SGU Episode 144

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SGU Episode 144
23rd April 2008

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 143                      SGU 145

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


SS: Simon Singh

Quote of the Week

It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.

Mahatma Gandhi

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday April 23rd 2008 and this is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella,

B: Hey everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson,

R: (in a cheeky British accent) Ello Guvna!


S: Jay Novella,

J: (also in a cheeky British accent) Absolutely.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: (in a more refined British accent) Oh, yes, good-day, everybody.


This Day in Skepticism (0:31)[edit]

S: Evan, what's our special situation for today?

E: (Singing.) Happy birthday, Max Planck!

S: Max Planck.

B: Oh, Max rocks.

R: Max Planck.

E: One hundred and fifty years old today.

B: He is awesome.

R: Oh my god, that's gotta set some kind of record.

E: Now, he hasn't been breathing since 1947, but-

R: That might . . .

E: -his corpse is 150 years old today.

R: Oh, happy birthday, Max Planck's corpse.

E: Well done, Max. I say.

S: Very influential physicist.

E: Hel,l yeah.

R: And I'll just mention we're a little British tonight. I don't know if you guys noticed. I was feeling a little British.

E: Quite.

J: Quite.

News Items[edit]

Man Raised from Dead (1:12)[edit]

Video: Raised from the Dead - Dr. Chauncey Crandall

S: We have a lot to get through this episode. We have a interview coming up with Simon Singh later on in the show.

R: Speaking of a little British.

S: But first, several news items. First news item: A physician, Dr. Chauncey Crandall, claims–

J: Chauncey!

S: –that he has raised a patient from the dead.

E: Bugger me!

S: Now, we'll have the link to the video of the news report - it's like a local news report of this guy. First of all, he considers himself to be a Christian physician; which, I don't care, you know, if someone who is a physician, you know, professes their faith, but he prays with every single patient. He actually incorporates his Christian faith into his practice, which I consider to be unprofessional and inappropriate, because I- you know, he's imposing his faith upon his patients. I think that's crossing a line that physicians should not cross. But he tells this story of a patient who had a- came into the emergency room with cardiac symptoms and had a sudden death, you know, his heart stopped in the emergency room, so they were able to immediately begin CPR - you know, cardiopulmonary resuscitation - and do chest compressions and give him respirations and oxygen, and they worked on him, they say, for about forty-five minutes, and they just were not getting his heart rhythm back. So at about forty-five minutes, they called the code, and this guy, Dr. Crandall, is a cardiologist, he was called in towards the end of this process. The patient was, you know, was dead on the gurney, they had called the code, and Dr. Crandall, the way he tells the story - again, his telling of the story is so full of hyperbole and absolutes, it's not even an approximation of an objective telling of such a story - he says that, the patient, his whole body, his face, arms, and legs, were, quote–unquote, "black with death". What's that supposed to mean? He was decomposing? I mean, that's absurd; that is just absurd.

B: It is, and they actually used the word decomposing, I think –

S: Yeah, I know.

B: that he was starting to decompose.

S: Moments after calling a code? That's just absurd. – that he was, you know, about to walk out of the room, and then he heard God tell him to turn around and to try not to give up on this guy. Right.

J: He's hearing God in the hospital, like God's speaking to him?

S: Mm-hmm.

E: Turn around!

S: That's what he says.

E: The man has –

R: That's kind of scary.

E: Well, here's a question, yeah.

S: He – he instructed somebody else who was there to shock the guy one more time. They shock him, they get a rhythm back, and the guy survives. The guy goes on to survive. So –

J: So, basically, what you're saying, Steve, is the doctor didn't finish his job the first time around –

S: Well, listen –

J: because –

S: You know, when to call a code is a judgment call, you know? When do you give up? If you took every patient that was coded for forty-five minutes or an hour and wasn't getting a rhythm back and you, you know, said "Let's just shock 'em one more time", some of them are, you know, that last shock will do it. Maybe not many of them, but it'll happen occasionally. And, you know, who knows how many times this guy has done this, you know? "Just give him one more shock." And then the, this, you know, just an unusual situation where the guy comes back. And, also, we don't know, you know, there's lots of details that you can't really know from second-hand reports. You know, this guy could've had a subtle rhythm or a pulse that they were missing, we don't know. 'Cause there's other conditions that could've been going on that could've been interfering with the code – it's just hard to say.

R: Maybe it wasn't God. Maybe it was actually Satan, asking him to do it again.

S: That's right, well, it was some voice.

R: There're a lot of things we don't know.

S: We don't know.

E: We can't have one without the other.

S: So, the other thing is, it's not like the guy laid his hands on him and he got off the table. They shocked his heart back into beating, you know.

B: Right.

S: Sounds like science to me, not a miracle.

E: Yeah, but under God's instruction, though, Steve. That's the key.

S: According to this guy.

B: One bit I found very misleading was, there was a quote in the article that said that he, that he did not, this guy did not have a heartbeat for an hour, which is just so misleading, because it's not like his heart wasn't pumping. He might not have had a normal heartbeat, but you're doing CPR, you're doing compressions, your body's being perfused with, and oxygenated with blood.

S: Yeah.

B: So it's completely misleading to say that he didn't have a heartbeat for an hour. 'Cause if you had, if you had no heartbeat for an hour, you know, unless you're ten feet, you know, in the ice, you – you are not coming back. I don't care who you are.

S: Yeah, he was coded the whole time.

B: Right.

S: So, properly performed, you know, CPR, you can get about 25% of your cardiac output. You know, that could deliver enough oxygen to the tissues to keep it going. The guy probably took a hit. I mean, I don't think he's – you're not 100% normal after an episode like that, but you can survive, you know, certainly. That's not –

B: Yeah.

S: There's nothing miraculous about surviving after a pulmonary code like that.

B: No.

J: Where's all the confusion coming from? Like, did the doctor tell a reporter all of this?

S: I – my sense is that this Dr. Crandall is eating it up, that he's just playing up this story to the press to promote his personal faith. He's really just exploiting this episode, in my opinion, just to try to present himself as a miracle-worker. It's really extremely distasteful to me as a physician.

B: Right, but for me the most egregious thing about this was, you know, when you first read the article, "Guy is raised from the dead", you know, you think, oh, big deal, people are brought back from clinical death all the time. But when they – when he starts saying stuff, like he was black with death, and he was decomposing –

S: Yeah.

B: - it's just so ridiculous. To me, that is the most whacked part of this article.

S: That's just BS. That's just total BS.

B: Complete and utter –

J: Steve, what happens to a body after it's been – it is dead after an hour? For an hour?

S: For an hour?

J: Yeah.

S: Well, you know, the tissues start to eat themselves up, you know.

B: Bacteria starts proliferating all over the place. They start eating you up.

S: But your cells are dead. I mean, your cells lyse, you know, and each type of tissue has a different amount of time it can go before that will happen. The brain, it's like three minutes, you know, your brain cells start to kill themselves. The pancreas goes fairly quickly. Muscles can last for several hours, though. So it depends on the tissue type, but, you know, the brain - the really important one - can only go for a few minutes-

J: Right.

S: -without oxygen before the brain cells commit suicide.

J: Yeah, but what I'm getting at is, his legs aren't gonna turn black –

S: Maybe they were dusky, you know, I think we might refer to the skin color of somebody who's not getting perfused very well as dusky; just, he said it was like pitch black.

B: Right.

S: I mean, everything was so exaggerated, you know, he said "We shocked him and he instantly had a perfect rhythm!" I mean, come on.

B: And then there's, there's also livor mortis, which is the blood settling, which, that itself wouldn't happen immediately, either.

S: No.

B: That would take hours, I believe.

S: And there's no coming back from that, either. So anything like that, you know, like once the blood completely clots in all of your veins and arteries, there's no coming back from that. So, whatever. He was– the person was never actually dead, you know?

B: Right, he's making it sound like he brought somebody back from biological death–

S: Yeah.

B: -which, in my opinion, biological death, that is it. You're just – there's just no coming back from biological death, 'cause that is ultimate death, and there's no coming back from that.

S: Yeah. It was misleading, and the press, you know, presented, "doctors are stunned by this miracle man raised from the dead", it was all extremely misleading.

Politics of Vaccines (8:21)[edit]

Neurologica: Some Follow Up On Vaccines

S: Another quick follow-up: Last month, we reported on the fact that John McCain, who was the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidential election for the United States, made a very unscientific statement about autism and vaccines. He said that there is evidence to link autism to vaccines - which is not true, that's not the scientific consensus - and, at the time, we mentioned that, you know, that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the other two candidates, were much more reasonable or scientific in their views. Well, recently, both Clinton and Obama have said also fairly unscientific statements about it - not quite as bad as what John McCain said, but, just in – for fairness and balance, we're gonna report what they said as well. Hillary Clinton said, when she was asked about the situation, "Yes, we don't know what, if any, kind of link there is between vaccines and autism, but we should find out."

E: Ah.

S: Which is, you know, a bit of pandering, you know. It's not saying that there is evidence for a link, but it's saying that we don't know and we should research it, so it's kind of pandering to this typical –

J: But she's wrong.

E: Typical political wishy-washy.

S: Yeah, yeah. And, then, more surprising to me, when Barack Obama was asked about it, also, he said, "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines, this person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it." Very similar kind of statement, and, you know, initially I didn't know what he was talking about when he said "this person included", just in writing; it sounds almost as if he's referring to himself.

E: Yeah.

S: But, actually, if you watch the video, he points to somebody in the audience, so he's actually referring to somebody else, maybe somebody who –

R: Probably somebody who asked the question.

S: Yeah, so he's not saying that he is concerned about a connection, but he says, "the science right now is inconclusive". That's not a fair assessment of the science. The science is actually pretty conclusively showing that there is no link between vaccines and autism. But, you know, I think it's just very easy, sort of political maneuvering and pandering, just to say "yes, we're interested in this, we should do more research". That's kind of the easy, wishy-washy thing to say, rather than, maybe, pissing off people for whom this is an important issue.

B: Pissing off who, though? I mean how many people care about this, you know, really believe this crap? Is it a huge –

S: Well, let's see, Jenny McCarthy, there's Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

R: A lot.

B: Yeah, right.

R: No, there're – there are an incredible amount of people who buy into this stuff.

S: All right, there's ten. Let's just say there's ten.

R: Ten.

S: There might be more.

B: You know, this just made me wanna puke. I was so happy, what was it - last week or the week before - it's like, oh, two thirds, these two thirds of the candidates are, you know, somewhat up on what's going on –

S: Yeah.

B: and now, none of them are in with this topic, and it's just, ah, disgusting.

S: It's very disappointing. The thing that surprised me about Barack Obama is that I checked his website, and his website gets it right! Under, you know, vaccines, it says, or under autism, that the increasing rate is due to expanded surveillance and diagnosis. That's right! There is no skyrocketing autism rate.

B: He's not reading his website.

S: He doesn't even read his own website!

R: Well, I think it's just a matter of the – what's on his website is less likely to be cut into little bits and then broadcast on the nightly news–

E: Absolutely.

R: –and twisted out of proportion, you know. I mean, as much as I want the dream skeptical candidate to come up and say, you know, all of this is BS, it's never gonna happen, because, you know, there are enough people out there, and there are a lot who think, "Oh, well, maybe there is something to that vaccine–autism thing", and, you know, it's very easy. I can definitely see that being taken out of context. If you were to say, "No, it's all crap", you know, people would take that to be condescending or –

S: But, you know, listen, they are politicians. They know how to say that without saying "that's all crap", right?

R: Yeah.

S: You could say – First of all, they should have better science advisors.

B: Yeah!

S: I don't necessarily think that they need to be scientific experts themselves. Obviously, at least Barack has enough of a science advisor that they got the right information on his website. He may, I mean, I don't think he's necessarily aware of every little bit of information that's in his policy statements on the – on his website. He has people that puts that together. But he should've been better-prepped for that, and he should have better science advisors, and, you know, you can say something to the effect that, well, there is a scientific consensus that the rise in autism rates is because of expanding diagnosis, and then, you know, the medical experts, like the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't think that this is an actual increase–

B: Right.

S: –and is convinced that there's no connection between vaccines and autism. But this is probably something for which there will be ongoing research.

R: Yeah, I –

S: You know, that's kind of a soft statement, but that's perfectly compatible with the science. What they said is not compatible with the science.

R: Right, and that would've been great, but, I mean, I don't think you can expect him to know that sort of thing, especially when that's really not even an issue for this election. I mean, he's got a lot to think about–

B: It should be

R: -and the questions he's most likely to get are gonna be about the war, and about the illegal immigrants, and things like that, national health care.

S: I hear what you're saying, but I think that what this says is that science doesn't have that much of a priority in the political spectrum.

J: Right.

R: Right.

S: And, again, it was enough to make it onto his website, it had sort of a new cycle a month ago when McCain made his gaffe about this, you know, it sort of inflamed in the blogosphere anyway, on science blogs. And the thing is, what you're saying is that scientific issues are below the radar for these candidates, and I think that's the real – that's the big problem–

R: Yeah.

S: –is that they have things that they are concerned about that are not science.

B: But didn't these statements strike you as being crafted beforehand, or did they strike you as being off the cuff?

R: See, I was definitely thinking off the cuff.

S: I don't know, are you gonna say "skyrocketing autism rate" off the cuff? I mean, you gotta have some knowledge that he's pulling from.

B: Right, and I'd like – I wanna know – I'd like to be a fly on the wall when, if they were crafted beforehand, I'd like to hear the discussion about that. "Yeah, this is what I'm gonna say for this type – for this question", type of thing.

S: Yeah.

B: Who's coming to him and telling him, you know, and how did the decision – how did they arrive at that decision, to say "Yes –"

J: Bob, the decision is made because they're in line with collecting votes right now. Steve's right - they do everything as neutral as possible, the things that they don't have to take a stand on, they're gonna remain neutral on.

E: Or things that they're ignorant of.

S: But they don't always do that, you know. Like, John McCain has taken a scientific position about, you know, ethanol, you know, biofuels, and he – one that's crafted to piss off the most number of people. You know, he has a very unpopular scientific opinion on that issue. So I think that they're probably willing to take those kinds of positions if they were properly informed. What this– in my opinion, what this points to is the need for the Science Debate 2008, you know–

B: Yep, you got it.

S: –that we need to raise the profile of scientific issues in American politics because, you know, our political leaders do have to make scientific decisions and do have to have, know at least how to have scientific advisors–

E: Yeah, show some critical thinking skills.

S: –and how to confront these issues, because they're doing a terrible job of it now, and it is actually having a tremendous negative effect on policies that have important scientific issues at their core.

E: Mm-hmm.

S: All right, so, Science Debate 2008.

E: Don't hold your breath.

Penis Theft Panic (15:41)[edit]

Reuters: Penis theft panic hits city

S: One more news item: This one is about the Penis Theft Panic.

E: Oh, it's not a panic.

B: P-T-P!

S: P-T-P, the Penis Theft Panic. Jay, were you gonna talk about this one?


R: Yeah, Jay is probably the best-able to talk about this one.

E: Jay, were you gonna chortle about this one?

J: Yeah, so, in a nutshell –


J: – the police in Congo have arrested thirteen people suspected of using their power - they're accused of being sorcerers and black magic, users of black magic - and they've, they're being accused of stealing, or shrinking, men's penises.

S: That's the worst kind of black magic.

E: They should be arrested if they're doing that.


J: And the thing about this is, is that these types of accusations go on a lot there. This is not like an uncommon thing.

S: Right. We've reported on similar stories before, but this one is particularly funny.

B: Oh my god.

E: It took balls to write this story.

S: To put this in context, you know, in this part of the world, you know, this whole penis-shrinking thing doesn't come out of nowhere. There actually is, occasionally, you know, waves of panic that there is a penis-shrinking disease going on.

B: Oh my – really?

S: And this is just one of those memes, or ideas, that's in this culture –

B: Oh my god.

S: – that this can happen, that your penis can disappear. And men go to their physicians complaining that, you know, that their penis is disappearing, it's like shriveling up or disappearing inside their body.

R: Does it happen every winter?

B: Ha-ha!

S: When it gets cold, yeah.

J: It happens when you swim.

S: One man had, like, his family hold on to his penis, so that, to prevent it from disappearing, and they had to sort of take turns, and somebody had to sit –

E: Betcha it worked.

J: That is so sick

S: Around-the-clock penis-holding–

B: Oh, yeah, I did that once.

S: –to prevent it from shrinking, going away. So this is coming out of that cultural background.

J: (shitty Indian accent) "You must pull on my penis for me to make sure it does not slip inside my body while I sleep. Thank you."

R: There are just too many jokes, I – I can't even think of which one to go with.

B: Oh my god.

J: So with this most recent case, though, there were 14 people detained by the police in the Congo.

S: Yeah, the police got involved. That's the scariest thing here. This is the police.

E: Yeah.

J: This time around, though, the way that they did it was, the sorcerers had to touch the victims. They had to touch their genitals and, what was supposedly happening was, the genitals would either shrink or disappear. And what people thought was that these sorcerers were doing this to extort cash out of them later for the cure. So –

B: Now, how –


B: Alright, just think –

R: That's funny, because every time I touch – no... there's really, there's so many jokes. I can't pick.

B: I know, you can't, they're swimming-

J: Can't control it, you bastard

E: It's all low-hanging fruit.

R: So to speak

S: I love this quote: "It's real. Just yesterday, here, there was a man who was a victim. We saw. What was left was tiny."


R: (sympathetically) Awww.

S: This was 29-year-old Elaine Colala, who sells phone credit near Kinchana Police Station.

B: All right guys, imagine, imagine –

S: He saw it. The guy said, "Seriously, I'm really huge. This is, this is not –"

J: (exaggerated Indian accent) "This man came up to me and he touched my penis. Now my penis is gone."

R: "Baby, no, it's just that sorcerer, really. I met him on the New Jersey Turnpike, and he –" Aw, I'm sorry.

B: Now think about how crazy this is. Let's say you're one of the guys who's claiming this. You – you're now telling everybody –

R: Well, what's better, you telling them that, because of black magic, or having your new girlfriend tell her friends that just for no reason at all?

B: Right.

J: How about just not bringing it to the public?

R: Jay, what I mean is that girls talk, OK? I didn't wanna say anything on the podcast because I know you're sensitive.

S: No, no they don't. Stop it

J: Wait, wait, she's actually right, and that's a good point to bring up. So, Steve, did this guy say, did these sorcerers in Latin say things like, they cast their spell and they're like, "shrink du cockis!"?

R: Did you say "shrink Dukakis"?

E: Yeah, he did.

S: "Shrink Dukakis"!

E: He said that.

S: Like Michael Dukakis?

B: Remember that guy?

S: They say some kind of pseudo-Sanskrit spell, is that what you're saying, and then they touch the guy?

B: Yeah. "Killy-killy-killy shrinky-shrinky-shrinky."


E: I hope this is gonna be edited

R: Oh, geez. This is going from bad to worse.

S: And then they, Bob's right, though. What they should do is send tons of spam email about how they can enlarge your penis. That seems to work for a lot of other people.

B: You wanna make, you wanna make money, believe me, do it.

E: Bob, probably someone's out there probably doing that. You could probably find that.

J: It's so absurd, you have to just imagine the environment that these people have to live in in order for people to think it's happening, make accusations against other people, and then, the one thing that we didn't bring up yet is some people are lynched because of stuff like this.

B: Yeah, people are lynched.

S: Yeah. It does get serious, because, you know, you don't want to be accused of being a sorcerer, shrinking people's penises with black magic.

E: Peni?

S: It's all fun and games until somebody gets lynched.

E: Or someone loses a penis.

B: Oh my god.

S: Oh, terrible. Terrible. Let's move on.

E: Quickly.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Oldest Plant (20:46)[edit]

S: We have some – some emails. Let's go on to some emails. Question number one comes from Andrew Walsh from Tasmania, and he writes:

Hi guys, you've probably had lots of emails on your comments about the 10,000 year old spruce clone and how it's the oldest living thing around. If not, can I please bring up to your attention a plant here in Tasmania called Lomatia tasmanica. Like that spruce, it's a clone, and it's thought to be 43,000 years old. In your face Sweden! See the section titled 'Ecology and management' in the pdf found at this URL. Love your show by the way. Cheers.

S: Well, thank you, Andrew. Actually, you were the only one to point this out to us. We mentioned the Science or Fiction item last year that the oldest living tree was found in Sweden, almost 10,000 years old[1]. This here is not a tree, but it's a plant, lomatia tasmanica, and I did follow the link, and I also just researched – just did some Google searching on it, and, yeah, you know, it says that it's a plant that clones itself, and you could have a clone continuously surviving for many thousands of years. They say at least 43,600 years, and there are some reports of some plants that are possibly as old as 135,000 –

J: Oh my god.

S: – based on radio-carbon dating of fossilized leaf fragments. So that's, but that's – the higher figure is still a little speculative.

E: Where were those plants located?

S: In Tasmania. It's a Tasmanian shrub.

J: They can't verify it?

S: Well that, it's– that's the estimate based upon radio-carbon dating of fossilized leaf fragments.

R: Yeah, you can't really just check his ID.

S: Yeah.

J: That's still incredible. I mean –

S: It's incredible, yeah.

J: – I mean, you know, I asked you this last week, Steve. So, what were humans doing 100,000 years ago?

S: Well, then you're starting to get to the point of, you know, were they actually even humans at that point? In 100,000 years you have, like, the early, early homo sapiens.

R: Unless you believe in Atlantis, at which point, you know, that they were building pyramids in Bosnia.

S: Yeah. Well, that's even pr– this is even before Atlantis now. Yeah, this is the Bosnian pyramid era.

R: Yeah.

S: This is when the aliens from the Plaeides were visiting the Earth and uplifting the primitive humans. I'm sorry, I wasn't supposed to talk about that. Just forget I said that.

B: Haaa!

J: Why does a shrub get to live 100,000 years and I get maybe eighty if I'm lucky?

E: A shrubbery!

S: Well, if you cloned yourself, you could live for longer.

R: It's quality, not quantity, Jay.

E: Yeah, a clone would live longer.

B: Yeah, what about the whole telomere problem?

J: I want both! I want both of those.

R: Do you know how boring it is to be a shrub?

S: True.

R: Yes, you do. Look who I'm asking.

E: Nice.

S: OK –

R: Aw, I'm sorry.

S: – let's move on.

R: I don't think we're doing very good with our barbs tonight. We need to step it up a bit.

J: No, we're not.

S: Nah, it's kinda lame tonight.

The SGU Drinking Game (23:38)[edit]

S: All right. The next email comes from Keith Waznonis from L-town, USA, and Keith writes:

Dear SGU,
As you continue to become more popular, I feel you need to tap into a younger demographic. Seeing as I am a huge fan of the show, and a college student, I thought I'd be so kind to help. Using my knowledge from my marketing class, I realized that if the SGU wants to get more college age listeners they need something special. And, as we all know, college-age people love to drink. I thus was kind enough to put together a little SGU drinking game to hopefully help you get a younger demographic. Nothing like a bunch of drunk people gathered around a computer listening to some Skeptics, eh? So, here it is, the SGU Drinking Game.

R: I'm excited.

S: So, you know, while listening to the podcast, everyone has to drink if – and here are the conditions under which you have to take a drink: "Rebecca Watson makes a corny joke." Well, that'll never happen.

R: That's a lot of – Yeah.

S: "A Logical Fallacy is mentioned."

E: Hmm.

S: "Perry DeAngelis is mentioned." You'd have to drink in his honor.

R: One for the homie.

S: "A Novella makes a Star Trek reference." I guess, Evan, it doesn't count if you make one.

E: That's right, woo-hoo


S: "There is a long, boring conversation about birds that nobody has any interest in."


R: Word.

B: Haa-ha!

E: That's just not nice.

R: Hey, last time I drank.

S: I'm always interested, so that will never, that will never happen.

E: Wow.

S: "Steve Novella gets technical talking about the brain." Yeah.

R: Yeah, that's a good one.

E: Yeah.

S: "James Randi is mentioned."

E: Who's James Randi?


S: "Someone says a bad pun." Jay.

E: Of course.

S: "Evan does a 'This Day In History'." So that's just to get everybody started.

E: Get us going.

R: That's a good one.

J: That's the warm-up drink.

S: And, "Drink if the following words are spoken: Darwin, evolution, agnostic, or pseudoscience.

R: That's pretty good.

S: "Drink entire time during the quote of the week." Or, "If you guess Science or Fiction correctly, you get to pick someone else in the room to drink."

J: That's, that's good.

S: "And, for the truly daring, drink the entire time Bob Novella reasons through Science or Fiction."

B: Oh, nice! Nice.


E: That's a death wish.

R: People, please don't actually try this at home, 'cause that would probably kill someone.

S: That's alcohol poisoning, yeah. So, except for that last one, that's – that sounds like a pretty fun game.

J: Thanks, Keith, that was a good email.

R: I think we need to add some, though. There's like, I think you need to drink every time Bob says "billions of dollars".

S: Mm-hmm.

E: Crap.

S: Or, or any time –

B: Trillions.

S: – anyone mentions nanotechnology.

R: Yeah.

B: Oh, yeah.

R: Or any time we choose a news item just so we can make dick jokes.

B: Right.

R: Drink!

B: Or, how about, how about we play this game, how about we play the game while we're recording? Boy, by the end of that show....

R: Why don't we – why don't we do it next week?

B: That would be funny.

J: Steve –

E: Because we'll be sick after five minutes?

S: That sounds like a dangerous feedback loop, though, since we're the criteria for when we should drink.

B: Right!

J: That's true.

R: That's, that's true. Kind of like the secret word and Jay yelling out "spandex".

S: Yeah, right, right.

B: Agnostic!

E: Everyone should –

J: Spandex!

B: Buggery!

S: All right. We'll think about what, what, how we can have more fun and games with this, but thanks, thanks, Keith. That was funny.

Space Junk (26:31)[edit]

S: The next email comes from Mark Atweh (?) from Leeds, England. I always think –

E: (British accent) I say.

S: I always think of Stafford when I heard "Leeds".

R: (British accent) Oh! Pip, pip, cheerio!

S: You guys play rainmaker?

E: Choose a British accent, won't you, Steven? Right.

E: I don't give a fig!

S: He says,

Why, hello. I'm a big fan of the show. You have all educated me more than my school ever did, and you managed to turn me, someone who used to antagonize his science teachers, into the class science geek. Anyhow, about a week ago, I read an article in some trashy newspaper about how we are littering space with satellites and whatnot, and it's becoming a big problem. Here's a link to another article on the matter, entitled "Space Junk Threatens World". The alarmist title on that article raises red flags. Is space junk a genuine concern? Thanks for the always-entertaining and educational podcast. Mark.

S:Well, thanks for the kind words, Mark, and I think Bob has our report on space junk.

B: Yes. Thanks, Mark. You are correct that the title of the article seems alarmist, and the fact that it raised some red flags is a good knee-jerk skeptical reaction. But, in this case, though, I have to agree that the title – I have to agree with the title, and I wish the authors made their argument even more effectively than they did. Their argument, in a nutshell, goes like this: The amount of space junk orbiting the Earth has reached a critical level. A report from the IAASS - The International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety, which I never even heard about before - is calling for tough international laws to avert a potential tragedy. According to NASA, thousands of pieces of space junk now orbit the Earth, weighing more than 5,500 tons, and low Earth orbit debris poses risks to manned spacecraft. Now, for example, in 1991, a space shuttle had to carry out an emergency seven-second burn of its engines to avoid being stuck – or struck by a piece of a Russian satellite. I wasn't aware of that. The debris, this debris also poses a risk to Earth itself, according to the article linked to in the email. In 2006, pieces of a Russian spy satellite burnt up in the atmosphere, passing close to an airbus carrying 270 passengers. And, finally, in the article that he referenced, and most ineffectively, the article states that more than 200 dead satellites now litter this vital part of the– of space, and within ten years that number could increase five-fold, warns the report. The resulting chaos could lead to serious damage or loss of a spacecraft. So that's pretty much the argument in the article in a nutshell. But it's much worse than this, even that, and I do wish they did a better job describing the situation. From what I can tell, the states of the various orbits around the Earth are much worse than alluded to in the article. There are now 10,000 separate objects, four centimeters or bigger, being tracked by the U.S. Space Command.[2] Wouldn't you love to say, "I work for the U.S. Space Command"? This includes stuff like spent rocket stages, dead satellites, explosion fragments, paint flakes, hand tools, and a camera. According to a New York Times article, scientists generally agree that we have now surpassed critical mass in terms of space debris.[3] I did not get the memo on that one. This refers to what's called "critical spatial density", in which a chain reaction becomes inevitable.

S: Yeah, I don't know if I buy the whole chain reaction thing.

B: Well, all right, let me continue. It's just a few more paragraphs here. A chain reaction, or cascade, starts when a relatively large object in orbit is hit, breaking into smaller debris, which then hits others, and so on, creating a massive debris cloud. The term "Kessler syndrome" has also been used for a doomsday cascade scenario. In this worst-case scenario, a cascade destroys everything in orbit completely, completely isolating us on the planet for a potentially, it could be for centuries. In fact, now that we've passed critical mass, according to experts, a cascade can start today, or next year, or next decade. According to Nicholas Johnson, Chief Scientist for the Orbital Debris at NASA, it's inevitable. A significant piece of debris will run into an old rocket body, and that will create more debris. It's a bad situation. And, according to Kessler, Kessler himself, he thinks that it's really not a doomsday scenario. He thinks that what it would do is that it would create a situation where it will cost us much, much more money to send anything into orbit, because, think about it, you'd have to beef up the shields, and every pound is another, you know, whatever, $10,000 for every pound put in orbit. Until you deal with this situation, which would be very difficult, or you wait, you know, wait a few centuries until everything kinda –

J: We would never do that. What would- what could we do? What kind of sweeper could we use?

B: There are options. There are certain things we could do. One is called a terminator tether, which actually, these – the satellite lowers a magnetic tether towards Earth, and that will make it de-orbit quicker. Well, wait. If you're talking about a full cascade, if a cascade has happened and we're in that situation, then, right now, studies have been done that there's no near-term idea that anyone's come up with that's both technically feasible and cost-effective. You know, maybe you would use lasers to blast some of them, you would use some sort of machines that could somehow safely get into orbit and start, I don't know, dealing with some of this debris.

S: Scavenging it up.

B: Someone suggested using aerogels, which, aerogel is this protein matrix that is the lightest material ever invented. It's essentially solid smoke. It's good at absorbing debris and impacts, and you could actually have these huge chunks of aerogel that could, you know, soak up some of these– this debris, and then it would, and then you could somehow de-orbit it and get it out of there. So there's ideas, but nothing – there's no so-called silver bullet for this if a cascade happens. So, Steve, you expressed some skepticism with an actual cascade event?

S: Yeah, I mean, I think that, yeah, there's a lot of junk up there, and it's a menace, you know, to the orbits that we typically use, and I do think now is probably a good time to start thinking about technologies that will keep those orbits more clear. But the whole doomsday cascade thing, I don't think, is that plausible.

B: Why?

S: Well, to put things in perspective, some estimates say that it would take, like, 100 years for such a cascade event to occur, you know? And this will give us time to, to take measures to do something about it.

B: The point of the critical mass is that it is now inevitable, now that we've passed this critical threshold. It could happen tomorrow, or it could happen in 10 or 20 years, but it's going to happen.

J: Unless we clean it up.

B: Right, unless we clean it up.

S: Well, hopefully we won't find out.

B: Sure.

S: Hopefully we'll figure out some way to scoop up some of the space junk. But thanks for that report, Bob.

Brain Gym (33:12)[edit]

S: The last email comes from Phil Gullet, who writes, "Hi Jay, how've you been?" Jay, you know this guy?

J: Phil was– is a very, very talented artist that helped us last fall. We were trying to work on some logo ideas –

S: Ah, right. Phil writes:

Last night I was watching News Night on the BBC and I saw their story on Brain Gym. Man, it is such a load of garbage, it made me literally angry with rage." (pensively) "Angry with rage" ...

R: "Literally".

S: Maybe "raging with anger"?

I don't remember you discussing this on SGU, so how about raking these clowns over the coals? They call their particular brand of fraud "educational kinesiology", or "EduK", and it basically assumes that you can stimulate the brain by rubbing on various parts of your body, turning your head while humming, or tapping your shoulder. So, exploiting every parent's desire to give their child a leg up, Brain Gym's people, who are based in California - shocking - sell books and educational materials to them. Schooled in Britain – schools in Britain do this during school hours. If you can find footage of schoolchildren doing these exercises, your fury will blow the world in half, so don't even look for it. Meh, screw the world! Here's a link (Newsnight video). Steven has to have heard of this, let him shower the Earth with his derision. Phil.

B: Nice!

R: The funny thing is that they're based in California, but I've heard about Brain Gym primarily through Ben Goldacre in the UK –

S: Yeah.

R: – who has been railing about them for, like, the past five years or so.[4]

S: Yeah, Ben Goldacre's been a huge critic of this because they have infiltrated the educational system in the UK pretty well. Not nearly as much in the United States. So this is based upon an idea that cropped up in the 1960s and kind of reached its peak in the 1970s, the notion that you can change the way the brain is hardwired by doing physical activity - even passive activity in some manifestations, although in this case it's more active, physical stuff that you do - and that you can actually re-pattern, or change the way the brain is hardwired. In the United States, this was primarily promoted by Doman and Delacato, who use this in what they call "psychomotor patterning", which they claimed could cure people of cognitive disabilities or mental retardation, whatever the cause. They could, you know, make a child who had cognitive impairment, to make them normal, even excel, just by doing these passive exercises. It was totally ridiculous. And, in the 1970s there were a number of studies that were done on it, and they were negative. It didn't work. So it was tossed on the trash can of science. But Doman and Delacato already had too much invested in this. So they made their institutes and started, you know, making millions of dollars teaching this complete nonsense to desperate parents. This is a kind of an offshoot of that, and this was promoted by the Dennisons, like a husband and a wife team, and they made – they came up with the very same concept, that you could sort of re-pattern the brain and make it function better by just doing physical activities. Also in the '70s, when they came out with this idea, this educational kinesiology, it was also completely discredited. It was studied. You know, I went back and looked at what was published. It was a few studies that were published. There was a couple that were, you know, like pilot studies that were very small, that were positive, and then there was a series of better studies that were completely negative, and there's been a fairly thorough evaluation or review of the research, and it's negative. This concept is false; it doesn't work; Brain Gym doesn't work; educational kinesiology is fake; and, again, it was discarded. But these people, the Dennisons, they're invested in it! This is their livelihood, so they're not gonna give up just because it doesn't work. So they've been now selling their pseudoscience around the world for the last 30 years. They do – if you go to their website, they make all kind of ludicrous claims. They do have a large PDF of their research, but their research is largely in-house studies - so it's their own people - and it's published in the Brain Gym Journal. Ooh, that's a really objective peer-reviewed journal they published it in.

E: The Brain Gym Journal? Oh my god.

S: And you can get this study if you send them 25 bucks or 35 bucks–

B: Oh my god.

S: –and they'll send you their research on showing that their own stuff works.

R: That's a steal! Real research costs a lot more than that.

E: This is crazy

S: It's all pseudoscience. There's nothing in the actual peer-reviewed published research to support this. And, then, you gotta watch the video. The video is absolutely ludicrous. These kids are doing things like tapping their shoulders and rolling their eyes around, and that's supposed to make their brain function better. And they really get into some hard-core pseudoscience. Like, if you drink water before a test you'll do better 'cause the water gets absorbed directly into your brain–

R: What?

S: –which is 90% water, and, therefore, it'll function better. Oh, you gotta –

E: You really only use 10% of your brain.

S: Yeah, it's on that level of just blatant pseudoscience. Then they interview these poor kids, right, who are being taught, you know, real science by a science teacher, and then also they're teaching this utter nonsense, and the kids are parroting back the nonsense that they're being told about the Brain Gym as if it's real.

R: What's great is to see –

S: Yeah, yeah, I know what you're talking about there. The interviewer, the news – the journalist actually did a really good job at journalism –

B: I don't believe it.

S: – and asked this guy, this promoter, some –

R: Oh, Pax– Paxman, right?

S: – yeah –

R: Sorry.

S: – some tough questions, and he collapsed!

R: Yeah, and it's funny, 'cause, relative to American journalists, Paxman does a really fantastic job. And to us it's like, wow, he really busted on this guy, you know, really called him out. And, in any event, Paul Dennison, the Brain Gym guy, was at a loss for words which was fun to see.

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah-

S: He's only been doing this for 30 years, and he couldn't think of anything intelligent to say in defense of himself. He really sounded like a complete idiot. Which is appropriate. Well, let's go on to our interview.

Interview with Simon Singh (39:08)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Simon Singh. Simon, welcome to The Skeptics' Guide.

SS: Nice to talk to you.

S: Dr. Singh is an author, journalist, TV producer, and we are discussing with him this evening his latest book, which is just coming out, Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial. So, Simon, why did you write this book?

SS: Well, it's a big departure for me, because my background's in particle physics, and I've written about cryptography and pure mathematics and cosmology, so to move to medicine was a big decision. And it happened when, about two years ago, I was in London, and I walked past a shop dealing in homeopathic remedies, and, out of just curiosity, I thought, I wonder what's going to happen if I go in here and ask for advice on malaria prevention. It's the kind of thing I do – for some odd reason. And I went in, and I was shocked that the homeopath was quite willing to try and give me some kind of medication to protect me from malaria if I went overseas. This is extraordinary because homeopaths, in case people don't realize, say that you take something, typically like cures like, so you might take some swampy material, some essence of mosquito or something, then you dilute it over and over and over and over again, to such an extent that the final remedy has nothing of the original ingredient left. It's been dissolved out. And, so, essentially the homeopaths were willing to give me nothing to protect me against malaria. And this then led to a more kind of rigorous study whereby I asked a young student to visit ten homeopaths. She said she was going to go to West Africa - we picked West Africa because that's where you have the deadliest strains of malaria, you can be dead within three days - and of the ten homeopaths, every single one of them was willing to give her something to use instead of conventional medicine. So, yeah, it was so shocking that the BBC then did a follow-up study. They sent in undercover TV cameras. It became a big story in the UK. And that's what really got me aware of some of the shocking things going on in that alternative realm, and how it was important to just make people aware of that.

S: You know, homeopathy is a good entry for a physicist into this topic because you don't actually need to know medicine to know that homeopathy can't work. You actually – all you really do need to know is just some chemistry and physics.

S: Yes! I mean, it's an interesting thing. It clearly should not work. It makes no scientific sense whatsoever. If anybody could prove a homeopathic remedy, they'd get a Nobel Prize in Physics, Biology – oh, I'm sorry, Medicine – and Chemistry. So, it makes no sense. But, on the other hand, you have to test it. You have to really put it through a clinical trial, because science is full of bizarre and amazing things that shouldn't really be true, but, sometimes, the universe is weirder than– not only weirder than we imagine but weirder than we can imagine - I can't remember who first said that.[5] But, even if homeopathy shouldn't work, we still have to test it. And then the double-whammy is that when you conduct the clinical trials, it still doesn't work, which comes as no great surprise. The surprise, I should stress, is that there's a multi-billion-dollar industry based on this fallacy.

S: Mm-hmm.

R: And, Simon, you brought in a co-writer to help you out, Professor Edzard Ernst. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

SS: Yes, absolutely. Edzard is the world's first professor of complementary medicine. He has an interesting background. On the one hand, he has a very rigorous, scientific or medical research background in Austria and Germany and the UK and America. And, secondly, a while ago he was a practicing homeopath. In Germany, that's not unusual. He was a practicing chiropractor. But for the last 15 years, he's had a research group here in the UK, since he's become a professor of complimentary and alternative medicine, and he has spent the last fifteen years examining every single piece of research that's been published on pretty much every single alternative therapy. And, so, what we say in the book depends entirely on his analysis, and the analysis of others, of research. I was talking to a BBC radio station earlier on today, and, you know, I was being accused of arrogance and so on, and I was saying, "Look, these aren't my views. These are the views of research conducted on literally tens of thousands of people, studies conducted by dozens and dozens of researchers around the world."

S: And what did you conclude? You said already that homeopathy doesn't work. And what about some of the other major so-called "alternative modalities" you looked at?

SS: Here – yes, what really – I mean, the term "alternative medicine", "integrative medicine", "complimentary medicine" is sort of meaningless. What you have to do is break it down into these different modalities and ask the question, "Does acupuncture work?" "Does chiropractic work?" "Does herbal medicine work?" And, even then, you have to break it down again and again. So, for example, if we just take herbal medicine, we looked at something like evening primrose oil, which in Europe is used as a kind of cure-all for all sorts of things. Bottom line: It just doesn't work. On the other hand, if we look at St. John's wort, which is used for treating mild and moderate depression, there is good scientific evidence that it is effective. So, where an alternative remedy or natural remedy or herbal remedy is effective, we're quite happy to state that categorically. What we want is individuals and parents to know about what's out there, and then to use what works, avoid what doesn't work, and absolutely avoid what's dangerous. And even in the case of St. John's wort, where we're saying there is evidence to back it up, our warning is that you need to do this under the guidance of your general practitioner, under an expert doctor, because St. John's wort is a chemical. You're taking a chemical. It's a natural herbal product, but it's chemistry at the end of the day. And it will interact with your body. One of the things it does is, it accelerates the function of your liver, which in turn will break down other drugs that you might be taking, such as contraceptives, immunosuppressants, and so on. So, by taking St. John's wort, you could be affecting yourself in many other ways, which is why you need to do this under the guidance of somebody who really knows what they're doing.

S: Right. It's a drug, and in fact it's multiple drugs sort of mixed together, and not really purified or even quantified very well.

SS: That's really what the pharmaceutical industry or modern pharmaceutical science has done. It's largely built itself upon these herbal remedies. I think aspirin comes from the willow bark. The willow bark was taken for centuries as a treatment for headaches, pains, and so on. The problem is, you don't know what dosage you're getting; there are other toxins in willow bark. What science has done is it's worked out the effective chemical, it's removed the toxins, it's worked out the dosages, it's worked out what's safe, it's synthesized it so that you don't have to cut down the trees, and then you have a treatment which, you know what it's capable of, what its side effects are, what the dosages are, and everything else. So, so much of modern medicine is built on that herbal tradition, but we mustn't just carry on using herbs which we don't know necessarily work.

S: Mm-hmm. Yep, I agree. So, let's go over some of the other major components of the book, or major chapters in the book, for example acupuncture. What was your bottom line understanding acupuncture, after looking at all the research?

SS: Well, acupuncture's one of the first ones we looked at, and, in addition to sort of giving the scientific research, we also look into the background of it and how it's developed. And, interestingly, in the 20th century, Chairman Mao really didn't think much of Chinese traditional medicine, and certainly didn't have it as his own first line of treatment. But he promoted it very heavily across China because it allowed him to provide health care to a huge nation, an impoverished nation. It came to the West, though, in about the 1970s, the early 1970s, when Nixon first went to China. And, just before he went to China, I think in 1971, Kissinger went, and he took a small group of journalists with him. And one of them was James Reston, a New York Times journalist, and he got– I think he had appendicitis. So he had some surgery to remove his appendix, and afterward he had quite severe post-operative pain. And to treat this pain, he was given acupuncture. And he was utterly shocked. He'd never seen this before, he never experienced it before, but for him it really seemed to work. The pain subsided, he got back to America, he wrote about them, a huge article, and that's what really kick-started the boom in interest in acupuncture in the West. Here was a Western patient, a hard-nosed, hard-bit journalist, who'd experienced the pain-killing effects of acupuncture firsthand. When we look at that case, we think, well, what could be going on? Well, maybe, on the one hand, acupuncture really works. On the other hand, maybe it was a psychological effect. Maybe the pain subsided coincidentally when he had the acupuncture. Maybe it's just placebo, you know, the power of the mind. We don't know. So you have to test it. Now, when you test something like homeopathy, it's pretty easy to test it, because what you have – what you do is take a thousand people, five hundred of them you give homeopathy, five hundred of them you give a sugar pill. The patients don't know whether they're getting that sugar pill or homeopathy, so they all get the same placebo effect. The question is, does homeopathy perform better? And the bottom line is that it doesn't. When you analyze acupuncture, what can you use as your placebo control? How can you give people something that looks like acupuncture but isn't really acupuncture? And this was a problem for a few years, as people were trying to think of ways to test acupuncture. But over the last few decades, we've developed three different techniques of what are called "sham" acupuncture. One is, you insert the needles in the wrong place. According to acupuncture philosophy, you have to put the needles in very specific sites, where the meridians are that carry the chi. If you do it in the wrong place, it shouldn't work. The second thing you can do is, you can needle the patient, but just put the needle just below the skin, so that it doesn't puncture the meridians, so it really shouldn't work according to acupuncture philosophy. The third thing you can do is to use a kind of a "stage dagger" needle. So you put the needle into the skin, but the needle actually retracts into the handle of the acupuncture instrument, like a stage dagger. So the needle there doesn't even puncture the skin. But, in all three cases, a patient would think that they are undergoing genuine acupuncture. So the patient would undergo a genuine placebo response. Now, when you conduct acupuncture in this way, the trials - real acupuncture versus "sham" acupuncture - the bottom line is that there's no difference. There's some tentative evidence, and it is very much borderline, that acupuncture is effective for some types of pain and nausea. But the benefits – the better the studies are, the more those benefits seem to decline, which makes you think that the benefits that we're seeing may well be down to just errors in the experiments or errors in the clinical trials, bu,t as I say, we can't rule that out at the moment. More research is being done to kind of check that. But, in general, it seems to be ineffective, which, again, is not surprising because we don't find these meridians, we don't seem to find any evidence of a chi, and there's no obvious way why acupuncture should have such a powerful effect.

S: Yeah. I'd just like to add, that there was a study that just came out last week, which obviously wouldn't've made it into your book, where they compared sham acupuncture to sham acupuncture plus a purposely-supportive practitioner, somebody who went out of their way to be comforting and supportive to the patient, and that actually had a huge placebo effect to it. So, it actually showed that there was a placebo effect to sham acupuncture, and that the placebo effect was much bigger if the acupuncturist was supportive, was just emotionally supportive of the patient. Which, I think, just puts another perspective on all of the acupuncture research. Just being a little supportive gets you more of an effect than anything they're claiming from acupuncture in the first place.

SS: And the placebo effect is incredibly powerful. We do a few examples of conventional treatments which people thought were effective but which turned out to be purely down to the placebo effect. There was an operation done in the '50s whereby an artery from the heart would be blocked, and the idea of blocking that artery was to flush more blood through another artery to sort of unblock the second artery, to unclog it, you kind of flush it with a higher pressure by tying up the first artery.

S: Yeah, I think that you're talking about mammillary artery ligation.

SS: That's it exactly.

S: That's actually – the mammillary artery is near the heart, but it doesn't go to the heart –

SS: That's right.

S: – so it would shunt more blood to the heart. It kinda made sense, but go ahead with the rest of your story.

SS: Yeah, patients swore by it. Patients said, you know, I feel fitter, stronger, and– they really seemed to benefit from it. But then a study was done whereby patients had a small incision made, rather a large incision made to look like they'd had the surgery, but nothing was actually done. The incision was then sewn up. Those patients, again, swore that they benefitted hugely. In fact, they'd had nothing done at all. There's a huge placebo effect in alternative medicine. And what are the arguments that people are coming up with when we discuss these issues? If homeopathy just gives you placebo, or acupuncture just gives you a placebo response, and the placebo response is real and powerful, what's wrong with that? Why shouldn't we just embrace that? Professor Ernst and myself, I think, have several reasons for finding that still unacceptable. The first thing is that you're still – you're lying to the patients, actually. Homeopaths, if they look at research, know that homeopathy doesn't work, so by promoting it they are lying. And in fact the bigger the lies, the bigger the placebo effect. I mean, if I say that this homeopathy pill – this homeopathic pill has just been imported from China, and it's sprinkled with gold dust, and it's the last one left in the shop, it'll have a bigger placebo effect. But, for the last few decades, we've tried to have an open, honest relationship between patients and doctors. So, again, Professor Edzard Ernst and myself would find that unacceptable. Secondly, once you start allowing people to talk to, or to rely on homeopaths and so on for their health care, you start having problems like people turning to homeopaths to protect themselves against malaria. And no kind of placebo effect is going to protect you against malaria. There are several reasons, but one more is that to get the placebo effect, you don't need a placebo, because you get a placebo effect with real medicine. So, if you have a pain, and then take a conventional painkiller, because that will have a conventional effect, plus the placebo as well. So why would you give somebody just a placebo when you can have real medicine plus the placebo as a free bonus?

S: Yeah, absolutely. And, just to emphasize, like, as you said, there's no placebo effect for protecting you from malarial infection. There is for subjective symptoms, but the more concrete or physiological the effect you're looking at - survival, you know, do you survive cancer or not, for example - there really doesn't seem to be much of a placebo effect. And, this is something that I've actually written about quite a bit myself, I wouldn't be willing, myself, to say that the placebo effect is quote-unquote real and powerful. I think it's actually largely illusory, except when you're talking about things like just pain and general comfort level and outlook. So, I think that that's an important point to make. People, if they turn to placebos, whether they're homeopathy, acupuncture, whatever, for, like, real physiological or especially potentially lethal illnesses, they're not going to do anything.

SS: An example somebody gave me the other day was that, how many homeopaths use homeopathic remedies as a contraceptive? Clearly they don't, because, as you say, there's a concrete outcome there, a placebo's not going to help you.

S: That's right. And the other point that your example brings up - the mammillary artery ligation - when that study was done, physicians stopped doing that procedure. They said, "Oh, this is all placebo. It doesn't work." They stopped doing it. And yet, after all the studies with homeopathy and acupuncture that basically showed there's nothing more than placebo, it's still a huge industry. Why is that?

SS: Yeah, I think this is a really important aspect of conventional medicine, just to come back to your first point. In the book we tell the story of Bill Silverman, who did a huge amount of work and research on babies and infants, and he developed a technique which he thought would help premature babies, and it seemed to work on the first few babies that he tried it on. He didn't stop there. He then conducted a rigorous trial. He said, "Look, this seems to work, but that's not good enough for me. I really want to test it properly." And, when he tested it properly, it didn't really work. In fact, if anything, it possibly was harming the babies. So that was stopped immediately. And that's one of the things you have to do in science, is question your own theories, and your own prejudices, and your own therapies. And the Cochrane Collaboration, the idea of the Cochrane Collaboration is to look at all the research that's published on a particular therapy, on a particular solution, and see whether or not that therapy works. Now, the Cochrane Collaboration have just instituted a prize called the Silverman Prize, the Bill Silverman Prize, which is given to whoever can criticize the Cochrane Collaboration in the most constructive way. So, conventional science wants to be kind of pushed and prodded, tested and poked. It wants to be questioned and challenged. And it encourages it - in the case of the Cochrane Collaboration, by offering a prize. And when it learns that it's made a mistake, it changes, and it adapts, and it moves forward, whereas the alternative medicine community seem to be very reluctant to accepting negative results and challenging their own beliefs.

S: Yeah, they don't seem to ask that question, does it really, really work, and really try find that out. They, rather, seem to say, "I'm absolutely convinced it works." This is what they say to me! I'm sure you have heard this, too now, now that you've, you know, dipped into this pool. "I know it works. I've seen it work. I'm absolutely convinced it works." So, then they just look for the evidence that supports what they already know to be true.

SS: Absolutely. And I'm not a fan of– obviously I'm not a fan of big pharmaceutical companies, you know. They come up with some valuable and important medical breakthroughs that help us all, but I'm not a spokesman for that industry. But, you know, how would we feel if the big pharmaceuticals tried to sell us products by saying, "Well we just know it works. You just feel that it works." –

S: Right.

SS: The big pharmaceutical companies starting selling us placebos and lying to us in this way? So we've got to keep strict regulations on those drug companies and make sure that they're as legal and decent and honest as they can possibly be. And we have to apply these same rules to the alternative medical community. And, as an outsider to this, when I first began, it shocked me how unregulated all of this is, and, with the arrival of the Internet, it's clearly got even worse.

R: Right, and even more than just on a case-by-case basis, it seems like you are preparing people to think critically about other things that might not have been touched on in the book. For instance, in your first chapter, you start off by explaining the scientific method. I think that's a fantastic thing to do for that kind of audience. I feel like it's the sort of thing that I might be able to give to anybody and not worry about offending them, but really help and encourage them to think for themselves.

SS: Yeah, I'm glad that worked so well. I think – I mean, there are two stories that sort of leap out from that first chapter for me. One is the invention of the clinical trial, which goes back about 200 years now, just over 200 years. And the first clinical trial was in the treatment of scurvy. We know know that's due to vitamin C deficiency. And, we think about these naval battles, in which sailors were blown apart by cannons and so on. Many, many more sailors were killed by scurvy, orders of magnitude more sailors were killed by this problem of scurvy. A Scottish naval physician called James Lind conducted the first clinical trial. And what he did was, he took 12 scurvy-ridden sailors, he put them in pairs, and to one pair he gave vinegar, another pair got seawater, another pair got diluted sulphuric acid, another pair got cider, and another pair got lemon juice. He controlled it very well. They all had the same diet, they all lived in the same conditions, they all had the same level of scurvy, and they all pretty much deteriorated further - except for those receiving lemon juice. And also, actually, the ones receiving cider improved very slightly. And the reason is that lemon juice is full of vitamin C and cider also had a little bit of vitamin C. And Lind didn't know what vitamin C was, he had no idea why this worked, but he knew that it was a cure. And there we have a clear way of demonstrating how a medicine can be effective by conducting a clinical trial. And, then, the other example in that first chapter that I'm fond of is the story of Florence Nightingale, the British military nurse who served in the Crimean War. Her ideas about hygiene and cleanliness and hospitals- Again, we think about soldiers being blown apart on battlefields and so on. The real killer at that time was the disease and the infection that was existing in the hospitals. So she radically overhauled health care at the time. Now, the politicians and the male doctors really didn't like her approach. They didn't like her ideas and they thought she was wasting her time. But she was able to win her arguments by presenting them in a scientific way - by presenting charts, tables, data, and so on. And so, one of the things I like about science is that, even if you're an underdog, even if you're a woman in Victorian England, even if nobody takes you seriously, by using science you can still win the argument. And, similarly, if somebody comes up with some weird alternative therapy, if they've made a great discovery, they can win their argument by using science. Science is the fairest and most egalitarian way of deciding what's true and what's not.

S: Well, Simon, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us. Trick or Treatment, so that's going to be on the bookshelves when?

SS: In the UK, it's published this week, and in North America it's going to be published in mid-August, and I hope to be over in the States in mid-August, and going over to Canada, and criss-crossing the continent giving lectures and talking about the book. It's been a couple of years since I've been to the States - last time, I think, was probably when I was talking about cosmology and the Big Bang - so it'll be nice to come back and have a new subject to get excited about.

R: Make sure you make it to New England so we can all get together.

SS: Great, great. I'm looking forward to it.

S: All right, thanks again.

SS: Thanks a lot. Cheerio! Bye.

Science or Fiction (1:04:40)[edit]

(jingle: It's time for Science or Fiction.)

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. And you, of course, can play along. Is everyone ready for this week's items?

R: Yes.

E: Fantastic.

S: Again, no theme this week, just three random items. Item number one: Biologists have rediscovered a lizard, which was transplanted to an island thirty-six years ago, then left undisturbed. What they found had undergone so much evolutionary change that, while still a lizard, warrants a new family designation of its own. Item number two: A new study shows that sign language interpreters have among the highest risk for carpel-tunnel syndrome and other ergonomic injuries, even higher than factory assembly line workers. And item number three, the Hong Kong flu: A new study shows that most influenza virus outbreaks do originate in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, and then spread around the globe.

J: Hong Kong fluey

S: Bob, go first.

B: Ugh. All right. A lizard transplanted 36 years ago, and becomes – it's in a new family.

S: Mm-hmm.

B: That's just so obviously baloney. I mean, how could that possibly be? And, two and three? Sign language causing more carpel-tunnel syndrome. I could definitely see that, I mean. And the Hong Kong flu, most influenza outbreaks in that area- yeah, I could see that, too. A new family in 36 years… Wow. That's just too obvious.

J: Oh, man, people are getting wasted right now.


B: Higher than factory assembly line workers.

R: It's true.

B: Sign language interpreters? Wait a second. That's – that doesn't mean they're signing all day, that's just, like, when they're working.

J: (accent) Signing 'n' shit.

B: See, that doesn't sound right to me. The carpel-tunnel one doesn't sound right because… assembly line workers, that's the – how more repetitive can you be than being on a factory assembly line? But, where, if you're an interpreter, I mean, it's not as– it can't be as repetitive as an assembly line worker. Ooh, so, all right. I'm gonna go–

J: Holy shit, Bob!

B: Calm down! I'm gonna go – all right, one is too obvious –

R: I don't think we're in record-setting territory yet, but it's gotta be close.

B: No. All right, I'm gonna go with… the sign language is fiction, but against my better judgment.

S: OK. Jay.

J: I'm gonna go with the lizard, which was transplanted 36 years ago. How many generations could possibly go by in thirty-six years, in order for it to create a new family?

B: Four-point-one.

J: None.

S: Millions.

J: That's the fake.

R: Millions?

J: Fake!

S: OK. Evan.

E: OK, so, I'm – the lizard one is clearly the curveball that Steve is throwing at us. It's remarkable, and I think it's correct. I think it'll turn out to be science. So, I'll go with my gut reaction, which was the interpreters. That one is fiction. That's what I first thought, and that's what I'm sticking with.

S: OK. Rebecca.

R: All right. Not to be a Bob about this, but this really does concern me, because I –

B: Boring!


B: Sorry, sorry.

R: I originally thought, well, yeah, the lizard thing is totally true. But I think that– here's what's throwing me, OK, is that I'm not a biologist and – a new family designation?

B: I know, I know.

R: Is – you know, I know that– I'm the last one to go, right?

E: Yes.

S: Yes.

R: So, I know that there was a lizard that was put on an island - I know all this - but whether or not it evolved –

E: Sleestak.

R: – into something that warranted a new family designation? Like, I know it evolved, I know there are big changes.

B: Oh, shit.

R: But I'm gonna say that– this is probably gonna– See, remember what I said about how ignorance –

E: Drink.

R: – is always the way to go?

B: (laughs) Yes!

J: Yeah, I'm starting to believe that.

R: This is the problem. This is going to happen to me again. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. I'm gonna say that –

B: Rebecca, follow your drinking –

R: Do I have to drink if I get it wrong? 'Cause that would be all right, is all. I'm gonna say that the lizard thing is fiction, that it did not warrant a whole new family designation.

J: Thank you.

B: Finally.

S: OK. So you all agree that the Hong Kong flu –

J: Hong Kong flu!

S: – actually comes from Hong Kong, and that is science. That one is science.

J: Excellent.

S: So, yeah, it's one of those things that, almost a cliché, that, you know, we talk about, the Asian flu, the Hong Kong flu, that things come from Asia. A new study shows that, in fact, this is the case - that the large, densely-populated cities in Asia, such as Hong Kong, actually are a breeding ground for new strains of flu viruses, and that this is where they come from every year. And then they do spread around the globe, especially now that people are actually, like, air-traveling around the globe, things get spread around much more quickly. So, we are split. We got Jay and Rebecca for the lizard and Bob and Evan for the language interpreters. Let's do the language interpreters one first.

J: My lizards.

S: New study, "Sign language interpreters at high risk for ergonomic injuries".

B: Ouch.

S: That one is science.

R: Whoo-hoo.

S: And this is a little–

R: Go knowledge! Yes!

S: –surprising, this is a little surprising.

R: Sorry (laughs)

S: The impact of repetitive stress in industrial and office settings has been well-documented, but this is now the first time that this has been documented the risk from being a sign language interpreter, and it was surprising. They said it was amongst the highest, even higher than assembly line work in a factory. And, Bob, you're right, that – you know, the assembly line work is like the– is the classic scenario where you get this repetitive motion injury. That's previously considered to be among the highest risks for getting that, you know. And, again, for a quick background: Carpel-tunnel syndrome is produced by compression of the median nerve in the carpel tunnel, 'cause it's a completely closed-off space, so there's no room for it to expand. It could be caused by direct pressure, it could be caused by positioning, by tendonitis or arthritis or swelling in the wrist, and by repetitive motion. You know, people get it from using keyboards, mechanics will very commonly get it, chefs who have to, like, chop vegetables with a knife. So those kind of activities are known to be – to cause it. Although people can get it from the way they sleep, sometimes women get it when they're pregnant just because they're retaining fluid and their tissues are swollen. But signers, just from doing sign language all day, I guess, in and of itself is a repetitive stress and can cause a lot of these ergonomic injuries. So that one is science. Which means that "biologists have discovered a lizard, which was transplanted onto an island 36 years ago then left undisturbed, that they found had undergone so much evolutionary change that, while still a lizard, warrants a new family designation of its own" is fiction.

R: You serious bugger.

S: But it is mostly science. The new family was the new bit and, Bob, your initial reaction was exactly correct. You know, a new family is a lot of evolutionary change. So this is actually a really cool story. This is published in the National Geographic News,[6] where I read it, and I think actually PZ Myers blogged about it.[7]

R: He did.

B: Aw, shit.

S: It's actually a really nice story for evolution. So, 36 years ago, this species of lizard was transplanted to another island to see what would happen. This actually was done deliberately. And then –

R: A war broke out.

S: The war broke out, and, you know, people were not allowed to travel to the island for a while. And, you know, 36 years go by. But, recently, tourism and scientists have been allowed to go back to the island. These were taken from one island and transplanted to another island in the South Adriatic Sea. So, these were two islands nearby, so the environment was very similar. What they found, after 36 years, was that this lizard evolved into a slightly different niche and underwent quite a bit of evolutionary change. So, the stock species primarily survived eating dragonflies, and was adapted to eating dragonflies. But they ate leaves a little bit, like three percent of their diet was leaves. On the new island, there was already another species of lizard there that was eating all the insects, so they – that niche was filled. So this– the transplanted lizard started to rely more and more heavily on eating leaves, and evolved various adaptations to it: a wider head, stronger, you know, chewing muscles, and, the most surprising thing is, it actually evolved a cecal valve - a valve in the gut - that would enable the leaves to remain in the gut for a longer period of time and allow the bacteria to ferment it and to break it down more. And this all happened over 36 years. That's a lot more evolutionary change than that they were expecting. They still have to do genetic analysis and really examine exactly how – the genetic basis for these changes, to see, you know, were there– could they identify certain new mutations, et cetera. But, really incredible. It's not even clear that this lizard requires a new species designation - if it actually would represent a new species - it could, you know, still be able to interbreed with the parent species. It may in fact– this may just be a shift in characteristics that were already present in the species, not necessarily new mutations. That's one thing they have to really figure out, was this actually new mutations that have taken place. Probably at most it would be a new species under the same genus. Even a new genus would be a big deal. A new family is just – that's just out of the question. That's way more than would happen over this period of time. So, Bob, you did it again.

B: I did it again, yep.

S: You talked yourself out of the right answer. I almost had Rebecca–

R: I know.

S: –'cause this is one of those ones where if you read the story, a lot of the details were correct, but that was that one bit that made it untrue, that you had to key in on.

R: Thanks, eighth-grade biology! Thumbs-up.


S: So, good job, Jay and Rebecca.

R: Thank you.

J: Cool!

R: High-five, Jay!

(high-five sound then laughter)

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:30)[edit]

S: Jay, do you have a quote for us?

J: I have a quote. It was from Mahatma Gandhi, and his real name was Mohandas Gandhi.

S: Yeah, Mahatma's a title, right, not a name?

R: Yeah.

J: Right.

S: Yeah.

J: Yeah, but, you know, people think his – that's his first name. And, real quick, he was a major political and spiritual leader of India. And Gandhi said, (shitty Indian accent):

"It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err."

J: Mahatma Gandhi!


E: Well, namaste.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: Namaste.

Announcements (1:16:07)[edit]

Well, I do have one quick announcement this week. The real trailer - not the little teaser thing that was up last week - the real trailer to "The Skeptologists" is up. It's on the Skeptology website and you can also see it on Facebook, so take a look. This one's over a minute long, gives you more of an idea of the kind of the quality of the filming and the production that's going into it. So, take a look at it. And we've been getting a very good response on the emails, but we still need a lot more. So, in order to, again, convince, you know, some TV executive that this show would have a built-in audience, what we really need is just a lot of emails - just one line saying "I really would like to see this show on TV", just something to that effect. And you should send it to Skeptologists at Again, we'll have that email address on the website. So please just take a moment to send an email, so that we can improve our chances of making the show an actual reality. You guys were really great in supporting Rebecca for her NPR show and we all really appreciated that, so, hopefully, we can make the same thing happen again with the Skeptologists.

R: Sure, let's keep the love going, people!

S: By the way, Rebecca, what's the update on the whole NPR thing?

R: Ah, I got an update about a month ago. They said, "Hey, wait longer." So –


S: "Be patient."

R: Yeah, so, maybe in May I might have –

J: "Send more Chuck Berry." Steve, I have a few announcements.

S: All right. Go ahead.

J: One, I'd like to thank everyone who came on the message board and who responded to the request for web programmers. And, like I said last week, we could really use graphic designers and flash programmers. You know, we need some components made and we definitely want to redo the graphics on the site, so we're asking people to join us on the forum and join in on helping out. Another thing, I definitely want to continue to ask for people to vote for us on Digg. We – our numbers are rising and it's, you know, it's really good. It helps promote the show, and it's a real quick and easy thing that you can do to help us out. Or leave feedback on iTunes, we really appreciate that. We all definitely read it and appreciate all the feedback that people have left. And, also, you know, TAM's coming up, always there's seats available. I think anyone that hasn't gone to TAM really needs to consider going to this one. This is gonna be a very special TAM with a lot of great stuff going on.

R: I booked the party suite.

S: Excellent.

R: It's on, Saturday night.

J: That's incredible.

R: Big party. There's a jacuzzi.

J: Yes, so sign up. It's not too late. There's seats open, and –

S: Yeah, the details that we have so far is that we're gonna have a dinner Friday night, where all of us will be there to have dinner and chat and meet our fans. It was a lot of fun last year, we're gonna do it again this year. We'll give you the details once Rebecca has booked a specific location. And we are going to be film– we are going to be recording some live segments for "The Skeptics' Guide" while we're there. We're gonna have "Breakfast with the SGU", I believe it's eight to nine, Friday and Saturday morning, and we may also have some other, you know, new material or surprises in store for you. So it'll be – we're going to be very active for the whole event. It's gonna be a lot of fun and we'd definitely like to see a lot of our listeners there. So, thanks for joining me again, everyone.

E: Thank you.

R: Thank you, Steve.

B: Good episode!

J: Thank you, Steve.

S: Had a good time. And, until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website, or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • Properly performed CPR can give around 25% cardiac output
  • Once the heart stops beating, the brain cells start to lyse after 3 minutes. However, muscles can last several hours
  • Livor mortis is the settling of the blood within the body after death
  • At the time of broadcast, 10,000 separate objects, four centimeters or bigger, were being tracked by the U.S. Space Command[2]
  • Aerogel is the lightest material invented to date
  • Sham accupuncture can include:
    • Inserting the needle in the 'wrong' place, avoiding the meridians that allegedly carry the chi
    • Inserting needles in the correct places, but not deep enough to puncture the meridians
    • Use a fake needle that retracts into the handle so that the skin is not pierced
  • The first clinical trial was in the treatment of scurvy by Scottish naval physician James Lind
  • Sign language interpreters are among the highest at risk for carpel-tunnel syndrome and other ergonomic injuries, even higher than factory assembly line workers
  • Most influenza virus outbreaks originate in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, and then spread around the globe
  • A lizard, transplanted to an island and left undisturbed for 36 years, has been found to have adapted to a new diet more dependent on vegetation. This includes a wider head, stronger chewing muscles, and a valve in the gut that enables the leaves to remain in the gut for a longer period of time to be broken down[6]


  1. SGU Episode 6: Science or Fiction
  2. 2.0 2.1 DISCOVER magazine: Map:Space Junk
  3. New York Times: Orbiting Junk, Once a Nuisance, Is Now a Threat
  4. Bad Science: Banging your head repeatedly against the brick wall of teachers’ stupidity helps increase blood flow to your frontal lobes
  5. J. B. S. Haldane: "I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." in Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), p. 286 (wikiquote)
  6. 6.0 6.1 National Geographic news: Lizards Rapidly Evolve After Introduction to Island
  7. Pharyngula: Still just a lizard
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