SGU Episode 93

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SGU Episode 93
May 3rd 2007
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 92                      SGU 94

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Science . . . looks skeptically at all claims to knowledge, old and new. It teaches not blind obedience to those in authority but to vigorous debate, and in many respects that's the secret of its success.

Carl Sagan

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

News Items ()[edit]

Philly Shuts Down Psychics ()[edit]


Fire Melts Steel ()[edit]


Woman Hanged as Vampire ()[edit]


Questions and E-mails ()[edit]

Drake Equation ()[edit]

Message: How do you make a dog go 'Meow'?

Get a frozen dog from Alcor and run it through a bandsaw - mmmmeeeoooooowwwww. (Sorry Rebecca)

I really enjoy your podcasts - it's so refreshing to hear American accents that are not preaching but lampooning the fundamentalist right-wing BS that we hear so much of in Australia. Keep up the good work.

I do, however, want to take you to task over a some pseudoscience that you used in Ep 92 - The Drake Equation. I think this piece of nonsense has been masquerading as science for way too long. Sure, it looks like science - a whole string of variables with superscripts and subscripts thrown together with an equals-sign, but science it ain't. While last week's news might help to provide a better estimate for one of the terms in the equation, it still leaves way too many variables (eg 'life', 'intelligent life', 'intellegent life that wants to communicate') that are based purely on guesses, feelings and intuitions, and not on a shred of science. (One such variable would be too many.) I know you didn't make any claims as to the rigor of the equation, but at best it is science fiction. And SGU is better than that.

May the force be with you,

Melbourne, Australia

Drake Equation:

EM Sensitivity ()[edit]

Dear Skeptics,

We have a question about 'EM sensitivity': a supposed condition where electromagnetic radiation causes a wide range of medical symptoms. We are inclined to believe that it's completely psychosomatic, but were wondering if Steve or anyone on the panel has more concrete knowledge about the condition. A couple of relevant links:

From the article:

'Last time someone came to visit,' she warns, 'I started feeling awfully nauseous. It turned out he had a picture phone with him and had left it switched on. A picture phone!'

She pauses, looking genuinely horrified. Apparently, this type of mobile automatically sends signals to a local base station every nine minutes - 'No wonder I felt so sick.'

Everything about this story sets off skeptic alarms, including the article's photo. For one thing, a mesh net like this wouldn't be of any use against microwave radiation, for one. I have heard from other sources, though, that EM sensitivity is a real and testable condition.

Thoughts? We are avid listeners of your show. Thanks for everything!

Tim and Liza Gerla (soft G, like Girl)
Raleigh, NC, USA

More on Hitler ()[edit]

First E-mail:

Hey guys, gal and Perry! I just wanted to follow up on the (ridiculous) argument by 9/11 conspiracy theorists that Hitler burned the Reichstag, so Bush might as well have hijacked the planes.

First off, the Reichstag burned in the night, when nobody was in it. Also, as you can read for example in Sebastian Haffner's account of his youth in Germany up to 1933, the general populace was very aware of what had really happened with the Reichstag; or at least, they knew it wasn't the poor sod the Nazis said who did it. It's just that a mixture of fear and carelessness (and of course people who approved of Hitler's course) was stronger than any anger the people might have felt at some building burning down. Hitler not only burned the thing, but it was also he who instilled the symbolism into it. That was even a matter of some jokes, according to Haffner, of how Hitler didn't respect the Republic at all, but then gets all puffed up when the Reichstag burns.

So this analogy doesn't hold up, no matter where you're coming from. It's simply STUPID.

Patrick Pricken
Essen, Germany

Second E-mail:

I've listened to most all your pod casts since August 2006. I think Rebecca rocks & is funny as hell. I'm not a conspiracy theorists & don't believe that 9-11 was necessarily an intentional security breach. You recently addressed a listener's email on your pod cast who felt you were not doing a very good job de-bunking the 9-11 conspiracy theory. He likened Bush to Hitler & you all just went off on a patting yourself on the back tangent, basically calling him an idiot & discounting anything he had to say because he used the name Hitler.

I think you all missed the point. American's have been lied to by this administration on several major, life/death issues. Please don't take my word for it. ask George Tennant - he's all over NPR saying it himself. The history of America is littered with accounts of citizens being used without their knowledge. Everything from agent orange to intentionally using African Americans to aid in medical research without their consent.

Maybe you should take the chips off your shoulders (especially Perry - he never has his own thoughts anyway, he just gives a hearty OF COURSE! when someone voices an idea). You're all sounding very Republican.

I liked your podcast because it seemed very meets Science Friday. I don't listen to hear you talk about how intellectually superior you are. more debunking & less preening please.


A Dissatisfied Listener
Valentina DaCosta
Clinton, CT

Genetic Drug Followup ()[edit]

Hi guys,

Great show as always. I had a couple of comments:

First, Dr. Novella mentioned that PNAS is a prestigious journal, and the papers are presumably peer-reviewed. Interestingly, this is not always the case. Members of the National Academy can actually publish papers there without peer review, and a substantial fraction of papers there are published through this mechanism. The bacterial flagellum paper was not one of those, but this is an important thing for skeptics to know about PNAS as a journal. IIRC, a lot of the HIV denialist stuff was published there (because of people like Peter Duesberg and Kary Mullis), and there will definitely be more bad science published there in the future. However, the papers are marked as 'Communicated by<member's name>' at the top, so they can be spotted.

Second, a couple of comments about the drug to enhance stop codon read-through. I don't have any specific knowledge of that drug or its biochemical mechanism, but I do have some general knowledge of the read-through phenomenon. You guys weren't entirely clear on why the drug would work better for some diseases than others, and I thought I'd try to clarify that. First, this drug would definitely not be safe at high doses because it would interfere with the functioning of normal stop codons. Even at low doses, you would expect a certain percentage of normal proteins to have abnormal C-terminal tails on them because of read-through, and there's no way the drug could be
tailored to tell the difference between a stop codon that's 'supposed' to be there and one that isn't. So there will be side effects, and they will limit how big of a dose you can give. Knowing that, there is no way this drug could restore a gene containing a nonsense mutation to anything but a small percentage of full functional status.

So if you are homozygous for a hemoglobin gene containing stop codons (I'm not sure if any of the thalassemias fall into that category, but just for sake of argument pretend one of them does), I don't think this is going to work very well, since you need a LOT of hemoglobin gene expression. However, if you have a homozygous nonsense mutation
in a gene for an enzyme, as in the case of inborn errors of metabolism, you might only need the gene to be 2% active to be fully asymptomatic, so in that case the drug might work very well. It's also possible that this drug will work better with some stop codons
than others (there are three: UAA, UAG, UGA), so that might be a factor as well. One last thing is that this drug will most likely work best on recessive mutations (two good copies = healthy, one good copy = healthy carrier, zero good copies = sick). If the nonsense mutation is either dominant negative (two good copies = healthy, one
good copy = sick because truncated protein inhibits the normal protein) or haploinsufficient (two good copies = healthy, one good copy = sick because it isn't quantitatively enough), I wouldn't expect this to work well in that case either.

I will post that explanation on the message board when my account is activated.

Anyway, I love the show--keep up the good work!

Luke Sjulson

Some references:

Interview with Bug Girl ()[edit]

  • Skepchick 'Buggirl' joins us to discuss the bee population decline.

    Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology and works at a Midwestern University

    E-mail in response to my question regarding the bee situation:

    CCD is real - it is a mysterious loss of bees - not normal winter loss, for which we are searching for a plausable explanation. We do not have the 'smoking gun' yet. I just wrote this on our UD losses to a reporter in MD and this might help give an explanation

    We do not have 'the smoking gun' to say what exactly CCD is - the pathogen loads are very heavy in colonies showing the Collapse (that is bees have several pathogens not just single ones for example) but are they cause or effect? (something else weakening the bees and then pathogens finishing them off). We still do not know. In the past we thought such mysterious losses were nutritional but loss patterns were much more limited than this current winter.

    I have been surveying Delmarva beekeepers now for several years. In 2001 spring they had heavy losses and again in 2004 and now in 2007 have about 25% loss rate (heavier than normal and than it should be).

    I was the apiculture professor at U MD for 11 years and have been the same at UD for the past 25 years. This year I had much heavier losses than ever before - I had 12 healthy colonies that I harvested honey from in August, I monitored for mites in August (levels were below threshold (my research has focused on determining mite level thresholds the past few seasons) and yet I had only 1 colony survive this spring. The losses were NOT typical of winter losses but were what we describe as CCD - no dead bees (they were gone!) yet there was honey and stored pollen (their winter feed). I have had winter seasons where I might have lost 25% of the University (MD or UD) colonies I care for but never this heavy a loss in the past and

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Question #1: Anniversary syndrome, the tendency for people to die on the anniversary of a traumatic event, is a well-documented phenomenon. Question #2: The scientific approach used by the Franklin Commission to evaluate the claims of Franz Anton Mesmer was the first time such techniques were used to evaluate a medical therapy. Question #3: Loss of gender recognition is a frequent early manifestation of Alzheimer's type dementia.

Skeptical Puzzle ()[edit]

This Week's Puzzle

This is a guest puzzle this week from Chris Lamb of the UK:

Centuries ago,
A labored magician's trick,
I'm king I had to know,
And sent my wise men quick,
Her hair was not concealed,
They believed but never thought,
And later was revealed,
This fraud was at my fort.

Last Week's Puzzle

It offers plenty of traction, yet barely moves at all
It offers a rosy view, yet may damage your sight
It offers a contrast in style, but don't let your head swell
You'll find your pockets may empty, in more ways than one

What is it?

Answer: Inversion Therapy
Winner: Dorbie and Ian

Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'Science . . . looks skeptically at all claims to knowledge, old and new. It teaches not blind obedience to those in authority but to vigorous debate, and in many respects that's the secret of its success.'Carl Sagan

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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