SGU Episode 2
|SGU Episode 2|
|1st June 2005|
|(brief caption for the episode icon)|
|S: Steven Novella|
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
|SGU Podcast archive|
S: Hello and welcome to The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. It is June 1st 2005. I'm your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me today are Perry DeAngelis...
P: Good evening, all.
S: Robert Novella...
B: Hello everyone.
S: And Evan Bernstein.
E: A pleasure to be with you.
S: Welcome, everyone.
Kansas School Board (00:26)
S: So, first, let's do some follow-up on the Kansas School Board situation. Kansas, not for the first time, has been having hearings about, specifically, whether or not to let intelligent design into science classrooms in Kansas. You've all been following this?
E: Oh yes.
P: (affirmative) mm-hmm.
S: One of the interesting aspects of this face-off is that scientists decided to boycott the meetings, figuring that the hearings were rigged against science to begin with, the board members who were pre-disposed to intelligent design weren't going to have their minds changed in any case, and they essentially, did not want to validate the hearings by giving testimony. An interesting strategy, we have to see how that is going to work out. But another interesting aspect of this is the fact that the Kansas School Board actually wants to change the definition of science itself.
B: Pretty bold.
S: Extremely bold.
P: Very much so.
S: This has been what, you know, scientists have warned about for decades, why teaching creationism in science classrooms is a bad thing, because it actually degrades the entire scientific enterprise, it goes well beyond just the issue of evolution. And, here they are, that's exactly what they're saying. So, the definition that they want is the following: they want to define science as a "systematic method of continuing investigation".
P: (suspiciously) OK.
S: Which may sound reasonable at first blush, but what they're changing it from, is a "systematic method of finding natural explanations for the world around us". They—essentially the point of the intelligent design people, again, for those who may not know, intelligent design is the idea that the world is so complicated, that it had to have been created by an intelligent designer. Who that "intelligent", or what that "intelligent designer" is, they do not state. But it's basically warmed-over creationism, you know, as one scientist characterised it, "creationism in a cheap tuxedo". They basically took the core beliefs and claims of creationism, the idea that god created the world, and that it is not the product of natural processes like evolution, and removed from it anything overtly religious, like the word "god". But it's essentially the same set of beliefs, it's just really evolution denial.
S: In any case, one of the—especially the lawyer, Phillip Johnson, who is an ID proponent. His basic position is that the definition of science only allows for naturalistic, or natural explanations, and that this essentially rigs the game against religion, or against supernatural explanations in an unfair way.
S: And that line of arguing has obviously been persuasive in Kansas, and the school board wants to, in fact, change the definition of science. Have you all heard this before?
E: Oh yeah, absolutely.
P: Yeah, it's an outrage.
S: And I've had this discussion with ID proponents as well, that that is core to their agenda, again, not just allowing for creationism in the guise of intelligent design to be taught as science, and to erode and water down and limit the teaching of evolution as much as possible.
B: But it's- Steve, it's not just evolution, which is bad enough of course, I mean there's other parts of science that they have explicitly attacked in the past, I mean the Kansas board of education, in 1998, they also wanted to eliminate statements about the big bang-
S: Right, the big bang.
B: And also facts about the Earth being older than 10,000 years, and the theory of plate tectonics, I mean, it doesn't stop at evolution.
S: No, it definitely does not.
B: It's anything that threatens their world-view, and that's a lot of science that's going to do that-
S: Yeah, basically all the historical sciences would fall under their sword. But, even beyond just the historical sciences, the one that you mentioned again, is the very definition of science, and the key misunderstanding here is that it's not that scientists arbitrarily exclude non-natural explanations as possible scientific explanations, it's that science, by definition, cannot deal with supernatural or magical or miraculous explanations. It's incompatible with the methods of science. Science can only deal with things that can be falsified, that could be proven false, and you can't prove a miracle false, because a miracle can't be constrained by natural laws, or by anything that could prove it false.
P: Exactly. It's outside the realm of testing.
S: Right, it's outside the realm of testing, and therefore science. It's a matter of definition, to allow for supernatural explanations, would completely undermine the entire enterprise of science.
B: But Steve, how realistic is it that these people can actually redefine science? I mean, how is that really going to have an impact on scientists and they way they do work? It could obviously affect education, and how our kids learn science, but what kind of real impact could this have? I mean, it's like redefining gravity, I mean, it's still going to be there.
S: Well, It's true, I mean, the institution of science isn't going anywhere, but you have to remember that science is a cultural and a societal institution. It survives on the goodwill of the citizens of the society. And it will, its success and its power will depend greatly on the public support for it. If you, you know, raise a generation of kids who have a complete misconception about what science is and how it works, these are the people who are going to be voters when they get older, they're gonna be law makers, they're gonna be in congress, and there are some very concrete ways in which this kind of distortion of science can have an effect. For example, who decides where the billions of dollars of federal funding for scientific research goes? Should that money go to fund research into, you know, miraculous explanations for things? Well, if you think that miracles are a proper subject for scientific investigation, then sure, you'll vote yes to divert millions or billions of federal funding to those things. So that's just one example of a very concrete way in which this kind of distortion of science could literally erode the support of science. Right? I mean science-
S: It's fine to say the abstract concept of science is not going to change cos scientists still know what it is, but, you know, if you have a bunch of scientists sitting around knowing what science is, doesn't mean anything if they don't have any money to do research.
B: (agreeing) mm-hmm.
S: And that money is coming from, typically, politicians, who have a public school education in science.
P: I think it would be devastating to the students of Kansas on so many different levels, and not the least of which is, if I were a college admissions officer, I would look very differently on an applicant from Kansas-
P: -than I would from other states, to say the very least.
S: Yeah, that's true, and that's one way that outside pressure gets put on to these school boards, but-
B: I mean, wasn't Kansas, Kansas was ridiculed when this came out. I mean, there was worldwide ridicule. People all over the world shaking their head like 'you gotta be kidding me', and I think that played into the scenario of how things turned around there, albeit temporarily. You know, when they had the following vote, and they voted out a lot of these fundamentalists from the board and stuff. I think that played a hand, you know, the condemnation that they've suffered, but unfortunately, it wasn't very long lived.
S: Right, I mean these grass-roots fights at the state level are not going to go away any time soon, and the creationists are just getting more and more slick at pursuing their agenda, I mean think about it, originally they were trying to ban evolution from the schools, and-
B: And now they wanna get time.
S: That obviously destroyed a generation of evolution teaching in this country, but obviously that's not going to get through the courts now. So then they said, "we won't ban evolution, let's just go for equal time. We just want creationism to have equal time in the name of academic fairness". And then that got them another round—
B: In science class.
S: In science class, that got them, they got five, ten years out of that ploy, until the supreme courts struck it down numerous times. And now we're seeing the next-
B: "Re-packaged" creationism.
S: Yeah, the next phase of their agenda—
B: Creationism two-oh
S: —changing the definition of science to a systematic method of continuing investigation. You know, how many people are going to recognize what the implication of that is at first sight?
P: Not enough.
E: It's subtle, it's very subtle.
S: They're getting very subtle, intelligent design, you know, removing all mention of god, or anything overtly religious, but maintaining the core, you know, claims of evolution denial. They're getting very slick and very-
B: Very insidious.
P: That's the intelligent design here.
S: That's the evolution of creationism.
E: Yeah, I love that.
S: You know, and they're also very much interested in surrounding themselves with the trappings of legitimacy and of science.
B: Everybody wants that.
Science education failing in the U.S. (11:03)
- CSI article: The Privileged Planet
S: It becomes harder for the public to tell the difference to tell the difference between real science and fake science. For example, you know, you all may have heard that the Discovery Institute, the Discovery Institute is essentially an organisation dedicated to promoting intelligent design. They're supposed to be dedicated to doing research, but I don't think they do any actual research, they're basically just a propaganda organisation.
P: (agreeing) mmm.
S: They are going to be previewing a film at the Smithsonian Institution
B: Oh yeah.
E: Of all places.
S: Have you heard about this?
E: Oh yes.
B: This June 23rd, they're gonna do it.
S: June 23rd, yes, they- if all goes as planned, they will be airing it. Now, the film is called The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe. Again, kind of a soft-sell title.
E: Sounds subtle enough.
S: Yeah, what does that really mean? But, again, it gets to that interjection of explanations, you know, that are outside the realm of science. "Purpose in the Universe"? That is not the purview of science.
B: Exactly, exactly, and even the authors seem to me tailor-made for this kind of endeavour, you've got Guillermo Gonzales, he's an ISU assistant professor of astronomy and physics, and they must love when they get a scientist to help them in their cause.
S: Of course.
B: And then there's the other co-author, who is a gentleman named Jay W. Richards, and he's the vice president and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute. I mean, what a perfect blend to produce something like this. I would expect nothing less and, to have a scientist and a senior fellow from the Discovery Institute, a perfect combination to put this together. And I'm really, I'm really disappointed in the Smithsonian for allowing something like this to happen. It's really surprising, I mean, they kinda soft-sell it, they're saying that, you know, anybody can hold an event at the Smithsonian, but it can't be a personal event, fundraising or a religious, or partisan political event.
E: Well I'd like to see how they define this one.
B: Right, I mean this, you know, it's not overtly religious, but there's definitely a religious subtext in this entire thing.
S: It's back-door religion.
P: I mean they say intelligent design, it doesn't have to be God, it doesn't have to be a Judeo-Christian God, but, let's face it, the whole thing is based on that. And to be opposed to ID, I think in many people's minds, really to be opposed to creationism is in some way in opposition to god, and I think a lot of people think that way. I think it's very emotional for people. It's very hard for them—
P: —to care enough, or to want to throw their hat into that ring. You know, they'd rather just be quiet and sit on the side-line.
E: And also, evolution is not the easiest of subjects to just put your mind around and grasp, it's a much easier concept to think, "OK, creationism", you don't have to think that hard about it, and sort of accept it and go on your way. Whereas evolution, you really, you know, you have to kinda know what's going on.
S: It takes a lot, a lot of study to understand it. It's a very beautiful and elegant and subtle theory.
B: It really is, but it's not quantum mechanics—
S: Right (laughs)
B: I mean, you could get a good overview of biology, of evolution and biology, and anybody can grasp it if they just put a little bit of effort into it. You know, if they have any interest and just do a little bit of reading—
S: If they're educated, if it's included in their science curriculum.
E: Right, well this is really the crux of that.
P: In a country where, you know, all polls indicate we're, 90% of us have belief, have faith, are religious in some way, it's not an easy sell.
B: Yeah, but very testable.
S: Less than 50% believe in evolution.
B: Right, which is disgusting, but I mean look at all the major religions that support evolution. Catholicism, the Pope totally supports evolution-
B: Because it is undeniable.
S: It does not have to be anti-religion. The two can, and should, be separate.
B: There's plenty of scientists that believe, and it's not a mutually exclusive thing, but they want to portray it as such.
S: Now, getting back to the Smithsonian Institute thing, and you mentioned maybe that he's just trying to be politically correct, or what have you. But I think that it's just being naïve, I agree that the-
B: Here's a quote, I got a quote for you Steve, the museum spokesman, Randall Kremer, he said "it's incorrect for anyone to infer that we are somehow endorsing the video, or the content of the video", now, oh wow, that's nice, but that is very naïve. I mean, I've heard that-
S: That's why the Discovery institute is sponsoring this film, why they coughed up $16,000 for the Smithsonian Institute. They're doing it so that they can then say that they showed their film at the Smithsonian Institute, and to the public at large, that is a tacit endorsement, and—
S: Randall Kremer, the public affairs guy at the Smithsonian institute is being naïve.
P: He's a believer.
S: That would be more astounding, I think it's—I usually assume incompetence first, rather than malevolence.
B: Or perhaps greed, how about that?
B: 'Cause 16 grand's not—
S: It's easy to look the other way when someone's giving you $16,000.
P: It sure is, yeah.
B: Absolutely. I hope that it is greed, cos when they find out that Randi, the amazing Randi is offering them $20,000 not to show the video, hopefully they'll take that out of greed, and then I'll be a little happier.
P: It's true, the JREF has countered with that offer.
B: He has.
E: And Randi's trying to expose that very point, to see if it is a matter of greed.
S: Yeah, but that's a one-time fix, I would rather have them enforce their own policies. Their own policy is that they do not show films of a religious nature, this is a film of a religious nature, it's insidious, it's subtle, but it's absolutely religious. I also sent Mr Kremer an email suggesting that they broaden their policy to include egregious pseudoscience, no matter what you think about whether or not intelligent design is religion or not, it is certainly not science.
E: Have you gotten a reply to that email, Steve?
S: No, no response.
E: Do you expect to get one?
B: No, they, he won't reply, but-
S: I'll get an auto-reply or nothing, is what I expect.
B: I mean, would the Smithsonian play a video supporting the Flat Earth society? I don't think so, I mean even if they gave them $16,000 for this video-
S: Or astrology.
B: I think, you know, it's so blatantly obvious to many people that that is pseudoscience, there's really nothing to it. But, this is another, you know, this points to the insidiousness again of intelligent design, where it doesn't, on the surface it doesn't quite seem as blatantly ridiculous. But once you delve into it, you realise that it's just as crazy as horoscopes, and the Flat Earth society. I mean, all of biology relies on evolution, biology makes no sense without evolution. It's, you know, it's not just a “theory”, in quotes, which, I hate that example, where people say "well it's just a theory, no-one's proven it 100%", well, you can't prove it 100%, and gravity's a theory as well. So that's a tack that they take that's really annoying.
P: I trust gravity, Kramer should know all of this. He should be able to see through all this, and he should know all this. And that's the problem right there, and I'd like to say if anyone goes to our website, theness.com, there's a link there to the JREF, if you're interested in what Randi's doing, and you can also see a copy of Steve's letter, that was sent to Mr Kramer, on the website. [links not found]
S: Yeah, of course all of this brings up the broader issue of, as Bob brought up, the support for science, for science education, for scientific research in America in the broader society and culture. And this is something which is a serious issue. For example, after Sputnik, as the conventional wisdom goes, the United States, frightened by the, basically the space race with the Soviet Union, started pumping a tremendous amount of effort and, more importantly, money into science and math education in this country. That lead to a dramatic increase in the number of scientists that were coming out of this country, and to the amount of scientific research, and in fact, some people credit that ultimately with leading to the tech bubble of the 90s, and the internet and all the things that we take for granted now, basically coming out of that era of extreme support for science education and scientific research.
B: All thanks to Sputnik.
S: All thanks to our "red paranoia".
E: Does that mean we're about to enter a generational lull of scientists?
S: Well that's the thing, if we are currently experiencing a lull in the support for science, we won't feel it for 10 or 20 or 30 years. And our, well meanwhile, our competitors, like China, are tremendously increasing their support for science. It may be in 20 or 30 years, you know, they're the economic leaders, or technological leaders of the world and we're not.
B: God, imagine that.
S: That's not something you can fix overnight, you know, again we're talking about things that take a generation to fix.
P: I mean, it's generally believed that China is in the ascendancy, as far as, you know, the balance of world power goes, and this is certainly one of the ways that the leaders of China are trying to, like they are in so many different ways, compel their country into the 21st century and beyond, and it seems a highly intelligent way of going about it, frankly.
S: It does. Here's some percentages, as a percentage of gross domestic product, federal investment in physical science research is half what it was in 1970. By contrast, in China, R&D expenditures rose 350% between 1991 and 2001, and the number of science and engineering PhDs soared 535%.
B: Well that could be misleading though, what's the absolute comparison? It might have started from an extremely low position, and we still could have more significant expenditure.
S: Yeah, right now, it's really the trend that we're looking at, is that we're half what we were in 1970, and they're triple what they were in 1991.
B: Is that in real US dollars? Adjusted?
S: No, that's not in dollars, that's by gross domestic product, as a percentage of—
B: Oh, OK.
P: Again, it's indicative of the trend.
P: That's, which is, you know, a problem, because their population is so much vaster than our own, a billion-100,000 people, I believe is the last—
S: A billion and a half, I think they're up to.
P: (surprised) Is it really a billion and a half? OK, and we come in at around 350 million by comparison, that's the problem.
S: They are a vast, untapped reservoir, and right now we're seeing that in terms of manufacturing, right? This is what a lot of economists are concerned- this gets a little bit into the free-trade issue, which is beyond the scope of our discussion, but certainly, as a- they're a huge manufacturing base. Imagine if they become a huge base of scientific research and advancement. Why wouldn't we expect the same kind of competition?
P: It's true, and, you know, it's perhaps not "PC" to talk about, but you have to consider that they still live in a communist regime, and the state-enforced religion is no religion. And, you know, that's going to have a tremendous impact on their science education and the course they take. Just like our religiosity, here in the US, is having a tremendous impact on what's happening here.
B: So what are you saying? That you're not going to see much of intelligent design in China?
P: (laughs) I believe that that would be illegal, (laughing) intelligent design in China. One of the, granted few, perks of a communist regime, there aren't many.
S: Well, of course, no one is suggesting that we outlaw religion.
P: Of course not.
S: We just need to keep science free from religion, and the practise of religion should be free of anything outside of it trying to interfere.
B: Well, like Gould says, they're non-overlapping magisteria, you know? Separate domains that should not cross, they're completely separate. There is no common ground.
P: Like the judge said on The Simpsons, (impersonating) "Religion shall stay 500 feet from science at all times".
S: If only it were so easy.
B: 500 feet? How about 5 miles.
E: Yeah, but that's just not gonna happen though.
P: (laughing) I know.
E: It's unfortunate. It's a constant battle, and we just have to be diligent, we have to educate, we have to make people aware.
Stem Cell Bill (24:57)
S: But one specific issue that is certainly, where scientific research is butting up directly against, you know, closely held religious values and beliefs is stem cell research. And this is an issue that is certainly not going to go away, at least not for the next few years, while Mr Bush is in the White House.
P: Yeah, you know, it's a very contentious issue because it calls in that granddaddy of all contentious issues which is abortion.
B: When life begins.
S: When does life begin.
P: That issue has its tentacles in so much of what happens. Politically, in this country, it's almost unfathomable. It's what the argument over judges was all about recently, why the-
S: Ultimately, ultimately.
P: Ultimately, it's why, you know, the senate almost passed the filibuster ban, banning the filibuster or being able to do it with a simple majority.
P: All of it, ultimately, comes down to abortion. So does this, so does this.
S: Of course, I firmly believe that science, good science, should inform these debates, but they can't make the decision for us, because ultimately it comes down to judgement calls and value judgements, there's no objective scientific answer to "when does life begin". You have to make a decision, and that's why there will never be an objective resolution to this issue. But there are some science and pseudoscientific arguments that do get brought to bear in this issue, and one caught my attention in particular. There is a Florida representative, Weldon who, when- the house, recently of course, passed a bill extending stem cell research, which Bush has promised to veto, has that veto happened yet? By June 1st?
E: Not that I'm aware of.
S: I don't think it's happened yet.
P: Not yet.
B: And that would be his first veto, wouldn't it?
S: It would be. If he does it, it would be his first veto of his presidency.
P: Yeah, both terms.
S: But, representative Weldon of Florida opposed the house bill to extend embryonic stem cell research, and he used- it's worthy of note, because he used basically absolute pseudoscience to support his position. Again, this goes beyond the scope of political value judgements, he was using- he's a physician, first of all, and he was using his position as a physician to bolster his points, which were scientific. And here's what they were, he basically says that we don't need embryonic stem cell research, because we can achieve the same ends through adult stem cell research. This- no scientist of course believes this, the scientific community maintains almost unanimously, that embryonic stem cells have much greater potential than adult-derived stem cells, because, basically because an embryonic stem cell still has all of its potential to become any other kind of cell in the body that goes to make up a person. Whereas an adult-derived stem cell is already differentiated to some degree, it's already limited in the kind of cells that it could turn into.
E: It's not as flexible.
S: It's not as flexible, it's not as potent.
P: That seems like common sense.
B: It might have some utility.
S: Adult stem cells can potentially have tremendous utility, it's not to say it's not worthwhile, and there is very good research using adult stem cells. But it's a fallacy to argue that they are a complete replacement for embryonic stem cells, or that they make embryonic stem cell research redundant, or unnecessary. That was his position. So, he completely misrepresented the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells. He also, even more egregious, he used as an example of the power of adult-derived stem cells, an anecdotal story of a young girl who was paralyzed because of a spinal-cord injury, who went to a clinic in Portugal, where she had adult-derived stem cells injected into her spinal-cord and he claims that she was greatly helped by this treatment. Not that she was totally cured, but that she had much improved strength and motor function. Now, you know, for those listeners who don't know, I am a practising academic neurologist. I happen to know about these clinics because I have investigated them and their claims and their treatments, because, you know, for the treatment of neurological diseases, and I've had many patients ask me about them- these clinics are total frauds, these are quack clinics. What they're doing has no scientific legitimacy whatsoever. They're using techniques which may one day prove valuable, but they are at the level where we should be investigating their basic technology of using them in animals. They're just injecting some cocktail of adult-derived stem cells, specifically derived from olfactory tissue, which is the tissue you can get from the nasal cavity. And they're not really saying what's in the cocktail, and they haven't done any research to show that what they're doing actually works. We only hear, you know, we all know the fallacy from anecdotal evidence, we only hear from the patients who think they were helped.
E: They're not being transparent.
S: Right, they're not being transparent. The patients that die over there, you know, we never hear about them. Or the patients who were not helped. They're not accounting for what we call the cheerleader effect. You know, anything to someone who is weak, or who can't function very well-
E: These all sound like some pretty big red flags.
S: Yeah, right! These clinics are basically trying to just get tens of thousands of dollars from rich, European and American desperate patients. There's a lot of them in China, and in other parts of the world where there isn't close regulation of this. It's now a cottage industry in these countries. But, this representative, a physician was using this, you know, un-validated anecdote from this questionable off-shore clinic to bolster his scientific claims. I was totally appalled that he did this, it really was reprehensible.
P: You think it was because he was an incompetent scientist? Or do you think he simply let his emotions and political will override him? This gentleman.
S: I don't think we can disentangle those two things, I think it's probably a little of both, although it's hard to say. He misrepresented the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells, there's also different ways in which stem cells can be used. All of the research that's being done with the olfactory-derived stem cells are used- the stem cells are being used as support cells. In other words, you inject them into a damaged spinal cord, and they don't replace the damaged spinal cord tissue, they take up shop as support cells that help the nerve cells heal or function better, or maybe survive longer. So it's a completely different approach than say what you would use an embryonic stem cell for. Which—
B: Grow new nerve tissue.
S: —potentially could be the—yeah, actually replace damaged or dead nervous tissue. So, either he didn't understand that distinction, or he didn't care. And, you know, there's no way for us to know. I don't even know what kind of physician he is. But he's not practicing now. I don't think he was ever an academic or a scientist. But, you know, again, if you're gonna fight this issue on political grounds, then do it, do it on moral or ethical political grounds. But if you're going to make a scientific argument, you know, then the public is best served if good science is being represented in the congress and the senate, and this was not good science.
B: Steve, did you- I read an article recently, I think it was Discover magazine; this doctor was looking for other methods, some way to get around the ethical quagmire that stem cell research is in. And he came up with an intriguing idea, I'm curious as to your take on it. He was saying that instead of using stem cells, there are certain conditions in which the human body can produce a tumor-like object that actually is not a conventional tumor, it's actually human tissue, fully developed human tissue in this bizarre, horrific mass that can include things like a tooth, and other disparate pieces of the body in this tumor, and his idea is that we can potentially use this idea to actually grow parts of human bodies and kinda side-step the ethical quandary that we're in with stem cells.
S: Yeah, I mean, those kind of tumors are called teratomas.
B: ok, yes.
S: They can potentially grow any kind of tissue in them, so they're usually a mass of hair and bone and teeth and liver and whatever else.
B: Does that sound like a plausible thing that we should maybe be looking into? Or—
S: Yeah, it's certainly interesting, certainly something is happening in these tumors which is causing adult cells to differentiate into lots of different kinds of tissue. Although we don't know if they could turn into any kind of cell that we might need, what the real potential of this is. That is what I would characterize as an interesting avenue of further research, but you can't- it's way too preliminary to draw any conclusions about it.
S: And that's the whole, the final point about all of this, is, you know, a lot of people who are opposed to stem cell research say, "well, embryonic stem cells haven't cured anybody yet, and we don't know if they are going to produce any cures". Well, yeah, of course we don't know, this is all, we're all talking about research, and you just have no way of knowing where basic science research is going to lead. The idea is that scientists- the public is best served if scientists are allowed to follow where their interest takes them, where the leads take them. They think that this would be a very, very lucrative area of research, and we just won't know what will happen until they try it. This research can crash and burn, and could run into obstacles that they didn't anticipate, for example, we may never figure out how to use these stem cells without causing these horrific tumors to occur, and that's a serious problem. Developing the technology to get the cells to do what you want them to do, but not just become these big, horrific tumors. And you can't assume that we're going to solve these problems, or how long it will take us to solve them. But we will never know unless we do the research. That's the whole point.
P: That's essential.
Crop Circles (36:48)
S: Well, I'm gonna change topics here a little bit, because it's the beginning of June, it's almost the end of school, for America's youths.
E: Summer solstice is coming.
S: The summer solstice is almost upon us, and you know what season this is, what the end of school brings to the English-speaking part of the world.
P: Let's see…
S: Can you think of anything?
E: erm, keg parties
S: Crop circles!
B: Oh yeah!
E: Oh, yes, right. I almost forgot about them.
P: Yeah, my subscription to Cereology Monthly ran out.
P: "Seratology", whatever.
E: Yes, it just wouldn't be summer without crop circles.
S: -without crop circles, yeah, so-
E: You know, in California they have what's known as sand circles. It's crop circles in the sand.
P: Is that true? I knew it.
S: Yeah, but who would draw pictures in the sand? They'd just go away. So, just to give a basic background, for the last 20 years or so, increasingly intricate designs have been appearing in fields of wheat and barley and corn. First in England for a number of years, and then spreading to other countries. The believers feel that these… pictograms are an attempt at communication from either extraterrestrials, or extra-dimensional beings, maybe, our distant future selves. And they've actually, you know, tried to build this into a serious study, they actually call it cereology, which, you throw 'ology' on the end of anything, it can sound like it's an actual science.
P: I always thought the 'idity' fit it better.
P: Stupidity. I saw a picture not that long ago, of a field with this very complicated design in it, and the fella said he thought it was ancient Sanskrit. The guy that was writing the article said he just didn't understand why the aliens were trying to communicate to us with ancient Sanskrit. What's wrong with English? Or even French?
E: Or numbers? Or anything.
P: Why ancient Sanskrit?
S: Something intelligible would be nice. Certainly, if it is an attempt at communication, I think we could characterize this attempt as an unmitigated failure.
P: (laughing) It's so stupid! Aliens trying to communicate by flattening down our wheat! It's just so-
P: Anyway, sorry, it's just that-
S: One guy, this one guy, Chris Hardeman has actually- thinks that these pictures are technical schematics.
E: OK, I'd like to see what he's gonna build.
S: There's one crop circle called the Barbury Castle crop circle, and it looks- it's roughly a triangle, but you could interpret the drawing as a tetrahedron, a pyramid shape, if you interpret it as a three-dimensional structure. So he built a tetrahedron with the little shapes on the end, a circle and whatever, to make it look as much like the crop circle as possible. He actually claims that if you apply electrical current to this device that he built, which is huge, it's like six feet, seven feet tall, that it levitates and he's been able to—
S: —reproducibly levitate the device many times.
P: How about that!
B: I assume he's asking people to invest a little money in his corporation, and then he'll give them a demonstration and, any day now, they'll be reaping the rewards of—
S: I wonder why the scientific community has been totally silent about this.
E: Where's the Nobel prize for this gentleman? I mean, forget the investors, he could be—
B: Yeah, right?
E: —independently wealthy without them.
S: Where's our fleet of anti-gravity ships, I mean, come on.
P: I haven't even seen this on Current Affairs, so, I mean, they gotta be really low down on the feeding—
S: I think even the Weekly World News missed that one.
P: Yeah (laughs) off the charts. Well, you know, what's in their stupid study, Steven? (wearily) Something about the circles are too perfect, and it couldn't possibly be created by man.
S: They have a lot of hand-waving explanations. It's a good example to me of how a belief system can arise out of anything. There's really nothing so silly that people won't build it up into some big mystery. So this follows the typical pattern of mystery-mongering, which is: you search for something which appears to be an anomaly, and then you argue that this anomalous feature means that this have to have a supernatural or paranormal explanation. So it's a logical fallacy in that, because something cannot currently be explained, it's unexplainable. Sometimes it's the argument from personal incredulity, which is that they can't explain it. The perfect circle thing, I don't know if you guys remember a number of years ago, and we were at- this psychic was doing a reading at a local bookstore and we decided to infiltrate to harass them. And the topic of crop circles came up, and one woman made that very point: "yeah, but the circles are perfect, that's unexplainable".
S: Well, yeah, until you invent this really archaic device, it's called a string and a peg. You know, come on! Didn't these people ever use a compass in like grade school?
E: Apparently they didn't go to grade schools, Steve.
P: I used to use 'em, but my circles always came out squiggly.
E: The uneducated masses of society trying us.
S: I mean, a perfect circle to the graininess of, like, stalks of wheat or corn, which you can easily do with a plank, a piece of stake and a piece of rope. But that was an anomaly to them that was unexplainable.
B: Yeah, that's something they read on a website-
P: Of course.
B: So that's what they say now: "it's a perfect circle, how do you explain that?".
E: They also don't seem to care that, you know, human beings readily repeat this experiment exactly the same way whomever else is doing these circles. They have no comment for that, right?
S: Well, don't confuse them with the facts. The other—they have these other, what they call biophysical markers or something that, if you look at the wheat stalks, they're bent over in a strange way, or the stalks are, you know, have some crystals on them or something. But they don't know what this means. Again, it's just an apparent anomaly, there's no gold standard of what an alien-created crop circle is, for example. And in fact, these features are seen in all circles. Even ones that we know were made by people, it's documented that they were man-made.
B: The kids go out at night, they video-tape the whole thing, and then they wait for it to be discovered, and people start saying things like, "this is a bona-fide, genuine crop circle, and all these anomalies are there, the unexplainable perfect circles are there". And then they're shown the video of the kids doing it, and, surprisingly, I mean, actually not surprisingly, because it fits human psychology perfectly, the people will still believe it, even in the face of evidence, I mean—
S: They think the video's a hoax.
S: Or they'll say, "I guess the men in black got to them".
B: Manipulation of computer graphics now.
S: The ultimate fall back of true believers now is the conspiracy theory, because it's unfalsifiable, it explains away all inconvenient evidence, and accounts for the lack of evidence for whatever they wanna believe. Conspiracy theory solves all problems. Which is why it's worthless. Because you could use it to exp- anything that explains everything in fact explains nothing.
P: Well, conspiracy theories are just theories, I mean—
P: —you can't put much weight behind a theory.
E: That's right, evolution theory, conspiracy theory.
S: My favorite one was in Connecticut about a year ago, last summer there was a local woman called Nelly who has a cornfield in New Milford. And overnight, a quote-unquote "perfect square" appeared in her field. And she was convinced that this was something paranormal, and this is a quote from her. Her cornfield is surrounded by a gate, a chicken-wire fence, and she says "Well, everything was secured, the gates were locked, it had to be something that touched down and flattened it."
B: Well yeah, we all know that a chicken wire fence is as impenetrable as a force-field, I mean—
P: It's unbreachable.
B: What can get through that? Come on!
S: Well, if the desire to believe, comes first, and then logic comes second.
E; Well, or not at all.
S: Of course, you know, the crop circle situation is all the more interesting because the two British gentlemen—
E: Doug and Bob.
B: They started the whole thing.
S: Doug and Dave—
E: Doug and Dave.
S: —who started the whole thing. That's Doug Bower and David Chorley, those are the gentleman. They, basically over a couple of pints at the pub in the early 80s, decided that they would start doing this as a joke, and then it got totally out of hand, it basically took on a life of its own. They ended up doing it for like 20 years, and then in 1991, they admitted to the world that they started the whole thing. They were the first ones to do it, they came up with the idea, they've been doing it for decades, and they demonstrated their techniques, which, you know, they were able to make…
P: Perfect circles?
S: Yes, perfect circles, designs as complex as any that had seen up to that point, but, and you read the websites, or you read the writings of the cereologists and the mental gyrations they go through to dismiss, you know, Doug and Dave's admissions. One was just comical. The author was stating that these guys were somehow too good, and they must be shills for the government, and they were part of some conspiracy. They were too articulate. Just silly, silly comments.
B: But how cool is that, can you imagine you and your buddy starting a paranormal phenomenon yourselves that takes off and turns into a worldwide phenomenon.
B: I would just be laughing all day.
S: And they were, they thought it was a hoot, I mean—
B: Can you imagine? How cool, that's what I wanna do before I die. I wanna start a paranormal phenomenon.
P: You want to be the next L. Ron Hubbard? Is that what you're saying?
B: That's all me.
S: You know what, guys? Here's the thing, right now, the four of us can invent a ridiculous paranormal phenomenon from whole cloth, document its creation on this podcast and it wouldn't matter.
S: People would still believe it, and there's no amount of evidence that would be able convince them that we invented this ourselves. Even listening to this podcast, they would think that this was faked.
P: Of course, it's fake, scripted, all part of the conspiracy.
B: Yeah, I mean, you reach a point where you've got such an emotional investment and, you know, so much pride that your mind won't let you give in and say, "all right, I'm wrong". There's so few people will go that far and actually say that.
S: It's hard to have the intellectual courage to admit you were wrong in a huge way.
B: It's almost nonexistent, I mean, I can't remember the last time I said to myself, "wow, that guy is just so cool for admitting it".
S: Stephen Hawkings did it.
B: What, about a black hole?
S: Yeah, he about- some other physicist.
B: His bet with, um, some scientist.
S: He had a bet about some aspect of black holes. But, you know, good scientists will do it, but not if they have their whole career dedicated to it. It'd be kinda hard to say, "yeah, the last three years of research I did was all worthless 'cause it was based upon a false assumption".
B: Right, that would be tough, but that's why it's good that you've got the old scientists dying, and the new scientists comin' on up, because they don't have that emotional investment, so there is that.
S: It's a competitive community effort, there's other scientists that will tell you you're an idiot, even if you won't admit it.
S: And then you just get marginalized, that's what I see happen all the time. If you really cling to some wrong idea because it's your idea, it's your pet, you get marginalized, people stop inviting you to review papers and to meetings and consensus committees, because you're an idiot.
E: It's a good way to work.
P: As well they should.
S: As well they should! That's right, I've seen that happen, you know, so basically scientists, because of it's such a community effort, they're forced to do that, and to not really invest themselves emotionally too much in any one idea. And because they're used to the confrontational, sort of critical nature of science, where the whole point of peer review is for your ideas to be harshly criticized, and by others, obviously in a constructive way, not in a personal way.
P: Of course.
S: But, they're gonna make every attempt to prove you wrong. And only if your ideas survive that attempt, do they have any value, are they given any respect, then maybe you're on to something.
S: And pseudoscientists don't get that. Like the crop circle guys, you ask penetrating probing scientific questions about the crop circles, and about their claims, and about their explanations, and they think you're attacking them personally. It's like, if you wanna play the game of science, you need to learn the rules.
P: Right, and they don't, they don't care. Not interested.
S: The love of the fantastic gets them through the day, and doing science is not part of the equation.
B: It's hard work.
S: It is! Science is hard work. All that thinking and being rigorous, and paying attention to detail, it's all very, very hard work. It's so much easier to just believe what you want to believe
B: It's so over-rated
E: That's sort of a running theme throughout all these topics we've been touching on tonight, and on other nights.
S: Well that is one of the common underlying themes of what we call scientific skepticism. Which is basically just applying logic, evidence and reason to any claims. It's really just common sense applied in a rigorous fashion. That's really all it is, there's nothing magical or special about it. It's just, you know, accounting for all the evidence, making sure your logic is valid, you know, being open-minded and unbiased, controlling for factors like confirmation bias and things that will—
S: The mechanisms that we use to deceive ourselves.
B: Right, a lot of it's overcoming human psychology.
B: You know, it's such an insidious thing. It tries to make things happen the way we want them to happen. And it makes us believe it whole-heartedly, you convince yourself. But science is a great tool for doing away with that.
B: It needs to be done, otherwise you can convince yourself of anything.
S: Absolutely. The brain is a flawed organ. It can convince itself, with religious fervor, of anything. There's nothing so silly or ridiculous or miraculous that people will not believe it to their death.
S: That's why we need science. Science is really just a way of enabling us to see what's real and what's not real in some valid way.
E: And that's why we can't water down, we can't afford to have our science watered down with things like creationism.
S: Right, which brings us full circle, and is a good note to end this week's podcast,
E: Full crop circle.
S: (laughing) Brings us full crop circle.
P: A perfect circle.
S: So thank you again for joining us on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Until next week, this is Steve Novella.
Today I learned...
- US government investment in physical science research, as a percentage of gross domestic product, decreased by 50% between 1970 and 2005
- China's R&D expenditures, in terms of percentage GDP, increased 350%, and the number of science and engineering PhDs increased 535% between 1991 and 2001
- Teratomas are tumors that grow different types of tissue, such as hair, teeth, bone and bits of organs
- People who study crop circles are called cereologists
- ↑ Neurologica: Crop Circle Madness