SGU Episode 252

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SGU Episode 252
12th May 2010
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 251                      SGU 253

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


M: Massimo Pigliucci

Quote of the Week

Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.

George Bernard Shaw

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, today is Wednesday May 12th, 2010, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hello

S: Rebecca Watson

R: Hellooo

S: Jay Novella

J: Helloooo

S: Evan Bernstein

E: I can't even try to top that, so I'll just let that be.

S: Ok

B: I hate you all

S: And joining us as a special guest rogue this week, Massimo Pigliucci

M: Hello there

S: or Mass-imo, as we like to call him

E: Mass-imo

S: Massimo, you have a unique distinction-

M: Alright!

S: -for our podcast, in that-

R: Just one

S: Just one. If we harken back to June 7th 2005, episode number three, you were our first interview on the show. (see episode 3)

B: Oh, cool

M: I was pretty young that time


B: Weren't we all

S: It was five years ago, yeah

B: Rebecca wasn't even born yet

R: (laughs) Hey


B: Steve, isn't 'unique distinction' redundant?... I'm just saying

S: No

R: He's just saying it before hundreds of listeners have the chance to say.

E: I was going to say, that's for the listeners to decide.

News Items[edit]

Nonsense on Stilts (1:33)[edit]

S: So Massimo, part of the reason you're joining us at this time, is that you have a new book coming out called 'Nonsense on Stilts'. And I believe you said the release date will be May 15th, which is the day this podcast goes up, correct?

M: How did you know the book was coming out? Oh, I told you, right.

S: Yes, you told me


S: You said (desperately) "Please have me on your show so I can plug my book!"

M: That's exactly right. Yes, it's be May 15th, although from what I hear, it is already available on Amazon and people have been ordering it.

J: What's it about?

S: Yeah, tell us about it.

M: Well the phrase 'nonsense on stilts' is actually an old one, it goes back to philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who used it to indicate things that he thought were atrociously idiotic or stupid. So it was not just nonsense, but really, really tall nonsense, nonsense walking on stilts. In particular, however, the book is about the complexity of the landscape that separates science from non-science, from pseudoscience. As you guys know, in philosophy, that's known as the demarcation problem, Karl Popper thought he had a very easy answer to what distinguishes science from pseudoscience: if a hypothesis or statement is falsifiable, then it's science, it's scientific; if it's not falsifiable, it's not scientific. Turns out that that was a little bit too simple, and so the book explores the idea that in fact there is a continuum between things that are definitely and clearly pseudoscience, let's say astrology or intelligent design, things that are clearly and definitely science, let's say fundamental physics, or evolutionary biology. And then the really interesting stuff that is in between, which we don't know what to make of, or it's hard to make up our mind about whether it's science, or to what extent it is science, or not

S: Give me an example of something you think is right in the middle.

M: Well, for instance, at the moment, string theory would be right in the middle. Meaning that it is, as you know, it's fundamental physics, which is supposed to address a major problem in physics, which is the apparent contradictions in some realms of obligation between quantum mechanics and general relativity. Now, those are two of, arguably, the best established theories in science, it's hard to imagine one of them is 'wrong', let alone both. And yet, when applied to certain problems, such as what happens inside black holes, or the very origin of the universe, they tend to give us very different answers. So string theory is one of several attempts that physicists have made over the last three decades or so to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity, and, as it turns out, it's a beautifully developed mathematical theory, it's the mathematical constructions are, which I don't even pretend to understand, are in fact, I'm told, are very nice, very interesting, and very convoluted, except for the little detail that so far at least there is no way to test empirically any of the claims of string theory. So certain theories are compatible with everything we know about physics, but it hasn't made any predictions so far. They are critically untestable, which raises the question: if something, no matter how beautiful it is, if something does not make any critically testable predictions, is it science?

S: Yeah, We've had this discussion before with Michio Kaku. (see episode 182) And I've heard other physicists discuss it. This is something about which theoretical physicists can disagree. The problem that I heard, was not so much that it doesn't make any predictions, that it makes too many predictions, there are so many different formulations of string theory, that even if you disproved one of them, there's a thousand others lined up ready to go. So it can't be constrained, in such a way that it can't be falsified.

M: Right. To some extent actually they're both true. At the moment, at least, the theory in any form doesn't make any predictions outside of what is already known, in other words, it makes a lot of post-predictions

S: Right

M: Right? So it explains a lot of things we already know, but that's true also of other theories in physics, such as the standard model. It is also true that string theory comes in hundreds and hundreds of different forms, in fact, possibly thousands of different forms, so it's really a family of theories. And there doesn't seem to be any way, even in principle, that no matter how good we get in the near future at providing new data, you know, gathering new data in fundamental physics, it doesn't seem possible, conceivable, that we will be able, ever, to discriminate between hundreds or thousands of different versions of the same theory.

S: Right

M: So that seems to be a big problem. Now, it doesn't mean necessarily, of course, that string theory is wrong in any particular sense. In fact, one of the books that famously criticizes the theory, which is by Peter Woit, is a mathematician and physicist, it's entitled 'Not Even Wrong'.

S: Yeah, right.

M: Meaning that we don't know.

S: Yeah we're not even wrong, we're suggesting it's not even a scientific theory.

M: Right

S: You have to be scientific in order to be wrong.

M: That's right

B: Well Brian Greene, I heard a talk by him, and he said it's really not accurate to call it a theory, he refers to it as more of a hypothesis.

M: Yeah, That gets in to interesting- well, I was going to say- I was going to use the word 'self-restraint', but perhaps that's a little unfair. I mean, it gets to 'what is the difference between a theory and a hypothesis?'. Now, in philosophy of science, in theory is a general, broad construct, such as quantum mechanics, for instance. An hypothesis is a specific kind of- either a subset of a theory, or a specific type of predictions that are made from that theory. So, if Greene wants to consider string theory a hypothesis, in that sense that would mean that it's not as comprehensive, and not as much as the ultimate theory of everything that it's supposed to be. But I don't think that's what he meant, I think he meant that's just a conjecture, it's just something that's in the workings. And that is fair, except that, as another critic of string theory pointed out recently, Lee Smolin who wrote a book entitled 'The Trouble with Physics', string theory has been a working hypothesis for about three decades, and the question at this point is fair to ask, you know, how much longer is it gonna be working before it actually produces results that are seriously and critically testable?

S: Right, but I think the counter to that is 'it's just really hard, so what if it takes 100 years, that doesn't mean it's not science. It just means this is intractable given our current our current state of science and we just- we need to wait for further advances before we can really even know if it will pan out as a scientific theory.

M: Fair enough, yes, never say never in science, right?

S: Yeah

M: You can never say 'well, this is definitely the wrong way to go', because then the following week, some smart alec publishes a paper in Nature, and shows that you're wrong.

S: Right.

M: Correct, so that's a good point. But the point that Smolin is making, for instance in his book, I find it interesting, and it really deals more with the sociology of science, not as much with the philosophy of science. And the point is this: string theory has been so successful as an academic endeavour, that so many people are absolutely convinced that the theory is so beautiful that it really ought to be true – which incidentally is an interesting criterion, because it's an aesthetic criteria for science-

S: The argument from elegance

M: That's right, the argument from elegance, right? Which carries a lot of weight with physicists in particular, even though, actually, the history of science shows that a lot of beautiful physical theories have actually been disproved. But never mind that. The thing is, string theory has been so successful as an academic endeavour, that for many, many years, pretty much anybody who wanted to have a serious career in fundamental physics had to be a string theorist. Most of the positions, funded positions, were devoted to hiring string theorists, most of the grant money that was given by, for instance, the National Science Foundation, was going to string theory. So a fair question is to say 'well, yes, it may take you a hundred years, maybe it's a little too early to reach a conclusion, but how about we spread out our bets?'

S: Yeah

M: And fund other approaches, which-

B: Absolutely

S: Yeah, that seems perfectly reasonable. I think we should probably tell our listeners at this time who you are. Now, you've been on our show before, but for those who don't recall, you are actually a professor of philosophy, right? At City University of New York.

M: As of last year, yes

S: Yes, and you are the author of the 'Rationally Speaking' blog, I think you have other guest bloggers there too, but you're the primary one writing for that blog, and also one of the hosts with Julia Galef of the 'Rationally Speaking' podcast.

M: That's correct

S: Which is the official podcast of the New York City Skeptics

M: Yes, and we're having a lot of fun doing it, and pretty soon we're gonna have all of you as guests. One at a time.

S: (laughing) One at a time? Ok

R: Promises, promises


S: I've been listening to it, it's great, I think you're doing a good job

M: Thank you

S: Well let's go on to some other news items, we're gonna actually be coming back to this point on the demarcation problem a little bit later, when we talk about Sam Harris. But first, let's do some other news items

Definition of Siphon (11:11)[edit]

The Guardian: Dictionary definition of 'siphon' has been wrong for nearly a century

S: Did you guys hear that the Oxford English dictionary was wrong, had the wrong definition of the word 'siphon' in it for the last 100 years?

J: I'm outraged

S: Yeah?

E: Non-cromulent

B: How stupid are they?

R: Down with this sort of thing.

S: And-

J: Who dug down and found this one, Steve?

S: -and even worse, pretty much every dictionary consulted, copied, the Oxford English dictionary (OED), so this mistake was basically copied over and over again through most dictionaries. It was discovered by Dr Stephen Hughes, a physics lecturer at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. And- so, the term 'siphon' refers to the notion of siphoning off, or sucking a fluid from one body to another, just like draining some body of water by, you put a tube in there, you get the suction going, and then, once it starts going, it will continue to go. Now, the definition of how it works in the OED, and in most dictionaries, was that it was differences in air pressure, and if you hold the end of the tube below – the one that you want to drain to, below the end that's stuck in the body of water, the differences in pressure will push the fluid along and cause the drainage, which is simply not true.

R: Well, differences in 'atmospheric pressure'-

S: Yeah

R: But there is no difference in atmospheric pressure at such short distance, so it doesn't really make any sense. Actually, when I was in grade school, I learned how siphons worked, and I didn't realise the dictionaries had it incorrect, it's actually just due to gravity. Once you have the fluid going, if you have one end lower than the other, gravity, that's the force at work causing the fluid to flow through the tube, and then that creates suction, right? Cos if the water flowed down the tube and nothing came in to fill it, it would cause a partial, or total, vacuum in its wake. So gravity is the initiating force, and then-

B: Initiating?

S: Gravity's the force that moves the water down

B: Right

R: Sucking, is the initiating force

S: And then it's the resistance to the creation of a vacuum that then draws the water up to continue the process, right? So-

R: The reason why I mentioned- why I clarified atmospheric, that it's not atmospheric pressure, as that's what's in the dictionary, is because it is hydrostatic pressure.

B: Hydrostatic, right

S: Yes

R: So it is a kind of pressure, it's just not atmospheric

S: Yeah, not atmospheric, right, but the OED had atmospheric pressure as the explanation

B: Right, one guy had a great example, because a lot of people are still saying 'well, it's a combination of pressure and gravity, because you've gotta create some pressure differential to get it going, and then gravity takes over. One guys said, all you really need to do is put that tube in the water that's at a higher elevation, fill it with water, put a stopper in it, and then take that stopper, take the end with the stopper, bring it down to the lower container, remove the stopper, bam, you've got your siphon going with no sucking needed to get it started. So that's a great example of how you can get it going, showing that it's purely gravity, it seems-

S: Now, where atmospheric pressure comes in is when you're sucking something up against the gravitational gradient, right? So if you're drinking milk out of a straw, you suck at the high end of the straw that's in your mouth-

R: Well otherwise you'd be rather wet

S: You would be. That creates a vacuum, or partial vacuum, and there, what's pushing the milk up the straw is the atmospheric pressure pushing down on the surface of the milk, which is greater than the pressure inside the straw, because you've just created a partial vacuum. Now there are those who argue that the same thing is at work, the same principle is at work in getting the water to go up the segment of the siphon before it gets over the top, and then gravity pulls it down, and that is actually a legitimate point. So it seems, in reading about this, that there are a number of explanations for what the real driving force is on a siphon, and that can include – there is at least one contribution to – atmospheric pressure, although not the difference between the two ends of the tube, the difference in pressure inside the tube, that pressure gradient goes toward the lower end of the tube and that causes the water to flow. And that is contributed to by the atmospheric pressure on the surface of the water. Now, there are those that claim a siphon will work in a vacuum, although I was unable to find any empirical evidence of that, and several people pointed out that in a perfect vacuum, a liquid would evaporate really quickly, and therefore they're not sure how you could test that. But still there are others who say that the primary force is the tension between the water molecules, that you could treat water like a long piece of string, or a chain that's connected, so that when one end flows down, it pulls the other, it pulls the rest of the chain up, it's pulling the rest of the water up. So here's one way to resolve which of the two forces is more important: atmospheric pressure has a limit, it can only, you know, one atmosphere could only push water up a gravitational gradient about 10m, or 30 or so feet, 34 feet. It turns out that you can't siphon something greater than 10m up. If you have a reasonably sized tube, and you try to siphon, if the uphill component of that side, even if the other end goes below it, if the uphill component is greater than 10m, it won't work. Unless you have a really thin tube. If you have a really thin tube, you can get higher than 10m, because it's thin enough that the cohesion, the tensile strength between water molecules, is enough that, even when you're getting in to essentially negative pressures, you can get higher than what the force of atmospheric pressure can get to. So actually, I think in the final analysis, there's still a little bit of controversy about this, and there are contributions from both the atmospheric pressure and water tension with gravity being the driving force on the down-hill gradient, but what's drawing the water up is a combination of atmospheric pressure and water tension.

E: This is so much more easy to grasp than string theory.


M: So it appears, but don't you think that the real story here is that it took 100 years to figure this out? To find the error?

S: Exactly! I agree, this is kinda like a high-school science kind of mistake, or misconception, but the interesting thing is that it was not discovered for 100 years. Partly because everyone was content to copy the world's authority on the English language, the Oxford English dictionary and that-

B: Argument from authority

R: Yeah, and because everybody who knows what a siphon is, doesn't need to look it up in a dictionary. Everybody who doesn't know-

S&R: -doesn't know

J: Yeah, but how many times did eyes pass over that, right? How may people over the past 100 years had to read that and then re-publish it in another book? A lot of people looked at that, and it just got looked-over for 100 years.

R: And it's a dictionary too, not an encyclopedia, so the people who are editing it aren't scientists, they're editors, they're specialists in the English language

M: Right, but it's still interesting that this thing has been copied so many times. Because, yes, the Oxford, of course, is supposed to be an authoritative source, but that's the point, when you write something, like a new dictionary, you're not supposed to just trust somebody else's sources, no matter how good those sources are supposed to be. I don't think this is limited to dictionaries. I think a lot of stuff, for instance, I see a lot of textbooks in science that just copy freely examples and figures and tables from each other, and then it takes somebody to take a look at it and say 'oh no, wait a minute, that figure is wrong' and it turns out it's been wrong across many years, and across many different textbooks.

S: That's exactly right, in fact I remember reading an essay by Stephen Jay Gould in which he did a little investigation. He found that some majority of science textbooks were using the same very specific examples, which could really only be explained by just outright copying. For example, they compared the size of a hieroglypherium, the first horse, to that of a terrier, a dog. Why would that particular breed, there's no particular reason you would choose that breed as a comparison, but he found like 80% of the textbooks used that example, they must have just copied it forward, and copied it forward. So that's a real problem, it's just really laziness, you know?

Neanderthal Interbreeding (20:45)[edit]

CNN: Neanderthal genome shines light on human evolution

S: Let's go on, Bob, you're gonna tell us about Neanderthal DNA.

B: Yes I will. It now seems clear that, apparently, that modern humans, being the lascivious monkeys that we are, interbred with Neanderthals 50- or 60,000 years ago. Now, we know this not because of some ancient cave painting porn, but because most of us actually have Neanderthal genes in our very DNA.

S: Oh, I was hoping for the ancient cave-painting porn, myself

B: No, still looking for that.

R: I was looking forward to seeing that


B: For the record, "Neander-tal" and "Neander-thal" are both accepted pronunciations, so please don't send emails on that.

S: Yeah

B: So, this landmark scientific achievement, it was recently announced after a four-year effort by scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and universities around the entire world. Now the fact that they could reconstitute 60% of the genome from people that were dead tens of thousands of years is amazing, if you wanna call them people, which I think is appropriate.

S: Sure

B: They did this by first grinding pieces of bone from three separate Neanderthal individuals, and then they had this bone dust, and then you kinda have to wade through all the modern DNA that contaminated it, just from handling, and all the bacterial DNA. I'm sure that that was in there as well, and just to find the Neanderthal DNA. So that was quite a tour de force just to get to that point. Fortunately, ancient DNA chemically degrades in a predictable way, and that allows this software that they've developed to detect it and correct for it. So that's how they were able to put all this together. They then compared this Neanderthal DNA to modern European, Asian, French and Papua New Guinean DNA, and finally they compared the DNA also, and more importantly, to western and southern Africa, individuals from western and southern Africa. And they found that 1-4% of the Neanderthal DNA was part of all this DNA, except the African DNA. So everyone that was European or Asian, or French or from Papua New Guinea, they all had a little bit of Neanderthal DNA, except the Africans. Now, the most likely interpretation of this data that makes sense, is that after modern humans left Africa, part of the 'out of Africa' hypothesis or theory, but before they could really separate and colonise the world, they interbred with Neanderthals, 60- to about 80,000 years ago, somewhere within there, probably in the mid-east, mixing in their DNA, which we can now see in probably billions of people. So that's basically the idea, you had an outflow of humans, of modern humans leaving Africa, but before they could essentially colonise the planet, they interbred with Neanderthals, which is why-

M: I bet it was mostly the French that did it.


E: Oh!

R: Alright

B: Fortunately, the French didn't even exist back then


B: Aw, man, that was good

R: Nicely done, Evan

S: I can't think of any other interpretation but that

B: Yeah, I can't either, it just seems like a natural conclusion

J: Bob, I have a question

B: Yeah

J: So that means that we're close enough to them genetically that we could breed with them?

S: Oh sure, I mean, that's not-

B: That's actually an interesting point. Some people, I'm sure, will say 'well, how could two species mate and produce fertile young?'. Well, actually, and this is interesting, the designation of Neanderthals has gone back and forth over the years. For decades, for the first 50 years after their discovery, or the first 50 years of the last century, most scientists considered them to be completely separate species, which is kind of a fuzzy concept anyway, but they call them Homo neanderthalensis. But lately, in the past few decades, scientists have been kinda thinking that they're more of a subspecies of Homo sapiens, and they call them Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, so my guess is that this latest research will solidify them as more of a subspecies to us, rather than a separate species.

S: Or, you know, it's more accurate to say that we're both subspecies, not that they are a subspecies of us.

B: Which is true, because they were around before we were, then maybe we should call ourselves Homo neanderthalensis sapiens, you know? Maybe we're a subspecies of them. And just the term subspecies, Steve, correct me if I'm wrong, that's more of a race, right? Kinda just like a race of humans.

S: Bob, it blends seamlessly one into the other

B: Right

S: It's all very, very fuzzy. The difference between a population, versus a race, versus a subspecies, versus a species is a continuum.

R: It might be closer to think of it as a breed, because of, like a dog breed. The difference between dog breeds is substantially more different than the difference between human races.

B: Yeah, I like that, but they're still the same species, yeah

M: It really depends on which definition a species one takes, there are several in biology, the one we've been implicitly referring to is the so-called biological species concept, which is this idea that if you interbreed, then you're part – and you can produce fertile offspring – then you're part of the same species. If not, you don't. But that concept of species is actually quite fuzzy, and it applies differently to different groups of organisms. To give you an extreme example, in a lot of plant species, and even in some vertebrates, there is quite a bit of inter-crossing between so-called species. Just think of orchids, for instance. So, just because things can interbreed, organisms can interbreed, that doesn't mean that they necessarily belong to the same species. As far as races versus populations, versus subspecies are concerned, that all depends really on who you ask, in terms of what view of systematic biology they take. Now, as far as humans are concerned, race is really an extremely fuzzy concept that has almost no biological grounding because there's been a lot of interbreeding within Homo sapiens, and so there is almost nothing that you can really say meaningfully about- from a biological perspective, not culture obviously, about- races are certainly no subspecies of humans at the moment, because a subspecies, as most of biology think of a subspecies as an incipient species, as a species that is about- as a population that is about to form a separate species. That may be what the Neanderthals were, you know, close enough to be a different species, but not quite.

S: (agreeing) mm-hmm

B: Right, good points

S: Yeah, even when you have two species that have clearly separated, they have separate populations that are different enough, either geographically or culturally, behaviourally, whatever, that they are mostly not interbreeding, and they're definitely on their way to becoming completely separated species. For a while, they will still occasionally exchange DNA. Remember a couple of years ago, there was the news item that analysis showed that human- about a million-

B: Yeah, chimps

S: -years after the split between humans and chimps, they were still swapping some DNA back and forth. So, I think that's the same situation-

R: How could I forget?

S: (laughing) with the same-

M: Because you're young, Rebecca


S: I mean, it always surprised me that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalscould live for tens of thousands of years in Europe together, and not be occasionally 'shacking up'. I mean, that is just human nature, if you will, and so makes more sense-

R: May be for you, pervert.


S: No comment


S: Let's go on to the next item-

B: Wait! Wait, something just occurred to me, something just occurred to me

J: Wait, let me pull the horse out so you can beat it to death a little further, ok, go ahead

B: No, no, this is interesting, they say 1-4% of the genome, but I assume that the similarities that they found were protein-encoding parts of the genome, right? It's not junk DNA they're talking about?

S: Who knows

M: Not necessarily, I think this is a genome-wide search

B: Yeah, but it's-

M: It may not be just protein coding

S: I don't know if that's relevant

B: Hmm, I don't know, the impression I- it is relevant, because if it's protein encoding, then it would be a much greater percentage of the protein-encoding part of the genome, as opposed to the entire genome-wide, you know what I mean?

S: It would be a higher percentage of our genes

B: Yes, that's my only point

S: Yeah

B: Yes, that's my only point

E: No, that's true, Bob

S: I don't know- yeah that's correct, but I don't know what the answer is

Evolution in Alabama Politics (29:28)[edit] Alabama candidate denounces 'lie' that he believes in evolution

S: Let's go onto the next item, have you guys seen the Alabama political ad?

B: Yeah

J: I felt like puking, yeah, it was horrible.

B: Ugh, disgusted. The tone in the of voice of that was-

(audio from ad, see video on YouTube)

Male: Bradley Byrne was a Democrat
Female: Now, he's a Republican
Male: On the school board, Byrne supported teaching evolution, he says evolution best explains the origin of life? Even recently said the bible is only partially true
Female: Candidate Byrne changed his tune
Male: Legislator Byrne voted to raise property (fades out)

R: That's pretty terrible, I just- before we begin this I'm going to put out a request that we not use any southern accents in mocking this.

S: (plaintively) Oh, we can't use southern accents?

J: Oh man, that was my whole bit

R: I know, I know, Jay

J: Wait, wait, only if Massimo does it, cos he's already got an accent.

R: Massimo's allowed

M: That's right, and besides, I spent nine years in Tennessee, so I think I have rights there.

B: Ha-ha!

R: You're fine, then

S: That's right

R: Some of your close friends are southerners

E: Close enough

S: Right, so Bradley Byrne, obviously is a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of Alabama, so this is a primary race, just among Republicans. And his opponent is essentially accusing him of believing in evolution, and thinking that the bible's only partially true. Those are the accusations that are being made against him. Now, Byrne was so outraged by this that he has responded, saying that it's not true, that he in fact has supported teaching creationism in our school textbooks.

M: Well, good for him.

S: Yeah

R: And he says 'I believe that the bible is the word of god, and that every single word is true, so-

S: Every single word

R: Yeah

S: So, this says something about the state of the Republican party, and Alabama specifically, and I think more generally in the southern region of the United States. And I do think this is a bit of a change, I think in the past, candidates would certainly be open about their religion, but wouldn't make as a matter of pride their rejection of evolution. I think they would tend to be more coy about that, now it's really being- it's an open matter of pride in the election that they reject evolution and promote the unconstitutional teaching of creationism in textbooks. I mean he's not even reverting to any kind of academic freedom thing, he's flat-out saying teaching creationism in text books, which- what was it, 30 years ago? That the supreme court said that was unconstitutional.

R: Yeah, it's not just the ignorance that is so upsetting about it, but it's the celebration of the ignorance.

S: Yeah

R: It's the 'crowing' about the ignorance that really makes it difficult to deal with, and of course the fact that these are men who want to be in positions of power. It's quite disturbing.

J: What office is he going for?

S: Governor

R: Governor of Alabama

B: (inaudible) catcher

E: Governor of the state, yep, gotta appeal to your constituency

M: Yes, but do remember the spectacle of the Republican presidential candidates at the last turn around, where they were raising their hands if they believed in evolution

B: Huckabee, yep

M: Huckabee was right there

E: Yeah

M: Now, it's true that he didn't go on to win the nomination, but boy, that was pretty scary.

S: Yeah, although it was only, what, three out of ten or something? It was the minority, but there were definitely a few southern candidates who- that was their position, yep.

E: Hey, at least they're honest, right?

M: Well not necessarily, actually, because that's the other thing, it's not clear. I mean some of these people, I'm sure, are honest, and they really do believe this crap, but it's not really clear, because a lot of these people pander to whatever they think is gonna get them elected, and so -

E: That's right

M: -I'm not so sure that-

B: (mocking) Politicians?

M: (laughs) Yeah, exactly

E: (laughs)

M: (mocking) How shocking is that, right? So we're don't even know if they actually believe it. Not that really believe that creationism is a particular badge of honor, but at least if you're coherent with your beliefs, that's better than not.

S: A few of the commenters on the video said 'I was seriously hoping this was from The Onion'

B: Ah

S: And I thought that was perfect, because this is exactly the kind of thing you can read in The Onion, you know, just that one notch beyond reality, satirical kind of thing. But now reality is sort of caught up with the satire, this really is indistinguishable from the kind of thing The Onion would run.

E: You know, sadly we come across that a lot in skepticism.

S: Yeah

E: More often, I think, than more average consumers of information

J: Yeah, you can't make up the stuff out- you know, nothing's as good as the stuff that's already out there.

R: That's what a poe is, P-O-E, it's anything that-

B: Edgar Allen?

R: -when you first read it you can't tell if it's satire or if it's real, cos the two have blended at this point.

S: Right

Science of Morality (34:39)[edit]

Huffington Post: Toward a Science of Morality

S: The next item, Massimo, I know you've actually written about as well. Sam Harris has written a very interesting article in the Huffington post, of all places, called 'The science of morality'. And this has been a debate that's been going back and forth in the blogoshpere about- essentially the question is 'can you have a science of morality? Or is morality something that is simply outside of the epistemological limits of science?'. So, Massimo, what do you think about all this?

M: Well, I think that Sam Harris wrote a lot of interesting things, in that- in those articles, actually, he posted more than one thing; he posted on his blog as well as of course Huffington post. And I also watched the TED Lecture that he gave.[1] There's a lot of interesting things, and in fact I tend to agree with most of his points, except for this most fundamental one which is- no, I don't think science, by itself, can answer ethical questions. And in fact his own examples are, I think clearly point that way and I don't understand why he doesn't seem to see the problem. But let me sort of summarize briefly what he said. So he's suggesting that 'look, moral facts are just a particular type of empirical facts, there are certain things that we can tell empirically make people, say, happy or not happy, that cause pain or pleasure, that make people flourish, or not flourish', depending on, you know, regardless of what your particular definition of flourishing happens to be. And he says that 'well, if that's the case, then what we can do is assign morality in a sense that science can empirically tell us what things are going to work in a certain way for human beings, and what things don't work. So what kind of societal structures, and societal rules, or rules of behavior, are going to have what consequences'. That is absolutely true, meaning that of course we can tell empirically what are the consequences of human actions, behaviors and societal structures involved. But that doesn't tell us anything about whether those rules or actions are right or wrong.

S: (agreeing) mm-hmm

M: See, in order to say you can make the equation, which Harris does make, between, say for instance, flourishing and right, and not flourishing and wrong, well, you already have to start out with a particular ethical theory of, in particular, virtue ethics, which says that the right thing to do is what increases human flourishing. But that is only one way at looking at ethics, there are other ethical theories, and it seems to me that Harris started out with a particular commitment, you know, a particular philosophical commitment, which apparently he didn't even realise, and then from there, yes, it does follow that once you've made that commitment, science can inform a lot our ethical decisions.

S: But what do you think about his point, I think he addresses that there he says that may be true of ethics, but it's also true of any other science you can care to mentions, that you start with some first principles, and you can challenge those first principles the same way you can challenge any first principles that you're using as the basis for an ethical system as well.

M: You mean you can empirically challenge?

S: Or even philosophically, like, the specific example he says is if you're a physicist, you say 'well therefore physics is science because it's empirical , etc.', and he says 'yes, but who says empiricism should be the starting point, you're making a philosophical assumption there as well'.

M: Right, that's definitely the case, and it's an interesting case because of course commitment to empiricism or commitment to scientific realism, and all of those are philosophical positions, and not scientific, and can certainly not be explored within science. You have to make those commitments first, and then you're going to do one type of science or another.

S: Right

M: Or you're going to look at scientific theories in one way or another. So that's definitely true. But the thing with ethics is that no philosopher, modern philosopher, that I know of would disagree that it works in a similar way, meaning that there is a separation between your ethical commitments on the one hand, and the empirical information that you can use to inform specific questions.

S: Right

M: Right? I mean, in that sense he's not breaking any new ground. Again, it seems to me that he's unaware of a large philosophical literature in ethics; no modern ethicist I know of disagrees that science has nothing to say about our ethical choices, or the consequences of ethical choices. In fact, quite a bit of research recently in ethics deals with- it's done within an area of philosophy that sounds almost oxymoronic, it's called experimental philosophy. Which most people think of experiment and philosophy as as far apart as possible. But as it turns out, a lot of philosophers have been engaging scientists and working together. The typical example, I think it's a beautiful set of examples that have come out in the last few years, are cognitive science studies of the so-called Trolley problems. So the Trolley problems are a classic thought experiment in ethics, and these are situations like the following- actually, I'd like to run the Trolley problems experiment with you guys, so I'd like to know what you think about this; So imagine that there is this situation, that you're walking down the street and you see a trolley going out of control because of whatever, the brakes are not functioning or something. And you see it's about to hit five people, who are unaware of it, they can't move, they're gonna die. Now, you have the possibility, the option, of pulling a lever and putting the trolley on a different track. If you do that, however, you're going to kill one innocent bystander. The first question is, would you do it?

B: Do it, yeah

E: I guess I would do it, yeah

R: I think (inaudible)

J; You'd have to do it

M: (repeating) You have to do it

J: The net thing there is four lives.

M: Right, Ok, good. So, most people-

B: The needs of the many-

M: -agree with you guys, that in this version of the trolley dilemma, yes, you pull the lever and you save five people, you kill one. They're all innocent anyway, so you have a net saving of four lives. Now, imagine the second variation of the dilemma; same exact situation, the trolley's going down, it's about to kill five people, you don't have a lever at this point, what you have is a large man standing next to you on the bridge, and you actually have to push the man down so that he can block the trolley and stop it before it's going to kill the others. Would you do it now?

B: Aha! See, now you're getting tricky!

M: Yes


R: Did you not think he was going to get tricky at some point?


J: Well, I mean, you know, logic dictates that you do the same thing, yeah, you do, you sacrifice the guy, but there's the emotional aspect of it, which- my first gut reaction was, well then I'm a murderer, you know, cos I'm actually-

M: Right

J: It's different, yeah, ok, I would like to think that I would be able to do it, even though there's a personal loss here for me.

M: Right

B: What if I threw myself? What if you throw yourself down

M: No, that's-

S: You're not big enough

M: -that's the funny thing that these are thought experiments, so the thought experimenter – in this case, myself – controls completely the experiment. No, you can't throw yourself, you can't yell, the people aren't listening to you, those are the conditions of the experiment. Now, what you guys just said-

J: Massimo, wait, what if I could throw Sarah Palin instead of the guy?

B: Oh god

M: Well, no, that's a different issue.

J: Ok, we'll talk about that later.

M: (laughing) We'll talk about that later. But the interesting thing is this, if you actually do the experiment, if you get together with a group of social scientists and you in fact do the survey, it turns out that most people react exactly the way you guys have reacted. That is, in the first version of the dilemma, most people agree that, yeah, you really have to pull the lever. And in the second version, most people say 'wait a minute, now I'm actually directly killing somebody, personally being involved in this thing and I'm not so sure that it's the right thing to do. Now, more recently, neurobiologists got into the act, and they showed that different parts of the brain are activated when you think about the two different areas of- the two different kinds of the dilemma.[2]

B: Cool

M: When you're talking about the first version, the lever version, it turns out that most of your response comes out of frontal lobe area, the cognitive, rational thinking areas of the brain. But when you're talking about the second version of the dilemma-

B: Limbic!

M: Yes. That pushed the guy in front of the trolley, then it turns out that the amygdalas and areas that are in charge of emotional responses are turned on, right?

S: (agreeing) mm-hmm

M: So, what have we done so far? We learned a lot about how moral beings make moral decisions, right? The neurobiol- we've learned something about the neurobiology of it, we've learned something about the sociology and psychology of it, all of this is very relevant. It still doesn't tell you, however, whether it's right or wrong to pull the lever one way or the other, yes? Now you guys said, even when we started out, we all said, because I would agree with that, in the first case, you actually have to pull the lever. But even that kind of apparently obvious and logical decision actually implies a particular type of ethical commitment that is of a philosophical nature. We're all essentially consequentialists here, or utilitarians. That's the type of philosophy of ethics that would bring you to answer in that way. But there are other way of looking at the problem, there are systems of ethics, for example, the ontological system, which is a system based on rules like, you know, the classic example would be the ten commandments, it's an ontological system of ethics. Now some of those systems would say it's always wrong to actively cause the death of anybody, and so both in the first and the second case, you're actually wrong in interfering with the system. Other systems of ethics, like virtue ethics, which I usually tend to be sympathetic to, this goes back all the way to Aristotle, were probably to strike a compromise, and it would say 'actually, you know, your actions depend on- you have to really pay careful attention to the particular situation, and it does make a difference whether you actually actively or passively interfere with the situation, so that in the first case it's Ok to interfere, and in the second one it's not. All of this has nothing to do with the science. All of this has to do with whatever kind of philosophical commitment you have made to ethical issues, to ethical problems.

S: I agree with you, and I think that- let me get back to Sam Harris's essay a little bit and tell you where I agree and where I disagree with him. First of all, as you point out, he doesn't- he makes a point of saying that he hasn't read the philosophy of ethics. He hasn't read ethical philosophers because he doesn't want to get caught up in their jargon and their way of thinking, cos that would impede his ability to communicate this to the public. And I don't buy that, he kinda lost me there, because I think you do need to understand what the people who were spending their careers thinking about this or saying.

R: Yeah, we hear that same sort of sentence from the mouths of every 'free-energy' person on the planet.

S&M: Right

R: You know, and to me, it's very disrespectful of people who do this for a living. It's saying 'you know, you guys are too embedded, you can't see the forest for the trees, and I'm gonna come in and I'm gonna blow your minds'. And it's, yeah, I find this really disrespectful.

S: Yeah

R: Do the work.

S: Yeah, just don't let it bias you.

M: I took that kind of statement as, unfortunately, an example of intellectual arrogance on the part of a scientist, which is really too bad. Imagine what would happen if a philosopher were to say 'you know what, I just don't buy this quantum mechanical stuff, and I haven't bothered reading the technical literature, because I don't want to be biased. But I just don't think this is right, and I've got my own theory'.

S: Yeah, exactly

M: Come on, who would take that seriously?

S: Now, where I think he has a reasonable point, is where he says a lot of the criticisms of a science-based system of ethics is the notion that there is this demarcation problem, and that there are difficulties, as you say, with definition, and his point is that you run into the same problems with, let's say, medicine or psychology or psychiatry, that, for example, here's a very specific example: you may have difficulty defining well-being as your basis for an ethical system, but you also have the same problem defining health, as a basis for a medical system, or medical science. Which I agree with, the two definitions are fuzzy, and he is right. But I think he draws the wrong inference from that, he says 'therefore, a system of ethics is just as scientific as medicine is', but I think what he's missing is that medicine is not an entirely scientific endeavour. It is mostly scientific, but when we do get into issues, like what is the definition of health, we also run into personal and philosophical issues that are not answered by the science. The science only gets you so far, and then you have to make a personal decision with the patient about what they value. What they value may be different. So his analogy was correct, but he actually drew the wrong inference from it because he has a misconception about what medicine is.

M: Right, so you think his analogy essentially undermines his point.

S: Exactly, and what I came away from, was the notion that he was essentially labouring under this false dichotomy, that either you have a science-based system of ethics, or you have moral relativism, and I think that there is something in between. You can also look at this, as I think you were getting at, Massimo, the sort of scientists' way of looking at this and the philosophers' way of looking at this, and my position would be, well, it's both, this is sort of a quasi-scientific, philosophical endeavour, where you can use a system of logic extrapolating from various principles, it could be informed by a lot of scientific information about the evolutionary underpinnings, or at least the neuroscience underpinnings of our moral thinking, and statistical consequences of the actions we take, etc. But at the end of the day, there's going to be some kind of subjective value judgment, and we further have to recognise, which he also acknowledges, but then I think draws the wrong inference, that different people make different moral judgments.

M: Right

S: You know, the science may explain why some people make one value judgment, and other people hold another. Maybe there is a genetic neuroscientific explanation for that-

M: Perhaps

S: -but it doesn't matter! It doesn't even matter.

M: No, it doesn't matter, right. But I wanna make a couple of comments about what you just said

S: Sure

M: It's, first of all, this idea that there is again a continuity between ethics and therefore philosophy on one hand, and science on the other, yes, absolutely. I mean, I wrote the technical paper a few years ago published in a journal called Zigon which is a journal about ethics, philosophy and ethics, which was entitled precisely the continuity between ethics and science.[3] So, and this is a fairly well accepted point, as I said earlier on, by philosophers, but what we're seeing here in Harry's attempt, is the attempt to discard an entire tradition of thought, an entire way of doing things, and saying we got the answer because we've got empirical evidence. It’s a very simplistic approach. Now, the second point is, you're right, I got the exact same sense that Harris is really fighting against moral relativism, but the funny thing again there is that he's got very powerful allies within the philosophical community to fight against relativism, and he doesn't seem to be aware of it. There is an entire area of ethics which is called metaethics, and it's about the justification for ethical systems – how do we know about what is right and what is wrong, and how do we come up with this set of decisions in ethics. And most metaethicists are definitely not moral relativists, and give you very good reasons for why you don't want to be a moral relativist. But again, these are reasons of value, and they work within the logic of ethical systems, they're not necessarily empirical reasons. So it seems like Harris could have been much more productive in sort of reaching out and saying 'look, why don't we get together? Science has a lot to contribute to these issues, philosophy obviously has a lot to contribute to these issues, so getting together, we build something interesting'. But of course that would be not exactly the kind of headline-grabbing thing that has generated all this discussion.

S: I don't think he's grabbing for headlines, I think he honestly believes what he's saying. I think what's really driving him is this recoil from moral relativism, which he equates also with post-modernism, and I agree that there's a relationship there… He's come to the conclusion that the only way to get rid of moral relativism and post-modernism in this context is the science of ethics, of science of morality, then to expunge the philosophy from it, or to say that it plays no more of a role than it does in any other science, which I disagree with. So, I think that's where his core mistake was. Then he kind of, yeah, I think he gives away his motivation away at the end of the essay where he specifically says, he brings it back to religion, saying that religion is used as an excuse for moral relativism, and the examples he gives throughout the essay on moral relativism about, say, female genital mutilation or wearing burkqas. He says he finds it amusing when philosophers try to justify these sort of things on the basis of moral relativism-

M: Right, but I don't understand who he is talking about, because I don't know of any philosopher (laughing) that is trying to justify genital mutilation. Again, it seems to me that this is an issue of Harris not seriously engaging with the literature before studying and writing his own stuff. He's talking- I have a couple of quotes from one of these essays that are pretty fantastic, he says something like that it's a common consensus among western thinkers that moral relativism is ok, that genital mutilation- Really? I never heard of this consensus, this is ridiculous. Yes, there is a certain number of, unfortunately, vocal people that are moral relativists, but to say that that's the standard view that western society has now adopted seems to be bizarre.

S: I agree, I think you and I have the same view on this, and a lot of it does stem from the fact that he's trying to address what is a very deep and nuanced issue without, as you say, first understanding how we got to where we are now.

M: Yeah, absolutely

S: Alight, let's move on to Who's That Noisy.

Who's That Noisy (54:53)[edit]

S: Evan, can you play Who's That Noisy from last week?

E: Yeah, I absolutely can; here it is

(South-Asian speaker and music)

E: That was Sam Harris talking about-


E: I think we've beaten him up enough tonight. That was, ever heard of Baba Ramdev?

S: I've heard of Baba Yaga

E: I have too, and Baba O'Reilly. If you happen by YouTube, have a look at Baba Ramdev.[4] I mean sure, not everyone can speak Hindi, or whichever dialect he's speaking in these videos, but he has some titles here of some videos that he's made, such as 'Baba Ramdev: Yoga for obesity', 'Baba Ramdev: Yoga for high blood pressure', 'Baba Ramdev: Yoga for diabetes', 'Baba Ramdev: Yoga for physical elegance', and the ever popular 'Baba Ramdev: Yoga for constipation and piles'.

J: Piles of what

R: (dissenting noise)

M: Well, you know what

S: You had me right up to the last one. So the thing is, if you just think of it as- if you substitute 'exercise' for 'yoga', yeah, it will help obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and probably your aesthetics. The piles, I'm not so sure about.


E: Can you believe somebody got this?

M: Now, when you say 'yoga for diabetes' meaning this is yoga that actually causes diabetes? No,

S: It treats it

M: That's not he meant, I see. Oh, that's too bad, cos that would've been more original

E: According to Baba Ramdev, yoga is good for just about anything that ails you. It's on YouTube though, and someone actually answered this correctly, if you can believe it, and that was our listener Armit, from Vancouver, who sent in an email and said "No doubt, that's yoga guru Baba Ramdev", he actually met him a couple of times in India, so he had-

S: Wow

E: Yes, so he had the pleasure of meeting him, and therefore, he was ready for that Who's That Noisy, more than anyone else. So well done Armit, well done.

M: What does he win?

E: Oh,

S: Our admiration

E: A mention on the podcast

B: Yes

R: Our eternal admiration

S: He's immortalised on the SGU.

R: The envy of all his friends?

M: Ah, boy, you guys are definitely not into the material


R: Spiritual wholeness

S: On his deathbed, he will receive total cognisance

R: So, you know, he's got that going for him.

B: Which is nice

S: What have you got for this week, Evan?

E: For this week, Who's That Noisy is as follows:

(soft white noise with breaks)

E: Right, it may not have sounded like much to you

R: Really?

E: But it's something very specific, and I'll give you a hint: those of you who have been paying attention to your science and technology papers and articles and blogs over the last… month to six weeks might be able to figure out what that was, so…

S: So it relates to a recent science news item.

E: Good luck everyone, we'll talk about it next week

Science or Fiction (58:29)[edit]


S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real, and one fictitious, then I ask my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Is everyone ready for this week?

J: Ready

R: So ready

B&E: Yep

S: Item number 1: 'New research shows that while married men live longer than unmarried men, women do not gain this benefit from being married'. Item number 2: 'The most extensive genetic analysis to date supports the conclusion that all life on earth descended from a single common ancestor'. And item number 3: 'New observations indicate that much of the missing matter in the universe is not dark matter but rather a diffuse hot cloud of intergalactic gas made of normal (baryonic) matter'. Massimo, since you're our guest, I'll have you go first.

M: You want me to pick one? Eh?

S: One of them is false, yes, so pick the one that's false.

M: The one that's false is the one about the common ancestor. My reading of the literature is actually quite the opposite, that the more we know about very deep, base of the tree of life, the more it doesn't look like a single common ancestor, it looks more like a web. So I'd be surprised if somebody all of a sudden has reversed a trend that has been going on for several years, but you never know. The baryonic matter thing seems actually fairly counter-trending, because in the last few years there's been a lot of talk about dark-matter. So that would be surprising as well, actually, if it were true. But I'm father away from that field of research so I'm not gonna- I'm not as confident on that one. As far as the first one is concerned, I'm not surprised, of course it doesn't- there's no benefit for women to hang around with men for a long time.

S: Ok, let's see, Bob, go next.

B: (reading over) 'Much of the missing matter … is not dark…' yeah, dark matter has been getting a lot of the news, but there always was this- I always thought there was also this other missing matter that wasn't necessarily dark matter. Hmmm, I'm not sure how significant it is in terms of percentage. I'm gonna go with that one, I'm gonna say that that one is science. The second one, though, 'The most extensive genetic analysis to date supports the conclusion that all life on earth descended from a single common ancestor', I'm gonna say that one is science, I'm gonna agree with that one. If you look at the proteins and the genetic basis for all life, it's clear that we all are related, and there's no anomaly out there that kind of points the way towards a separate genesis that might be- that's not so different from us, if they used, for example, different proteins that other life wouldn't use, so I'm gonna say that yeah, they could have done some huge study that conclusively analyzed the data and showed that all life is related. So yeah, that one makes sense to me. Something funky, though about this first one about married men living longer than unmarried men, but women not gaining that benefit, that one doesn't sound right to me, I'm gonna say that one is fiction.

S: Ok, Evan?

E: I think the one about women not getting the benefit from being married is science. I think that the missing matter in the universe not being dark matter, but rather normal matter, is also science. I think you're right, it was 20 or 24% of the known universe is dark matter, Bob, if I recall. So, I'm not too surprised by that. I'm very convinced by what Massimo had to say about all life coming from a single ancestor, so I am going that route, and I'll say that one is fiction.

S: Ok, Rebecca

R: Hmmm, it is a tricky one. I was under the impression that it was still considered correct that it was all descended from a common ancestor, but we just didn't have the tools necessary to do a large-scale study on it, but I can see how we may have those tools now, so I think that one is quite possibly science. I don't know anything really about the missing matter in the universe being actually normal, baryonic matter. That would be pretty surprising to me if it's true, but the idea that married men live longer than unmarried men but women don't get the same benefit, that doesn't quite make sense to me because I was under the impression that all married people live longer because they're more likely to look out for one another and notice when health problems crop up and things like that, and encourage them to see doctors, and that's the sort of thing that seems like it should swing both ways, so I'm gonna go ahead and say that that one is the fiction.

S: Ok, Jay, so we have two for married women not getting a benefit from being married, and two for the single common ancestor. What do you say?

J: So I'll be some sort of tie-breaker if I go with one of those two?

S: Right

J: Ok, well I'll take these in reverse order, which I find interesting.


M: For whatever reason

J: The one about the observations indicate that much of the missing matter in the universe is an intergalactic cloud of gas, I'm surprised that if that is science, that I wouldn't have heard that, that that wouldn't have been a massive news story. Unless it just came out two hours ago. So I'm not sure about that one, but that makes sense to be the fiction, but I'm really leaning towards the research about men and women and how long they live, whether they're married or unmarried. From my recollection that men and women both definitely gain years of life significantly – I think men were gaining ten plus years, and I think women were too. I don't remember the details, but yeah, I think that one's the fake.

S: Ok. So, I guess I'll take these in reverse order, since you all agree in number three: 'New observations indicate that much of the missing matter in the universe is not dark matter but rather a diffuse hot cloud of intergalactic gas made of normal (baryonic) matter'. And that one is … science.

R: Cool

E: I thought you were gonna say fiction there.

S: Yeah, it would've been nice, huh? So that's called WHIM: Warm, Hot, Intergalactic Matter.

J: Steve, when did you read that?

S: Pretty recently, today

M: A couple of hours ago, in fact.

S: And this was a discovery, this was just announced yesterday actually. This was observations made by the Chandra x-ray observatory, and this is something that astronomers have been chasing for a while, they suspect that there's some amount of matter in between the galaxies, left over remnants from the formation of galaxies, plus other matter seeded into it from galaxies, but it's really hard to see because it's wispy thin. But they were able to use the x-ray telescope to pin-point it a little bit further, and they found that yeah, there's actually a significant amount of this stuff. And we've actually reported on some preliminary data for this before, I think in fact, this was a previous Science or Fiction. It's really hot, you know, they say warm hot, but warm being 100,000 degrees and hot being up to 10million degrees. And this does explain much of it – not all of it, there's still dark matter, dark matter definitely exists, and this doesn't change that. But this does fill in a huge chunk of the missing matter in the universe, that we knew had to be there because of the local gravity, for example.

M: So this is a really big deal, because the dark matter discussion's been going on for some time. Now when you say there's definitely dark matter left over, I think, well, at this point a reasonable question would be 'really? Or is it that we're missing something else?'

S: Well that's true but-

B: No

S: -you can always- I think there's a common perception that it's an argument from ignorance, that basically there's gotta be stuff there but we don't know what it is, so let's call it dark matter, but we really are beyond that with dark matter. First of all, the majority of the evidence for dark matter comes from looking at how galaxies behave, and therefore intergalactic matter wouldn't really impact on that at all, right?

B&M: Yeah

S: So it's initially used to explain why the galaxy is rotating as quickly as it is, so obviously intergalactic gas won't affect that. Plus, there's also, you remember the Bullet galaxy, where one galaxy crashed into another one, and the normal matter came to a stop but the dark matter went past it, and we could see it, we could see the gravitational effect of the dark matter continuing to move through the other galaxy while the gas clouds basically crashed into each other and came to a halt. So, there is still dark matter, what it is is a mystery, but there is something that's there that we can't see that's having a gravitational effect, and this is really just looking for the intergalactic matter that we knew was there, but couldn't see.

B: And there's other lines of evidence, even beyond what you've mentioned, Steve, that are extremely compelling, so…

S: Right, but this does affect the equation of how we divide up the universe, how much baryonic, how much energy, how much dark energy, how much dark matter. They didn't give specific figures, I don't think they're at that point yet, but we'll see how this affects- how much different kinds of stuff in our universe, so, very interesting. Let's go on to number two: 'The most extensive genetic analysis to date supports the conclusion that all life on earth descended from a single common ancestor'. Massimo and Evan, you think this one is the fiction, everyone else thinks this one is science, and this one is … science.

M: Really?

R: Hooray

S: It is, yeah. So I was with you, Massimo, that's why I included this, although it kinda depends on exactly what you mean by a common ancestor, and also what you think the implication is of the horizontal genetic transfer that you're talking about, especially at the base of the tree, and also when you get down to single-celled creatures like bacteria, they horizontally transfer a lot of genetic information from one species to another. It's not so much of the simpler construction of a branching tree, although, either when you get farther away from the roots, or when you get to more complicated multi-cellular life, there is more of the linear genetic transfer, there's less, although non-zero, horizontal transfer. We can still trade genes, do you guys know how that happens? How we might, like, one mammalian species might exchange genes to a completely unrelated mammalian species?

M: Transposons, for instance.

S: Yeah, and viruses, right? So a virus can take a little bit of DNA from us and infect another species and give it to them.

J: Oh, wow

S: Yep

E: Yeah, so be careful which animals you hang around with!

S: Right, but this was an extensive genetic analysis, they looked at- and Bob, you were talking as if you read this, did you? Or did you just put that on?

B: Maybe


R: So smart, man, just knows his stuff.

S: They looked at 23 universally conserved proteins, meaning they exist in every species, they're universally conserved, and they looked at different species from the Eukaryotes, from the archaea and from bacteria, and so the most different, most fundamental branches of the tree of life, if you will, and they did a very- the kind of computer analysis that you really could only do recently. I mean, computers had to be as powerful as they are just recently to do the kind of analysis they did. And they basically asked the question 'what's the most likely configuration of these proteins?', and what they concluded was that all of life on earth, being descended from a single common ancestor population, is millions of times more likely than any other possible configuration, that that is overwhelmingly the most likely scenario.

M: So I'm sure this is going to cause the crash of the entire intelligent design movement

S: Oh, absolutely


M: And one of the things-

R: Yeah, they're just gonna give up

M: Yeah, give up, cos one of the things they've been saying over the last few years is precisely was that when the research was pointing toward a reticulate base for the tree of life, a lot of those people picked up on that 'see, Darwin was wrong, there is no single common ancestor', which of course is a non-sequitor-

S: Yes

M: -it doesn't matter what the actual base, you know, the shape or structure of the base of the tree of life actually is. But now they're on record saying that, I think we should send an email to our esteemed colleagues and friends at the Discovery Institute and say 'Ok now, time to give up'

S: The Discovery Institute was jumping all over news items and articles like in the New Scientist about the 'webbiness' of the tree of life-

M: Exactly

S: -as if it's incompatible with evolution, which is a non-sequitor, as you say. And they were, again, trying to make the argument 'see, Darwin was wrong', with the most simplistic misunderstanding of what the actual science was saying. But this was nice, actually in the article, the scientists talk about the fact that, yeah, there's 'webbiness' at the base of the tree, but it doesn't matter, even if you have multiple different species exchanging genes back and forth, essentially they're gonna form into one species, and even if there were multiple origins, even, multiple origins with horizontal transfer is also possible, but the bottom line is they passed at some point through one common ancestor species, which then differentiated to all life on earth. That's what their analysis showed.

M: That's an important point they make, the distinction, so the finding is a most recent common ancestor, single common ancestor, does not imply that life originated only once.

S: Right

M: Because, as you just said, it could have been that at some point there was a lot of going back and forth in horizontal gene transfer, and then a bottleneck happened, and then we got one ancestor left, yes, that's right.

S: That's right, very good. Which means that 'New research shows that while married men live longer than unmarried men, women do not gain this benefit from being married', and that is fiction.

M: (laughs)

S: This was a very subtle twisting of the research on my part, so good for you guys on getting this right, but this was- I was hoping I was gonna catch people who read the summary of this-

B: haha, I love when you do this!

S: -because if you read the summary of this, you could very easily get confused, because they kinda give the false impression that women don't gain the advantage from being married. But then they say at the end that men and women who are married both live longer than men and women who are not married, however, here's what the new research showed: men gain more of a benefit when their wife is younger than they are, and that is a fairly linear relationship that doesn't change. So for-

B: Ah, that's where you got it from, yep

S: -so when the wife is older than the man, the husband still benefits, but not as much. And the younger the wife gets, the more the male benefits, in terms of living longer.

M: It must be all that sex.

B: (laughs)

S: Well that's one hypothesis, the hyper-sexed hypothesis. They said the leading hypothesis-

E: Hyper-sexed

S: -as to why this was the case, was, one was a selection for healthy males, that healthy males were attracted to, or were able to attract younger women, so they were being- they were already destined to live longer, right?

M: So it's not a causal connection there

S: Well, the other hypothesis is that younger women would be able to take care of their older husbands better and longer, and therefore that contributed to their longevity. So those were the two main factors that they thought; they were younger and better able to take care of them, and there was a healthy male selection bias.

B: But not just the healthy male selection bias, but I would think it's maybe related and indistinguishable, but the fact that not only were you in better shape initially, but you try to maintain that shape just to- cos you feel you have to, to keep somebody that's significantly younger than you, you might have to work out, and-

S: You think they're working out more?

B: -and do more. It could be-

R: Yeah, but then women would get the same benefit.

S: So here's the thing, that data existed only for men, and they assumed it was the same for women, now there's the new study that compares it to women, and it turns out that women who are married, get the most benefit from being married when the husband is the same age as they are. When their husband gets older than they are, the benefit decreases, and, surprisingly, when the husband gets younger than they are, it significantly decreases, even much more than being older. So women-

E: The husband's a drag

B: Wow

S: Yeah, the younger men are a drag on- again, we shouldn't say that, that's where the article sorta gets confusing, because it makes it sound like younger husbands are a detriment, but they're just not as much of a benefit as same-aged husbands, right?

M: There's still an advantage in being married, but not as much, I see.

S: Yeah, not as much, so why does that advantage diminish with a younger age, relatively, of the husband, and that kinda called into question the hypotheses that they were putting forward to explain the linear relationship with spousal age with men.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:39)[edit]

S: Jay, do you have a quote for us?

J: Ok, so this week's quote:

Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.

M: And that, of course, is George Bernard Shaw.

R: Come on, that's the best you can do?



B: Yeah!

E: Awesome

S: Good job, Massimo

R: That was pretty good

B: There you go

E: I have a new ringtone for my phone!

B: Maximo Massimo

Announcements (1:18:07)[edit]

J: I have three announcements, Steve

S: Go ahead

J: The Granite State Skeptics at is having the Granite State Skeptics panel at Granitecon, May 23rd, Manchester, New Hampton.

S: Cary Granite


J: I'm also gonna be in Arizona at Skeptics in the Pub, Phoenix, Arizona, at the Rock Bottom bar. That is on May 22nd at 7pm.

B: Really, wow!

S: You get around, Jay. Massimo, you gonna be at TAM 8 this year?

M: I certainly will, my first time, I'm really excited about it

B: Cool!

S: First time, eh? We'll be gentle.


S: Massimo, it's been wonderful having you on the show as a guest Rogue.

M: It was a pleasure, as usual.

S: Thank you all for joining me.

J: Thanks, Steve

R: Thank you, Steve

M: It was good to be joined to you

B: You're welcome

S: 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 and For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website, or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • The definition of 'siphon' in the English Oxford dictionary has been wrong for nearly a century (Guardian article)
  • Evidence suggests that humans and Neanderthals interbred around 60-80,000 years ago, with 1-4% of the Neanderthal DNA found in DNA of individuals from Europe, Asia and Papua New Guinea, but none found in individuals from western and southern Africa (CNN article)
  • DNA can transfer from one mammalian species to another via viruses
  • An extensive genetic analysis supports the conclusion that all life on earth descended from a single common ancestor (PhysOrg article)
  • Observations indicate that much of the missing matter in the universe is not dark matter but rather a diffuse hot cloud of intergalactic gas made of normal (baryonic) matter, called WHIM – Warm, Hot, Intergalactic Matter (NASA press release)
  • Married men and women live longer than unmarried men and women respectively. However, men gain more benefit the younger their wife is than them, whilst women gain most benefit when their husband is the same age (Max Planck Institute press release)
  • A "Poe" is a statement that is difficult to distinguish as a belief or satire of that belief.


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