SGU Episode 538

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SGU Episode 538
October 31st 2015
Tractor beam1.jpg
SGU 537 SGU 539
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria
DE: Dean Edell
Quote of the Week
Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics.
Steven Pinker
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Jay's techniques for making good zombie noises
  • He is also playing Ghouls n' Ghosts
  • Birthday celebration themes for kids

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (5:13)[edit]

  • Alice Hamilton: Was a pathologist who was instrumental in causing sweeping changes in the safety of people exposed to dangerous industrial metals and chemical compounds in the workplace.

S: Bob, you're gonna tell us about this week's Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: Yes, this week, for the Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm covering Alice Hamilton, who was a pathologist who was instrumental in causing weeping changes in the safety of people exposed to dangerous industrial metals and chemical compounds in the workplace. Hamilton – get this – she was born in 1869, she died in 1970, that makes her (stutters)

S: Hundred and one

B: a hundred and one years old! That's a damn good run. She was a professor of pathology at the Women's Medical School of Northwestern University, initially. She held many positions over the years, including assistant professor in a new department of industrial medicine at Harvard Medical School in 2019, making her the first woman appointed to the faculty there in any field. So, impressive.

But much more impressive though, a lot of her advances have to do with the ramifications of the industrial revolution. Now, of course, this revolution was an amazing boon to society in countless ways, but the impact on the health of workers was often horrible. And this is called industrial medicine. And it was not being seriously looked at in the United States as it was in other countries. And she noticed this, and started looking into it.

She wrote an article about it in 1908, and soon after that, in the same year, she was appointed to the Illinois Commission on Occupational Diseases, which was the first such commission in the United States. And then, over the years, she worked for many other state and federal investigations, looking into the impact of many workplace substances, like mercury, radium, benzene, carbon disulphide, hydrogen sulphide gases, many, many of these nasty chemicals that people used in work, and it was very little, or just not nearly enough care taken into what the workplace should be like in order to deal with these safely.

She basically became a pioneer in the field of occupational epidemiology, and industrial hygiene in the United States. And her science was so spot-on, she had a tremendous impact on the waves of health reforms that swept the nation during that time, affecting countless, countless lives. So, remember Alice Hamilton; mention her to your friends, perhaps when they're playing with acid at work, and they say to you, “Hey! Watch this!”

(Rogues laugh)

E: (Laughing) Or catch!

S: Yeah, it is incredible that just a hundred years ago, the workplace standards were so terrible. I mean, essentially, companies had no responsibility for the health of their employees, or even just the welfare, the basic safety.

C: And also, there were a lot of industrial chemicals and stuff that people didn't really know what they did

S: Yeah

C: until much later. And so, even if there were basic safety measures that were taken, “Oh, wear gloves.” Whoop! Doesn't seem to help, you know?

B: Right

C: “I'm wearing a mask.” No, but you needed a respirator. I think a really good example,

B: Oops

C: I just recently finished maybe two books ago, Tom's River by Dan Fagan (and I hugely recommend it – it won the Pulitzer last year in Science and Environmental Non-Fiction), and it's about this big super fonsite, in Tom's River in New Jersey, from this company that just was spilling horrible things into the soil and into the water, and into the lungs of people who worked there, for many years.

And, I mean, obviously, there's some question as to if they knew it or not, but either way, it made a lot of people sick.

J: Cara, d'ya ever hear of a mad hatter?

C: Like in Alice and Wonderland?

(Bob laughs)

J: That term actually – if I am correct, and I believe I am – that term actually came about because in Danberry, Connecticut, a town right next to where we all grew up, they would make the stetson hats; and the hats are made out of felt, and they use an enormous amount of water in the production of hats in order to shape them, and everything that they need to do. And there was mercury in the water. And people that worked in that factory went nuts from mercury poisoning. And they called them “mad hatters.”

S: Yeah, mad as a hatter. Yeah, 'cause they would get neurological disease from the mercury. That's right.

C: And that ended up being a good colloquialism. It's good that they didn't call them the mad habberdashers.

(Rogues laugh)

C: It doesn't roll off the tongue

S: Mad as a habberdasher.

E: It's more of a baseball team.

B: I kind of like that, Cara.

C: Yeah (Laughs)

B: Let's start a movement.

News Items[edit]

Red Meat and Cancer (9:23)[edit]

Mega Poop (21:23)[edit]

Tractor Beam (27:15)[edit]

Whole Body Cryotherapy (32:00)[edit]

S: So, have you guys heard of whole body cryotherapy?

J: Yes!

C: Oh, is that like, getting in a cold refrigerator, and feeling good after?

(Jay laughs)

S: Well, that's the claim.

(Rogues laugh)

E: I feel good.

C: This is, like, Joe Rogan, who is a friend, but also a very open-minded, sometimes to the extent that his brains fall out, he does this a lot. I see tweets about it.

E: Oh boy.

C: Yup

E: Joe, Joe! Come back! Come back to science.

S: It's another spa pseudoscience fad.

C: Yeah

S: That's the bottom line. But here it is: You get into a cryotherapy chamber, that either your head could stick out, or it could be the whole person in there. And they cool it down – it's at negative two hundred and forty degrees Fahrenheit.

B: What!

S: For one and a half to three minutes. You heard me right.

E: Doesn't nitrogen freeze at ...

S: Yeah, that's what it is. They use nitrogen gas to ...

J: But the air is that cold. They're not touching liquid.

S: You can't touch anything.

J: The heat exchange is very slow, just through the air, I'm sure.

S: But still, you're in there for one and a half to three minutes, at forty to a hundred dollars a pop.

C: What!

B: Whoa!

C: No, so this isn't just like, you know, when I go to the spa, I go to the Korean spa, and there're these different rooms, and they're like, “This one gives you salt cures, and this one ...” Get in, and I'm like, whatever, just feels good, 'cause it's warm. But they're all free. You just go into the different -

S: Yeah

C: this, you have to pay for a three minute treatment?

S: Yeah.

C: Oh my god.

S: The reason – I wrote about it on Science-Based Medicine. It was triggered by an unfortunate incident, which becomes one in our series about how pseudoscience kills. Over the weekend, I think, or last week, a young woman, Chesley Auchay, was found – she was a manager of a spa, that had a cryotherapy chamber, and she was found in the morning by staff, having been in the chamber overnight.

(Cara gasps)

J: Oh!!

E: No...

S: She apparently was frozen solid. She must have passed out in there, or got accidentally stuck. They, apparently, the doors don't lock, which makes a lot of sense. There shouldn't be any way to lock somebody in there.

C: There also shouldn't be any way to run longer than three minutes.

E: Right! Or a button on the inside to shut the whole mechanism.

C: Yeah

E: A kill switch on the inside.

S: She was alone, and so she probably passed out, is what happened. And then once you lose consciousness, and you're alone, then that's it, game over.

E: That's it.

S: Yeah

B: Wow!

S: Using cold as a treatment is, in and of itself, is not pseudoscience. It's just like, you know, there are legitimate uses of magnets in medicine. But the spa version of it, like the spa version of anything, is pretty much crap. You know, it's pseudoscience. The claims are that the extreme cold has an anti-inflammatory effect. That's actually semi-legitimate. That's under study, still. But that's not an implausible claim.

There's also the belief that it may help muscles recover from either injury or exercise, right? So it's very popular among sports stars, who're using it to recover from exercise,

C: Ah, yeah

S: or after playing.

B: Oh, I've heard that.

E: Yeah, they immerse themselves in an ice bath.

C: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

S: They use ice baths as well, which also doesn't really have a lot of good evidence to it. So there have been a number of systematic reviews looking at using this extreme cryotherapy for recovery from sports or injuries. And the evidence is preliminary, and mixed, and weak. There's some slightly positive evidence, but the reviews say there's no good studies, basically. The studies are all poorly designed, they're not well controlled. They're too small. So we just don't know, you know, based upon the evidence.

So any claims being made for it exceed the evidence, 'cause the evidence is all preliminary and low quality. Same thing for inflammatory diseases like rhumaoid arthritis. The researchers generally think that, “Ah, there's really no reason to think that this is more effective than just icing your sore knee,” or whatever. Just doing local therapy, rather than this, put your whole body into a cryochamber for three minutes at this extremely low temperature.

Then, of course, if you go to alternative medicine sites, to them, it treats everything, right? Then they have all their bullshit, hand waving explanations, that it puts your body into survival mode, so the blood rushes to your core, where it picks up extra nutrients, and then brings them to the rest of your body, and detoxify and boost the immune system – all bullshit, right?

E: Where's that evidence?

C: What does that even mean? Your core? What's your core?

S: Well, you know, like, center of your body.

E: Core muscle, yeah.

S: As opposed to your extremities.

C: Okay.

S: Yeah, as opposed to your extremities.

E: Torso, yeah.

C: Just didn't know if they was just some mystical part of your body, where all the nutrients are supposed to go.

S: Well, the nutrients ...

E: Core exercises.

S: Assuming you don't have nutrients in the rest of your body. Anyway, and then, of course, they say it'll cure cancer, it'll treat whatever ails you, right? That's the extreme alternative medicine BS end of the spectrum.

So, at the more plausible end of the spectrum, for sports injuries, or for recovery from exercise, the evidence is just preliminary, not that convincing. But there hasn't been any really large, definitive, well-controlled, studies. At this point, we just have to say we don't know.

Now, how safe is it? Well, if you do it perfectly, it's probably fairly safe. But that's the rub, right, is, like with anything, there's a risk. You can get, probably the biggest risk is frostbite. Even if your socks are a little sweaty, that could, that moisture will freeze to your foot, and that could be enough to cause frostbite, so ya gotta be really, really, careful.

C: So they're wearing clothes?

S: Well, you can't be touching any surface, so you gotta wear socks and gloves, cover your ears.

C: Ah...

S: So, if your head's in, you gotta cover your lips and your ears, et cetera. So, you're not completely naked.

C: So I'd have to, like, take out all my piercings if I went somewhere ...

S: Yeah, you can't have any jewelry. No piercings, no jewelry, nothing that can be touching skin, absolutely.

J: I would imagine that people get injured every once in a while, 'cause ...

C: Yeah, 'cause they don't follow the rules.

S: Yeah, I mean, it's, like anything, it's not risk-free. And of course, this was kind of a freak accident, but this is the risk of having this stuff around, of doing this, of having spa cryotherapy. Benefits? Implausible and unproven. The risks: May be small, but they're there. In my book, it's always not worth it.

Who's That Noisy (38:25)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: 3D Printer

What's the Word (39:51)[edit]

  • Canonical

S: All right, Cara, What's the Word?

C: So I had lunch today with a friend of mine who's a physicist. He's actually a string theorist. And I was telling him about my segment, What's the Word. And he said, “You have to do canonical.” It's one of those words that just so fits the description, like stochastic. So when you hear the word “cannonical,” what does it make you think of?

B: It is the epic example of something.

C: That's a good way to put it, yeah. It's the epic example. So a lot of people who read this a lot, and they kind of get it in context, but sometimes it doesn't have a very clear definition. And the reason for that is because it's very context-dependent. It depends on what field you're looking at. So, the typical usage in a scientific context is, “Something that's accepted as being accurate, and authoritative; of or relating to a general rule, or standard formula.” Or, “According to recognized rules or scientific laws.”

So, in mathematics, for example, the word canonical indicates a particular choice from a number of possible conventions. And this convention allows a mathematical object, or class of objects to be uniquely identified or standardized. In computer science, canonical is the standard state or behavior of an attribute. See, at a certain point, all of these words start to feel meaningless.

It's borrowed from mathematics, as this website says, “It is used to refer to concepts that are unique, and / or natural. Conforming to well-established patterns or rules, and it's typically used to describe whether or not a programming interface follows the already-established standard. You'll sometimes hear it as canonicity, or canonicality.

But across science, you often use it to refer to an early theory or a dogma that offers up some sort of standard. So, in quantum mechanics, canonical is synonymous sometimes with the Hamiltonian approach, which Bob, you may know about. I don't fully understand it, but it's a method of approaching quantum field theory.

In genetics, a canonical pathway is an idealized or a generalized pathway, that represents a common properties of a particular signaling molecule. A good shorthand there is to think of a canonical pathway as the one that's typically used, and a non-canonical pathway is kind of the road less traveled, even though it's still a pathway that is used.

E: I know that film.

C: So it's spelled C-A-N-O-N – canon. And so that's the interesting part. You just said it, Evan. “Canon.” What does that make you think of?

E: Uhhh.... religion.

C: Religion!

B: You're right, something, yeah, the same, kind of what I said. Something is canon, it

E: Or the civil war.

B: is like, accepted; it is it; it is ...

E: Oh, it's law.

S: Part of the holy scripture.

E: Scripture! Scripture.

C: So this is the precise etymology of this word: It has a lot of meanings in different contexts. You know, a collection of books accepted as holy scripture, a complete list of saints is also referred to as a canon. A rule, or a body of rules or principles, in art, or philosophy. Almost all of these definitions date back to the early fifteenth century, in which canonicalis meant “according to church rule.” Previous to that was “canonial” - not canonical, but canonial, dating back to the early thirteenth century.

And there's also some argument as to whether that more modern, even though you could say that that's like a middle ages definition, can be traced even earlier, to the ancient Greek kanon with a K, which is similar to an English “kane” or “reed.” So, not uncommonly, a reed was used for measurement. So that link between canon and a rule, and a standard, could be either a convergent, or a divergent, you know, as we know from evolution (I'm borrowing those terms here), definition in nature.

So it could be that this word actually developed out of two different places, and didn't come together to meet, or maybe the Greek kanon with a K predated the religious usage in the middle ages.

S: We also use it a lot when we talk about fiction. Like, this fact is canon, is part of the official story.

C: Oh, you're right. Instead of spin off stories, or fan fiction.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Tom Hanks Lashes Out At Cancer Quacks (43:41)[edit]

Back to the Future 9/11 Video (45:40)[edit]

Interview with Dr. Dean Edell (50:02)[edit]

Science or Fiction (1:08:53)[edit]

Item #1: New evidence supports the theory that climatic change, specifically progressive desertification, was largely responsible for the extinction of Australian megafauna about 30 thousand years ago. Item #2: New research finds that humans can subconsciously hear a sound delay as brief as 40ms and use that delay to judge the distance of objects. Item #3: Researchers find that the electric eel uses short runs of electrical pulses to cause the muscles of fish prey to contract, thereby giving away their location.

Star Wars With SGU (1:22:41)[edit]

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:25:45)[edit]

"Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics." - Steven Pinker

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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