The Year's Best of Skeptoid
Today, in the 15th year (!!!!!) of the Skeptoid podcast, I got a sudden, crazy idea and thought I would give you my personal favorite episode from each year. So today I have for you a brief from each of 15 favorite shows — shows that I personally enjoyed researching, or that were fan favorites, or that had some particular cultural impact. My hope is that each of you has not heard most of these shows, and they'll encourage you to check them out.
And yes, if you interpret this as a naked attempt to get you to subscribe to the premium feed of the podcast, which would allow you to listen to all 15 of these favorites rather than just read the dry, boring transcripts on the website, you're exactly right. There ain't no free lunch — but there are free samples. Let's grab some right now.
2020: #730 - The Skeletons of the Great Eastern
I don't quite know why it took 15 years for this legend to make it into my show, because I'd always been fascinated since I was a kid by the story of how, when the world's largest ship was being broken up in 1891, the skeletons were discovered of two welders who had been accidentally sealed up inside the hull more than 30 years earlier. Getting to the truth of the matter was no easy task, and required buying a half dozen or so really old used books — an aspect of my job that I don't regret at all. I do have an awesome bookshelf — and it does solve the mystery of whether skeletons were found in the Great Eastern.
2019: #665 - Ocean Plastics: Facts and Falsehoods
I love episodes that challenge the sacred cows of those who are on the side of science and think they can't be wrong. This was a big one. Is plastic in the ocean a problem? Obviously, yes, but what's the true nature of that problem? Planning an effective solution requires having a thorough and accurate understanding of the problem; and unfortunately, most people base their understanding of the problem of ocean plastics on sensationalism, emotional imagery, and what seems to be common sense. Using the data, reports, and recommendations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as my primary sources, I ended up really surprised at how far the truth about ocean plastics is from the popular misconception.
2018: #621 - The Pentagon's UFO Hunt
Perhaps the greatest and most successful public disinformation campaign of the past 20 years has been that of To The Stars Academy, the TV production company of former Blink-182 musician Tom Delonge. A firm believer in alien visitation, Delonge and his fellow UFOlogists have been successfully carpet bombing the newspapers since 2017 with press releases claiming that the Pentagon believes in UFOs, all beginning with one famous article in the New York Times written by career UFOlogists and paranormalists Leslie Kean and Ralph Blumenthal. Today the saga continues, with even some members of Congress believing in alien visitation as a result.
2017: #586 - Volkswagen Dieselgate Reexamined
This was definitely another one that challenged the sacred cows of the science minded, and thus stirred the pot, big time. Volkswagen was hit with multi-billion dollar fines for cheating emissions tests on their diesels, which earned them the scorn of everyone in the world — except for automotive engineers. Even the engineering editors of major car magazines were virtually in lockstep in support of what Volkswagen had done — from an environmental perspective, though of course nobody wanted to be seen as condoning their violations of law. The fact is the laws the car manufacturers were forced to contend with were created from a bureaucratic perspective, and were actually counterproductive to fuel efficiency and minimizing environmental impact. This was a very exciting episode, because it rubbed so many listeners' preconceived notions the wrong way.
2016: #535-537 - Debunking the Moon Truthers
Somewhat less controversial was my first-ever three-part episode. The first delved into the surprising history of moon landing denial, which had its improbable roots in Biblical literalism. Part two was a debunking of many of the most familiar claims made by Moon Truthers, such as their belief that it would have been impossible for astronauts to traverse the Van Allen radiation belts. And part three, which was my favorite, laid out some of the absolute physical proof that humans from Earth went to the Moon, landed, returned, and landed safely. Much of this proof was new to me — not that I was ever a doubter, but if you'd asked me to prove we went to the Moon I wouldn't have had a great answer before I did this episode.
2015: #490 - Deconstructing the Tasaday Tribe
This episode was about the famous Philippine tribe that was allegedly discovered in the 1970s, having had no prior contact with outside humans. It set off a firestorm of controversy in the anthropology community: Was their story true, or had the whole thing been a hoax? It was really a fascinating episode to research. Not only did I get to learn about sciences new to me like glottochronology — dating the branches of languages — but also finding that the truth about the Tasaday lives in a nuanced middle ground between reality and hoax. More than anything, they were a product of Western hippie culture, that longed for a rejection of civilization and a return to nature.
2014: #420 - Hillary vs. Mallory: The First to Everest
Were Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay the first to summit Mount Everest, or did George Mallory and Andrew Irvine beat them to it during at attempt 30 years earlier in which they both disappeared? This question had always fascinated me because I assumed the answer was unknowable, as would anyone who — like me — was not familiar with how such climbing expeditions worked. Researching the episode, I had to learn all about the two different routes the two expeditions took and how each route worked: what the camps were along the way, how many people stayed at each, and the timing of advancing from one to the next. It turned out this question has a very clear answer, which if not provable, is beyond reasonable speculation. Moreover there was evidence in the form of at least one visual sighting of Mallory and Irvine, at a time of day and location that truly closed the file on this historical mystery.
2013: #375 - The Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot Film
I found there was very little already unsaid about the famous film of Bigfoot striding across the clearing in the 1967 clip. Thanks to lots of investigative journalism, we now have a reasonably complete picture of the genesis of the film which was unquestionably a hoax. But who would hoax it and why? These were the much better questions that I looked at, and I found — in the character and actions of Roger Patterson — a much richer story than a boring "Bigfoot is fake".
2012: #338 - The Flat Earth Theory
In a later episode I talked about modern Flat Earthers, but this one was about the fundamentalist Christian origins of the idea as a serious belief way back in the 1800s. The idea was not to bash the people who believed this or their reasons, but rather the focus was on the ingenious experiments they devised to test their ideas, using 19th century technologies — and, of course, the mental gymnastics that were needed when the experiments failed.
2011: #241 - The Alien Buried in Texas
Anyone who's ever turned on the History Channel, or any of the similar TV networks dedicated to sensationalized pseudoscience, has heard about the little cemetery in Aurora, Texas wherein is buried the tiny body of a space alien killed when his flying saucer crashed there in 1897. You'd think we'd simply dig it up and run tests on it to prove alien visitation, so why don't we? It's because the TV networks often go to great lengths to avoid providing true and easily accessible information — in this case, that the only source for the alien crash story is one of 16 entries on the Dallas Morning News editors' favorite joke newspaper articles about a recent hot air balloon visit. But the reason this episode is among my favorites is the poignant story of the two Aurora men who contrived their entry for the joke article contest. It literally brought tears to my eyes.
2010: #221 - The Myers-Briggs Personality Test
Should you be a paramedic or a lawyer? Should you play outfield or first base? The promise of the Myers-Briggs personality test is that by answering some simple questions, you'll get a score that will tell you where your very best aptitudes lie. The test is used throughout government, the workplace, academia, in fact just about everywhere except in one field: psychology. Why not? Because it turns out they're the ones who know that Myers-Briggs is pure, unadulterated hogwash. In this perennial favorite episode, we laid bare its fundamental flaws — and hopefully gave some ammunition to those of you who have had the Myers-Briggs test used against you in some aspect of life.
2009: #170 - It's Raining Frogs and Fish
Who among us has not heard the hoary old explanation that waterspouts are the cause of frogs and fish seeming to fall from the sky? A waterspout snatches them up out of the water, transports them far inland on some mythical high-altitude conveyor belt, and then drops them onto a golf course out of a clear blue sky. There's hardly a book or a documentary out there that doesn't repeat this ridiculous old explanation, conceived long ago by credulous reporters who lacked the necessary knowledge and sent in the best idea they could think of. Well, news flash, neither waterspouts nor anything like them have anything to do with the many historical reports of frogs and fish falling from the sky.
2008: #129 - The Oak Island Money Pit
From the pages of Reader's Digest's Strange Stories, Amazing Facts came an adventure tale that fully captured my attention as a very small boy. There had been no doubt in my mind that what the kid in the rowboat found in 1795 had been an authentic buried treasure, and I delighted in the exotic explanations for the seemingly complex system of traps, like the Royal Corps of Engineers protecting their payroll. So this episode was very much a labor of love, and it turned out to be not all that much labor. All one had to do was check with Nova Scotia's local geologists, and boom — every question about Oak Island was easily solved.
2007: #53 - Borley Rectory: the World's Most Haunted House?
This show about the famous haunted house in England that burned down in 1939 was an early favorite for me, because it was what I consider to be Skeptoid's first true discovery due to original research. Its most famous haunting was the "automatic writing" — scribbled notes that appeared on the wallpaper while people were right there watching it happen. To make a long story short, I found out exactly what happened — and interestingly, it was both literally true as reported, and yet was neither paranormal nor did it involve any trickery.
2006: #16 - The Real Philadelphia Experiment
Who among us hasn't heard that in the 1940s, the US Navy attempted an experiment to make a warship actually disappear, with disastrous results. Well the story is, as you can guess, pure fiction; but because TV producers and book publishers always love to preface their work with "Based on a true story", for some reason many people have always believed that the Philadelphia Experiment has some basis in reality. It's a trick that's turned many popular urban legends from fiction into reality. And yet, this story had an extra special germination: a very strange man who — either consciously or due to mental illness — almost successfully hoaxed the US Navy's Office of Naval Research by mailing them a most unusual package. That one actual event triggered decades of fiction.
And so there we have it, 15 favorites from 15 years. For most years I found an embarrassment of riches, i.e., at least a half dozen that were personal favorites. So I had to choose. What that leaves me with is plenty of material to do another show like this next year, and the year after that. I'll close with the same exhortation that has wrapped so many of these critical analyses of pop phenomena, and that's that you should always be skeptical.
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