SGU Episode 79

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SGU Episode 79
24th January 2007

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 78                      SGU 80

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


JR: James Randi

TR: Todd Robbins

HB: Hal Bidlack

ES: Eugenie Scott

Quote of the Week

I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief.

Gerry Spence

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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 24th, 2007. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society, and joining me this evening are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey, what's up?

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Howdy-do!

S: Good evening, everyone.

R: Howdy-do?

J: (Mr. Slave impression) Jesus Christ.

E: I used to live in Dallas.

R: What?

E: So I can say howdy.

Report from TAM5 (0:44)[edit]

The Rogues report on their amazing time at The Amaz!ng Meeting 5

S: We are back from Las Vegas and The Amaz!ng Meeting 5.

R&E: Woo-hoo.

J: It was amazing.

R: Fantastic.

S: It was, absolutely fabulous.

R: I was really happy you guys made it this year.

S: Oh yeah, we had to go.

R: This was the best TAM ever. I've been to the past three, and this one trumped them all by a mile. Like, the speakers, the parties, everything. It was so much fun.

B: The interviews.

J: The booze.

R: Yeah, the booze.

S: Yeah, it was awesome. The speakers were all wonderful, and we had the opportunity to interview many of the guests. I'll just run down the list of the people that we interviewed during TAM5:

So, it was really great to interview all of those wonderful people. Everyone was so nice, too. I mean I'm really... not so much surprised as just very pleased that everyone was so willing to sit with us and spend a lot of time, and chat with us. It was great.

R: We couldn't get some of them to shut up.


J: And I'd like to add, meeting the fans, the people who came out there who wanted to meet us; we were absolutely shocked every single time somebody walked up to us. My favorite part—hands down, my favorite part—next to Matt Stone, of course, was meeting people who were interested in the show; that listen to the show. And we had an awesome, awesome time at the... Rebecca, what was that, the Star Trek bar?

R: Quark's bar.

J: Quark's bar?

R: Yeah.

J: One of the geekiest places on the planet.

R: I had the biggest, nerdiest drinks on the planet. (laughs)

E: The geekiest place on Earth.

J: Yeah.

S: What was that drink you and Jay shared? A warp core brew?

J: Yeah.

R: And then the other one was a Borg cube or something?

S: A Borg cube.

R: A Borg sphere?

E: A Borg sphere?

B: Hey, let's give a shout out to some of the fans that we have down here

R: Such as? Would you like to...

B: Well, Elizabeth, Rich, and Rich, and Fred, and Jonathan.

S: And Xander.

B: Those are some names that leap to mind.

J: The guy that gave Perry the disk, Noah Miller from... where was he from? Well, we saw him at the Star Trek bar. He gave Perry a present, and I said "Well, what is it? It's a CD", and he goes "It's basically a bunch of monkey media".

R: Monkey media! That's fantastic.

B: Monkey media; nice alliteration. Perry will love that.

E: Is that the same fellow who gave us the—what do you call it—the Marvel comic with—

S: The Neal Adams comic book?

E: Yeah.

R: Oh, nice. You know, every year I say the same thing, but it's always true. The thing that really makes TAM—I mean, the speakers are wonderful, the hotel is always cool, Vegas is great, but the thing that really makes it is always the people; like, the people just attending the conference. They are fantastic, the best in the world. I always have so much fun, and there's never enough time to do everything. Every time you turn around there's a big group getting together and going somewhere, doing something. They were just an outrageously good time.

S: It's a good group of people; it really is.

B: Yeah.

R: Yeah. And I have to say that I had a rocking party Saturday night, to which a lot of listeners attended, as did you guys, right?

S: Mm-hmm.

E: Yes, we did.

R: As did hotel security.

S: Eventually.

E: They enjoyed it.

B: Yeah, it got broken up at 2:30 in the morning.

R: Apparently, yeah.

B: And a cop; there was somebody... there was a cop with the security guy.

R: Oh, was there?

E: He had a—

B: Yeah, oh yeah.

J: Yep.

E: He had a few drinks, and then he broke it up.

R; I heard competing reports that said it was a cop that broke it up, and some people said it was the hotel security. So I guess it was both.

B: They were together, yep.

R: Nice. legendary.

E: (chuckles)

S: So our listeners may be wondering what we're going to do with all those great interviews we recorded. I believe, Evan, we have over six hours of raw material.

R: Wow!

E: We sure do.

S: Which is wonderful. What we're going to be doing is including excerpts from all of those interviews in the next few—this one, this podcast, and the next few episodes; the highlights, if you will. But it's too much content to put directly into all of our podcast.

R: Your mind would be blown.

S: So—right. What we're gonna do, for those listeners who can't get enough, is we're going to put uncut interviews with our commentary added, that we will upload them in addition to our weekly podcast. Now these—this is something else that we've been talking about, and this is, I think, the perfect opportunity to do it. What some podcasts do is, in addition to their free podcast, they put extra material on a pay-per-download basis—on iTunes or whatever—and that's a great way to both generate money for the New England Skeptical Society to help run our organization, help run our podcasts, while, in addition, providing extra bonus content for our loyal listeners.

B: So, for 50 bucks an interview, you get it all.

S: (laughs)

B: You'll be all set.

S: Well, we're thinking about $2 an interview, for about an hour of material, and we may put it into some kind of package deal for the whole thing. We're still working out the details. So we'll let you know when those things start going up. But in the meantime, you'll be able to listen to the highlights of these interviews this week and over the next few weeks. It's gonna be awesome. And while we're talking about the interviews, we have to give a big, official Skeptics' Guide thank you to Jeff Wagg, who—

E: Oh my God is he great.

J: Absolutely.

S: —is the Executive Director of the JREF, and we actually spoke with him last week[link needed], if you recall, about changes that are being made to the Randi psychic challenge. Well, Jeff was basically running this TAM5; he was running the meeting behind the scenes. He did a great job.

R: He did an excellent job.

E: Oh my God; yeoman's work.

S: He helped us out every step of the way. He helped hook us up with the speakers that we could get interviewed; he gave us the space to do it. He was an all-round help; it wouldn't have been nearly so successful without him, so thank you Jeff.

J: Thanks, Jeff, it was great to meet you.

E: Thank you, Jeff.

J: Didn't actually get to have a drink with him, 'cause he was so busy, but he hooked us up every chance he could, and it really is gonna—everyone out there—

R: It's OK; I have drinks with him at least once a month, so I'll have extra next time.

E: Definitely.

J: We all benefit from him helping us, because we have 6 hours of content now that we can—that we're going to sprinkle into the show.

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah

S: The other thing that was kind of a first at TAM5, was this was the first time we recorded anything for the show where we were all sitting together, in the same place, physically.

B: Yeah, right?

R: I had actually never met Jay before.

S&J: Yeah

S: Can you imagine?

R: That was my first meeting of Jay face-to-face, and it was... wait, wait, let me think of a good adjective

J: Religious?

R: (laughs)

J: Mind-blowing.

S: Transcendent?

R: Adequate.


B: Ha-haa!

E: Great.

J: Oh my God; I totally feel like I was standing nude in front of an audience.

R: (laughs)

J: Anyway, I do have a picture of that wonderful moment in both of our lives, which will be up on the website. I'm finishing up the start of a gallery that we're putting together. Everyone's sending me their pictures; any listeners out there that want to help, I will put a link on the home page that will basically just say "send them to this email address"; I haven't decided which address we're going to use yet, but you'll see it on the home page, and please do just send me the pictures. I'll put them up as they come in.

R: Thanks, Jay.

News Items[edit]

Sylvia Browne Dead Wrong Again (8:37)[edit]

S: There was some news coming out of TAM5 too... as well, rather, Sylvia Browne

E: Ugh! Sorry.

S: —is continuing her downward spiral—

E: Yay!

S: Hopefully, into oblivion. We can always be hopeful.

R: The media's finally starting to catch on that she's a fraud and a liar.

S: You may remember in the news recently... a teen was kidnapped, and he was tracked down to this guy's house. And in the house was found another teen who had been captive for four years. The guy was being held captive for four years. So this was the Shawn Hornbeck case. It turns out that about three years ago, the parents of Shawn Hornbeck consulted Sylvia Browne on the Montel Williams Show. And we'll have a link to the video of this session. But Sylvia Browne basically told them that their son was dead; gave directions for where the police should look for his body, and said that the person who kidnapped him was Hispanic with dreadlocks. It turns out that he wasn't dead, that the location she gave just wasted the police time and effort searching in the wrong direction, and the guy who kidnapped him was white with short hair; he didn't have dreadlocks. So that was an utter failure on the part of Sylvia Browne. But, like other recent cases—it's like she just keeps digging herself deeper in terms of the cruelty of this. I mean, you see the parents break down on the Montel Williams Show when they're told that their son is dead. And you just get the sense that Sylvia just doesn't care. You know, she's telling devastating news to these parents that she's essentially making up. And she knows it. And it's absolutely heartless.

R: Have you guys read Sylvia's message on her website in response to all the criticism she's got?

J: No.

S: Yeah, I think—well, I've seen her spokesperson's response. Is that what you're talking about?

R: According to her website, it's from her.

S: OK.

R: And first of all, let's say that Randi and Robert Lancaster went after her. You can check out "stop Sylvia Browne dot com" ([sic], actually, and they're basically kicking her butt on this, and publicizing all over the place. They were on Anderson Cooper the other night[1]and in response, Sylvia posted this on her website... do you want me to read the full thing?

S,B&J: Yes!

E: Please.

Throughout history, there have always been psychics and skeptics. I am the first to caution everyone when dealing with those who claim to have paranormal ability and then bilk people to remove curses or bring back lost loves through potions or incantations. I have never, nor ever will, charge anyone who seeks my help regarding a missing person or homicide. In these cases, I choose to work strictly with law-enforcement agencies involved to aid and not impede their work, and only when asked. To be accused of otherwise by James Randi, and others like him, is a bold-faced lie. The very nature of his work is negative, i.e. one that tries to disprove the very nature of spirituality. Can God be proven by scientific methods? If the brilliant scientists throughout history had a James Randi negating every aspect of their work, I doubt we would have progressed very far in medicine or in any technology. As I have stated on Montel, on my radio show, in my books and in each of my lectures, I cannot possibly be 100% correct in each and every one of my predictions. I have never claimed of being. Those who choose to believe in our philosophy will continue to do so because of their own convictions. Those who negate it after one human error never truly embraced our philosophy anyway, and that's OK. My constant mantra is to take with you what you want, and leave the rest. God's blessing to everyone, regardless of their chosen path.

S: What a witch.

B: OK, how many logical fallacies did you count?

(general sounds of exasperation)

E: Oh God.

S: Too many to count.

R: It's stomach-churning; I mean—

E: She doesn’t get them all right, huh? Well, how about getting one right?

R: Yeah, just one would be super.

E: How about one.

R: And she outright lies. She says she's never charged anyone who seeks her help regarding a missing person or homicide. The parents said that she wanted to charge them $600 per hour—her normal fee—to consult with them.

S: 700.

R: Oh, 700? Yeah, just to consult with them about their missing/dead son.

J: So why is it OK for her to tell these people wrong information? She says that—you know, her power, if it's coming from a spiritual realm, it's safe to say it's coming from God, right? Where else would it be coming from? Some type of spiritual realm, right?

S: Well, it depends what your mythology is; it depends what your belief system is. But she's just hiding behind God. She's trying to set it up as "I'm on God's side, and if you believe in me, that's the work of God, and Randi's against God"

R: Right.

S: "So if you believe in anything Randi has to say and he's against God..."

E: Talk about a false dichotomy.

S: Then she tries to say that Randi is against science, that if Randi were there nit-picking at scientists, that would impede the progress of science. Well guess what? There are skeptics and people like Randi constantly at work within the field of science.

R: Exactly.

S: That's how science progresses.

R: Right, so Randi is doing science.

S: It progresses by being as skeptical as possible, absolutely. So Sylvia proves she doesn't understand the first thing about science, or she doesn't care.

R: Or she understands, and would rather—yeah.

S: She doesn't care. You never know if she believes anything that she's saying.

R: I hate her so much. (laughs)

J: God, Rebecca.

S: She—this is the downward spiral for her.

B: I don't know.

S: Unfortunately, she may survive this. I mean she may survive this in her trade; all people need is plausible deniability. People who want to believe in her, all they need is for her to make some vacuous statement like that, and that's enough for them.

R: Well you know, we've seen Randi over and over again destroy people, like Peter Popoff, and then they go away and their followers find someone else just like them to believe in, and then maybe they come back a few years later with a new spiel, and attract a whole new following. So—

S: Randi says "They're unsinkable rubber-duckies"—

R: Right.

S: —they always bounce back.

R: But this is a huge blow to her. This is probably one of the biggest things she's ever done.

B: Right; it's unusual to have such a high-profile blow against a psychic. It is unusual, and unfortunately my psychic prediction is that she will survive this, and—but what does that say about psychics in general; that they could potentially survive such a nasty blow? I mean, everybody's dissing her left and right.

S: I don't think it says as much about them as the people who believe in them.

B: Absolutely.

S: But I know what you're saying.

B: So what would it take? What would it take to really—

S: Nothing. I mean, I don't think there's anything that could do it.

R: Well I'll tell you—here is what it's good for. First of all, there are a lot of fence-sitters that have previously thought "oh, well maybe there's something to that", that are now seeing that she is a fraud. You're not gonna convince the true-believers—

S: Yes.

R: —but there are people out there who are on the fence who you will win over. And second of all, we can continue to combat it by teaching kids from a young age—

B: Right.

R: —showing them "this is all crap". You know—

B: That's what needs to be done.

R: This is all about building a world where people like Sylvia Browne cannot exist, and it's a piece of the puzzle, and it might be a small piece, but every piece is worth it. And we have Randi and Robert, and a ton of other really great skeptics doing awesome work to thank for this.

J: Do you notice she didn't apologise to the parents or anyone?

S: That's a good point, Jay; there was no apology in there.

R: Yeah.

S: You're absolutely right. I mean, somebody with any kind of class would have apologised for getting it wrong. She's just making apologies for herself. So what she's basically saying is "I got it wrong; you can't be 100%, you know, you can get it wrong" but she's sitting there—

R: "Whoops, my bad."

S: —speaking with utter confidence. She's not saying "I'm not certain about this; this is the probability of me being right", you know, sometimes like... doctors aren't right all the time either, but I tell my patients—I try to give them a good sense of how certain or uncertain I am about things.

R: Right.

S: And that's sort of the standard. But she—there was no equivocation on her part: "I see this; I know this; this is the way it is". Totally unequivocal. The second thing is, it's a completely lame defense. It's like saying "I can predict the sex of an unborn child, and if you give me $500, I'll tell you what kind of child—what the sex of your child is going to be. And, in fact, I'll also give you a money-back guarantee if I'm wrong."

R: Yeah.

E: (laughs)

R: Well, you know that there is a company doing that.

S: Yes.

R: I blogged[2] about them last month, I think. It's a really good scam, we can talk about it another time.

S: (laughing) It's a great scam.

E: It is a good scam.

S: Right. It's like—it's what they call a "rainmaker scam". They promise you something that may happen anyway. If it happens, they take credit for it; if they don't, meh. You know, just keep waiting or whatever, or something went wrong. Can't be right 100% of the time. But her hit rate is about what you'd expect from a lame cold reader, basically.

E: Lame. She's no Banachek.

J: And her jab at Randi is that, you know, he basically is a... he's against science; he's against moving forward; he's against rational thought. What was that bit again, Rebecca? What did she say bad about him?

R: I—I had to close it; I can't even look at it any more. I'm sorry.


R: She said that if scientists had a 'Randi' around to criticize them, we wouldn't have made great advances in technology and medicine. Which is just utter BS.

S: We've gotten that too, you know, and usually, that's followed up by a comparison of ones' self to Galileo.

R: Yeah.

S: Which, whenever anyone compares themselves to Galileo, you know they're a crank. Right?


R: Galileo or Jesus; that's the way to identify a crank.

E: Yeah, right? Oh!

S: What do they say? Or Einsteins—you remember that email, like around the turn of the millennium, there was that guy spamming emails about how he out-performs Einstein, and he figured out time and space and all of this.

J: Right.

B: Yep.

R: Yeah.

E: Neal Adams.

S: But then when the world didn't end on January 1st, 2000, I emailed him, just to see if he would respond. I said "Well, have you revised your predictions for the end of the world?" And never heard from him since.

R: Maybe he died.

E: Maybe he was like a Heaven's Gate-kind of person who decided, "Well, it didn't happen to everyone, it might as well happen to me"

S: Right.

E: "And off I go."

S: Uri Geller also took a hit. This was something else that was announced at TAM5. Randi talked about the fact that Uri Geller... he has that television show in Israel where he is looking for his, quote-unquote, "successor", or "heir". And these are basically young magicians who are pretending to do the same tricks that Uri Geller does, and they're essentially coached not to say whether or not what they're doing is prestidigitation, or simple tricks, or whether or not they're mystical and magical. But we discussed this with Randi himself, and you'll hear more about this later on in this episode during the interview with Randi. But it was nice to see yet another sort of iconic con artist taking a hit recently.

Tom Cruise: Christ of Scientology (19:47)[edit]

S: So now, the latest thing to come out of the church of Scientology, is that Tom Cruise—you know, I'm sure most people know who Tom Cruise is. Jay's favorite person. According to the leaders, quote-unquote, "leaders" of Scientology, has been chosen to spread the word of his faith throughout the world. And he is being likened to none other than Jesus Christ. So he is to Scientology what Jesus was to Christianity.

J: Imagine that!

R: Huh.

J: You know what-

R: Jay, what do you make of that?

J: I can tell you right now, Jesus probably had two feet on Tom Cruise. 'Cause everybody knows the guy's a midget to begin with.

R: True.

J: Can you imagine? You know, all kidding aside. Tom Cruise, leader of the church of Scientology. Pretty much, right? Like, the figurehead.

R: I think it's a match made in Heaven, yeah

S: Yeah

J: How insanely pathetic can this guy get beyond that right there? That's it, he's hit—that is an all-time low. You can't get any lower than being heralded as the Jesus of Scientology in my book.

S: The messiah of some pathetic cult.

R: If he's the Jesus, though, does that mean we can beat the snot out of him and nail him to a cross?


S: You're saying he has to be martyred at some point?

R: That's not a threat or anything... Well yeah, if you looked at the Jesus myth, that's what happened first, right? Before the whole rising from the dead thing.

S: All messiahs get martyred at some point.

J: They also mentioned in that article that future generations will look back on this and Tom Cruise will be really thought of as an iconic figure for the church. And that's true, yeah; he will be looked on as an iconic figure by, like, the three people who were left in the church of Scientology at the time.

S: Yeah, it depends on how big the religion is at that point in time. It's kind of like Joseph Smith to the Mormons. He was just some nut-case, you know, whatever, who made up the story about finding those golden tablets. No different from L. Ron Hubbard, really.

R: (Singing tune from South Park's Scientology episode) Dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb.

S: And now, he's an iconic figure in a major religion. That's what time does, unfortunately.

J: That's perfect, though. The religion was created by a crappy science-fiction writer. And now the leader of the church, the figurehead, is a crappy actor.

S: Yeah, I guess it kind of—there's some symmetry there, I guess.

J: All makes sense to me.

Questions and Emails (22:05)[edit]

S: Well let's go on and read a few emails before we start the first of our interviews.

If Rebecca Ate Meat (22:09)[edit]

S: First email comes from Elizabeth Rawls, from Oakland, California. And Elizabeth writes:

Hi Guys! I really enjoyed meeting all of you at TAM 5.

S: So this is the Elizabeth that we spoke of before, and she writes:

Steve, I thoroughly enjoyed your talk on Sunday and I can't wait to hear those interviews you all recorded. You may remember me as the fan-girl who sat with the guys on the shuttle to the airport and that chance to chat with you was the perfect way to end the best weekend of my life.

B: Wow.

R: Whoa.

As for Rebecca, I'm so glad I got to meet you and my suspicions were confirmed: We do look eerily similar.

R: It's true.

I kept saying that I am the version of Rebecca that eats meat. When someone sends me the photo of us together, I will pass it on. I imagine Perry will find it amusing that a carnivorous Rebecca doppelganger lives in California.
Thanks again, and I love you all.

R: Perry's gonna start lobbying to get her on the podcast to replace me.

S: Yeah, be careful.

B: Ha-haa

R: (laughs)

J: Steve, did you tell Perry about her? Did anyone—

S: I've not had a chance to chat with Perry about it yet, but—so, I just wanted to say—give a shout-out to Elizabeth; it was fun meeting you and all the other listeners out in California.

R: I wanna say that Elizabeth is... is a very good example of exactly the sort of people we're trying to target. She's young, and excited, and she wasn't that into the skeptical... thing, the skeptical community, until she really started listening to our podcast, and then coming out to TAM, she looked like she was having a blast.

S: Yeah.

R: I guess she was; she said "the best week of her life". And, you know, meeting Elizabeth was one of the highlights of my weekend, because that's exactly what we wanna see is more people getting enthused about skepticism and critical thinking. It was such a fantastic weekend because of that.

S: Yeah, you basically have somebody who's young, and smart, but perhaps undifferentiated in their world view. And we show them that science and skepticism can be really fun and interesting, and is a really sort of empowering way to approach life. And so meeting people like that, for us, that's gold. I mean, that's what makes all our time and effort worth it.

R: Yeah, not that it was just us that did it, but I think that there's a culture that—

S: Yes it was! No, it was 100% us.

R: (laughs)

S: Maybe there were some other contributors out there.

R: Yeah, maybe.

E: Yeah, I didn't see anyone else—I didn't see any other skeptics sitting on the bus with her. Teller wasn't there, exactly... changing her ways.


E: It was us.

J: I want everybody to know that you had fun meeting us; we had fun meeting all of you guys.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

E: Oh yeah.

S: Rebecca, she really does look a lot like you. In fact, on Thursday night, when you were in your poker tournament, I saw her from across the room and for a couple of seconds, I thought she was you.

R: (laughs)

S: Until I got like a really good look at her.

R: I think it's mostly the glasses.

S: Yeah, yeah; you're right.

R: She's got the same glasses. But yeah, it is a little eerie.

J: Well good for Elizabeth, right?


E: Hi, Elizabeth. Thanks for listening.

Terminal Velocity (25:02)[edit]

S: So let's just do one more email, since we wanna reserve a lot of time for the interviews this episode, and we have our usual "Science or Fiction" and puzzle at the end. This one comes from Carl Lyndon, from the United States, and he writes:

Hello, I love the show.

In show #77[link needed] someone mentioned that the feeling of weightlessness disappears after a few seconds, implying that one gets accustomed to weightlessness very quickly.
As a skydiver, I've noticed the same thing, but I have attributed this to the fact that it only takes a few seconds to achieve terminal velocity, at which point you're not in true free-fall and thus not weightless. You're only weightless when you're accelerating at 7 ft per second/second. At terminal velocity you're no longer accelerating, but rather speeding along at a uniform rate (unless you do a barrel roll or something like that)

I would say that after a few seconds your situation is closer to resting on a cushion of air. Does this sound correct?

S: He goes on to ask another question which we're not going to get to right now, then he finishes up:

Anyway, thanks again for a great pod-cast; you're doing a great service, Carl.

S: Thanks as always; Carl, we love getting these great emails. And Carl—a couple other people, other than Carl, wrote in essentially the same thing. I think we had about three emails making the same point. And you're all absolutely correct. We checked into this just to make sure that we had all of our facts lined up. Basically, some of the confusion may come from the use of the term "free-fall", because in a physics point of view, free-fall is a situation in which the only force that's acting upon you is gravity; there's no opposing force or any other forces acting on you. So you could be in orbit, or you could be, you know, falling through a vacuum. Any of those situations could be considered free-fall. When you're falling in a sky-diving situation, terminologically that's also called, quote-unquote, "free-fall", but the term free-fall in sky-diving just means you're not using—you don't have a parachute deployed at the moment, so you're just falling through the air. So those two terms mean different things depending on the context, and that causes some confusion. But basically there's air resistance, and the force of the air pushes up against you, and that's an opposing force, which means you're technically not in "free-fall", the physics term. In fact, the moment you start falling you're getting increasing air resistance, and therefore you're less and less in a true free-fall state until you approach, you know, depending on aerodynamics, after really only a few seconds, like maybe eight seconds, you get pretty close to terminal velocity. And then it is like you're resting on a cushion of air. In fact, did you guys ever see these wind tunnels where they basically have a really strong fan pointing upwards?

E: Yeah.

S: And you could be essentially hovering—

R: Yeah, those look like fun.

S: Yeah, you hover above it.

B: Man, I would love to do that.

E: It looks like fun.

R: They have them in Vegas actually, and I was thinking of going. But I didn't have enough time.

S: It's basically the same thing, being at terminal velocity when you're falling out of a plane. So, thanks for the correction; we always appreciate it.

TAM5 Interviews Part I (27:57)[edit]

S: And now, let's move on to our—the first of our TAM5 interviews. This week, we are going to include highlights from our interview with James Randi and Todd Robins was sitting in with us on that interview. We're also going to include Hal Bidlack, who was the Master of Ceremonies for TAM5. And then we'll finish up with Eugenie Scott, so here they are.


James Randi and fellow magician Todd Robbins (28:30)[edit]

S: Well, we are joined by the man himself, James "The Amazing" Randi. And Randi, it's wonderful to be at TAM5. So how's the meeting been going from your perspective?

JR: Oh, very well. First of all, we've over 800 registrations—

TR: It's a beautiful thing.

JR: —which is an all-time record.

S: Great.

TR: That's a beautiful thing.

JR: Yeah, mostly to see Todd, I bet.

R: Oh yeah.

TR: Of course.

JR: But, some of—maybe a couple this evening. No, it's very edifying, you know? And very satisfying that people have come from across the world; literally, all across the world in order to be here. And, boy, some of the adventures they had to go through just to get here, I wouldn't do that to see me!


R: Well, you see yourself every day.

TR: True. I think what's special about this TAM, is there is a sense of growth about it. And also, the word is out that you're gonna be doing a guest spot in Thunder Down Under, the strip show down the way here.

R: (laughs)

JR: Oh, you shouldn't have told them about that.

R: And can I say that they must have seen the Skepdude calendar, and that's why they...

JR: Very true, very true.

R: Yeah (laughs)

JR: No, it's very satisfying, and I'm very happy that so many people—so many talented people, including Todd, who came in at the last minute, more or less.

TR: Yes. Yeah.

JR: He found himself in Las Vegas— "I found myself in Las Vegas, it was very..." So we're very grateful for all of these people who volunteer their talents and their knowledge.

S: Mm-hmm. And there's been some, coincidentally, some nice press—

JR: Yes!

S: —convergence on this. Two things: one is the update on the James Randi million dollar psychic challenge—

JR: Yes.

S: —which you talked about earlier. So give us the—we've talked about it with Jeff Wagg, actually,[link needed] but if you just, in your own words, tell us—what's the vital change that you're making?

JR: Well, very briefly, we're not leaving it open to every Tom, Dick and Harry, because we waste our time with these people. These are people who don't know how to make a claim. They don't know what they think they can do. They're... honest but deluded, and we get the reputation of only attacking the easy targets. So we're going to do two things from now on. First of all we're changing the qualifications; people have to have some sort of a media presence. That means a television program, or some major article—newspaper article or whatever—has to be done about them, or they've got to be mentioned in a book. The second thing is they have to have some sort of academic support too; that is, some dunderhead of a scientist someplace has said "oh yes, this must be real because I'm a Ph.D., and no one can fool me". And we abound in people like this, of course. so those two things are the changes in qualifications. We also will be challenging people directly. We're going after Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne—you may have heard of her.

S: Yeah, I think so.

JR: And, of course James Van Praagh and John Edward. We're going after them as our first four targets, and we're going to nominate them on April 1st as the people that we demand answers from. And it's gonna last for six months. If they haven't answered this in six months, then we write them off and simply say that these are not people of good faith; they aren't willing to come forward and be tested. We already knew that, but—

S: Yes.

JR: This is gonna be official this time. And we'll just drag up another roster of people we can shoot at.

TR: Yeah.

JR: Have you heard, by the way, about what's happened to Geller lately? Because he's coming down the pike too. He's had some real come-uppances.

TR: There was a whole backlash in Israel about something he—

JR: Yes! The whole press; all of the media are against him, and they're calling him a liar, a cheat, a charlatan, a fake—

R: Wow

JR: —and a member of the Israeli parliament has asked them to investigate him for being a disgrace to the country of Israel—to the land of Israel—by lying on television.

All: Ooooh!

TR: How did they come upon that?

R: There was a YouTube clip floating around[3].

JR: Yes, now the interesting thing about that YouTube clip is... if you haven't seen it, or have you seen it?

TR: No, I haven't seen it.

JR: Well, I'll act it out for you, you'll see what I'm meaning here. This doesn't work too well on audio.

R: No.

JR: But he waves his hands—

TR: Excuse me, if Edgar Bergen can do ventriloquism—


TR: —you can do spoon bending on the radio, OK?


JR: That's true. He waves his hands around over a compass, OK? A big marine compass, but he does it too much. Me thinks he doth protest too much. He waves his hands over it, as if to say "be sure that nothing is moving, but my hands are moving over it; it's perfectly still, right?", Then there's a pause, and you see him do this sort of thing with his right hand; he appears to press something onto his left thumb. Then he brings his hands apart and he's concealing the left thumb. But when he puts his left hand out and waves it over the compass, it goes crazy.

TR: That's interesting.

R: (sarcastic) I wonder what that could be.

TR: He may have sprained his thumb.

JR: Something like that.

TR: He was just massaging it.

JR: A disability of some kind, yes.

R: That must be it.

JR: Now, this was caught—

TR: But, you know, he's dealing with science, and science is never reliable.


R: Science can be wrong.

JR: Now, he did this, and then it showed up on YouTube, as well as the Israeli television channel; they have to run things for two weeks after they go on air. So it was on both of them, but it suddenly disappeared from YouTube. And YouTube, when asked, said that Geller and the producers had asked that it be withdrawn. But then the producers withdrew it for a couple of hours, and had to put it right back on again because, since they're partially supported by the government, subsidised—

TR: Ah-ha.

JR: —they have to keep it up for two weeks. Well, guess who made a couple of copies of the video?

S: I wonder.


JR: I distributed it all over the world in a big hurry.

R: Oh, you scamp!

JR: Yes. But everybody, everybody on the globe now has a copy of this, and Geller has been very silent. Well, the Israeli society of magicians—their president, who I met some years ago, very nice lady, I thought, but now she has come out on Geller's side, and she wants the contestants on the programme—on the Israeli programme—not to say that they're magicians, or that they're not magicians. But they mention the Kabbalah all the time, and Indian mysticism and such, which really gives you a hint that maybe they're making... moves in that direction—

TR: Yeah.

JR: —of being supernatural. And the magicians themselves are young kids. They don't know what to do; they're following her instructions. And the magicians are rebelling, all over Israel, about that, and I think they're gonna can her.

All: Yeah.

R: Good for them.

JR: I think it would be a good move if they would, because she's not representing magic. We don't... Todd, it's true, isn't it? We don't lie to people. We don't lie to them. We can deceive them—

TR: Sure.

JR: —but we don't tell them falsehoods that are gonna change their way of thinking about the world.

TR: And there is a very big difference.

JR: Absolutely.

TR: There is—at the end of the performance, you know it's a performance.

JR: And my question always is: if I am going to be contacted by the spirit of my dead father-in-law through John Edward, why would the spirit whisper to John Edward "My name starts with 'M' or 'B'". What kind of a game is this?

S: My theory is that they can't speak, so they're playing charades.

JR: Ah.


S: And Edward's there saying—

R&S: Sounds like…

R: Wait, it's a television show.

S: Two syllables.

JR: I think you got it. I think you got it, yeah. Well, I've recovered through medical science with not one damn magnet; no acupuncture, no homeopathy, and my chakras stay unadjusted.

S: No therapeutic touching?

JR: Well, maybe a little bit of that.


R: Ah.

JR: But that's a different story altogether. Different subject.


TR: But leeches! Now, leeches, I gotta tell you; leeches, now they;&mdash


JR: You mean lawyers?


TR: Redundant.

JR: No, there are so many things we can wonder at, and so many things we can celebrate. Look at any of the pictures that Phil Plait will show you from the Hubble telescope.

R: Yeah.

TR: It's glorious.

JR: Doesn't it give you a chill? Just, oooh!

TR: They should end every news service, every news broadcast with just one of those photos, just to let—instead of the (in a stern voice) "Good night, and god bless", and all this crap; just look at that and go "man, we've got a lot to do".

R: Yeah

TR: "We've got a lot to do".

JR: And just a simple statement, like "the light from these stars has been travelling for 120 million years before it entered the Hubble Space Telescope and registered on a digital display. What you're seeing is 120 million years old; it's not yesterday."

S: Right.

TR: It's humbling, and that's the problem.

R: It is. Yeah.

TR: That's the problem

JR: Yeah, 'cause I take kids out sometimes at night—if I take my telescope out for any good reason—looking at something or other, or a launch or whatever. And the kids stop by and I'll talk to them and say, "Look up at the moon. You're not seeing it as it is right now"

"What do you mean?"
"Well, you're seeing it one and a half seconds ago. Now when you look at the sun during the day, you're seeing it eight and a half minutes ago"
and they say "yeah?"
"And light that comes from those luminary bodies—it goes at 186,000 miles every second" and you can see them go "whoa". Because teachers haven't taught them this!

S: Yeah.

R: Right.

JR: Why should they know it from me; they should know it from teachers.

TR: Weeeell. But Jesus doesn't want us to know this.

JR: I keep forgetting. But he keeps me straightened out.

TR: I do what I can.

R: Let's be fair; there are some really great science teachers out there that are—

JR&TR: Oh, there are.

JR: And I had some; Oh, did I have some.

TR: And they're fighting an uphill battle.

(general agreement)

R: A lot of them are in that audience right now.

JR: We have given awards from the James Randi Educational Foundation to a couple of them who came out particularly loudly. And you know, some of the schools where they teach—in Florida particularly—they get—and as I did after one of my lectures at a high school in Florida, oh, a couple of years ago. I had a raft of parents come to me at the hotel, almost... well, when I'm speaking on campus now, people say "where are you speaking?", and I say "well, it's at night, so just look for the glow of the torches—

R: Right. Pitchforks. (laughs)

JR: —and the pitchforks, and the scythes and such, and people going "Aargh!", and you'll find it very easily. But during the day, they don't make that kind of noise, and they don't have the pitchforks, usually. But these people showed up at my hotel with their lawyer, saying that they insisted that I and the high school principal talk together, and I gladly joined the parade, and I went over to the high school, right across the street. And, by golly, we were going to see the principal, and the principal just laid down the law to them, and said "no, this is a legitimate lecture; he knows his subject and he came here to educate the students", because at the end of my talk, the usual question: a young girl stood up and said "Do you believe in God, Mr. Randi?", I said, "Which god? Thor? No, Loki? Maybe, and Minerva is my favorite"

R: She's a cutie.

JR: "Oh no, no, I mean the God"

"Oh, oh, you mean, what was his name? Jehova?"
"Yes, yes"
"Oh, well, there are so many different varieties."
"No, no, the one God, the—"
"Oh, you mean the creator of the world and the universe?"
"Yes, yes."
"I see, well there are many of those too. Don't you realise there are hundreds of them out there. Which one do you believe in?"
"Well, I'm a Catholic."
and I say "Oh, I see, different from the Protestants."
"No, no, we believe in the same god."
"Oh no, they are the god of Abraham, but there are several varieties to that too." And of course then they're overwhelmed; they usually sit down at that point. Then a teacher stood up and she looked at me, and she pointed and she said, "Mr. Randi, one of these days, you're going to be standing before the throne of God almighty, and he will look down at you and he will gesture to you, and point you down to hell, and the devil will come and take you. They'll take you on the end of the pitchfork."

R: (laughs)

JR: This is nice. This is a Christian talking; nice people, and "on the end of the pitchfork and he will march you down to hell where you will burn in torment forever after". And the audience cheered. She believed it literally; the pitchfork, the torment forever and the— I don't believe that. I hate to add that; I know that destroys your faith in me, but... Yeah, the religion thing is something that... all of my life, my story as a skeptic is, I spoke with my colleague Andrew Harter, a few years ago, and he was sitting in my office, and I just got this bug and I asked him, "Andrew, have you always been a skeptic?", and he looked at me straight and he said "Yeah, I guess so. I remember when I was a little kid that I doubted all this sort of thing. How about you?" and I said "Yes, I do remember as a little kid. The first thing that really got my attention—I was probably five or six or so—a very small kid. The Santa Claus thing; they tried to sell that to me, and I was like, oh, the equivalent of 'get out of here'; you know, that you say at five or six years of age, and I looked at my parents very strangely from that moment on; for the rest of their lives I looked at them very strangely. And when they eventually admitted to me that Santa Claus was a myth, I said 'yeah? so?' and they were disappointed that I had already thought that way."

S: Right, right.

JR: I never had a moment when I believed all the crappiola. Really, never had a moment—or never had a moment when I doubted my skepticism. Matter of fact, I have a way of greeting skeptics—when I was in Copenhagen, a couple of years back, and a fella came running through the traffic and said "Oh, you must be James Randi!"; shook me by the hand, and I said "Yes, I am", he said "I'm a skeptic too", and I looked him up and down and said "I doubt that".

R: (laughs)

JR: You've got to stay in character.

TR: Of course, of course. Consistency is what it's all about.

(distant applause)

JR: Oh, Wiseman's up there.

R: Ah, Richard Wiseman's up there.

JR: What a delight he is.

S: He's a brilliant guy.

JR: I have to step out of this, anyway.

R: Yeah, I'd better go.

JR: I'd better go attend to business.

R: Richard will never let us hear the end of it.

JR: Thank you for having me on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: Thank you so much for your time, Randi; always a pleasure.

R: Thank you, Todd for joining us.

TR: Thank you, I appreciate it.

S: All right, take care.

R: Take care.


Hal Bidlack - Master of Ceremonies at TAM5 (42:07)[edit]

S: Well, Hal Bidlack is with us; he took some time out of his extremely busy schedule as Master of Ceremonies for TAM5 to chat with us for a few minutes. Hal, thanks for joining us.

HB: Oh, my pleasure. Absolutely.

S: So how's it going out there?

HB: Well, it seems to be going well; the speakers are great as always; the crowd is great. It's one of the things about TAM, is that we get great speakers, but the audience is equally qualified; equally spectacular. There are people out there who can talk about working with Oppenheimer, people who can talk about writing the first "right to die" law in the country that became such an important foundation legally in this country. It's an amazing group of folks.

S: How long have you been a skeptic? I've been asking that question of everybody we talked to today.

HB: Well, I'm 48, so 48 years and a day.

S: So, just as long as you remember.

HB: Or not at all, I mean.

S: There was no conversion for you; this was just your world view?

HB: No, it was... you know, logic, evidence and reason have always been pretty good mantras to me. I'm kind of an odd duck in the JREF in that I'm a Deist, I'm not an atheist. But it just has always seemed reasonable to me to look for evidence for things, and I don't quite understand why that wouldn't be the normal view for most people, frankly.

S: Yeah.

HB: But... Really, what's neat about it is it's the same kind of thing a lot of people find in TAM, which is that they're not quite sure what it is they want to experience; they're not quite sure what the voice is. And they'll hear Randi, or they'll see Mythbusters, or hear Julia, or Peter on his radio show, and they'll say "well, there's something about that that resonates"

S: Yeah.

HB: And then, so often they feel alone so much, out among the "norms"; you know, the regular folks who may not think as critically as others, and then they come here. And the term I use is it's "nerd-vana".

J: Yeah

HB: Because it's—you belong!

B: That's a good one.

HB: Well, I'm stealing it from someone I choose not to give credit to.


HB: But it's one of those situations where you... you find yourself among friends that you've—been your friends for 30 years, but you just met them yesterday.

J: Yep.

S: Right, but you didn't realise it. Out of interest, what's your day job?

HB: I actually just retired; I spent 25 years as an Air Force officer; I was a finger-on-the-button missile guy; I taught at the Air Force Academy; I worked at the White House; the State Department, and for most of that time I taught political science at the Air Force Academy, and was a cop. So the last couple of years, I did that and then I retired on the 1st of September, and now I'm doing the solid thing; it's my part-time job where I perform around the country as Alexander Hamilton.

S: Yeah.

HB: And I'm doing that kind of full-time; writing a book about him—

J: Wow.

HB: Flying around and getting people to pay me to pretend to be a dead guy.

E: That's great.

J: Overall, so you were in the military—you said 25 years?

HB: 25 years, four months, ten days. They give you a very exact print-out on your last day.

J: If you were to summarize the quality of the science in the military—I mean the quality of skeptical thinking, or rational thinking, with people that are in the military, how would you summarize that?

HB: I think, like with any organisation, it varies tremendously. My doctorate is in environmental politics, environmental security, and I've worked on that quite a bit. And the Air Force, for example, is exceptionally advanced on that. There were, at one time, when I was dealing with this, 1,400 full-time professionals dealing with environmental issues with the Air Force, which is more than Monsanto has.

S: Right.

HB: At least, I think, I'm sorry if a Monsanto executive is listening. I think that's right. Don't sue me.

S: We'll hear if they do.

HB: Absolutely, absolutely. Well if I'm wrong, Phil Plait told me to say that.

B: (laughs)

HB: But, uh...

S: He's everybody's butt-boy this week.


HB: He's been mine for five years. Get in line. But, you know, it varies, I spent 25 years as a non-Christian Democrat in the Air Force which, at times, was kind of a lonely view, but the thing that unites the folks in the military for the most part is a deep commitment to the Constitution; a deep commitment to the country, which is not a partisan view. I'm actually in the process of trying to write some op-eds because I want to run for Congress, and one of them is about "patriotism is not a political view". Well, I'm an odd duck; the military background, I was in the Pentagon when the plane hit; I've done a lot of things—

E: Really?

S: You were inside the building when the plane hit?

HB: Yeah, yeah, and so—

E: Wow

J: Did you hear it? Did you hear the crash?

HB: Well, it was a bad day. I actually didn't hear the crash. I ended up involved with some minor things, trying to help out a little bit...

S: You were part of the cover-up then?

HB: Yes, yes. Well actually, on the forum that's been mentioned—this JREF forum there, the folks—and I try to be charitable, because I don't think you do a great deal of good when you demonize your adversaries.

S: Yes.

HB: But on the issue of people who say we faked the Pentagon, I can't be unki—I can't (inaudible)

S: You hate those guys.

HB: I don't hate them; I rage at them.

S: Rage, yeah.

HB: And I held a part of that airplane in my hands, covered in fuel. Any day that involves helping people with head wounds and burns and you hold part of an airplane in your hand... And then someone says that you're either a liar or a dupe; it's kind of obscene. Yeah, a plane hit the airplane. I mean a plane hit the building.

S: Yeah, it is obscene. We still get renewed anger whenever we get emails from people who are—

HB: But the challenge, as you guys know far better than I do in your work, is to recognise that while there's something to be angry at, certainly people who are just entering this and are wondering—as Phil said in his brilliant talk today about the moon hoax—if somebody says the shadows on the moon don't line up, it's reasonable for a thoughtful person to say, "well, why is that?"

S: Mmm.

HB: And the correct response is not, "Well, you're stupid if you don't understand"

S: Yeah, of course.

HB: And even on issues like the Pentagon and 9/11. It's important that we be as open as we can.

J: Well I admit—I don't remember how many months ago it was, I saw the Loose Change video on—

HB: I've not been able to bring myself to watch it, 'cause then I think I'd have to do something awful.

J: So I know I'm a skeptic, professionally, whatever; however you want to classify it—how good of a skeptic I am. But I brought it to the show, and I said, "you know, what's up?" And I was questioning things. I felt it was reasonable that I would question it, and the response I got from everyone on the show was pretty much kind of like "are you kidding? Come on, Jay, what are you—why are you thinking that; why would you even question those types of things?" And I thought about it afterwards, and I thought it was perfectly reasonable for me to ask.

S: Yeah, of course.

HB: Sure.

E: Well, to bring it up as a topic, certainly.

S: I think what happened was... what Loose Change does, what shows like that do is they marshall a ton of factoids—

HB: Absolutely.

S: —that are cherry-picked. They put them together in a very compelling, sort of "wow, isn't this interesting?" and "we can't explain this, and what do you think about this fact?" And too fast to process it, with no real balance. And it's very easy to get overwhelmed, even if you generally know that this is BS...

HB: Sure

S: You still—before you could figure out why there's something wrong with the first fact, they're onto the next interesting fact. I think you were just in that processing period where you're like "I can't take all this in", and it made it seem that there was something there. But I think the difference is, the rest of us had already processed all of it, so it's just our getting Jay up to speed, basically.

HB: And I think skepticism is the framework that you bring to understanding issues; it's not the issue itself.

S: Right. It's a method.

HB: Absolutely, absolutely.

S: You certainly matter to a lot of people here—

HB: Aw, shucks.

S: —and we better let you go before there's an empty stage, and a lot of curious people wondering what's going on.

HB: If people don't get their bad jokes every hour, they get really concerned.

S: That's right. Thanks.

HB: My pleasure.

S: Thanks for taking the time out.

HB: You bet.


Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education (48:55)[edit]

S: We are here now with Genie Scott. Genie, thanks for joining us, taking—

ES: Delighted to be here.

S: Taking a few minutes out of your busy schedule today here at TAM5. We just listened to your excellent lecture.

R: It was fantastic.

ES: (laughs)

S: On, of course, evolution, creationism and the media. And you talked a lot about the challenge of getting our message across with a media who doesn't—who sometimes they get it, but not always. So could you tell us briefly what challenges you've faced on a frequent basis with the media?

ES: Well, you know, I talk to a lot of scientists who are really very nervous about dealing with the media. I mean, they really look at the media as somebody who's out to get 'em, or that they just—they don't think that they're capable of dealing with it.

S: They distrust them.

ES: They distrust them. The media is your friend. I mean, don't be fearful of dealing with the media. But you need to understand what the media are all about, and this is true of print media; this is true of, even more so, it's true in spades of visual media.

S: Mm-hmm.

ES: And radio, of course, is the best medium, right?


ES: As we all know, because it allows you to get so much information across, and the personality comes through as well, so it's even better. But seriously, the thing about American media is that they wanna tell a story, and they also want to be balanced.

S: Mm-hmm.

ES: And the telling a story part should not be offensive to scientists because we learn through stories.

S: Right. Absolutely.

ES: If you're a teacher, you know that your students are going to learn more about whatever it is you're talking about if you have some sort of a narrative. This is one reason why a lot of scientists, when they teach, they give a history of the field. You know, "Well, how was this discovery made?" "Well, a long time ago professor so-and-so was—" and you tell a story—

S: And in medicine we teach cases.

ES: Yeah, and you teach cases!

S: You'll learn a disease much better if you have a case to attach it to; it's a person's story.

ES: I... thank you for that reminder, I'll steal that from you. That's a good example.


R: You owe him a nickel every time you use it

ES: (laughter) Well, I believe in the Groucho Marx school of plagiarism, which is "steal only from the best".

S&B: Right.

ES: So, I'll steal that, Steve. So don't get all upset because they're making a story out of it; just think about it a little bit, and that's easy. The balance thing is something that drives scientists nuts, because—and part of this is we need to educate the media about the difference between a science story and the difference between a policy, or a political or a... social... whatever, and other kinds of non-science stories, OK?

S: An opinion story.

ES: An opinion story, yeah, 'cause that, to me, is the key difference. Most of the work that a non-science reporter is going to be doing is dealing with opinion stories. Most of the time they're going to be saying, "Here, down at the city hall, we have this group saying this, and this group's saying that". And the job properly is to report accurately both of those points of view. And that's the mindset; it's not a bad mindset; work with it. Now, I have no problem with someone coming to a school board meeting and saying "creationist supporter Fred stood up and made these comments—made these points about the new school board policy. And then science supporter Margery stood up and made these points about the new school board policy". That's no problem. Accuracy of reporting is a big part of balance. I mean, I would be really, really upset if one side was presented—the other side was presented accurately, and my side was presented inaccurately. We all would be. So we want them to get the story right. But to me, the bottom line when you're dealing with a science issue—of course the issue I deal with the most is the creation/evolution one—is when you're dealing with an issue that is well-established scientifically, such as evolution. And biological evolution being human ancestry—or excuse me; ancestry of all living things. When you're dealing with an issue that's scientifically settled, like "all creatures have common ancestors", you don't treat it as opinion. You report accurately "these people don't agree; these people say this and that and the other thing". That's perfectly fine. But you really do violence to science if you give that alternate point of view scientific credibility, and that's where I draw the line.

R: Yeah, in your talk you compared it to geocentrism, which I thought was amusing.

ES: Well that's also why I showed those data, showing that... you know, I forget exactly what the number is, but there is, what, about...

S: 25%

ES: 25% of Americans—

R: A frightening amount of people.

ES: —who, you know, really kind of don't know.

S: Yeah, did not answer that question about is the earth or the sun at the center of the solar system.

ES: But you know, that other little bit of data from the Science and Engineering Indicators, talking about the "way of knowing", that science is about testing things and controlling variables. If only—if less than half of Americans—I think it was 43%—were able to say "this is a scientific study, this is not a scientific study", that bodes ill.

S: That's right. And you made the point also—

ES: That's a science education issue.

R: Because one thing is facts, but the other is how we learn, and is what's so lacking in our schools, I think.

S: How we know, not what we know.

R: Yeah, how we learn what we know.

S: Yeah, you made the point in your lecture that science journalists do a better job of reporting science than regular journalists.

ES: That's been my experience.

S: I've heard from several people anecdotally—I don't have any data on this—that a lot of major media outlets are basically getting rid of or phasing out thier science reporters, and they're just turning over science stories to their more general reporters. Have you found that to be true? And do you think this is moving in the wrong direction?

ES: You know, I don't have data on that either. What I do know, is that if you go to the national science writer's association, they're always grumbling and complaining about, you know "we don't get no respect".


ES: But there seem to be a bunch of them, and I think it's... the sort of thing you're talking about, I think, is more a function of the kind of media you're in, and the size of the media. The big papers—your big, regional papers, your national papers, I mean, I would consider the Washington Post and the New York Times to be national newspapers.

R: Yeah

ES: LA Times to be a major regional paper. They will have people who are science-science. But you know, most of the writing that they do is medicine.

S: That's true. Medicine and technology. A lot of science is actually medicine and technology, not really science.

R: Until we get a court case, like you showed on—you have a great graph.

ES: Isn't it interesting?

R: Yeah, showing the big spikes whenever there's a court case, and Dover[4] was huge in that respect, I found it really interesting, a lot of your talk focused on how you guys use media to win at Dover.

ES: Yes, that's right.

R: Can you tell our listeners just a little bit about that? Because I thought that was fascinating.

ES: In... Dover took a year to prepare for. The case came to trial in fall of '05, but we started in fall of '04, that's when the original complaint was written and filed, and then it just took several months for everything to run through. This—everybody knew this was going to be a big trial.

R: Yeah.

ES: Because the issues in the trial did deal with science, because—not to get into a lot of First Amendment law at this point, but in Establishment Clause cases, it's OK to be a little religious in a way, (laughs) but there has to be a secular reason for policy, and of course the argument that the other side was making was that the secular reason is that it's good science.

R: Right.

ES: That "intelligent design is valid science; it's accurate science; it's cutting edge, and therefore... yeah, well OK. So there's these religious, you know, but everything has religious implications, well after all, evolution has religious implications", so that was their argument. So obviously what we had to do—our job was to show that intelligent design was not science; that the only reason for teaching it was to promote a religious view. And so we knew that both sides were going to be heavy on the science. Now, nothing is going to turn a judge who, let's face it, not very many judges were scientists first—

R: Right.

ES: OK? Most of these people are liberal arts background, and that's perfectly fine. Our judge was, I think, a history major (laughs). And so he based—his whole attitude, basically, was "give me more; give me everything you got; lay everything on the table"; he did not want to be a judge that anybody could come back and say "Well, we weren't able to give our full position".

R: And you guys—

ES: This was a six-week trial!

R: And so you gave it to him. I mean, you guys really spelled it out clearly.

ES: That's what we did, and the law firm—which had deep pockets, fortunately—decided to spend a lot of money on visual media, and there was a PowerPoint situation with a data projector set up, and a guy who was—who worked for the firm, and he had all the equipment, and he was able to pull up—I mean, they scanned huge, huge quantities of evidence, and he was able to pull up a letter, say from the school board's lawyer to the school board. And then he would pull out a paragraph from the letter, which was just absolutely damning, and the judge is seeing this on a screen; we in the courtroom are seeing it projected on the wall. And so those kinds of components of a trial, the facts of the case and so forth—those are extremely important. But we were very concerned with this issue about "is intelligent design gonna come across as a valid science?" Because these guys are really good at framing—

S: They're slick.

ES: Really good at rhetoric. And again, the American cultural tendency, which the press reflects—doesn't create—but the American cultural tendency is fairness, and equal-handedness, and let's give everybody the chance to speak, which by and large is very good. You know, I want that in a culture. And like I say, applied to science... not quite the same thing. We do discriminate in science.

S: Right.

ES: We discriminate against the ideas that don't work, so— (laughs)

S: Some theories are actually better than others in science. It's not all just opinion.

ES: Mm-hmm, yup, not just opinions. So we wanted to present the science in a very careful, meticulous way so that a layman could understand—a smart, educated layman&, which is what the judge is—this is all directed to the judge.

S: So have you—you spent all the money to get these great audio-visuals to put a compelling story together; is there any plans to put that into a format that would be accessible to the public?

ES: Yes.

S: Like a DVD or something?

ES: Funny you should mention it.


ES: We're actually working on that now.

R: That's great

ES: And a part of it is we're losing our main IT guy; he's—(sighs) he's going on a leave of absence.

S: They're hard to come by.

ES: There's a group, actually, of good guys that are trying to basically take the transcript—we have the transcript; if you want the transcript of the testimony, our website has it,[5] and you can read along with Minnich; it's great.

R: Yeah.

ES: But what we're trying to do, as we have the slides from the various presenters, is to give you a little multimedia here, so to speak, so that you can look at the slides and read the transcript.

R: Yeah, that would be fantastic.

ES: Yeah, we're working on that. But of course, part of it is that some of the slides are proprietary, and we have to get permission.

S: Yeah, yeah, it's—

ES: So, you know jeez. So that's—we really would like to do that.

R: Let us know as soon as that comes out, because...

S: We'll probably—

R: I want one. (laughs)

ES: We will want to make that as—and we want it on the website so anyone can just go up and snatch it.

S&R: Yeah.

R: That's great.

S: Well, you're doing terrific work, and we apre—your lectures are always wonderful—

ES: Thank you.

S: —and thanks for coming to TAM5.

R: Yeah, thanks so much for making time for us.

ES: I just wish I could stay longer.

S: Yeah, making time for us.

R: Yeah, us too.

ES: Great to see you guys again.

R; Yeah, good to see you too.

ES: We'll meet again.

S: Yeah

R: Thanks so much

E: Thank you, Dr. Scott Thank you.

S: Take care.

Science or Fiction (1:00:30)[edit]


It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts; two genuine, one fictitious, and then I challenge my panel of most excellent skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week. The theme is "Things you didn't know about TAM5 speakers"

J: Oh boy.

R: Uh-oh.

S: There are four items this week. Everyone ready?

J: Ready.

R: Yep.

S: Item number one: "Eugenie Scott wears a wig". Item number two: "Phil Plait has 11 fingernails". Item number three: "John Rennie (laughs) once appeared in a commercial as a leprechaun".


E: God!

S: And item number four: "Richard Wiseman once worked as a trapeze artist".


J: Oh God. Steve, you totally outdid yourself.

E: Top drawer, old man


S: Now, three of those are real. Jay, why don't you go first?

R: Wow.

J: Er... absolutely, I have to hear these again.

S: All right. 'Eugenie Scott wears a wig'; and I mean all the time; when you see her with her hair, that's a wig.

R: (laughs)

S: "Phil Plait has 11 fingernails". "John Rennie once appeared in a commercial as a leprechaun" (giggles) I can't help laughing when I say that.


E: (in a bad Irish accent) Why do you say that?

S: (in a worse Irish accent) Why do you say that?

E: Find me pot of gold.

S: John Rennie is a great guy. He's really—we've had so much fun with him this week.

B: Oh God, John Rennie, he's awesome.

E: He's fun!

S: (giggling) But he's a little vertically challenged, so that's why that's particularly funny. And "Richard Wiseman once worked as a trapeze artist"

R: He's not that short.

E: (still in a bad Irish accent) I tried to steal his pot of gold.


J; Well before I answer—before I give the correct answer, I would like to say that I had so much fun with John; interviewing him was incredible. We had a really good time. He was the kinda guy that I just wished I saw ten times more over the weekend. And we—I think he lives near us, doesn't he, Steve?

S: He lives in New York.

J: Yeah, we have to get together with him. Absolutely. And, the answer is... erm, Phil has 11 fingernails.

S: OK. Bob?

B: (sighs) Wow, I could somehow imagine you finding out about two, three and four; the fingernails, leprechaun, trapeze artist. But the wig one, I'm not sure how that would actually come up, and I think you probably wouldn't even say that if it was true. So I'm gonna go with one.

S: All righty. Evan?

E: Yeah, you know, I was thinking the exact same thing. How do you—how does it come up in conversation that this woman wears a wig? I mean, that's not just... you know, something I think a man discusses with a woman, right? So I'm really tempted to say that—

S: Well, do you wanna know how I got all this information?

E: You asked them.

S: I asked them to tell me something about themselves that is not generally known, and would not be generally believed.

B: Oh, hence your conversation with John. OK.

E: Oh boy, but this is tough.

R: This is hard.

E: I guess I really have to choose something here. Well, we had a good laugh with the John Rennie in the commercial. I think that one's—

B: Ha-haa! It's a good idea, Steve.

E: For some reason, that's—I don't know; poor John.

J: Poor John

E: It's either Scott or Rennie. All right, I'll say John Rennie in a commercial as a leprechaun is false. There you go.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: You know, I have to say that I totally developed a crush on John this weekend—

B: So did I!

R: —and I think he's awesome enough to have appeared in a commercial as a leprechaun. I'm gonna go with Genie Scott. I don't think she wears a wig.

S: All righty. So everyone agrees that Richard Wiseman once worked as a trapeze artist.

J: Absolutely.

S: And that is science, or that's true.


E,B&J: Science!

E: (deep voice) Scientific fact.

S: Interestingly, everyone also agrees that Phil Plait has 11 fingernails.

J: Wait.

B: That's bizarre.

J: I picked that one.

E: Did—Jay said that was the fiction.

S: Oh, you said that was not true. I'm sorry. So Jay thinks that one is not true. Jay, I'm sorry.

E: Apparently it is true.

S: I'm sorry, Jay; that's true. Phil has 11 fingernails. He showed them to me.

B: Explain that, Steve.

R: That's creepy, Phil.

S: He's got two on one finger

B: How?

E: He's a mutant.

S: He's got separated—two fingernails on one finger. Yeah, some kind of bizarre developmental abnormality.

R: He is a mutant.

B: Separated vertically or horizontally?

S: Vertically

R: That's one of Phil's many interesting... anomalies on his body

E: The cosmic rays that have been bombarding his body caused a mutation.

J: I think I need to see a picture of this before... I believe it.

R: (laughs) True skeptic.

S: Everyone but Evan thinks that John Rennie was in a commercial as a leprechaun.

R: We hope

S: And that one... is true

R: Yes!

B: Whoo!

J: Of course that's true.

E: Rats!

R: Oh God. It's great (laughs)

S: Which means that Eugenie Scott does not wear a wig; I made that up.

R: But now you have to tell us: what's the strange thing that Genie Scott said?

B: Probably didn't even ask her.

S: She didn't tell me anything, so that's why I had to make something up. I asked a couple other people, but they never got back to me. Michael Shermer agreed to get back to me, but then never did.

B: I heard you talking to him, and I saw you smiling, and you were like "oh, oh", and Michael's like "yeah, I'll get back to you; I'll think about it."

S: Yeah, that's what that was about.

E: You were gonna accuse him of wearing a wig or being a leprechaun, or mutant fingernails.

S: Well he said, "I was a born-again Christian". I'm like everyone knows that, Michael.

R: Yeah.

S: Yeah, you guys all know that he was a born-again Christian earlier in his life.

(General sounds of agreement)

R: OK. So now I need to ask our faithful listeners to scour YouTube for a clip of John dressed as a leprechaun. I will pay good money—

E: Poor John.

R: I will give a delicious prize to anybody who can come up with that.

J: John knows that we have a sizable audience, and he still gave up that information; he still said it.

R: That's impressive.

J: I like him twice as much as I did 10 minutes ago.

R: Oh man.

B: Steve, how long did you actually laugh when he told you that?

E: Four foot one.


S: You know, I think he's told us that before.

B: No!

S: Because he—

B: That would be burned into my mind

S: When he said that to me, I'm like "that is strangely familiar". Either that, or maybe Steve Mirsky let that one slip.

B: No, I think it's 'cause you had a dream of him dressed as a leprechaun.

S: You think that's what it is? No, it was great; I knew that that was perfect; that I had to use that one when he told me.

B: Yeah.

S: And you know, Wiseman as a trapeze artist; that was—you know, that was a pretty easy one.

J: That's pretty cool, though.

S: I was hoping to get Rebecca—

R: We already knew he was a clown.

S: —'cause Rebecca knows Phil Plait really well.

R: I do.

S: But you didn't know that, so I was hoping that you were going to—

R: Did you specifically ask him for something I wouldn't know?

S: Yes, of course. I told him what it was for; I said "Rebecca can't know it".

R: Yeah, that's... I'm gonna have to yell at him.

S: He was pretty sure you didn't know this, so I thought you would be so confident in your knowledge of Phil Plait that you would go for that one.

R: Well, I was going to add that, like, I'm... I felt like that was the sort of thing that could be true about him, but I was a little saddened that there was something so prominent that I did not know about Phil. Now I do.

E: He's a Libra, too.

R: Well, I knew that.

E: No, I made that up too.

R: He is a Libra[6]

E: No, he's not.

R: OK.

S: Yeah, but Librans don't believe in astrology, so.


E: I'm psychic!

B: Hey, Steve, you know, there's one more person we didn't thank for helping us, and that's our friend Jack.

S: Yes, a long-time friend, and now Skeptics' Guide fan, Jack Chodnicki, his actual name is Jacek, but he often goes by Jack, and he was at TAM5 with us and he basically hung out with us and was our unofficial roadie, if you will.

R: I think there's a picture of him with us at the blackjack table, right?

S: He's also the guy behind most of the photos that you'll see online; he actually took most of those pictures.

E: That's right.

R: Except for the one at the blackjack table, which I took, and I got in trouble for, so...

S: That's right!

R: So everyone had better be appreciative.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:08:49)[edit]

S: Evan, do you want to read last week's puzzle and tell us who won?

E: I've been chomping at the bit to read last week's puzzle and tell you who won. Oh, you mean now?

S: Yes, right now would be nice.


The French and the Germans both agree

And so do Chinese, from 1200 BC
It only takes 10, placed upon 3
Peer through one eye and you will soon see
Designed to impress children as young as three
It dazzles adults, especially those that believe
All it takes is a skeptic to add fabric, you see

The magic disappears, and this trick is history

E: What is it?

S: And the answer is?

J: I have no idea.

E: The answer is... a Ouija board.

S: Yes.

E: Of course. It was guessed actually pretty quickly by Mike on the message boards. He's gotten a couple of puzzles correct.

J: What was the cloth thing?

E: The way you test people to see if they have real powers using a Ouija board—you blindfold them, and that's it. They can't do it. Suddenly the magic disappears. Funny that.

B: That was good, Evan; I had listened to that about five or six times, and nothing tickled my brain on it at all. Very good.

E: Well, I think people are going to have a challenge with this week's puzzle, though.

S: Let's hear it

E: I made this one especially tricky, and I'll be very impressed with the first person who gets this, so here is this week's puzzle:

If an insane person loses power, and decides that the only way to restore the power is to make a list, send it to God, then informs other people of this and apologizes to them for the power failure, what has this person actually experienced?

E: So, chew on that for a while, and good luck.

R: OK.

S: All righty. Thank you, puzzle master Evan.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:10:34)[edit]

S: Well, that's our show for this week; the TAM 5 wrap-up show. All we have left is Bob's skeptical quote of the week.

B: Yes! I have one from Gerry Spence; he's a lawyer and author of How to Argue and Win Every Time. He said:

I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief.

S: Very nice. Very pithy, as we say. Well, guys, thanks again for joining me.

E: Good episode. really good episode.

R: Thank you, Steve.

J; We're still recovering from Vegas though, huh?

E: A little bit.

S: Yeah, we're still recovering; still a little jet-lagged from the time delay. We have to record more often all in the same place, 'cause that was—

B: Yeah, it was—

R: Yeah, that was so much fun.

E: Yeah, we should do that. We should plan on that.

S: We can't wait 18 months until the next TAM, 'til TAM 6.

E: No, no, no, no, no.

B: 18?

S: Yeah, they're gonna do it in June of 2008—

B: (quietly) Oh, shit.

S: —is the scuttlebutt.

E: Is that official yet?

R: I think it's official, but there's going to be a mini-TAM in January.

J: A mini-TAM?

R: A mini-TAM in Fort Lauderdale.

S: Then a full one in Las Vegas.

R: Just for like a one-day thing, or something. Just to hold you over.

S: Just to hold us over. Well, we'll link to any TAM info when it becomes official.

E: Oh yeah.

S: Of course, that will be on the JREF webpage, so most of you probably peruse that website from time to time. Thanks again, everyone, and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • Rebecca and Jay did not meet until TAM5, January 2007, despite working on the podcast together since March 2006
  • The term "free-fall" has two different definitions. The common use is for unassisted falling, such as sky-diving before the parachute is deployed. However, the term is also used in physics to refer to a situation where the only active force is gravity
  • Phil Plait (The Bad Astronomer) has 11 finger nails
  • John Rennie (Editor and Chief of Scientific American) once appeared in a commercial as a leprechaun
  • It took a year for the NCSE to prepare for the Dover trial


  1. YouTube: James Randi on Anderson Cooper 360, (video)
  2. Skepchick: So you want to be a con artist!
  3. JREF channel: James Randi Speaks: The Compass Trick. Randi shows the Geller footage and demonstrates the trick
  4. NCSE: Kitzmiller v. Dover: Intelligent Design on Trial
  5. NCSE: Kitzmiller Trial Transcripts
  6. Phil Plait does claim to be Libran in the Bad Astronomy article What's Your Sign? Astrology and the Zodiac
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