SGU Episode 25

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SGU Episode 25
January 11th 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 24                      SGU 26

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, January 11th, 2006. This is Steven Novella, your host and President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me today are Evan Berstein ...

E: Good evening, all.

S: ... Perry Deangelis, ...

P: Righto!

S: ... and Robert Novella.

B: Bongiorno.

S: How are you guys doing this evening?

B: Good, Steve.

E: Not too bad.

B: What's going on?

P: Oh, well.

S: I wanted to open this show with a message to a gentleman in Arizona by the name of Michael Mordicelli. Believe it or not, this guy – I was skeptical at first when I heard this – but this guy actually listens to our podcast.

P: Unbelievable.

S: Can you believe it?

B: He might be our biggest fan, also our only fan. But hey Mike.

E: I do believe it.

B: Thanks for listening, buddy.

S: He actually gets a little cranky when we're late uploading the podcasts.

P: As well he should.

S: He sent us a threatening email. So we'll continue to try to get them out on time, Mike, don't worry about it.

E: Thank you, Mike.

News Items[edit]

Did Castro Kill Kennedy (1:11)[edit]

S: In Germany, there is a movie that's going to be released soon with a new theory about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a topic that, unlike the President, a topic that will not die. Almost from the moment of his assassination there have been conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of JFK. Many of them surround either the Mafia or agencies within our own government, the Soviet Union, and Cuba. Basically, the premise of these conspiracy theories are that somebody had to benefit from Kennedy's assassination, and then they commit the logical fallacy called the "Argument From Final Consequences": if somebody benefited, then they must have been responsible for it, then. Or, if somebody had a motive to kill him, then they must have been responsible. Unfortunately for these conspiracy theorists, over the last forty years, there hasn't been a shred of evidence come to light that implicates anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald as the so-called "lone gunman." I think the best summary of the entire topic was the book Case Closed by Gerald Posner. Are you guys familiar with that book?

E: Yes.

S: He's spoken for us a couple of times.

P: Spoken for us several times.

S: Yeah. Very articulate, an impeccably-researched book. Really, I was very impressed by the scholarship. He's a journalist, but just did a ton of research. His book was excellent.

P: It says the maker of this new film, Wilfried Huismann, is also a journalist. By the way, the name of the film is Rendezvous With Death: Why Kennedy Had To Die.

S: It sounds like the basic premise is that Castro and Kennedy were trying to bump each other off, and Castro won, basically. The Kennedys decided that they needed to remove Castro from power, and in retaliation Castro put the hit out on Kennedy.

B: Well they did. The Kennedy's did actually contemplate it.

S: Sure.

B: They go through some plans, ways they could actually get rid of him. Some bizarre plans like poisoning his cigars, or actually making him I think it was something like making him lose his beard, because ...

P: Yeah, making his beard fall out.

B: ... right, because they put so much, there's so much prestige and so much machismo in a beard that if he lost it it would be like other men losing another part of them that would make them fall from grace.

S: Right. Right. The core of the movie revolves around the fact that Oswald visited Mexico shortly before he assassinated JFK. He was trying to get to Cuba through the Cuban embassy in Mexico. This is all known. This all came out in the investigation after the assassination. The Cubans basically didn't ...

P: The Warren Report was that what ...

S: The Warren Report was the official government investigation of it. Basically, from what I understand is, the Cubans didn't want him, because he was kind of a nerd and a jerk, and they basically wouldn't let him come into the country. He did live in the Soviet Union for awhile, but then became dissatisfied with the Soviet Union and returned to the United States. So he was basically just an all-around malcontent that nobody wanted much to do with. Very typical profile of somebody who in an effort to redeem themselves from abject mediocrity, they do something dramatic like assassinate the President. The movie does not actually present any new evidence, any new evidence tying Oswald to Castro or to Cuba. It is simply a reinterpretation of evidence that has already existed and been known, just weaving it together in a new conspiracy theory. Being added to the probably hundreds that have been printed since the assassination. But, no actual new evidence.

P: That's a fine documentary for you!

S: Right.

B: They couldn't even try to pretend to make up some evidence?

S: I don't know. Maybe we can see the movie. Maybe they'll be an English translation at some point.

P: Oh, I'm sure there will be.

S: Yeah, they're probably will be.

P: I'm sure there will be.

S: Also, apparently they present as evidence what is essentially hearsay, the idea the Johnson, President Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, believed that Castro was involved in Kennedy's assassination, even if true is still just one man's belief. He didn't have access to any evidence that was not examined by the Warren Commission.

E: Right.

S: It really was just his paranoia. It does also make reference to the fact that there are still documents that were reviewed by the Warren Commission that were sealed until 2039 by Executive Order of President Johnson, although some of these records I think on the 1992 Assassination Records Review Board basically said that some of the documents related to the assassination can be released to the public in 2017. So, there are some documents that are not in the public domain that will come out over time. It will be very interesting to see what they hold.

B: Steve, did the Warren Commission have access to these documents?

S: Yeah. Yes. Yeah.

B: OK. So they based their conclusions on that.

S: Yes. These are not documents that were hidden from the Commission that investigated the assassination.

B: Right. So it sounds like these are going to come out, and people are going to go "Oh, wow, how obvious."

S: Well I'm sure there will be a new round of conspiracy theory books once they do come out.

B: Yeah, but it can't be anything too dramatic.

P: Why seal them for so long? What's the point of that?

S: I don't know why. I assume we'll find out when they're released.

P: I guess.

S: I assume it has something to do with national security, documents that reveal our methods of spying and networks.

P: The world is so different, now.

S: It's true. It's hard to imagine there were any secrets in place forty years ago that would compromise us at this time, but I guess they wanted to put the dates sufficiently far in the future that there would be no chance that there would be any security liability.

B: Also, I think another factor might also be that all parties involved by then will be dead.

S: Right. So there won't be any personal embarrassment.

B: Right.

S: Yeah. That's true. That's a good point. So a story that won't go away. I wonder how long it will last. Interestingly, just from a historical context point of view, did you guys realize that after Lincoln was assassinated for a generation following his assassination there were swirling conspiracy theories about that, too?

E: No.

B: I didn't know that.

E: I did not know that.

S: There were. It was the same exact thing happened. It wasn't the multi-media that we have today, but basically there were all sorts of theories including fraudulent autopsy results, basically a lot of mystery-mongering, looking for all the little details of the official story that didn't quite make sense. At one point, one detail I remember, at one point somebody claimed there were two bullet holes in Lincoln's brain, and Wilkes-Booth was only supposed to have shot him in the head once. So they go "Ah-ah, there must have been a second shooter if there was another bullet hole in the brain," and two people makes a conspiracy. Very similar argument that's levied against the Kennedy assassination.

B: Oh probably bounced around in there.

S: No, what actually happened: this is pre-x-ray, pre-modern medical imaging devices, so in a forensic autopsy of a gunshot wound, the pathologists would do a procedure that was called "sounding". They would "sound" the location of the bullet. They would pass a probe through the bullet hole, the pathway of the bullet, to measure the depth of the bullet in the brain or in whatever tissue they were investigating, and the pathologist – because the brain is like jello, it's very squishy, it's not very firm – he passed the probe through the brain tissue and sort of deviated from the path of the bullet. He essentially made a second pathway with the probe to the bullet, which then upon later inspection by somebody else made it look like there were two holes in the brain. But the second one was just created by the pathologist. So anyway, there's lots of little details like that, you know, that were used to argue that there was some governmental or whatever, some inside conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln.

E: I can only imagine the McKinley assassination had some sort of similar following, even if not to any extent that the others.

S: Yeah, I don't know. Not that I've heard about, but I've never really read about the McKinley assassination.

P: Just yesterday the guy that tried to assassinate President Bush with a grenade, when he was in Russia.

E: He was in Georgia, I think.

P: Georgia. Vladimir Arutyunian, he was sentenced to life in jail. He also killed a cop when they were trying to arrest him.

S: Is that right?

P: That guy. Yeah.

S: Oswald killed a cop, too.

E: Did he?

P: There you go.

E: He's gets around.

S: When they were trying to arrest him.

E: Oh, yes, of course. Yes, that's correct. He did.

B: I think outside the theater.

P: This guy said if he were free he'd try to kill the President again.

S: What?

P: That's the end of that.

S: There you go.

B: He's not thinking about parole.

P: No.

S: Lock me up for life, please. Thank you.

E: So does that mean that Jack Ruby was also working with the Cubans, because they hired him to get rid of Oswald?

S: Yeah, you know Posner writes about that, the fact that Jack Ruby, who shot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, a couple of days after he was arrested. It certainly looks like a silencing, that they were getting rid of the trigger man so that he couldn't talk. But if you investigate Jack Ruby, he also was also kind of like a mobster-nerd, in that he was a wanna-be but he was such a loser that nobody wanted anything to do with him. He was pretty psychotic, especially in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. His behavior was very erratic and really explainable just on the basis of his personality. He didn't really have any credible ties to Cuba, certainly, or even to the mob or to anyone that would have given him instructions to assassinate Oswald. But another very historically very interesting wrinkle in the whole thing and lends itself tremendously to the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracies in general, just to talk about that for a minute, they tend – the grand conspiracies tend to collapse under their own weight because they require so much power and cleverness on the part of the people carrying out the conspiracy that they really become intrinsically implausible. And at the same time, the absence of any direct evidence for the conspiracy is ...

B: Part of the conspiracy.

S: Right. Get's dismissed as being part of the conspiracy, so it becomes this insulated, unfalsifiable sort of belief system.

B: Bullet-proof.

S: Right. So essentially what conspiracy theorists elect to do is they look for anomalies or apparent anomalies, things that don't immediately make sense. And then they conclude from those anomalies that there must have been a conspiracy surrounding those events. The same thing applies to many, many pseudo-sciences. Mystery-mongering or just anomaly hunting does not add up to positive evidence for a specific explanation, whether its a conspiracy, or aliens, or some specific pseudo-scientific or paranormal explanation. That's the essence of why most of these grand conspiracy theories are basically pseudo-scientific in their structure.

Science or Fiction (13:23)[edit]

S: But why don't we move on. We do have a Science or Fiction for this week. We have no guest. Shows where we don't have a guest I typically fill in with a Science or Fiction.

P: Won't be the case, next week, by the way.

S: Next week we do have a guest. Maybe we'll talk about that at the end of the episode, preview that a bit.

P: All right.

Voice-over with echoing: It's time to play Science or Fiction!

S: The Science or Fiction for those of you who don't know, what I do is I come up with three news items in science, either science facts or science news items. Two of them are genuine, mostly recent scientific news items, and one is fictitious. I make up one. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to try to sniff out which one is fake and which two are real, and, of course, you listeners can play along with us. There is a theme for this week. I like to do themes. The theme this week is "black holes".

B: Oooooo!

S: I know you guys all know what black holes are, right? They are massive astronomical objects that are essentially ...

B: Dead stars.

S: ... massive dead stars, right. Massive dead stars that were large enough that their own gravity compresses them down to a single point called a "singularity". Oftentimes astronomers will describe the size of a black hole, and they're not talking about the size of where the mass is condensed into, because that's always a single point. What they're talking about is the size of the event horizon. The event horizon is the point within which – the distance from the singularity where even light itself cannot escape the gravitational pull of that black hole. So if you fall within the event horizon, you are forever trapped by the black hole.

E: Now of course you have photographic evidence of these black holes you claim exist.

S: Ha, ha. Right. It's interesting you say that Evan, because I often use black holes as an example of the fact that even though I'm a skeptic, the true believers often say "Well, don't you believe in anything you can't see with your own eyes?"

B: Right.

E: That's right.

S: And I say "Sure, I believe – I accept the probable reality of black holes, even though I've never seen one." And in fact, no one has ever seen a black hole.

E: No one. Right.

S: We infer their existence by seeing – by two – by multiple independent lines of evidence. Primarily, there's a theoretical basis for their existence. And there's also indirect observational evidence in that we can see their gravitational effect on nearby stuff, whether it's stars or matter or whatever. So ...

B: Yeah. I mean there's really – as exotic as they are, there really is no doubt in any astronomer's or physicist's mind that these do in fact exist.

S: Yeah. The evidence is at the point where this is a fairly-well established fact.

B: What did Gould say? It would be perverse to not believe in them?

S: It would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.

B: OK.

S: That's as good as you get in science.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: So I'm going to give you three recent discoveries about black holes, and you have to tell me which one is fake. Interestingly, I'll tell you before – in the past sometimes I've run into trouble because the fake ones I've made up were distressingly close to the truth.

P: Like DaVinci's calculating machine.

S: Right. That one we never aired, by the way, for technical reasons.

E: Ah, ha, ha.

S: But although I did a previous Science or Fiction about DaVinci, and I said the following things are things that DaVinci invented, and the one I made up was a calculating machine, and it turns out that there was a recent discovery of a new book of his that was in Madrid where in fact he did design a calculating machine. So my fake DaVinci invention was actually true. So this time, when I was thinking of my fake ones, I did a more thorough research to make sure that none of these things were actually out there, and the first one that I came up with actually existed, and I couldn't use it as my fake one. I'll tell you what it was at the end. So here's the first one. Are you guys ready?

B: Yup.

E: Ready

P: Yup.

S: OK.

S: Fact #1: Scientists have discovered evidence that a massive black hole is actually warping space and time, as predicted by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. So they've observed the warping of space and time around a probable black hole. Fact #2, which I call the lonely black hole: Astronomers have discovered a super-massive black hole that appears to have been ejected from its home galaxy. Just for a bit of background, many galaxies have super-massive black holes at their core, in the middle of the galaxy. Astronomers have discovered a black hole that was ejected from its galaxy, so it's now by itself, without its surrounding galaxy.

P: How about the Milky Way?

S: The Milky Way has a super-massive black hole at its core, yes.

B: Absolutely.

S: And #3: Astronomers have discovered a small black hole within our solar system, meaning that it's closer to our star than any other star. Those are the three items. Evan, why don't we start with you.

E: My God! If three turns out to be truthful, I think that's just incredible. In our own solar system? I mean cosmically speaking that's like having – it might as well be next door.

S: Right. That goes out to two light years, basically.

E: Yeah, but still, still that's pretty darn close. I don't know. It almost seems too obvious that that would be the one you made up. So I'm going to say that one's right. And for no other reason, it's really a coin flip for me between one and two, so I'm going to say one is not, is false.

S: OK. Perry?

P: Yeah, you know. Like one and three – scientists would have a hard time observing what you claim they observed in number one. Number three just seems highly improbable. I'm going to go with the obvious one and say number three. Seems very unlikely.

S: OK. Alrighty. Bob?

B: All right. Well, warping space and time, the first one. Einstein did postulate that. I believe it's called "frame-dragging." They've actually launched some satellites to test that – that are in orbit around the Earth – that will test his theory, and I don't think the jury's in on that one, but it seems very plausible to me. I'm not sure, initially it would seem to me that black holes would be too far away to actually observe some frame-dragging around them, but it's entirely possible. Let's see, the second one: super-massive black hole ejected from a home galaxy. Initially, I thought: well, how would that happen, but galaxies collide very often, and if a black hole would be ejected, it would probably be from a collision with another galaxy. I could see that happening. Although it would probably drag a fair amount of the galaxy with it, I would think, but it depends how close it is to the stars in the core. The small black hole within our solar system? No way! No way. I would've heard about that. First off ...

P: Ha, ha.

B: ... you said it was a small black hole.

S: Uh, huh.

B: There are theories of small black holes, primordial black holes that are real tiny. And black holes do evaporate over time: Hawking radiation.

S: Right.

B: Black holes do evaporate, and they would theoretically reach a certain size and then explode in a shower of radiation once they reached a certain critical threshold size. If there was a very small black hole within a couple of light years, I don't know how the hell you would detect it. First of all, if it's pretty small, there's not much out there for them to actually infer its existence, so I would have to say that that is absolutely false.

B: And if it's not false, ...

S: OK.

B: ... I'll be so happy anyway I won't care.

S: Right. Well now you know why I always make Bob go last, especially when I'm doing an astronomy topic. I basically knew Bob would be all over this one. So, I'll just cut right to the chase. Number three is the one that I made up.

E: I knew it.

P: Yes, but I chose it.

E: Yup.

S: You did. Evan used the ...

B: Too obvious.

S: It was too obvious, but it was obvious because it was in fact the correct answer. So, Bob's analysis I think was pretty accurate all around. Number one, observing the warping of space and time as predicted by the general theory of relativity, in fact, that is a recent discovery. Using a NASA X-ray satellite, they observed X-rays passing near – basically past a black hole, so the source of the X-rays is behind the black hole. They have observed periodic, what they call quasi-periodic oscillations in this X-ray light, which matches really well to the predicted distortions or warping of space and time that would occur around a black hole.

B: Cool.

S: So, that's pretty good observational confirmation of a lot of the theories behind black holes. So that's one thing. That was plausible. It's just a matter of knowing that news item. The second one, I thought, was interesting. And Bob, again, you were exactly right. In fact, it was ejected from its host galaxy probably by the collision of two galaxies. So, when two galaxies collide that gravitational interaction whipped the black hole away from its parent galaxy. It also, as you suggested, Bob, it dragged a lot of the galaxy with it. So it's still surrounded by a core of material that it's feeding off of.

B: Cool.

S: And in fact, it would have to be, otherwise, we couldn't see it.

B: Right. Exactly.

S: It's the material which is being eaten, if you will, by the black hole, that's being dumped into the black hole which then ejects gamma rays and radiation, and that's what we see. In fact, it's thought that that's what quasars are. Quasars are, in fact, the brightest, oldest objects that we can observe. They're probably at the edge of the known universe, and it is theorized that they represent super-massive black holes in the cores of young galaxies. In fact, this thing looks a lot like a quasar, but there's no galaxy around it. So that was an enigma for awhile, but now they figured out that it's probably because it was just ejected from its galaxy by two galaxies colliding. The third item: a small black hole in our solar system. I didn't think I was really going to fool anybody that much by saying it was small, but there are no black holes in our vicinity that have ever been detected. Even a small one ...

P: That's probably a good thing.

S: ... would be a scary thing. It would have to be really, really small. Black holes do evaporate and do get smaller over time, so there could be some out there. But then Bob raised the obvious question: how would we really know about it. It would have to be surrounded by a disk of material, otherwise you wouldn't be able to see them. But, just to be thorough, I did a thorough search on that question to see if there was any NASA or astronomical data, because the way you could observe even if you couldn't see them because of close-by material, you could see them because of their gravitational influence on other objects.

B: Yeah, but.

S: Perhaps the perturbation in the orbit of Pluto, or something, could hypothetically be due to a small black hole ...

B: Right.

S: ... way out beyond the Oort cloud, or something.

B: Still, I think it would be pretty safe, not doing too much investigation on that one. Because that would be huge news. That would be "My God!"

S: It would; it would. But I got burned on the other one, ...

E: There's always tomorrow.

S: ... the DaVinci calculator, so I wanted to make sure I didn't get burned on this one. But I did find one website that actually talked about exactly that, but it was purely speculative. There was no evidence of it. It was just somebody saying maybe there's a block hole out there that's perturbing the orbit of Pluto.

E: Or Sedna.

S: Or Sedna, or the other.

E: The unnamed one.

S: Now my first choice ...

B: Yeah, what was that?

S: ... of a fake answer turned to actually be true, which is somewhat obvious, I hadn't heard about it myself. And I was going to say that there was the discovery of a binary black hole: two black holes orbiting each other.

B: Oh, cool!

E: Ooooooh.

S: But in fact, those have already been discovered.

B: I don't think they would last too long, depending on their ...

S: Right. Eventually they will merge. They will merge eventually, that is not an entirely stable system. But there are some observed, anyway, binary black holes, or two black holes orbiting closely around each other.

B: Boy would they release tons of gravitational waves if they really exist.

S: Yes, exactly. Exactly, they do.

P: How are black holes related to anti-matter, if at all?

S: There's no direct or obvious relationship. There may be some exotic relationship in terms of ...

B: Well, actually, there is a relationship, actually. I believe certain classes of black holes, I think, the only requirement is they're very active, there's lots of debris in their immediate vicinity. Black holes I believe can actually produce anti-matter jets that exit the galaxy at right angles to the plane of the galaxy. So I think they have actually found jets of anti-matter being squirted out of certain galaxies.

P: How would you define anti-matter, Bob?

B: They are mirror images of particles that we know, of all particles. But their charge is the opposite, so an electron has a negative charge, so an anti-matter electron would be a positron, which would have a positive charge. And, of course, the theory goes that if they meet they annihilate each other, converting their mass into a hundred percent energy, which, of course, would be immense. People look at Einstein ...

S: Well, that's the theory. We've made small amounts of anti-matter. That's in fact what happens.

B: But, I mean that ...

S: Particles and anti-particles essentially annihilate each other.

B: Yeah. You could probably could still call it a theory. I don't think anybody has actually mixed matter and anti-matter together to see what would actually happen. But like other theories it's so well accepted that there's really no question.

S: I thought they had manufactured small amounts of anti-matter.

B: They have. They do. They can create very small.

S: So they know what happens.

B: I'm not actually sure what they do with it, though. Have they put it in contact with regular matter to see what would happen? That would probably be a cool experiment if you had small amounts.

S: I think it's really hard for them to keep it from going into contact with regular matter.

B: Yeah. They need to keep ...

S: They need to keep it isolated in magnetic fields and what not.

B: Right. I've just never read of them actually doing that experiment. Well, maybe they did. So you're right. It's more – it's probably not just a theory. I mean there's really no question.

S: Also it happens in particle accelerators. It's just the anti-particles exist for a very short period of time. They don't accumulate anti-matter. Anti-matter is produced and then almost immediately destructs itself, annihilates a matter particle.

B: Yeah. Certain collisions ...

S: That happens all the time.

B: Yeah. Certain collisions produce particles and anti-particles which go away from each other and then curve back to each other in and then annihilate each other. So you're right.

S: Right. Exactly.

B: It's not just a theory. Something like this happens all the time. That's right. Particle accelerators...

S: Right. But black holes are cool. Very exciting. Again, it's my favorite example of believing in things that are absolutely fantastical, counter-intuitive. We can only really infer their existence, and it's really a good answer to all the true believers who think that skeptics can only believe things that are right in front of their face. It's also a good example of why science is cooler than fiction, you know.

B: Right.

S: There's no one in the world of the paranormal or even science fiction has come up with anything as neat as what real science is producing.

B: Absolutely.

News Items (30:24)[edit]

Political Correctness and Freedom of Speech[edit]

S: So that was our Science or Fiction for this week, but let's change topics now and talk about freedom of speech. We try not to get bogged down in purely political issues on the Skeptics' Guide. We like there to always be some scientific or paranormal angle, but we do get very interested in the whole issue of freedom of speech, especially academic freedom of speech, which often now runs afoul of the beast known as "political correctness." There is a group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. They have a website, and they are a self-appointed watchdog group on colleges and universities that infringe upon individual rights, especially first amendment free-speech rights. They have an award they give out that they call The Speech Code of the Month award, which is given to a college or university that has trampled upon these free rights, and I think Perry you sent me this one, their latest speech code of the month: the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

P: Right. I imagine they have many, many to choose from. I would not be surprised.

S: Why don't you tell us a little bit about this one piece?

P: Right. So they're mentioning in this particular piece about the student handbook at the Massachusetts College for Liberal Arts, which is a public college, and the quote in there, that they pull out, is "There shall be no interference with a demonstration on the grounds of content of speech, except for any speech or demonstration which victimizes others because the speech contains offensive language and/or is motivated by hate or bias." So that means unless it offends somebody, they're not going to interfere unless it offends somebody.

S: Right.

P: Which is totally subjective, and it's too over-reaching, to the point of silliness.

S: It is silly, the idea that people can demonstrate as long as they don't offend anyone is absurd, and the idea is that again that they get to decide if the demonstration is motivated by hate or bias – bias? What does that mean?

E: Talk about a broad stroke.

S: It is essentially so broad that it gives them the leeway to essentially police the content of speech on campus.

P: And they'll accept bias, by the way, as long as it's biased towards what they believe in.

S: Right.

P: Which in most cases is a left or liberal agenda.

S: Probably.

P: In the world of academia, that's the usual.

S: Typically.

P: Not always, but the typical.

S: The article quotes the U. S. Supreme Court in a relevant decision. This is Terminiello vs. Chicago, 1949. It's going back a little bit. I assume, I don't know if this is still a contemporary precedent, but it says "Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest." So even if speech will cause unrest or inconvenience or annoyance or basically offend somebody, that's not enough to say, to infringe upon the freedom of speech. It has to have a clear and present danger of a substantive evil. I know in more recent cases, basically, the application of that has been that if you are inciting a crowd to criminal or hostile activity, that speech is not protected.

E: Right.

S: So I know that may come up in cases of – if the KKK is having a rally and inciting people to murder, they can't defend that as free speech. But that certainly is not anything close to what this college's student handbook is talking about. Something which they subjectively decide is biased. That's just ludicrous.

E: I think they'd consider skepticism biased or anything, really.

S: Skeptics face this all the time, because we are often told our opinions are hurtful, or they're some way rude. "Oh, it's rude to tell people that their beliefs are wrong." It's easy to see that the kind of speech that we would advocate would be censored by these kinds of things. In fact, one of our members informed me once that – I don't remember what the school was – but the school had a filter on their internet access, and the NESS website was filtered out by their filter. So essentially, students at that school could not access our website. It must have some how triggered their censorship filters.

P: Ridiculous.

S: Probably because of all the pornography we have on our website, right?

P: Ha, ha, ha. That's right.

E: We do?

P: All the incendiary hate talk we have. And our absolute prejudice against gullibility.

S: Well, I do think it's good to have organizations like this out there. I do think that freedom of speech is one of the most important rights guaranteed in the Constitution, because it is such a tremendous strength of our culture, of our society, that we actually celebrate a free exchange of ideas, even ideas which are uncomfortable or unpopular, and that we don't try to insulate ourselves from ideas that we don't like. Especially since that actually is the natural human tendency. People tend to expose themselves to ideas that they already agree with and tend to insulate themselves from ideas which challenge what they believe. So you would imagine that over time the statutes and laws would reflect that basic human psychology unless in more enlightened times we went out of our way to protect information and speech that was potentially either unpopular or even "offensive." So anyway, I think that it is absolutely critical to continue to be very staunchly dedicated to the free exchange of intellectual ideas.

Iran Denies the Holocaust (32:28)[edit]

S: Which actually leads to the next topic that I wanted to talk about tonight. It is no news that the Iranian government, which is pretty hard-line and very anti-Israel, anti-Israeli.

P: Anti-intellectual, too.

S: Well, that's true.

P: Let's face it.

E: Anti lots of things.

S: They have – specifically the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

E: Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad.

S: OK. That he essentially ...

E: Call him Mohammed. Mahmoud.

S: Mahmoud denies the holocaust – the Jewish holocaust of World War II. Of course not the first or only person to do that.

P: What motivation could he possibly have to want to defend the holocaust?

E: It actually goes beyond that, Steve. He has spoken outwardly of hosting a conference about the holocaust, in which he is inviting scholars from around the world to come to Iran to discuss the holocaust, both those who feel it was truly an event that happened in history and for those who have their doubts as to whether or not it happened. It's pretty shocking to hear.

S: Right.

E: Certainly, when I read it for the first time, it tries to bring the denial of the holocaust to a certain level of accuracy, but it by no means in any respect deserves to be brought up to any kind of playing field against the historical facts. The holocaust absolutely happened. The evidence is overwhelming. We still have survivors of the holocaust certainly ...

S: Right.

E: ... to give their personal accounts, and of my uncle being one of those, as a boy, he was imprisoned and managed to escape one of the concentration camps, which is a story for another time.

P: I think at this point it would be perverse to withhold your provisional assent.


S: Here's a quote from President Mahmoud of Iran that he has placed at the center of – oh I'm sorry, this is not a quote from him. This is a quote from the spokesman of the Association of Islamic Journalists, that "The President has placed at the center of international attention a very important question on the truthfulness of the version that Europe and the Zionists have imposed on the world on the murder of Jews during the years of the great war. And therefore we are of the opinion it is useful and necessary to organize an international conference on that theme, where all the historians and researchers, even those that do not believe the official version will be able to express themselves freely." So, clearly he's betraying his position in the statement that this is a myth, an official myth that's been imposed upon the world by Europe and Zionists, and that they need to protect those historians who express doubt about the official version of the holocaust.

B: Yeah, but guys, guys, what about Germany? Don't Germans say "Yeah, we did it." Don't they admit it?

S: Yes.

E: Oh, yes.

B: They may discount that, as well.

E: They have passed some of the harshest laws, some of the harshest laws in the world about holocaust denial. They'll imprison you if you publish things in Germany, if you say things on the radio, if you try even to express your opinion on it.

S: Right.

E: That's it. They'll arrest you and put you in jail. In fact ...

B: Does Germany have an official response to this statement? You'd think they would have said something.

S: Not that I've seen. But Evan is right, in fact, there is a prominent holocaust denier who is sitting in – it's actually an Austrian jail. Austria has similar laws to Germany for expressing doubt about the holocaust, essentially what we call "holocaust denial."

E: Hitler was Austrian, by the way.

S: It is David Irving. He's an English historian, David Irving who's a notorious holocaust denier. He's currently in the custody of an Austrian jail, being accused of denying the holocaust. Now of course I totally disagree with that policy. I don't that think you should put somebody in jail for being an idiot, for being wrong. We should hash out their claims in academic arenas, not put them in jail for denying. The government shouldn't ever be the final say on what's truth and what's not truth.

E: True. It's a hypersensitivity issue on the part of Germans and Austrians.

S: Right.

E: You put yourselves in, I guess, their shoes, and they're just trying I think to make any effort possible to atone as much as possible for as long as they possibly can, the atrocities under Hitler and the Third Reich.

S: I don't think oppressing academic freedom is the way to accomplish that.

E: I happen to agree with that. I agree with you.

S: Certainly we can see why they are doing that. They are also very sensitive about cults. They don't have the same religious freedoms that we have constitutionally protected in this country. And therefore, they feel free to outlaw – like Scientology is basically outlawed in Germany. It's outlawed under their rules, which have illegalized fascist organizations. Basically they've deemed Scientology to be a fascist organization, and it's illegal in Germany. In fact, during the Clinton administration – not Tom Cruise but the other one.

E: John Travolta. Travolta.

S: Yeah. John Travolta actually petitioned the Clinton administration to put pressure on Germany for human rights violations, and the human rights violations that he was concerned with was their oppression of Scientology within that country.

E: (sigh)

S: So, again, I disagree with Germany for violating the religious freedom of Scientologists, even though I think that Scientology is a vicious and ridiculous cult. Again, that's the sort of the double-edged sword of freedom. People have the freedom to be idiots, and I'd rather educate them than criminalize their idiocy.

E: What Iran is doing, though, is they're kind of bringing this back into – because Iran is so prominent in the news, right now – to dig up, to lump into this now the holocaust revisionist aspect of what they're trying to do really puts it on the front page of the newspapers worldwide.

S: Yeah.

E: Worldwide, in a very, very dangerous time in the world's history right now.

S: I agree, but I think the danger is probably within the Islamic community. I think worldwide, the historians have spoken, the evidence is out there, all the claims of the holocaust revisionists are out there. They've been dissected. They're nonsense, they're logical fallacies. Their evidence is wrong. So I don't think there is any danger of that spreading to the population at large. It's always been mainly popular among neo-fascists or neo-Nazis in Europe and in America, in people who already basically were anti-semitic. But the Islamic community has demonstrated their willingness and their ability to believe any nonsense which is being told to them by their leaders and from the pulpit. After 9/11 there were rumors that were spreading wildly and believed widely among the Islamic communities that the bombing of the twin towers was a Jewish conspiracy, and that all of the Jewish workers stayed home that day, that they actually did not show up for work at the twin towers because they knew what was coming. And that was widely believed.

B: Probably still is.

S: Probably still is.

E: Well that's just it. These things never go away. They never go away.

S: You're dealing with a culture that is in many places very backward, almost medieval in their societal and belief structures. And they don't have the free press that we have here, and they're isolated and they're insulated at lot more than obviously a more open society is like what we have. So when a religious figure says, preaches in the mosques that this is the way it is, that the holocaust didn't happen, that it's a Zionist lie and myth that they used in order to essentially manipulate the world into creating Israel, which is essentially what they claim, they're going to believe it. And Iran is very savvy is playing this card. Unfortunately, it will probably work within their own community.

E: Right.

P: Mentioned earlier about Germany and their reaction. It does say that the foreign minister of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, he summoned the Ambassador from Iran to his offices and he said he wanted to make it "unmistakably clear" about his government's displeasure over his remarks.

B: Excellent.

P: So his government, the German government, was outraged by what the guy said.

B: That's what I'd hope.

P: They just changed governments recently, too. They just had an election and a new government's in place. They were outraged by it like most civilized peoples.

B: Right.

S: Sure.

B: I'm curious to see where the conference goes, though. Will real holocaust historians attend? What kind of proof are both sides going to offer if they do attend. As usual, though, I expect that the deniers will attempt – they'll take some isolated yet accepted fact of the holocaust and cast some doubt on it and try to prove to everyone that "If this little fact is in doubt, then of course the whole house of cards is in doubt." Which of course is ridiculous.

S: Right.

B: It's like evolution.

S: It's remarkably similar to evolution.

B: Right.

E: It is.

B: It really is. You try to cast doubt on one theory. They don't realize that it's so many intersecting lines of reasoning and experiments and observations.

S: Right.

B: Just by knocking down one does literally nothing, nothing to the edifice.

S: Right. In fact, creationism and intelligent design is best understood and described as "evolution denial". That's what it is.

B: Yes! I like that.

S: They don't have any positive theory to put forward themselves.

E: That's right.

B: Excellent. I love that.

S: I think I have to give credit to Michael Shermer for coining that particular phrase: "evolution denial."

B: That's exactly what it is.

S: Which he did in Why People Believe Weird Things, but which I think does hit it right on the head. That's all it is. It's evolution denial. Denial is a type of pseudo-science. I wrote an article about this, about denial as a type of pseudo-science. And evolution denial and holocaust denial. There's also other things. There's HIV denial, people who do not think that HIV causes AIDS.

B: How about psychology denial?

S: There's mental illness denial, which I wrote about, as well. They all show remarkably similar features and logical fallacies and strategies, so there is a very, I think, a very deep analogy to be made between the creationist/ID crowd and the holocaust denial crowd. As you say, just to pull out one example, based upon what you were saying, Bob, often creationists will say "Show me one piece of evidence that proves evolution happened." And the holocaust deniers will say "Show me one piece of evidence that proves that the holocaust happened."

B: Right.

S: But that is not a fair request to make, because there is no single piece of evidence that could possibly establish such a complex, long historical event as either the evolution of life on Earth or even the holocaust. It wasn't an event. It was hundreds of events, thousands of events.

P: Systematic genocide over period of almost a decade.

E: Yeah.

S: And they're tied together in a very loose and complicated way. It is true, for example, and the holocaust deniers will point this out, that there is no document with Adolf Hitler's signature on it that says "Kill all the Jews." That document does not exist.

E: That's right.

S: There probably never was such a document.

P: No, but there is evidence of the Wannsee Conference where they decided on their Final Solution.

S: Of course, but you have to sort of infer what they mean. What does it mean to "rip the Jewish community out of Germany by the roots"? To "ausreißen" ...

B: Right.

S: ... the Jews from Germany. Does that mean to kill them, or does it mean to get them out of every nook and cranny and send them to someplace else, for example. These are the kind of arguments that the holocaust deniers use. So, again, there's lots of wrinkles and complexity that they can argue around. Another example which I think is again so similar to the kind of strategies that the IDers use: some of the concentration camps had gas chambers in them, the Zyklon B, or was it Zyklon D?. One of those.

P: It says canisters of Zyklon B.

S: Zyklon B.

P: What we still have.

S: Yeah. Which is a type of cyanide. They made the argument that the amount of cyanide that was discovered in the walls of these buildings is actually much, much less than the amount of cyanide that you would find, say, in a delousing chamber, a chamber used to kill lice that are on clothing. It makes it seem as if, well there was such a small trace amount that it couldn't possibly have been used to kill humans if it wasn't enough to kill lice. In fact, the amount of cyanide you need to kill lice is about a hundred times the amount you need to kill a person. So it's that selective reporting of these factoids which seem to cast doubt on the official version of events, but not really put it into the proper or full context, it's really meant to deceive. It's like these facts which are true, but are presented in such a way that are meant to deceive, not to really illuminate what actually happened. So that's basically the intellectual level that we're dealing with. Both with the IDers and in this case now with the holocaust denial.

P: It's a conclusion looking for evidence. It's outrageous.

S: Exactly. Right.

B: The other thing, though ...

E: It will be interesting ...

B: The other similarity that I think is interesting is should real historians attend this conference?

S: It's the same dilemma that we talk about with the ID. Should real biologists grace it with their presence?

B: I'm starting to think yes. I mean it's such a pernicious and widespread belief, sometimes you've got to represent and show people that maybe for the first time the other side of the story that they never heard.

S: Yeah.

E: But don't they become kind of useful at that point? I mean Iran has a totally different – they don't really care what happened at the holocaust, whether it happened or not. They really don't. That's not the real purpose behind all of this. They're trying grab headlines.

S: Which they will do, however, in any case, and I think that's the demarcation line.

E: Then why would ...

S: If you're going to, by your attention, your presence, whatever, elevate an event or a claim or an organization or whatever out of obscurity into public awareness, then I would say you are better off ignoring them. But if something already has the public attention, like certainly ID does in this country and certainly holocaust denial does in Iran and maybe the broader Islamic world, then I don't think that you elevate it that much by your presence, because they will make a lot out of your absence. They'll say "Oh, well, again, they're just hiding from the truth. They don't even have faith enough in their claims that they will come and confront the real facts." So they'll make plenty of hay out of the absence of genuine historians. I think that probably the optimal thing to happen is for historians which are not only well-versed in ...

B: Right.

S: ... the history of the holocaust, but well-versed in holocaust denial and the strategies employed by holocaust deniers to go there and kick their butts. That's what I think is probably the best-case scenario. I don't think that it's going to essentially decline into obscurity if they just refuse to go. I don't think that strategy will work, in my opinion. And again, I would draw the same analogy to creationism and ID in this country, for example with the two recent court cases, the one in Dover and then the one before that, which was – where was that? The one court case where the evolutionists, the scientists, essentially refused to give their testimony.

P: That was in Kansas.

S: Was that Kansas?

P: Kansas! Yeah, Kansas.

S: That's right. You're right. They basically boycotted it, and I don't think that really worked. And then the one in Dover, which was a much more important precedent, the scientists did show up, the evolutionists, and they completely destroyed the IDers. So if you just take those two most recent cases as an example, I think the strategy of confronting them with people who know what they are doing is probably the way to go.

Stem Cell Research Fraud (55:26)[edit]

S: Before we close tonight, we're actually a little bit over, so we'll have to cut to our last topic, I wanted to mention the South Korean stem cell researcher, Dr. Hwang, who is under now intense investigation, both by the university, which is the Seoul National University, where he works, the Korean government, international scientists, the journals that published his papers.

P: Basically everybody.

S: Basically everybody. So again, for those of you living in a cave, this South Korean stem cell researcher who – some of his co-workers expressed some doubts about perhaps some of the legitimacy of some of the elements of the paper that he published, and over time the accusations just got worse and worse and worse, and it turns out he completely fabricated some of the alleged stem cell lines that he had reported that he had created. The more the investigation had been done, the more his work was essentially unravelling as a big fraud. This is really a shocking and very disheartening episode. Obviously, the practice of science depends greatly upon the honesty of individuals ...

P: Practitioners.

S: ... and practitioners. I do think – the good news is that science is self-correcting.

E: Right.

S: Over time, unless something is true, it won't hold up over time, because people are always going to try to replicate your research and base further research on the discoveries and on the findings. If it turns out that it is not true, it just – over time.

P: That's what the whole peer review process is.

S: Well the peer review is not exactly the same thing. What I'm talking about is more "replication," the idea that over time, any fraudulent findings will be more and more at odds at new discoveries that are being made. The thing that comes to mind is Piltdown Man, which was a famous English fraudulent early human fossil that turned out to be fake. It turned out the be an orang-utan jaw and a human skull.

P: How about cold fusion, Steve.

S: Cold fusion as well. That fell apart because the people could not replicate it. After Piltdown Man was discovered, it basically fit the bias as to what scientists thought early man should look like, but then over the next twenty, thirty years the more fossils that were discovered, the more out of line the Piltdown fossils were, until they were such an anomaly that they were really irrelevant, that everyone basically discounted them as some kind of anomaly. They couldn't fit into the rest of the evidence. And then eventually, of course, it was discovered that it was a fraud.

E: So you're saying the science eventually weeds out ...

S: Yeah. It has to weed out any wrong ideas, so fraud – of course they're very counter-productive. They cause tremendous inefficiency. People may base their career choices on findings that may turn out to be fraudulent. But they do get worked out over time. The peer-review process is more immediate. If you submit a paper for publication in a journal, a peer-reviewed journal, then relevant experts are asked to review the research to make sure that it's up to snuff – that it meets scientific and academic standards, that nothing seems fishy. But they don't go to your lab and look at your notebooks and interrogate people. It's not the kind of investigation that would root out fraud, necessarily. Do you know what I mean? It really is more – it's assuming basically that you are honest, but just looking at the academic standards of what you're doing. Are your arguments sound? Does the evidence say what you say it says? Did you forget to account for any possible explanations? Were your controls adequate? Whatever. They're basing it on what is written in front of them, largely.

E: But in the case of Dr. Hwang, I guess it was some of his students that ...

S: Yeah.

E: ... that narced on him.

S: Basically, and then it first I think came to media attention when an American researcher, who, again, his involvement was in the writing of the paper. He wasn't ever in Korea. He didn't do any of the research. He just put his name on the paper because he helped them write it. And that's perfectly legitimate; that happens all the time. That's part of your intellectual contribution to the project is in putting it together in paper form, which is very important. But then some of Dr. Hwang's junior colleagues reported to the American scientist who was involved that they had doubts about the legitimacy of some of the research. So he, of course, did not want his name attached to a fraudulent paper. So he pulled his name from the paper. That prompted the media attention. That prompted the investigation, and then the house of cards came down, just collapsed. The amazing thing, really, is that this guy thought he would get away with it.

B: Yeah.

E: Incredible.

S: The process is such that these things do tend to get found out over time. It's hard to really – especially, especially in such a high-profile area. Now if you're doing some really exotic, low-profile research, and you're publishing in some obscure journal, you may get away with it. The Journal of Obscurity. But if you're publishing stem cell research in a prestigious journal and you essentially become the face of cutting-edge research for your country. How did he ever think that he was going to survive the close scrutiny that that would engender?

E: He must have been in just a deep state of denial.

B: And in Korea!

S: I guess!

B: Korea really lionizes their heroes, and was a hero to that country.

S: Absolutely.

B: Oh my God! He was a super rock star in the country.

S: Yeah.

B: And now he must be a total pariah. It must be incredible.

S: As high as he was he is now just as low.

P: Right.

S: Because now he turned from a national hero to a national disgrace.

P: An outcast.

S: Absolutely. And South Korea, which was enjoying the limelight of being on the cutting edge of stem cell research, especially with the Bush administration's stance and hampering stem cell in this country, it was their opportunity to grab an early lead in this cutting-edge science. And now their whole program is derailed. They'll survive this and cloning and stem cell research will survive all of this, but it really is a shame. It is an absolute disgrace. My concern is that when episodes like this come to light, it really tarnishes the reputation of the whole endeavor of science. That's probably the worst thing that can come out of all of this, is that the public attitude toward science as an institution is tarnished. And that can have a ripple effect, which can be tremendous.

P: No question about it, the enemies of science will use this episode ...

S: Sure.

P: ... in their favor. Clearly.

S: Oh, just like creationists still use Piltdown Man as an example. "Oh, those evolutionists don't know what they're talking about. They keep putting forward these fraudulent fossils like Piltdown Man." Yeah that was like a hundred years ago, and it was scientists who exposed it. So when they try to use these examples of why science doesn't work, they're actually always – the ones we know about are examples of how science does work.

E: Right.

S: Science weeds these things out. Of course, we don't know about the ones that haven't been weeded out, although we do have to trust, again, just the replication and the process over time. Oftentimes the public has this archaic view of science, that it's the lone genius struggling away in their laboratory, and then coming up with an amazing discovery, when, in fact, it is such a community effort, it really is a group effort of many, many, many individuals and institutions, each contributing little pieces and building on each other's work. So it's really hard – no one researcher, no one lab has such a huge control or influence over any area of research that they really could hijack the path that research takes, or they could carry out a long fraudulent research program because there's just too many other people that would have to be involved. So it really is not sustainable, again as this episode demonstrates.

S: I hate to end on a sour note, but we are out of time. Guys – Evan, Perry, Bob, thanks again for joining me.

B: Good episode, guys.

E: Well thank you. Very good.

S: That was a lot of fun. Bob, again, really good job on the Science or Fiction.

B: Thank you.

S: But I kind of was lofting you a softball with the whole black hole thing.

E: Oh, yeah. He took the easy answer.

S: That's a special interest of yours, so I knew that was ...

B: Still impressive.

S: It was, absolutely. It was a very impressive performance this week. Before we close, next week, Perry.

P: Yes.

S: You lined up a very interesting guest for us next week. Why don't you tell us about that, briefly.

P: Yeah. A quick teaser for next week. We're going to have Eric Altman. He's a founder and president of the Pennsylvania Big Foot Society is going to be with us.

S: He promises to have "startling new evidence" for the existence of big foot.

P: Ha, ha, ha.

S: Maybe.

E: Like a dead big foot?


E: That would be startling.

S: Well we'll have a lot of fun talking to him about big foot, and there'll be a lot of other topics that we'll discuss as well next week. So definitely tune in. Sign up for that RSS feed, and join us on the Skeptics' Guide. So guys, again, thanks and to everyone out there, until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information about this and other episodes, visit our website at 'Theorem' is performed by Kineto and is used with permission.


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