SGU Episode 201

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SGU Episode 201
May 27th 2009
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 200                      SGU 202

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


P: Phil Plait

Quote of the Week

“I have adequately answered all your inquiries. I ask you to quietly rephrase these inquiries to yourself until they match my replies.”

Elbot (a chatterbot created by Fred Roberts)

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


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

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, May 27th 2009, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone!

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys!

S: And Evan Bernstein.

This Day in Skepticism (00:30)[edit]

E: Hey, everyone! And, did you know on May 30th, in 1898, it was Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers discovered... krypton! The element krypton.

J: Wow!

S: Awesome.

J: That's cool.

E: By doing an experiment. Very, very cool.

R: And from Superman, right?

E: Yes. Yes, that is the exact same one. Yes. Later, William Ramsay won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovery of a bunch of noble gases, actually.

S: Right. And then he became a super villain, didn't he?

B: (Laughs)

E: Was that it?

S: Well, we have a lot of news to get through this week. We have Phil Plait coming on later in the show to talk about the science of Star Trek and some other things. But first, some news.

News Items[edit]

Whooping Cough on the Rise (01:10)[edit]

S: The first news item is yet more evidence that Jenny McCarthy is an idiot. By which I mean, her anti-vaccination propaganda, along with all her other colleagues, is actually causing disease and spreading mischief around. We've seen increases in measles, and mumps, and now we're seeing pockets of whooping cough in the unvaccinated. This is a new study that was published in Pediatrics this week. They found that those children who were not vaccinated with the DPT vaccine, the one that includes the pertussis vaccine against whooping cough, were 23 times more likely to develop the disease than children who got all of their vaccines on time. That's a pretty dramatic increase.

R: Yeah, it's not just more evidence that she's an idiot. It's more evidence that she's a dangerous idiot.

S: Yeah. Exactly.

R: Which is why we keep bringing her up, week after week. And just want her to please shut up.

B: Well, I just went to the Jenny McCarthy Body Count page. You guys have seen that, right?

S: Oh, yeah.

E: Yeah.

B: It's up to 168 preventable deaths and 44,901 preventable illnesses. Thank you!

S: So, this was actually a study looking at patients enrolled in Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, 751 children. So, it's a fairly sizable study. And they found that of all the cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, that presented there, 11 to 12 percent were in the unvaccinated. Now, interestingly, if you read in the comments to these articles, they're always interesting. Because you have, you know, random people throwing out their comments. And somebody said, “Wait a minute, 11 to 12 percent were in the unvaccinated. That means 88 to 89 percent were in the vaccinated. So, I guess the vaccine doesn't work.” Classic error of statistics there.

E: Right.

S: The reason why the majority of the cases happen in the vaccinated is because the vaccinated tremendously outnumber the unvaccinated. You have to look at the percentage of vaccinated versus the percentage of unvaccinated. And, there, we see again the 23 times increase. Not 23 percent, 23 times increase in risk of developing whooping cough if you're unvaccinated than if you're vaccinated. So, yet more evidence that vaccines actually work.

J: Hm.

E: Yeah.

S: Which is incredible, because a lot of the anti-vaxxers say “There's no evidence that vaccines work.” Unless, if you course you just count all that evidence that it works.

R: Look, don't confuse us with facts, Steve.

S: Right.

E: It's incredible. As we get older, we hear more about people, you know, the Jenny McCarthys and other folks out there who are advocating against vaccination. I don't recall anyone speaking out against vaccination in the 70s, the 80s, and so forth. It seems to be this -

S: They were. I mean the -

E: - this recent phenomenon. Yeah, I'm sure they were out there -

S: It's on the rise. It's on the rise. 'Cause, they're well-funded, and they got some celebrity idiots backing them up. But – it is on the rise. But it's been a really – you know – vaccine – anti-vaccinationist kooks have been around as long as vaccines. And, they probably always will be.

Scientology On Trial (04:10)[edit]

S: Jay, this next news item is right up your alley. Scientologists in France are on trial for fraud.

E: Ah-ho!

J: I'm not going to lie to you: I love this kind of stuff so much it just makes me want to giggle.

S: (Comedic German accent) Like a little girl!

(Rogues chuckle)

J: It looks like the Parisians in France... that was deliberate.

(Rogues laugh)

S: As opposed to the Parisians in Germany?

J: (Laughs) Yeah.

E: Paris (unclear)

J: Uh, they are not so Thetan-free. Uh...

B: Paris Thomas.

E: Paris Hilton.

J: Excuse me. They're not so Thetan-free as Tommy-Boy would like them. The local Scientology headquarters – apparently, like, some Scientology book shop, I guess. I don't really know what, like, the setup is. But, it's just two different entities there. Both pretty much make up the Church of Scientology in France. They're on trial for “Frew-Ed”.

S: That's right.

J: That's basically what's going on. So, the quick skinny on it is, there was seven leading French Scientology members who were basically put on the docket as - they're being accused of fraud. Some are actually charged with illegally practicing as pharmacists as well. Those people could actually spend up to ten years in prison with fines. This started in '98 when a complaint was registered by a woman who said she joined the church after members approached her, I guess in the street, and convinced her to do one of their personality tests. Remember when Rebecca told us the story?

B: Yep.

J: One of my favorite Rebecca stories, by the way. It was pretty much - that's their M.O. They do that -

R: Yeah

J: - In the street a lot. They come off very friendly, and all that. And they're, you know, they're just basically like, “Here, take a free personality test”. Well, this is what they're doing in France, as well. And as this typical story goes, she joined. She paid heavily in, over time. I mean, this particular woman paid about 21,000 Euros. She purchased vitamins that were said – she was told were going to purify her. Sauna, which I actually haven't even heard of the Scientology sauna treatments before. And, the typical E-meter sessions which Rebecca described in detail at that time.

R: What's the sauna thing? Is the “Sauna” meaning she just, like, “sweat out the toxins” sort of sauna?

J: Yeah, like the continuing the purification thing.

R: Yeah.

J: So, after her complaint was made public, a bunch of other people came out and started filing complaints, too. And some reported spending hundreds of thousands of Euros for the same crap. Which, you know, we've heard this before, but yet again here's, you know, more evidence that people are dumping tons of money into that church. And, as these cases were investigated it was discovered that all the people were harassed by phone calls to their homes, nightly visits to their homes –

E: Oof!

J: – where these people would come and actually pressure them to take out more bank loans and to pay their outstanding bills to the church. And all 7 of the plaintiffs were considered to be “vulnerable” by psychological experts. So I guess that, you know, they did some psychological testings on these people and, lo and behold, the Scientologists are preying upon weak-minded people, which is no big surprise there. And to quickly finish up here, investigators did some testing on the E-meters. They found out that they're useless. They found out that the vitamins that they were selling actually – I guess they were powerful enough or, you know, the concoction that they had come up with, they were actually considered to be a medication, and they shouldn't have actually even been selling these things legally there.

S: Right.

J: And, you know, right now Scientology has a pretty serious problem in France. There was members being convicted of fraud in '97 and in '99. And in 2002 the court fined them for violating privacy laws and said that they could be dissolved if involved in similar cases. And here are the similar cases. So, a guilty verdict would mean that the practice of Scientology would have to be – would be end it – they'd have to end it in France.

R: Well, I think that it means that they would have to stop selling their services, at least. Which is the real thing. Like, people can worship anything they want. They can practice Scientology if they want. But the problem is that Scientologists are peddling this crap. And it's about time somebody took them to task for it. It's amazing to me that, in the US, we have so many protections in place for consumers but as soon as it's a consumer of something that happens to be religious in nature all of a sudden we throw all those protections away and allow these people to keep pulling one over on the gullible and it's just really pathetic. So I –

J: Yeah, call it a loophole, or whatever. But you're right, Rebecca. I mean, it's one of those deals where, you know, you use the term “religion” and then people have to start treading lightly and walking on eggshells around it and the bottom line is, it doesn't matter if it's a religion or if it's just some regular huckster selling snake oil. This is crap. It's hurting people. It's damaging people that are easily taken advantage of and we really need to change our laws worldwide to fight things like this.

S: Well, the interesting thing is that L. Ron Hubbard was trying to sell his, you know, fake treatments back before he thought of the idea of Scientology and he basically invented a religion to surround his snake oil in order to give it cover.

E: A vehicle, as it were.

S: Yeah. And, that's happening more and more these days. So, a lot of alternative medicine now are very specifically couching their claims in religious terms in order to get cover under this umbrella of religion. Because freedom of religion is so protected in this country that it is this huge loophole that they can go through. And sometimes they're very overt and callous about it. So, that's happening more and more. And it's really – it is an interesting dilemma because, certainly I'm against fraud and, you know, callously using religion in order to conceal fraud and to abuse and take advantage of a vulnerable population, which is what they're being accused of here. But at the same time, you know, how do you parse that. So, if you say “Okay, well, their – the E-meter is fake, and they're accepting money from lots of people in order to sell this bogus service which scientifically can't be shown to do anything.” And then you get to the problem of, well, how do you distinguish that from pretty much anything that religion is selling or doing or accepting donations for, you know what I mean? 'Cause none of it's scientific. None of it's provable.

R: I know you probably don't mean it in this way, but I've heard that before and – used in a very fallacious way in that – you know – I think it's – what's it called? The “Spectrum Fallacy”, or what have you. But, there are always going to be loopholes. There are always going to be ways around it. You can always say, “Oh, I'm not selling this. I'm just asking for donations. Blah, blah, blah.”

S: Right.

R: But, we have to go after the outright frauds who are literally selling merchandise and selling bogus pseudoscience. And, you know, it just is a form of basic consumer protections. We do it for every other business. Why shouldn't we do it for religion?

S: I agree. And I think the answer probably is that the courts, you know, that judges have to make an individual decision about individual cases. Is this a legitimate practice of religion? Or, is this a commercial fraudulent transaction that is overtly hiding behind religion? And if the courts do not feel empowered to make those kind of judgments then con artists do just have free rein to do whatever they want. All they have to do is just slap the label of religion on it and they basically get a free pass. So, I think the problem is that, in this country, I think that there's a lot of reluctance to do that. You know, that the political will isn't there.

R: Yeah. That's true.

S: That's the problem.

RNA World (12:21)[edit]

S: Couple of interesting science news items this week. There was an interesting paper published recently, looking at the development of RNA as sort of the “chemical evolution” that led from, you know, non-life to life. So, this is one of the huge, enduring mysteries in science. How did life arise on the planet Earth from non-life? And what we know must have happened – obviously, there was a period of time when there was no life on Earth. And, then, at some point, there was life. So, life had to come from somewhere. The thinking is that there was a period of purely “chemical evolution”, and what I mean by that is, that chemical reactions alone were creating the molecules that would eventually lead to life without any living system already in place to help those chemical reactions along. Right? So, in a cell, for example, we have proteins that are made by the cell but then act as enzymes to catalyze reactions. But, without life you just have the chemicals reacting by themselves without organic catalysts helping those reactions along. So any system that we come up with to explain how life arose has to allow for these chemicals to react without life already existing. One of the main hypotheses as to the pathway that chemical evolution took in order to create the first life – the first cells – is that it was RNA. That RNA, or ribonucleic acid, was the first molecule that was able to make a copy of itself. Once you have that, once you have a molecule that can copy itself, and then there could be, you know, variation, mutations in those copies. And the copies that are better at copying themselves, you know, are the ones that will tend to survive and compete better for raw material, and they'll make more copies of themselves. Right? So, one you have that you have the foot in the door to evolution, and then you're off to the races. But how did we get to the first RNA molecule? That's the question of this new research. The problem with the RNA hypothesis has been that nobody knew how the chemical reactions could have taken place in order to arrive at RNA. And some people said, “Well, it's impossible. The reactions are too slow or they really just can't happen. RNA couldn't have been the first molecule to bridge the chemical evolution to life.” So what these researchers did was, they created what they call a plausible pre-biotic environment, right? So they duplicated, as much as we can, as much as we understand, the likely environment of the early Earth, before life existed. And then they tried to find out if there were different chemical pathways that could lead to the major building-blocks of RNA in order to bypass these roadblocks. So if you imagine there are sort-of “blocks” in the chemical pathways to make RNA that – reactions just wouldn't happen. So they said, “Okay, well maybe if these alternate pathways were plausible or existed in these conditions, that could get you to RNA. And they basically showed that it worked. So they were able to show, and again, we'll link to the actual paper, but – I'm not going to go over the actual chemical reactions 'cause it's, you know, it's hard to describe in words and it's very technical in detail. But the bottom line is –

R: Would you rather do an interpretive dance of some sort?

S: I could. I could do an interpretive dance.

E: You could mime it, too.

J: God, that would be so awesome.

B: Just write a haiku.

S: All right, I'm going to mime it. Ready?

E: Ready. Uh-huh.

R: Oh, I totally get it.

E: Oh!

B: Ah!

S: Okay!

E: Oh, now it makes sense.

S: So, cool. So this actually – it sounds a little dry. But the bottom line is, this is a huge step forward in figuring out how life could have arisen on Earth, 'cause now there's a plausible pathway to get to RNA. And once you get to RNA, there's other research, which we actually talked about on this show before, to show how, in an RNA world, that could lead to self-organization and cells and life. You're basically – we're really starting to put the pieces together in showing how life could have arisen on the Earth. We probably will never be able to show how it actually did occur because, you know, we're talking about 4 billion years ago and things don't fossilize very well when you're talking about just chemicals, you know? Really, all we need to do is show a plausible pathway that life could have taken, and that's really what we're getting very close to. And this takes us a huge step of the way, so... Very exciting research, in my opinion, that kind of, I thought, got lost in the shuffle. Not a lot of people were talking about it. But I found it very exciting.

R: Yes! Yes, it is.

E: (Laughs)

Rook Tool Use (17:18)[edit]

S: The next news item is about how intelligent birds are, which we love to talk about on this show.

E: Which they, um –

R: Boo!

E&S: (Laughs)

R: Sorry.

E: I know. The term “bird brains” will suddenly become a, you know, a –

S: A compliment! Is that the word you were looking for?

E: A compliment, you're right. Instead of insulting. Thank you. The term “Bird brabns” will become a compliment as opposed to an insult to be thrown around after you learn about this. So they've got these birds called rooks, and – which is part of the –

S: They're in the crow family.

E: They are in the crow family.

S: They look almost just like crows.

E: What the scientists did is, these tests for these rooks, in which the rooks were challenged to try to obtain their food in a certain way, in which it was put into this container. And the rooks had to figure out exactly what it was they needed to do in order to get the food to come out.

R: Turns out they could only go straight ahead or sideways.

E&S: (Laughs)

E: It's amazing. They were able – the rooks were able to select the right tools for the job by, for example, choosing the right size little rock to put down the plastic cylinder, which would then drop onto the plate that released the food. And the rooks were able to discern, apparently, which rocks would be the best ones to put down that cylinder in order to get the food to come out. They had 4 rooks – different rooks that they'd test. And they, just about in all the tests that they presented to them, all showed the capacity to figure out this problem. The other thing that they saw them doing, the rooks were making tools. In one series of tests they had to take – the rooks utilized a straight wire, and they actually put a little bend in the wire in order to create a hook so that they could lift out the little plate underneath and bring it up through the cylinder and hook their food out that way. Fascinating stuff, I mean, to see – and there is video that accompanies these articles. And to actually see it happening is pretty amazing.

S: Yeah. This family of birds, which includes jays, and crows, and what-not are very intelligent, and actually have demonstrated this ability for problem-solving, this exact kind of problem-solving behavior. And, it really is amazing. They were able – as you said, they fashioned tools, they actually, like, stripped twigs to fashion them to be useful. And, they actually could do two-step problem solving. So, if you had to obtain from one rock in order to use it in the next step to get the food, they figured out how to do that.

E: Right.

S: So, really incredible. And, of course, completely separate evolutionary line from, say primates like chimpanzees. And, yet, they're showing about the same level of tool-use that chimpanzees do. In fact, they were specifically compared to them by the researchers. So, who would have thought that these little birds could be so bright when it comes to this kind of problem solving and tool fashioning?

E: And, in nature, a rook's not going to come across a piece of wire, on its own, in order to fashion it into a tool, in order to get its meal. You know, it was – this caged animal is specifically given this obstacle to get this food out, and it's presented this wire, and it actually made a hook out of it. It's just fascinating.

S: That's a really interesting point that these birds are displaying abilities that they do not have to use in nature, and that they don't display in nature. So, that would beg the question of, then, why did they evolve the ability to do this? But that's the adaptationalist fallacy. Right? That, anything a creature can do, or a life-form could do, it must have specifically evolved. And, what this shows is that, well, no, you know, you evolve a certain amount of intelligence because that does have a survival advantage. But intelligence is not a narrow thing. You know, once you have a bigger brain, or you have some problem-solving skills, that can be utilized, can be co-opted for a very – a broad range of abilities and behaviors that may have nothing to do with what the trait was specifically evolved for. So, that's important to keep in mind, and I think this is actually a really good example of that.

B: Steve, is there anything unusual about the organization of the rooks' or crows' brains? That they're able to pack so much punch in such a little space?

S: Well, that's a good question. There are definitely researchers working on that. I don't know what the answer to that question is or how close we are to an answer. That's probably something we can explore in the future.

NECSS (22:09)[edit]

  • NECSS (nexus) - Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism Date: September 12, 2009 Time: 10AM-6PM Location: New York City Featured Speakers: - James Randi - Carl Zimmer - John Rennie - Paul Offit - Massimo Pigliucci - George Hrab - Kaja Perina - Howard Schneider - John Snyder - Michael De Dora - Jamy Ian Swiss (MC)

S: One more quick news item before we go on to a couple of emails. The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, in collaboration with the New York City Skeptics, is going to be holding a conference. The conference is called the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism. So, you know how to pronounce that acronym?

B: “Nexus”.

S: “Nexus”. So, NECSS –

E: “Nexus?” (Laughs).

S: So this is the “Nexus” conference. You won't believe how long it took us to come up with that. Seriously.

E: I like it.

(Rogues Laugh)

B: I believe it.

E: At least 12 parsecs.

S: Right. This'll be on September 12th, 2009, this year. This'll be our 2nd annual Perry DeAngelis live SGU show. But in addition, it's going to be an all-day conference. And here's the lineup of speakers we have so far. You ready?

J: Do it.

E: Ready.

S: James Randi

E: Woo-hoo!

R: I know him.

S: Carl Zimmer

R: Oh, I know him!

E: Cool.

S: John Rennie.

B: Johnny!

R: Holy crap!

J: Oh, John Rennie's awesome.

S: Paul Offit.

E: Nice!

S: Massimo Pigliucci.

J: Well, he's a cool dude.

S: He's a cool guy. George Hrab

R: Hey!

E: Oh, you got George!

J: I love that man.

S: Kaja Perina, Howard Schneider, John Snyder. It's “Schneider” and “Snyder”. Don't get those confused.

(Rogues laugh)

S: Michael De Dora, and Jamy Ian Swiss, who's going to emcee it for us, this year.

R: Very cool.

E: That's a nice, nice lineup.

B: What a lineup!

S: That's quite a lineup, isn't it?

B: Sweet!

E: And us!

S: So, the venue is, like, 90 percent solid. But we're not gonna tell you what it is yet, until it's 100 percent solid. We'll probably have that within the next week or two. But this is sort of a “save the date” announcement. September 12th, 2009. It's a Saturday. All-day conference. Of course, there'll be a live SGU show. But, around that there'll be all these great speakers and panels. It's gonna be awesome. This is, because of the venue and travel expenses and what-not, we are going to be charging for this event. We're setting up tickets through Ticketmaster, actually. Of course, you could also just pay at the door. And, we'll have that information, too, again, in the next week or two. So, this is, again, save the date, September 12th, 2009. Full details in the next week or two. And, we're hoping to make this, like, our annual northeastern skeptical conference. You know, it's – this is especially, like, for example, for people who live in the northeast who can't fly out all the way to Vegas. Well, you know, you're gonna get to see Randi, and us, and a lot of other people shortly after that at the NECSS conference.

R: Good times to be had.

J: So, Steve, you need to me to go to this, or what?

S: Jay, you're invited, man.

J: Okay. Thank you.

E: Yeah. You have a seat in the twelfth row, on the side.


R: Aw.

E: And, this is something we've been discussing, even long before a podcast.

S: Yeah.

E: As part of the NESS, and in the '90s and early 2000s, we always wanted to have a northeastern conference.

S: Absolutely. If it's successful –

R: Yeah.

S: – then this is absolutely the kind of thing we want to do every year.

R: Of course it's going to be successful, Steve. You have to envision it as though it's already happened.

S: (Laughs) That's right.

R: That's what I learned from Oprah.

S: Is that The Secret?

B: (Laughs)

E: And the secret.

R: That's the secret.

E: Shh – the secret!

S: (Laughs) It will be successful!

E: You said, “the secret”!

S: And thanks to all the guys at the New York City Skeptics. They're really doing a lot of the heavy lifting on this one.

R: They're so fantastic. Mike Feldman.

S: Oh, yeah. Awesome guys.

R: He's been kicking butt.

J: (Doing an impression) It's fantastic, man! (Laughs)

(Rogues laugh)

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Question # 1 - Polonium Halos (25:29)[edit]

As a former creationist, one of the most persuasive arguments that I remember is that of polonium halos in granite. Dr. Robert Gentry claims to have discovered proof of an instantaneous creation of earth in the form of the halos of radioactive polonium in undisturbed granite. He challenges mainstream science to reproduce such an artifact in the laboratory or explain how such a thing could happen naturally. What do you think about this guy, and are his claims at all weighty? Thanks for the great show, guys. I regularly listen to about ten podcasts, and I've got to say that yours is the one I most eagerly wait for every week. P.S. I recently listened to your 2008 year-in-review episode again and had an idea. I've purchased all of the bonus content of the show and loved it, and I would unhesitatingly pay twice as much for an uncensored clip of the show in which Jay's cat barfed on his keyboard. What do you say, Skeptics? Please? Trinity Melvin Valparaiso, Florida

S: All right, let's go on to a couple of your questions and emails. The first one comes from Trinity Melvin, from Valparaiso, Florida.

E: I love that name, by the way.

S: Trinity?

E: Yeah. Well, Trinity Melvin.

J: Well, I like Valparaiso.

S: (Laughs) (Doing a Jerry Lewis impression) Melvin, Melvin!

J: (Doing a Jerry Lewis impression) Mel, Mel, Mel, Melvin!


S: She writes,

As a former creationist, one of the most persuasive arguments that I remember is that of polonium halos in granite. Dr. Robert Gentry claims to have discovered proof of an instantaneous creation of earth in the form of the halos of radioactive polonium in undisturbed granite. He challenges mainstream science to reproduce such an artifact in the laboratory or explain how such a thing could happen naturally. What do you think about this guy, and are his claims all that weighty? Thanks for the great show, guys. I regularly listen to about ten podcasts, and I've got to say that yours is the one I most eagerly wait for every week.

R: Aw.

E: Awesome.

R: Well, thank you, Trinity. This is a good question. I actually, prior to your question, I'd never heard of polonium halos.

B: Yeah, I didn't either.

S: And I thought I'd heard every creationist bull-crap argument out there. But this was a new one. But Bob and I looked into it. And, why don't you give us the skinny, Bob?

B: Yeah. This one's been around, apparently, for quite a while. First off, Robert V. Gentry, I found him on the “Who's Who in Creation/Evolution website. They list him first and foremost, he's listed as a creationist. Then, below that, physicist and chemist. He has an honorary doctorate from the Fundamentalist Columbia Union College. And he has a Master's in Physics from the University of Florida. So –

J: Imagine having all that and putting “creationist” first?

B: Yeah.


B: Absolutely.

J: Jackass.

B: The halos that Trinity's talking about, these halos in rock, they're called pleochroic halos. They can appear in rock like granite. What they are, essentially, are spherical bands of discoloration. Or, perhaps, a better term would be “shells of radiation damage”, 'cause that's, essentially, what these discolorations are. They're bits of radiation damage. And they're caused by alpha particles. Alpha particles are – it's a type of radiation, it's basically two protons and neutrons that are released by unstable atoms. These alpha particles are very ionizing radiation, and they – what happens, though, during alpha decay, when these protons leave the atom, you're basically changing the atom into a different element, right? Because the protons that are in the nucleus, that's what determines the chemical properties. So, that, when you have some protons leaving the nucleus – bam, you must have a different element. Now, if it was neutrons, it would be a different story. 'Cause the neutrons just determines the isotope. It's still that element, but just a different isotope of that element. Now, what happens is, when you have this radiation leaving the element in, say, in granite, it leaves a ring. It creates these distinctive, nested concentric rings of damage to the rock. So, if you would – say you had a bit of uranium-238 in rock. It would slowly decay and create a ring from the alpha particles being – the high-energy alpha particles being released. And then you go through to all the daughter elements: thorium, radium, radon, polonium, and lead. So, each different element would then create a different ring that would maybe be further apart – further away from the center. So, can you see what I'm saying? You've got this alpha decay creating these concentric rings of discoloration depending on what element the parent particle has decayed into. Okay?

S: Right.

B: So, Gentry – the anomaly that Gentry is primarily talking about – he found polonium rings. He found these polonium ring halos, but they didn't have any parent rings inside of it that would of – like, say, uranium or thorium. So, you've got these naked polonium rings. What do you think that would mean? If you have this ring all by itself, then that means that polonium was somehow there when the rock was formed. So, that's what he believes. That polonium was there, the rock cooled, and then it made this ring when the polonium decayed. The problem is, is that the half-life of polonium is very, very short. On the matter of either minutes, seconds, or microseconds, depending on the isotope.

S: Or days

B: Or days, on the higher end.

S: Seconds to days is the range, yeah.

B: Right. The higher end was days. But, that doesn't matter. Most geologists will tell you that granite takes many, many years to cool. So, then, how could this possibly happen? How could granite cool on one hand in many, many years, or even millions of years, but the half-life of polonium is very, very brief. So how could you – you know, how do you justify those two things? I actually found a great – an excellent analogy on a very credulous site. But I'm going to use their analogy anyway, 'cause it was very good. “It was like coming across Alka-Seltzer bubbles in water.” Say you find frozen water and there's Alka-Seltzer bubbles. Clearly, for whatever tests you perform, these are Alka-Seltzer – you know, the bubbles formed in a liquid when you drop Alka-Seltzer tablets in water. Well, your only conclusion would have to be that the water froze very, very fast in order for these Alka-Seltzer bubbles to remain, right? 'Cause they're –

S: To be captured. Yeah.

B: – They don't last very long. These bubbles are very fleeting. The water would actually have to be flash-frozen very quickly in order for these things to remain. So, in a similar way, the radiation from the polonium must have created these halos right after the granite froze. So, the conclusion that they would like everyone to come to is that the Earth – the granite in the Earth – did not form in thousands or millions of years, but within maybe thirty minutes, or less.

S: Or instantaneously.

B: Clearly requiring some sort of supernatural agency to come in and do this. 'Cause he's trying to promote his Young Earth Creationism, and that just totally plays into that. They keep saying, “Oh, how could – you know – science has no explanation for this.” And, it's true that there's no clear-cut experiment that a geologist can perform to show you exactly how this is done. But I think it's pretty widely accepted, and a lot of websites I came across – a lot of geologists believe that what happens, is that the uranium decays into radon gas, which is a precursor to the polonium. So, you've got the various uranium, and thorium and other elements decomposing. And, one of these elements that it decomposes into is radon gas. Which, then, can migrate away from the original site where the uranium was originally. And, then, that would decay into polonium, which would then make these naked polonium halos without any apparent connection to the uranium.

S: Right.

B: This belief is supported by the fact that a lot of, or all of Gentry's polonium halos are found near cracks in rock that contain uranium halos. So, there's always a connection between these naked polonium halos and the uranium halos. So, there's clearly a connection between them, and as far as I could tell, they have not found any polonium halos in rock without any uranium, either deposits or halos nearby. So, to me, that's – it seems much more likely that that is the reason why you've got these halos than the Earth was created instantaneously. But the problems don't end there. There's lots of problems with just this guy's geology. This guy's not a geologist. He's got a master's in physics, but he's not a geologist. And he makes basic errors that regular geologists would not make, according to, at least, a lot of the authors on website. One quote from that website said that “In Gentry's model, any rock looking vaguely like granite and carrying the label 'Precambrian' is considered to be primordial rock.”

S: Yeah, so, basically, he's saying that these polonium halos occur in the original crust of the Earth – the oldest crust of the Earth. But he's counting anything Precambrian, which is up to, say, 600 million years ago –

B: Yeah.

S: – as primordial Earth crust. When, in fact, there's, like, 3 ½ billion years in the Precambrian. He's counting all of it as primordial. He even, however, had some rock – granite that he was labeling as primordial that was above, and therefore younger than, fossil-bearing strata, and, clearly, like, recent strata. You know, more recent, even, than the Cambrian. So, he totally blew the geology.

B: He did.

S: And then – he was anomaly hunting, right? He thought he had an anomaly, but there's completely plausible explanations. And, also, his physics requires that, in order for his dating – his timeline to work out, the Earth is whatever – Young Earth Creationist – 10 thousand years old. Again, this is something that the Young Earth Creationists have to do, is argue that the decay rate of different elements – different radioactive elements is not constant, right? 'Cause if we use decay rates to age rocks, even if we use different decay rates, we come up – so, independently, to date rocks, we come up with roughly the same date. You know, rocks will date to be 4 billion years old, even if you use different methods to figure out how old they are. So, that's pretty good confirmation that it's actually 4 billion years old. But Gentry says, “No. That's because decay rates are not the same today as they were 10 thousand years ago. That they've, essentially, been slowing down. Things decayed much, much faster back then.” But his argument would require that different elements vary to different degrees, but all conspire to come up with the same age, even when you use different dating methods. Except for –

B: Polonium!

S: Polonium!

B: Right!

S: Which is the one element whose decay rate is the same as it was before. So that's a massive amount of special pleading. It's just miracle after, you know, supernatural intervention, after special pleading. All to jury-rig it to make it all work out so that it's consistent with the Young Earth. And, of course, that's all BS.

B: One writer referred to, though, Steve – is, he called them “singularities”, where he had, you know, “divine intervention” to help save his theory. And I could see maybe one or two divine interventions, but when you go to three divine interventions, that's just one too many.

R: One to many... that's how many you need to be a saint, so maybe he's applying for something.

S: You're saying he went a miracle too far, Bob?

B: Yeah. At least one.

S: So, that's like that famous New Yorker cartoon with the complex mathematical equation, and then at the end it says, “And then a miracle happens”. And then you get your answer. You can't do that in science. You can't do it once, let alone three times. Sorry.

Interview with Phil Plait[edit]

Star Trek Movie (36:36)[edit]

S: Well, let's go on with our interview.

(Musical Interlude)

S: Joining us once again is Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. Phil, welcome back to the SGU.

P: Hey, SGUers! S-Gooers? Sgooers?

S: (Laughs) Sgooers! Yeah.

P: Do you have a collective noun for you guys?

S: We're The Rogues.

P&J: The Rogues.

E: We're The Rogues!

P: Well, I always got the impression that Steve was in charge, and the rest of you guys were Rogues.

J: Actually, yeah, you're really not a Rogue, Steve.

E: He is. He's like Alex, and we're his Troupies.

J: You're like a pimp of The Rogues.

S: Well, whatever. I'm like Gladys Knight, and you're the Pips?

J: No, I said that you're a pimp. (Laughing) And we're The Rogues!


S: So, Phil. You are here to talk about – a few things – but primarily the latest Star Trek movie. So, first of all, tell me how awesome you thought that movie was.

P: On a scale of one to ten, it was “warp factor 9”! Um....

S: (Laughs)

P: Yeah, I don't know, how dorky can I be? I mean, you guys aren't big Star Trek fans, are you?

(Rogues laugh)

P: I never hear you talking about it. No, okay, I know. I hear you guys dorking out over Trek every episode. You talked about Trek – I – One of you slipped in a Trek line with Rusty Schweickart, and I'm not sure if he got it or not. But, it sounded like he might have.

S: Bob did, and it sounded like he got it. You know, he at least off it well enough.

P: That was pretty awesome.

(Rogues laugh)

P: You know, I liked this movie quite a bit. I was walking into it, thinking –

B: “Please, please, please...”

P: “Yeah, well, you know, J.J. Abrams. You know, I liked Cloverfield. And Lost, I watched one episode and said, “Yeah, this is going nowhere”.

J&E: (Laugh)

P: So, I wasn't sure what to expect. And, you know, I knew it was going to reboot, and I knew it was going to be different. But, in fact, you know, I think going in with lower expectations sometimes works –

B: Oh –

P: – 'cause I really liked it.

S: Oh yeah.

B: Absolutely.

P: So, I watched it a second time... and liked it just as much. So, yeah, I dug this movie.

S: And, just before we go on, there's going to be no way to talk about this without huge spoilers coming in. So, if you haven't seen the Star Trek movie yet and you don't want any spoilers, go see it now, and then come back and listen to the rest of the show.

P: Yeah, we'll wait.

E: Yeah, all five of you who haven't seen it yet who listen to the show.

(Rogues laugh)

S: Okay. They're back.

J: (Laughs)

P: Welcome back, everyone!

E: (Laughs)

S: Now, Phil, you wrote a blog entry, doing as you do, examining the science in the science fiction movie of “Star Trek”. So, some of it good. Some if it, you know, meh. Some of it speculative, some of it not so good. What was the biggest howler you thought of, in this movie?

P: Well, you gotta be a little bit careful here, because, you know, that blog post has almost 400 comments on it.

S: Yeah.

P: Clearly, people, you know, they take Trek to heart, whether they love it or hate it. I'm not going to talk about, you know, time travel, or warp drive, or phasers, or transporters. When you watch a movie that's Star Trek, you're buying into the background of it. Just like in Star Wars, you can argue endlessly over whether a parsec is a unit of distance or time, or whether they went around black holes, or whatever.. You just gotta buy into it. And with Star Trek, I'm not going to argue that – you know, I'll only start talking about either introduced science, something that's new to the show, or when they do things inconsistently, like they regenerate Doctor Pulaski to when she was younger using the transporter and a bit of DNA, and in the next episode they totally forget about that.

E: (Laughs)

P: It's like, “You know, we can all be young forever. Hey!” But, you know.

S: Right.

P: So, in this movie I'm not gonna – you know, I don't worry about warp drive. Warp drive is just as fast as the writers need it to be to get the Enterprise where it needs to be for maximum dramatic effect. That's how fast warp drive is, right?

S: Exactly.

J: (Laughs) That's actually true, that's good.

P: And you can argue time travel as much as you want. It's kind of fun. I'll always be happy to talk to people about paradoxes or, you know, whether you're creating an alternate universe, or something like that. But, you know, I'm not too worried about that for discussion of the science in the movie. I'm more concerned about, you know, the depiction of other things that happen. Like, when the guys are jumping out of a shuttle and free-falling down to Vulcan. What's gonna happen? So that was kind of cool. But, to answer your question, which always seems to take me a long time when I'm on this show, obviously, it's the red matter. I mean, that was, really, just a – you know, really? Red matter? That's where we're going with this?

S: Yeah.

P: You know, it's a giant center of a target symbol. That was just kind of silly. That was too big of a MacGuffin to ignore. I kind of wish they had done it some other way.

B: Or at least give a better name.

P: Yeah. The name was pretty silly.

B: (Pompous voice) Red matter!

P: But, then again, you know, they would have just called it “the decatron field”, or something like that.

E: Mm-hm. Yeah.

P: The idea here is that Romulan nutzoid-guy convinces Spock and the Vulcan Science Academy to use this material called “Red Matter” to create, basically, an artificial black hole – it's a real black hole, but they artificially create it – to stop a supernova from wiping out the galaxy

B: Ooh!

P: And, there's just hordes of nasty, ridiculous plot holes here. You know, one supernova can't wipe out the galaxy. And some people said, “Oh, there were some comic books that came out that --

B: Right.

P: – described that it created a chain of supernovae.” And, I think, “Yeah, but you know what? These guys, 400 years from now? They got warp drive and huge ships. 'Evacuate your planet!'” You know –

S: Right.

P: – maybe you can save somebody. You know, it doesn't make any sense.

S: Well, there was some speculation that it was like a subspace hypernova or something. But –

P: Oh, well, then there you go.

S: There you go. But even then –

P: You should publish these, Steve. That's good. An astrophysical journal would love that.

S: If there was a phenomenon that could wipe out the galaxy, you would think it would happen every now and then.

P: Um, well, yeah. You know, it's been a few thousand years since the last one happened, right? So...

B: (Laughs)

P: And it was just kind of silly. You know, if you're creating a black hole, it's a little tiny black hole. When you collapse a planet down to become a black hole, it's only about a centimeter across. That's how much you have to compress a planet before, by definition, it becomes a black hole. And, so, it would be very difficult to fit a large Romulan mining ship into a black hole that is a centimeter across. Not to mention the tidal effects, which would rip the ship apart. And a billion other problems. So, you know, it's – at some level you have to say “Yep, Star Trek”, and not worry about it.

J: Real quick, stupid question, maybe. So, the more of that Red Matter they use, the bigger the black hole?

P: It's unclear. You know, they only need to use a little drop to collapse a planet. And in the end of the movie, Spock rams a ball of the stuff a meter across into the Romulan ship. And it doesn't seem to create a black hole any bigger. So, I think this is one of those things where it just becomes, “this is something we need to do so we have an excuse to reboot the franchise.” and just say, “All right, got it. Let's move on from there.”

J: Yeah.

S: Yeah, I agree. But I think it gets a little lazy. I mean, I understand that why they needed to do what they did for plot reasons. But, you know, it's a science fiction movie. Think about the science a little bit, and come up with an interesting sort of way of doing it. It's still going to be speculative. It's still going to involve future science that isn't real or that we don't have yet. That was just a little to close to just saying, “Okay, it's magic. There's this magic stuff which does whatever we want to do.

P: Yeah, really. I mean, if they had talked to – well, they did talk to an astronomer, Carolyn Porco, who is the imaging lead of the Cassini Saturn probe. They consulted her for one scene, and it's pretty obvious in the movie what scene that would be, when you see Titan and Saturn. And they used her idea. And they actually did a relatively decent job of it, although they kind of screwed up the graphics a little bit. They show Titan orbiting Saturn in an orbit it isn't orbiting it in. And you might say, well, that's silly. But, in fact, Titan orbits in the same plane as Saturn's rings. So, if you're on Titan, and you look at Saturn, the rings would be a terribly thin line. You'd barely be able to see it. In the movie they depict it as being way above the plane of the rings. But, you know. You gotta do that.

B: Yeah.

E: They look cool. Yeah.

P: If you're at Saturn, you gotta show the rings, right? So, all right, the rings don't have a magnetic field, so Chekov was wrong about that. All right, all right. It was still a really cool scene.

J: Phil, you know what I love?

P: And it was inspired by a scientist who said, “You should do it this way.” So that kind of rocked.

J: Phil, it's so cool that you know enough that you watch the movie and you're like, “Aw, the perspective is way off here.” Like, I would 'never' know that fact that you just said. Never.

B: (Laughs)

P: Well, it also makes me a little bit of an anal dickhead. You know, you gotta be – if I do say so myself. You gotta be careful not to 'over'-analyze this stuff. And, that's sorta where I'm coming in. If you're creating a movie, and you're spending a bazillion dollars on it and everything, sometimes it pays off to talk to a scientist. Especially someone like Carolyn, who knows Saturn like the back of her hand, and can come up with something really cool. And, typically, you know, I've been approached by directors and producers in the past, of TV shows or whatever, to say, “You know, we're trying to do this. We want to make it realistic.” And then, what happens is that the real science turns out to be totally awesome and a lot better –

B: Ha!

P: – than anything they would have come up with.

S: Right.

P: That happened in Deep Impact. I won't give a specific example, but there was one TV show where I said, “You know, you guys could do it this way, and then you'll wind up having – you'll have your spaceship screaming into a gas giant atmosphere, and it'll be really cool.” And they really loved that idea. And I actually don't know if they ever used it. But that happens, you know. So, had they come to someone who knows about supernovae or gamma ray bursts, you know, maybe we could have come up with something better than “red matter” and a supernova. But, who knows. Maybe not. And even if we had, they may have opted not to use it. You know, they're just gonna do what they're gonna do. The best we can hope for is to come up with something cool and basically hope they can use it.

J: Yeah. So, basically, everyone, Phil Plait: “Dickhead for hire”. Just give a call.

P: That's true. For a million bucks, I will vet your script. So there.

E: (Laughs) And point out all the flaws.

P: Oh, great!

S: One thing that I think is coming up here is that there's a difference between taking poetic license. Like, okay, you gotta put Titan above the plane of Saturn's rings so that we can see the beautiful rings. That's purely an aesthetic choice. Okay. I could buy that. Versus just laziness and in not exploring the real science, 'cause as you say when you do that it turns out to be a lot more interesting than the crap that people come up with on their own, who don't really understand the science.

P: I think this is a point worth emphasizing. Because, you know, if I'm a director like JJ Abrams, or someone like that, my first thought is not gonna be to care about the real science. You know, I'm making a movie and if the science is depicted incorrectly or not, I don't care. The point is, if you talk to a real scientist they are likely to show you something that would never have occurred to you. As imaginative as these writers are, as the directors are, as the special effects team is, a real scientist will have a different perspective and may be able to come up with something that, visually, would be tremendously appealing. Whether it's accurate or not, it might be just simply a perspective that the team of writers doesn't have.

J: You know, also, one issue that bothers us quite often, here, like, as a group – Skeptic's Guide – you know, we don't like science being misrepresented in the news and everything. You know, and I'd have to say that does go for even science fiction movies. The idea here is, show things that are as accurate as it can be with our knowledge of science today just so you don't spread misinformation.

P: I'm just more concerned that they'll just get a – a sort of a – pardon the pun – a warped sense of what science is and what it can do.

S: Right.

P: On the other hand, if you go to any astronaut today, or any astronomer around my age, and say, “What inspired you to do this?” They will say, “Star Trek, Lost in Space, Space 1999, Star Wars”, for the younger astronomers these days. And, so, as terrible as these shows are for the depiction of science, the do inspire people. So, it's possible they're inspiring despite the science in them. And it makes me wonder, what would happen if the science were done a little bit more accurately and if scientists were portrayed a little more accurately, which is something that is being done a lot better today than it was, certainly, in the 1950s. So, you know, the next generation of scientists is being inspired by the movies that are coming out today. And I'd like to see that being done even better than it's being done now.

S: Yeah. To some degree fiction is the mythology of our modern culture. You know, the movies serve the same role in our culture that, you know, Shakespeare did hundreds of years ago, and plays did thousands of years ago. So, it does reflect back on the culture, but also influences the culture as well. That's why I get more concerned about the portrayal of science and scientists, as you say, than picky details about scientific facts.

E: Yeah. You know what I get reminded of, Steve? Brent Spiner's character in Independence Day.

S: Yeah.

E: If you remember that movie. He was kind of this, you know –

B: Mad scientist.

S: The mad scientist.

E: Frizzled hair, recluse mad scientist. And the movies definitely, definitely help –

B: Foster that.

E: – portray that stereotype and perpetuate it.

S: Yeah.

P: They reflect and they direct our perception of science and scientists.

S: Yeah.

J: Phil, was there any other parts of the movie that you wanted to talk about that stuck out? That you didn't like?

S: Or that you did like. Like, I know you mentioned the one scene where they had had silence in space was a refreshing change.

E: Yeah.

P: Not only was the silence in space cool – and, you know, sure. They have, you know, when the ships go into warp they whoosh away and all that. But the two times they showed silence in space that I recall –

B: It's effective.

P – Both times were incredibly dramatic. Where the Kelvin is getting just pummeled by the Romulan ship. And there's explosions, and noise, and everything, and then a crewman gets blown out into space. And, suddenly, there's silence, which made it really dramatic.

B: How rare is that?

P: 2001 did it, and so did Firefly. And a handful of other shows have done it as well.

B: Yeah, not many!

S: Yeah.

P: I don't think it's been done to such dramatic effect. To have all the noise, and then that. And the second time was when Kirk and McCoy and, basically, Officer Redshirt are on the shuttle, and do their little spaceship dive to Vulcan–

B: It was Sulu. Not McCoy, Sulu.

P: Excuse me, Sulu. Yeah. And there's a lot of noise and everything, and then they're ejected out, and then once again it's silent. It's jarring. It shakes you out of the background of the movie itself. It makes you pay more attention to what you're seeing.

E: Yes.

S: That's always been interesting to me, because I thought that Kubrick used the silence of space to incredibly dramatic effect in 2001. And I'm surprised that didn't set the standard for the genre after that. I'm still not sure why that is.

P: It's simply because you're not used to it. And there's that legend, and I still don't know if it's true or not, that Roddenberry was showing rushes of the show to test groups, basically, with no sound in space –

B: Who?

P: – everybody said they hated it.

B: Ooh, wow.

P: And, so, in Star Trek, they added the sound in because people didn't like it.

Million Dollar Challenge (52:07)[edit]

S: Well, Phil, before we let you go, I wanted to touch on a couple of other topics. You've written, recently, about the most recent million dollar psychic challenge. Can you give us a quick synopsis of that? It was kind of interesting.

P: Right. This last challenge was actually done in the UK. And Professors Chris French and Richard Wiseman actually are the ones who ran it. Patricia Putt applied to win James Randi's million dollar paranormal challenge, where if you can prove that you have some sort of psychic power, paranormal or supernatural claim, we'll give you a million bucks. It's not quite that simple, but it's not too much harder than that. This was a preliminary test. The person has to, basically, negotiate protocols. If you have a claim that you can, for example, predict the throw of a pair of dice every time then you would set up something where somebody throws dice randomly, and then you have to agree on how many times you can predict it such that, you know, it can't be one-sixth of the time, for example, because that's – or one, or whatever the statistics are. If you can guess a random number between 1 and 10 one-tenth of the time, you're not psychic. You're Gaussian, is what you are.

S: Yeah.

P: And, so, we have to negotiate those protocols. Both sides, or both parties have to agree to these protocols. And, so that was negotiated in advance. Patricia Putt went through this with Alison Smith, who is a staff member of the JREF, and the protocols were set up. And, basically, Patricia Putt's claim, in a nut shell, is that by listening to someone talking, she can write down all sorts of things about their personality. So, she read ten women, and she wrote down their personality readings – their profiles. And, then, after the fact, these ten women each got to look at these ten profiles and pick the one that they felt represented them the best. Statistically, you should expect something like one out of ten, because that's just random chance that one person is going to randomly pick theirs. The limit for this in the protocols, what Patricia Putt predicted she would be able to do, was five out of ten, which was hugely over statistical randomness. And, we agreed that if she could pick five, then something was going on, and then she could move on to the final challenge, where it would be done again, basically.

What happened was, after the fact, the women were allowed to choose their readings, and she scored zero. That would be zero, for those of you reading at home. Nothing. Zilch. None of the women picked the profile that Patricia wrote for them, specifically. What was interesting is what happened after this. Immediately afterwards, and Richard Wiseman wrote about this on his blog, if you look up his website, Richard Wiseman on the web. He wrote this up, and evidently she was quite shaken by this. Miss Putt was shocked, and didn't – she didn't say, “Wow, I must not be psychic”, or anything like that. But she felt that the test was fair, and was actually rather magnanimous about the whole thing. But, then, later, she changed her mind a little bit. And we see this a lot. We see this a lot, that, after the fact, there's rationalizations. And she said that the women that she was trying to read were “bound up too much” and could not perform. She couldn't “read” them that way. That's not true. The women weren't “bound up”. They were hidden from her view in such a way that she couldn't read their faces if they subconsciously, you know, smiled, or grimaced, or anything like that that would allow her to read them basically using cold-reading techniques. So, that wasn't true. And then she left a comment on Richard Wiseman's blog saying that, in fact, she did not get zero out of ten. She got ten out of ten correct. And because – and this just slays me – each woman did, in fact, pick a profile that matched her. It's like –

S: Yeah.

P: No, it doesn't work that way. Part of the protocol was that each woman had to pick the one that matched her best. Of course they had to pick one. It was, you know – there's a 100 percent chance that each woman's gonna pick one. It doesn't matter what she said. And, therefore, her saying that she got ten out of ten is simply a rationalization after the fact. Now, there have been – I've seen some complaints – I wrote about this on my blog. Richard Wiseman has. Christopher French wrote about it in The Guardian, the newspaper in the UK. And there have been some interesting comments. One person saying, “Well, this isn't a scientific test.” And I find that kind of humorous, because it's not a rigorously scientific test. But the variables are, in some sense, controlled. In a scientific test, you know, yes. We should do 10,000 of these readings, and that would give us good statistics. But, in a scientific test you have to control some of the variables, and that's been done. Miss Putt couldn't look at the faces of these women, couldn't – they were all women, so she couldn't write down “she” versus “he is a person that does this”, so that, right away, you can eliminate some of the readings. All of these variables were controlled in such a way that, if she were psychic, she should have been able to do better than a random distribution would say. She didn't, and so we cannot say psychic powers don't exist. We cannot say psychic powers do exist. We can't even say Patricia Putt is not a psychic. All we can say is that she agreed to the protocols, the protocols were statistically derived, and would have been statistically significant, and she did not do better than random chance. Therefore, in this particular case, there was no proof of psychic abilities.

S: One again.

P: Yes. Once again.

S: What she's doing is the equivalent, logically, of the “one ahead” trick that ESP researchers have done for a while. The results come back negative, but then they look to see if they can make any match between the predictions and the data. Right? So, oh, well if you look at the card ahead of what they were guessing, that was a little bit better than chance. Or the one behind. Or, if you discard the first 50, and then start counting from there. Right?

P: Right.

S: There's all sorts of ways to increase the probability. Although she found a way to increase it to 100 percent. So that's very creative of her to do that. Because, as you said, they each picked something, right? So, she couldn't lose.

P: I like to tell people, sometimes, when I give talks, that 90 percent, 90 percent or more, of all violent crimes occur within a week of the new or full moon.

(Rogues laugh)

P: And people don't get it, right? You guys get it, right? Because within a week of the new or full moon, you add that up, that's four weeks. And the moon goes – you know, it's 28 days – the moon goes around the Earth in 29 days. So, 28 out of 29, statistically, of violent crime, should happen within that time period. It sounds like you're saying, “within a week of each other. All violent crimes happen” – you know –

E: Mm-hm.

S: Yeah.

P: So, that's a way of changing the goal posts and relying on people's poorly understood statistics to pull one over. Now, I'm not saying she's trying to pull one over. According – you know, I haven't met the woman. I've only read what she's written. But, according to Richard and Christopher, she seems like an honest person.

J: It's so classic, though, that the woman goes home, thinks about it for a little while, and then very, very decisively deludes herself into thinking, “Nope. They were wrong and I was right.”

P: Yeah. In Richard Wiseman's blog comments she said that she walked into this thinking it was going to be one-sided biased towards the JREF. That's really unfair because she agreed to the protocols and said that everything was fine. Now it's – you know, after the fact you can say, “Oh”. Who hasn't signed a contract and looked back on it and thought, “What was I thinking?” But this is such a gross misreading that it seems to defy belief, if you pardon the expression, that somebody would agree to a contract like that, thinking they would walk into it, that it was so biased for the JREF and against the claimant. So, I'm not buying that argument. It just seems that, you know, they always seem to complain about these protocols after they lose and never before they take the test.

TAM (1:00:31)[edit]

J: Hey, Phil. Let's talk about TAM, babe. What do we got?

E: What don't we have? That's a shorter list.

P: Oh, man. TAM is steaming along. TAM, I should say TAM Vegas, TAM 7, is steaming along very well. This is July 9th through 12th, 2009 at the Southpoint Hotel, Casino, and Spa, in sunny – and believe me, it's gonna be sunny. Like “surface of the sun” sunny – in Vegas. We got – our speakers are lined up. We've got so many speakers, we're trying to figure out, you know, how to schedule all of this incredible talent. You know, I don't want to sound like I'm shoveling something, here, but I'm so excited about this.

E: (Laughs)

P: Our keynote speaker is Bill Prady from The Big Bang Theory, he's the Executive Producer. I've been talking with him and I'm really excited about – he's a – the guy's a true geek, and so he's gonna have a lot of fun up there showing clips and discussing it. Jennifer Ouellette from Cocktail Party Physics Blog, who's also part of the Science & Entertainment Exchange, talking to big time, and I mean big time Hollywood producers and directors to get better science in the movies, apropos of our discussion earlier. We got, you know, the usual lineup of Penn & Teller, and Shermer, Adam Savage, Randi, me. But we also have you guys, right? Every morning!

S: Absolutely.

P: Do an SGU Live. You guys will be doing some interviews while we're there. And, of course, Steve is also, on Thursday, running the Science-based Medicine meeting, which I hear is actually doing pretty well.

S: Yeah, it's gonna be really exciting. Again, it's gonna – we're gonna offer continuing medical education credits for physicians, but the conference is gonna be geared towards a general audience. So, if you want to hear – I think there's 7 of us – different physicians talking about science-based medicine and skills you could use to navigate the health claims that are out there on the internet, and dealing with your physician, et cetera. It'll be a fun conference for anybody.

P: You have great speakers lined up for that, and I'm actually hoping to be able to split my time between listening to someone like Dave Gorski talking, as well as attending the workshops. We have some extra-curricular workshops that we're running on Thursday, July 9th. We're also doing – we have a vaccination clinic in Las Vegas. You can donate money so that kids in Las Vegas can get vaccinated. Las Vegas has some of the lowest vaccination rates –

E: Yeah.

P: – in the country. And we know what happens when we lose our herd immunity. We're hearing about that in the news. When people like Jenny McCarthy get traction –

E: Ugh.

P: – babies start dying. It's really just that simple. When the claims of the anti-vaxxers get spread in the populace, we start getting kids with pertussis, and measles, and it's putting them at risk of horrible diseases as well as possibly dying. We can't have that happen. So, we're running a vaccination clinic. I've just got a ton of stuff going on, and I'm really excited about it.

S: Well, Phil, thanks again for joining us. It's always a pleasure.

P: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you. It's even better when Rebecca's not around.

(Rogues laugh)

S: And we all can't wait to see you in Vegas, man.

P: Oh, I'm totally, totally fired up for this.

J: Yeah, we are too.

E: It's gonna be awesome.

S: Take care.

B: See ya, Phil.

P: Thanks!

Science or Fiction (1:03:43)[edit]

Item # 1: Epidemiologists warn of a surge in the incidence of leprosy in India and other parts of Asia, which they fear may return to epidemic proportions. Item # 2: Researchers find that in the last 18 years the percentage of Americans following basic healthy lifestyle recommendations has declined. Item # 3: A cancer patient was detained at customs for several hours because the chemotherapy he was on caused him to lose his finger prints.

It's time for “Science or Fiction”

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

J: Absolutely.

B: Mm-hm.

R: Ready.

S: All right. Good. I don't want to take you by surprise, so I always check. Here we go. Item #1: Epidemiologists warn of a surge in the incidence of leprosy in India and other parts of Asia, which they fear may return to epidemic proportions. Item #2: Researchers find that in the last 18 years the percentage of Americans following basic healthy lifestyle recommendations has declined. Item #3: A cancer patient was detained at customs for several hours because the chemotherapy he was on caused him to lose his finger prints.

J: What?

S: You heard me.

B&E: (Laugh)

S: Evan, go first.

E: Okay. So, a surge in leprosy in India and other parts of Asia. Okay. The next one was “in the last 18 years the percentage of Americans following basic healthy lifestyle recommendations has declined”. I think that's tragically, probably true. And, then the last one was the cancer patient “detained at customs for several hours because the chemotherapy he was on caused him to lose his finger prints”. Oh, boy. Is that possible? How is – how would – chemotherapy can cause you to lose your fingerprints? Cause you to lose your hair. Well, but I think that one's – I think that's actually gonna be – wind up being true. And, therefore, I'll say that the healthy lifestyle recommendations declining over the last 18 years, I'll say that one is fiction.

S: Okay. Jay.

J: Epidemiologists warn of a surge of leprosy in India, and they fear it might return to epidemic proportions. I mean, I can definitely buy that for lots of different reasons. “Researchers find that in the last 18 years the percentage of Americans following basic healthy lifestyle recommendations has declined.” I don't know about that. I mean, I could see in the United States weight gain seems to be on the rise, ha-ha. But, I don't know. Not sure about that one. And the guy losing his fingerprints because of being on chemotherapy. What would the chemo do to his skin? You know, I'm dying to ask a question, Steve, like is all of his skin affected or just his fingerprints?

S: No comment.

E: Wow.

J: Okay. Well, then I will go with – I'll take – I'll say that the second one, the 18 years percentage of Americans following basic healthy lifestyle recommendations has declined, I'll say that's the fake.

S: Okay. Bob.

B: The leprosy one. Epidemic proportions. Ooh, I don't know about that one. It just feels like one of those things that you just never really think of coming back. Kind of like whooping cough, I guess. Not sure about that one. The 18 years of the basic lifestyle recommendations declining. I don't know. Yeah, that doesn't sound that right to me. I think that people following them probably is low as it's been in a while. Maybe even a little bit better, considering – I think, aren't less people smoking, at least in the States? And then the cancer one with the fingerprints. That certainly is bizarre. That's so bizarre I'm gonna say – I'm not going to doubt that for now. So, let me see. Between 1 and 2 –

R: Just pick one, Bob.

B: I know, I know. I'll go with the group then, with Jay and Evan, number 2. The lifestyle.

E: Yeah!

S: Okay. Rebecca

R: Okay, I too am torn between the leprosy and the healthy lifestyle options. And, my initial reation was to go with the healthy lifestyle thing because that seems like the sort of thing that you might make up. You know, because it sounds true, so obviously it's false. But, maybe that's what you want us to think, Steve.

B&E: (Laugh)

R: I haven't read anything about either of these. However, I did read something about leprosy recently. I believe it was something about the first person who had leprosy. I don't know. There's something in the news about that. I don't know. But, I'm wondering if maybe you're trying to rely upon us remembering leprosy was in the news and assuming that one's true. So I'm going to go against the group and say that the leprosy item is in fact false.

S: Okay. So we'll start with number 3. All of you think a cancer patient was detained at customs for several hours because the chemotherapy he was on caused him to lose his finger prints. And that one is... science.

B: That's interesting.

S: Yeah, that was an interesting one. Isn't it?

E: Remarkable.

S: Nobody went for that one. This is a patient who was taking a anti-cancer drug, a fairly common called Capecitabine, I think that's how you pronounce it. One of the adverse effects is called hand-foot syndrome, which is a chronic inflammation of the palms or soles of the feet. And if this is allowed to occur for a while, you could have, sort of, multiple episodes of inflammation of the palms and the skin coming off and blistering, et cetera that could actually remove the fingerprints, or eradicate the fingerprints from the palm, over time.

J: So, Steve, this is really localized to the hands, then?

S: The hands and feet. Hence, hand-foot syndrome.

E: Wow.

J: Oh, okay.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: Yeah. So, this actually happened to a patient who was getting this chemotherapy, and he was held up at immigration because he was coming in from another country, and they routinely, now, will fingerprint people just to check them against a list of, like, known terrorists. He didn't have any fingerprints, so they didn't know what to do with him. Eventually, they were able to verify his medical condition. So, this case actually led to recommendations for patients with this condition to carry a letter on them from their physician describing their medical condition and why they don't have any fingerprints. And there have been other cases similarly reported of patients losing their fingerprints as a side effect of this chemotherapy.

B: Interesting.

S: Yeah. Interesting. So, I guess we'll go back to number 1. Epidemiologists warn of a surge in the incidence of leprosy in India and other parts of Asia, which they fear may return to epidemic proportions. And, that one is... the fiction.

E: Hmm.

R: Ha, ha!

B: Ugh.

S: Good job, Rebecca.

R: (Laughs)

S: And, you're right. I did take this from – the real item was “The oldest evidence of leprosy found in India”.

R: (Laughs) I win!

S: So...

J: That's bullshit. This was rigged.

E&R: (Laugh)

S: They were able to find evidence of Mycobacterium leprae from a 4,000 year old skeleton from India. And this is now the oldest evidence of human infection with this disease.

E: Ew.

S: This was published in the journal, PLOS One, or the Public Library of Science One. It's a medical – online, peer-reviewed medical journal. Demonstrates that leprosy was present in human populations in India at the very beginning of civilization, 2000 BC.

E: I thought you were going to say it was in a leprosy journal. Which I subscribe to. My editions always seem to fall apart though, as they come through the mail. I don't know why.

B: (Laughs)

E: Thanks, Bob!

S: Leprosy is not surging. It was that part I made up. And, it's – you know, whether or not you consider it an epidemic is a matter of definition. But, it's simmering along. But, the World Health Organization reports that “99.9% of regional populations have eliminated the disease”. So, it's pretty decreased.

E: 'Til they get Jenny McCarthy to come down.

S: Yeah, the last real outbreak that I could find was in the 1980s. So, the prevalence of leprosy has dropped 85 percent over the last ten years. So, it's actually on the wane.

E: Thank goodness.

S: What's interesting is that leprosy is not very contagious. It actually takes a long term intimate contact in order to spread the disease.

E: Ugh!

S: So, the people who are at risk are really family members. You know, people living with somebody with leprosy over years. That's almost what it takes to really spread it. So, it doesn't spread very easily or very quickly. But, it's a chronic disease. Once you have it, you have it.

J: What was that whole bit with, like, you know, people being, like, in the catacombs in Rome and all that and then that's, like, leprosy spread like crazy there.

S: What is true about this sort of – the classic image we have of leprosy of these sort of leper colonies on the edges of urban centers. It was a disease that really didn't start to spread in human populations until we really were crowded together in urban locations. Again, it really requires a high density to spread, because it is so minimally contagious. So, it really did crop up for the first time in the first cities. You know, in the first civilizations, in the first cities. And they did keep lepers segregated on the outskirts of these urban centers where it was spreading. So, that much is true. But, it really isn't very contagious, you know, as I said. Which means, that researchers find that in the last 18 years the percentage of Americans following basic healthy lifestyle recommendations has declined is... science!

B: (Laughs)

R: (Laughs)

S: Is also science. In fact, Americans are getting less healthy. So here are the – these are two large-scale studies of the US population, 1988 to 1994 compared to 2001 to 2006. So, encompassing a total of 18 years. And, they looked at adults 40 to 74 years old. And what they found was that – so, one healthy lifestyle factor that they looked at was maintaining a body mass index less than 30. And, the number of people are – looked at it the other way – the number of people who have a body mass index greater than 30 has increased from 28 percent to 36 percent. So –

B: Oh my God.

S: So, everyone knows that Americans are getting fatter, right? That's old news. So, that one was obvious. However, physical activity 12 times a month or more, so that's basically, you know, you're working out three days a week, decreased from 53 percent to 43 percent.

E: Ouch.

S: Smoking rates have not changed significantly. 26.9 percent to 26.1 percent. So, really, a minimal decrease. 26.9 to 26.1.

B: Wow.

S: Eating five or more fruits and vegetables a day has decreased from 42 percent to 26 percent. And, moderate alcohol use has increased from 40 percent to 51 percent. So, increasing too much alcohol use. The number of people adhering to all five healthy habits has decreased from 15 percent to 8 percent.

R&B: Wow.

S: Yeah, it's bad. So, we're going in the wrong direction despite all of the public awareness and, you know, really pushing it. People are just not adhering to these well-established healthy lifestyles.

R: I'm guessing that it's only going to get worse now that the economy has tanked, too. People tend to drink more, exercise less.

S: Yeah, probably. Eat cheaper food, which tends to be more high caloric. Yeah, it's interesting. You wonder, so, what are we not doing that we should be doing? What are we doing wrong? You know, of course I know a lot of people will blame physicians, but honestly, the evidence shows that physicians have a pretty minimal effect on these things. Yes, we should be telling patients, “don't smoke”, you know, “lose weight”, “eat better”, and we do. I mean, that's now so much a part of, just, basic medical care that – you know, physicians basically are telling patients to do these things, but the evidence shows that it just doesn't have that much of an impact.

R: Yeah, well, you know – but, I think there's no – you're not going to be able to pinpoint any one thing –

S: Yeah. I agree

R: – I mean, it's not the doctors it's – it's personal responsibility, it's crap marketing, it's, you know, awful companies pushing awful products. You know, it's all those things together. So, yeah, we just suck.

S: I agree. But we do like to find our favorite things to blame, right? So we'll each find the thing that we dislike and blame that. Like, I like to blame the self help industry, which I think distracts people from the real answers by selling them the cheap and easy answers that don't actually work. Right?

R: Yeah. I think that's part of it. So, anyway, I won.

S: So, Rebecca won. Yeah, Rebecca won. Good job. You guys all tanked. You all fell for my leprosy dodge.

R: (Laughs)

Who's That Noisy (1:16:56)[edit]

  • Atlantic Croaker Fish

S: Evan. Remind me what you played last week again, for Who's That Noisy.

(Evan plays last week's clip. No dialogue)

S: And, what was that thumping noise?

E: That was a recording of a fish, if you can believe it. And, specifically, the Atlantic Croaker fish.

S: The Atlantic Croaker!

E: A recording made by scientists from the University of Rhode Island from 1962.

S: It reminded me a little bit of electric eels. Have you ever been at the aquarium and they have –

R: Yeah.

S: – a microphone in the electric eel tank and when –

E: Yeah.

S: – it sets off the discharges –

R: And gearing up.

S: Yeah. It kind of sounds like that.

E: That was, I think, the best guess. And someone from the message boards actually did guess electric eel, which I guess was the closest.

R: Did anyone guess “Croaker”?

E: No. Nobody guessed the Atlantic Croaker.

S: Ooh!

E: This was a very tough one. Lot of people guessed woodpeckers.

S: I was surprised that some people guess the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. I mean, come on!

E: (Laughs)

B: That was funny.

S: You don't think you would have heard about that on the SGU if we discovered the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker?

R: I hope you've got an easier one this time.

E: Yeah. I think I do. Well, at least it's a person. But, you'll hear in just a second, so here's this weeks Who's That Noisy?

That might be a pretty effective demonstration of my supernatural abilities. But, if there's one thing I want you guys to take away from this talk, it's that no matter whether you see it in print, whether you see it on TV, whether you hear about it from a friend. If it sounds supernatural, if it sounds beyond what's possible, you better believe that you are not getting the entire story.

E: All right. There you go. Who is that? Identify him! And good luck.

Quote of the Week (1:18:44)[edit]

“I have adequately answered all your inquiries. I ask you to quietly rephrase these inquiries to yourself until they match my replies.” - Elbot (a chatterbot created by Fred Roberts)

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

J: I have a cool quote tonight, sent in by a listener named Ian Blackstone. And, Ian sent me a quote by Elbot. And, I don't know if any of you guys have ever heard about Elbot. I thought this was incredible. I love things like this. Elbot is actually a chatterbox program, which is a computer program that is designed to simulate intelligent conversation. So, what they do is, they have this textual conversation between Elbot and humans. And they test how many humans and for how long they can fool the humans into believing that this is actually another human that they're chatting with. This type of test was created by a man named Alan Turing. And, if you've ever heard of the Turing Test, that is the test. The test is, can a human decide whether they're talking to a machine or another human? But, the quote is actually from a conversation that somebody had with Elbot.

Computer voice: I have adequately answered all your inquiries. I ask you to quietly rephrase these inquiries to yourself until they match my replies.

J: Elbot didn't actually speak in a computer-generated voice, and – the reason why I did that was, I just thought it was funny that Elbot kind of gave back a really witty answer to the question I guess that the human was asking, so – so there it is.

S: Okay. Well, thank you for joining me, everyone, this week.

R: Thank you, Steve

E: Well done on two-oh-one.

B: Certainly.

S: Good job. Always a pleasure. And, until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

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


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