The Episodes That Changed My Mind, Part 2
Some more of the episodes where I went in with one idea, and came out with another.
Last week we did Part 1 of the episodes from the past five years that have surprised me the most, and today we're following up with the rest. More than any other question, people ask me most which episodes really surprised me. What they're really hoping to find out is which subjects did I cover for which the paranormal explanation turned out to be the true one; and while that hasn't happened yet, I've still been plenty surprised by many of them. Counter to popular opinion, I do not sit down each week and twist my mustache with the evil intent of disproving some popular story. Believe it or not, I truly do let the research lead me wherever it will, preconceived notions aside. The world is plenty strange enough without having to make up paranormal stories.
So let us now continue with our list of surprising Skeptoid episode outcomes, with:
#781: Space Junk: The Real Risk and What to Do About It
When I sat down to write an episode characterizing the true nature of the space junk problem, I reasoned that the doom-and-gloom scenarios were likely overblown. Space is very, very big; and the stuff we've launched up into orbit is very, very small. The chances of any two objects colliding is remote, and I figured the chances of that cascading and going haywire were virtually impossible. After all, media loves to report the sensationalized version of everything, and I figured that the space junk problem was just one more such example.
Mathematics, it turns out, is hard to argue with. And all of those bits orbiting can be described mathematically. What I thought seemed reasonable suddenly became irrelevant. It's certainly irrelevant at NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office, where simulations are running on supercomputers around the clock. The outlook was not only the complete opposite of what I expected it would be, it was also sobering to the point of being depressing. It's not a good outlook.
Turns out that what's called a Kessler syndrome — collisions creating new debris faster than it can fall to Earth, resulting in an unrecoverable chain reaction — is more likely a matter of "when" than "if". It may take nothing more than one more anti-satellite weapon test to render our near-Earth orbit space unusable for generations.
I hate being wrong sometimes more than others.
#814: Nazis and the Occult
Like so many others, I was raised on a HISTORY channel diet having it drilled into my head that the Nazis had occult underpinnings. I'd heard enough specifics that when this episode came up in the queue, I expected it would confirm the basic idea and would be filled with examples showing just how far overboard the Nazis had gone. Because surely, things as macabre as concentration camps and the Holocaust could only be explained by a sort of evil occult dogma.
So I admit that I was surprised to learn that no, virtually this entire concept was invented by post-war authors, feeding the public's fascination with this monstrous regime. And of course, I recognized right away that I shouldn't have been surprised at all. So many stories go this way; whenever we have a widespread belief in some sensational historical event with a lot of books written about it in the interim, my experience has taught me that it's a virtual lock that that history was far more mundane before the imaginative authors got their turn at it. Take a few seeds capable of germinating, in this case the Aryan writers Guido von List and Jцrg Lanz von Liebenfels, and tremendously exaggerate their influence. Very soon you've got enough to fill an entire HISTORY channel season with pseudohistory. In short, no, the average Nazi had no more exposure to occultism than the average American; and even fanatical Nazis were no more common than fanatical Americans today.
#709: Wind Turbines and Birds
Fossil fuel interests are always coming up with new arguments against renewable energy, and wind turbines have certainly had their share — "wind turbine syndrome" being a particularly groan-inducing example. But the idea that wind turbines kill birds would seem to have some merit, especially when we think of the more endangered large raptors that live and fly around the hilltops where these farms are often located. So I went into this episode expecting to report some sober numbers and a cost-benefit analysis.
Often when I begin my research I go to sources where I expect to find the strongest pro and con arguments, and one of my first stops was the Audubon Society, the world's largest nonprofit dedicated solely to bird conservation. I expected to get the big anti-wind turbine arguments here. So imagine my surprise to find this statement front & center on their position paper about wind turbines:
Apparently, wind turbines kill so few birds in comparison to the number saved by the displacement of more fossil energy, that Audubon is one of the most vocal wind turbine proponents out there. Color me pleasantly surprised. This was a great time to be wrong.
#799: On the Authorship of the Toccata & Fugue in D Minor
For once I got a pleasant surprise when researching a topic. I'd been a lifelong fan of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, had long been one of my standard go-tos. So when I first heard that its authorship was disputed and it probably wasn't composed by Bach, I stuck my head in the sand and refused to do the episode. It sat in my folder for probably a decade, literally, untouched. I was too afraid to learn what it seemed probably I would learn.
Well then, happy days! It turns out that any dispute over its authorship is a fringe view, and the things about it that seem odd — i.e., the lack of any signed copy of its score by Bach, there being no copy of it at all in any of Bach's personal archives, and even the modern analysis of it being something of an outlier among his catalog — all of these are consistent features with nearly all of Bach's works from the period. Really capping it off though is the fact that its best known original score, with the name J.S. Bach proudly and boldly listed as the composer, was penned by one Johannes Ringk, a student of one of Bach's friends, all of whom cruised in the same small circle of noteworthy organists in that time and place. It's simply not plausible that Ringk's most famous transcription would be misattributed among the people who all knew each other and worked together. Bach probably composed it at the age of 17 — perhaps the most incredible fact in the whole canon — a time at which he rarely preserved scores which were not suitable for teaching.
#683: Prehistoric Supersonic Monster Tides
Many times over the years I had heard that in the Earth's earliest days, the Moon was much closer and orbited much faster. This combination of a stronger gravitational effect from the Moon and faster orbits meant that the tides on Earth would have been correspondingly higher and quicker; in fact, by the numbers, they would have been terrifyingly high tides, possibly kilometers high, and moving so quickly that each tide would have constituted a wall of whitewater moving at supersonic speeds, obliterating everything in its path, multiple times per day.
The first surprise was that there was surprisingly little work published on this in the geophysical literature. I knew the numbers did indeed support the existence of these catastrophic, mega-disaster tides, and that's indeed a fact; but to get a decent episode out I had to have some supporting citations. The problem is that so soon after the collision of Gaia and Theia that resulted in the Earth and Moon, conditions were reset to balls of lava and the geophysical record was so murky that it didn't really support much academic research. Well I finally found what I needed — just barely. And interestingly, the same problem that caused a lack of data also provided the answer.
You'd need to listen to the episode to get the full story, but the short version is that when the Earth and Moon were close enough for supersonic monster tides — which they indeed were — Earth was still far too hot from the collision for liquid water to exist. By the time it was cool enough, the Moon had already orbited out far enough that the tides were scarcely bigger than they are today. So it turned out to be another case of learning I'd always been wrong, but for a reason I'd have never guessed.
#744: Phineas Gage, on Second Thought
Phineas Gage was the man who, in 1848, had an iron rod shot through his skull, resulting in a horrific brain injury. He amazingly recovered, but the first thing anyone knows about this story is that his personality changed drastically. A personable fellow before the accident, he was coarse and cruel afterward. The case literally launched the science of neurology, as it was the first time that doctors realized the connection between the brain and the mind. I knew this fact about the case as well as anyone.
Well, I was as surprised as was anyone else who listened to the episode, because it turned out that we were all wrong. Later studies of all the documentation of Phineas' injury, recovery, and later life tell a very different story than the one I thought I knew. It turns out that the evidence his personality changed is very thin and dubious, while the evidence that he retained his faculties and personality is quite robust. The popular version of his story has to do with how it was reported at the time, and how that reporting informed the early literature, and how that early literature informed today's textbooks — many of which still give the old, debunked version of the story as fact.
So there we have it — the rest of the episodes that surprised me the most. Many of the people who tend to embrace alternative sciences and alternative histories often react to Skeptoid with hostility, since I don't tend to confirm their alternative worldview; charging me with blind loyalty to "scientism" or dogma or the orthodoxy — attempting to frame the knowledge-based version of the world as a closed-minded religion that shall not be questioned. Well, they are welcome to that perspective. But such people will never know the excitement of sitting down and genuinely not knowing what they'll find, and where the facts will lead them. I am pleased to report that that is a pleasure I am fortunate to enjoy every week.
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