The Episodes That Changed My Mind, Part 1
Perhaps the most common question I get when I'm having a conversation with someone and explaining what I do for a living, is which topics I've covered that surprised me the most. Generally, when someone asks me this, what they're really looking for are the times when I did a show about some paranormal or supernatural thing; and I went in with a cynical, materialistic attitude that it would all turn out to be fake or a hoax, but I learned that the paranormal explanation was indeed the gloriously true one. Well, that's never happened, because in all the research and study done over the millennia by all the humans who have ever lived, we've still never yet been forced to throw in the towel and admit the reality of magic. So while today's episode might disappoint those hoping to hear that Brian's mighty skepticism was defeated by some supernatural entity, it will be appreciated by those of you who are more interested in a peek into how and when my brain has failed just like everyone else's.
We've done a few of these episodes in the past, most recently back in 2017 with episode #575. That's a long time ago and a lot of episodes under the bridge, so it's high time we give it another go. Here are the episodes I was most wrong about, going in and before I did the research, since 2017.
Anytime you hear a story that somebody secretly exploded a nuclear bomb, you tend to react as I did: you go "Oh yeah right, fat chance of that, I can tell you right now where this episode is going to lead." Such was the case with episode #531 on The Banjawarn Bang; no, a terrorist group in Australia did not successfully test a nuclear weapon in 1993. So when I heard that the Vela Incident was a similar claim from 1979, I had full confidence in where the episode research was going to lead.
So nobody was more surprised than me when the far-out explanation turned out to be the true one. Way out over a remote patch of ocean, far from any nation's prying eyes, a huge atmospheric burst was detected by one of the American Vela satellites. Long story short: Piecing together many clues, we found that Israel wanted to test one of its nukes, and South Africa had uranium. The two nations collaborated and actually did so, as far as we can tell.
After the episode I even heard from a handful of former national security professionals from various nations who confirmed that it's kind of an open secret, it's not really acknowledged but also not classified, but a successful joint Israeli-South African test of a small nuclear device is indeed the assessment of the incident. About forty years after the incident, this assessment was further bolstered when radionuclide evidence turned up in Australian sheep, of all places.
Of course I'd grown up knowing all about Koko, the gorilla who could communicate using sign language. And I'd heard that there were a handful of others, a chimp here or there. It had always seemed perfectly plausible to me and, in fact, I'd never taken a moment to doubt that it was perfectly true. I did wonder why every ape didn't know sign language, but since I never sat down to dedicate any time thinking about it, I never put the two things together and thus never happened to think skeptically about it.
When I started the episode, I honestly expected it was going to be a cool general science episode about how Koko and the others learned these tasks, and about how cool the animal kingdom is. So nobody was more surprised than me to find that the entire thing was bogus. Not a primatologist or a linguist in the world — outside of the labs of the apes in question — bought into the sign language claims. It turns out the entire phenomenon was due to self-deception on the part of the researchers, who wishful-thinkinged themselves into over-interpreting the apes' responses. Once you accept that, go back and again watch the YouTube videos of celebrities like Robin Williams and Mr. Rogers interacting with Koko, and it's clear that without the researcher on hand to make some pretty outlandish interpretations of what they believe Koko was saying, it does indeed appear that she wasn't doing anything other than repeating signs shown by the researcher.
Mind blown. My whole life had been a lie.
This one both changed my mind about something I was sure I knew, and surprised me about something else. The famous Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado is well known for its association with Kubrick's classic horror movie The Shining. The exteriors for The Shining's fictional Overlook Hotel were shot at Oregon's Timberline Lodge up on Mt. Hood, and the Overlook's interiors — as I had always believed — were the Stanley. Well if you've ever been to the Stanley, you know that nothing there looks remotely like anything in The Shining. The Stanley wasn't used in the movie at all; its only connection is that Stephen King was inspired by it to write the original novel the movie was based on. So the episode set me straight on that little point.
From there, I expected the Stanley was going to have its own collection of ghost stories, various famous ghosts from history, perhaps a phantom Stanley Steamer antique car driving around the grounds at midnight. In my long experience from doing Skeptoid, this is what I expected. What surprised me is that this story was an outlier: prior to becoming famous due to the movie, the Stanley Hotel had never been considered haunted by anyone. I went through every old book on Colorado hauntings I could find, written prior to the release of the move, and found not a single reference to the Stanley as being in any way haunted. As soon as Stephen King told his story about being inspired by it, boom, suddenly the Colorado haunting books are bursting at the seams with stories about the Stanley's many ghosts.
So that was definitely a surprise for me, and was a really cool example of the impact that works of fiction can have on reality.
Most of us have heard the urban legend that the width of standard gauge train tracks goes all the way back to ruts in Roman roads made by war chariots. Those ruts determined the axle width of wagons, which determined the width of tramways and trolley cars, and eventually train tracks. I'd always heard this so I always believed it; but when I heard that there was some discussion of whether or not this was true, I thought it would make a good Skeptoid episode.
Well, was I ever right about that! The depth of my wrongness on this subject, and the wrongness of the urban legend, cannot be understated. It begins with the simple fact that there was never any such thing as a Roman war chariot; and then, quite literally, every single link in the chain of what led to what is broken by false and implausible information.
So I've got to say that I was surprised by that one. And even more so, once I actually sat down to do the research, it turned out that there was already a pretty sizable body of work out there already making the exact same findings — and I'd never happened to come across any of it before.
#723: Draining the Holy Grail
Where did the story of the Holy Grail come from? Well of course I'd seen the Monty Python movie, but I didn't think it was that. I assumed the Holy Grail was in the Bible, no doubt in that scene where Jesus is bleeding on the cross and someone catches his blood in a cup. But then I have never been known for my Bible scholarship.
After the episode came out, I was at a restaurant with a big group of friends, and I went around the table and asked everyone where they thought the Holy Grail story was from. Most had no idea, and most guessed it had to be from the Bible. Not a single person was right.
So I felt a little less ignorant after finding that I was not alone, in learning that the Holy Grail comes not from Christianity at all, and that Monty Python was actually closer to being correct. The Holy Grail came from fiction writers, specifically French authors expanding upon the body of work about King Arthur. It is an Arthurian plot device, and nothing at all to do with Christianity.
(And it's always worth pointing out that Monty Python was also more historically accurate than the Bible about how many messiahs there were running around the Middle East in Roman times, as depicted in their movie Life of Brian.)
I wanted to close with this episode, not only because it was the biggest surprise for me, but because I also consider it to be among the very best Skeptoid episodes ever produced. It's about the Winchester Mystery House, an enormous, rambling house in California built by the heir to the Winchester Rifles fortune, Sarah Winchester, who always went by Sallie. If you haven't heard the episode, you really should listen to it next, like right now. Search your podcast player for "Skeptoid Winchester" and it will pop right up.
The house is said to have been built because Sallie was tormented by the spirits of all those killed by Winchester rifles, and she made the house so huge and confusing to confound the vengeful spirits. I had always believed this was her motivation, as I'd always been taught, and as many sources still report today. But what I learned in the episode is that this belief about her couldn't possibly have been more wrong. There is no evidence that she ever had any remote interest in ghosts or the paranormal, and the reason the house is so big and rambling is much more practical: she wanted to keep as many people employed as possible during a painful economic downturn. There are a lot of other things about Sallie too, all talked about in the episode, that make her perhaps one of the most admirable characters in early California history. Every Californian (at least) owes it to themselves to learn more about who she really was.
I was pleased to hear from a number of current and past employees of the Mystery House that the culture there is changing, and that the false paranormal claims about Sallie Winchester are no longer at the forefront of their marketing. The property is a privately owned tourist attraction, not a historical site. If it was, we could be more confident that it would transform into what it really should be, a monument to this remarkable pioneering woman.
So that's all we've got time for this week, so next week we're going to continue. It was a surprising five years for me, with lots of preconceived notions overturned and thrown out the window. For now, go listen to that episode about Sallie Winchester; and then come back next week for Part 2 of "The Episodes That Changed My Mind."
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