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Tell me everything you know about pirates.  I’ll wait. Eye patch, earring, peg leg, parrot, arr, walk the plank, Davy Jones locker, the whole nine, right?  That’s how Robert Louis Stevenson pictured marauders of the high seas and he wrote about them in a book that sold a few copies, Treasure Island.  While it may have spawned the last non-Disney Muppet movie, which I saw on a first date, Treasure Island took nearly as many liberties with pirates as the Jim Henson Company did.  Stevenson can’t keep all the blame to himself, though. The rest goes to the writers and director of Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island, starring Robert Newton as Long John Silver.  Newton’s portrayal was massively popular, reshaping our image of pirates while ingraining his specific rendition of pirate-speak into the Broca’s region of even the smallest child’s brain.  Newton used his native dialect from the southwest of England, which is where those infamous, exaggerated “arrs” come from. Of course, we don’t have any recordings of ye olde pirate speak, but piracy was a multi-ethnic and international affair.  Many pirates hailed from non-English-speaking countries and even the British ones tended to hail from London, so that West Country dialect was anything but prevalent. Luckily, though, accuracy isn’t a requirement for “talk like a pirate day” every September 19th, which even gets you a free Kirspie Kreme.  You get a dozen if you’re dressed up.


Pirates didn’t bury their treasure to come back for it later; they weren’t squirrels.  It could have happened a few times, but not as a matter of protocol. For one thing, you might not live long enough to come back for it, so you’d better get to port and buy some common stock in hedonism.  There’s no evidence for plank-walking being in the pirate handbook, either. Pirates’ preferred means of punishment was keel-hauling, tying their victims to a rope and dragging them under the ship to be bashed about, cut up by nasty barnacles, and/or drowned.  Speaking of the handbook, pirates did have codes of conduct and honor…regarding how they treated each other. The codes were for maintaining order, fairly distributing the take, etc. It wouldn’t protect prisoners, no matter how quickly they think to say “parlay.”  Blackbeard was known to cut off women’s fingers to obtain their diamond rings. The most famous pirates weren’t necesarrily the best ones, either. The reason you’ve heard of the ones you’ve heard of is that they were captured and either killed immediately, like Blackbeard, or brought to trial, where their exploits were immortalized in court records and newspapers.  It’s reasonable to assume that a pirate who managed to avoid capture entirely was better than one who got caught.


The skull and crossbones, or Jolly Roger, is like an icon for pirates, but this flag was most certainly not flown by all pirates in the world, if any of them at all.  According to Benerson Little’s definitive The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, the idea that pirates flew the skull and crossbones is totally a myth, with the image of them wearing it on their clothing even more inaccurate.  Captain Kidd, for example, never flew under a black flag, instead opting for English colors, or some kind of deep red creation. Pretty much every pirate flag you can think of is, as Little states, “a modern [invention] without historical basis,” and even those that are at least marginally correct are misattributed.  According to Little, the perpetuation of the partially or entirely false pirate flags are little more than marketing. Speaking of colors, pirates themselves came in many. Pirate crews were multiethnic, with many crews featuring upward of one-third freed slaves, many of whom were brought on board after raids on seaside plantations, who had equal rights to the rest of the crew.  It would be niaive to think all white pirates treated all black pirates well, but recent research shows that a pirate ship was one of the best places, if not the best place, for a black individual in the time of global slavery. What really mattered was how hard a person worked and how hard they fought. The same atypical equality also extended to women who could hold their own. In fact, the most successful pirate in world history, by a wide margin, was a Chinese woman named Ching Shih Chen, who commanded a fleet of 80,000 sailors and negotiated totally amnesty and a lordship when she retired.


INTERACTIONS  Dan Will Burn review, thanks and CTA for RT


98% of Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants.  Regardless of which old country your family came from, odds are good that your last name was changed at Ellis Island.  Or that you think your name was changed at Ellis Island. This one immigration processing facility holds a near-mythical place in the American psyche.  From January 1, 1892 until November 12, 1954, Ellis Island was the first stop for over 12 million new Americans. One thing Ellis Island is NOT is the home of the statue of Liberty.  Lady Liberty stands of Bedloe island. Consider that a bonus correction.


If an immigrant made it as far as Ellis Island, they were likely be allowed into the United States. Only those in steerage had to undergo inspection at the Ellis Island station because officials believed that “if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons,” says the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.  The 500 or so employees at the station had to work quickly during those first waves of immigration, processing each immigrant in a matter of 4 to 7 hours with each inspector interviewing 400 to 500 people a day. On a single record-breaking day in 1907, almost 12,000 immigrants were processed through. So with all of that work to do, who had time to make up new names? Or a reason to?


While yes name-changes could have happened, Ellis Island inspectors were not responsible for *recording the incoming immigrants’ names.  According to Vincent J. Cannato’s book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, “Inspectors never wrote down the names of incoming immigrants. The only list of names came from the manifests of steamships, filled out by ship officials in Europe. In the era before visas, there was no official record of entering immigrants except those manifests.  When immigrants reached the end of the line in the Great Hall, they stood before an immigration clerk with the huge manifest opened in front of him. The clerk then proceeded, usually through interpreters, to ask questions based on those found in the manifests. Their goal was to make sure that the answers matched.” Any errors or changes in a person’s name was more likely to have happened before they boarded the boat.  Inspectors only altered a name if they were persuaded that a mistake had been made in the spelling or rendering of the name, which could certainly happen, especially in a time of less literacy. Even then, the original name was struck through but remained legible. There’s also evidence that the immigrants themselves changed their names, either when they bought their ticket in their mother country or when they arrived, for a variety of reasons, including to Americanize their family.


Bonus fact: the first person processed through Ellis Island was a 17 year old Irish girl named Annie Moore who was traveling with her younger brothers to be reunited with their parents and older brothers, who had come to American four years earlier.  For years it was thought that Moore had married a descendant of the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, moved to New Mexico and met a tragic end in a 1923 streetcar accident in Fort Worth, Texas, that left her five children orphaned. Those children and their children were invited to various ceremonies at both Ellis Island and Ireland.  However, it was discovered in 2006 that *that Annie Moore was born and raised in the United States and the first-one-through Annie Moore lived her entire life in a few square blocks on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.


Sometimes all it takes to ingrain a myth into the public consciousness is a single book.  And people don’t even have to read the book for it to work! Take, for instance, Sharks Don’t Get Cancer.  The 1992 book by I. William Lane PhD and Linda Comac claimed shark cartilage contained cancer-fighting elements, and so not only do sharks never develop tumors, but powdered shark cartilage is an effective treatment for cancer and numerous other conditions.  And as luck would have it, they had shark cartilage pills you could buy, as well as a follow-up book four years later, Sharks Still Don’t Get Cancer. However, and to no one’s surprise, there is no scientific evidence that shark cartilage is useful in treating or preventing cancer or any other disease.  Lane became interested in the potential health benefits of shark cartilage after watching a CNN story about a study in Science that found that shark cartilage inhibited blood vessels from growing toward tumors, which is a bit like sharing an article after only reading the headline.


The idea that sharks don’t get cancer seems to stem from scant clinical evidence that cartilage has antiangiogenic properties–i.e., inhibits the development of blood vessels crucial to the growth of cancerous tumors–and since shark skeletons are made of cartilage, a non-critical mind might assume that they can’t get cancer.  Recent studies have shown that, while the incidence of cancer in sharks and rays and such does seem below average, they have been found with cancerous tumors, including cancers *of the cartilage. While cartilage may have antiangiogenic properties, eating powdered shark cartilage has not been shown to be an work as a cancer treatment or preventative, because, at the very least, none of the constituent parts of the powder appear to be absorbed across the intestine wall into the bloodstream.


Highly dubious clinical trials were conducted in Cuba and Mexico to test Lane’s theory, by specifically testing cartilage products made by Lane Labs, which was run by William’s son, Andrew.  In 1997, the FDA issued a warning letter had stated, in part: “You stated that Lane Labs makes no drug claims for these products. However, there are drug claims in the labeling of Lane Labs’ “BeneFin” and “SkinAnswer.” For example, claims made for “BeneFin” include the treatment of arthritis, psoriasis, and cancer as well as, more specifically, breast cancer, prostate cancer and Kaposi’s sarcoma.” SkinAnswer” is promoted as an “all-natural glycoalkaloid cream for skin cancer.”  Dr. Lane’s brochure for the product “SkinAnswer” specifically claims the product is “Dr. Lane’s next cancer breakthrough.” The booklet “16 Questions Most Often Asked of Dr. I. William Lane” specifically promotes “BeneFin” as a treatment for cancer. Magazine advertisements (such as one in the March/April 1997 issue of “Christian American”) that bear pictures of Lane “Labs’ “BeneFin” and Dr. Lane’s claim that “BeneFin helps fight arthritis, psoriasis, and cancer.”


In 1999, the FDA initiated a lawsuit to stop them from marketing BeneFin, as well as SkinAnswer, a glycoalkaloid skin cream, as a treatment for skin cancer, and MGN-3, a rice-bran extract, as a treatment for cancer and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.  I’m not a doctor, but I’d like to think that if rice bran killed the HIV virus, an actual doctor would have discovered that by now. In June 2000, Lane Labs-USA, Inc., Andrew J. Lane, I. William Lane, Ph.D. and something called Cartilage Consultants, Inc, agreed to settle Federal Trade Commision charges that they had made unsubstantiated claims that BeneFin and SkinAnswer were effective against cancer.  The complaint notes that Lane Labs falsely represented that the FDA had evaluated the effectiveness of BeneFin; and terms like “non-toxic cancer therapy,” “cancer treatment” and “cancer survivor” were used in their website’s metatags to drive google results. The settlement includes a $1 million judgment, with $550,000 to the FTC and the remaining $450,000 to pay for a clinical study of shark cartilage sponsored by the National Cancer Institute.  


In July 2004, back in the FDA’s case, the judge ordered Andrew Lane and his company to make restitution to anyone who purchased the products in the preceeding five years.  The judge also ordered all inventory of these products destroyed except for a quantity of BeneFin that may be needed for research purposes. Noting that illegal promotion of the products had continued despite the FDA warning letter and the FTC cease-and-desist order, the judge described the defendants as untrustworthy and issued a permanent injunction against misrepresenting any product in the future.  


The reason these snake-oil products are so dangerous is that, even if they are not harmful, they distract people from getting legitimate treatments that they need.  Plus the fishing of sharks for manufacturing shark cartilage products endangers shark populations and puts one more bullet into the back of the struggling marine ecosystems.  Recently, researchers in Australia noticed a large tumor protruding from the mouth of a great white shark, as well as another mass on the head of a bronze whaler shark. The great white’s tumor measured 1 foot (30 centimeters) long and 1 foot wide, according to a study describing the tumors published online in November in the Journal of Fish Diseases.  In total, scientists have now documented tumors in at least 23 species of sharks. “Sharks get cancer,” said David Shiffman, a shark researcher and doctoral student at the University of Miami. “Even if they didn’t get cancer, eating shark products won’t cure cancer any more than me eating Michael Jordan would make me better at basketball.”




Another animal-based misbelief comes from a paper whose author is still trying to walk-back what he’d written, but you can’t unring a bell, and that’s the idea of the alpha wolf.  Although the notions of “alpha wolf” and “alpha dog” seem thoroughly ingrained in our language, the idea of the alpha comes from Rudolph Schenkel, an animal behaviorist who, in 1947, published the then-groundbreaking paper “Expressions Studies on Wolves.”  During the 1930s and 1940s, Schenkel studied wolves, attempting to identify a “sociology of the wolf.” In his research, Schenkel identified two primary wolves in a pack: a male “lead wolf” and a female “bitch.” He described them as “first in the pack group.”  By incessant control and repression of all types of competition (within the same sex), both of these “α animals” defend their social position.


Thus, the alpha wolf was born. Throughout his paper, Schenkel also draws frequent parallels between wolves and domestic dogs, often following his conclusions with anecdotes about our household canines. The implication is clear: wolves live in packs in which individual members vie for dominance and dogs, their domesticated brethren, must be very similar indeed.


A key problem with Schenkel’s wolf studies is that, while they represented the first close study of wolves, they didn’t involve any study of wolves in the wild. Schenkel studied two packs of wolves living in Switzerland’s Zoo Basel, but his studies remained the primary resource on wolf behavior for decades.  Later researchers, would perform their own studies on captive wolves, and published similar findings on dominance-subordinant and leader-follower relationships within captive wolf packs. And the notion of the “alpha wolf” was reinforced, in large part, by wildlife biologist L. David Mech’s 1970 book The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species.  Mech spent several years during the 1960s studying wolves in Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park for his PhD thesis, echong Schenkel’s notions of “alpha wolves” and competition-based pack hierarchies. Mech’s book became a hit and is in print to this day. It popularized a lot of our modern ideas about wolves, including competition-based hierarchies.


In more recent years, animal behaviorists, including Mech, have spent more and more time studying wolves in the wild, you know, where they actually live and act like wolves,  and the behaviors they have observed has been different from those observed by Schenkel and other watchers of zoo-bound wolves. In 1999, Mech’s paper “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs” was published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. The paper is considered by many to be a turning point in understanding the structure of wolf packs.  “The concept of the alpha wolf as a “top dog” ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots,” Mech writes in the 1999 paper, “is particularly misleading.”


However, Mech explains, his studies of wild wolves have found that wolves live in families: two parents along with their younger cubs. Wolves do not have an innate sense of rank; they are not born leaders or born followers.  In nature, Mech writes, wolves split off from their packs when they mature, and seek out opposite-sex companions with whom to form new packs. The male and female co-dominate the new pack for a much simpler, more peaceful reason: They’re the parents of all the pups.  The “alphas” are simply what we would call in any other social group “parents.” The offspring follow the parents as naturally as they would in any other species. No one has “won” a role as leader of the pack; the parents may assert dominance over the offspring by virtue of being the parents.  Mech writes on his website (with the lovely title Wolf News and Info) that his original book is “currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it.”


This doesn’t mean that wolves don’t display social dominance, of course.  Dominant behavior and dominance relationships can be highly situational, and can vary greatly from individual to individual even within the same species. It’s not the entire concept of wolves displaying social dominance that was dispelled, just the simple hierarchical pack structure.


Dude bros, Chads and incels aren’t easily dissuaded though.  They’ll claim alpha males are found in chimps, our closest genetic relatives.  In chimps, the alpha male is the most dominant, most aggressive bro, and that means he has first access to food, resources, and of course, mates.  Contrary to popular belief, in chimps, the most aggressive male doesn’t always become the leader. Smaller, more mild-mannered males can actually become dominant by doing favors and obsessively grooming other chimps.  chimps aren’t our closest genetic relatives, bonobos are. And bonobos live in a matriarchal society. They’re also really sex and sex-work positive, using sex in almost all their social interactions. Unlike other primates, human social hierarchies are constantly in flux.  You might be the “dominant male” at home, but all bets are off when you go to work, hang with friends, or interact with anyone else for any reason. No one is the same type of person in all situations. Human society is much more complicated than that.