this update to the Skeptoid episode, while significant, is also simultaneously insignificant.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that This American Life is an audio program, it carries little weight with Google's indexing algorithm; and thus the Internet's main source of information on this remains the Colgate article which merely perpetuates Dr. Steel's false claim. As of this writing, they've added a brief disclaimer to it, but the entire article — largely false — still remains active.
The Surgeon of Calanda
Skeptoid #247 was on the so-called "Miracle of Calanda", a 17th-century case from the Catholic Church which claimed the miraculous restoration of a young beggar's supposedly amputated leg. Catholic devotees tend to be quite passionate when defending their church's claims against criticism, so I've gotten spirited feedback on this episode ever since.
Miguel Juan Pellicero was a young beggar who bears all the signs of one who relied upon the popular, time-tested trick of winning sympathy from people on the street by appearing to be a hapless amputee — as was typically done, by folding one leg up and binding it to his thigh. But early one morning while he was still asleep he was caught having both legs, and thinking quickly, basically shouted "It's a miracle!"
Pellicero had indeed shown up at the hospital with an injured leg some two and a half years earlier, after spending 50 days walking there on foot, which gives us some guidance to speculate on how badly he was actually injured. The name of the doctor who treated him is said to have been Juan de Estanga. According to the miracle narrative, Estanga amputated the leg.
After Pellicero's leg was restored, the Church held a trial in order to provide the documentation proving this to be a miracle. The transcript of this trial survives today, and it's the primary source for the claim that Estanga amputated the leg. This claim has constituted the bulk of the email feedback I've received.
Listener Charles gave me the following quote from Wikipedia, which appears in the article in response to some snippets from my original Skeptoid episode:
And the source for this is linked to the 1829 printing of the 1640 trial transcript. Given the weight of this evidence, and also linking to the same publication, listener Stephen wrote:
Now, since this 130-page transcript of the trial is the single most important document to this story, of course I had read it carefully before doing my episode. Evidently these correspondents did not, nor did the Wikipedia editor. The format of this trial was that a notary would read articles giving the basic miracle claims, and then the witnesses would affirm or deny each article. When Estanga testified, he affirmed that he remembered a young man come to the hospital with an injured leg some two and a half years ago, but he did not know that young man's name. He recommended amputation, and he testified that he believed it had been carried out by "practitioners and nurses", but did not claim any first hand knowledge.
With regard to Miguel Juan Pellicero by name, Estanga testified knowing him as a young amputee with a wooden peg and a crutch, and that he had often come to the hospital — not for treatment, but to sit in the chapel. He did this in the evenings when they dimmed the lamps, so that he could use the lamp oil as a balm. Estanga testified cautioning Pellicero that he shouldn't do that.
Regarding having personally treated Pellicero, Estanga never said that. The closest he got was to affirm article 13, which states that the young man whose leg had been amputated had been treated for several months by the hospital staff.
When the second doctor Diego Millaruelo was interviewed, he affirmed an article that he had witnessed a leg being amputated about two years ago.
Accurate translation of the 17th-century Spanish text is crucial. For mine, I hired a translator in Spain who specialized in old documents, and I sent him photos of the actual pages I needed. By contrast, one apologetics forum critical of my original episode described their own process:
While it's certainly easy to connect all these dots and conclude the evidence at the trial proves that Pellicero had his leg amputated — particularly with only a loose machine translation at one's disposal, one has to remember two very important points. First, the trial was held for the explicit purpose of providing proof of this miracle — it was not to investigate or to learn what had happened, but to document a predetermined conclusion. The transcript was written for the exact same purpose — to give the Church the needed documentation that a miracle, unexplainable by any natural causes, had taken place. Even so, they failed to produce any doctor willing to state that he had amputated the leg of Pellicero.
Why not? In my experience, it's because this sham Church trial cherry picked its witnesses, as evidenced by a total lack of witnesses who presented any contradicting testimony. Even if they had found a doctor willing to say he'd done the amputation, such trials as this have always been so notoriously tarnished by their flagrant prejudice that its finding should carry little weight with any reasonably skeptically minded person, especially when such an obvious and well-known alternate explanation exists.
So listeners, keep your feedback and corrections coming in, and I'll do my best to accommodate as much of it as I can. If you hold me to a high standard, I'll meet it.
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