Student Questions: College of Central Florida, Part 1
Skeptoid answers a round of student questions recorded during a visit to the College of Central Florida.
Today we've got my favorite kind of episode, Student Questions, recorded while I was giving a series of talks at the College of Central Florida (Ocala campus) in March of 2023. I know a lot of you students are listening to this right now, hoping to hear the answers to your questions; and by making this one a two-parter, I managed to get all of them in. So get ready folks, because we're about to take a whirlwind tour of urban legends, conspiracy theories, and history vs. pseudohistory.
The Bermuda Triangle
We're going to get started today with the same question I always get whenever I'm in Florida:
You're right that it's an overused topic, but the problem is the mythology version is what always gets passed around, while the factual version is criminally underused. So I welcome the question, very much.
The Bermuda Triangle was not a thing that anyone knew or cared about until 1974 — and that's surprisingly recent — when Charles Berlitz published his book The Bermuda Triangle. Statistically, there is nothing remarkable about the region. Neither ships nor planes are lost in the Bermuda Triangle at a rate higher than anywhere else, and the US Coast Guard even maintains a web page stating the Triangle is not a thing. The stories only exist because of Berlitz's fictional book, and the many other books and TV shows that have followed it.
For a rare fact-based exploration of the topic, see the excellent The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved by Larry Kusche.
Avoid Being Emotional
Next we have a question that I think is important for people like me to always keep in mind:
So this is easy for me. I've been doing science writing for such a long time that it's become natural to stay detached from the human angle of it. And, it's also easy to maintain my standards: I don't exploit personal tragedies, I try to be respectful of all viewpoints, and I remember that everyone I write about is a human whom somebody loved. In fact my best work comes when I seek out the emotional angle on an issue; for example, humanizing an individual usually regarded as distasteful, in order to normalize that person's relationship to the urban legend or whatever it is they're known for. Our humanity impacts everything we do, for good or for ill, and that's the reason understanding the human angle is such an important key to understanding every mystery.
But from the perspective of people directly impacted by these stories — those who lost a loved one on 9/11, or lost a loved one to COVID — staying rational about it can be difficult. And I've been in the thick of this. And here's what I can say for a fact: Maintaining your personal relationships is always more important than "being right" when there's a disagreement over some science vs. pseudoscience question.
Our next question is a case in point:
When it comes to beliefs that are so obviously and blatantly false like this one, I'm not sure we can really call it a belief. It's an acceptance of a party platform. The average person who agrees with this is not someone who sat down, looked at the election results, read the reports from the Secretaries of State, and made a logical conclusion based on the facts. They simply heard party leadership say it, and that's good enough for them.
So I think that the answer to your question will come when and if GOP party leadership decides to change their tune on that one. This is such an absurd claim they might as well be saying the Earth is flat, so can it last? I don't know. Time will tell.
The trick is to not make it personal. Don't deride people for holding such a wacky belief; because if all they're really doing is upholding their party platform, well, that's something most people do in every political party, and none do it with any ill intent.
Next we have a question about those mysterious characters cloaked in mystery and intrigue all around the world:
The Internet will tell you just about anything you want about the Freemasons, everything from they're just a few marginalized white supremacists to they're the most powerful organization of world leaders, controlling everything from behind the scenes.
The truth is somewhat more mundane. Freemasons are, just as they themselves say, a fraternal organization — meaning a club for men. They're all around the world. What they do is largely local civic and charitable work in a modest way. Most lodges will have scholarships for a local student or two, and those "buildings all over town" that you see are a result of an old tradition in the United States (and some other countries): a local Masonic Lodge will often be invited to place the cornerstone for new buildings. Masons, after all, take their name from actual stone masons.
Basically, you're not far wrong with "Boy Scouts for men."
Next we have a question to lead us into the depths of Mormonism:
I'd like to start by pointing out that the term conspiracy theory has come to be so popular that it's often misused to refer to any strange belief, not just to an actual conspiracy theory. While strange beliefs are certainly a big part of the Mormon doctrine, conspiracy theories about the church are rarer. I would say that the most notable one is that of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormons killed an entire wagon train of emigrants attempting to pass through Utah. A popular conspiracy theory today is that Brigham Young ordered it, and church leaders have conspired to this day to cover up that involvement. Is it true? Well, check out the full Skeptoid episode on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, episode #768, for the full story in all its gory details.
But here's my single favorite erroneous Mormon belief. It's a factual claim that is incontestable under Mormon doctrine, but is simply scientifically false. Throughout the Book of Mormon, horses are prominent. The book covers the period from about 3000 BC through about 400 BCE, and yet horses were extinct in the Americas since the end of the last Ice Age until they were reintroduced by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s. Joseph Smith couldn't have known that (probably very few of even the most educated people would have) so he can be forgiven the error; but that forgiveness ends with the proofs offered by modern science.
Next we have a question that's definitely a product of the time we live in:
This is one of the most frequent questions people ask me. Is there more misinformation than ever? Has the Internet made it even easier to spread? Is reality under greater threat today than ever before in history?
Well, believe it or not, my answer to this is no. The early 21st century does not have a monopoly on historical misinformation. My experience doing what I do for a living — which involves a lot of reading of very old books and newspapers — has taught me that all reporting has always led with sensationalism. Reporting so bad that it constitutes disinformation has always been peppered throughout the news. People have always held false beliefs about their enemies. Those in power have always sought to suppress opposing viewpoints. There is nothing at all about misinformation in the 2020s that hasn't characterized human interaction since the dawn of language.
Nevertheless, you'll find my view is a minority one; most will tell you misinformation is the worst it's ever been. And they were also saying that 50 years ago. And 100 years ago. And 200 years ago. And they'll still be saying it 500 years in the future.
The Secret Cave at Mount Rushmore
Next we have a question about a popular secret believed to be concealed within one of our great national monuments:
There's a funny thing about the popular urban legend that claims a secret Hall of Records was built into the mountain behind the stone faces at Mount Rushmore, and that's that it was never secret at all. It's basically a time capsule, and you're free to walk right up and examine it — or at least, to the 1200-lb granite slab covering it. From the National Park Service website:
The Hall of Records was originally intended to be much larger and grander, but when Mount Rushmore's chief sculptor died and all work on the monument was stopped during WWII, the current modest repository became all we get.
Don't Look Up
Finally, we'll wrap up today with a Skeptoid movie review:
Don't Look Up was a 2021 satirical black comedy about two astronomers trying to warn the world about a comet on its way to destroy the Earth. But at every step of the way, world leaders react by simply acting like it's not happening. Ignore it, think about other things, and it will go away. The movie is a not-so-thinly veiled metaphor for the reaction of many to global warming. So, as a film about the pitfalls of communicating science to a world largely contemptuous of science, Don't Look Up was something that all of us in science were supposed to love and tout as the greatest film ever. It was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay.
But many viewers felt it simply wasn't a very good movie. In particular, its comedic style failed for a lot of viewers. I suffered through bits of it but couldn't stand it — it felt like it would have been funnier if my IQ had been 75. For me, movies are good based on their story and its presentation — the underlying message doesn't matter. Obviously, for many viewers — the Academy included — the message was all that mattered here. So it might be something you love, it might be something that drives you nuts.
So that's all we've got for you today, but we will be continuing this next week due to the extraordinary curiosity shown by the fine students at the College of Central Florida. Did I mention what a great time I had there? Well I did, and next week we're going to pick it right back up. Until then, keep it real.
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