SGU Episode 79

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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)

The rogues report on their amazing time at The Amazing Meeting] 5

S: We are back from Las Vegas and The Amazing 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

J: 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 alwayscool, 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 outrageously good times.

S: Good group of people, it really is.

B: Yeah

R: Yeah. And I have to say that I had a rocking party Saturday night, which a lot of people 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- Yeah, oh yeah.

B: Yep

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

R; I heard competing reports that said it was a cop who 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


S: So our listeners might 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.

J: Ow!

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 podcast, and the next few episodes, the highlights, if you will. But it's too much content to put directly into all of our podcasts-

R: Your mind would be blown

S: So- right, what we're gonna do, for those listeners who can't get enough, is 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 I think this is 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


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 sort 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 go is he great

J: Absolutely

S: -is the executive director of the JREF, and we actually spoke to him last week, if you recall,[link needed] 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, a 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: Thanks, 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, 'cause we have 6 hours of content now that we can- that we're going to sprinkle into the show

E: 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?


J: Mind-blowing

S: Transcendent?

R: Adequate


B: Ha-haa!

E: Great

J: God, I totally feel like I was standing nude in front of an audience


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

Sylvia Browne Dead Wrong Again (8:37)

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

E: Ugh!

S: -is continuing her downward spiral-

E: Yay!

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

R: The media's finally catching 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' (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&E: 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

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, then 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 know 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 she's saying

R: I hate her so much (laughs)

B: 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 every one's dissing them, left and right.

S: I don't think it says as much about them as it does about 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 don't think there's anything that could do it.

R: Well I tell you, this 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 have now seen 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 that we'll win over. And second of all, we can continue to combat it by teaching kids from a young age-

B: Right

R: Telling them "this is all crap", you know

B: That's what needs to be done.

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

J: Did 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. You know, anyone with some amount of class would apologise 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-

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 are not 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 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 I'll also give you a money-back guarantee if I'm wrong."

R: Yeah


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

S: Yes

R: I blogged about them last month, I think.[2] 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 what they call a rain-maker scam. They promise you something that may happen anyway, and if it happens, they take credit for it, and if it doesn'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… 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? Four 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: "Off I go"

S: Uri Geller also took a hit, that 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 or 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)

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.

B: 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 everyone knows the guys 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? He's 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)

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)

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

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

S: So this is the Elizabeth 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

E: Ooh

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

S: Yeah, be careful

B: Ha-haa

R: Trying to replace me


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 someone 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


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)

S: So let's just do one more email.

TAM5 Interviews Part I ( )

James Randi and fellow magician Todd Robbins ( )

Hal Bidlack - Master of Ceremonies at TAM5 ( )

Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education ( )

Science or Fiction ( )

Skeptical 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?

Last Week's Puzzle

The French and the Germans both agree
And so do Chinese, from twelve hundred 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
What is it?

Answer: Ouiji Board

Winner: Mike from the Message Board.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:10:34)

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

E: A little bit

S: Yeah, we're still recovering, still a little jet-lagged with the time delay. So, 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, TAM 6

E: no, no, no, no, no

B: 18?

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

J: (quietly) Aw, shit

S: -as the scuttlebutt-

E: Is that official yet?

R: I think it's official, 'cause 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.


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