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  Emblem-pen-orange.png This episode needs:  'Today I Learned' list, How to Contribute

SGU Episode 390
5th January 2013
SGU 389 SGU 391
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
M: Massimo Pigliucci
Quote of the Week
Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend things which are there.
Richard Feynman
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, January 2, 2013, 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: I have come to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum.

J: Evan, can you say that again, but do it twice as corny.


R: Yeah, no.

B: Impossible!

R: You're no Rowdy Roddy Piper.

E: Right? They Live. That movie. Gosh. Is that one of the worst movies ever?

B and R: Worst?

R: It's one of the best movies ever, are you kidding?

B: Oh, god, I love it.

J: It's a cult classic. I mean, yeah, it didn't hold up as good as I would have liked, but it's still

B: Oh, what doesn't hold up?

J: Whatever. It's still great. It's still good.

R: It's awesome.

B: The best bare-knuckled brawl I think in any movie.

E: I'm sorry. Look, I get campy and I get, you know, yes, I get the brawl scene. It was rated like one of the best brawl scenes in movie history and so forth. Rowdy Roddy Piper, John Carpenter directed it and all that. I'm sorry. That movie had so many flaws to it. I mean if we were ever to do a review of that movie, oh man, we could do a whole episode on that.

S: Maybe we should.

E: Maybe we should.

R: Yeah. I will defend that movie with my life.


E: All right. I'm gonna be your Gene Siskel to your Roger Ebert or vice versa, or whatever.

R: Oh, boy.

J: Steve, I'm getting a feeling like in the back of my head. I feel like I'm predicting that we're gonna do a show on predictions.

S: I know, I think you're right, Jay.

B: Damn, you're good.

E: One of these days.

S: It's a high probability hit.

This Day in Skepticism (1:43)[edit]

  • January 5, 1940: FM radio first commercial broadcast

S: But first, Rebecca's gonna tell us about January 5th.

R: Happy birthday, FM radio!

J: Awesome!

E: To all the kids out there.

J: What does the "F" in FM stand for?

R: Frequency.

B: Frequency modulation

J: Thank you.

R: Yes, sort of. You could probably pick any number of dates for the birthdate of FM radio, but on January 5, 1940, the first network program was broadcast on FM radio. It was called "Colonel Harrison Featherbottom and the Fart Man's Morning Zoo Hour."


E: What? No, it wasn't.

B: No way. I don't believe it.

J: I love it!

E: . . . skeptic.

R: Okay, that's not what it was called. But it was a 60-minute show that was designed to showcase several different types of audio and vocals and stuff that would eventually be broadcast. The show traveled from a station in Yonkers, New York that was operated by one C.R. Runyon, to a transmitter in Alpine, New Jersey operated by Major Edwin Armstrong of Columbia University, who was heading up the effort; and then onto Meriden, Connecticut; Paxton, Massachusetts; and then finally Mount Washington, where it was transmitted by telelphone wire to Boston and then back to Yonkers. By all reports the FM broadcasts were found to have no apparent loss of quality. So, it was given the thumbs up. The first FM stations that had regular scheduling, programming, appeared later that year. FM.

J: That's cool.

S: Yeah. So, Jay, frequency modulation, that's how the information is encoded in the carrier wave, by modulating the frequency of a signal. As opposed to AM, which is amplitude modulation, they modify the amplitude of the signal.

E: Thank you, Dr. Marconi.

S: Right. And the FM band simply refers to, the FM has nothing to do with any frequency range itself, any band, but that's just the band that's assigned in various countries to transmit FM signals over. So in the U.S. and most places it's 87.5 to 108.0 megahertz.

News Items[edit]

Psychic Predictions for 2012 (3:51)[edit]

S: Well, as Jay way saying, as Jay predicted, this is our psychic predictions review episode. The first episode of every year we look back and see how did the psychics fare in predicting events of 2012.

B: Horribly.

E: As expected, though.

S: All right, so do you guys have your favorite psychic that you looked back over to see how they did?

E: Anyone else take Nikki because, you know.

R: I decided to skip Nikki this year.

S: She's always a favorite though.

J: She's awesome. She's the funniest.

R: Awesomely stupid.

E: Awesomely awful.

J: Yeah, but this year after reading, going through her stuff, I think she's either delusional or she's just shotgunning.

S: Or both. These are not mutually exclusive.

J: That's right.

S: She made like 180-something predictions. That's, by definition, shotgunning.

J: All right, so, I got, "More laser attacks against planes".

E: Oooo.

R: More laser attacks.

J: Yes, more laser attacks. That's what I thought was funny about that.

R: You mean like little kids with laser pointers?

S: Yes.

R: They're a menace to society.

S: Using laser pointers to blind pilots, yes.

J: I got, "Weird weather conditions worldwide, including snow in Hawaii, Las Vegas, and in the Caribbean".

S: Yeah, remember that snowstorm we had when we were in Las Vegas for TAM?

E: (laughs)

J: Giant prehistoric sea monsters under the sea.

E: As opposed to what, floating in the air?

S: Also, some of her predictions are not even sentences.

J: Yeah.

E: Yeah.

J: They're just snippets. Yeah. "Major UFO sightings, all over the world". Nope, that didn't happen.

E: "Earth will fall off its axis a little more"

J: Yeah, right?

E: What?

S: More than what?

E: Exactly.

J: I like how she, then this one goes, "A possible landing of a spaceship". Now, what does that really mean? A possible landing.

R: Like the Mars rover?

S: Well, we landed Curiosity on Mars.

E: Yeah.

R: I'm gonna call that a hit.

E: Okay. Hey, Nikki!

R: Good job, Nikki.

E: It's your first time ever.

J: Guys, guys. "A disabled man attempts to go around the world in his wheelchair".

E: What?

B: Oh, boy.


S: Is this a manual or one of those electronic wheelchairs? A power wheelchair.

J: Steve, tell me what's wrong with this one. "A huge pandemic, worldwide".


S: As opposed to a pandemic that's not worldwide, yeah.

E: A localized pandemic. Highly localized.

J: Now here are two that prove that she doesn't understand science at all. Ready? Earth will fall off its axis a little more,

S: You already said that.

E: Yeah, we did that.

J: Or, "A hole in the Earth's core".

S: A hole in the Earth's core, right.

B: Whoa, what the. . . what does that even mean?

R: A hollow earth thing, maybe?

B: A vacuum in the center of the Earth.

J: Bob, don't worry about that hole, because "The holy grail will be found".

S: The holy grail will be found.

E: I didn't know it was lost!

S: She wrote "problems with the Earth's magnetic fields."


B: Oh, nice.

S: What kind of problems?

J: Well, it must be that the city of Hong Kong is on fire, Steve, that threw off the magnetic fields, 'cause that's another one of her predictions.

S: Yeah.

J: "City of Hong Kong on fire".

R: Did that happen?

S: All of it?

J: No. All of it. City of Hong Kong. On fire.

S: It is funny when scientifically illiterate alleged psychics make science-related predictions. Like a hole in the Earth's core. Really?

J: Here's another good one. "Multiple rainbows in the sky, all over the world, within a 24 to 48-hour period".

B: Oh, no. Oh, my god.

R: That happened, too! I saw that, that double rainbow video.

S: Double rainbow!

E: What the heck is that?

B: Double rainbows are magnificent, though. I saw one last, like, two years ago. Oh my god, it's just mesmerizing.

E: We got tripped up on a science or fiction with that triple rainbow, remember?

J and S: Yeah.

E: Sucked.

J: Guys, how 'bout "a famous racehorse will be kidnapped"?


E: What, Man-o-War?

S: That was a Sherlock Holmes short story.

J: A meteorite shower hitting the Earth.


E: Oh, Nikki, Nikki. Go back to whatever your job was before.

S: Sometime in August. And then again in November. What are the odds?

J: But, and we're only reading a few, but when you read through, she'll get onto a quickie mini-theme inside her predictions. As if she just banged them out at her desk one afternoon.

E: Or her assistant did.

J: Like she'll get on to the theme of earthquakes and then she'll list like four earthquakes. As if, "Oh, yeah, earthquakes!" and then she writes more earthquake ones.

S: Earthquake in Russia. Yeah, I'm pretty sure there was an earthquake somewhere in Russia this year. Probably more than one. I covered psychic Roxanne, did any of you guys do Roxanne from spiritnow.com?

B: No.

R: Uh uh. I don't think I have Roxanne.

S: She has different, this is Roxanne Usleman Hulderman.

E: And her orchestra.

S: Yup, and her orchestra. She has different categories, and I'm just gonna go over the two categories that were most interesting. I didn't do like the celebrity predictions, who cares. These are her "spiritual" predictions. I'm not even sure what makes these spiritual, but here we go. "Einstein's predictions about the honey bees proves correct. They are becoming extinct, indicating it is the beginning of the end of the world."

B: Oh. Einstein?

E: (singing) Beginning of the end!

S: So I'm like, Einstein? Really? Einstein predicted that honey bees would become extinct? So I looked that up, and . . .

E: Joe Einstein.

S: there is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that if the honey bees became extinct, mankind would become extinct within years. You know, by four years later. Just emphasizing how important bees were to humans.

E: And how important the preposition "if" is.


S: Yes. He didn't predict that they would become extinct. And it's not even sure if Einstein said that quote. It's not really sourced. He could have said it, but nobody knows. It was attributed to him, but, anyway.

B: Yeah, you know what that means.

S: Her number two. "Extra Terrestrials" - two words - "help to evolve our consciousness, uplifting our human vibration". Jay, was your vibration uplifted?

J: Well, from the waist down, yes.

S: Okay.

R: Wait. I found a thing about vibration, too. In a different psychic's predictions.

S: Yeah?

J: I heard that, too, Rebecca. I heard vibrations brought up quite a bit.

R: Okay, so, I watched the psychic twins video.

J: Oh, yeah.

S: Oh, yeah.

R: Terry and Linda Jamison.

E: Oh, yeah. I kicked their butt last year. Ha! Too bad nobody saw it.

R: They were hilariously wrong. They started off their "What's gonna happen in 2012" vodcast, podcast, I guess it was a podcast actually, just listing like all these horrific things that were gonna happen in 2012. Just like, it was just gonna be the absolute worst year for life on Earth, and amongst those, they predicted terrorist attacks in Boston, Florida, in Texas, New York, Detroit. They said that major schools would be victimized by young terrorists, which, I'm sure they're going to call a win, for last week.

S: Yeah.

E: They should be very proud of themselves.

R: They say that there would be major cyber attacks by people in China and Russia. There'd be a Chinese attack on the telephone systems. That's a direct quote. However, according to the medium Allie Cheslick, who was interviewing them about their predictions, all these things could have been thwarted only if people raise their own level of vibration.

J: Right.

S: Um hm.

R: So, apparently, we all did a really good job, raising our level of vibration to the point where none of those things, not, they weren't just thwarted by authorities, they just never actually happened.

E: Oh, those would be good vibrations.

B: I love when they give themselves their own out. You know, if it doesn't come true,

R: Right.

B: well, luckily everyone, you know, messed with, played with their vibrations. Win-win!

J: I'm not afraid to admit that they did get a couple of things right, I mean, you're supposed to, statistically, when you throw out as many predictions as these people do.

B: Oh, yeah.

J: Like they did say that there were gonna be lone wolf attacks in schools. And it did happen.

S: But that's just, again, that's a high probability thing. It's like "another Columbine's gonna happen sometime". Sure.

R: Right. Thanks for nothing.

S: Yeah. Somewhere by somebody. No details. It seems specific, but it really isn't, so that's one of the strategies. So, it's a high probability prediction, and there's so much shotgunning going around that of course two or three are gonna be glancing blows. So, next under her spiritual predictions, the "North and South poles reverse their positions.

E: I've heard that a lot of times.

S: Here we go. "Spiritual evolvement." Evolvement.


E: What? Evolvement?

S: Evolvement. I don't know why she didn't use "evolution." On this third dimension expands the fight between good and evil.

J: Now what does that mean, that weapons are being introduced? Like, what does that mean?

S: So, we're fighting the good fight against evil more and more. On the third dimension. Which is good, because her next prediction is that the third and fourth dimension begin to merge.

E: Oh, good! Finally!

B: I hate when that happens.

E: It's like when peanut butter and chocolate come together, it's good stuff!

S: But—

B: Don't you dare (inaudible)

S: Hold onto your hats, now. With the great pyramids in Egypt being destroyed, you guys remember when that happened, right?

J & E: Yeah.

B: I missed it.

S: The entire planet's magnetic force shifts, symbolizing the end of times, then and only then do we realize that the pyramids have been holding our planet together.

J: Oh!

E: Oh, like a linchpin.

S: Yeah.

B: It's so clear in retrospect.

R: Yeah.

S: And her final one under that category is "Humans turning evermore towards spirituality" which is actually not happening.

J: Yeah, that's another theme that I kept hearing. The world is becoming more spiritual.

S: The environmental events around the globe, lots of high probability, "there's gonna be earthquakes." An earthquake impacts the state of Washington and California. What are the odds? Of an earthquake occurring in a major earthquake belt. All right, but here's my favorite of all of her predictions. "A solar star dwarf from the sun, breaking off, causing damage to the earth".

(general excitement and confusion)

B: Oh, my god.

R: Our sun? That could happen?

J: A solar star dwarf, like, what is that?

S: Right?

E: Phil Plait's gonna have to add a chapter to his book, I think.


S: Right! Yeah, a dwarf star apparently is gonna break away from our sun and that is going to damage the earth, which, I imagine it would. If that actually happened. It's like, is she flipping through a science book and just pulling out terms at random without understanding what they are.

B: Does she mean like a coronal mass ejection? Is that what she means?

E: Bob. Bob, you're given her w—a-a-a-a-y too much credit.

J: Bob, the only corona she knows is the beer

S: No, because the next prediction is "solar flares causing power outages", which I read on multiple psychics' lists. Solar flares causing power outages. Again, it's the kind of thing, like scientists say "this could happen someday" so they just pick up on that. It's a high probability prediction. "A contagious disease born of our environmental carelessness affects the world". Another pandemic prediction.

B: Nice. Solar star dwarf.

S: And then finally "Global environmental destruction connected with the end of times Mayan calendar". Wah-wah-waaah.


S: So there we go, psychic Roxanne.

R: You know, the psychic twins had another great prediction for 2012. They predicted that there would not be any hurricanes in 2012 that were as bad as the previous year. So no hurricanes as bad as Irene. Kind of missed the mark there. The interviewer, Allie Cheslick, predicted that the twins would have their own television show by March 20th of last year, which, I don't think happened.

J: No. The twins also said that it would take a miracle for Obama to get re-elected.

S: Well, I guess a miracle happened.

E: Well, there you go.

R: It's a miracle!

E: Proof that miracles happen.

B: I've got a few here. I've got a couple from two different psychics. One's Janet Russell, who's a Long Island-based intuitive spiritual medium/psychic. She's also the host of a New York top cable access show, Beyond the Unexplained. And how someone like her can have their own TV show and we don't, I don't understand it. But she's known for her accuracy and honesty. She says "we'll be using solar energies instead of the old standby of gas and electric". Solar energies, in plural, which is very odd. And then, this one tickled me. She goes "and yes, the government will admit that we do have contact with other beings in other dimensions"! You know, it's not good enough that there are other beings, aliens or whatever, but they're also in another dimension. Just to make it, just the icing on the cake, you know. Different dimension.

R: I read Janet Russell's predictions as well, and my favorite one, I think,

B: Which one?

R: Okay, there were two. One was "People will be airing their dirty laundry on teleservices. This way they will have a constant audience." (laughing) What does that mean?

S: The last teleservice

R: I don't know. And the thing is, like, she's so obviously out of touch because my other favorite one was "I feel that one state will be open to alternative lifestyle and people will move to that state because they feel more comfortable." What? What does that mean, alternative? Does that mean gay marriage, does it mean pot? Because we have those things in several states. It's ... I don't know.

B: She just has her finger on the pulse of culture. There was another psychic, Nancy Bradley. Apparently, this psychic has 98.6% accuracy.

R: Wow

E: Wow

B: For 2011, so—

E: Take that temperature!

B: My first reaction was, well, yeah, that's total baloney. But then I read her predictions. Listen to these two. "Six more Hollywood icons will leave us in 2012, and two major music stars as well". What are the odds of people dying in 2012? That just kind of blew my mind a bit. Here's another one: "more protests across the world, and the U.S. as well, sit-ins as people stand up, much bloodshed". Wow. Who could have foreseen that?

E: Geez. People shedding blood.

B: And then she

S: Yeah, some psychics definitely go with the vague high probability hit.

B: Oh, my god.

S: I was reading a couple that did that. It's like "there will be protests in Egypt." Look! (laughter) Really?

B: And then she throws in one of these little sciencey ones that are kinda whacky: "a shift in the equator will be discovered and will change some of the weather patterns for countries on it." (laughter) A shift in the equator. I hate when that happens!

S: The equator shifts. Does she mean the continents on the equator?

B: Who knows what she meant? (laughter continues) It could mean anything.

E: The equator shifts! That's the best!

B: She could be referring to that solar dwarf star thing. (laughter still continues)

S: But, guys, that was the best, right? The solar dwarf coming out of our sun.

E: Is it wearing a crown?

J: Wait, but Bob, Nancy Bradley also said "More aquatic ocean and lake animals make their way onto shore. Octopus, fish, etc. Also, as I told you last year, more species thought to be extinct are coming back, including those considered mystical, those that many thought never existed are coming back."

R: The unicorn, for instance. (overlapping excited comments)

S: What about the events that psychics failed to predict for 2012?

B: Oh, yeah. That was easy.

J: How many do you want? I have plenty of 'em here.

B: Well, Hurricane Sandy, first of all. You'd think, you know, such a huge weather event. Somebody, somewhere—

S: And it's in their sweet spot!

B: Just one person.

S: They're predicting tsunamis and earthquakes, and they can't get that one hurricane right? Come on.

J: The shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

R: Although the psychic twins claim that –

E: Yeah, some will claim that they did that.

J: In order for them claim, and I thought about it, because they did make a lone gunman prediction. But, seriously, like that's just not good enough. Like you have to say more, it has to be more specific. If somebody said—

B: You need two things, Jay. You need two things. If somebody said "Newtown" or "Sandy Hook," that would be impressive as hell. Or even if they said "26 dead" or say "20 kids." If anyone said any of those three things, then, bam! That is a solid hit. Of course it wouldn't mean, you know, that psychics—

S: Yeah, there's different degrees of hits. They could have said "an elementary school." You know, they could have said "a lone shooter killing many kids in an elementary school."

R: Even then...

S: Even that would have been semi-impressive. But just "a lone wolf" or just—

B: No.

S: "terrorism in schools." Nah, it's way too vague.

B: Yeah, I'm talk— 'cause when you think of a psychic, if a psychic really existed, you would expect somebody, one person, or a few people, to have a really solid hit. Something really specific. I mean, isn't that what everyone really wants? That's what we want, right guys?

J: Yeah, but that's the thing, Bob, when you, every year when we read through all these psychic predictions, you know, we're just doing our research, it occurs to me, once again, they're just playing the odds. You can see them playing the odds. There's patterns. There is a reason why a lot of them predict the same types of things over and over again.

S: And they're also just probably going for the sensationalism. I mean the ones they know are not gonna come true. Like the solar dwarf. They're just trying to say impressive sounding things.

B: Right. And they—

S: Because they know no one's gonna care. Their target audience, they're not gonna go back and check up on 'em and see what happened.

B: And they don't care what we're saying.

S: They'll be reading the predictions for 2013. All right, what about the Causeway Cannibal?

J: Yeah, absolutely. (overlapping comments) Too specific though, Steve, too specific.

S: The fiscal cliff.

J: Yup.

B: Yeah.

S: The Petraeus scandal.

B: Yeah, I had that one, too.

E: Attack in Libya.

S: The Benghazi shooting.

J: The President supporting gay marriage.

B: How about deaths? I mean, did anyone predict the death of Whitney Houston, for example?

S: And if they're gonna dabble in science, how about, like if they really were going for a high-probability science prediction, how about the Higgs will be discovered?

E: Higgs boson, yeah. That would have been good. Or the lander will successfully, you know, everything will go smoothly there. You could even do that one.

J: How about Facebook going public?

B: Yeah.

E: Facebook, yup.

S: That debacle? Yeah, good one. All right, well, I listened to last year's episode to see what we all predicted.

B: I remember one prediction. I remember saying that Google Plus would die in 2012.

S: Okay.

B: Unfortunately I was wrong.

R: I mean it's on life support, but...

B: Yeah, it is.

E: My predictions.

S: Well, what were they, Evan?

E: I made one in each of the following categories: technology - the Aakash tablet would outsell the iPad by the end of 2012.

S: Um hmm. Fail.

R: And?

E: You know, the Aakash tablet. This is a $35 tablet that they made in India.

R; Oh, right.

E: They're already actually up to the Aakash 2. And I figured, all right, so you've got the Indian government, they're subsidizing this thing. They're gonna get this out to 500 million Indians, students and everyone in the country; just pure numbers, it's gonna overtake. Well, it didn't quite happen. I think some of the problems were in the technology itself. Even though it costs 35 bucks, they said it heats up very quickly, and poor design, cheap components. It won't play any of the apps that are out there. The battery life is poor. I think those things might have had something to do with it.

S: It's a $35 tablet, that's why.

E: You get what you pay for. In astronomy - a small meteor will collide with one of the many GPS satellites in orbit, rendering it inoperable. Now, that did not happen this year, but guess what's coming up next month, folks.

J: What?

E: (clears his throat theatrically) A small asteroid will pass inside the geosynchronous satellite ring.

J: Irrelevant! Irrelevant, you didn't get it.

E: 35,800—

B: Wow, that's damn close. How big is this thing?

E: —kilometers above the — 150 feet. 150 feet long.

B: Damn!

E: Astronomers say the asteroid may hit a communications satellite, so, you know...

J: It doesn't matter. It's irrelevant. No partial credit for you, sir.

B: You still missed it, dude.

E: Nothing irrelevant about that. Yes, it didn't happen, but the science behind it was revealed in the year, so I'll get a half-credit for that. Biology - Bio-engineered tooth regeneration will become available for humans. Well,

B: That'd be cool.

E: Because I've been following that, they're still doing more studies with mice and stuff, and they're making progress. They made more progress this year, but they didn't get to the humans. So I'll take a minus for that. In skepticism - a prominent skeptic will defect over to an alternative point of view. And that actually did come true, because a global warming skeptic Richard Muller, who was a proponent, you know, a big proponent saying that man-made global warming does not exist, in fact did leave his brand of skepticism behind and says, yes, it is actually happening. So I'll take a plus for that.

J: No. No one knows who that guy is. You can't take a plus for that.

E: Richard Muller? Steve?

S: Evan's right, but that was the wrong kind of skeptic.

E: I didn't ... hey, Steve.

S: It's all right. I gotcha.

E: Well, do you want me to say brown dwarves are gonna get crapped out of the sun? (laughter) Is that a better prediction.

R: Yeah, actually, it's awesome.

J: No, you didn't get any. Zero.

E: How 'bout this one? My last prediction: the largest glacier ever recorded will break off, right from the ice shelf. And that did happen, thank you very much. In Antarctica this year, that actually did happen.

J: No, it didn't.


S: Well I had one prediction last year, and it was a crypto-zoological prediction, if you remember. I predicted that Bigfoot would sweep into the White House with a gray alien as a running mate. And that did happen.

E: It almost happened.

S: But the cover-up is keeping you from knowing about it.


E: Right.

J: What did Rebecca do?

B: Good one, Steve.

S: Rebecca predicted Michael Douglas, Michael Douglas was her celebrity death. He's still kicking.

R: Oh. Good. I'm glad.

E: He had a problem. He had problems last year.

S: An Arrested Development movie.

B: Did I miss that?

R: Uuuh, it's... no, but ....

E: It's in production, right?

R: There is going to be a TV show.

S: Okay.

E: Oh, TV show.

S: And chimpanzees will be found to do something scientists thought only people did, previously.

R: That probably happened.


E: Somewhere. We may not have seen it or recorded it, but it might have happened.

J: It didn't happen.

R: Yeah, probably.

S: Jay, do you remember your one prediction?

J: Yes. And that's why I've been arguing so much with everyone. I predicted that none of our predictions would come true.

R: Yeah, that's right.

E: Wrong!

J: I'm more right than the rest of you. How about that?

E: That's why you were hard on me and my predictions, 'cause you wanted your prediction to come true.

Rogues' Predictions for 2013 ()[edit]

S: All right, well. Who wants to go first in their predictions for 2013?

B: I will! Okay, in 2013, everyone will start referring to the year as "two thousand and thirteen" instead of "twenty-thirteen," (laughter) except for Rebecca. And the LHC will announce a nine sigma competence level in the Higgs boson. It's existence will—

E: English, Bob! English.

B: It's existence will be so obvious that fifth graders will start finding evidence for it. (laughter) And my only real prediction, scientists will create a living minimal genome cell from scratch. Please come true.

S: Jay?

J: I predict that Iran's (pronouncing it eye-ran) going to test a nuke.

S: Iran? (pronouncing it Ear-on) Yeah.


J: What?

S: Where did you run to, Jay?


J: Seriously? Like that's even pronounced wrong?

E: Just say Persia.

R: I-in-stine.

S: I-in-stine. Yeah, go ahead. Yeah, next?

J: I predict another private company will start launching space missions.

S: Um hmm.

B: Okay.

E: Coca-Cola.

J: Beyond SpaceX. I predict that Billy Graham is gonna kick it.

B: Oh, we're doing celebrity deaths, too?

J: Yeah.

B: Okay.

J: I predict that George Bush Senior is gonna kick it.

E: Any other 90-something-year-old people gonna kick it, Jay?

J: Well, what d'ya want me to predict, like a 20-year-old?

E: How 'bout someone in their 70s or something. Make it a little challenging.

J: Okay, I predict that Evan Bernstein is gonna choke on a hot dog. (laughter) And my final prediction for 2013 is, I predict the end is Bill Nye.


B: Oh, nice.

R: Wait, what?

B: End is Nye.

E: Funny.

R: Mine are great. You're gonna find no fault with mine.

J: Bring it on. Beat "the end is Bill Nye." Beat that, right now. Go ahead.

R: All right. The Daily Mail will report that researchers have discovered pickles cause cancer.

B: Ooooh. I like it.

J: I like that, okay.

E: I don't eat 'em, so—

R: Number two. A whistleblower will reveal that the government has been hiding something.


E: Which government?

R: I'd rather not comment upon which government it is at this time, but, they may have the color red in their flag.


J: Okay.

R: Finally ...

E: —like the Swiss! I knew it!

R: I will beat the game FTL on normal mode, and finally get 100 percent on Skyrim.

B: You're reaching now.

J: No way.

E: Now your sun is crapping out brown dwarves, Rebecca.

R: It's on like Donkey Kong

S: Bob, what was your celebrity death?

B: Yeah, I've got a celebrity death, and it's not an octogenarian, Jay, or is a nonagenarian, is that how you pronounce that? Lindsay Lohan.

E: Oooh, she's on my list, Bob!

B: She's been rolling 20 for far too long, her time is up.

J: Nope. I'm predicting she's not gonna die. Not even close.

E: Yeah, she's on mine. I've got three of 'em, that was one of 'em.

S: I predict she's gonna die, but her twin won't.


B: Nice.

R: Oh, we're all going to hell.

S: Evan, what've you got?

E: Okay, in addition to Lindsay Lohan. I predict a world leader, which is a president or a prime minister, will succumb while in office. A few options there, but it'll be very prominent. And, James Van Praagh.

J: Oh, why? What did you see? What did the spirits tell you?

E: Jay, it's something that's beyond sort of a description. In technology, there will be a m-a-a-a-jor data breach, most likely of a credit card company, or something along those lines. This breach will cost consumers and their insurers at least $1 billion worldwide. In astronomy, we will discover a Earth-like planet, known as "Earth's Twin."

S: Hey, that's been my prediction for the last three years.


E: And how's that worked out for ya?

S: I'm getting closer every year. And you're gonna try and take it from me now? That's like you're sitting down at my slot machine, Evan.


R: Evan just bid a dollar under your Price Is Right score. That's what just happened.

E: Well, we'll just share that one, Steve, if it comes true this year.

B: Good analogy, Rebecca.

E: In health, a hand-held breathalyzer will offer early detection of infections caused by microbes. What do you think of that? Aa! And, in the environment, I only did four this year, environment, we will find, scientists will find a way to harness energy from sand. Now, I admit, they will be small quantities of energy, but it'll be energy nonetheless.

S: Like the tar sands?

E: Simply sand.

S: Tar sands are already a major source of petroleum, but, I'm assuming you're not talking about that.

E: Okay, I'll refine it—

S: You'll refine the sand? or refine the petroleum?

E: Desert sand.

S: Okay. I have a celebrity death and two predictions. My celebrity death is Jerry Lewis, unfortunately. Great comedian, but, you know. His time

(someone in background: Oh, lady! Lady!)

S: I also predict that there will be a major pareidolia event this year.

B: Nice.

E: Face on the moon?

R: Major?

S: A major pareidolia event. And finally, conspiracy theorists will use anomaly hunting to argue that an innocent or natural event is actually a deliberate conspiracy.

R: Um hmm.

S: All right, so we will track those and we'll let you know next year how we all did.

Cosmic Rays and Dementia (32:27)[edit]

S: All right well I think we have time for a few quick news items to round out the show, so Bob you're going to tell us about another risk of space travel.

B: In science fiction the biggest problems generally for space travel are usually things like aliens, black holes or warp core breaches, I really hate that last one.

S: And space worms, don't forget space worms.

B: Oh yeah, the worms. It's very annoying then to think that a little thing like ultra-tiny invisible radiation is essentially a total deal breaker right now for allowing humans to spend serious time beyond low earth orbit. We've known this for a while now, we've touched upon it in the past a bit, but most recently scientists have found even more bad news. A new study described in the PLOS ONE journal reveals for the first time that cosmic ray exposure to humans on a trip to Mars can make changes to the brain that could replicate or speed up the onset of Alzheimer's disease.[1] Now I'm calling this the "space brain syndrome" and it really stinks.

S: Space dementia.

B: That's a good one too, I like "space brain syndrome" better.

S: No. Space dementia.

B: Uh, we talked about the cosmic ray hazards in space but I learned a little bit more about some of these details and I'd like to share. It's pretty interesting. The culprit here is a specific type of cosmic ray, now these aren't rays of course, but they're bits of atoms that are propelled through space. Protons make up the majority of the cosmic rays, followed by alpha particles which is just like two neutrons and two protons. And then electrons kind of finish that list. Those are the majority, the vast majority of all cosmic rays. But a tiny, tiny percentage of cosmic rays are these relatively really big clumps of protons and neutrons and they're called these HZE particles which stands for High Charge and Energy particles. And the Z, if you're familiar with chemistry, the Z is the universal symbol for atomic number which is the amount of protons in a nucleus, so that's what that stands for. Now so the more protons you have with no electrons to balance them out, you create a bigger and bigger charge. The E stands for energy obviously, so what you end up with is these bare atomic nuclei with lots of protons and a lot of energy and they can penetrate shielding of a ship and through the skin of the astronauts and just wreak havoc on your DNA causing cancer and a host of other issues. So this much we've known for a little while now, and if that wasn't annoying enough, they get this energy from supernovae and also the sun, I wasn't quite aware of this, the sun's solar flares and coronal mass ejections also can produce these HZE particles. As tiny as these— I mean percentage wise, HZEs are a fraction of a percent but they can cause more than 50% of the radiation damage inflicted on astronauts. So these are the big players in terms of astronauts having a problem with radiation in deep space.

S: Now Bob, because these are highly charged particles, would that mean that magnetic shielding would be a viable option?

B: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah, if they didn't have any charge then we'd be even worse off, so yeah that kind of leads into the potential, one of the potential ways for dealing with them. The experiments that these researchers did, particularly specifically on how these HZE particles can affect people, they used rats of course, the most helpful of guinea pigs. They exposed them—

R: Rats aren't guinea pigs.

B: (laughs) They exposed them to increasing doses of radiation, including the equivalent of what an astronaut would experience on a multi-year mission to Mars, which is pretty much how long it would take. Now they tested the rats' recall for certain objects and locations that they were previously exposed to and they found that those that had a bigger dose of radiation did increasingly more poor at those tasks, which of course indicates some level of neurological impairment. But the real kicker though was that I guess after the rat autopsies they revealed indications of not only changes in the brain vasculature but also in the accumulation of beta amyloid, which is that protein plaque that builds up in the brain of Alzheimer's victims. Now Steve, correct me if I'm wrong, but this plaque, that's pretty much the hallmark of that disease right? If you find that, it's like the red light going off that you have Alzheimer's right? These beta amyloid plaques, is that right?

S: They're important, they're not unique to Alzheimer's, it's more complicated than that, but yeah they're an important pathological finding in Alzheimer's disease.

B: Well that was, from what I could gather, that was one of the main reasons that they're all talking about Alzheimer's here. NASA of course is concerned about cosmic rays, especially considering they've had plans for a manned mission to an asteroid in 2021 and to Mars in 2035, I mean there's just no way that's going to happen if they don't deal with this problem. NASA subscribes to a policy known as ALARA which is As Low As Reasonably Achievable. Any exposure to radiation has an element of risk of course, but NASA needs a very high confidence level that an astronaut's lifetime risk of terminal cancer from cosmic radiation is less than 3% so they will not cross that line, so they have to make 3% reasonably achievable to fit in with this whole idea of ALARA, and that's going to take revolutionary technology to pull that off. That's not going to be a quick and easy fix by any means.

S: All right, well thanks Bob.

Who's That Noisy? & Logical Puzzle (38:07)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Glass Harp playing Fur Elise

S: All right, well Evan we do have time for Who's That Noisy this week.

E: Well good, that's good because we need to reveal the answer to what was the last Who's That Noisy for 2012. I will play it for you now for memory's sake. Here we go.

(Glass Harp playing Fur Elise)

E: Lovely Ludwig Van.

S: Fur Elise, it's one of the pieces I had to play when I was taking piano lessons.

E: Did you enjoy it?

S: Yes, It's a pretty piece.

E: It is a pretty pieces. Well what kind of instrument was that, that was the question. And we had a lot of people guess that that was the Glass harmonica or the glass armonica also known as a bowl organ which is actually incorrect, although that instrument would create the same or similar-sounding notes but that was not it. What we were hearing was actually the Glass harp, which is a musical instrument made of upright wine glasses and it's played by running moistened or chalked fingers around the rim of the glass and each glass is tuned to a different pitch and thereby you're able to play all of the notes. That particular piece was performed by Robert Tiso and you can see him on youtube playing this, and very talented in his own right. Yes, several people did get it correct, the first one to guess correctly, our friend from the message boards, Magnus M.

S: Mmmhmm.

E: Whose name we've sopken before. Well done, Magnus.

S: Magnus!

E: And congratulations for being first. OK, so 2013, we're going to change things up a little bit for the Who's That Noisy and the puzzle segment. For this year, we're going run a little contest for all the listeners, and here's how it's going to work. Each week when I play the Who's That Noisy or give the Logic Puzzle, everyone who answers correctly, their name will be put into a hat for that week. And that week I will draw a name from the hat at random and the person's name whom I draw will go into a final drawing which will occur at the last episode of the year and the winner of the final drawing will be invited to come onto the SGU to play a round of Science or Fiction with us.

If you're going to submit a guess, we're going to require your guess by the time we record our next show which is typically early to mid-week the following week, it varies from week to week but there is a little incentive there to get your guess in early and get your name eligible to be drawn for the final drawing. Since this is a new idea we are tinkering with, we're going to do this on the honor system. If we sense that there is any abuse by the participants of this we will have to make some modifications along the way, so we're trusting everyone to play fairly, play by the rules, if you know the answer go ahead and tell us, but you don't go sharing it with you know, 100,000 of your closest friends so that there's 100,000 names to draw from each week, that'll make my job a lot harder. So let's give this a try, folks and let's see what we can do.

S: All right, we'll see how it goes.

E: We're going to start this year with a puzzle, a logic puzzle. And this logic puzzle was submitted by listener Alvaro Ibanes, thank you Alvaro for submitting this, this is a very good one.

A jeweller has nine pearls which all look and feel exactly alike. However, he knows that one of them weighs more than the other eight. He has access to a classic scale, you know the one with two arms often seen in Lady Justice's hand? What is the minimum number of measurements required to know with absolute certainty which pearl is the one that weighs more?

E: All right? Give us your guess?

S: It's a fun one.

E: Yeah, it is a fun one. Go ahead and give us your best guess, info@theskepticsguide.org and our message boards are sguforums.com. Good luck everyone.

S: Thanks, Evan.

Interview with Massimo Pigliucci (42:33)[edit]

S: We are joined now by Massimo Pigliucci. Massimo, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide!

M: Thank you, it's a pleasure as usual.

S: And Massimo is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at CUNY-Lehman College, the editor in chief of the journal Philosophy & Theory in Biology. He's the host of a podcast called Rationally Speaking and also one of the authors on the blog by the same name. The author of several books, including the book that we will be discussing this evening: Answers for Aristotle. But his greatest claim to skeptical and scientific fame, was that he was the first ever guest on The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.


M: That's exactly right.

E: As if he needed anything else.

S: That's right. I was just- That's just the cherry on the top, Massimo.


S: Massimo, I talk about you a lot actually, in skeptical circles because like you're the one, in my opinion, like the one real philosopher that we have in the skeptical movement. I'm not saying you're the only philosopher, but you're the one who's active. Who's trying to keep the rest of us philosophically honest, if you will.

M: (laughter)

S: And that, that's essentially what your recent book, Answers for Aristotle, is about. So, tell us about it.

M: Yeah, in some sense. It is aimed at the general public, so it's not a technical book. But it is about the relationship between philosophy and science which I think that is something that certainly members of the skeptic movement should be aware of, or a little more sort of cognisant of. But the basic idea of the book is really that this is essentially a self-help book for people who don't believe in self-help books. The basic approach is that, look, when we're dealing with the big questions in life, you know: morality, or relationships, or you know, general views of the world and whatever, where do we get our best hints, our best information about that? I don't think we get them from religion. Common sense is helpful, but up to a certain point. So, it seems to me that the best combination of answers, or at least approaches to those kinds of questions, come from the two most effective traditions of thought in the Western - and possibly the world - history, which are of course science, as far as factual questions are concerned and philosophy, as far as how to reflect on the implications of those factual answers we get from science. So that's what the book is about, it's how to combine science and philosophy in what I sort of jokingly call Sci-Phi - actually, people pronounce it Sci-Fi, but it should be Sci-"Fee", because the second part is P-H-I for philosophy.

S: Sci-Phi?

M: Yeah, that's right. (laughter) But I think that Sci-Fi was more, I don't know, the publicist thought it was more, sounded better than Sci-Phi.


E: Right.

S: Right. Well, then why didn't the Sci-Fi Channel change it's name to Syfy?

M: Yeah, that's a good question!


B: That really pissed me off when they did that.

M: Agreed.

S: So, science gives us the facts, as it were, and philosophy tells us how to think about those facts. Is that a fair summary?

M: Well, yeah, it's, of course as you know that's a little, simple version of the whole thing. In reality there is no sharp distinction between science and philosophy. There are many areas of overlap, the most obvious one perhaps is philosophy of science, or, and in fact also epistemology. I mean, there are areas of philosophy that are directly relevant to science, and there are also areas of science that are definitely relevant to philosophy. I mean, one cannot do these days any serious philosophy of mind, for instance, unless one is well read in, you know, neurobiology and current science. So, there's quite a bit more overlap than the simple distinction between science and philosophy. But it is true that, you know, historically speaking and strictly in modern, in the modern academy, the true disciplines have evolved unto quite different directions and yes, broadly speaking, science deals with the best factual information we can get about the world, and philosophy deals with reflecting methods of reflecting about what that, that information tells us.

S: Yeah, so they're complementary intellectual disciplines—

M: Right.

S: —if you will. And, I think what's, I know you've made this point a lot, and I know in your blog as well, and also in our prior discussions that, scientists who think they can answer all questions, with just science, have to first realise, that when doing science they are also practicing philosophy, cause there has to be a philosophical underpinning of science itself.

M: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the best summaries of that position was actually due to Dan Dennett. As you know, several years ago he wrote Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which is one of the most influential books, in sort of many people's understanding of evolution and implication of Darwinism and so on and so forth. But in that book, as much as that book is, of course, very much science friendly, and does take on-board, you know, evolutionary biology in particular, Dennett points out that there is no such a thing as philosophy-free science, there is only science that takes on-board the philosophy without examining it. No, now, the question is not that scientists should necessarily do philosophy, in fact I would discourage scientists from doing philosophy. Just in the same way in which I would discourage philosophers from doing science. Those are sufficiently separate activities, as I said, that require different skills, and also, by the way, they have developed huge technical literatures of their own so it's really difficult to do both in a reasonable way. But, what I do suggest is that both scientists, as academics, and sort of the general public at large, would be better off by respecting each other's territory and what comes out of the other field, and also being a little bit acquainted with what comes out of the other field.

S: Yeah, so just as, like in the skeptical movement in just, in general, we promote the idea that people should have a basic scientific literacy. Not that they should be able to practice science as a layperson, but just be scientifically literate. But by the same token, people should be philosophically literate as well, not to be able to engage at cutting-edge philosophical technical discussions, but to have some idea when philosophy is in play at least.

M: Correct. So for instance, a little bit of understanding of basic philosophy of science or epistemology for instance, would go quite a long way for skeptics, to develop a better appreciation not just for the power of science, which is, you know, unquestionable within the community, or unquestioned within the community, but also for the limits of science, you know, there is a lot of stuff that science hasn't figured out, maybe will never figure out, you know, there is a lot of— science needs to be seen for what it is: a very powerful, but nonetheless human epistemic activity, based on certain methods, those methods have certain problems and limitations. The skeptic is supposed to be thinking rationally about a broad range of issues and that ought to include, it seems to me, also the functioning of science itself.

S: Is there an area where you most frequently see science or skeptics go wrong when it comes to philosophy as it's relevant to what we do.

M: Oh, that's a great question. (laughter) I think there's more than one.


B: Give me your top three-

J: Slow down, slow down, don't, don't kill us.

M: No no no no. It's- So, one of the, I think, the major areas that I've seen coming up, quite often in the last, especially the last two or three years, is actually the relationship- it's ethics. And what science can or cannot tell us about ethics. There seems to be a lot of confusion about, you know, ethical reasoning and what it is about, and are there moral truths and how do we discover moral truths and all that sort of stuff. And of course, the naïve position among some skeptic quarters is that, well you know, either morality is all about- it's entirely a human invention, so it's essentially one step removed from moral relativism, which most of us don't wanna go to. Or, then if it is about objective facts then those facts have to be of course matters that science can investigate and therefore we're gonna have, you know, you name it, evolutionary biology or neurobiology is gonna give us answers to moral questions. I think that the reality is a lot more complicated than that. I think that evolutionary biology tells us something very important about morality, that neurobiology tells us something very important about morality, but that neither one of those exhaust what, the province essentially of moral philosophy of ethics in general. So, let me give you a quick example: I think that evolutionary biology is absolutely necessary in order to understand where a sense of moral right and wrong comes from. I mean, we evolved it. We are social animals of a particular type and there is no magic behind it, it doesn't come from gods. It evolved over a period of time, the building blocks of a moral sense, a moral intuition if you will, or a moral instinct can be found in other primates and that makes perfect sense. I mean, it would be really bizarre if morality for some reason where the only thing that we cannot find any, sort of, gradual examples or partial examples in other species. So-

S: Yeah, birds have morality. I mean, birds punish each other for not-

M: Yeah.

S: -doing what the group is in the groups best interest. If one bird doesn't warn the others about a predator, then they won't get warned next time around. You know, so that's been-

J: Wow.

S: -demonstrated experimentally.

M: The thing that I quibble a little bit about that, is, I wouldn't go as far as saying that they have morality as in, obviously, as we understand it from a human perspective, meaning they don't have the ability to reply.

E: Dear Duane.

M: But they do have an instinct, that correspond, that if you were to see those actions in a human being, you would say, "oh that's a moral action."

S: Well that, that's, but my point is what you were saying that there are evolutionary antecedents we could see the elements of morality in other species, obviously an elementary form, not in the reflective form that we have, but they have an instinctive notion of reciprocity which informs our ethical senses, right?

M: Exactly, right. From there to neurobiology or the current science in general of moral decision making that also tells you something interesting. It tells you for instance, not only which areas of the brain tend to be involved in moral thinking and that sort of stuff, which is interesting in and of itself, but it tells you something more deep about how we think about morality. For instance, let me give you one example: you probably, you guys probably now have heard a bit about, sort of the different versions of the trolley dilemma.

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah.

M: Two basic forms, as you likely know, are the one in which there is this trolley coming down the road and it's about to hit and kill five people and you have, you happen to have a very convenient located lever next to you, that if you pull you're gonna divert the trolley on a second track where it is gonna kill only one person. Question: would you do it or not? Answer: empirically speaking, most people would say yes. That's interestingly, by the way, cross-cultural, depending on how you present the dilemma, pretty much people will respond in the same way. Eighty or ninety percent of people say yes. Then you switch into a second situation where you don't have the lever, you're on top of a bridge, there's this really bulky, big guy in front of you and the only option you have is to push the guy off the bridge to save the five people. Question: would you do it? Most people answer no. Now, the interesting question there is why would people answer, most people answer, yes to one and no to the other since at least at one level of analysis the two situations are perfectly analogous: in both cases you have five people you're about to save and one person that you're about to kill. Now, turns out that neurobiology sheds some light on this and it's perhaps not surprising, but it's interesting the way it works. It turns out that if you do a brain-scan of, you know, with all the limitations of course of neural scanning and current technology, but if you do a neural scan of people, an FMRI of people, when they are involved in thinking about the two versions of the dilemma, in the first case, the lever case, people tend to involve the areas of the brain, like the frontal cortex, that are involved typically in sort of rational, deliberate decision making. On the other hand, when people are thinking in terms of the second version of the dilemma, the pushing guy off of the bridge, a lot of the action switches to the amygdala, which of course is more connected to emotional reactions and fear and things like the sort. Now, that makes perfect sense, because basically the second version of the dilemma is much more personal. You're about to actually push somebody, as opposed to do something from a distance, like pulling a lever. So it makes perfect sense that people switch ways of thinking, they use different neural pathways essentially to think about this. That is very interesting and without the science we wouldn't find out why exactly people are doing that. The question however still remains, should you or should you not push the damn guy off the bridge?

S: Yeah.

M: Right.

J: I think an interesting way to look at it too are "what about the social ramifications." Like, you're gonna, you're actually breaking the law if you push the guy off the bridge, even though you're not gonna get arrested for not saving people's lives. Does that come into play?

M: Uh, it does, depending again, as I said earlier, there is a lot of different variants of the thought experiment, and yes, some of those do involve information about the, you know, consequences and if you, of course, were in moral philosophy, it's called a consequentialist or utilitarian view, you will take those into account as well. But the basic version doesn't include those, and it's one of the things that comes out interestingly, for instance from the cognitive science literature, is that there is a small minority of people who do not change their mind, who both will push- uh, you know, pull the lever and push the guy off the bridge. Turns out that psychologically speaking those people corresponds to a somewhat sociopathic profile.

S: Mm-hmm.

M: Those are people that essentially do not engage with the amygdala, they don't engage the emotional reaction, they just think rationally about the whole thing. The reason I brought that up is because, so, now we have an evolutionary account of how we got morality to begin with, we have a neurobiological account of, we begin to have a neurobiological account of how we actually engage in that sort of thinking, and all of this is very interesting. The thing that we still need to deal with, however, is, okay, in interesting, complex, real-life situations, what are we ought to do, and now I think is where the philosophy, the interesting philosophy, comes in, because of course there are hundreds of years of discussions among philosophers that have been able to frame moral dilemmas according to two or three major ways of thinking about it. One is the one that I mentioned a minute ago, the utilitarian or consequentialist view. There is also the ontological thinking which is based on rules essentially, and then there is the Virtue ethics thinking that is based on sort of character development, of what is the right thing to do in terms of what is the right person you wanna develop into. Anyway, those three frameworks help you think about the dilemma in a way that might lead you to reach a conclusion or consider a conclusion based on reason, so you go beyond your instinctual reaction, you go beyond what your amygdala is telling you and you think about it and say "well, wait a minute, here's the situation, here's what the right thing to do is and here's why."

S: Then there are those people like Sam Harris, who I know you have engaged with at least on your blog, who argue that: if we had enough scientific information, that could answer moral questions for us, essentially. You've pretty much explained what's wrong with that answer, but how have you responded to Sam Harris' position.

M: Well, let me give you a simple analogy. Imagine instead of talking about moral decision making, we're talking about mathematical abilities, right? So, how is it that people have developed, human beings have developed the ability to solve mathematical problems. Well, again, you got the same three sort of answers. From an evolutionary perspective it probably was useful at some point or another to start counting or to start thinking in terms of very simple abstract mathematical entities that helped our survival. That's of course speculation, we don't really have access to the relevant information, ecologically speaking, but it's very likely that something like that happened. Now, today you could put somebody that's, say, who's trying to prove Fermat's Last Theorem, you can put him under an FMRI-scan and you can figure out how active different areas of the brain are, and so on and so forth. There is one thing however, that neither this scan, nor the evolutionary story can actually tell you and that is "is the guy getting the proof of the Theorem right?"

S: "Is two plus two four?"

M: Yeah.

S: Well, Massimo. Thanks for joining us again on the show, it's always a pleasure, it always seems like it goes by faster and we're just scratching the surface. But for our listeners, Answers to Aristotle, just tell us about that title for a second, because that's interesting.

M: Aristotle is in fact the philosopher that is most widely quoted or referred to in the book, and there is a reason for that. Aristotle was the first guy in the Western tradition, that really was doing exactly what a (GARBLED) book is about. He was doing philosophy, he is known for establishing the foundations of logic for writing the first comprehensive book about ethics and so on and so forth. But he also was doing science, I mean, most people don't realize this but Aristotle was actually doing field biology of a way on the island of Lesbos, among other places. And he was trying to figure out, okay, was interested in, for instance, shells and he was there and he was collecting samples and looking at things. Now, he got a lot of stuff wrong (inaudible) idea that we got answers for the questions that he asked that he certainly did not have access to. But he does embody the spirit of the book. He was the guy that figured out that "look, you need both factual questions and to ways reflect on the meaning of those questions," and that is sort of the science and philosophy combination in the broadest possible sense.

S: Well, thanks again Massimo!

J: Thanks Massimo.

B: Thank you.

M: It was a pleasure as usual.

Science or Fiction (1:01:19)[edit]

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science or news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. Now before we get started this week, because this is the first Science or Fiction of 2013, I do have the stats, the full Science or Fiction stats, from last year.

E: Eurgh

S: These were sent to us by Cat, from sgutranscripts.org, so thanks Cat. So, here they are for 2012: Bob had played 47 games, lost 19, won 28 for a total of 59.6%.

B: Eurgh, damn.

S: Evan played 50, 25 and 25, exactly 50%.

E: Wow, I think wow, that's pretty good.

S: Jay also played 50, lost 26, won 24 so just shy of Even at 48%. I played 7, lost 3 and won 4 so am at 57.1%, just behind Bob and Rebecca played 44, lost 17, won 27 for a total of 61.4%.

E: Wow.

S: Just edged out Bob.

B: Nice.

S: Congratulations Rebecca.

R: Thank you.

B: Congratulations.

R: Thank you.

J: Overall we're way above average.

E: That was...

S: All doing better than random guessing.

B: Yeah but...

R: Hooray.

B: Rebecca and I did worse than last year though.

R: Yeah. I felt dumber this year.

E: Jay and I picked up the slack though.

B: How could I start off so well and then totally tank it?

S: Regression to the mean. Randomness.

J: Evan, our goal for this year, better than 50%.

E: You bet...

S: OK.

E: You bet buddy.

S: It's a brand new year though, guys. Are you all ready?

E: Clean slate.

S: We do have a theme for this week.


R: God damn it.

S: This theme... (laughter) this theme is dedicated to Jay. It's all about little babies.

R, B, E: Aw


S: Prepare Jay for his...

R: Because Jay's a giant baby?

S: Yeah, for his upcoming...

E: Oh, is that what you mean?

S: ... child to be born in a few weeks.

R: Oh my...

(overlapping comments)

S: Hope all goes well. OK...

E: So excited.

S: Here we are - item number one - a study finds that maternal use of anti-depressants during pregnancy is associated with a greater risk of sudden infant death syndrome [SIDS]. Item number two - a new study concludes that babies start learning language in the womb. And item number three - new research finds that for most babies it is better to leave them alone when they cry at night rather than comforting them. Jay, 'cos this is a theme in your honor, you get to go first.

J: The first one, about the study that says that mothers that took anti-depressants while they were pregnant - that's interesting that it increases SIDS. Now I do know that SIDS... SIDS is when the baby stops breathing and I thought that that had to do with temperature. OK, the second one about the babies learning language in the womb, I believe that one is correct. I think that they can hear their mothers' voices before they're born and they can identify their mother's voice and actually start to pick up language. So I think that one is science and the third one, the last one about— it's better to leave most babies and let them cry at night instead of comforting them - I'm not sure about that. Now this one, of course Steve's not going to answer questions but, a new born baby absolutely needs to be fed on a regular basis and one of the reasons why a baby cries is because it wants to be fed. It could be just hungry, which, you should feed a hungry baby. The whole crying baby thing, to me, you gotta go in, you gotta check on the baby and feed them. But for some reason I'm thinking here Steve that because you're gonna be leaving the baby alone in a room that this could be later maybe not a newborn. I'm gonna say that because of how vague that third one is, I'm gonna say that the first one, the one about SIDS is the fake.

S: OK, Bob?

B: The babies start learning language in the womb, yeah that just makes sense. I would expect that the unborn baby can hear it's mother's voice. I remember reading a while back about how babies can recognize their mothers' voices soon after birth. It just makes sense that they would become accustomed to the language and be primed and ready to go right out of the gate so to speak, so that makes sense to me. Leaving crying babies alone, yeah that was the conventional wisdom 12, 14 years ago when I had an infant in the house. After Ashley was born it was pretty much - a lot of people were saying that, and it makes a lot of sense, you know the baby wakes up, there's some separation anxiety and if the parents come rushing in then the baby will get used to that and expect it all the time and if they can get used to waking up, being alone then going back to sleep, bam, perfect, that's what the baby will do. So that makes a lot of sense too so considering that two and three make so much sense to me, I just don't think that you could say that mothers who have had babies who died of SIDS, I just don't think you'd have a decent percentage of them that would be on anti-depressants. Yeah, I'm going to say the SIDS is fiction.

S: OK, Rebecca?

R: Ah, yeah. I don't know, but the one about leaving babies alone when they cry at night - there's like a huge can of worms in the parenting blogs and forums - I feel like that's one of those things that...

E: You read those?

R: I have friends who are parents who get involved in the mommy blogs and stuff - yeah, like that's for the past 30 years or so, that's been a huge thing - there's even a title for it, like it's a parenting style that's specifically based on remaining fairly detached from your children in the hopes that they will learn to fend for themselves. And everything that I've read, which admittedly is not a ton because I don't have a kid and I'm not planning to have one any time soon, but everything that I've read suggests that it's BS, that like Jay said, when the baby cries it's crying for a reason go pick it up. So I'm going to say that's the fiction.

S: And Evan?

E: Oh, everyone made very good cases for all of these. Bob, you, I think you hit on the SIDS one, anti-depressants during pregnancy associated with a greater risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Anti-depressants being more prescribed these days than they were way back when, but there was still SIDS occurring way back when so I'm thinking that that one's the fiction. But Rebecca, you brought up a good point, good points about the crying. Rebecca I hate to leave you alone out there I'm going to go with what my first instinct way I'm going to say that the SIDS is the fiction.

S: OK so... I'm a little surprised that you guys all believe that a new study concludes that babies start learning language in the womb is science.

E: Spanish or French?

B: Why?

S: You guys all believe that one - I don't know, that one struck me as being a little out there but that one is science.

B: Why did you think that one was out there?

R: That was the most obvious one to me.

J: Steve I read that one and I was talking to my wife Courtney about it and she goes "ah, I don't know that sounds like BS to me".

S: Yeah.

J: Which I thought was funny 'cos now it's on our game here.

S: It just struck me as like really, really? Alright, but this is true a study does conclude this, I'm not sure how much I totally buy the conclusion and this is the first time a study has shown that newborns are not naïve to the language of their mother.[2] What the researcher did, this is Christine Moon, professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University, they studied infants that were just hours old and the research paradigm's interesting. They had them suck on a pacifier that was attached to a computer and when they sucked on the pacifier (laughter) - hang on - they sucked on the pacifier it would...

E: Ten thousand volts.

S: It would play a recording of vowels from either their mothers' native language or a foreign language.

B: Interesting.

S: And it would play for as long as they sucked and then when they stopped sucking it would stop and then when they started sucking again it would play a different vowel.

B: They sucked more.

S: So the question was would they listen more to the vowels...

B: Parent language.

S: From their parent language or their mothers' language specifically or from a foreign language and with the idea, and this was a paradigm used in other research, that they would listen longer to vowels that they were not familiar with.

B: Oh, interesting.

S: Because they were novel, the brain's like "hey, this is new, I've got to pay attention to this", not "oh this is something I've been hearing for months", you know? And in fact they found that the infants did listen longer, based upon their sucking on this pacifier, to vowel sounds from foreign languages than to their mothers' language.

R: But what if they found the mothers' language more soothing so wanted to listen to it longer?

B: Yeah.

S: As I said, this is, you've got to buy every link in this chain

R: Yeah, dumb, it's dumb.

S: You know, to buy this. But the thing is any difference, any difference you can take that they're not naïve and it was not that they're listening to sounds of their mother, just vowels from their mothers' language or a foreign language. So any difference would— means that they're getting something, you know, if you believe the difference itself, if the data itself is compelling. Definitely the kind of study that I'd like to see replicated and looked at from different angles but that was what this study concluded.

E: Great.

S: Let's go to number one, a study finds that maternal use of anti-depressants during pregnancy is associated with a greater risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Rebecca thinks this one is science, the rest of you think this one is the fiction and this one is... the fiction.

B, E, J: (sounds of celebration)

B: Yeah baby.

R: Not a good start.

B: One hundred, one hundred percent.

S: Ah so yeah, this one is interesting. So first of all, the news item that I was basing this on showed the opposite - the use of anti-depressants during pregnancy not linked with increased risk of still birth, infant death or other bad outcomes so that's very nice. And I did do a little research on, you know, 'cos I said let me just say the opposite and then I did some research just on SIDS and specifically what the literature shows is that depression in the mother is associated with increased risk of SIDS and in fact this leads to a recommendation that mothers be treated for their depression...

B: Interesting, woah.

S: In the hopes that it would decrease the risk of SIDS if anything, because untreated depression is a risk factor that has been identified for sudden infant death syndrome. Now SIDS still remains a little mysterious, you know, it's not like we completely understand exactly what is happening. We've identified lots of factors that increase or decrease the risk and it's thought that, you know, that they essentially they stop breathing. And over the years I've read so many different things like, you know, it's good if they're in the room with the parents because maybe the higher CO2 content drives the infant's respiration more. There are some drugs that are associated with an increased risk of SIDS and those are more for breast feeding now, not antenatal. So for breast feeding mothers, anti-depressants are still fine but you want to avoid anything that would be sedating. So Valium-like drugs are not good, lithium was also another one that was identified. So drugs that could pass through to the infant through breast feeding and can cause sedation will increase the risk of SIDS. The bottom line is if you're breast feeding, your OB should know every medication that you're taking, and you need to talk to them about is this something that would get passed through the breast milk to the infant and what risk or effects might it have. So don't just take— breast feeding is actually... you're still linked to the infant, you know, biologically. It's actually more metabolically demanding on the mother than being pregnant, breast feeding, you still need to take that very seriously. Alright, which means, new research finds that for most babies it is better to leave them alone when they cry at night rather than comfort them is science. Now, Rebecca, you're right in that this is a controversy and there's two sides, there's two schools of thought here. There's the... if you comfort them they'll feel reassured and more secure and if you leave them alone to cry they'll feel abandoned then the other side is what Bob articulated which is , kids need to learn, babies need to learn how to sooth themselves, if you run to them every time you hear them cry you're re-enforcing the behaviour, the crying, and they're not going to learn how to sooth themselves and that is essentially what this latest round now in this controversy has shown. Researchers have found that babies need to learn how to sooth themselves back to sleep. This is also based partly on the notion that infants have a sleep cycle just like everyone else, just like adults, and that sleep cycle involves, you know, going into deeper stages of sleep and then coming into lighter sleep, kind of waking up and then drifting off back to sleep again, that's natural. If the child is fussy or is, you know, upset at all when it wakes up it might cry during that stage of its sleep but that's perfectly normal for it to be quote unquote awake, you know, at that time and what the researchers found is that for some babies, again not for everyone but for some, that they were better sleepers later on in life, meaning like eighteen months, you know, two years, if they were allowed to sooth themselves back to sleep and that those babies whose parents picked them up every time they cried, that they had delayed learning of self-soothing and had a worse sleep later on. So, good job guys.

R: Meuhh.

S: Of to an ironic start, given that Rebecca won last year and...

E: Watch, she'll sweep the table the rest of the year.

S: Yeah, it's, hey, it's an endurance test, you know?

R: Yeah, it's a marathon.

S: It's like one basket in basketball, doesn't mean that much.

B: It's a marathon but right now you're in last place.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:01)[edit]

S: So Jay, do you have a quote for us this week?

J: I have a quote that was sent in by a listener named Jim O'Rourke and this is a quote from one of my absolute favorite science popularists.

Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend things which are there.

E: Hmm.

J: Does that sound like anybody?

E: Arthur Clarke?

J: Nope. Richard Feynman.

B: Ah.

S: Richard Feynman.

B: He's got a lot of good quotes.

S: Yeah, he's very quotable.

J: Richard Feynman!



The Yellow Cab of the Universe (1:16:34)[edit]

J: A listener of our show emailed us and said that we had inspired him in part to create something that I looked into and I thought was one of the best things that I had found in 2012 as far as a learning tool, an entertainment tool. The listeners name is Eduardo Galvani and we started chit-chatting, he wrote a book for the iPad, it's called The Yellow Cab of the Universe whcih you could see how we may have inspired him. I loved it, I downloaded it, he gave me, he invited me to download his book, I did, it ended up— it's one of the best books I have ever downloaded on my iPad, it's amazingly interactive and it goes into a very simple yet very eloquent explanation of the universe and of the cosmos, it's just fantasic, this book is something that you could do with your kids I think as an after Christmas present, you know you want to buy something that you could do with your children that would really capture their attention, the book just keeps going on and on, the content is fantastic. He's, with his daughter, he's asking his daughter about her school, and she said "I don't like science, it's too boring," and it really bothered him, it shocked him, and he started to think "what's wrong? It's not the science, the science is incredible, it's the way that it's being taught," and he realised very soon after that that he had to create an interactive book, it all kind of gelled in his head, and he did. I don't recommend things often, I have absolutely zero stake in this other than I really am interested in having people spend time with their children and educate their kids on science, this is it, guys. This is one of those things that I think could really influence a young kid's mind to understand, not only understand the universe, understand science and have an interest in something that's important for the future. So you can go to his website, yellowcabuniverse.com, and that'll tell you everything that you need to know, you could also look it up in the iTunes store. Do it, enjoy it, and if you really liked it, send me an email and let me know what you think and tell me what your child's reaction was to it, I'd be curious to know what they got out of it.

S: All right, thanks Jay. And thanks for joining me all this week.

R: Thank you, Steve.

B: Thank you, Steve.

E: Thank you, Steve.

J: Happy new year to you and everybody, guys.

E: Happy new year, let's have a good one.

R: Happy new year.

S: Happy new year. Looking forward to a great 2013 and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

Voiceover: 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 www.theskepticsguide.org. 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 info@theskepticsguide.org. 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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