Picture this: You are a science enthusiast on tour at a museum. Your guide starts to lecture to your tour group about scientific “facts” you are familiar with, and you realize she is presenting pure nonsense—scientific errors and pseudoscience of the highest order. You wonder if the guide misspoke, is misinformed, or is just making stuff up. However, it soon becomes clear that at least some of the information she is imparting to people is outright misdirection, because in some cases she is doing magic tricks to prove her points. Worse, as the tour goes on, it seems all but certain that this misinformation is sanctioned by museum management, as you hear in the background the other guides saying pretty much the same incorrect things to each of their groups of tourists.
What would you do? Would you say, “Excuse me, but you people have this all wrong”? Or would you hold your tongue and suffer in silence? Well, if you’re a guest in a foreign country where you don’t even speak the language, plus you know your spouse will never forgive you if you say what you want to say and embarrass her, then maybe you would hold your tongue.
That’s what I did, and it almost killed me. I listened to erroneous claim after erroneous claim and witnessed a variety of tricks that were performed to verify those claims, all without saying a thing. I did roll my eyes quite a bit, however. And I recorded much of the tour, so I could get the details right to share with Skeptical Inquirer online readers. So, here is my report.
In April 2019, my wife and I were on a Galapagos Islands pre-cruise tour of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Just north of the city lies a Monument to the Equator. As our bus passed this obelisk and adjoining museum, we were told it was located where the equator was once thought to be. But once GPS accuracy was available, it was determined that its latitude was off by hundreds of meters. So, in the interest of taking us to the real equator, we were going to bypass this incorrectly placed museum and instead visit the newer museum called Museo de Sitio Intiñan, advertised as the “Home of the true equator.”
Why all this fuss about a few hundred meters? Well, besides there being pedantic reasons to get this right, perhaps one reason is that if you are going to run demonstrations meant to show different outcomes when standing exactly on the equatorial line vs. when they are performed elsewhere, you better be located right on the line.
When we arrived at our destination, we broke into small groups each assigned a tour guide. The museum included Ecuadorian cultural and historical exhibits, but the high point (or low point) for me was the outdoor area dedicated to explaining to visitors the special qualities of being at the equator. This area was arguably the very reason for the existence of this museum. On the ground was a long line made of tiles about a meter wide, indicating the supposed exact position of the equator as it ran through the museum grounds.
Along the length of the line were several designated areas where tour guides were performing demonstrations for their groups of visitors. Before the first demonstration for our group began, someone asked our guide a question about the stability of the equator: Was its position affected by the shifting magnetic north pole (which had been in the news recently)? Our guide said she didn’t know the answer. Good for her! At least she didn’t make something up. Knowing the subject, I gave the answer. (No, the two things have nothing to do with one another!) Our guide thanked me, but then looked concern and asked me if I was a scientist, and jokingly asked me if she was going to have to worry about everything she was going to say.
I had a flashback to a day in early grade school, where during an astronomy lesson, our science teacher said, “The universe is made up of our sun and nine planets.” Already being a science nerd and very into astronomy, I timidly raised my hand. When called upon, I said something like “You mean the solar system don’t you, and not the universe?” I don’t remember the teacher’s name, but I’ll never forget what she said or the repercussions: “Robert, sit down! It’s the same thing!” My classmates laughing at me is also a memory that has not quite faded. As with teachers, tour guides have the assumption of authority over those they are lecturing. They are trained in their subject. They present the same information repeatedly to many people. The general presumption is that they know what they are talking about. So, I decided that correcting any errors I might hear going forward would be a bad move, and I promised our guide that I would not challenge her. This made her, and my wife, both very happy.
The very first demonstration our guide led us to was about water draining out of a basin. Anticipating what was about to happen there, I already regretted making the promise to keep quiet.
A small, kitchen sink–sized tub filled with standing water was sitting on the marked equatorial line. When our guide removed the plug at the bottom, the water started to drain out. Dropping leaves in the water as visible markers, she pointed out that the water went straight down the drain. She then picked up the empty tub and moved it several feet off the tiled line into the Southern Hemisphere. She re-plugged it, poured water in from a bucket, again pulled the plug out, and added leaves. This time the water swirled clockwise down the drain. This was repeated on the north side of the equatorial line, and this time the water swirled, as expected, in the opposite direction. Our guide said that this demonstrated that the Coriolis force works differently in the two hemispheres and is nullified at the equator.
To give just a bit of credit to our guide, she did say repeatedly that this was “just an example” (actually, it was a simulation). She also said that we were too close to the equator to see the actual Coriolis effects, which would be present further away. But she did not explain how she had made these three “examples” act the way they did. So, the truth—that these “examples” did not reflect reality at this location—was either not heard or did not register with most people.
I know this important point was not heard because these demonstrations were discussed among the people on our Galapagos tour in the ensuing week, and I did not meet anyone who took the tour who understood that these were just “examples.” A few were skeptical of the results, but everyone I discussed this with at least thought the intent was to show that the Coriolis forces were acting differently at the three different locations of the tub, mere feet apart from one another.
The worst part is that the claim that water drains differently depending on one’s location on Earth is actually not true anywhere on the planet. So, the “examples” were totally bogus; they were demonstrating something that just does not happen. Let me say that again: the belief that water goes down a drain differently depending upon which side of the equator you are on is just wrong.
“What?” you may be asking yourself right now. From personal experience, I know that many (most?) skeptical readers of this skeptical column on what may be the most skeptical of all websites will find my claim hard to believe. It’s one of those things that most people just know is true. It is believed even more strongly than the false claim that the full moon causes unusual behavior in people. Because, well, this is about known forces. And it’s science. Right? In fact, nearly everyone I’ve ever discussed this with believes that toilets flush one way in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern Hemisphere. This includes engineers who have taken voyages on US Navy ships while they crossed the equator. It turns out that a quick Google search is all that is required to confirm this belief is bogus; here is the Snopes article, and here is one in Scientific American. Coriolis forces only affect large-scale things such as oceanic and atmospheric motion, but these forces are imperceptible on a small scale, such as in a sink or toilet, no matter where you are on Earth.
Maybe it was just our guide who didn’t understand the science she was talking about. There was a sign at the site, presumably giving the official talking points of the museum. I wondered if it represented the science accurately, but it was in Spanish. Being unilingual, I was out of luck.
I took a photo of the sign and asked a professional translator friend of mine to do her thing. Here is the English translation:
An amazing amount of this sign is nonsense: “we can also see that the water in a sink is sucked in, and a depression occurs at the magnetic and gravitational point.” What??? And “the magnetic influence of the Sun rising in the East, it causes a moving object to spin.” What??? This official museum sign actually contains even more nonsense than our guide fed us.
Although our guide admitted that the three water draining demonstrations were “just examples” (as is reflected in the sign’s last sentence) these tricks just reinforced everyone’s wrong opinion on this subject. So, what was the trick? How were the three different draining behaviors achieved? The first tub had standing water (which went straight down), while the second and third time, the tub held water that was poured in a specific way to get the desired rotation started just before the drain plug was removed. In the two final demonstrations, if we had waited for the water to entirely stop swirling before the plug was pulled, the draining behavior would have been different.
The next demonstration involved balancing a chicken egg on a nail head. Our tour guide told us this would be much easier here because “This is a magnetic place. The magnetism of this place is much stronger than in other places.” Wait! When did we switch to talking about magnetism? Did she think the Coriolis force was the same as magnetism? And I thought she said the forces were zeroed out at the equator? How is it that now they are supposedly stronger here? And how is an egg magnetic anyway? Oh, and the egg needs to be raw… for reasons that were unclear.
Anyone who wanted to try the experiment was welcome to, and everyone I watched try it did it successfully, confirming for them what our guide said. The truth about this one is that egg balancing works equally well anywhere on Earth. There is no appreciable Coriolis effect or any magnetic effect on an egg. Location does not matter at all.
Why do people so readily accept this egg balancing claim—an error that can be easily disproved by testing it anywhere else? I recall a Squaring the Strange podcast episode and Skeptical Inquirer column (“Egging The Equator,” July/August 2016) where investigator Ben Radford discussed being on a similar tour. After his guide made an “only at the equator” claim for egg balancing, Ben asked, “Have you ever tried it anywhere else?” The response was something like, “Why would I? It wouldn’t work anywhere else!” So much for scientific rigor. I’ll attribute this belief to confirmation bias based on a story that started—well, who knows where and how.
The next demonstration involved a claim that your position relative to the equatorial line will affect your strength. A cruise mate who participated, Glenn Schuil, wrote up his experience for me soon after returning home:
Standing away from the equator line, maybe a few feet, I was asked to put my index and thumb fingers together, and our guide tried to separate them. I was trying not to let her open them. She said something like “Oh, you are strong.” Then she asked me to put my hands together and hold them up, maybe at head height, and she tried to pull my hands down. Again, she was unsuccessful. Then we repeated both of those tests on the equator line, and she was able to open my fingers and pull my arms down. She said the reason why she was able to do it was because we were on the equator and there was less resistance.
Later in the week on our cruise, even people much less skeptical than I expressed doubts about the results of the strength demonstration. The obvious question was: even if this was a real effect, why would just a few feet off the equator make a noticeable difference? And, why was the strength of only one of the two people involved in the test affected by location? It was clearly a trick. But how was it done?
Have you heard of Power Balance? This is a plastic wristband that is supposed to improve your strength and balance. If you watch the Power Balance demonstrations by marketers, it seems very similar to what Glenn described. They do the demo with and without the band being worn and get different results. Of course, wearing the Power Balance makes you better. It looks convincing—if you’re not a skeptic, that is. Richard Saunders has a great YouTube video debunking Power Balance. And it seems to me that the deception we witnessed here was of a similar stripe. It is a trick that our tour guide had to know she was doing to make the volunteer’s strength look different in the two locations. There’s no way it could be consistently done if she didn’t know what she was doing. And this deception would have to be taught … to all the tour guides. The realization hit home with me that there was institutional deception going on. It wasn’t just a case of badly trained or clueless staff.
To begin her final demonstration of equatorial woo, our guide asked if anyone had ever been stopped by the police. A volunteer was told to mimic the sobriety test situation and to walk a straight line (over the equator) with her arms held out to her side, but to also close her eyes (presumably to make it more difficult).
Our guide said that one’s sense of balance comes from the ears, so this was “a neurology test.” The woman doing the test managed pretty well, and then our guide said that doing this test far from the equator would result in veering off a line into a curve due to the Coriolis effect, the direction being dependent on which hemisphere you were in.
She went on to claim that one of the best examples of this was “when people get lost away from the equator, they start walking in circles … because we have the influence of these forces even in our bodies.” She then seemed to contradict the very point of all of the other demonstrations by saying that a flight from Dubai to California would take a course far to the north on purpose, instead of going in a straight line between the locations, because the Coriolis effect is weaker up north, and so it would be an easier flight.
Oddly, the website of the museum mentions this demonstration and says the exact opposite of what our guide said: “If you are suspected of driving drunk the police will make you walk in a straight line. If the test was done on Latitude 00º00’00, even if you had not drunk [sic], you would be considered drunk. Check it!” Given the whole deal about forces being zeroed out at the equator (so it’s easier to balance an egg, and water drains straight down), this version of nonsense makes even less sense than what we were told in person.
So, there you have it. That covers the bad science we were peddled directly related to the “magic properties” of the equator. But that wasn’t the end of the fake news on the tour. The museum had a series of displays related to Ecuadorian culture and history, at least some of which were problematic. I will cover just one of them here.
Tributaries of the Amazon river flow through Ecuador, and at an Amazon river tableau our guide told us a fish story. We were warned about the candiru, a tiny fish that, if it sensed you were urinating in the Amazon river nearby, would follow the warm stream to its source and swim up your urethra. If you were not actually in the river, it could even swim up the stream through the air to get to its target! And then it would eat you from the inside, with obviously horrific consequences.
This fish story was told as if it were a real concern to anyone visiting the Amazon. But a quick Googling of this claim shows it to be a centuries old legend, never backed up by any evidence outside of a single modern report. And that 1997 incident has been nicely debunked (see here). So why was this story told as if it represented a real danger, not just as an interesting legend?
All this bad science and chicanery were present at a museum claiming to be about “scientific tourism.” I kept my mouth shut while there, but the demonstrations were occasionally the topic of conversations during the following week on the Galapagos cruise. Some passengers just did not believe the tour guides could be wrong, and they certainly did not want to believe that we were being purposely deceived. One man took the issue personally, becoming very argumentative with me. I was told that he had gone around the ship at some point seeking people to take his side against my claims of the museum’s “science” being wrong. He especially could not stomach my claim that toilets do not flush in different directions in the two hemispheres. We had free Wi-Fi on the ship. Why did he not simply Google it?
My biggest problem was with people who told me that this wasn’t even worth talking about, because “Why does it matter?” On this point, let me quote Jen Gunter, Gwyneth Paltrow’s nemesis. She was talking about a different issue in a Mother Jones article—selling products by using false claims; nevertheless, I believe it also applies to this situation. Why does it matter? “Because it makes everybody stupider. Facts matter.”
I am interested in your feedback. Please go to my Facebook post about this article, and let me know what you think. Would you have said something to the tour guide? Should I have, or did I do the right thing by keeping my objections to myself? I may consider your input the next time I’m on a tour somewhere with a guide spouting nonsense.
My hope is that a copy of this article makes its way to the Museo de Sitio Intiñan management to let them know that their visitors—at least some of them—are smarter than they think. Maybe they will decide that teaching pseudoscience is not a sensible thing to do. Maybe they will change their ways and not continue to deceive and dumb-down their patrons. I can dream.
Acknowledgements: I want to thank Paula Serrano for her invaluable Spanish to English translation of the Coriolis effect sign, Glenn Schuil for his input regarding the Feats of Strength demonstration, and my wife for enduring my skeptical arguments with our Galapagos shipmates for an entire week.
Photo credits: Except as noted, all photos in the article were taken by the author.
My videos of the various demonstration discussed within this article are available here: