Theoretically Debunked Baratunde Thurston and Kiran Deol play a game about old-timey scientific theories that were later debunked. To paraphrase Ray Parker Jr., "Debunkin' makes me feel good!"

Theoretically Debunked

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JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and fall foliage. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.


Thanks, Jonathan. We're playing games with writer, comedian and activist Baratunde Thurston, who hosts the podcast "How To Citizen." And joining us from London, England, is actor Kiran Deol.

OK, Kiran, before the break, we played a game about famous chefs, and you said that you only go to Denny's. So are you familiar with the Denny's Grand Slam?

KIRAN DEOL: You know what's so funny that you ask this, is that it's my dad's birthday today. And one year, my mother was like, I'm going to take you to dinner and a movie. It's your birthday. And you know what he chose to do? He chose to watch "Eat Pray Love."

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

DEOL: And he went to Denny's. And he went to Denny's, and he was so happy getting his Grand Slam. And it's free on your birthday, so...

EISENBERG: That's right.

DEOL: ...It's like - you know?

COULTON: That's very sweet. It's somehow a very dad move, too, is to choose as your birthday present getting a free (laughter)...

EISENBERG: Oh, it's so exciting.

COULTON: ...Breakfast at Denny's.

EISENBERG: What a value. I remember, you know, we thought we were so smart in college to be like, let's go to Denny's and lie about our birthdays. And then they were like, can I see your ID? And we're like, oh, OK. Sorry.


DEOL: Like, just checking - just checking, you guys, just checking.

EISENBERG: OK, so we have another - are you both ready for another game?


DEOL: Yes.

EISENBERG: Great. So this game is about historic scientific theories that were eventually debunked. OK, so, Kiran, this one is for you. Belief in these creatures was mentioned as early as 5,000 B.C. in Sumerian texts. And ancient Romans also thought that they were the cause of their mouth problems. Which creatures am I talking about - A, tooth worms, B, jaw beetles, or C, tongue termites?

DEOL: I like the sound of the first one, a tooth worm, because it sounds similar to what tooth decay is today. And it feels logical to me that if I didn't know how decay existed, I'd be like, there's something in there, buddy, and I would think it was a worm.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, you're right. It was believed that dental cavities were caused by tiny worms living in your teeth and eating away at them from the inside.

COULTON: Kiran, that was some cold, clear, logical - I really appreciated the way you answered that question. That was good...

DEOL: Thank you so much. I am a great - I'm a great pseudoscientist. This is an area of expertise. I'm a Denny's-eating pseudoscientist.

THURSTON: I imagine, Kiran, you working that out on - like, in your room, you have a big glass whiteboard.


DEOL: (Laughter).

THURSTON: And you're just, like, drawing like "A Beautiful Mind" scene.

COULTON: Yeah, while you're listening to jazz and...

DEOL: Yeah, like a montage of, like, connections and inference.


DEOL: As I'm just eating a Grand Slam, shoveling it into my face.

COULTON: (Laughter) That's right. All right, Baratunde, here's one for you. Edmond Halley of Halley's Comet fame and President John Quincy Adams both believed in which of these theories - A, there is a kingdom of Atlantis, B, the Earth is hollow, C, werewolves are real and want to play high school basketball?

THURSTON: It's not the basketball one. They didn't invent basketball back in John Quincy Adams' day.

COULTON: That's true.

THURSTON: So I'm going to just miss that.

COULTON: More excellent logic - I love it.

THURSTON: Yeah. So it's, like, a hollow earth versus the kingdom of Atlantis.


THURSTON: I think the word kingdom was really big back in those days. That's my attempt to Kiran this.


EISENBERG: Nice. To Kiran this is perfect.

COULTON: You Kiraned (ph) it. You Kiraned it. That is a fine guess. And I could have gone either way with this myself, but the actual answer is the hollow earth. They both believed in hollow earth.

THURSTON: I should have gone with the werewolves. This is...


COULTON: John Quincy Adams even authorized an expedition to the center of the Earth to try and commune with the mole people who were presumably living there.

EISENBERG: All right, Kiran.

DEOL: I'm still here.

EISENBERG: I'm glad you're here. H.G. Wells' book, "The War Of The Worlds," was influenced by what misguided theory - A, Saturn's ring jumped over from Uranus, B, intelligent life forms built canals on Mars, or C, our solar system actually has two suns?

DEOL: OK, so I think - H.G. Wells wrote the book "War Of The Worlds," and there's a lot of robots in that book. You know, whatever, they're like shooting guns. And it's very, like, pew, pew pew, and it's dope. And then that's on Mars. That's on Mars, so I'm going to go with B.


THURSTON: The beautiful mind strikes again.


EISENBERG: That was really good.

COULTON: All right, Baratunde, Henry Hudson, who lent his name to the Hudson River, believed in which theory about another body of water - A, there is a warm sea between the North Pole and Greenland, two very cold places, or B, you can get anywhere on the Amazon River in two days or less with a Prime subscription (laughter), or C, Lake Superior actually sucks?


THURSTON: To have a judgment about a beautiful body of water like Lake Superior is just beyond, even Henry Hudson...


THURSTON: ...A colonist of ill repute in certain versions of history. And to believe in Jeff Bezos is wise because he will own all the world shortly. But even Henry Hudson didn't have that level of foresight, so I'm going to go with the first one, the warm body of water involving Greenland or something.

COULTON: Yes, you are correct.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: The Open Polar Sea theory - that is the answer. You have...


COULTON: ...Kiraned your way to a correct response.

THURSTON: That's all I wanted in this game...

COULTON: (Laughter).

THURSTON: ...Was to live up to Kiran's brain.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: You did it.

THURSTON: So thank you for this opportunity.

DEOL: I'm slow clapping for you. I'm slow clapping.


THURSTON: Yes. I just wanted to make you proud, Kiran. Maybe you she'll come back to America now.

EISENBERG: I love a slow clap. I love - it's even - it's more condescending when it comes from England on a Zoom (ph)...

COULTON: Over Zoom.

THURSTON: It is. It is.


DEOL: Unintentionally, unintentionally.

EISENBERG: That was so much fun. Thank you so much. So nice to play with you both. Thank you, Baratunde Thurston. And thank you, Kiran Deol.

DEOL: Thanks, guys.

THURSTON: Thank you, Ophira. Thank you, Jonathan. Thank you, Kiran. Thank you, world.


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