SGU Episode 184
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, January 28th, 2009, and this is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me tonight are Bob Novella
B: Hey everybody
S: Rebecca Watson
R: Hello everyone
S: Jay Novella
J: Hey guys
S: And Evan Bernstein
E: Hi everyone
This Day in Skepticism (0:32)
E: It was 1986, and I'm sure we all remember exactly where we were at the moment the space shuttle Challenger broke apart after lift-off.
S: That was on the 28th?
E: That was on the 28th, yep.
R: Actually, I do not remember where I was.
B: I do
E: I remember exactly where I was
J: Yeah, I do too.
E: It was sophomore year in high-school, er-
R: I was five.
E: -junior in high-school, in my computer lab, and the announcement came on over the intercom and we all ran to a television set to see what was going on. It was- it was one of those seminal moments – for me, certainly. Hit me pretty hard.
S: I think we talked about this actually on the show before. Because I remember us recounting that I was actually at Hopkins at the time, at John Hopkins and I was online to sign a document which was going to go up in the next space shuttle, because the Hopkins was sending up the Hopkins ultra-violet telescope. Which then got, of course, got delayed by a year or two because of the shuttle disaster. Well, we have a great interview with Tim Minchin coming up later in the show, but first, let's get to some news items.
Mercury in Corn Syrup (1:25)
S: This is a study recently published, that shows that high fructose corn syrup is contaminated with mercury. This is a study that was published by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. And what they did was look at various food items, some off the shelf, and sent them to various labs to test for their mercury content, and they found that about a third of products containing high fructose corn syrup had detectable levels of mercury, and they put out press releases warning about this. I was looking around the internet to see what the chatter was about it, and all of the links I found, just about, were from fairly either credulous or pro-alternative medicine, or flagrant conspiracy-mongering sites that just loved this news for whatever reason.
R: I heard Jeremy Piven almost died from ketchup poisoning.
S: Yeah, right
E: Poor Jeremy
S: It was actually challenging for me to dig up real information. So one thing that the press release didn't talk about was: how much mercury are we talking about?
B: Just because it's detectable, doesn't mean that the quantities involved are significant.
S: Right. But if you go to the website of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, there you can get the full study with the table that has the actual amounts.  And the amounts of mercury are between 30 and 350 parts per trillion. That's trillion with a 'T'. And again, about a third of the products that they tested, the other products had no detectable levels of mercury. Now, it seemed to me to be a lot of fear-mongering around this, and again, I was trying to put this into some kind of context, what does this actually mean? What kind of health risk does this present? And, again, the vast majority of the sites didn't make any attempt to put this into any kind of context. So one thing that's certainly true is that mercury is a toxin, right? That is the thing that is not under debate, nobody's saying that mercury itself is safe, and there is a pretty broad effort to minimise human exposure to mercury. We're all on the same page when it comes to that. But in terms of individual things, and how much of a risk do they present in terms of their mercury content, what I found with this high fructose corn syrup news story was a lot of unsubstantiated fear-mongering, without really digging deep into the details to see what kind of threat this actually presents. So here's a couple of things to put this into context. First of all, the amounts that we're talking about – 30-350 parts per trillion – that is far below what is necessary to cause levels that are considered to be unhealthy, so the EPA and the FDA has their 'safe exposure' levels. One estimate I saw was that you would have to eat 100 pounds of ketchup every day to get to the EPA safety levels.
R: I could do that
S: You could do that? 100 pounds every day? So that's, a lot a lot of ketchup.
R: I could do it on a veggie burger
E: How about (inaudible)
S: Another thing to keep in mind is that there is mercury in the water, and in the soil, and in breast milk, and in lots of things. You could detect this range of level of mercury in lots of stuff
J: Yeah, but is that natural? Is it naturally occurring? How does it get there?
S: In the soil and the air and whatnot?
S: Well, there's a certain amount of mercury is naturally occurring, and that it just exists in the environment. Certainly, in industrialized parts of the world, a certain amount of the mercury is produced by industrialization, and that's the part we can do something about, and there's been a lot of efforts, by the Environmental Protection Agency and other groups, to do that, to minimise human exposure to mercury through industry. But in terms of the high fructose corn syrup, it seems as if that in the processing of these products, in order to balance the PH, you have to add acids and bases to things in order to balance the PH, that one of these processes included a mercury-based filter, a so-called mercury-cell technology, and it's possible that mercury could contaminate food that was processed this way. So that's what their thinking is, how it got into there. So that would be industrial exposure to mercury, not naturally occurring. However, the industry spokesman have said that that technology was phased out several years ago, and the press release included data from products that were four years old, previous to the mercury-cll technology being replaced by newer technology that has no mercury in it. So-
J: Yeah, but you know, Steve, four years is really not that long of a time. If we were all, on average, consuming 12 teaspoons of high fructose corn syrup a day, up to four years ago, that was a real issue.
S: The point of that, Jay, was that the problem has already largely been fixed.
B: You said that these were mercury filters, Steve?
S: Yeah, mercury-cell technology was used in the processing
B: Yeah, cos Jay, now they're using the arsenic-cell technology, so it means we're ok.
S: So, I mean, Jay, you're right, this was an exposure up until four years ago, but it's an exposure at this level, which seems to be like the background level in our environment, not necessarily enough to exceed these rather generous safety levels. The EPA has a safety buffer of what they will consider a safe exposure level, and this doesn't even get up to that, so it's not clear – here's the bottom line – it's not clear if this level of mercury poses a risk or not, and it probably doesn't, given the low levels that we're talking about here. One thing the study did not do, was detect whether the mercury was ethylmercury or methylmercury. Methylmercury is much more toxic, much more toxic than ethylmercury. If some of the mercury they're producing is ethylmercury, that would reduce the potential toxicity much further than that. However, spokesmen from this group claimed there's still four plants open, one in Georgia, one in Tennessee, Ohio and West Virginia, that are still using the mercury-cell technology. I couldn't find any information to confirm that either way, so it may be that most of the plants have switched over, but there may be a few left over that are still using it. But it sounds like this is something that is already being phased out because, again, just generically trying to limit human exposure to mercury. You know, this is interesting information, but it's nothing that we should panic about, it doesn't mean you have to suddenly worry about what food you're buying off the shelf, these are very low levels we're talking about, probably the data's already old in fact. These attempts at detecting and limiting mercury exposure are legitimate, and should continue, and we should try to have as wide a buffer of safety as possible, but it seems as if the authors of this study, and the group they were representing were going a little bit for the shock value in the press release, which I think overstated the implications of the research.
E: How long before Jenny McCarthy says corn syrup causes autism?
S: Yeah, the mercury militia are already all over this. This is the kind of thing that- 'a big government cover-up of mercury exposure', they love it.
Vaccine Safety and More Outbreaks (9:03)
S: The next news item actually also is about vaccines. I wanted to give a couple of updates about the vaccine controversy that are worth pointing out very quick. So we've spoken a lot in the past about the fact that the dedicated anti-vaccination groups, Jenny McCarthy for example, now is a celebrity leader of this movement, and they claim that the ethylmercury in thimerosol, which is a preservative, in some vaccines caused, or increased the increase of incidence of autism. There's multiple lines of evidence now that shoes that this is not the case. There's growing mountain of evidence, as we say, that this is not the case. There was recently a study published which is one even more evidence against- this is an Italian study, and what they did was very clever. So in 1992 – this is a study comparing two different kinds of pertussis vaccines, one regimen contained a total amount of exposure to ethymercury of 62.5micrograms, and the other, 137.5. And what they figured out was, 'hey, we can go back and look at the kids from this study we did in 1992, because we have two groups that were carefully characterised, and we can go back and see how many in each group got autism, or we could actually do neurological studies on them and see if there's any differences'. So that's what they did. They found out, actually, that there was basically no difference in the two groups in terms of neurological outcomes. They measured 24 different neuropsychological tests, which resulted in over 70 different kind of comparisons that you could make statistically, and of those, four should have been statistically different by chance, and they only found that two were statistically significant. So that is within what we would expect from chance, meaning that there was no difference between these two groups. They also looked at the incidence of autism, and they found there was only one case of autism reported in the whole cohort, and that was in the lower dose group, not the higher dose group. So, more evidence against a link between thimerosol and autism, or any neurological disorder, because this is comparing a relatively high low dose to a relatively low dose. Now, the response of the anti-vaccination crowd and the mercury militia has been predictable. They're going to pick this study apart to deny its implications, and that's what they’ve done. Their main point is that the study did not have a control group of people who got no vaccines, or no mercury, and obviously that would have strengthened the data and implications of this study, but it doesn't take away what the study does show. We have to keep in mind that these are the same people who are claiming that when the vaccine schedule increased in the '90s, so that the total dose of mercury went from around 50 or 60 to around 180, that that caused a dramatic increase in autism. This study is looking at the same order of magnitude of change in exposure to mercury, so they can't say at the same time that it caused this huge increase of autism, but it wouldn't produce a difference in this study, so that's internal inconsistency in their arguments. Toxins should have a dose-response curve, a dose-response effect, where if you more than double the exposure, you should see some increase in toxicity. This study showed none. So of course no one study is going to prove a lack of association, or a lack of correlation, but this adds to the 18 or so studies already out there that show no link between mercury or thimerosol and autism or neurological disorders.
Also, the other quick update is we've talked previously about the fact that since the fear-mongering around vaccines has caused a decrease in compliance, in the UK significantly, to a lesser degree in the United States, and since that's happened, we've been seeing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases occurring in clusters, mostly in un-vaccinated children. Which is no surprise. Last year, in 2008, there have been several measles outbreaks, endemic measles outbreaks, the first time in a decade, again all in un-vaccinated children in areas with low vaccination rates, and now there's a new report of five cases of haemophilus influenza type B, or HIB, meningitis, a very serious illness that can be prevented by vaccines. So there were five cases, three of those children were unvaccinated, and one was a seven month old infant who died. So we talk about the body count attached to Jenny McCarthy's misinformation fear-mongering, and it's starting to pile up more and more significantly as the scare tactics surrounding vaccines is getting more and more play.
S: It is scary.
Evolution Before Our Eyes (14:09)
S: So, you guys all know what's happening February 12th?
J: Yeah, of course!
R: DARWIN DAY!
E: DARWIN DAY!
S: DARWIN DAY! Darwin's 200th birthday!
E: (singing) Happy birthday-
R: Yay! Oh, but you know, it turns out, he's dead. So…
E: So we have to spank the corpse 200 times? Is that what you're saying?
S: It's the 150 year anniversary of the publication of 'Origin of Species'. So, leading up to that, we're gonna make sure each week we cover some evolution news item. Last week we gave an update on the creationists' attempts to get intelligent design into schools in Louisiana and Texas.This week, we're going to talk about a very cool, new news item published by National Geographic, in which we can actually see evolution happening before our eyes.
E: Yeah, you know, it's interesting, when you think about evolution, in most people's minds it's something that occurs (speaking slowly) extremely slowly, over many, many millions of years and so forth. (normally) But, there are, of course, cases where it happens, certainly, within the span of a human lifetime. And this again is one of those cases. So what we have here is a species of lizard called the fence lizard, that exist down in the south-eastern parts of the United Stated. And in Alabama, the species survives, but they cohabitate with fire ants, fire ants which were accidentally introduced to the environment in the 1930s, and they like to, well, kill and feast on the lizards, the fence lizards. So what has happened since the 1930s, according to this new study, is that the lizards have undergone an evolution by which they are growing longer legs so that they can shake off the ants when the ants climb onto them. What would happen in the past, is that the lizards would just allow the ants to be there, and they would get under their protective skin and sting them, and it would only take a few stings from a few fire ants to literally kill these things, and then the ants would go and feast on them.
J: Evan, do we know how long that's taken to take place?
E: 50, sorry, about 70 years or so.
J: That's incredible
E: Yeah, just within this span, and most likely less time than that. And what has happened is that the lizards that have the longer legs of the fence lizards were the ones that were able to survive because they were able to just physically shake of these ants more effectively. And the studies are now in that the fence lizards that live in this region, that cohabitate with these fire ants, they are- 80% of these lizards have the longer legs in the region. They compared them to fence lizards in other areas of the south east that don't cohabitate with fire ants, and in those areas, their limbs are extremely smaller. So what we have here is a case of evolution in front of our eyes so that the species can better survive the attack from the ants.
S: What is really interesting about this also, is that they looked at baby lizards, and they found that 100% of them exhibit the behavior of vigorously shaking before running when they get exposed to ants, and they think that that's because their scales are not as well developed, not as thick, so they evolve this adaptation of vigorously shaking so that they dislodge any ants or small critters that are on them, and then running away. But they lose that behavior when they get older, again, the thinking is that they can then rely upon their scales to protect them, so they don't have to waste the time and energy vigorously shaking themselves and running. But now that the fire ants can sting through their scales, those lizards that retain this immature trait of shaking into adulthood, those are the ones that are predominating in terms of the populations in areas where there's fire ants. So this actually isn't an entirely new ability or adaptation, but what it's really showing is the change in gene frequencies in populations of pre-existing traits. In adaptation to selective pressures provided by this new predator in their environment. So this really establishes well the whole bit about natural selection, you know?
J: Heh, the "whole bit"?
E: The whole thing
S: It's not a new mutation, it's not a completely new adaptation, but it is showing that gene frequencies of traits that vary in a population change in response to selective pressures that we can document being introduced into recorded history in these populations. So again, like any complex scientific process or claim, you can't establish the whole thing with any one piece of evidence or any one study, but this is more evidence for this one piece of evolution, the natural selection bit, and of course, you know that the creationists and the evolution deniers are going to say all the things that this study isn't, missing the point about what this study is. Similar to the vaccine study we just talked about, that's a typical tactic, it's to say what the study doesn't do, or what the data, the evidence doesn't establish, as if that in some way takes away from what it actually does show.
E: You're right, Steve, this just helps compound the existing evidences and reinforces it, of what is already out there. We should also mention that the study was done by Pennsylvania State University, and the lead author's name is Tracy Langkilde.
J: How lucky are we that 70 years ago somebody recorded this information, now we can compare to what's happening today and draw a conclusion today that is that important and carries that much weight about evolution.
Obama Inauguration UFO ( )
S: One more quick news item before we go on to our interview, we're interviewing Tm Minchin in just a moment, very cool guy, very funny.
E: Very talented
S: But first we have our stupid news item of the week
S: This one is just absolutely unbelievable. Actually, Rebecca, you and I, unbeknownst to each other, we both blogged about this
E: It was that stupid
R: We did
S: It was that stupid, the Obama inauguration UFO
R: The rare double-blogging, yeah, it was really stupid. Apparently-
J: Rebecca, what was the title to your blog about this?
R: The full title was: Was there a UFO at Obama's inauguration? No, you ignorant hick
R: Which I expected to get a lot of crap from… um
R: The southern contingent, and yeah-
J; Yeah, but it turns out it wasn't ignorant hicks
S: But seriously, no offence to all of our listeners in the Southern United States.
R: No, I grew up around ignorant hicks, so I love you guys.
E: That's not helping
R: It was merely a play on the fact that the person who uploaded this video happens to have this thick southern drawl, and I adore the southern accent. I know that everyone who has a southern accent and can think rationally cringes every time they see something like this happen, because the guys just so dumb sounding. Basically, this man was watching the CNN feed of Obama's inauguration last week, and he saw a UFO, no, not a UFO, he saw a bird, or gnat or something.
S: No, it was a UFO, it was an unidentified flapping object.
E: Well, flittering object
R: Ok, he saw a UFO fly into the screen, and what he claims he sees is that the object goes around the obelisk of the Washington monument, and then disappears into the trees. And you can watch this on YouTube, or if you go to Skepchick, I've embedded it, and it's pretty ridiculous. It's blurry, it's so blurry, that it's obviously not a tremendously large object, yet he really dismisses the idea that it's a bird, and decides that it must be military security technology, is what he claims. But it's really obviously not. I think it's an insect, but Steve, you think it's a bird.
S: I think it's a bird for a couple of reasons
R: Alright, give it to me
S: So, the commenter said that the object is moving in a straight line, and that's not true, if you look closely at the video, you can see that it's moving in a sinusoidal shape, which means it's bobbing up and down a little bit as it moves across the screen, which is exactly how a bird flies when it's flapping it's wings, not when it's gliding. Insects don’t fly that way, insects have more of an erratic, or straight path, they don't bob up and down as they flap their wings, birds do. Second, YOU CAN SEE THE WINGS FLAPPING!
R: Can you?
S: YOU CAN SEE THE THING'S WINGS FLAPPING!
J: Well, the UFO could have flapping wings, why would you discount that?
S: The commenter even says "now it kinda looks like there's wings flapping here, but I think that's from the camera". Yeah, that's an artifact from the camera? But it's a UFO? I mean, come on.
J: And if you watch it-
R: I didn't see the very high quality version, so
S: Well look at it and see if you agree with me, but I think that that's a-
J: If you watch the video on YouTube, they show the frame where it's very blurry, right? So it actually extends the shape of the object, because it's actually, by the nature of the way that the data is captured, it's extending the shape of the object. And then, when they change the color background to accentuate the object, it actually does look like the shape of a UFO, but without having that knowledge about how the video is capturing the data, you're just blindly gonna think 'oh, it's an elongated shape'
S: Yeah, but I compared that to the rods, you know, the rod phenomenon, people think they see-
E: Oh sure
S: -these elongated objects, caught on video with, again, like these sinusoidal blur around the outline
J: What's that word again?
E: Sinusoidal, means 'of the nose'
E: No, wait, no
S: Like a sine wave, as in the up and down curve of a sine wave. So those are insects, rods, and that's what happens when you have something move quickly across the video screen, is you get that- it blurs out, and creates a rod-like shape in the direction that its moving, with the blur of the flapping around the outside, that's exactly what you're seeing in this video, just in bird form, as opposed to the insect rods which really are elongated with the pretty wing patterns on the outside. So, look at the real-time video, the other thing is, when you look at it in slow motion, you don't get the feel for how fast it's moving, and what we call the jizz, which is what birders really call it.
S: Seriously, I didn't make up that word, birders call just the gestalt of what something looks and feels like, the birds' jizz
B: I thought it was called spooge
S: But you see it in real time, you're like 'gah, it's something flying across the thing', and also, it flies in front of, in front of the Washington monument, so you have the perspective of something in the background, and you get a really good feel for its size and distance and speed – it's a bird.
R: Hey, Steve
R: Do roosters jizz?
S: You don't 'jizz', you 'have a jizz'
R: So, cocks do have a jizz?
S: Absolutely, they have a jizz
J: Oh god, don't- come on
R: What? It's a fair question!
S: It's birder jargon!
R: Birds have a jizz. You can't bleep that out, don't edit that out, that's-
E: Only swallows have (inaudible)
E: Oh wait, don't, don't
R: Is that jerk chicken?
J: Hey, Rebecca, just so you know, the video on your blog expired as well
S: Yeah, they yanked the video so you have to link to the CNN site
J: Yeah, you gotta keep it-
R: Ah, ok
E: Yeah, please, could our UFO have a noise or something? I mean, if something is really, you know-
J: Oh Evan, don't you know anything about alien propulsion systems? Come on, man
E: I know things about government cover-ups when it comes to UFOs, very, very interesting stuff.
B: Don't forget, another key bit of indirect evidence here, there's how many people were there? A trillion or something? A trillion something people
S: Yeah, at the time this was filmed, it wasn't packed yet, this was two hours before the actual speech. But there's hundreds of people milling about, at least
J: Yeah, but most people's eyes are focussed on Obama, not on the sky, you know
S: Well Obama wasn't out yet, he wasn't out yet
J: What? Yes he was? What do you mean he wasn't out yet? The video shows him standing right there.
S: No, this is two hours before the actual speech
J: I'm looking at the video!
R: Oh, this is a different video
S: Oh this is a different video, Jay?
R: That's a completely different video! With another UFO! HOLY MACKEREL! (laughs excitedly)
J: Ok, before we continue, I still haven't seen the first one
E: It doesn't, it says (inaudible)
R: Wow, I love this! This- and this has these fantastic graphics, oh, holy crap, this is a good find.
S: Yeah, so Jay is actually referring to a different UFO Barrack speech one, this one-
R: Isn't the internet amazing?
S: Isn't it amazing? I actually have seen this one before, this is one, you're looking at Barrack giving his speech from this side, and from the background, there again is a dark object flying through the sky in the background. And it also looks like a bird to me.
R: Yeah, those are obviously birds, there's not even-
R: My god, that's amazing
E: UFO crowds will cling on to anything
S: Oh my god, they can turn a bird into a mystery, I mean, come on
E: They'll grasp at any straw
S: Well, let's go on to our interview
Interview with Tim Minchin (28:47)
(excerpt from live performance: audience laughing, piano introduction, Tim Minchin singing)
If anyone can show me one example in the history of the world
Of a single psychic who has been able to prove under reasonable experimental conditions
That they are able to read minds
And if anyone can show me one example in the history of the world
Of a single astrologer who's been able to prove under reasonable experimental conditions
That they can predict future events by interpreting celestial signs
And if anyone can show me one example in the history of the world
Of a single homeopathic practitioner who's been able to prove under reasonable experimental conditions
That solutions made up of infinitely tiny particles of good stuff dissolved repeatedly into relatively huge quantities of water had a consistently higher medicinal value than a similarly administered placebo
And if anyone can show me one example in the entire history of the world
Of a single spiritual or religious person who's been able to show either empirically or logically
The existence of a higher power with any consciousness or interest in the human race
Or ability to punish or reward humans for their moral choices
Or that there is any reason other than fear to believe in any version of an afterlife
I will… give you my piano
One of my legs
And my wife.
(audience laughter and applause)
S: Joining us now is Tim Minchin. Tim, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide
T: Thank you very much Steve for having me
S: And Tim is a musician, a comedian, an actor, a songwriter and a Skeptic, which is why he's joining us on our show. So Tim, tell us a little bit about your career, how did you get to the point where you are now?
T: Er, well, I'm a muso really, I guess, so I was acting and playing music for years, and I guess the real change came when I kinda realised I had to put all the things I was doing together, sort of thing. I was trying to be an actor in the acting world, and a muso in the muso world, and in the meantime I was writing these kinda quirky songs that didn't seem to click with record producers and stuff, cos they were half serious and half completely ridiculous, and I just started putting these solo shows together, where it's just me and a piano, and suddenly I'm kind of a comedian, and I travel around doing stupid songs and talking about stuff, and the whole skeptical side of things is – it's not recent, in that I've always written about stuff that I think doesn't make sense, but my articulation of it is pretty recent. In just the last couple of years I've started thinking this is maybe a point of difference for me as a comedian, as a writer, is that I'm trying to get these subject matters into my material.
S: And do you think that making your act into essentially a comedy act was the step that is really when your career took off?
T: Totally, to the extent that anything happens overnight, it was as quick a transformation as you could imagine, really. I started doing these comedy shows, and it took a couple of years for me to really figure out the format and what I was trying to do. But as soon as I landed on that, and that included me sort of changing my image a bit, and really nailing down this persona, and from that-
R: Adding mascara
T: Adding make-up and the hair, and yeah, and from that moment it has moved very quickly. Although not a day too soon for me, cos I've been sitting around for 10 years really banging my head against walls.
S: Right, right, so you just found that magic combination that clicked? And it's hard to predict that
T: Yeah, I think so, and just to acknowledge- and realising that just because you're a serious musician, doesn't mean you have to take yourself seriously. And I think that's where I found a gap in the market. Most people who are comedians and use music, use the music itself comedically. The music is not taken particularly lightly in my shows, I always play on big grand pianos and I play them, not brilliantly, but well enough to impress people. And the comedy comes from juxtaposing that reasonably well performed music with stupid lyrics. So I found this niche, I guess, where I'm doing real music, but I've sort of let myself be an idiot with it. And it's quite hard to when you've spent all those years trying to become a good musician, to then undermine it so thoroughly, but I'm pretty happy now that I've found that's the best way for me to have a career.
R: And you're also completely fantastic about stepping away from the piano and talking to the audience. And it's not like you're doing a stand-up act, but you're genuinely funny and relating to the audience on a personal level, and tying things- you know, basically segueing between your songs, did you feel like that was a challenge for you at all? Because it feels very natural.
T: Well, I've never felt scared on stage – well that’s not quite true, everyone feels scared on stage - but what I mean is I feel very comfortable doing that. I'm not one of these- I'm the opposite of the person who vomits before they public speak. I just like it. I like being on stage, I guess I'm some sort of genetic show-off or something. But- well what happened is, suddenly I was doing was what was basically stand-up comedy in front of 500, 600, 1,000 people, and I'd only been doing comedy for a year? And that's a pretty rare thing, it usually takes a lot longer than that to find those audiences. But I found those audiences through my songs, but that didn't mean that while I was doing my stand-up, I wasn't just a brand new, sort of amateur stand-up in theatres full of people. So it was scary on that level, but I've just sort of relaxed about it. And I've always known that I can get away with stuff, and Rebecca, you kindly said I have a rapport – I don't know what that means, but I think it just means that people feel like they know me, so they don't judge me too hard while I'm just chatting to them, you know?
R: Yeah, I think it means that you're able to say really controversial things, or would be controversial if they were coming out of someone else's mouth. Do you find that- do you have any audiences that give you any kind of-
T: I do, if I said something and it came out of someone else's mouth, that would be controversial.
R: Well no, it would be a ventriloquism act, but-
T: Everything's been done before, Rebecca
S: Well, I'll tell you what I noticed, was that the persona that you've cultivated, it seems to me to be a self-deprecating, like failed wannabe rock and roll nerd, you use the term 'rock and roll nerd' in one of your songs
T: I do
S: And I think that self- correct me if I'm wrong – it seems like that self-deprecating aspect of it does open the door a lot to then you being freer with your criticism. Is that a deliberate thing? Or have you just found that that's true?
T: You're absolutely right, and it's not deliberate in that I don't think I consciously set out to do that, but it's deliberate in that, in hindsight, I'm very clear about- I'm sort of analytical in hindsight, I can work out now why things started working for me, and I can reapply them to my new shows. And you're absolutely right, I think comedy, and maybe all forms of public speaking or communication is about status, and in comedy especially. My grand piano is a high-status thing, my ability to play is a high-status thing, the things I'm saying are a bit higher-status and judgemental, so you have to offset that, otherwise people feel threatened, so I guess, yeah, exactly, I offset it. Originally subconsiou- er, unconsciously, but now consciously by not wearing shoes, and shuffling around a bit, and having an apologetic tone and yet what I'm saying is not particularly full of apology.
S: Right, and just comedy itself, I think, works to accomplish a lot of that. If you're funny, that gives you a huge ability to be critical, and even insulting. The funnier you are, the more controversial you can be.
T: Yeah, you're playing tricks on people, I mean, and music does the same thing, music and laughter are- listening to music and laughter are states that we're very comfortable and familiar with, and by putting people in that head-space, you're sugaring the pill, they don't even realize they're letting you in. I think that's what songs do as well, people go 'oh, we're happy with songs, we're open to songs, we're open to what happens in music', and so if my lyrics are really harsh, they don't notice them as much.
E: Well how about the skepticism angle, Tim, when did you become a skeptic? How did you find it and- or what's been your influence into skepticism
T: Well, you guys are the first… you guys, basically. Which sounds…
E: Now wait, I didn't ask that question expecting that answer, so I would like to hear
T: The reason that that's honest, is because you guys didn't teach me how to think or anything, but the idea of the term 'Skeptic', and the idea that- it's a very American thing, and there are bits of it in Australia and the UK, but the term is sort of an American invention, I think, as I understand it. I don't mean the word, but this kind of title that you guys and Randi and all those people are using. I'd never heard of it, is all I'm saying. I guess I can't really talk about the history of the term as a group title, but-
R: Do you think that's because that's the default position in Australia? Because we have so many Australian listeners that it makes me wonder whether or not that's just the attitude, that's the culture there, being skeptical, so you don't need a word for it.
T: I don't know, Australia's got lots of people that believe in a lot of stupid stuff, probably a similar percentage to anywhere else. But there's no doubt that my sense is that, in America, to be a what Barrack kindly referred to as a non-believer, to talk about religion specifically, or sort of scientifically minded, you feel like you're a minority in America because of the prominence of magical thinking in the discourse. I'm not saying there's more of it, I'm just saying it's out in public, so to fight against it, you feel you need a title or a banner. In Australia and England, because everyone hides their wacky beliefs, it's a little bit more shameful, you don't feel the need to walk under a banner to hold the opposing view.
S: The Skeptical movement was certainly founded in – the modern Skeptical movement, I should say – in the United States. And actually I really only just recently learned myself it wasn't really replicated in other countries, I mean there are Skeptical organisations in the UK and Italy, and Australia, et cetera, but in terms of it's public presence, it seems that it's not at the same level as it is in the US.
T: It's very underground, and it's very much – as I see it – for now, it feels like the kind of Australian chapter of an American club. But that's as I say, it's not because there's not huge groups of like-minded people, we're just talking about titles here. And to sort of answer Evan's question, I guess I really came to skepticism through atheism, and both those titles I don't try to use too much, just because people sort of have a whole lot of baggage they bring to those titles, but I've always, as long as I can remember, been baffled by religion, and so I've always written a lot about it. But long before I was calling myself a comedian, I was writing satirical lyrics about that question. And then I sort of started realizing that the- and I studied philosophy at uni, so I guess I started realizing at some point that this sort of critical thinking I take to that issue is worthily applied in all life, really. Yeah, but finding you guys was a big thing for me, because it gave me a place to go each week where I sort of felt like I was just sort of expanding my education, and I've never been- you were the first podcast I ever listened to, and basically, and still the only one I regularly listen to. Because I don't have much time, but you guys just do a good sort of- you're pretty good across the board, and obviously I much prefer to just turn to an authority than do any research myself.
R: Cos you started with a kind of skepticism of religion and things like that, was there a point where you got interested in science? And was it, you know, what inspired that?
T: I think I'm just really getting interested in science properly. I mean, I'm the son of a surgeon, and the grandson of a surgeon, so I've got this sort of background, and not being that is kind of what's defined me, being an 'arty' type is how you define yourself in opposition to, or in alignment with your family, not that my dad and I are best friends, but we're just so different in that, that actually, we're not. My skepticism and my atheism, or agnosticism, has always been borne of a sense that they are petty answers, that magical thinking is an insufficient answer in the face of natural beauty and stuff. And I've always tried to be very positive, as opposed to negative, in both my skepticism and my atheism. I think religion ruins beauty, and I think magical thinking ruins the possibility of finding the beauty in science, and all that sort of thing. And finding a way to be positive whilst damning things is your job and my job, and Dawkins' job, and we all do it to varying degrees. I'm lucky because I've got a piano and nice songs and a stage and pretty lights, so packaging it up to be a positive experience isn't as hard.
R: Yeah, I think you did a brilliant job of it recently, you were part of Robin Ince's Nine carols for godless people, and every single review I read named you as one of the highlights, because of the great nine minute long beat poem you did called Storm. Can you just give our listeners an idea of what Storm is about?
T: (laughs) Storm's a beat poem, which sounds horrendous, and it's nine minutes long, which sounds horrendous, but I don't know why I chose that format, I guess I knew it was going to be long and I wanted it to be conversational, and I've always written in that format, but it's the story of a dinner party I went to , which is a fictional dinner party, bringing together all the dinner parties I've ever had where I've got myself in a situation where someone started talking about something that I don't believe in, or I'm pretty sure is bollocks, but have not spoken. But of course, in this poem I speak, eventually. In real life, well, on stage I'm fairly fearless in what I'm saying, but in life I'm- diplomacy always reigns, which I think is an important thing to have as well, but I bottle it all up, and I guess I stick it all in my show. And this woman's ranting on and just sort of saying every single kind of non-evidential thing you can say, and eventually me – or my character – breaks and just has a bit of a rant, and he's a bit full of grog by this stage, so it's quite unabashed. But it ends on a very gentle note, with a more succinct version of what I guess I was trying to say earlier, which is: isn't this enough? You know, isn't this world enough? It was a huge thing for me to write, because I kind of tried to get a great deal of stuff off my chest, and I still feel it doesn't go even half way to saying everything I want to say, but I certainly set out to try and say a lot in as succinct a way as possible. And as you can tell, if I don’t sit down with a pen and paper, I ramble, so- and then I put it to a jazz backing and stuff, and it's an interesting piece, and it briefly went up online, someone illegally recorded it at those gigs that you mentioned, Rebecca, and put it on YouTube and I got them to take it down because it was such horrible quality, but I'm actually putting it back up tonight, so people will be able to listen to it, and the lyrics are online as well.
S: Do you feel that as you become more secure in your career, that you are more free to comment on more serious things like your beliefs on religion and whacky stuff?
T: I don't think I've ever felt not free to. But I guess, actually, as I get more secure in my career, that security comes from more people watching you, I guess. And the more people that watch me, the more I'm aware that I have a responsibility to be accurate in what I say in a way. I mean my main intention- I always end up sounding so serious and boring, but my main intention is to have a laugh, and I would hate for anyone to think that my show is all about skepticism and science, it's definitely, my belief system, and my love of critical thinking and ideas underpins everything I do, but if you're a die-hard skeptic and you wanna come see someone do a whole lot of material about how stuff aint true, you're gonna be disappointed for a good bit of the show. But to the extent that I do talk about beliefs and preach a bit, the greater the audience is, the more I feel a sense of responsibility to get it right, and of course you get called on that. I mean, I've just finished a three or four email exchange with a Palestinian muslim woman who doesn't like my Palestine peace anthem, and just had a long exchange with a woman for whom my material was a real breaking point for her, she's never really been sure that the god stuff that her whole family's into was right, but my material – she claims – was a kind of real push away from it. So there's two examples, one of someone who hates me, and one of someone who likes me, and you suddenly go 'Christ! these are people who are listening to me', so, Steve, I think I feel confident to say what I believe, and I've certainly got a forum in which to say it. But I think that the weight of responsibility, you know, you've got to admit that there are a lot of, especially young, people listening to what you do, so you think more carefully before you leap. And then once you've thought about it, you go in as hard as you possibly can (chuckles)
R: That's awesome about the woman emailing you about her religion and everything, you know, you get a de-conversion merit badge for that now.
T: I get a lot of that actually, a lot of that stuff.
S: You get a notch on your belt for that one
T: Yeah, right, me and Jay
S: On a previous interview of yours I heard, you compared Australian audiences with UK audiences, saying that Australian audiences are more into the vulgarity, not so much in the UK, but they like the sex jokes. Anything to add to that? And also, how would you compare Australian and UK audiences to US audiences, and in particular, do you get more worried about the religious commentary when you're in the US?
T: Er, yeah, if I triangulated that intercontinental assessment, I would say Australians don't mind the swear words, the English love sauciness, and Americans- I mean, it's ridiculous to try and make generalisations, but to the extent that I can, yeah, it's the god stuff that is a significant difference. And it's not that there are more walk-outs, although I guess there are, but there's not heaps, it's just that the built-in response for an American audience when you say, you know, when I do my song 'I love Jesus, I hate faggots', their standard response is a gasp. And I'm not saying that everyone doesn't gasp at that, it's designed to be a gasp- actually, that's not a good example, everyone gasps at that.
R: Some of us laugh
T: But every time, if I talk about god in America, I get one of those gasp laughs, which I always get the feeling they're just gasping because they think that's what you have to do, because someone's disrespecting someone else's belief system. I think that's a real thing in America, and some of the swear words, I think you guys swear less, probably, not Rebecca, but Americans in general, or at least… I don't know, what do you guys reckon? I think it's used in anger more. In Australia, you know, we call each other 'g'day you old c**t', whereas in America-
E: You can't say that
T: In America you've got to be very careful
R: Yeah, that will be bleeped out
E: Yeah, that word is taboo
T: What the fuck? What do you mean it will be bleeped out? I didn't come on this- sorry
S: In the US, vulgarity is either used in anger, or it's used in intimacy. It's sort of the two ends of the spectrum-
T: Yeah, right
S: -and it does actually have a bit of a bonding aspect to it, it sounds extremely familiar. But you wouldn't swear to somebody you weren't very familiar with, unless you were being angry with them, does that make sense?
(general sounds of agreement)
R: Or just trying to get a reaction, yeah
T: I think that is the case, to an extent, in the UK and Australia, but I'd say yeah, I think that that's slightly more polarized here.
E: You're not meant to call someone a bugger in England, that's very, very bad
T: Well, bugger means bum sex, but in Australia it's extremely common: bugger that, I can't be buggered
R: I said 'twat' in London, and they made fun of me, apparently it's 'twat' (as in rhymes with hat), so
T: We say twot, but twot's actually a vagina, whereas twat means you silly person. In Australia, you can use the word bugger in advertising now, a few years ago an ad came on with the word bugger in it repeatedly, it was a dog saying "BUGGER!" every time something went wrong, so there you go. Here’s a slightly succinct answer to the question that started all this: I actually think, when you're doing non-parochial subject matter, like sex, death and god, which is how I analyze the topics I cover, there is a remarkably low level of difference between the western countries that I travel to. You're much more likely to see a big difference in audience reaction in-between rural US and city US than you are between city US and city UK, you know?
S: Ah, that's interesting, I've read that in other contexts, that class differences, or as you say, city versus rural is actually much greater than differences between different countries actually.
T: Especially because obviously that would change when you start going to non-western countries with totally different cultures, but, especially nowadays, the US, UK and Australia are, in any given socio-economic group with the same level of education, they're basically consuming the same stuff, the same books, the same films, they're having the same conversations in slightly different voices. We have conversations in normal voices, and you people talk funny.
S: And I think that skepticism and the skeptical movement is becoming extremely international, and I think skeptics have more in common with each other across countries than maybe they do with non-skeptics in their own culture
S: In a way
T: I mean one of the great joys of me discovering an audience is that I have slowly increasing numbers of people in those three countries that follow my stuff, and they've got this forum where they- it's basically an excuse to talk to each other, they're using me as a kind of in-road. And it's just amazing watching these like-minded people, simply that they're finding me, and then finding the forum that my fans have set up, it's just amazing, the hit-rate of people that just adore each other. Admittedly mostly young women, cos I think that's the demographic that aren't too ashamed to be on a fan forum of a 33 year old pudgy Australian pianist, but they- it's just amazing watching them. You wouldn't be able to tell where they're from by their chat, they're just very like-minded people discovering each other through a kind of philosophy, I suppose, you know, a common sense of humor and –
S: World view
T: That's right, so I guess being a skeptic is absolutely the same, and it's been a huge joy, literally in the last few weeks, as just the first interaction I've had with you guys, apart from listening to SGU, in the last couple of weeks, I've gone to my first ever skeptics in the pub in London, and then done a podcast with Rebecca, and then gone out with Richard Wiseman, Rebecca, and all that stuff–
R: It's all very awesome
T: Yeah, it's all very awesome
R: (laughs) I can't help but notice that I was in each of those things
T: She was involved in all of them, she would not leave me alone
E: She's (inaudible)
R: Every time I turned around, Tim was there, it was embarrassing.
T: Tend to be there a bit
S: So you've joined the collective and realized that resistance is futile, is what you're saying.
T: Yeah, it's futile. And I've been listening to you guys, going, 'I wonder if these guys have heard of me, you know' cos I know I've talked to Randi a bit, and I've talked to you, Steve, about boring medical stuff once, thanks for replying to that, by the way. Did you know I did that, by the way? Or did you notice my name when I sent that?
S: I think that at the time I didn't know who you were, but I subsequently obviously did.
T: You've noted it, right. And it was a really interesting situation for me, cos I had this very sick friend, and I literally went down every path I could, and I kept thinking 'I've gotta ask Novella about this', and you very kindly replied. But apart from that, I've sorta been thinking 'god, I should talk to these guys', and all in a few weeks, I've met everybody, and it all kind of kicked off when I put that poem online, and PZ put it on his website, and so hopefully, when I put it back online tonight I'll further ingratiate myself into this community of nerds.
E: It's important too, it's important to have a recognizable figure, such as yourself, out there, helping spread the word. We definitely do need that, and more of it.
S: Yeah, we need the artistic types too, because we do tend to be heavy with the science nerds
T: It's good to try and make being a critical thinker cool, and that, to a certain extent, for some young people who can't see through my obvious disguise, I think that's what they think. They think 'this guy's cool, he can play music, and he wears make-up, and he's thinking critically', and that sounds massively nerdy, but I think that's what sort of gives, inspires me a bit, or at least makes me very pleased that I've ended up doing this sort of material, because, again, my intention is not to teach or preach or alter the world, but if there is a little effect that I have by talking about stuff I'm interested in, then I'm glad that it's this effect. And it's really interesting, because artists are – as you guys point out quite often – artists are often associated with nonsense a lot. The celebrities we see, like Piven with his fish, and crazy, and Madonna with her craziness, and they're just associated with having no – it's post-modernism, and actually I'd never really heard post-modernism critiqued before. I come from a liberal arts background, which Goldacre sneers at constantly throughout, he's always going 'liberal arts this', 'arts graduate this'. Which sort of, at the time, got my back up, but- Hey Ben, how are ya? Your criticism of post-modernism came as a huge relief, because I really was educated in a way that post-modernism was just the new truth. It's taken me until quite recently, and not just your criticism, but things I've read and stuff, to go 'hold on, I don't believe that, actually, I don't believe knowledge is relative, and I don't believe even morality is relative. I mean, it's ever-changing, but we should all aim for a non-relative morality', you know, all this sort of stuff. And it's been something, that finding, re-engaging with this critical thinking I learnt in philosophy and really engaging with science and the scientific method, this kind of exciting, non-relative thing has allowed me to- it's changed the way I, not the way I think, but the way I feel free to express the way I think. I don't feel like someone like so many of my contemporaries, and I mean my age group and artists, just are post-modernists, they all think it's just relative. Friends of mine, really good friends of mine, they're like 'oh well, there's no such thing as evil', well actually, I don't think there's such a thing as evil, but that's another conversation.
S: Right, speaking of your show, though, Tim, so how can our listeners see you, download your stuff, how do they consume your media?
T: Well, it's not that easy in America yet, although I am hoping to spend a good few months there next year, trying to make some headway. But at the moment, YouTube is a great friend of mine, I think, although it does expose a hell of a lot of my material to audiences who, when they come to see my show will know all the jokes. But you can order my DVD from America, you just can't play it on your PAL or non-PAL or whatever you've got machines, you have to play them on your computer. But I'm hoping my new album's going to be on iTunes in the next couple of months, but look, I'm happy o just put stuff on YouTube at the moment and let people consume it if it means that bit by bit, people in America who are interested will start finding me, and TimMinchin.com, obviously.
S: Well, Tim, thank you very much for joining us on the Skeptics' Guide
T: It's been a massive pleasure
S: And we'll definitely have you back on again in the future
T: I really want to do that, maybe we'll organize a live skeptics, a live SGU some time while I'm in the US, and I'll turn up and-
R: That sounds fantastic
E: Oh, I hope that's not just a tease, Tim, that would be an honor
S: Well, take care, Tim, and we'll talk to you soon
T: Alright guys, bye! Goodnight!
Science or Fiction ( )
- Researchers find that adding small amounts of chocolate to a cow’s feed increases their milk production by as much as 20%.
- A new study reveals that animals that hibernate or burrow are less likely to go extinct.
- A recently published review of research suggests that technology has caused a decrease in critical thinking and analysis skills.
Who's That Noisy? ( )
Skeptical Quote of the Week ( )
Truth, sir, is a cow that will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull
S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
- Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy: Much High Fructose Corn Syrup Contaminated With Mercury, New Study Finds
- Jenny McCarthy Body Count website
- Langkilde lab website, includes video clips
- Skepchick: Was there a UFO at Obama's inauguration? No, you ignorant hick
- YouTube: Rock and Roll Nerd
- YouTube: I love Jesus (skeptical rant followed by song at 3:45)
- Podcast link