SGU Episode 352

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SGU Episode 352
14th April 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)
SGU 351 SGU 353
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
One sure mark of a fool is to dismiss anything outside his experience as being impossible.
Farengar Secret-Fire
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday April 11th 2012 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.

E: Good evening everybody.

J: Hello.

S: How's everyone doing this evening?

R: Super

B: Pretty good

J: Quite well

This Day in Skepticism

Titanic Disaster (0:31)

R: Guess what today is.

S: uuuh, it is 100 years after the Titanic struck an iceberg.

R: Steve, why do you have to step all over my stuff?

S: Because you asked!

R: It was a rhetorical question, Steve.

S: Oh, I don't know Rebecca, what is today?

R: Today is the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, you see how I said that even better that you did?

S: Except you were wrong.

R: Shut up.

S: The Titanic did not sink on the 14th, it struck the iceberg at 11:40 on the 14th. It sunk on the 15th.

E: Aaah. Sunk on the 15th, that's right.

R: I was going by Australian time, Steve.

S: (laughs) But not local ship time. I'm going by local ship time.

R: No.

E: Local shipwreck time.

R: I was trying to be kind to our Australian friends.

E: They said it hit a Goldberg? What? Oh, an iceberg.

S: (laughs) an iceberg, right.

E: That old joke.

S: But tell us the story.

R: You know the story, Steve. You know the story. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet got on a boat. The boat sank. One of them died I guess, I didn't make it to the end.


R: Really long. Long movie. Yes, in 1912, the Titanic was the hot ticket supposedly unsinkable liner. And they were wrong. They hit an iceberg and sunk, there were not enough lifeboats to go around, lots of people died, we talked about this last week I believe.

S: We did, a lot of interesting details about the story. As I said last week, 1514 people died. There were only enough lifeboats on the Titanic for half of the current passengers, only a third of maximal capacity.

E: Yeah, and they didn't even fill those boats, like some of them launched with a dozen people. Cos it was a big mess, yeah.

S: Yeah, it was poor training. The crew didn't know how many people were supposed to go in the boats so they were launching them half-full yeah. It was crazy. And most of the men died, they did women and children first. Most of the men, even first class. 67%, two thirds of men in first class died. Most people who died, died from hypothermia. As soon as they hit the water, they lasted a minute. They died almost immediately. Were you guys aware that there was a ship that could have rescued everybody? The SS Californian was very close at hand, had spotted the Titanic, had spotted the flares, the rockets that were launched. The captain who was asleep, Captain Stanley Lord, he was awakened by a junior officer and he was like aaaah waah, all right whatever, he rolled over and went back to sleep. He basically said, well what colours were they, were they just trying to identify themselves or something? I guess the ships would use different coloured flares as ID. He said nope all the flares were white captain. It's like, all right keep me posted. But they didn't do anything. They could have. They arrived at 5 o'clock in the morning after the Carpathia had already rescued everybody who was in the lifeboats. It was too late to be of any use. So it was, really a tragedy. I mean, just no idea.

B: Oh my god, Steve now it's kind of worse.

E: Yeah.

J: Could you imagine that guy a week later?

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah.

J: He must have... it probably ruined his life.

S: Oh it did, he was actually, an enquiry found that he acted improperly. So probably his career was over at that point.

B: wow.

R: yeah, I hate to say this, but good. I mean it should ruin his life.

S: It should!

R: He ruined the lives of thousands of other people.

J: Yeah I agree.

B: Wow. Hey guys, I read, I went through a website that was just talking about the common myths of the Titanic, and one that surprised me was that this whole idea of the ship being unsinkable, according to this website anyway, the company that made the ship didn't really promote hardly at all this idea of it being unsinkable. And it seems to be a myth that was created after the sinking. And if you looked you really won't be able to find too much that said hey it's unsinkable before it actually sank. But after it sank, that's when that whole idea just kind of exploded. Which I thought was really, kind of odd.

S: I never heard that. That is interesting.

B: If that is true, I never heard of it either.

S: It's not odd, that makes perfect sense, that's exactly what happens. People change stories to make them more profound. How many times have you heard someone said, oh the doctors said I would never walk, and here I am walking. You know what, no doctor ever said that. You made that up after rehab and you were able to walk again. So it's the same, I totally believe that because I see that happen all the time in other contexts. But that is interesting because I'd never heard that before about the Titanic.

B: Yeah, I'm not surprised either, it just surprised me that after a century I would guess most people have no idea about that, if it's true. This is just based on one website that I read.

S: Yeah.

E: The Titanic had a sister ship, the Olympic.

S: There were two other ships in that class.

B: Britannia was one, was another one. Actually this website had another interesting titbit. You know there wasn't actually much recorded footage of the Titanic because, what was it, what was the first one that had its maiden voyage previously.

E: Olympic was in service in 1911. And it's Britannic, not Britannia.

S: So the Olympic had its maiden voyage previously, and the captain of the Titanic was also the captain of that ship. And they went and they sailed the exact same route by the way. So the fanfare wasn't as special of an event because it had already happened and some of the footage that you may see for the Titanic was actually not the Titanic, it was one of its sister ships. Because there wasn't a lot of footage for the Titanic because it was just kind of like, like almost like ho-hum here we go again type thing.

R: That reminds me of one of the other problems that people who really love the whole Titanic thing, one of the problems they face is that it's difficult to get any kind of souvenir that has the word Titanic on it. Because most of the things on the ship just said White Star Line because it was one of several basically identical liners.

S: Yeah.

J: Oh, that's interesting.

E: The Britannic was sunk by a mine during World War One.

S: A mine!

E: 1916! But the Olympic lasted quite a while, it was retired out of service in 1935, so it was the only one to not see a disastrous end.

S: Well happy 100th...

R: Sink day.

B: (laughs)

S: No, iceberg day.

R: Iceberg hitting day.

E: Ice burg day.

J: For the record, I thought the movie sucked. I know I'm in the minority, did not like the movie.

R: No it was an awful movie, are you kidding?

E: I saw Kate Winslet in an interview recently about the movie and it made me very happy when she said whenever she hears the Celine Dion song, her eyes roll, and in her mind she's thinking, wow I really can't stand this song at all.

R: Yeah I love her, Kate Winslet is awesome.


News Items

Blow Up Space Junk (7:29)

Space on MSNBC: We could soon huff, puff and blow that space junk down

S: All right, well let's move on to the next item. Bob, there is yet another crazy scheme to deal with this whole space junk hubbub.

B: Yeah, resident space objects have been in the news lately. Have you ever heard of those? That's a euphemism I came across for common old space junk. I think NASA uses that term. Specifically, NASA is seriously considering a new way to get rid of our dangerous orbiting debris. The idea is to literally blow up some of the Earth's atmosphere so that it goes into space and cause some of the space junk that's there to de-orbit and burn up in our atmosphere. When I first saw that I was like, well you've got to be kidding, right. But actually I more I read, the more interesting it becomes. And this is a really cool idea for many reasons. First though, just a quicker primer on space junk. Space junk consists primarily of spent rocket stages and dead satellites and collision degree and etc. and all that. There's quite a bit of it out there, about 22,000 pieces as large as a softball or bigger. There's 500,000 pieces approximately bigger than a marble. And if you count everything bigger than a millimetre, you're talking literally hundreds of millions of items just careening around at orbital velocities. And the tiny ones can pack a punch, you think oh, you know it's smaller than a millimetre, big deal, but these high orbital velocities though really give it tremendous kinetic energy. For example, a marble travelling at 22,000 miles per hour has the kinetic energy of a 400 pound safe dropped from 100 feet.

S: That would crush a rabbit.


S: A rascally rabbit, in particular.

B: You know, what really scares me though, the most. Many people believe that we've already passed what's called this critical threshold. It's possible that now or some time in the near future, that even if we do nothing from this moment on, the junk will multiply, causing a cascade as it hits itself making more little pieces which then hit other pieces, etc. etc. until it gets so bad that nothing could survive a journey in space, could you imagine that?

S: I predict that if we just completely ignore this problem, it will just go away.


B: Just wait your 20 centuries and you're all set. Did you guys know that the international space station recently had a really close call? A real close call with space junk.

J: How recent?

E: How close, close?

B: Well, the astronauts aboard, imagine you're an astronaut on the ISS and you get a call, and they're like um, guys, could you go into the closest Russian Soyuz spacecraft and just wait for further instructions OK guys?

S: (laughs)

B: That's what they were told, scary.

J: When was this, Bob?

E: A week ago, two weeks ago?

B: Yeah, just this past month. The other scary part is that no-one knew about this potentially imminent collision until it was too late to move the ISS. They actually can and have moved the entire space station out of the way, but there was like not enough time, because they do need a lot of hours to actually, you know, get this thing moving. It turned out that a piece of a disabled Russian rocket was bearing down on them at 17,000 miles per hour. Luckily it missed them by seven miles, which might seem like a lot, but it really isn't when you're in orbit. But last June, a piece missed them by get this 1000 feet.

J: D'oh!

E: That's close. That's close.

B: 1000 feet, would be just like a bullet grazing your forehead.

S: Eerily, by the way, it's similar to the Titanic, they saw the iceberg a long time before they hit it but it just takes so long to turn that ship around that they just couldn't turn it around fast enough and the scraped past it.

J: Bob, did they shoot this thing with lasers? What did they do?

B: Hah no. Actually, yeah that is possible and China actually tested that a bunch of years ago, and they of course created lots of debris. Really pissed me off. But you know, you might think you could just clean it all...

S: That's good work boys.

B: Yeah, right. It's kinda easy to think, well just clean it all up, right? Just go gather it. But physics and economics just kind of giggles at you a bit when you say that. General William Shelton is head of the air force space command, what an awesome title that is. He's very pessimistic. He recently said, there's no solution just don't generate new debris.

E: There's no solution!

B: He said, if you look at the problem of trying to clean up debris, the physics just don't close. That's a direct quote, I get his gist but his phrasing seems kind of awkward.

S: Does not have way...

B: He finished with, with what we know about propulsion, there's no way to get there. So um...

S: So NASA's going to blow up the atmosphere.

B: Yeah, right. But if you look at the ideas that have been posited in the past, generally it involves a ship going from satellite to dead satellite picking them up. And really, I mean really it doesn't work, it's not practical at all, I mean think about it you have to change orbits and positions and velocities so often, the cost and weight to accomplish all that would be just, would be a joke. But the really important point there is that there's a lot of debris that you can't see. We can't see it. I mean there's literally millions of things in orbit that we cannot see, and that stuff is incredibly dangerous even if it's really tiny. You know, we can't track any of that stuff. Are you going to go and find and intercept all of them? There's no way we're going to do that, not with today's technology. Anyway, but that's where SPADE comes in. That stands for Space Debris Elimination which has been proposed by Daniel Gregory of Ratheon BBN Technologies in Virginia. And it is an interesting idea. The idea is to somehow fire focussed pulses of our atmosphere at the junk flying above it to change its trajectory, causing it to de-orbit and burn up faster. This is actually being seriously vetted by the NIAC or NASA's Innovative Advanced Concept project. And two ways they think they can pull this include a high-altitude plane or balloon being used to ignite enough fuel to cause this directed explosion. And calculations show that it wouldn't even need that much fuel, perhaps, I think the number was 500 gallons, I mean it was not a lot to accomplish this. Daniel recently said, or preliminary results show that we can affect the orbits of low earth orbit debris. We think we have a viable solution. And the beauty of this whole idea I think is threefold. We can handle all of the junk in the size spectrum from the biggest to the smallest, there's really no limitation. There's also no chance of adding new debris, and that's really key. You know, you're not putting machinery into orbit to accomplish a task so there's no chance of a mishap like, say an explosion and then just adding more mass to the space junk that's already there. Now, of course there could be, you know it's not foolproof. You could ignite prematurely or too late and affect the orbit of something you don't want to affect, or you could just change the orbit in such away that it causes the debris to careen into some other debris, so yeah, it's not foolproof. But it's good that you're not actually putting, you know, more objects into space than you have to. And the atmosphere that gets exploded into space just settles back down into the atmosphere like nothing happened, so that's not a problem. Also, many pieces can be dealt with at once, and the thinking is that you only need 3% change in velocity and that could probably be enough to de-orbit most debris. Now remember, orbital mechanics is not like flying in an atmosphere. If you're in orbit and your velocity decreases, you will enter a lower orbit, no if, ands or buts. That's why the Moon is moving away from us as it steals angular momentum from the Earth, it moves faster and therefore enters into a higher orbit, just getting farther and farther away. So I hope this idea pans out, I'd rather not have future generations, you know, curse us because we're so messy and short sighted. And please, China and other nations, please don't show off and test your lasers by blowing up satellites and creating thousands more pieces of these resident space objects. We have enough there, thank you very much.

Aristolochia Nephropathy (15:17)

Science-Based Medicine: Herbal Medicine and Aristolochic Acid Nephropathy

S: All right well, thanks Bob. Going to come down to earth a little bit for the next one. This one is about an herbal product that's deadly toxin. Did you guys ever hear of Aristolochia Clematitis.

B: No!

R: No.

B: What the hell is that?

S: Well, yeah, they're actually the same root.

R: Actually yes.

E: Chlamydia?

S: These are flowers that, yeah not to put too fine a point on it, the flower kind of looks like the exit from a womb. The birth canal.


R: Very well put.

S: You know what I'm saying there Evan?

E: OK, there you go.

B: Gotcha.

J: I do now.

R: I think you're really going to have to spell it out here, Steve.

B: No wait, let me google this so I can see what you're talking about.

E: Visual aids?

S: A lot of natural, herbal or whatever remedies were based upon the notion that whatever the plant looks like, that's what it's used for. So this has been a traditional remedy in a lot of cultures for easing birth. You know, to use during birth, the birthing process. It was a very popular herbage in traditional Chinese medicine. However, it was recently found in the 1990s, and so again used for hundreds, perhaps a couple of thousand years as an herbal remedy for lots of things, again birth symptoms, but also snake bites and rashes and other things. For this reason, because it has had a long traditional use, a lot of people make the naturalistic argument, well it's natural, it's been used for thousands of years, it's got to be safe, right? Turns out, it's a deadly nephrotoxin. It will destroy your kidneys. This was first discovered in the 1990s as I said when there was a rash in kidney failure among young Belgian women. And it was discovered they were all visiting the same herbalist and were getting treatment for weight loss which included an aristolochia species. It was found that the aristolochic acid which is produced by some species of aristolochia is a nephrotoxin. Another similar case, this one in the Balkans. It was discovered that again, there was an increase in kidney damage and it was found that aristolochia seeds, which is a weed that commonly grows in the wheat fields was finding its way into the bread that was being made, so people were eating the aristolochia seeds. Now, researchers believe that these were both the same syndrome rather than having, they called the first syndrome Chinese Herbal Nephrotoxicity and the second one Balkan Nephrotoxicity, but now they're saying actually they're both just aristolochic acid nephropathy. They're both the same entity. And a lot has been discovered about the mechanism and how this toxin works. Well now there's a new study that shows in addition to causing kidney failure, the aristolochic acid also causes or increases the risk for urinary tract cancers. The researchers originally became suspicious of this because it was known that in Taiwan there is about four times the rate of bladder and other urinary tract cancers than in the Western World. So there's a cluster, you know. And whenever there is a cluster it always makes Epidemiologists interested. What is it, genetic or is it environmental? Researchers were able to find a strong correlation between Taiwanese with urinary tract cancers and mutations that are known to be caused by aristolochic acid. So it's one line of evidence that is correlating use of, again herbal aristolochia with significant increase in cancer. This is a very important story because in many countries, including the U.S., herbal remedies are not well regulated. In the U.S. in 1994 they were taken essentially away from the FDA in that the FDA no longer had to approve herbal remedies before they can go on the market and companies could also make these pseudo-structure, function claims for herbs. They became regulated like supplements, as if they were vitamins. And since 1994 the FDA has only been able to pull one herbal remedy from the market, and that was ephedra. You guys remember the whole ephedra thing?

B: Yeah.

J: Sure.

E: Sure do.

S: About a hundred people dropped dead from heart attacks because of ephedra. That's what it too, so only one case where the FDA was able to do that, so now we have an herbal product that is a known kidney toxin and can increase the risk of cancer and the FDA cannot pull it from the market. It doesn't really have the authority to do it. It can ban its import and it has done that, so you can't import it, but there's no ban on selling or using it once it's in the country.

R: Sometimes it seems as if the FDA is just completely useless.

S: But it's not their fault, they were made that way by congress. Laws were passed to make them powerless, essentially.

R: Right, I'm not saying it's necessarily their fault, I'm just saying it's really frustrating to have something called the Food and Drug Administration that can't administrate drugs.

S: This is an ongoing battle, but unfortunately the two senators, Orrin Hatch and Tom Harkin, who are behind DSHEA, the 1994 Diet Supplement Health and Education Act, they're powerful, and they keep successfully squashing initiatives to revise that law and give more authority back to the FDA, so I think that as long as they're in the Senate it's not going to happen.

R: And I think that one of my big frustrations is with the fact that often times we get into arguments with alternative medicine proponents. It would be nice to have an administration that had pull and that was somehow helpful in rebutting claims of alt- matters. So, to say something like, well I know that you like that homeopathic treatment, but look here at the fact that the FDA has issued these warnings about it and made it illegal and, you know, it would help us a lot, it would help our jobs a lot if we had an organisation that provided real, solid oversight. It would help give our arguments more heft.

S: Unfortunately, so called complementary and alternative medicine is one of the pseudo-sciences that enjoys bipartisan support. It's not one where only one party that's really behind it and the other party can criticise them for being unscientific. It's really bipartisan. And it is Harkin and Hatch, that's one Democrat and one Republican, they get together and that's when problems happen, right? It's unfortunate.

E: In this case yeah.

S: There's just no political will, really, to deal with this, to deal with this issue. And again, the other lesson here is that herbs are drugs. People think of them as supplements or food or whatever, that they're somehow different because they're natural. They're drugs. They have a pharmacological activity, they contain chemicals, they have drug-drug interactions, they can cause the same kind of side effects that drugs can. The only difference is we don't really know what their pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, we don't know how much of what active ingredients you're getting and there's lots of hidden toxicity. This is something that was used for thousands of years and nobody noticed that people were getting more bladder cancer, how could they really? I mean we need to do epidemiological studies to figure out that this increases the risk of cancer so it really isn't reasonable to expect that, just because something has been used for a long time that people would have casually observed a medical or a health risk from that substance. But that's what we're left with now, so really we are in a situation where the consumer has to be savvy and has to be aware, it's why it's important for these stories to get play.

Homophobia (23:34)

ScienceDaily: Is Some Homophobia Self-Phobia?

S: But let's move on, Rebecca, you're going to tell us about some new research into homophobia.

R: Yes, OK. Quick quiz for you guys. What do these people have in common? Ted Haggard, Bishop Eddie Long, Congressman Larry Craig, New Jersey Mayor Chris Myers and Chris Cooper in American Beauty. Go.

E: Uuuum, the vowels in their names.

R: Good guess.

B: They're all skeptics.

R: uuuh, no. Nope, nope. You guys are not good at this game. The answer is they are all severely homophobic people who, it later turns out, displayed allegedly homosexual behaviours. Ted Haggard, for instance, preached against same-sex marriage to his mega-church and was later found to be engaging in homosexual sex. Sexy, sexy homosexual sex with a meth dealer.

J: ha, oh my...

E: wow.

R: So this is something that has become a cliché in our culture, it's the virulently homophobic jerk who turns out to secretly be harbouring homosexual urges. Finally, there has been a study to determine whether or not there is any truth to the cliché. The journal of personality and social psychology has just published a paper called Parental autonomy support and discrepancies between implicit and explicit sexual identities: Dynamics of self-acceptance and defense. They really know how to make an juicy study sound boring, by the way, those psychologists. In this study there were four different experiments done on college kids in Germany and the U.S. In the first experiment, students gave their stated sexual orientation and then the students were primed subliminally with either the word "me" or the word "others". They were then shown pictures of straight and gay couples. Those who associated "me" with "gay". Oh, I should say they were shown pictures of straight and gay couples and then they were asked to categorise them as straight or gay. So those who associated the word "me" with "gay" quickly and "me" with "straight" slowly, were considered to have implicitly gay desires. In the second experiment, subjects were allowed to browse same sex or opposite sex photos. And they were apparently then judged. In the third experiment, questionnaires on types of parenting were given to them, so statements like "I felt controlled and pressured in certain ways" and "my dad avoids gay men whenever possible". And then in the fourth experiment, there was a homophobia test which included overt homophobia which they judged by using a questionnaire on social policy and beliefs, and implicit homophobia which they judged using a word completion exercise. So, after all of that, they found that those with more supportive parents had an explicit sexual orientation that matched their implicit orientation. So, for instance, they openly identified to the researchers as lesbian, for instance, and the test showed that their implicit desires were also lesbian. However, those from more authoritarian homes had the largest discrepancy between their explicit and implicit orientations, or the way they identified compared to their desires. Those who were explicitly heterosexual but implicitly gay, were found to be more likely to react with hostility toward gay people. That incongruence was also able to predict many homophobic behaviours like endorsement of anti-gay policies and discriminatory bias against homosexuals. So, it's a really interesting study. There are, of course, some problems. There are always problems. The study authors say one big problem is that they only tested college kids and in the future, they would like to test adults who have had time to separate themselves from their parents as well as adolescents who are still living with their parents. That's not the only problem though. Others I've seen have expressed some concerns about the study for the same reasons that I've seen people express concerns about any study that deals with homosexuality, and particularly with desire. So, it is extraordinarily difficult to differentiate between what sexuality people identify with, which you can identify by asking them, what people's actual behaviours are, their sexual behaviours which you can ascertain by watching them, and then what their desires are. And this study primarily looked at their desires, and that's the hardest of the three to figure out, because you can't just ask. So the question is do these tests really get to the heart of what people really desire? And I'm sure the study authors would say yes, but me, I'm not a professional psychologist, but I'm not too convinced because maybe it's desire, or maybe it's just interest or curiosity, like the second experiment, choosing to look at pics of same-sex couples compared to choosing to look at pics of heterosexual couples, that doesn't necessarily mean you want to have sex with them. It just means you just want to look at pictures of them.

S: Yeah, I agree, I was reading this study too. It's like that's a long chain of inference.

R: Yeah.

S: that's a lot of maybes getting to "therefore they have more desire for homosexual..." you know, that was, that really was the weak part of the study for me.

R: yeah, I feel like to suggest that, to suggest that wanting to look at people of same-sex couples means that you identify with them sexually actually is in and of itself a bit closed minded and overly prudish. So the other tests, I think are a bit more conclusive, a bit more convincing, I should say.

S: Mmhmm.

R: The first test of associating the words quickly, that makes more sense to me, but still it does, you know if they believe that that second test is an accurate picture of what a person's desire is, then that does, for me that calls into question the study. But I want to quickly mention that these findings match up pretty well with another study that just came out of Boston University. I think the press release just went out today. It was published in the journal of homosexuality. Researchers at BU surveyed more than 5000 people in Massachusetts and they found that gay and lesbian adults whose parents were not supportive of their orientation were six to seven times more likely suffer serious depression and engage in binge drinking. And they also found that the act of coming out of the closet resulted in significantly improved mental health, particularly in women. They didn't find the same effect in men, but the researchers say that might be an artifact in their study. So, there are a couple of studies now that are coming out about parental influence on our behaviours, how we manifest our desires, and they're pretty much fitting in with our clichés and they're fitting in with what we might guess to be true, what Freud, I guess might support this idea of sublimating your ideas only causes you misery. Not that Freud didn't say a whole lot of stupid shit.

B: Ha.

R: But it's worth noting that, in that respect, that's something that we've certainly seen borne out. But whether or not this is just a fluke, and a convenient sort of just-so story, I think it's going to take a lot more studies to determine.

S: Yeah, definitely, anything this complex, you need to line up the ducks quite a bit.

R: Yeah.

S: I mean just one study like this, it's hard to get too excited about. It is all a little bit pop-psychology you know. But it does make sense as far as it goes, in that traits that you fear in yourself you'll be highly critical of in other people.

R: yeah.

S: So if you fear, whatever, the homosexual in yourself because your parents are very judgemental about it, then you become hypercritical of the same thing, i.e. homophobic, in other people. So again, that seems to make sense from a pop-psychology perspective.

R: Right, I mean if it were just a matter of a homophobic person simply not agreeing with someone being gay, that doesn't still explain why someone would go out of their way to actively campaign against homosexuality. In that respect, the suggestion is that that person finds homosexuality actively threatening. And that is a really good explanation for why it might be threatening. Because it challenges something that they themselves have been trying to sort of clamp down on due to their authoritarian upbringing. So, yeah it fits what we sort of, what we see, but whether or not it's solid, yeah it's going to take a few more studies I think.

S: Right, yeah, all the more reason, as you say, to be skeptical of it, because it seems to make sense.

R: Yeah, exactly.

Toilet Water (33:26)

Daily Mail: Good news for Volvic and Evian: Bill Gates funds new machine that filters your toilet waste back into 'drinkable' water

S: OK, so we're really doing a lot of different kinds of items, we went from space to herbs, to homophobia and now Evan, you're going to bring us around to toilet water.

E: (laughs)

B: I knew it.

S: and Bill Gates has something to do with this somehow.

E: I know, yeah right? From the heights of the outer atmosphere to as about an earthy a conversation as you can probably have.

S: Right in the toilet.

E: Have you guys heard the phrase, "the only two things certain in life are death and taxes"?

S: Occasionally.

J: Of course.

E: I'd like to add to that by suggesting that the only things that are certain in life are death, taxes, and waste products.

S: Mmhmm.

E: How about that? Now think about it...

R: It's catchy.

E: If you were living, (laughs) I think it's true though, because if you think about it, right? All things that are living, they'll create some level of biological waste. Either in a form of a gas or a liquid or a solid or some combination of those, right?

S: Maybe all at the same.

E: At the same time. And even in death, as you decompose, you're still spewing out these bodily waste products, so. I know these are disgusting things to talk about, you know, these are things though that interest, maybe Bob.

B: Hah, I was thinking about that.

E: And then there's nanotechnology.

B: oooh.

E: Now nanotechnology and nano-science are the application and study of extremely small things. They're utilized across many, many scientific disciplines and fields such as chemistry, biology, physics, material science and engineering amongst others. How small are we talking? Well, there are 25,400,000 nanometres in an inch. A sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometres thick. And on a comparative scale, if a marble were a nanometre then one meter would be the size of the earth.

J: Wow.

E: Now these are incredibly cool things to talk about. You know, things that interest Bob perhaps a bit more than the rest of us.

B: (laughs)

E: So what happens when you combine the topics of biologic waste products and nanotechnology?

B: Oh, boy.

E: One of two things I would suggest has happen, you've either entered one of Bob's lucid dreams, or perhaps the more likely option is that you're trying to solve one of the world's grand-scale problems that has literally plagued humans for thousands of years, ever since civilisation, and likely before that. We're talking about dysentery. So, there's another old saying, which takes its wording from one of the more basic principles in the animal kingdom, and that is you don't shit in the same place as you eat.

S: Yeah, don't crap where you eat.

J: Yeah, I try to follow that, OK.

E: (laughs)

R: He tries, it doesn't always work.

E: It's a really good principle to follow. It helps.

B: It's overrated.

E: But as the world's greatest producers of biological waste, we human beings are locked in an endless battle to keep our piss and crap out of our food and water. Now dysentery occurs when pathogens such as viruses and bacteria, parasites and other nasty bugs get into our digestive systems. These little buggers get into our guts because sometimes in places around the world, like the third world countries, the water there is sometimes only available in contaminated form. The water's been contaminated, sometimes that's the only water available. And millions of people around the world are sickened every year with dysentery and in many cases it's fatal. But, thanks to nano-scientists such as doctor Sarah Haigh of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, we may one day see the end of this awful condition. She's come up with a rather ingenious idea. She is experimenting with a nano-scale scaffold device, right? A little lattice of sorts which holds a mixture of bacteria and tiny metal nano-particles. And the idea is that this will react with dirty waste water from toilets for example, to extract useful hydrogen out of that dirty water, and then what's left over gets filtered once again and the end product is clean water. You can filter out filter out clean water through that. Dr. Haigh's work has caught the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and we've talked about it on the show before, about the Foundation. It's one of the primary goals of the Gates Foundation to eliminate poverty and impoverished conditions from the people of the world in the poorest regions of the world. Dr. Haigh and her colleagues were recently awarded a $100,000 research grant from the Foundation and they stand to receive a further $1,000,000 from the Gates next year if they can demonstrate that the chemical reactions that they propose can actually work. And I quote Dr. Haigh when I say "We plan to turn this essential everyday outgoing into an investment by developing novel materials that convert natural waste into a usable resource. This technology will be particularly important for remote locations in developing countries and will have the added benefits of reduced pollution and lower waste disposal costs".

R: Hmm, cool.

S: It would also be very useful on space stations and like Moon bases and Mars bases. If you have to recycle all your own waste.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: But obviously the more immediate and pressing benefit would be in lots of the world where they don't have safe drinking water. But you wonder how acceptable this would be. What if you knew that when you flushed your toilet, it went into a tank and came back out your kitchen sink?

R: I think people would get used to it.

J: yeah, we've talked about this. I mean there's a whole like it's too close. You know, you'd feel better if there was like a time period in between or more processes in between, you know.

S: Yeah, waste water does eventually get recycled, but that is a little close.

R: yeah.

E: yeah, a little close. But again, you have to compare it to, nothing, right? I mean better than nothing in areas where they have nothing to treat their water, deal with the waste products and so forth. So it can only help.

S: We get excited by a lot of breakthroughs that are really sexy, but it's sometimes just the simplest and most mundane and sometimes the not very pleasant things that could actually have the hugest impact on quality of life around the world. You know, something as simple as being able to clean waste water.

Monkey Bill Update (39:51)

NCSE: "Monkey bill" enacted in Tennessee

S: Uh, Jay, quick update, you're going to give us a quick update on the Tennessee Monkey Bill, the bill in Tennessee to sneak creationism into public schools.

J: The unfortunate update is, on April 10th, Governor Bill Haslam who is the Governor of Tennessee, allowed [ Tennessee's House Bill 368] to become law without his signature. And the bill is being called the Monkey Bill, as most of you know, because it promotes creationism in the classroom. So a quick brief on it. It's a law that encourages teachers to present the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of topics that come up in class and they want to encourage the debate and disputation of things like biological evolution, chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning. The bill guarantees that the teachers won't be subject to any discipline for challenging the science of evolution and climate change. So the American Civil Liberties Union and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State asked Haslam to reject the bill and that they maintain that it's unconstitutional and that it's a method for teaching creationism and intelligent design within the school system. The Governor said in a recent statement, "I have reviewed the final language of HB 368/SB 893 and assessed the legislation's impact. I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill. I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers. However, I also don't believe that it accomplishes anything that isn't already acceptable in our schools. The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature." Bullshit! Yeah, nice job pal!

S: Yeah, he basically said, he said it's a crap law, but it's popular, so I'm going to let it pass without my signature.

E: ooooh.

J: Yeah, it's very convenient so it passed.

R: He's saying that we should legislate science, that science should be decided by public opinion, and that's wrong.

J: Eugenie Scott from the NCSE said, and I quote, "telling students that evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial is miseducating them. Good science teachers know that. But the Tennessee legislature has now made it significantly harder to ensure that science is taught responsibly in the state's public schools." Very well said.

S: Yeah.

E: I don't know, maybe there's the saving grace that we've seen this happen, and certain things have gotten passed in other states and then the states later on have gone back and corrected it, I guess that's all we can hope for I guess at this point.

S: Well these... corrected it... in a lot of cases the law gets thrown out, either in the state supreme court or in the federal supreme court. So this is now the second law that follows this format, that teaching the strengths and weaknesses sort of format is a way of providing cover for teachers who want to teach creationism. The first one was in Louisiana, that was signed into law by Governor Jindal as opposed to the Tennessee Governor. And that was in 2008. There has not been any legal challenges to that law so far, over three years. And it has had negative impact on the standards in the state. They have allowed teachers to introduce texts that are outside of the approved curriculum, for example, i.e. creationist texts. So it is having the exact negative impact that we feared that it would. The Tennessee law is a little bit different. It specifically prohibits going against the State science standards. So it's not as bad as the Louisiana law. One interesting Point that Genie brought up when she was writing about it is that because it mentions things like global warming, that may not have the same constitutional problem that creationism does. Right, because it's not necessarily a religious issue. That may be harder to oppose legally than the evolution bit. Because opposing evolution, there is already so much legal precedent in this country to say that's a religious issue, and therefore opposing it is government intruding in religion and violates the first amendment. That would not hold for some of the other issues like global warming.

J: And also another thing that I found earlier in the week, the Tennessee House approved the bill authorizing the display of the ten commandments in the public buildings.

E: Alt.

S: Alt.

J: It's part of a display of "historic documents".

R: Mmmhmm.

S: There you go.

E: Well, that's a very clever way of phrasing it.

J: yep.

R: Well look on the bright side. OK, this is called the Monkey Bill, obviously because of the Scopes Monkey Trial which was also in Tennessee which was also a win for the creationists and that didn't last.


E: Oh yeah, some say, hopefully in time this will correct itself.

S: But I know you're joking Rebecca, but seriously we lost a generation who did not learn about evolution and then...

R: yeah.

S: it becomes self-perpetuating because you have people who are ignorant of evolutionary theory and who are easier to convince that there are scientific problems with evolution so you get self-perpetuating ignorance. It's hard, it's a low-energy state.

B: I hate that.

S: Ignorance is a low-energy state and takes constant vigilance and work to climb out of it. So these kinds of things can be a huge setback.

B: The ignorance gravity well.

S: Yeah exactly. Alrighty, well thanks guys.

Who's That Noisy? (45:49)

S: Uh, Evan.

E: Doctor.

S: We're going to move on to Who's That Noisy, are you ready?

E: I am ready, and I'm going to start by playing last week's Who's That Noisy? Here we go.

"Here is Oprah's hand, it's very interesting because the one thing that jumps out at me is that it's a working hand. There's a psychic ability here in her hand."

S: Psychic ability in that hand.

E: What a bunch of claptrap.

S: (laughing) Claptrap.

E: Claptrap and horsehide, yeah.

J: So what have we got?

E: Oh boy, well we have a palm reader. Yep. Not just a palm reader, this palm reader has like a whole series of youtube videos and other promotions and stuff that he does. And this guy is famous, well infamous I should say, in his own right for analysing the palms of famous people such as Oprah Winfrey, Leonardo DeCaprio, Prince Harry, Kim Kardashian, Betty White, Paul Tish and Herman Kayne, Jennifer Lopez, Lazy Gaga.

S: Good Schtick.

E: Yeah, you know you've heard of him or her. Yeah, that is a good schtick isn't it? This guy's name is Tony Legget. As he says in his own words, "I was drafted into the army at age 18. When I was discharged, I got a job in a hardware store in London, which I absolutely hated. One day, an elderly man came into the shop. He wore a scruffy raincoat, had long greasy hair, and he said to me: "Cross my palm with silver and I'll tell your fortune."

R: haha really?

E: "I didn't have anything to lose, so I put two silver shillings into his hand. He looked at my palm and said: "You will travel far away from here. You will live in a foreign country. You will become somewhat famous and be married at the age of 53. You will journey around the world and meet many rich and famous people. Of course I took it with a grain of salt." I was a skeptic, "But he was only wrong about one thing. I got married a year earlier than he predicted. Everything else came to pass"

S: What are the odds

E: and how did he know? And he went on to learn about palm reading from that moment on, and he began to practice it. In a nutshell he could also have said, yes I was duped by practically a cold reading technique when I was very young and very impressed by this, and it has forever warped my mind.

S: Yeah, and I realised I could make money doing the same thing.

R: Right, exactly.

S: It's a lot easier than working in a hardware store.

R: Did anybody get it?

E: Yeah. Absolutely, a couple of people. The first one to guess correctly, from the message boards, Clintsvood. And I believe this is his second time that he's guessed correctly this year if memory serves. So well done Clintsvood from the message boards.

R: Good job, Clintsvood.

S: Good job.

S: All right, so what have you got for this week?

E: Here is the latest segment in our ongoing series of Who's That Noisy?

Check out the sound this makes... (tinkling sound).

S: A tinkling of some sort.

E: Yes. Well said, Steve, well described.

S: (laughing) OK.

E: Who's that tinkling?

S: It's a different game.

R: I don't think you said that right.

E: All right folks, give us your best guess at that. Our forums are Please join if you haven't already. And, as I always say, good luck everyone.

Questions and Emails

Grover's Algorithm (49:10)

Bell Labs: Lov Grover – What's a Quantum Phone Book?

S: Thanks, Evan. We've got time for a couple of quick emails this week. First, a correction, this one comes from George Daole-Wellman from Sunderland, Massachusetts. And he writes, "Hi skeptics, really enjoy the show, but as a computer science student I just wanted to correct something Steve said in the explanation of one of the Science or Fiction items from the show for April 7. In the item about the quantum computer in a diamond, Steve said that the scientists tested it with an algorithm that finds an element in an unsorted database on the first try. I don't blame Steve, as it said this in the article too, but this is wrong. The algorithm used is called Grover's algorithm,"

R: aaaw (laughs).

J: Grover! I love you buddy!


S: "and it does indeed search an unsorted database much faster than a classical computer, but not in one step. As Steve said, with a database with n elements, a classical computer would take on average n/2 steps to search it, or as we say in computer science, it has a time complexity of order n (represented as O(n) )."

J: Well that makes perfect sense!

E: (laughing) yes.

S: "Using Grover's algorithm, a quantum computer can search the database with a number of steps that is the square root of the number of elements in the database, ( O(n^(1/2)) ), which is much faster but still not 'on the first try'. Too bad you couldn't have Gripp on for Science or Fiction, I'm sure he would have corrected this as well. Cheers"

E: (laughs) He would have rapped about it, yeah.

S: Yeah well, the article I used as a source did say first try, and that is wrong.

B: yeah, mine did too.

S: yeah so I guess that got propagated somehow through the press releases or whatever. But I did look up Grover's Algorithm and George is correct. It's the square root which is still a lot faster. Let's say you have an unsorted database with a million items, you would have to look through on average half or 500,000 of them using a conventional computer algorithm to find the item you were looking for. With a quantum computer, you could do it in only 1000, or the square root of a million. So that's a lot less. So yeah, I'm not sure why the news items got that wrong, but I appreciate George correcting that.

Gulf of Cambay Ruins (51:15)

S: Another quick one. This one comes from Theron from Battle Mountain, Nevada.

R: That is a great town name.

S: Battle Mountain, yeah.

E: Battle Mountain.

S: He writes, "OMG What will young earth creationist say. Then again now the believers of Atlantis will be insufferable." and he gives a link announcing the discovery of a sunken city off the coast of India in the Gulf of Cambay. And guess how old this city is alleged to be.

R: A million years.


B: Twelve years.

J: 13,000 years old.

E: 6000 years old.

B: Five minutes.

S: 9000 years.

R: I was close.

E: That's wrong, the earth was created 6000 years ago.

S: Exactly.

E: Clearly this is fake.

S: And hence his comment about creationists. Unfortunately, this is total crap.


S: This is not real science, this is pseudo-science. So this was ten years ago, these ruins were alleged to be discovered by, there was a BBC article about this at the time. A great example of horrible science reporting. The scientists where were said to have discovered the ruins were variously described as oceanographers, as marine archaeologists, they weren't archaeologists however, I don't know if there's any such thing as marine archaeologists.

B: (laughs)

S: And if they're oceanographers, what do they know about sunken ruins? The evidence is paradolia on low-quality sonar, it's like really low quality data. Then they claim that they found wood, and they carbon dated the wood to 9000 years ago. A couple of problems with that: that part of the bay probably was, of the Gulf, probably was above water 9000 years ago. But there were lots of trees there, so finding wood doesn't necessarily mean that you've found the remains of a human artefact. The alleged beads and potter shards are probably just natural rocks and shells and stuff, not real artefacts. One individual that is involved with this project is Graham Hancock and he is a famous pseudo-archaeologist.

E: Yeah. I think we've talked about him before.

S: He's been promoting the Orion Correlation Hypothesis, the notion that the pyramids at Giza are arranged in the pattern of stars in Orion's Belt and are therefore connected to that mythology. He wrote the "non-fiction" book Supernatural Meetings With the Ancient Teachers of Mankind. So he's one of these historical revisionists who thinks that there's an alternate history to mankind on the earth involving aliens in some way.

E: Him and L Ron Hubbard, they shared a room in college or something.

S: Yeah, also it's been ten years. In ten years there hasn't been any verification of any component of the claims for this city. Now of course this would be a huge find because the oldest human city of any kind is only about 7000 years old, so this would be a couple of thousand years older than that. Not that that is impossible, but that is a huge chunk of time to be pushing back the oldest city. And the oldest cities are not in this part of the world. At this time frame in India, people were living in villages essentially. There was no culture building cities. The first real city in this part of the world dates back to only about 5000 years so this would be 4000 years beyond that, that is pretty out of sync. Again, it wouldn't be impossible that there was some group of people who built the city and then they died out and it was lost to history and we would just be discovering it now. The extraordinary claim, the evidence pretty thin, and nothing verified or legitimate so. Interestingly with these kind of finds, politics often gets involved, you know Indian politicians who are saying things like, oh yeah those Western archaeologists have really been downplaying the role that India has played in the rise of human civilisation so now we finally have the evidence to show that India is really the cradle of civilisation. So whenever pseudo-archaeologists, like the Bosnian Pyramids, you guys remember the Bosnian...

R: I was just about to say that's exactly what that sounds like, you know.

E: Yup.

S: Yeah, as soon as they say that they found something ancient and interesting anywhere, the local politicians love it because that's good for tourism, it's good for self-esteem and prestige, it's good for the culture. And the science kind of takes a back seat. Then, if you're patriotic or whatever, you accept the claim because it's good for your community and culture, never mind the fact that it's pure pseudo-scientific bunk. So I would be very surprised if the Cambay ruins turn out to be anything. But at this point there is no legitimate science behind it.

R: Too bad.

S: So the creationists can rest easy.

E: But they won't.

R: This time.

S: (laughs) This time. All right guys, well let's move on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (56:55)

Announcer: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to sniff out the fake. You guys ready to do some sniffing this week.

(sniffing sound)

R: ooooh yeah.

S: All right, good. Here we go. Item number one. Scientists have created a power cell inside a living snail that can generate usable electricity from the snails own energy stores. Item number two. A new study finds that fungal infections affecting the top five crops are responsible for destroying enough food to feed 600 million people every year. And Item number three A new survey finds that cancer patients prefer safe treatments with predictable outcomes to more risky, but possibly more effective, treatments. Jay, go first.

J: Steve, I'll happily go first. OK this first one about the scientists creating a power cell that's inside of a living snail, and that can generate usable electricity from the snail's own energy stores, meaning that the snail's body has stored energy and it can use this generator to tap that energy and turn it into electricity. Wow, first off, what kind of energy stores are we talking about? I mean, that's very interesting that they could do that, I'm sure that, if this is true, that the snails have some twist the way that they store energy. Something there that allows them to tap into it, which is really weird. That's interesting but it's also very strange. And the second one about the fungal infections, and this top 5 and they're responsible for destroying enough food to feed 600 million people, and that's very believable. I don't see any reason to doubt that, so I'm just going to just off the cuff say sure, that one seems out of the three, the most likely. The last one about cancer patients preferring the safer treatments, that makes sense too, but I have this feeling that there's a curve here where the closer someone is getting to possibly dying or going into a point of no return, that they would become more and more likely to opt for the more dangerous but potentially more effective treatments. But it does make sense early on, I know that if I put myself in that position, I would want to go with the more proven, safe but possibly less effective treatments than the more dangerous ones. I don't know, it's hard for me to say I'm healthy right now so I don't know what I'd really be thinking so that seems like the likely one. So I guess out of the three of these the one that seems the most full of baloney is the one about the snails so I know that I can't pick that one. Because I'm going to do a Costanza again. I'm not going to pick the one that my gut is telling me. The one that my gut believed the most was the one about the crops so I'm going to pick that one.

S: The crops.

J: That's the fake, god damn it, and it's stupid.

S: OK.

R: I could not follow that at all.

S: All right, Evan?

E: (laughs) Could I go in reverse order?

S: Whatever order you like. It's a survey that finds cancer patients prefer safer treatments with predictable outcomes. It's likely to be true. And here's why. Because people prefer safe treatments with predictable outcomes.

J: You're so risky, Evan.

E: Yes, I know I took a big risk by saying that in itself. I just have a feeling that people, although there's plenty of wackiness out there, there's plenty of risky stuff, there's plenty of experimental stuff, there's stuff that seems too good to be true, I think when it comes down to it, when life is on the line, your life is on the line, and these are the most decisions ever, people will tend to be a little bit more conservative. The second one, fungal infections affecting the top five crops, responsible for destroying food. Well, I happen to think that this one is definitely science. I've been doing a lot of reading recently on this particular.

J: whoa, don't hurt yourself!

E: I'm not going to hurt myself, I'm just saying that it just happened to come up recently and therefore this is reinforcing my thoughts that this one is going to be science. So I've actually the most confidence that this one is science. The last one, this is the power cell inside the living snail. Living snail that can generate useful electricity. Well, there's something science here but I think we're either not getting the whole picture or there is, this is the one with the twist. If I could put my finger on the twist I would, it's a little bit hard to do that, I couldn't say for sure why. I wonder why a snail as opposed to something else. I don't know how it would be able to generate enough electricity. Now there are other animals out there that do generate electricity, we've got the electric eel, and I'm sure there are others that I'm not readily aware of but, so it's not like it's impossible. But I just don't know that they are probably on the path to doing it but maybe have not yet made it this far, but tests are being done. So I'm going to say the snail one is fiction.

S: OK, Bob.

B: Hooff. Wow, another good one, Steve. I'll start with the first one, I guess. Yeah, I agree with Even in that why a snail? I'm not sure why a snail would be special, and being able to generate electricity from energy stores, yeah that sounds a little bit beyond from what I thought we would be capable of. Why wouln't they do a bigger animal? Yeah, I don't know about that one. The second one as well, well I'm a little bit more confident about the second one. I"m not even sure that crops get fungal infections. I just can't remember ever reading about that happening. Maybe that's the crux of this one and why it's wrong. But 600 million people, yeah sounds like a lot but it's, what is that, like a 14th of the population. So it's, percentage-wise, it's not that huge but it is a lot of people. And I could see that, I could definitely, I don't have any problems with that huge a percentage of people that could potentially be fed, not being fed by these fungal infections that destroy crops. And the cancer patients, initially I was, I thought this one was science but now I'm kind of second guessing because it kind of strikes me kind of like psychological pricing, when gas is $3.99 or just anything that's just a hair under the price that would seem like it's more. So I think when people hear about a treatment being potentially more effective that that's kind of like what sticks in their mind. I could see them going for, yeah let's try that one and I'll be the one that it'll work on. So that one kind of makes sense to me as well. Well actually I mean to say that that one strikes me as fiction because I could see people opting for the riskier but potentially more effective treatment, so it's between that and number one, the snail. Yeah there's something wrong about that snail one as well. Aah, man this is tough. Yeah I'm going to go with, I'm going to go with the cancer one I could see people wanting to roll the dice and potentially get a more effective treatment. I'll say that one is fiction.

S: OK, so Rebecca we've got a three way tie. Where are you going to put your nickel?

R: OK, well my thinking was, about the snail, I don't think it necessarily has to generate, like the snail itself doesn't have to generate electricity, I don't think. As Evan suggested, it doesn't have to be like an electric eel. My thinking was that it just needs to generate energy, usable electricity, well we've built things that require only very tiny little bits of electricity so I can see how if you could get a tiny bit of electricity out of a snail, that would count. So that one didn't seem that far fetched to me. It seemed cool and like this is definitely the first step on the way to the matrix, but I like it. As to Bob wondering whether or not crops can get fungal infections, that I do know is a fact because I like bananas and bananas are under threat from very serious fungal infection. I don't think they're one of the top five crops but that makes sense to me. Rice, wheat I can see those things being at high risk for infection particularly because of our farming practices, from what I understand, sometimes lend themselves to leaving crops open to infections and things. So let it be known that that makes a lot of sense to me too. Cancer patients preferring safe treatment. I think Bob makes a very good point on this one. I think that, (sighs) what I find most difficult about this is the fact that cancer is a large net, and it can, maybe you're talking about all kinds of cancer, but maybe you're talking about particular deadly cancers, I can see that when faced with a poor prognosis, I can see someone being very willing to take a risk on something that decreases their chances of maybe surviving to X months, but increases their ultimate chances of living an extended period of time. So I think that's, I don't know, it's a complex issue and I can see how maybe there are many cancer patients who would certainly opt for a riskier, but less safe treatment. So I'm going to go with that one. That's the fiction.

S: OK, so I guess I can take this in order. Scientists have created a power cell inside a living snail that can generate usable electricity from the snails own energy stores. Evan, you think this one is the fiction.

E: Yup.

S: The rest of you buy this one. And this one is... science.

B: yay.

R: woop.

S: yeah, this one's cool.

E: nah.

J: mah.

S: (laughs) naaah.

E: Naah, I see...

B: I almost picked that one Steve. I thought, initially I thought that you kind of were inspired by a news item I read about scientists implanting devices in a flying beetle. And I thought that you kind of used that as inspiration but I'm glad I didn't go... yeah.

S: No, this one was a real life scientific tale of the first electrified snail. They have done this with cockroaches, rats, rabbits and other animals previously, implanted with bio fuel cells.

B: Awesome.

S: So this is implanting something in an animal to generate electricity using the sugars, the energy of the animal itself as the power source. So it's not a battery it's a fuel cell, it generates the electricity enzymatically.

B: So you could use this to lose weight.

S: I guess so. They implant two different electrodes with different enzymes through the snail's shell and one pulling electrons from glucose, the other using those electrons to turn oxygen molecules into water, and they induce an electric current.

J: Cool.

S: And Rebecca's right, it does not produce a lot of electricity but this is sort of a proof of concept thing, can you implant these kind of things to say, operate a pace maker or something that requires an ongoing source of a very small amount of electricity where making it from the energy inside the animal itself would be a good source, so that's what this line of research is all about, but they successfully did it in a snail.

R: Cool.

S: Yeah, thought it was pretty cool.

B: Cool.

E: Yeah, it's kind of cool, sort of.

S: Yeah.

B: So as long as you're alive it'll work.

S: Let's go on to number two. A new study finds that fungal infections affecting the top five crops are responsible for destroying enough food to feed 600 million people each year. Jay, you think this one is the fiction, correct? The rest of you think this one is science. And this one is...

J: is...

S: Science. Sorry Jay.

R: Ha ha.

B: yaaay!

J: Damn you!

S: So yeah the top five crops are, what do you think?

B: Corn.

R: Rice.

E: Potatoes.

J: Wheat.

B: Marijuana.

R: I think right is number one, then corn, then wheat.

E: Buckwheat.

R: Then I don't know what. Bananas (laughs).

S: It's not bananas. Rice, soy bean, wheat, corn and potatoes.

R: Oh soy, that's right.

E: I said potatoes.

S: Yeah, it's all staples, all staple crops. But it's fungus, really more than anything else. Fungus as a blight wipes out 60 billion dollars per year. That's actually in rice, wheat and maize themselves, maize or corn, 60 billion dollars per year. I thought of the banana thing too, Rebecca, though that's not in the top five, and we talked about this previously, bananas, there are lots of different species of bananas, not just the ones that we think of as a dessert fruit, but bananas are a staple food for a lot of parts of the world, and a lot of them, a lot of species are threatened by fungus. So fungus is a real, growing problem for human agriculture and we really need to figure out how to make resistant crops, how to protect them from fungus, how to treat the fungus. It's, like many things, we're engaged in an arms race, an evolutionary arms race against infectious organisms, it's just you have that much food which is all very very similar, right, you have very little biodiversity within wheat for example. That's an awfully tempting food source for anything that could figure out a way to exploit it.

R: Yeah, what I mentioned vaguely, what I was sort of getting at, was that idea. And I've heard that people are trying to get back to proper crop rotation, but a lot of the problem is with poor education, particularly in developing countries, with farmers, convincing them to do it, teaching them how to do it, is a huge job.

S: Course they always warn about the worst-case scenario that if fungal infections get out of control they can wipe out a significant amount of our global crops and even cause a global famine leaving 4.2 billion people starving. I don't know if they wiped out all of the top five crops, if that's what they're talking about but yeah, could be really bad. So let's go on to the last one. A new survey finds that cancer patients prefer safe treatments with predictable outcomes to more risky, but possibly more effective, treatments. Bob and Rebecca thought that this one was the fiction, and this one is the fiction. And yeah, you can kind of go both ways with this, you can make the logic work either way. Safe and predictable. So the actual choice that they gave patients in this study was, would you prefer, let's say you have a terminal cancer and you're offered treatment A, which will guarantee you'll live 18 months. Versus treatment B where either you'll live for just a couple of months, or maybe if it works, three years.

R: Right.

S: So the researchers were a little surprised, 70 plus percent of the people went for the nothing or three years as opposed to the guaranteed 18 months. You're right Jay, it's kind of hard to put yourself into that mindset unless you're already facing that terminal illness.

R: See, I don't find that surprising at all, like that seems, I would probably do the same thing, that sounds perfectly logical to me.

S: I guess it does, I mean I guess are you more afraid of it doesn't work and you die right away, or are you hopeful for, it might work. And they said 50:50, it's a 50:50 chance, you either die right away or live three years. Or 100 percent chance you'll live 18 months.

R: Here's why, this is the best way I can think of to describe, the mindset that I'm imagining is that the doctor tells you you're going to die in 18 months, and to me, if a doctor were to say that to me, that would be like, well I'm dead. You know, that's it. That's my death sentence, I'm dead. So I'm going to spend the next 18 months watching the clock until I die.

S: Right.

R: So at that point, why not? I'm already dead (laughs).

S: Yeah, you've got nothing to lose.

R: And I'm sure that, right yeah, and of course there are plenty of movies about people grabbing life by the balls and everything when they get a diagnosis like that but I don't think that's necessarily what happens. I think it's sometimes the opposite. Sometimes people feel like (inaudible).

S: Yeah, the authors interpreted this result as indicating that there's a lot of power in hope and that the value of the hope that the 50% chance of living for three years was felt to be worth it. Worth the chance. So, I guess it is hard to underestimate the value that hope can play. We do see this with the offering of completely unscientific, of unbelievable therapies. Especially for terminal or chronic and severe illnesses that people often say, what have I got to lose, I don't care, yeah it's magic, it's stupid it probably is not going to work, but what do I have to lose. You know, they play the lottery basically, saying yep, maybe it's a small chance, but if I win that's everything. Anything that will rescue them from the terminal diagnosis is worth the chance. This, of course, is why that's a vulnerable population and why health care con artists and promoters of pseudo-scientific treatments are so evil in my opinion, basically they're just really exploiting people at their most vulnerable part of their lives. Often there is harm, and they do have stuff to lose, what little time they do have left, maybe the quality of life they have left, leaving their family destitute or deeply in debt for treatments that were of absolutely no value. Hope may be valuable but I've also seen what happens when that hope comes crashing down, it's not pretty. You have to consider that as well. So yeah, it's tricky. It's a very complicated situation. All right, well, congratulations Bob and Rebecca.

J: Naah.

R: Thanks ended on kind of a low note so it's not really appropriate to celebrate, but...

E: Waah.

S: Well, Jay give us a quote.

B: Too late.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:03)

J: I have a really cool quote this week, this is a quote sent in by a listener who labelled him or herself as GM Prospect. This quote is from a video game. I'll say the quote and I'll ask you guys to guess the video game.

One sure mark of a fool is to dismiss anything outside his experience as being impossible.

B: Donkey Kong!

E: Castle Von Wolfenstein.

R: Skyrim.

J: It was from Skyrim.

R: I win!

J: That was said by a character in the game called Farengar Secret-Fire.

E: And his orchestra.

Announcements (1:16:45)

J: (laughs) Steve, I have a couple of announcements. The first announcement is that there is a great regional conference in Southern California on May 19th and 20th called the Orange County Free Thought Alliance Conference. And this conference is going to be a the University of California, Irvine, in the conference centre. Some of the secular leaders speaking are: Michael Shermer, Brian Dunning, Mr. Deity, Barbara Forest, Robert Price, Dan Barker, Phil Zukerman and Richard Carrier. And you can see all those speakers at And Rebecca, now you went to this conference last year.

R: Uh yeah, I spoke at it last year.

J: The second announcement, it's not really an announcement, it's a request. Anybody that works as Panasonic or has a friend or family member that works at Panasonic, contact me.

R: What is this, you need a new stereo?

J: Aaah, no it's very important, I'm not going to say why, I just need to know if any one has anybody that works there that can give me a hookup, that's all I'm going to say.

R: You are using this show, Sir.

J: No I am not, because this is for the SGU. It is absolutely for the Skeptics' Guide.

S: It is, I can verify that.

R: I'd like to know if anybody works for Cadbury, please get in touch with me immediately. It's very important.


E: Anyone work at the federal reserve, I could, uh...

S: Are you done? And Jay we should mention that some of our listeners have started, and they're actually engaging in the very herculean task of writing transcripts of all SGU episodes, I think they've gotten two done, the latest two episodes.

E: I'd like to give the transcript folks, here's a hint. There's five o's in Hellooooo.

J: hellooooo.

B: aah, very good.

R: Three of them are capital.

S: Yes, this is definitely a wiki project, this is the kind of thing where the more hands you have, the faster it'll go so, thanks for working on that guys, and thank you all for joining me this week.

R: Thank you, Steve.

J: Thanks, Steve, good night.

E: Hey, good to be here.

J: Be good.

S: Next week we will be at NECSS, I hope a lot of you will be joining us. And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

Voice-over: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can also check out our other podcast, The SGU 5x5, as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. 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 leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune, or your portal of choice.

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