SGU Episode 39

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SGU Episode 39
April 19th 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 38                      SGU 40

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis


MS: Marilyn Schlitz

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Stephen Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Today is Wednesday, April 19, 2006. Joining me this evening are the skeptical rogues Perry DeAngelis, ...

P: Welcome to the 39th episode, everyone.

S: ... Rebecca Watson, ...

R: Hey, everybody.

S: ... Jay Novella, ...

J: Good evening, everybody.

S: ... and Evan Berstein.

E: Hello everyone on Earth.

S: How are you guys doing this evening?

R: I don't think it's everyone on Earth.

J: Pretty good. How are you doing, Steve?

E: Quite well. Yeah it is.

S: We have a good show tonight. Later on in the show we have an interview with Marilyn Schlitz, who is an ESP researcher. We're going to have a little back and forth on the reality of ESP and other things. We have more science news, your emails, and, of course, Science or Fiction. And, as always, thanks for listening to the show. Our rankings are shooting up on the podcast listing sites. I just checked iTunes. We're up to 49 this week. Up from 69 last week.

E: Yeah.

J: Excellent.

P: Very good. Very good.

S: Of science podcasts.

J: Thank you, listeners.

S: Keep listening; keep voting for us and rating us on those sites. It helps get the word out.

P: Always trying to come up with ideas to keep our show popular.

S: Absolutely. Thanks for all the good feedback. We're getting a lot of great feedback off our site. Please use our contact page, and we do have a form to submit your questions and suggestions and feedback. If you want us to read your email on the show, please give us your name and city so that we can identify you.

J: Steve, what's that new domain name?

S: And Jay, our webmaster, is reminding me to tell you what our new domain is. It is [].

P: Excellent.

R: And Steve, is there a place where people can send like chocolate and jewelry and other presents for me?

S: Rebecca, the Skepchick, had made a specific request to ask our listeners to send her chocolate and other nice, feminine gifts.

J: Chocolate jewelry, yes.

R: (unintelligible) Thank you.

P: No meat?

E: The rest of us will take cash.

S: No meat.

R: No meat.

J: I do have a good birthday wish to one of our biggest fans, probably our biggest fan on the show: Michael Ortacelli turns 33 today.

S: Michael, happy birthday.

P: Hello, Michael.

R: Can I say happy birthday to Sid Rodriguez?

J: Go right ahead.

R: UK Skeptics. He's a big fan of ours, too.

S: Excellent.

P: Sid's a fine, fine individual.

R: He's an awesome individual.

J: I love him.

E: How old is he?

R: I don't even know.

J: Sid's twenty-seven.

R: There you go. He's probably about that.

S: Any other listeners out there whose birthday it is: happy birthday. By the way, since we're talking about birthdays and skeptics, do any of you guys know how many people do you have to have in a room before there's a 50-50 chance that two of them will have the same birthday?

J: It was 200 or something.

R: Isn't it — no, it was like 20 or 30.

E: Thirty.

J: Bob told me.

B: Twenty-three.

S: It's twenty. Rebecca was right.

R: Ah, ah!

J: Bob will be pissed. He told me.

E: Rebecca cheated.

News Items[edit]

Sad Monkeys (3:10)[edit]

S: Well, let's start off. Let's get to some news. Let's talk start off talking about sad monkeys.

E: Ah.

J: They're sad.

S: And Rebecca, you blogged about this. Why don't you tell us about the sad mankeys.

R: I did. Researchers have been studying depression in primates, and it resulted in what's obviously like the most depressing headline ever, which is "Scientist Happy About Sad Monkeys." Do you need any more evidence that scientists are just ...

S: Evil people.

R: ... evil.

E: They're just cold hearted.

R: Yeah. It's really not doing much for our marketing. Yeah, it is interesting, because it's offering us some key insights into how we can help treat depression in humans, because at this point it's all pretty much up in the air how to tackle that particular disease.

S: That's right. Obviously, we have a lot of models by which we can study depression, and we have a lot of ideas about what's going on. It's too little serotonin, for example, but what we don't have for depression is a good animal model, and the reason why a good animal model is important is because it enables you to do rapid research on medications and other ways of figuring out how depression works. If you don't have an animal model, then you're pretty much stuck doing research on people, which is a lot harder and takes a lot longer. So animal models really speed along clinical research. So this is actually a pretty big breakthrough for depression research.

R: It does confuse me, though, because I've noticed my cats get sad if I don't pet them enough. Haven't we seen other animals get sad befoe?

S: In order to have an animal model, you need to have an operational definition. You need to have something that you can objectively measure so that you can use it in an experimental protocol. Your subjective sense that your cat is sad is not something that you could fast-track in a research protocol.

R: Oh, no. I know for a fact.

J: I'm telling you the best way to solve this is to get the pet psychic in.

R: Oh, yeah.

J: She could tell us exactly. Did you know that on one of her shows some guy had an alligator as a pet, and she goes — she reads its mind and she goes "He's hungry."

E: Oh, wow! An animal was hungry.

J: What a genius.

R: Why does she never know their God-damn names? Seriously. What is the one thing that a dog hears over and over again. You know, that's the one thing the dog should know.

J: You know, if she said once "Okay, your dog, Frankie, he came up to me and told me stop kicking him, stop getting up early and drinking vodka." If she ever came out with something specific like that, like any of these psychics, I would believe it.

R: Yeah.

S: Like Dr. Dolittle.

R: I actually — I know a really great joke about that, but I don't think I can tell it on here. But I'll just say it ends with "The sheep's a God-damned liar."

S: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I heard it.


Gospel of Judas (6:04)[edit]

S: Well let's move on to the Gospel of Judas. You guys must've heard about this in the past week.

P: Oh, yes, yes.

S: When I first heard about this I was like "Oh, come on! Another ancient manuscript?" But it turns out this is probably legitimate. This is a 1700-year-old manuscript, which represents one of the earliest Christian documents that is, basically, being labeled as the Gospel of Judas, and it tells a rather different version of events. Basically, the bottom line is it that in this version of events, Judas was Jesus's close friend, and Jesus asked Judas to betray him to the Sanhedrin as part of the master plan, because that was God's will. So Judas didn't actually betray Jesus, he was just doing his bidding, and even though he knew it was going to make him the scapegoat, the bad guy, and he took the hit for the team, took the hit for Jesus.

J: Wasn't that one ...

R: I saw the exact same thing in a movie someplace.

J: That was the Last Temptation of Christ. That was a Scorsese film.

E: Was it?

R: Ah.

S: I don't remember that from that movie. The last temptation was the fact that Satan tempted Jesus one last time while he was on the cross, with basically having a normal life, and he turned down that temptation.

J: Well that was the ultimate scene in the movie, but at one point Harvey Keitel, who played Judas in the movie, it was that plot.

S: Is that right?

J: Jesus asked him to go turn him in, and he didn't want to.

S: What's interesting about this is, just from a historical point of view, this is obviously an incredible piece of historical documentation, and it really shows that in the early church, there were all kinds of different interpretations of what had happened and the teachings of Jesus, and this document was produced by, if this was the gospel of some cult of Jesus that was around at that time, that at the time, they were dismissed as heretics, and the incipient church at that time basically said, "All right, these four Gospels, these are legitimate, and all the other ones are heresies." So they suppressed all the other ones, and this was the one of the ones that they suppressed. What it really indicates is that Christianity, what we receive 2000 years later as Christianity is really just a small subset of all the traditions that were being bandied about at the time.

E: It's probably true of all religions today.

S: Right. Right. It's the nature of belief systems is that they tend to splinter over time, and that basically is what was happening early on. So, anyway, very interesting piece of historical evidence, and it's very fascinating to watch how people react to it: utter denial, complete dismissal by believers or others are saying "Who cares? The Gospels are not about historical accuracy, anyway. It's just a morality tale, and this is not the moral that we want." So they dismiss it on that basis. So, very interesting.

J: People were getting very emotional: "That can't be the truth." I just heard things on the news and read things about it.

S: Yeah.

J: People just get very upset about having their belief system in any way tested.

P: I'm shocked!

R: It's like when you are following a TV show, and then all of a sudden the bad guy turns out to really be good ...

S: Right.

R: ... and then they kill off the good guy. You know, people get pissed.

P: It's not good. It's not good.

S: I think it's cool when that happens.

R: Yeah?

J: So, Steve. Let me ask you a few questions.

S: Yeah.

J: Did they transcribe the whole thing? Was it interpreted into English or other languages, the entire document?

S: Yeah, but the document is very piecemeal, like half of it's missing, so I don't know what state it's in terms of the translation or restoration.

J: Did they also confirm its' age and authenticity?

S: Apparently it age has been confirmed by ink analysis, by carbon dating, and historical analysis, and then they converge on 1700 years ago, on 380 AD.

J: Okay, so ...

S: That's the word so far. I haven't heard any scientist saying this is bogus.

J: Let's say that they really do come through with the "yes, indeed, this is the timeframe in which it was written and everything. It just all seems to make sense. This is probably a legitimate document."

S: Right.

J: How could the church possibly not incorporate it in one way or the other.

S: Well, but the thing is this is nothing new. There are lots of extra biblical early Christian writings, do you know what I mean? This is not the first time there's been a historical document about the early church that wasn't in the Bible. There are lots of them: the Gnostic Gospels, for example. So the church is already dealing with this. This is just one more book for them to deal with. The bottom line is, early on the word came down: these are official.

J: Yeah.

S: This is the canon of the church.

P: The process for adding this gospel into the biblical canon would be titanic.

S: Right.

P: It would be almost impossible, unless the Pope stood up and said it.

S: Yeah, perhaps.

R: I think they're going to revert to the ancient art of sticking the fingers in the ears and going "La, la, la, la, la."

J: "I can't hear you. La, la, la, la, la."

S: Don't get mad at facts. That's usually a bad move.

J: I think it's a very cool thing to happen. It's actually exciting, and I'm very curious to see what takes place over the next few years with it.

S: Yeah. It will be fascinating to watch.

P: I have a friend in the seminary. I'll get the inside dope on what they're talking about.

S: On what the Catholic Church is talking about?

E: Oh, yeah, he's unbiased.

P: Behind, behind — like I said, I'm going to get what ...

S: You'll tell us the church dogma.

P: Behind holy doors.

J: Perry, what did you just say? You have a friend?

P: In the seminary, mind you. Not just a run-of-the-mill friend.

J: Never mind that! Perry, you've got a friend!

P: Not just some skeptic.

J: We love that particular friend. He's a good guy.

S: Yeah, he's a good guy. Johnny.

E: He's a good man, good man.

P: He's all right. I'd also like to point out that I always thought Judas was a good guy, long before this gospel came out.

S: Okay, so you are vindicated, once again. Your postdiction came true. All right.

More on the Polar Ice Caps (11:48)[edit]

S: Let's talk about the polar ice caps. Now last week, Perry and I had our little discussion about global warming, and Jay, you brought up that you had heard the 20% figure, that 20% of the polar ice caps have disappeared over the last decades or so.

J: Yup.

E: We're going to lose 20% of our polar ice caps.

S: Right, so I looked into that much more closely in the intervening week to see what the actual facts of that, and it is as murky as the whole issue of global warming.

P: I'm shocked.

S: In fact, it's interesting. It's like a little microcosm of global warming. It's the same people with the same basic arguments, but, again, the facts have been evolving over the last 20 or 30 years, and they are moving consistently in the direction that we are in a period of shrinking of the polar ice caps. The only figure I could find quoted anywhere was 20%, but it was on an environmentalist website.

P: How interesting.

S: So, it was not on a dry, scientific source.

E: Clarification, Steve. Of man-made global warming, right?

S: I'm not talking about the bigger issue of global warming, just what are the polar ice caps doing. Are they getting bigger? Are they getting smaller? By what, how much, how fast? Just that very ...

E: Not what's causing it.

S: Right. Not what's causing it. Just looking at the smaller subset question of what's happening to the polar ice caps. Of course, then you can infer from that — is this due to global warming and is this global warming man-made or natural? That's a separate question. However, NASA, I think, had the most objective information — the NASA website, and we have all of these links on our notes page. So there was a lot of controversy over the last 20 years about are the polar ice caps shrinking. It seemed as if the Arctic was shrinking, but the Antarctic might not have been, but there was other data that suggests that the land-trapped ice on Greenland and Antarctica has been melting, and sea levels, in fact, have been rising by at least several inches because of water that's being dumped from those landmasses into the oceans. But there was wiggle room for disagreement if you didn't agree with that. But in the last five years NASA has had satellites dedicated to measuring polar ice, and they have confirmed that the poles are, in fact, shrinking, that the amount of ice trapped in the poles is, in fact, decreasing over time. At least on their website, on their publications, they weren't signing off on any particular figure yet, and they're still saying we need to follow this out for a few more years to really know what the statistical trend is. So I also noticed that in March of '09 Europe is going to be launching CryoSat-2, which is a satellite dedicated to measuring polar ice, so this debate is probably going to need 5 to 10 years before there's a definitive consensus, but it certainly appears to be moving in the direction that the polar ice caps are shrinking at this point in time.

J: Well, Steve, I have another interesting piece of information. Anybody that lives in Alaska, and of course you know I know someone that was born there, the word on the street is that they all know that there's global warming, because they've seen an enormous amount of glacier ice just gone, like it's just completly gone.

S: Yeah. Again, I don't think there's any question at this point in time that that's happening. The question is is this just a natural oscillation, or is this a man-made artificial trend. That's where the debate is, I think at this point. Although, if you read conservative sites for five years ago, they were still denying that there was actually shrinkage of the poles, but the NASA data over last five years I think has put that to rest.

P: You just said that it's still evolving, and that we would need 5 to 10 years before ...

S: That's more to say like how much and what the long-term trend is, but they're saying now that the poles are definitely shrinking. That's the word right as of now.

J: So, Steve, worst-case scenario, what's going to happen, right? Let's say it's happening, and in another 50 years it's going to keep doing it's steady decline.

S: Well, I could tell you that the most dire predictions that are being made, and the NASA site wasn't doing this, but the environmentalist sites were, that if you take the data for the last 20 years, and you extrapolate that out, they're saying that the polar ice caps will be gone within the next hundred years.

P: (laughter)

S: That's if the trend continues without any change. There's no legitimate ...

E: What's the likelihood of that?

S: Yeah, we don't know. We don't know.

P: No more polar ice in 100 years. The north pole.

S: Both poles.

P: Both poles.

S: If current trends continue.

P: Antartica gone in 100 years.

S: If the current trends continue without change.

P: That's crazy talk.

P: No, Perry, that's math. Perry, that's just math.

P: That's crazy talk.

S: If you accept the figures for how much the poles have shrunk, and that — and this is the big if — if those trends continue without any change, that's just mathematical extrapolation.

P: I will lose weight and become a vegetarian so that I can live 100 more years, just to sit around and laugh at the fools that predicted no Antartica in 100 years.

E: Is the scientific community, do they feel that at any time in, say, recent history of past 5000 or 10,000 years, have we ever lost our polar ice caps at any point?

S: Completely? I don't think so.

E: Not completely, but even had a significant reduction?

S: Not in thousands of year. Millions of years, sure.

E: Yeah, millions.

S: There have been warm periods where we didn't have polar caps.

P: A hundred years!

S: The North Pole was temperate at one point in time.

J: But, Steve, Al Gore will have all of us believe, and I'm not joking about this. I caught some video that he made on that show that broadcasts little TV episodes that people make on their own, and Al Gore made some environmental thing. And he said that all of these storms that we're seeing, Katrina and all that stuff, are due to global warming.

S: Yeah.

J: I don't know if that's true, to be honest with you, number one. Number two, do you think there's a possibility that we could be having some severe weather because of this over the next 20, 30, 50 years.

P: Well, obviously an increase in ocean temperature is going to cause an increase in hurricanes.

S: Right.

P: I believe that. That's obvious.

S: Yeah, I mean it's hard to say for any particular storm if it were "caused" by global warming ...

P: Right.

S: ... or contributed to by it, but just statistically we're more likely to have more storms if ocean temperatures are warmer.

P: Right, and that's a far cry from no Antarctica, thank you.

S: It is. It is. I think what we'll learn over the next five or 10 years from CryoSat and the NASA satellites is: what is the trend? Is it continuing? Is it accelerating? Is it slowing? And then we'll be able to extrapolate more confidently into the future over the next five or 10 years. All we can say now is that, yes, the polls are smaller now than they were 20 years ago, but we don't know how we should be extrapolating that into the future. We'll certainly keep you updated. It certainly seems like not a week goes by where there isn't another story about polar bears being stranded and things like that.

R: Ah.

E: Poor polar bears.

S: Poor polar bears and baby walruses crying.

R: Now you really brought it home for me.

E: Put them out of there misery.

R: I really didn't give a crap before.

J: Rebecca and I are starting the Adopt-a-Penguin program.

R: There already is an Adopt-a-Penguin program, and I have one. His name Super-dude.

E: I'm going to adopt Opus. I'm adopting Opus from Bloom County. That's the best penguin in history.

P: You could be his mother.

Mercury Amalgam (19:26)[edit]

S: All right. Two more quick news items before we go on to email. I noticed in reviewing the science news items from the last week that there were two studies that address a long — one is long-standing, one is fairly recent — alternative medicine type of claims. There was a study looking at mercury amalgam. For a number of years now, there have been those who claim that mercury amalgam fillings in our teeth, the mercury is leaching out into our bloodstreams and causing all kinds of disease, causing pediatric mental retardation, chronic immune deficiencies, etc.

E: Oh, boy.

S: Well, there hasn't been any evidence to support those claims, but ...

E: Who needs evidence?

S: But there's a cottage industry of people who will remove your feelings for you and give you all other kinds of treatments for it.

J: If they remove my fillings, how am I ever going to pickup those radio broadcasts?

S: That's right. You have to deal with that.

R: You'll never know when the mother ship is here.

S: There was a recent study published looking at mercury amalgam, a prospective epidemiological study, which showed there is no association with any pediatric problems and mercury amalgam. So a definitively negative study, which is very reassuring about the safety of mercury amalgam.

J: Yay.

E: Steve, are these the same people who believe that the mercury contained in inoculations for children and so forth are causing them to have all sorts of problems.

S: Yes, there is tremendous overlap in those communities.

E: Yeah, there's no shock there.

S: And there are just all-purpose anti-mercury groups ...

P: Right.

S: ... that think mercury from everywhere is causing all kinds of problems. And, you know, mercury is an actual toxin. It's all a matter of dose and exposure.

J: How about the whole tunafish, the canned fish mercury.

S: Yeah, go get mercury from fish. There's no question. Again, it's a matter of how much and ...

R: Especially here in Massachusetts. For a while they actually said "Don't eat the fish from the lakes and streams" because it's so bad.

S: Right, and that's legitimate. The goal of the FDA and other agencies is to minimize cumulative overall human exposure to mercury, because, again, it is a toxin.

E: Well it's one thing to not eat the fish locally, but it's another thing to not inoculate your children for fear of mercury poisoning.

R: Oh, yeah.

E: That's a big problem.

R: That's the thing, though. How can people look at a warning like that and see that the government is doing their job to try to protect us from the harmful effects of mercury, but for some reason ignoring the problems of mercury in vaccines and whatever. There's no reason why we would cover that up.

S: It's a big conspiracy.

P: Yeah, it's ridiculous.

S: I wrote a fairly long definitive article about just that issue — thimerosal mercury in vaccines — and maybe we could talk about it at length at another podcast. We don't really have time to dig into it deep on this show.

P: One quick note. I just saw on the news tonight a report by a government health official that there's been an increased incidence of disease in college-age students, because they're mixing together for the first time, it's spring break and they're together, and they're getting sick, because in the 80s was when it began to get in vogue to not vaccinate your children, and so now there are many college-age students who never received their vaccinations, and a sharp increase in the level of illness amongst these kids.

S: Yeah, well that's the reason why you have to vaccinate your kids.

P: It's, you know.

S: It's actually not a problem in this country, because you have to get vaccinated to go into the public school system.

E: To go to school, yeah.

S: But it's more of a problem in the UK, where it's totally voluntary. Every time there's a scare, they get a huge dip in their vaccination. Let's cover that in more depth in another show.

Spinal Stem Cells (23:02)[edit]

S: The next study I saw was — this one cuts close to home for me — there's a clinic in China, and, again, another Dr. Huang, I believe is his name, who was claiming that he can implant the specific kind of olfactory stem cells into injured spinal cords and cause miraculous regeneration, and he's claiming a tremendous success rate that he has cured hundreds of people of spinal cord disorders and ALS and MS. Now unfortunately he's not doing any actual research into the safety and effectiveness of his intervention.

R: I for one am shocked.

S: He says "I'm too busy." He says what every quack says "I'm too busy healing people to do research." And he hasn't really even told anybody outside of clinic what he's actually injecting into people.

E: Oh my God!

S: So a group of neurosurgeons, reasonably concerned over these claims, and of course if they are legitimate, we would want to know about it, and if they're not legitimate, we'd want to know about it. So they reviewed a number of his cases, including the cocktail that he is injecting into them, and, basically, what they found is, first of all, no benefit. None of the people that they reviewed actually benefited from this intervention.

R: I for one am shocked!

S: It gets better. Secondly, despite his claims of no side effects from this procedure, there was an 80% side effect rate, including meningitis in many of these patients.

R: I for — never mind.


P: Menengitis — that's bad, right, Steve?

S: That's bad. Yeah, that's bad.

P: Okay.

S: So the problem is, basically, this clinic in China was established to lure wealthy Westerners, with miraculous claims, to fly to China, to spend — give this guy $20,000 cash, ...

P: Jeez!

S: ... so that he can inject snake oil into your spine and you could die over there.

E: This is psychic surgery all over again, wrapped in a different wrapper.

R: this is so much worse!

J: Steve, do you think it's too late for me to get my money back?

P: Steve, did they analyze the cocktail?

S: I think they were able to analyze it to some degree, and it does have ...

J: Turns out it was a cosmopolitan.

S: ... it has the nasally drive like olfactory stem cells in there, but not what he was claiming, and they may not be viable.

P: Okay.

S: It's bad all around.

P: Yeah.

S: The guy is basically a ...

J: So where was he injecting this into people.

S: Into people's spines.

J: Oh, my God!

E: Yeah.

S: He's making money on the sexy appeal of stem cells, you know.

P: Yeah.

S: He's riding that wave.

R: This is one of those cases to remember the next time somebody says "Well, what's it hurt, really?"

S: Yeah, "What's it hurt?" I personally know a patient with ALS who died in China because of this guy's false promises.

P: Oh, boy.

E: Well, he would have died here, but ...

S: Not as quick and as poor, right?

E: Yeah, that's true.

P: That's right.

S: I've seen — the intangible here is the harm of false hope, and then the bitter disappointment when the false hope crashes.

E: That's very true. Very true.

S: It is harsh. Maybe you can give people one to two years of some quality-of-life, or people who have a spinal cord injury, they may be wheelchair-bound, but they can still go on to have a life, and you can take that from them. The argument that it can't hurt to try these sort of desperate measures is not correct.

R: Yeah.

P: Yeah.

Questions and Emails (26:25)[edit]

S: All right; let's move on to e-mails. Again, we have more e-mails than we can talk about on the show. We are going to be upgrading our website eventually to be able to post all of the e-mails that we get for feedback on the website, but in the meantime we'll be reading a select few each week. We have a few for this week.

Skeptical Tools (26:42)[edit]

S: E-mail number one begins:

Greetings. I love the show. This show is a fantastic resource for someone like me. While I have the skeptical mindset, I do not have the tools to deconstruct some of the paranormal things that I hear about. This show helps me give me the ability to take bunk theories apart. I'd like to suggest a segment to your show. I would love it if you took time out of every show to describe a tool in the skeptic toolbox. You could talk about a part of the scientific method, a logical fallacy with examples or point of view that will help the listener become a better skeptic.

Keep up the great work,


Thank you, Cecil. We do try to sort of roll into our discussions some skeptical tools, like we will specifically mention logical fallacies or explain things like empiricism and naturalism, etc. So we do try to fill up that skeptical toolbox every chance that we get, in the context of ...

J: Cecil, Cecil, the truth is, we just copied that stuff from another website; we don't even know what those logical fallacies are.


E: Logical what?

S: We do have our favorite logical fallacies on the website, for example. And we do talk about Occam's Razor and other principles of skepticism. But your suggestion is interesting, and the bottom line is: we'll think about it. I mean, we are thinking about adding new segments to the show and do send us your suggestions and that may be a new segment that we'll be bringing on soon. We'll think about it.

J: Well, Steve, if you remember, we actually — you know, off — not on a show, but off-air, we did discuss taking one of those logical fallacies a show and just talk about it; explain it; give examples.

S: Yeah.

J: I think that'd be an interesting thing to do.

R: Think it's a good idea.

S: So keep an eye out for that in the future.

Evaluating Scientific Claims (28:23)[edit]

S: Email number two is actually — there's a very long preamble, which basically, again, is more praise for our podcast. And then at the end, she asks a question. She says:

Finally my question. In my line of work, I am constantly confronted with scientists who essentially prostitute themselves and the truth out to the highest bidder. I would really enjoy hearing your perspectives on that. Superficially, they often appear to be true to the scientific method and are even considering the same raw data as other studies. However, their use of that data and the statistical analysis performed can, of course, dramatically impact the final outcome, the answer. Given this, how does the average person really evaluate the legitimacy of medical claims, environmental issues, health studies, constituents in food, pesticides, etc. One could make the effort to determine who the study was funded by, but how?


So, Kim, thank you for your e-mail. Again, the full e-mail will be on our notes page; I just read the question part of her e-mail. And that is an excellent question. How does the lay person assess scientific claims when different experts are making opposite claims? We just wrestled with this with the global warming and the polar icecap issue. You have different scientists making different claims; who's right, you know? There is no hard and fast or easy answer to that question. It does depend upon the subject matter itself. I think there are some rules of thumb, however. One is: trust a consensus over an individual scientist's opinion. Individual scientists are quirky individuals. They are people; they have their biases. They may have lots of reasons why they may be more compelled by something. It may be greedy, it may be financial, or it may just be that they desire a more successful career for themselves. Or they may just be wrong. They may just have a wrong idea in their head. But those kind of things tend to get worked out when an idea is discussed amongst the community of scientists. The community is not going to have, generally, the same biases, the same financial concerns. They're not going to have the same ties to one outcome or another. So when there is a robust consensus among scientists, especially among disparate disciplines, that is something that I think has a very high degree of reliability. The other time to consider is how overall plausible is the claim? And if it's something which seems to be fairly consistent with mainstream science, again, it's more likely to be true. If it's something which is out on the fringe and seems to be exceptionally wacky, I would be more cautious about the people who are promoting it.

E: It's a little Occam's Razor piece there for you.

P: Yeah, mm, mm.

S: Absolutely. Otherwise, it's hard to know. You know, outside of your own field of scientific expertise, you basically have to trust the experts to some degree. Really, it's hard to know.

E: But beware the arguments from authority from those experts.

S: I think, again, what I would say is you can't invest authority in any individual, but large numbers of scientists building a consensus by hammering out their differences — there is some authority that you can invest in that.

R: So Steve, you expect us to take that advice on faith, then?

P: (chuckles)

S: On my personal authority, you should accept that advice.

R:Okay. Just making that clear.

P: Very good.

Gene Multiplication (31:44)[edit]

S: One last email and then we'll move on to our interview. This one comes from — the person did not sign their name, but their email moniker was Aukshia, and they write:

A very short brief question: can you tell me what is gene multiplication

S: That's an excellent question with a lot of relevance for the intelligent design/evolution debate, which is why I thought I would discuss it, briefly. Basically, what happens over evolutionary time is entire genes or large sections of genes can be duplicated in the genome. So you may start out with one copy of a gene, and, as speciation occurs over time, a descendent species may have two or three or four copies of that same gene. That's gene multiplication. The reason why that's really important for evolution is because those extra copies of the gene are now completely free from evolutionary pressures not to change. So let's say you have a gene that makes a protein that's essential for some basic biochemical function of the organism. Mutations in that protein are likely to be problematic, because you need its original functionality. But an extra copy of the gene can mutate freely and, basically, experiment with different protein structures and protein designs, and if it happens to hit upon something which has another use, it could then get adapted and co-opted for that use. That undercuts significantly the argument of intelligent designers that structures are irreducibly complex, that you can't reverse engineer them. In other words, they say "Well, this protein, for example, or this structure could not function if it were any simpler", or "If it's essential for its current function, how could it change into something else?" And, in fact, you may not be able to follow a linear path of one protein changing into another into another, because of gene multiplication. The other copies of the gene may have then been freed to mutate into other forms. So that completely undercuts the notion of irreducible complexity, and it is something that IDers have no answer to, at least none that I have personally seen, and I've extensively read their writings.

E: Hey, Steve? When these genes or strands of genes multiply, do they sometimes just multiply and not mutate into something else and sort of just act as a redundant system to whatever it originated from?

S: Yeah, and they usually do that initially. But just by random chance, they're going to mutate. There is a spontaneous mutation rate, and when you have a duplicate, there's no evolutionary pressure to keep those mutations from accumulating, do you know what I mean?

E: Right.

S: Normally, if a protein has to have a specific structure to function, and its function is essential for the life of cells, it will be what's called highly conserved over evolutionary time. Every time a mutation occurs that changes its function, that organism dies. It gets selected against. So the mutations that occur are weeded out, and over time the structure of the protein's remarkably stable. But if you have redundancy, there's no way for evolution to keep both of those proteins from mutating. One protein is enough to fulfill the function that it has. And we see that, again, when you look at just the biochemistry of the body, we see that enzymes are related to each other. Proteins are related to each other, and you could see over evolutionary time this protein split into more than one protein that then evolved along their own paths and later served different functions and then may have split again into further derivations of that protein. So there's actually a family tree of proteins within organisms.

E: And do they ever mutate into something that is harmful ...

S: Yeah.

E: ... or something that you don't want.

S: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, there are diseases that we know about that are due to harmful mutations. The one that I'm personally very familiar with is familial ALS. There is a gene, a mutation in the SOD1 gene, which is for a protein called superoxide dismutase, and the mutant protein is toxic to motor neurons and kills them and causes Lou Gehrig's or ALS-type syndrome.

E: Wow!

S: And that's why we have genetic diseases. That's what most genetic diseases are: harmful mutations of proteins.

E: Wow!

S: Now we are going to go on to our interview with Marilyn Schlitz. So let's go onto that interview now.

Interview with Marilyn Schlitz (36:34)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Marilyn Schlitz. Marilyn, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

MS: Thank you. Glad to be here.

S: Marilyn currently serves as the Vice President for Research and Education at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and Senior Scientist at the Research Institute, California Pacific Medical Center. You can read her complete bio on her website [], and we'll have that link on our notes page. So Marilyn, again thanks for joining us. We basically wanted to talk to you tonight mainly about ESP research, which you've obviously been involved with quite extensively.

MS: Sure. Okay.

S: Why don't you tell us about some of the research that you've done?

MS: Well, my whole story began around psi research. I was interested in 1977 in paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn's book had just come out, The Structure of Scientific Revolution. Shortly after that, I was working with a neurophysiologist at the medical school, (unintelligible), at Wayne State Medical School, and he gave me a book called Psychic Exploration, by Edgar Mitchell, the Apollo 14 astronaut. And this was an edited collection of essays from mainstream scientists doing rigorous research on a topic that was completely taboo. And it smacked of paradigm potential for me, and so I got really interested and began to do research about 1977 on psychic phenomena, ESP, psychokinesis, mind-over-matter. I was originally looking at remote viewing, and did several formal, well-controlled, randomized double-blind kind of studies using a remote viewing protocol. For example, we did a study — in 1980 we published an experiment in which my colleague was in Rome, Italy, and I was in Michigan, and he had prepared a target pool of 40 geographical locations, and my job on this end was to stop for 15 minutes at a pre-arranged time, everyday, and to describe where I thought he was. And then after the experiment was completed, we gave my transcripts, my reports about what I thought was happening, together with the list of geographical locations, and asked these blind judges to go out and to evaluate how close each transcript matched the geographical location — blind, of course. They didn't know which one was the correct one. And in that, we got six direct hits out of ten, which had a highly statistically significant outcome, and so though that looked as though there was something very interesting to be pursued in the area of remote viewing. I got interested in working with what's called the ganzfeld technique, which is a ...

S: Right.

MS: ... sensory deprivation procedure, and worked with Chuck Honorton at the Princeton lab where we recruited subjects from the Juilliard school in New York. So we were interested in looking at the correlation between exceptional talent, creativity, and ESP outcome. And so, that one, if you're familiar with the protocol, the way it's designed is that a volunteer would come in, and they would sit in this quiet room for about a half an hour, and they had these kind of halved ping-pong balls over their eyes, which reduces sensory input, visual input, and then there's a red light that shines over this. This was a technique that was developed in psychology around the turn-of-the-century because of introspective psychology and the interest in looking at internal imagery. And so this person is sitting in this ganzfeld state with white noise in their ears, and pretty soon they start to see things. They start to see imagery. So it's kind of like a simulated dream experience. Meanwhile, there was another person in another room sensorily shielded, really adequate and very careful precautions were taken to make sure there was no cross-talk between the two rooms. And that person was watching a video clip. So, for example, the computer, when the session would start, would go in and randomly select a pool of four targets from a much larger pool of four. So there were many, there were hundreds of targets to choose from. And then it would pull these sets of four. It would then make another random selection and choose one. So, for example, one day I was the sender, and the computer randomly selected a target, a video clip from the movie Altered States, and I had a drama student in the other room, in the ganzfeld state, and he was describing his imagery, and he described "red, red, red" and corona sun and felt like descending into hell, saw a large lizard opening and closing its mouth, and at that time I was watching a video clip that was from the scene descending into hell where everything is tinted red, where there's a corona sun, and right at the time when I was watching it, there was this huge lizard that opened and closed its mouth. So it was pretty striking, and then the study was designed such that there was a blind evaluation. So after that session is over, for example, the drama student, who was sitting in the room, took off his goggles, or his ping-pong balls, and then he was shown the four video clips in a random order without knowing which one was the correct one, and then asked to evaluate which one most closely represented his imagery. And so in that case he got a direct hit, a one. If you just did this and guessed all the way through, you'd expect 25% on the basis of chance. One in four. The average population, based on this lab, Chuck Honorton's work, produced about a 33% success rate, which was statistically significant. The Julliard students overall produced a 50% success rate. And the classically-trained musicians produced a 75% success rate. So, it was pretty interesting, and so that continued to excite my curiosity and led to a lot of different experiments. You can lead me from here.

S: Right. Well, lets talk about the ganzfeld experiments a little bit, because this still stands out as the one most often set of data that proponents or believers in ESP or anomalous cognition cite to say that there is solid evidence for ESP. Would you agree? Do you believe that taken collectively, the ganzfeld experiments is sufficient evidence for the existence of psi phenomenon for ESP, that it should be accepted as an established scientific factor? How would you characterize it?

MS: Well, first I don't make the clear-cut distinction between proponents and skeptics. I think that people that are trying to do rigorous research in this field should be open-minded skeptics. I think that's an appropriate position in which to do science in this area. So the positioning thing to me is a little complicated. In terms of evaluating the state of the science, I would say that the ganzfeld is a very robust database. It has been assessed using very rigorous quality criteria. It was the object of a lengthy dialogue between a skeptic and a proponent, as it were, Ray Hyman and Charles Honorton. All of that communication was published. The results that have continued to come out using the ganzfeld paradigm continue to support the effect size at around 32%, 33% success rate. So it does appear that there's some kind of anomaly there. It seems as though that's a robust technique to use to begin to look at this kind of thing.

S: And, yet, though, it still hasn't escaped from being controversial, and you mentioned Ray Hyman. After exhaustively reviewing and doing his own meta-analysis of the ganzfeld experiments, he remains unconvinced that it represents an actual psi phenomenon, as do others. Susan Blackmore and Richard Wiseman, other scientists who have looked at this database, say it doesn't amount to evidence for psi.

MS: Well, it's a different issue what people — like a prioris are an important thing for how a person evaluates a database. I don't think, as best I understand, Ray Hyman ever found anything substantive in terms of methodological errors. I think more it's about his own belief system and his assumptions going into it.

S: Well, I mean, I disagree with that. He was very specific about the particulars of his methodological criticisms. For example, he found that the target images that represented a hit were represented in the second position more often than you would expect by chance alone, and, in fact, if you just look at the first position — when the first image was the target, the results were not statistically significant. But the later they occur in the series, the more likely it was to have a hit, which suggests that, all right, so the results are not due to chance alone, which means there's some effect in play, but that effect does not necessarily have to be a side effect, and there are statistical anomalies that could also account for it.

R: I believe he also had something about sensory leakage.

S: Yes.

R: Some issues with the method (unintelligible).

MS: So one of the things about the ganzfeld procedure that I think is so useful is that there was a lengthy debate about sensory leakage that occurred. And then they went back and redesigned the laboratory and actually the setup there, so that they could address every single criticism that Ray Hyman had offerred. And went back in with an agreement on a set of methodological conditions that if, in fact, the results still continued to be demonstrated, would support the evidence, okay?. And, in fact, that is what happened, that they had this Joint Communiqué. They agreed to a set of methodological conditions. They went back in and found the results were still in the same ballpark as what they'd done initially. So the sensory leakage idea, I think, was a useful critiqué. It didn't end up being substantiated in terms of the database. I don't really think that there is much — certainly we can get into arguments about statistics, and I don't know if that's especially fruitful. I think that there is an anomaly that's demonstrated here. It's now worth, again, open-minded skepticism to really begin to understand, because if, in fact, these data are robust and if, in fact, they hold up, they have profound implications for our understanding of causality ...

S: Sure, they certainly do.

MS: ... the nature (unintelligible)

S: We are all open-minded skeptics on this show. We are not a priori skeptics. We're ready and willing to be convinced by the evidence. I do think the ganzfeld experiments are very fascinating, because you do have a large data set, over 30 years, that has been haggled over by all sides very thoroughly. And it is a little microcosm of the process of science itself. Although, just for the record, you gave your interpretation of the evidence. There still isn't a consensus from Hyman and others that even the fixed protocols did fix all the sensory leak problems, and I know Susan Blackmore was particularly critical. She, in fact, went to some of the labs that were generating the most positive results from the ganzfeld experiments,

MS: One lab. (unintelligible)

S: Yeah, one lab. You are correct.

MS: Very anecdotal evidence, and, frankly, I know Susan and have known her a very long time, and I'm friends with her. I just saw her in Arizona at the Conciousness Conference., and she changes her mind, you know. She flips back and forth, so it's hard to know where she's going to end up.

S: It is true that her bottom line opinion has wandered over the years, which is fine as new evidence comes in, she's free to change her mind. But her point, though, is interesting in that the one lab that she did visit she found significant by her account, by her account, methodological flaws that were not really reflected in the write-up on paper. Which is at least a cause for caution. When you're doing a meta-analysis and you're evaluating studies by what's reported in the literature, it may not be the whole story, ...

MS: But to the best of my knowledge, the meta-analysis that Charles Honorton did excluded the data from Carl Sargent's lab.

S: Right, and the effect size did shrink a bit when he did that, if I recall.

MS: I mean it was still significantly significant. Again ...

S: I believe it shrunk down to 28%. Was the final one when ...?

MS: No. I don't know. I don't have all these ... (unintelligible)

S: When you use the most rigorous criteria of the best studies, the effect size shrinks down to about 28% from 25, 25 being chance. So, again, which brings up another point. When you look at the entire data set, and I'm approaching this as someone who's looked at multiple other fields as well. I think the other discipline in which we have a very large data set over many decades is homeopathy.

MS: Hm, hm.

S: And we see the same basic pattern that the more carefully you design the studies and the more rigorously the protocols are carried out, the smaller the effect size. The best, at least within homeopathy, the best studies are negative, and I do see the same overall pattern within psi research over the last 50-60 years, that even though there are protocols that produce some data that's interesting, the more rigorously you control it, the effect size seems to shrink as you get more and more rigorous. But I do think that there is still room for a subsequent large, multicenter ganzfeld experiment, a single study that could reach statistical significance where, again, all sides are participating on the protocol. So I think there's still some room for the consensus studies that will, hopefully, be more definitive than what we have at this point in time.

MS: I would encourage you to invite Dean Radin to come on your show. He has a new book that's just out called Entangled Minds.

S: Hm, hm.

MS: And it's kind of the best assessment of the state of the field right now, and, to be honest, I haven't really been doing psi research for a number of years. It's not my principal area ...

S: Right.

MS: ... of research at this point. So, to really have a knowledgeable debate about the current state of the data, I would feel much better ...

S: Sure.

MS: ... deferring to his currency.

S: Sure, fair enough. We'd love to have him on. But, before we leave this question, we could use this to segue into other topics that maybe you feel more comfortable talking about. There are always two main points to consider when thinking about these controversial claims like ESP. One is: what is the state of the empirical evidence? But the other one, and I do think this is a point in which those who are generally skeptical do vary from those are generally positive about it, is: what's the prior plausibility?

MS: Hm, hm.

S: So the question I would ask you is: if you think that the empirical evidence for ESP is robust enough to say that there's some phenomenon there, what do you think is a possible mechanism for that? Or do not even consider that as a worthwhile question?

MS: So that's the third topic, because you said there's the nature of the evidence, there's your a prioris, and then there's the theoretical framework in which you can begin to account for these kinds of claims. At this point, I think that the state of the evidence is comparable to a lot of areas of biomedical research or behavioral science, where you see some periodicity in the findings, you see some connection between the investigators and the outcome of the studies. So I'm in agreement with you that the database is not a hugely robust database. It's not something like you turn on a light switch and suddenly the lights go on. It's a different kind of thing, but if you compare the effect size on average in these various studies, fields, these domains, it's comparable if not better than what we find in something like, for example, the study that was done to prevent second heart attacks by taking aspirin.

S: Hm, hm.

MS: It was a very large, clinical trial that, in fact, they called off early, because they didn't want to deprive the control group of the intervention, which was aspirin. But, in fact, when you look at the data, the effect size concatenated across a lot of trials, was very robust, but it's small ...

S: Hm, hm.

MS: ... on a trial-by-trial basis. So when you look at something like psi research, where you have actually a larger effect size, but you have no where near the kind of data, the database, the numbers, the support that you get for an area like the aspirin study. Then that leads directly into your second thing about your a prioris, well, of course, we live in a mechanistic culture that has more comfort in thinking that aspirin could have a benefit on the physiology of the person than the idea that somehow thought or intention could influence another person's physiology. So, again, there's a world view issue that most cultures actually do adhere to a world view that accepts these kind of things, but our kind of materialistic and science-based culture is much more skeptical, which, again, I think is appropriate.

S: Right. I definitely understand what you are saying, but when you use a phrase such as "we're not comfortable with this way of looking at things," to me that comes off as a bit dismissive. I would say — I would put it completely differently.

MS: Well, let me put it differently, which is then the theoretical basis. Again, feeding your a priori question, like what is the plausibility from our world view, from our frame of reference, our assumptions that these kind of things can be true, and a lot of that then gets driven by the dominant theoretical framework that we are living in. So, we now live in a quantum world, yet our world view is still very Newtonian. So as we begin to look at the implications of quantum mechanics and particularly the notion of — and at this point I want to say I think this is a metaphor. I don't think we have demonstrated that this kind of non-locality that's occurring in ESP experiments, is quantum. But I think the metaphor, the analogy to what's happening in entanglement, for example, where particles can somehow be in a relationship even though they are not spatially connected, suggests that there is something that could account for these kinds of phenomena. It's certainly not weirder than a lot of the other things we (unintelligible) about the nature of the cosmos. So, I think that all three levels it provides a really fascinating area for us to self-examine. What do we believe and why?

S: Right. Well, you bring up two points I'd like to address very quickly. The first is that the prior plausibility, you characterize that as being based upon our world view and assumptions. I would characterize it differently. I would say it's based upon our prior, empirical evidence. That we actually do know stuff about the world and the universe. It's not just assumptions. It's not just theory. It's actual body of evidence that we carefully accumulated over a few centuries, and that means something. And if a new idea is not compatible with this carefully assembled body of evidence, then we should look at it more skeptically than something which is consistent with what has come before.

R: Right. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I think it all boils down to that.

S: I think that would be a quick way of summarizing it. Then you went into area which I suspected you would, based upon the articles that I've read of yours, and that is using the idea of quantum mechanics to justify non-locality or entanglement. And this is an issue that we definitely deal with quite a bit, and I would, again, disagree with your interpretation and here's why. The phenomenon of non-locality and entanglement, which again, basically, is this notion that two particles could be entangled in such a way that doing something to one particle instantaneously affects the other particle over distance in a way that seems to violate notions of locality and space and time. But, in fact, we do not live in a quantum universe. We live in a very non-quantum, material universe. It is only quantum in very specialized situations that are extremely fragile and hard to maintain. We can reproduce them in carefully-designed experiments, but the entanglement that you're talking about is very fragile, and you have — there's a phenomenon which is well-established, which is called decoherence, and as soon as these particles start interacting to any degree with anything else in their environment, they rapidly decohere. So if you think about the level at which our brains are functioning, there's actually no quantum effects inside our brain, because all any entanglement or quantum fuzziness has completely been washed out by the time you get up to macroscopic structures. Do you want to respond to that?

MS: Well, again, I think that — yeah, I just don't think we know enough at this point to make any declarations about what is so. I think that, as I said, I was using it as a metaphor, as a sort of frame for understanding the plausibility of these kind of things. I just came from — the University of Arizona has a conference every two years: Towards Science Consciousness, and I would say that there is increasing evidence to support the idea that the brain may, in fact, be a quantum processor, that there may be quantum processes going on in the brain, and that there may be some situations in which the temperature and moisture issues about the brain may not be valid. There was some data I was just looking at where they were looking at the stimulation of neurons in petri dishes, and looking at the kind of transfer of information between these neurons in petri dishes at temperatures that weren't really cold and under circumstances that weren't so dry. So I just think that at this point, we do not really understand the implications of how much we're embedded in the quantum field, how much the Newtonian framework is embedded in something that our science hasn't caught up with, yet. And, in terms of your first point, I think you're absolutely right that the empirical method is a valid and important and powerful tool for us in terms of our discernment and discovery. But science has progressed on the basis of anomalies, and we see this — everybody always quotes the Copernican revolution. But people went to extreme measure to try and maintain a structure that worked, and that people felt comfortable with, and so they did these elaborate hoops of trying to justify when anomalies would occur, such that they could explain it, and eventually the whole thing crumbled because the anomalies grew greater, the precision of the mathematics grew beyond what the dogma of the church was allowing for, and things changed. And our model of what was possible changed. To me, the exciting thing about these data isn't that yes, we've proven or no, we've disproven the existence of psychic phenomena, but I think that they really do stretch us and they push us to examine our assumptions and to recognize that actually the majority of people do believe in these kinds of phenomena. So, in terms of ...

S: They certainly do. By all accounts, 50 to 60 percent.

MS: And a lot of it is based on their own empiricism. I mean, that's based on their direct experience. So, I'm, obviously, as a scientist, suspicious of anecdotes, but anecdotes are what motivate a lot of people to formulate their opinions of what is true. It's an epistemological framework for the majority of people.

S: It is absolutely very complex, and you mention Kuhn and paradigm shifts, and he created that concept. But I do think that in the final analysis, although the process of science is very personal, very culturally embedded, very messy, but over the long period of time there is a process of justification and, ultimately, you have to justify your ideas and your notions against objective reality, and that's sort of the difference in how science works, and I do think that Kuhn and other philosophers, post-modernist philosophers, basically miss that point. And they confused the context of discovery, where anything goes, and it is very personal and culturally embedded, with the very tedious workaday process of later justification, which is where really all the money is in sciences, is in that process of justification. Well, Marilyn, we appreciate you joining us on the Skeptics' Guide. It was a very interesting discussion. Any parting thoughts for us?

MS: No, I appreciate your dialog and I appreciate that you're raising these kinds of questions. So, good for you, and I wish you luck on your show.

J: Thanks, Marilyn.

R: Thanks, Marilyn.

P: Thanks, Marilyn. Good night.

S: Thanks again for joining us.

MS: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

S: Well that was a very interesting interview. I appreciate Marilyn coming on the show with us. Occasionally we have someone who is not a dedicated skeptic on our show. It's always interesting to talk to them. We didn't have time to address all — she brought up so many different things, I had to pick and choose what we had time to talk about. But at the end, there, she did mention something in my field of expertise about the brain, and there is no mainstream neurological research that is demonstrating any quantum effects in the brain.

P: I was saying off the air: I hate quantum mechanics. More scalawags have hidden in the mires of quantum mechanics and legitimate science.

S: It is the favorite of weird science these days, because it's on the cutting edge and because people don't really understand it. There is nothing within quantum mechanics that supports notions like ESP or non-locality, etc. We don't live in a quantum world. That's the bottom line.

P: I thought you made that clear in the interview.

J: Steve, for Cecil, I will say that she did commit a logical fallacy during the interview, right?

S: Which one?

J: Ad Ignorandum?

S: She did. When I mentioned that, she then retreated to ad ignorandum, which is "well, we don't really know. So, we don't know what the implications of quantum mechanics are. You're right. If we don't know, then you can't use them to justify any particular claim.

P: (laughter) That's right.

S: It was interesting. I thought it was interesting.

Science or Fiction (1:04:09)[edit]

S: Let's move on. We have just enough time for a quick Science or Fiction.


S: So every week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine, and one I make up out of whole cloth, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to see which one is fake. And you guys, the audience, can play along. There's no theme this week, so just three unrelated items. You guys ready?

J: Absolutely.

R: Yup.

P: Hm, hm.

S: Okay. Number one: a new study by Belgium psychologists suggests that men bargain less aggressively when they're confronted with images of sexy women.

R: (laughter)

S: Item number two: eating more olive oil and fish and less meat and dairy was associated with a significantly lower risk of developing alzheimer's disease. And item number three: a new study shows that fetuses are capable of feeling pain. Evan, why don't you go first?

E: Okay. I am going to say that number one is fiction.

S: You think that men can keep their cool, even if confronted with ...

E: Yup, I do.

S: ... erotic stimuli?

E: Well, perhaps. You said it was Belgium?

S: It was a Belgian psychologist.

E: Yeah, so that one, just, I recall reading something recently about the fetuses feeling pain, and I believe there was evidence suggesting that, in fact, that is the case. And then given the choice just between one and two, I just think two's more plausible than one.

S: All righty. Perry?

P: Yeah, fetuses feeling pain — that seems pretty straightforward. The second one, I certainly hope that that's not true. It would be a bad thing.

S: Yeah, that one was in there for you, Perry.

P: Yeah, that would be bad. Sounds real, though, unfortunately. (unintelligible) are going to be dead. And then, number one, you know, could that be false? Yeah, because the other two sound true, so.

S: By process of elimination, you'll go with ...

P: Right.

S: You'll agree with Evan and go with number one being false.

P: That's correct.

S: So you have faith in our male compatriots.

P: No I don't. I just think the other ones are more true. that's all.

S: Rebecca.

R: I'm a little unclear on number one. You're saying that men don't bargain as much, is that what you said?

S: That's right. They are more willing to accept the bad offer, they will not bargain as aggressively, when they are confronted or after viewing images of sexy women.

R: Oh, not necessarily if it's a sexy woman that's making the deal with them.

S: That's right. Not necessarily with a sexy woman, just after having viewed sexy women.

R: All right. That's tough. And the second one was what? Apparently I'm just not paying attention.

S: Eating more olive oil and fish and less meat and dairy was associated with a significantly lower risk of developing alzheimer's disease.

R: Mmmmmm. Let's see, I'd like to think that's true, just so it could annoy Perry. And then the third one about fetuses feeling pain, I was under the impression that that was still up in the air. What stage of pregnancy are we talking about, there?

P: That's a big stage.

S: The term fetus is very specific.

R: Oh, okay.

J: Well why don't you tell us what it is, exaclty?

R: Like third trimester?

P: Yeah, what is it?

S: A fetus is post-embryo, so after the embryonic stage and before birth.

R: Okay, well aren't there a lot of stages.

E: Yes. You're stalling.

J: There's about eight months between there, right Steve?

R: Oh, fine. I guess I'll go with number two, just to pick randomly, because I don't know.

S: Okay, and Jay, am I missing you?

J: Well, you could say that. The men and nude pictures thing, this one is difficult, because men look at nudity so much that I think that they would just — I'll speak for Perry. Men look at nudity so much that I don't think that that's going to really have an effect on them being able to haggle or not. That just seems so random and weird that I'm going to pick that one as the fake one.

S: Okay. So we've got 3 for one.

E: All three men chose number one.

J: And all for one, right, Evan?

S: So let's start with number two, eating more olive oil and less dairy.

R: Damn!

J: Yay!

S: That is true.

J: Of course it is.

S: That is the so-called Mediterranean diet, which is eating fruits and vegetables, foods that are high in the Omega-3 fatty acids, the good cholesterol, low in bad cholesterol, low in dairy. That's been associated with other good things in the past as well, like fewer heart attacks. And there's a recent study showing that there was a significant, like 40%, decrease in the rate of alzheimer's disease in people who stuck strictly to this diet over a two-year period. Actually, it was over a five-year period.

J: Steve, how does that compare with the diet that Perry's on, the Southern Ireland diet, where he eats almost raw meat and sausage and everything deep fried.

S: Oh, yeah, that would be the complete opposite of the Mediterranean diet. But I included this one partly in reaction to our tension over vegetarianism last week.

R: I appreciate that, Steve.

S: So a Mediterranean diet is in fact quite healthy, according to this study.

R: Thank you.

P: The amount of years that she will live longer than us because of her diet is directly proportional to the horror of her life ...


P: ... by being a vegetarian.

R: The "horror of my life." Oh, my God!

P: Absolutely.

S: Well, I actually enjoy the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet — I make a pretty kick Caesar salad.

E: Oh, yeah, it's good.

S: And pretty much everything that is good in the Mediterranean diet is in that salad.

J: Steve, your Caesar salad is epic. It's not "trick" or "kick" or whatever the Hell you said. It's unbelievably good. It's epic. I will say that.

E: We'll post the recipe on the website in the future.

J: Okay.

S: We'll do that. Let's see. Which one shall we go to next? We'll talk about number one next. So, a study by Belgium psychologist suggests men bargain less aggressively when confronted with images of sexy women.

E: Fiction.

S: That one is ...

E: Fiction.

S: ... science!

J: Oh.

R: Ah. Suck it!

S: It's true!

J: Steve!

S: Now what they did was they had two groups of men. One group, they had them view — it wasn't necessarily nude, just like pictures, erotic pictures of sexy, attractive women — and then they had them engage in a game where they had to bargain for money. One man would say what the least amount of money that he would accept out of like ten euros, and the other man would make an offer. If the offer was less than the minimum, they both got nothing. If it was more than the minimum, then he would have to give that amount of money, and they would both get to keep what they had. So both men are engaged in a strategy where they're trying to maximize how much money they get, without risking getting nothing. And men were — either they lowered the minimum amount of money that they would accept, or they would offer more money. So they basically played it a lot safer and accepted less money after viewing images of women than men who hadn't. Interestingly, they also did an analysis, a sub-analysis, of the testosterone levels of the men in the groups, and the men with the higher testosterone level had a bigger affect than men with lower testosterone levels. So it does seem to correlate with testosterone, specifically.

J: How in the hell did they come up with this study?

S: Well, what they were trying to examine is the impact of the use of sex in advertising and in sales. Does it really put men off of ...

J: Their game.

S: ... their game? Does it put men off of their game when they're haggling, when their bargaining, when they're assessing how good a deal is? So there's two interpretations of this. One is that it makes men more complacent. They're less likely to fight. However, there's an alternate interpretation they talked about, and that is that when confronted with the potential of attracting a mate, and they think that's maybe what's being triggered in these men when they see an attractive woman, that it triggers whatever hardwiring we have for "Oh, I have to win myself a mate." that they're more willing to play it safe so that they're guaranteed to have some money as a way of attracting this mate, and they want to avoid risking having no money, because then that would put them in the most disadvantageous position. So it doesn't necessarily make men were complacent. It may make the more rational, reasonable, and safe.

J: But Steve, I find it a little odd that money would be part of our psychological evolution.

S: It's resources. Whether it's a big game kill or a nice cave or cash, it's all resources.

E: It almost sounds a little like governing dynamics, the whole John Nash theory.

S: Yeah, a little bit. It is evolutionary psychology to a bit, which has its skeptics. But anyway, I thought it was a very interesting result.

J: That is interesting.

S: And the fact that it correlated with testosterone level added a little weight to the overall study. The third one — new study shows that fetuses are capable of feeling pain — is fiction. Nobody picked up on that.

E: Because it's an old study.

S: Well, there is a new study. There are new studies out with this, but I altered what the conclusion were. There was a new study that showed that infants, and specifically premature infants are capable of feeling pain, but not fetuses. And, at the same time, there is an analysis of existing evidence that strongly suggests that fetuses are not capable of feeling pain, that they don't have those neurological pathways in place and functioning. So, at the present time, although there's still a little room for some controversy because it's hard to absolutely prove what's going on in the brain of a fetus, but the consensus opinion at this point in time is that fetuses do not feel pain. But infants do, and even premature infants do feel pain. That's the current state.

J: So Steve, what's the difference between an unborn child that's a day more in the womb, right?

S: Right.

J: And one that's been out of the womb for one day? There's actual difference between them?

S: Well, that's a good question, and so you can separate — the studies you can separate them into a few groups. And for the first two trimesters, it's pretty clear there are no pain pathways in the fetuses. In the third trimester, it's more controversial, but there are changes that do occur with birth. The act of being born does cause physiological changes. The most obvious ones are the fact that the change is in the circulation. The lungs start working and the blood vessels actually start to change their circulation, so that blood goes through the lungs and not through the umbilicus to the mother, and that may result in other changes. There are also significant hormonal changes, etc. So, a lot of physiological changes happen with birth, so it's perfectly plausible that the fetus could go from not being able to perceive certain things about their environment, including pain, and then after being born, among the changes that occurs is their ability to perceive pain, change in their state of consciousness.

J: Wow.

S: But that's where there is still some controversy. There pretty much isn't any controversy any more over the first two trimesters. The pain pathways are basically just not there.

J: You got me again, Steve.

E: You got us all.

R: You sly devil.

S: Got you again. Rebecca, I thought you were going to again be the lone victor this week.

R: I almost went with it, and then I forgot what number was what, and I just took it.

J: Don't let her fool you. Rebecca really isn't that smart, guys.

R: I'm really not very bright.

E: She writes everything on the back of her hand.

S: She does do a good job of faking it.

J: She's not the sharpest knife in the drawer. You know what I'm saying?

R: Thanks. I'm not the brightest bulb in the pack.

Announcements (1:16:43)[edit]

J: Steve, can I make a quick announcement?

S: Make it quick because we are out of time.

J: I just wanted to ask anybody out there listening to the show that if they have any website that they've seen would be a good site to reciprocate links with us, just send an email to the webmaster from our Contact Us page, and we can discuss it.

S: Right, or any podcast-listing sites as well. Well, guys, Rebecca, thanks again for joining me.

J: you're welcome.

R: I'm a guy. You can lump me in with guys.

S: Do I have permission to lump you in with the guys?

R: Go for it.

S: All right, well, guys, thanks again for joining me.

E: Thank you Dr. Novella.

S: And to all you listeners out there, thanks again for listening. Until next week this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society. For information on this and other podcasts, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the "Contact Us" page on our website, or you can send us an email to 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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