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, 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 role 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, 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, you guys, did you ever see these wind tunnels where they basically have a really strong fan pointing upwards?

E: Yeah

S: And you essentially hover-

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)

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)

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, most of you have seen 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.


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, came in at the last minute, more or less

TR: Yes

JR: Yeah, he found himself in Las Vegas- I found myself in Las Vegas, it was very nice. 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: -converges 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, that is, some dunderhead of a scientist someplace has said "oh yes, this must be real because I'm a PhD, and no-one can fool me". And we abound in people like this who… 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 James van Praagh, and John Edward. We're going after them for our first four targets, and we're going to nominate them on April 1st as the people 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, 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?

E: 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: (acting dumb) I wonder what that could be.

TR: He may have sprained his thumb

JR: Something like that

TR: He was just massaging it


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


R: Science could 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?


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 it: 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 that?

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

JR: Ah


S: And John 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 touch or anything?

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-


JR: You mean lawyers?


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 120million years before it entered the Hubble space telescope and registered on your display. What you're seeing is 120million years old, it's not yesterday"

S: Yeah right

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

R: 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 the 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 them to know

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

TR: I do what I can

R: Well, to be fair, there are some really great science teachers out there

JR&TR: Oh, there are

JR: And I had some, oh did I have some

TR: And they're fighting an up-hill battle

(general agreement)

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

S: This is true

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 already 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


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 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 principle 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 principle, and the principle 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, she's 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"


JR: Which was 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. And 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 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. As a 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".


JR: You've got to stay in character

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

JR: Oh, Wiseman's up there

R: Ah, Rishard Wiseman's up there

JR: What a delight he is

S: He's a brilliant guy

JR: So, 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, it was a pleasure.

R: Thank you Todd for joining us

TR: Thank you, I appreciate it

S: Alright, take care

R: Take care


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

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 in things, and I don't quite understand why that wouldn't be the normal view for most people, quite frankly.

S: Yeah

HB: But what's neat about it, is what I think 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 "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 might 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… find yourself among friends that you've- have been your friends for 30 years, but you just met them yesterday.

J: Yep

S: 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 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 full-time writing a book about him

B: 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 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

S: We'll hear if they do

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


HB: But, uh…

S: He's everybody's butt-boy, isn't he?


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-

B: 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: Yeah

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 wondering – as Phil said in his brilliant talk today about the moon hoax – if somebody says the shadows on the moon don't add 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 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, and 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 are you even questioning 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 marshal 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 for coming out

HB: My pleasure

S: Thanks for taking the time out

HB: You bet


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.

Today I Learned...

  • 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


  1. 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 Trickl Randi shows the Geller footage, and demonstrates the trick
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