SGU Episode 7

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SGU Episode 7
20th July 2005

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 6                      SGU 8

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, July 20th, 2005. With me today are Evan Bernstein...

E: Hello.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Good evening.

S: and Bob Novella.

B: Hello everyone.

News Items[edit]

Joint Government Agency Announcement: No Link Between Vaccines and Autism (0:28)[edit]

S: Couple—quick item in the news before we start. Yesterday officials from the CDC—that's the Centers for Disease Control—the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health, NIH, held a joint news conference where they announced that there is in fact no link between vaccines and autism.[1] There are parent groups and some scientists and some commentators like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—he's not a scientist he's an environmental lawyer—who are claiming that there's a link between mercury preservatives in some vaccines and—which are actually no longer present in childhood vaccines—and autism, although the scientific evidence shows that there is, in fact, no link. We will probably be dealing with this issue in more depth in a future podcast and I have an article coming out within the next week or two in the New Haven Advocate covering this issue in depth, but I thought I would mention this joint press conference essentially announcing that the scientific evidence does not support a link and that vaccines are, in fact, a safe public health measure.

E: Well, hopefully people will listen.

S: Hopefully. I mean, it's interesting that in the U.S. we still have a very very high compliance rate. Higher than in many other countries, but, this is—it's a very interesting issue and one we'll go into in more depth. An author, a report for the New York Times, David Kirby, wrote a book that came out in early April covering this issue from a somewhat, ya know, neutral—

P: Called Evidence of Harm.

S: Evidence of Harm, right. Which I thought was—he says was from a neutral point of view, but was—tended to uncritically present the point of view of the believers in a link, but perhaps we will have him as a guest on our show when we discuss this issue.

The Pope on Potter and Evolution (2:28)[edit]

S: Other things that have been in the news recently: the new Harry Potter book is out.

B: Whoopee. (unenthusiastic)

S: Bob what's the title of that?

B: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince''.

S: Breaking all book sales.

E: I read that.

S: I think Rowling may...

P: How'd you like it, Evan; was it a good book?


E: No, I mean I... (laugh) thank you. I mean I read that it was breaking book sale records. Thank you.

B: Absolutely. They printed like over 10 million copies, which is the most books printed for a hardcover first publishing of a book.

E: And they've printed another—there are, another 3 million I think are in print now. Beyond the 10.

B: Doesn't surprise me.

S: R. K. Rolling [sic] has quite a following. Both adults and children. I think she made $26 million in a day when that book hit the stands. Quite an accomplishment, but the Harry Potter books do have their critics, among them our new pope: Pope—former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict.

B: Yeah he came out—one of his quotes came out from a couple years ago, and it was actually revealed in a book written by Gabriele Kuby. She wrote a book, Harry Potter: Good or Evil, and she—Gabriele attacks J. K. Rowling's series, and in her book she published two extracts from Cardinal Ratzingburg—Ratzinger, Cardinal Ratzinger in 2003, who, of course, is now our Pope and in—here's this quote, writing to Gabriele the then cardinal says, "It's good that you enlighten people about Harry Potter because these are subtle seductions which act unnoticed and, by this, deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly."

P: So he is evil.


P: —Good or evil and apparently he's evil.

B: Well, Kuby herself also didn't have some very nice things to say about the Potter series either. She said "the series corrupts the hearts of the young preventing them developing a properly ordered sense of good and evil, thus harming their relationship with God while that relationship is still in its infancy." So I guess they're going to start banning, ya know, Snow White and these other fantasy stories from our youth that we loved. Just because this is such an immense cultural phenomenon, it's such a huge target for these weirdos that just think that it's corrupting and defiling people and it's bringing them into the paranormal fold and into the occult.

S: Right. Well, this has to do with the age-old conflict between mainstream religions, especially Christian religions, including the Catholics and New Age mysticism or anything fantasy-oriented; oriented around, ya know, witchcraft or elves.

P: Or role-playing games.

S: Role-playing games...

B: Right.

S: They feel that belief in anything mystical or New Age contradicts Christian faith. It's not about the character Harry Potter or what happens in the book; in fact, he's a good kid who has good moral and ethical values. He's a hero. Wouldn't you agree?

B: Absolutely. I mean, he's brave. He deals with forms of evil in the series of books and book after book, he faces evil and defeats it and he's trustworthy and he's loyal...

P: Yeah. I'm not familiar—

B: —and he's all these great things and it's like what do you have against this kid who is such a great role model?

S: But he casts spells.


B: Right. Right?

P: I'm not familiar with the series. Is there mention—is God mentioned?

S: No.

P: It's just, there's no divinity in the books?

B: No. There's no real—yeah, deity is not stressed at all, and also, importantly though, it's also not invoked in the spells themselves. Usually modern-day witchcraft, as it exists today, there is some sort of invocation of some sort of deity, usually, but these, but in the series there is none. There is absolutely no...

S: It's completely secular.

B: It's completely—right, it is. And all the magical phrases and words are really pseudo-Latin.

S: Yeah.

B: Ya know, "Lever Corpus!"


B: —to raise a body in the one I'm reading now. I mean it's, ya know, "Occulo Repairo" to finish your glasses.

S: Right. Pseudo-latin.

B: Come on. I mean...

E: E pluribus (unintelligible)

S: E pluribus unum.


S: Habeas corpus.


B: Right.

E: If it's good enough for our money it's good enough for Harry Potter.

B: And some of these quotes—I've got a couple quotes here. When I wrote my—I wrote an article on this—actually, with you, Perry. That article we wrote a few years ago for one of the other books. Some of the quotes I dug up, they're really great here. One guy, Daniel Zanoza was saying, "Tampering with the occult is potentially far more dangerous for children, often leading to spiritual confusion, psychological problems, and in all too many cases suicide. The Potter books, under a cloak of innocence, are infecting the minds of millions."

E: Where is the evidence for that?

P: Yeah. How many suicides have been tied to the Potter books?

E: None.


E: Well, I don't have the data. I'm going to guess it's none. So—(laughs) I'll just go out on a limb, I guess, and say that.

B: Here's one more, guys. Jon Watkins, a Baptist activist; he warns: "Satan is up to his old tricks again and the main focus is the children of the world. The whole purpose of these Potter books is to desensitize readers and introduce them to the occult."

P: Desensitize them to what?

S: To make them—witches are good people, I guess.

B: Desensitize them to, maybe, harming people or...

P: To the occult?

B: No, no, desensitizing—well it says, the quote just says the whole purpose is to desensitize the readers. I don't know; you could read into that but—

S: Well, the underlying assumption here is that the—for those are Christian who criticize this is that the occult is real. The reason why they're afraid of this is cause they think witches are real.

B: Right.

S: If you think that this is all fantasy and they're not real, you would have nothing to fear from these stories.

B: Right. And I dug up quotes of people that actually were saying, "hey mom and dad, what are you gonna do when your son puts a spell on you or puts a curse on you?" and I'm like wait, you actually believe in this stuff?

P: (laugh)

B: Some people think that it's an actual guide, a teaching tool, to carry out these spells...

S: It's not, of course. I mean, I've tried to cast these spells.


S: They don't work.

B: I mean, and where are you gonna get a unicorn hair to put in your wand? Cause all their wands have these magical ingredients in them.

P: Well, I mean now you're talking about unicorns, Bob. You're getting ridiculous.


S: Bob, Bob, you could substitute a Bigfoot hair for that, though.

B: Ohhhh... well, damn.

P: I didn't know that. Now that I didn't know. I'm going to have to back and re-read some...

S: Well, it's interesting. I think we need to follow the—with interest, the stances that this new Pope is going to take. Another—other than the occult, another area where the Catholic church's position has been of interest is that with evolution. Now the prior Pope, John Paul II, had made statements to the effect that there is no conflict between Catholic faith and scientific theories like the theory of evolution.

P: That is currently still the dogma of the church.

S: That's correct. There hasn't been any, sort of, formal pronouncements. However, there have been some statements by cardinals and other individuals that suggest that this—that that doctrine of no conflict between faith and evolution within the Catholic church may not be held by all, for example, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who is reported to be an influential theologian within the church, noted that the modern theory of evolution may be incompatible with Catholic faith. Some scientists have, in fact, asked for clarification of the church's position given statements that have been made at the level of cardinals.

P: Well, until the Pope makes a formal announcement, the stance of the church is that evolution is not contradictory to their belief. They say that evolution occurred and it occurred because God chose to make the world in that way.

E: Do we think the—this current Pope might go back, take a step back?

B: It sounds like it.

S: It remains to be seen.

P: Personally, I'd be very surprised.

S: I'd be surprised and disappointed, but there are some evolutionary scientists are just asking the new Pope to reaffirm Pope John Paul II's prior statements. To date, I don't know if that's been done, that there has been a reaffirmation.

P: Well, I think, the guy is alleged to be very conservative and so forth and I think people are—creationists want to take a stab at it. They want to say let's see if we can force his hand.

B: Well, yeah. They got the President in their pocket; let's see if they can get the Pope, too.

P: Yeah.


S: Maybe the creationists...

B: Yeah.

S: Certainly unwilling to make any critical statements of that belief system.

Science or Fiction (11:51)[edit]

S: Well, I think it's time once again for Science or Fiction.

B: Woohoo.

S: Is everyone ready?

B: Always.

E: I'm looking forward to it.

P: Of course.

B: I'm on a losing streak.

VO: It's time to play Science OR Fiction.

S: Okay. So each week I come up with three scientific facts or scientific news stories. Two are real and one is fake or wrong in some way. The challenge for my panel of skeptics is to sniff out which one is fake. You guys have been doing pretty well. I think that you successfully identified the first two, but the last two you've gotten wrong, but they were challenging.

P: So it's two for two.

S: Two for two. So...

B: Two for two.

E: Batting 500.

S: This will—we'll see if you go above or below 500 this week. So there's a theme this week. The theme is "the last 50 years". I'm going to give you three statistics about the last 50 years and you have to tell me which one is incorrect. There's another theme in the answers, too. I'm sure it will become apparent soon.

B: Mm hmm.

S: So item number 1: Over the last 50 years the average height of Americans has increased by three inches. Item number 2: Over the last 50 years the average the temperature in Siberia has risen by three degrees. And third: Over the last 50 years the average IQ of Americans has risen by three points per decade.

P: I know, the theme is rising.


P: Am I right?

S: Who wants to go first? There's also a three; this is my numerology three that run through there.

P: Alright. So, we've got American height three inches, Siberian temperature three degrees; what's the other?

S: American IQ three points per decade.

P: Well that one's wrong. (inaudible)

E: Okay.

P: Let's see. Okay. So, height that has mostly to do with nutrition, I think. Certainly, from what I know of the Civil War the average height of a soldier was, I believe it was 5'6" or 5'7" or something. They were shorter. I believe the height is connected to nutrition.

S: Mm hmm.

P: Last 50 years...? Ya know, that's a little short. Time frame, I mean.


P: Siberia? That's perfectly plausible.

S: Do you believe in global warming?

E: (laughter)

P: You know I don't.

E: Sure.

P: And IQ doesn't seem—that doesn't seem right. I would say the IQ is not correct.

S: Okay. Bob?

B: Let's see here. Two of these are correct, and one is wrong. Wow, two seem, well...

E: Two seem incorrect, don't they?

B: Yeah. The height seems somewhat plausible. 50 years three inches, although, seems a little high.

E: That's high.

B: Siberia seems... well, actually the next two seem pretty wrong to me. Three degrees is a lot, for a huge expanse of land, average temperature; that's a lot. Three degrees doesn't sound like a lot but if you're talking an average annual temperature, that's actually a huge amount. IQ three points per decade? That's 15 points in the past 100 years?

E: Yeah.

P: Fifty.

S: Fifty.

P: Fifty years.

S: That would be 15 points in the last 50 years.

B: Right. 15 points. So that would have moved average from 100, which, by definition, I think, they make 100 average, so then that would have made the average 15 if calculated the old way.

S: By the way that's 3 degree Celsius. I didn't mention that. Three degrees Celsius is a little more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit.

E: Wow.

P: That's a big difference. Seriously.

E: I'm going to say the height one the fallacy. Just—that doesn't seem right to me. That seems too much.

S: Alright. Bob?

B: I'm going to go with...

S: If you guess the temperature then you'll have all your bases covered.


S: Perry, Perry's going for IQ, Evan's for height. What's your answer, Bob?

E: Go temperature, Bob.

B: How big is Siberia, guys? I mean that's a...

P: Siberia's huge.

B: —huge expanse of land.

E: Alright. Siberia...

S: It's the frozen tundra in the east of Russia.

P: Huge chunk of snow.

E: It's about 1.5 times the size of the United States, I think.

B: I'm going to go with that. I'm going to go with that one. I'm going to go with Siberia.

P: There was a war and peace.

S: Okay.

B: Cause I think three degrees—greater than three degrees Fahrenheit is a lot.

S: So, one of you is definitely correct.

E: Yay.

S: The other two are wrong. Let's start with height. Let's not start with height. Let's start with the IQ; one that will be more fun.

E: Good.

B: Yes.

S: We'll go backwards. IQ. That is, in fact, correct.

E: Correct.

S: That is correct. American's—American IQ has risen by three points per decade since we've been measuring it, really for the last fifty sixty years.

B: That's interesting.

S: It's very interesting. It is also a completely unknown phenomenon. We do not know why that is happening.

P: Well, has the test changed in the last 50 years.

S: Well the test—

P: Like the SATs.

S: The test gets re-calibrated.

E: Right. 100.

S: So the, by definition, yeah, by definition an average IQ is 100 but they keep re-calibrating it. And somebody, taking an—today, who takes an IQ test, the actual same IQ test that was given in 1950 would score 115.

E: You know it's interesting, because also the demographics were different in 1950.

S: Yeah. So there are interesting possible explanations. One is it just—is it the mix of people who are taking the IQ test, but—

E: Yeah.

S: —if you control for those variables it doesn't seem to explain this rise. There is something—some real effect appears to be going on.

E: Nuclear radiation causing genetic mutations.

S: It's an actual—it's a matter for scientific scholarly debate among psychologists and those who are... Here's one article I picked out. Expanding Variance and the Case of Historical Changes in IQ Means: A Critique of Dickens and Flynn[2]. So there's basically, these guys are arguing about what the cause is of the IQ change, but there's—it's clear that it's been increasing by this figure. It could be—some people have speculated that it's technology driven. That as we consume more data, more information, because of televisions and radio and now the internet that this technology is actually making us smarter because we are much more voracious consumers of information.

E: Mm hmm.

S: That's one possibility. It could be due—yeah, you think improved nutrition, just like the height thing, that could certainly lead to better overall development but that probably peaked earlier than 50 years ago.

E: Right.

S: That's not offered as a common answer. So, it's one—it's a mystery, is the bottom line, but it is also somewhat counter-intuitive. I mean, it certainly doesn't seem that people are getting smarter.

P: Certainly not.

E: Well, not when it comes to pseudo-science. That's for sure.

P: Not from a skeptic's perspective.

S: But perhaps we're skewed. Maybe if we were really around 50 years ago we would have a different perspective.

E: Or a select group of us are becoming so much smarter that we're bringing the rest of the average up with us.

S: Perhaps. Let's go to number two: Over the last 50 years the temperature in Siberia has risen by three degrees.

B: Celsius. That's true, huh?

S: That's true.

E: Wow.

S: That's also true. As reported by German scientists who have been following it.

E: Pope's German.


S: They say that the forests in the region are less effective at soaking up green house gasses than previously. Snow and ice are melting earlier. There are in fact, in some—Switzerland—some conservationists are actually trying to put blankets on the glaciers[3].

B: What?

S: And the ice caps in order to decrease the degree to which they melt every summer. To try to, and it works, it actually in fact works, but they have to lay...

B: What do you mean it works?

S: It works!

B: How big are these blankets?


S: They're big!

B: Come on.

S: They have to lay these huge tarps over the ice caps and it decreases the amount that they recede every year.

B: I was on a glacier last year. They are big. They are immense.

S: We're talking about the mountain ice caps in Switzerland.

P: If, uh, what is his name? Crisco there, Crisco can wrap an island in cellophane I suppose these guys can wrap these in blankets.

S: It certainly is a massive task but that's one of the things they're doing.

E: Or the guy who painted the iceberg red. Did you ever see that news story[4]?

P: Did he?

E: Yeah. He took an iceberg and painted the whole thing red.

P: Oh? Now that's talent.


E: That is talent. He did it, though. So.

P: (inaudible)

S: It's interesting, I mean, the whole environmentalist global warming thing remains controversial. I do think that the consensus of scientific opinion is that there is definitely some real effect going on. It's still—it's hard to say if the trends that we're seeing over the last 50 years or 100 years are a true long-term trend versus just the normal fluctuation of the climate that we would see—

E: Right.

S: —but that's where the controversy lays. But I think most scientists think, ya, there probably is a real trend here and it's correlating pretty well with the increasing hot greenhouse gases, like CO2, primarily, in the atmosphere, and certainly there's some room for skepticism and for doubt but you have to think, when we're absolutely certain that this is a real effect it's probably going to be too late—

E: Right.

S: —to do anything about it. So, there's always uncertainty in science. At some point you just have to make—go by the best information that you have. I do think that some of the, sort of, environmentalist skeptics are unfair, and, in fact, are—

B: Those darn skeptics.

S: —not doing—not being very good skeptics. They're being more like environmentalism deniers and are just sorta marshaling any evidence against the global warming hypothesis and not really looking fairly at all the evidence. But that's why I included that one I thought that would—kind of provokes that controversy. The height one is incorrect and some of you had a sense that was little too—

E: Yeah.

S: —too much. In fact the correct figure is one inch over the last 50 years. Now the figures that Perry quoted for the Civil War are accurate, which would put three inches more at like 150 years. So, we've been increasing in height about an inch every 50 years. And again, that's probably due to improved nutrition. And that effect is replicated in developing countries that have improved nutrition, especially in the first five, ten years of life.

B: Sometimes, and that can be drastic, I remember reading about after we kinda took over Japan for a little while after World War II and their nutrition drastically changed. You would have kids going to school that could literally could not fit into the desks of the previous generation or the previous few years just a couple years previously—

S: Yeah.

B: —because the nutrition was just so drastically improved.

S: A friend of mine from medical school is Korean. His parents are from Korea, who are your typical image of a short-statured Asian. They were very, very short and he's like 6'5". The guy was huge.

B: Woah.

S: So it's hard to imagine that it's genetics when both of his parents were so short and he was so very tall, but he was raised in the United States, they were raised—

B: Right.

S: —60 years ago in Korea.

B: I mean, Steve, what's that concept of regression to the mean.

S: Regression to the mean.

B: When you, typically a child will be somewhere in between his parents, in height.

S: That's not exactly the concept of regression to the mean.

B: How does that work?

S: Well, height is a genetic trait that is determined by multiple genes, so it's poly-genetic. It's not like Mendelian, where you get one gene.

B: Right.

S: You get the blue eyed gene, you got blue eyes, or you get the brown eyed gene, you have brown eyes. It's different. It's multiple genes working together in sort of a complex way. So, it in fact is possible for children to be out—either shorter or taller than either of their parents. They don't have to be between their parents.

B: No. But in general, though, aren't they?

S: But there's usually not huge departures from—

B: Right.

S: —from their parents. Although the more—the greater the mixing of genes. So if you have people breeding from very different gene pools, the interaction between the variable genetics becomes harder to predict. So if you have, ya know, people of different races, for example, mixing their children may—the interaction of genes in certain characteristics like height may produce unpredictable effects. Or as if you have like two Japanese people marrying, the similarity between the genes is already pretty extreme so you're going to have less of these compounding effects. So, Evan got this one correct. Bob and Perry were wrong, but again I thought you guys were—your comments were insightful; again, this was a challenging one. I thought I'd get at least one of you on the IQ thing because it does—it is somewhat counter-intuitive, but that's an interesting scientific dilemma that is still being explored. It's one of those things that's—it's really impossible to every explain definitively. There's no way to do any kind of experiment to see what the effect really is. It's just trying to piece together—it's really an historical question. We can only really infer what might be the cause.

E: Hm.

News Items[edit]

Ghostbusting with Penn & Teller (25:38)[edit]

S: Well, for those of you who have Showtime, you may have been watching Penn and Teller's wonderful show called Bullshit. Penn and Teller are stage magicians, entertainers, humanists, skeptics who delight in poking fun at all things ridiculous and paranormal. They have a show which is now getting close to the end of its 3rd season. It's a half hour program on Showtime called Bullshit where they just poke relentless fun at all sorts of topics. The first season, for example, had talking to the dead, end of the world, feng shui, bottled water. Season two had the war on drugs, recycling, the Bible. They certainly don't care about tackling any topic. The third season had a show that aired first on July 10th, and I'm sure it'll be on again. You'll be able to see these episodes either on demand or on Showtime at other times. This episode was called "Ghostbusters". All about ghost hunters, and I focus on this show because one of the skeptical experts on the show was none other than yours truly, your host, Steven Novella. I was interviewed a few months earlier for the show to discuss our experience with investigating the ghost hunters and basically to comment on the kind of techniques that they use and why it's all bullshit. It was a funny show and it was fun to do. Most of you were there with me when we saw it for the first time.

P: It was very enjoyable. It was uh—they put their usual vicious wit to the task and really made the poor schlub ghost hunters on the show, ya know, look like babbling fools.

E: Well, maybe that's cause they were babbling fools.

P: (laughter)

S: It is amazing how they can get these people to go on the show—

P: Astounding.

S: —to offer their ridiculous beliefs. They have to know that they're going to be ridiculed.

E: Yeah, I don't know—they must, because if you knew you were going to be on a show, wouldn't you look into that show even just peripherally and see—

P: Perhaps (unintelligible)

E: —and see what it's all about, I mean...

S: I think they want their five minutes of fame to say "I'm going to be on Showtime and get to give my spiel."

P: Right.

S: Oh sure, who cares if someone's going to be disagreeing with me. You know the thing is they might be right; I mean, certainly to the—they probably are still heroes of the true believers. The fact that they were on Penn and Teller and ridiculed by them probably gives them good street cred among ghost-busting true believers. You know what I mean?

P: Yeah. It's true. Ya know, the name of the show is Bullshit

E: (laughter)

P: What do you think? When the producer from Bullshit calls you up, what do you think it's going to be about? Ya know.

S: Well, there is a spectrum within the skeptical movement—skeptical shows and literature and how we deal with these topics. At one end of the spectrum is what I consider to be academic or scholarly end of the spectrum. We write very respectfully, scientifically; we analyze the claims, no matter how silly or ridiculous they are we treat it as if it were just any other scientific claim, examine the evidence, examine the logic and write a scholarly critique. That's sort of one end of the spectrum.

At the other end of the spectrum, it's just pure entertainment and absolute ridicule and that is the end of the spectrum that Penn and Teller have staked out, and they do it very well. And even though it is not what we have chosen to do. Ya know, this show is designed to be a little bit more superficial and entertaining; we're not reading dry technical journals on this, on the podcast, but we do like to get into the nitty-gritty sometimes. Penn and Teller really are making a brief case, they're really not going into too much depth and the point of it is really to have a lot of fun at the expense of people who believe a lot of weird and wacky stuff.

P: Right. In fact they said on your show they don't mind preaching to the choir.

S: Right.

P: They don't object to that.

S: That's what—that's what they're having fun doing.

P: Yeah.

S: And, I think, there's a role for the whole end of the spectrum. Some ideas are so ridiculous they deserve to be ridiculed. I mean, that's always the question among skeptics. What's the effect and what's the purpose of what we're doing? And sometimes if you give too much scholarly attention to a ridiculous idea, no matter how critical you are of it, you tend to elevate it; you tend to give a status it doesn't deserve.

E: Right.

S: Some ideas are so stupid they just deserved to be ridiculed and brushed aside. <--Ablism-->

E: Well Steve, I wonder what would have happened if they treated the whole Kansas trials—the Creationist evolution trials, that way. Like had Penn and Teller go in there—


E: —and just laugh at them, ya know, like, are you crazy? You believe this?

S: Have Penn and Teller—well, Teller would given very very good testimony, I think.

E: Oh, yes.

S: His shtick is of course that he doesn't speak.

P: Yeah.

S: But...

E: But he did do an interview—

S: Yeah, it's interesting...

E: —with us, several years ago.

S: This is the core dilemmas of what we're trying to do is the more we discuss how silly it is to believe certain things or how wrong people are and the logical fallacies that they commit and what the scientific evidence says, the more attention it seems to draw to them, and in fact, they seem to be elevated by our criticism. So we have to be very careful not to—we tend to ignore either, like, lone cranks who are, ya know, yelling in the wilderness and people who do not have a great deal of attention because we don't want to draw attention to them. But if somebody already has attention, if they're already have the national media focusing on them, if they already have a following, ya know, like, John Edwards[sic] or—then, ya know, we're not going to add to their notoriety or their fame by criticizing them.

And then we think it's important for people to have a careful, critical analysis. If people understand what cold reading is, for example, they won't be so gullible towards the mediums. If people understand—cause they have, ya know, with ghost busting you have people calling themselves scientists, claiming they're doing scientific research when what they're doing is running around with equipment they don't know how to use. They don't know what it means. Like their EF detectors

P: They don't understand it. They don't understand their equipment, yeah.

S: They find so-called anomalies. This is so true in any—in so many different fields. What they basically do is they hunt for anomalies. An anomaly is anything they can't explain off the top of their head.

E: So it must be a ghost.

S: And then they proclaim that alleged anomaly a ghost, or whatever phenomenon they're interested in. If you're a ufologist the anomaly is an alien. If you believe in crop circles the anomaly whoever made the crop circles. But the—they don't do what a good scientist—a real scientist would do, which would be before saying that something might be an anomaly you have to exhaustively exclude more mundane explanations. And they don't do that. They don't—so they go into a house with an EM detector and they find electrical fields everywhere. And they say "well see, these electrical fields are ghosts."

Well, have you gone into houses that are not allegedly haunted to see if they also have electrical fields? Have you eliminated other sources of electri—have you turned off, maybe, the circuit breaker to see if that makes the electrical fields go away? I mean, there are some basic, basic, experiments they can conduct to test or falsify these ideas and they don't do that. They just go around measuring stuff, ya know, cause it's—and they think that that's doing science. The reason why we got interested in these kinds of things is because it really is making a mockery of science. It's sort of presenting a image of science that is so over-simplified and inaccurate that it's basically just wrong.

P: Even the most basic, most basic logic and thought process, like the two things you pointed out Steve; shut off the breaker; go to a house that's not haunted; it doesn't even occur to them.

S: No. They don't understand the idea that you have to have a hypothesis that makes predictions that you can then falsify by experimentation. That's the core process of science and they don't do that; they're not doing that.

E: They have a preconceived notion, and they're simply looking for things to back up that preconceived notion, and they're not interested in anything else.

S: Right, and those things are anything remotely unusual. This room is a little bit colder than the other room.

P: That's ghost cold.

S: That's ghost cold, right.

E: (laughter)

S: We call that ghost cold.

E: Yeah. Ed Warren's five minute—five minute class on how to detect ghosts. If it's cold it's ghost cold. If it's hot it's ghost hot.

S: Another classic example is with ghost photography. Now they take pictures—they'll go to a location, take hundreds of pictures and—even if they don't see anything—and then after the fact they'll look at all the pictures and some of them might have spheres of brightness, or spheres of light on them. This is a well-known phenomenon known as [[[wikipedia:lens flare|lens flare]]]. If you take enough pictures you will see this on a regular basis. There's nothing anomalous or unusual about it, but, ya know, paranormal investigators, ghost hunters will declare these lens flares to be orbs. And orbs are some manifestation of ghosts. Why are they orbs? Because they say so.

P: Yeah.

S: There's no reason to say that. They completely dismiss out of hand the more mundane explanations for them even though they're pretty well established.

P: Orbs. Rods. Ya know, in my skeptical travels I've seen literally hundreds of ghost photographs, with all sorts of blobs.

S: Thousands. Go on the web; you can see thousands of them.

P: The particular ones that they had on the show; the orbs were feeble. I mean, they weren't even good orbs.

S: I know. They weren't even good as orbs.

E: Right. You could really barely make them out.

P: I mean they were clearly smudges. They were terrible.

B: Yeah. They were pathetic.

P: They were.

S: When Perry and I were at the Carousel, which is an allegedly haunted restaurant here, we got a good picture of us with a camera cord ghost in the photograph.

P: Those are called ghost rods.

S: Yeah. They call them rods but they're caused by some object close to the flash—

P: Right.

S: —which then shines back into the lens, and it happens on any camera that has a built in flash where you're not viewing through the lens, where you have a separate view finder. It doesn't have to be the camera cord, although that's the, or the strap, but that's the, one of the more common things. It could be anything. Even if it's black in color, it will show up as a white blotch. Either a coily or a stringy white artifact on the photograph. Again, been clearly demonstrated that that's what it is, but if you're a ghost hunter that's a rod or that's a ghost.

B: And my favorite—

P: (unintelligible)

B: —my favorite thing is the fact is that it literally almost never happens like "there's a ghost! Quick, take a picture!" It's like going through pictures, "Oh, wow. What's this thing that I took? I didn't see it when I took the picture."

S: Right.

B: But hello? I mean doesn't the—I wrote an article on this and camera—photographic paper, silver—what do they call it? It's the...

S: Silver nitrate?

P: Emulsion?

S: Silver nitrate?

B: Halides? The emulsion. I mean, it's designed to roughly react to frequencies that the human eye are sensitive to. It's not like the cameras can take pictures of things that invisible to human eyes—

S: Right.

B: —and only cameras can pick up. If you can see it you can take a picture of it.

S: I've asked—we have asked many of these people what their explanation for this is. This is a huge hole in their logic. So if that orb—if that's an orb, and that represents some kind of ghost phenomenon, how come you didn't see it?

B?: Right.

S: And how come it's showing up on film? They don't have a good explanation for that, because if you—if it can show up on film it should show up on your retina. There should be no difference.

B: Bottom line.

S: That's the bottom line. And if they say, "Well it's some kind of a direct energy transfer to the film that doesn't register on your eye" then my next question for them is, "Well then how come you need a flash?" Cause you never—

B: Right.

S: —get orbs without a flash and the more naive ghost hunters—I remember on Ed Warren's site, in fact—for a time they took it down when I pointed out this logical fallacy, but I have a copy of the website—

B: The greater the flash...

S: The greater the flash the better. The more likely you are to get ghost photographs.

E: (laughter)

S: So what is the, what? So the ghosts need a flash in order to put their psychic energy on the film which is not registering on your retina for no reason? Psychic energy, I guess, is more sensitive to film than it is to human brain or the human retina.

B: Right.

S: It makes absolutely no internal sense. There's no internal consistency there. And, I will add once again, they've never subjected any of these ideas to any kind of scientific tests. They did not make predictions from this hypothesis that then could be falsified in some way.

P: Not even the most basic. It is almost so juvenile as to not be believed. I mean it's-it's-it's-it's-it's crazy.

(all talking at once)

P: It really is.

B: Now granted, some—I've seen lots of these pictures and by far the vast majority are just these basic artifacts. Ya know, lens flares, camera cords, but some—I mean given the fact that there are literally millions of people with cameras walking around; I mean, you're bound to see some stuff that's kinda bizarre, that I've tried to reproduce myself and some of these are somewhat difficult but it depends on what camera you have. It depends on so many variables. I mean some of them were pretty interesting, showing this fogging effect, that was very difficult to reproduce, but it still, I mean, it's still an artifact that only appears in the finished product and nobody saw it at the time, and that alone should just raise your skeptical hackles high enough to disregard it.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Cape and Islands Paranormal Research Society (40:02)[edit]

S: So we haven't asked the skeptic question this week that ties in with this topic so let me read it to you. This is from Derrick Bartlett. He writes:

My name is Derrick Bartlett. I am the founder of Cape and Islands Paranormal Research Society, or CAIPRS. I have to say the air between skeptics and ghost hunters is fascinating. I believe that both should be intertwined so that A) teams like mine can be grounded by the skeptical society, and B) skeptics have a first hand look at what we do. So with that question out the CAIPRS is looking for skeptics to join our team as either as either as a consultant or actual physical member. Please forward any questions or contacts to the society.

S: So, we often have gotten these kinds of requests. I think that some of these groups are—they're sincere, I mean I don't think that they're frauds. I think that they're sincere but misguided. I think they want the stamp of approval of the skeptics or they think that, ya know—they really believe in what they're doing. That they really have no idea how unscientific their activity is, to the point that they're always shocked; they're shocked when actually look at what they're doing and say, "Uh, this isn't science. This is flawed. Here's your logical fallacies. You're neglecting this explanation." So, yes, ya know, Derrick, we'd be happy to consult for you, but again, not because we're interested that we think that we're actually going to find ghosts, but to just examine their methods and to hopefully explain to them that what they're doing is—differs greatly from what scientists do. But—so we've never actually gotten through to anybody. Never actually gotten anybody to understand the difference. I mean, I think they just want to run around on weekends looking for ghosts. You know, as their hobby, and call themselves a research society.

P: Right.

S: What do you guys think about that? Should we go ghost hunting with Derrick?

P: Absolutely. I think we should.

E: At least once.

P: I think we should. At least once. You have to look at the individual situation.

E: Maybe if we can teach them how to falsify their findings—

S: Right.

B: Or the importance of it.

E: —then they don't need us. Right, and then they won't need us after that; they can just do it themselves. It will be so much easier.

P: Start with the basics. Let's go in somewhere and shut the breakers. Ya know?

S: Right.

P: Let's go, let's take them to a non-haunted house, and, and check it.

B: Yeah.

S: Yeah, let's come up with a baseline. What does your average house have in terms of EM phenomenon?

P: Let's agree that this not haunted and then check it.

B: Well, that itself might be a problem.

P: Well, I'm saying—

B: This house is haunted!

P: —let's agree this house is not haunted and then we'll check it. Oh my goodness it turned out to be haunted. Okay. Let's agree on this other house. This one's haunted. Let's go check this other house. Oh, this one's haunted. Okay, let's agree on...

S: Well, ya know—

P: Eventually it's going to become ridiculous.

S: You could pick 20 houses or 100 houses at random; how much do you wanna do? Do an EM protocol on each of these houses. Find out what the baseline is. You could say, even if some of these houses are haunted, that—unless you think that all houses are haunted—or especially you could say, take houses that are very newly built, that are—even before people have ever even moved into them. Probably they shouldn't be haunted—and get some kind of baseline, and then go to houses that are 100 years old and have alleged sightings of ghosts and are supposedly very haunted and see if they're any different.

P: Right. I think we should do it, if possible.

E: I think it would be worth going once, at least. At least once.

S: Having outlined for many of these people what a scientific experiment would actually be, it's interesting that no one's ever bitten. They've never actually done it. And it doesn't really matter what the topic is. My most recent article in the New Haven Advocate, my Weird Science column was on crop circles. Now, in my opinion, crop circles are one of the most ridiculous paranormal claims out there. The idea that aliens or people from the future or from another dimension or some higher consciousness are trying communicate to us by doodling in crop fields is just—to me it's absurd. It's also I believe—

P: Typical close-minded skeptic.


S: Very close minded. It's been clearly demonstrated that these are hoaxers. And as I've written to many of these people who have responded to my article, no one has falsified the hoax hypothesis.

P: Steve, are you denying the entire field of cereology?

S: Absolutely. The entire field is pure pseudoscience. And again, why is it pseudoscience? Because they don't ever do any experimentation to falsify their hypotheses. They're anomaly hunting. They say, "Oh, look, this wheat was bent in a strange way. We can't explain that."...

E: It wasn't bent yesterday, it's bent today.

S: Okay well, you can't explain it. That doesn't mean it's not explainable. It just means that you can't explain it. But they don't—they have these false anomalies. They're not even genuine anomalies. They have no documented crop circle creation that is not compatible with human hoaxers. They point to a lot of ridiculous things, like, "Oh, this is complex mathematical relationships in this geometric pattern." It's like, yeah, but that's because it's a geometric pattern.

E: (laughter)

S: Geometric patterns have complex mathematical relationships. Bees make their honeycomb nests, which have extremely complex mathematics underlying them. The bees don't know that. They're just following a simple algorithm. What they miss is that by following a very simple algorithm you can create mathematically complex geometrical forms.

B: Absolutely.

S: It doesn't mean aliens are communicating to us.

B: Chaotic.

S: So, anyway, the hoax hypothesis has never been falsified. Any time someone has set up surveillance equipment in a crop field, guess what they find? Hoaxers. No one's ever seen UFOs. There's like that one famous fake ball of light film—

E: Right.

S: —that's been proven to be a fake. But there's no—no video that has survived scrutiny that shows anything other than people making these crop circles, and there's nothing—no aspect of the crop circle phenomenon that is—that is paranormal. Let me read you one of the letters I recently got in response to my article. This is Aaron Clark; he writes, "Mr. Novella,"—they always write Mr. instead of Dr. I don't know if they're just being deliberate or if they just don't know it.

E: Deliberate.

S: "Your article from July 14th was highly biased and ignored known facts. Not only that, you made assumptions that are totally false. If you do a real study of the crop circle phenomenon you will find that it has been going on for a long time." And then, "You probably won't do any real research into this but let me suggest you also read," this book. It says, "Well anyway you probably already made up your mind and won't change it based on any amount of evidence. I thought science was supposed to pay attention to all evidence. Please don't write any more ignorant articles like this one."

B: Wow.

S: So, that's—there's another one that's even worse than that. But basically what he's saying—my response to him was to explain, ya know, basically the skeptical approach to this topic. Why I came to the opinions I did. These are very short articles I write in my column. They only give me like 800, 850 words. So I went into a little more depth on some of the main points. But then I said—I always ask him the same question. "If you feel there's any credible or compelling evidence, please let me know." Gimme your best shot. Give me your best piece of evidence and we'll go into it in detail. Like, don't just give me a vague reference of—here's look at these million facts. Just give me one. Just give me one juicy fact that we can talk about in sufficient detail. I also say, "Give me one example of any actually scientific experiment that any cereologist or crop circle guy has done." Tell me what their hypothesis is, how they designed an experiment to falsify that hypothesis or to test it, and then they carried out the test, and what the results were. It doesn't exist.

E: Doug and Dave did. (laughter)

S: Yeah, Doug and Dave. The guys who started the phenomenon—the hoaxers who started the phenomenon. But, so far, and there have been several people now who have responded to my article on this topic, and again, I go through this with many, many, many topics. Every time I say, "Show me the evidence," or "Show me the—the experiment that actually followed a scientific protocol," never—they never, can answer that question.

E: Nope. And they never will be able to, either.

S: Again, it just shows it doesn't really matter what the phenomena is, it's the same thing. Crop circles and ghosts. They hunt for anomalies. They—and they're basically doing pseudoscience. They're not falsifying their claims. They're not conducting experiments that can actually distinguish between, say, a crop circle that's been hoaxed and something that could not have been created by humans.

Skeptical Website of the Week: Quackwatch (48:35)[edit]

S: Well, we're almost out of time. I'm just going to talk about one more item today. We have our website of the week. This week I'm going to talk about This website is run by Stephen Barrett, who's a retired physician. This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in fraudulent medicine, unusual medical claims, who are—if you hear an advertisement for some supplement or somebody asks you if they should visit clinic in Germany or whatever it is. You're likely to find some very useful critical analysis on this website. Definitely take a look before you make up your mind about any controversial health claims, before you take or—any treatment or anything that might seem unusual or out of the mainstream. It deals with not just things that are alternative just anything, whether they're M.D.s or not. I have a couple of article on that website myself. So—and Steve Barrett is just tireless. I mean, this is basically the guys life now, now that he's retired, is maintaining this website.

E: Good for him.

S: I think there are literally, hundreds if not thousands of articles on this site. So it's Definitely an excellent skeptical resource. Some people are put off a little bit by the name, but, really it's just a—it's meant to be a little bit amusing, but it's—it really is tackling all sorts of myths and claims. Let me read you some of the—some the topics. For example, under—he has different categories, like here is one, consumer health promotion. Antioxidants and other phytochemicals: current scientific perspective. He gives the date when the article was updated, so this is updated 7-28-03.

Medical information changes very quickly so it's always good to know. Dietary guidelines for Americans. Fluoridation in the water. Is this something to really be scared about—about at night, or not. Low fat eating. Is this something that's—what is the scientific evidence really have to say about this? Tips for provider selection. Choosing a dentist. Choosing an osteopathic physician. Choosing a chiropractor, for example. Disease management. Irritable bowel syndrome. Fibromyalgia. These are—controversial topics and having a source of real evidence-based recommendations for these things are very, very useful.

Some general observations, just about the nature of healthcare. Why health professionals become quacks. Interesting article. What causes healthcare practitioners to turn down the dark road? What about healthcare freedom? What is the conflict between healthcare freedom and, basically, measures to protect the public from health fraud or health quackery? So very interesting—very interesting articles.

Conclusion (51:41)[edit]

S: So that is all the time we have for this week. Bob, Perry, and Evan, thanks again for joining me.

B: My pleasure.

E: Thank you, Steve. Thank you.

P: See you all next week.

S: Until next week, thank you all again for listening. This has been your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information on this and other episodes see our website at

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Over the last 50 years (as of 2005):
    • the average height of Americans has increased by one inch
    • the average temperature in Siberia has risen by three degrees
    • the average IQ of Americans has risen by three points per decade
  • Cameras are only able to see ghost orbs if they use a flash
    • When Steve pointed this out on a ghost hunting website, they took his comment down.


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