SGU Episode 580

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SGU Episode 580
August 20th 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 579                      SGU 581

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


F: Fraser Cain

Quote of the Week

I need sceptical, clever, critical. Sceptical and critical, remember? Be strong, even if it breaks your heart.

The Twelfth Doctor, Dr. Who

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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 Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, August 17th, 2016; and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

11 Year Old Girl Going to College (1:47)[edit]

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (4:24)[edit]

  • Janet Rowley

S: Well, Bob, maybe one day she's gonna be a not-so-forgotten superhero of science.

B: Sure, but not this week, because this week, for Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm talking about Janet Rowley (1925 to 2013), who was a geneticist, and who was the first person to link chromosomal abnormalities to Leukemia and other cancers.

Rowley entered university at fifteen (you know, not quite twelve, but fifteen is still impressive). She was clearly gifted, and she received her Bachelor's degree at nineteen. And when she went to the university's medical school, she actually had to wait nine months to enroll because at that time, the school had already accepted their quota of women for the year; and that quota was three in a class of sixty-five. She was the fourth one, and she had to wait nine months because of that quota. Three out of sixty-five. That's just incredible.

Rowley was described in the New York Times in 2011 as the Matriarch of modern cancer genetics, and with good reason. She found that abnormal genetic swaps between two chromosomes, something that's called, “translocations,” were often the cause of cancer, and not merely a consequence of it, which is what the leading idea was at that time.

She started finding more swaps between other chromosomes, each causing different types of Leukemia and other cancers. But now, today, there's hundreds of these translocations that have been identified. She basically established cancer as a genetic disease. Her findings led to treatments. For example, Glievik, which treats chronic milogenous, Steve?

S: Milogenous.

B: Milogenous Leukemia, okay, that's what I thought. That was my second choice. That's CML, for people that had CML decades ago, diagnosis used to be three to five years. You would have three to five years living. Now, because of some of the work that she did, now ninety percent of them are cured, and live normal lives. So amazing impact.

So remember Janet Rowley. Mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing quiocrine flourescence and gemsistaining.

C: Like you do.

S: Yeah, actually the field of genetics inducing cancers – predisposition to cancers, the genetic changes that cause cancer was huge. Still a very active area of research, and that is driving a lot of our progress in treating cancers. It's a huge field.

B: Right. Not only what's causing it, but also how to treat it and Janet Rowley was a huge pioneer in that field.

S: Absolutely.

News Items[edit]

Chemtrails (7:00)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, you're gonna start us off with the news items by telling us about chemtrails.

J: I am! Chemtrails – we've all heard of them – but what the heck are they? For those of you who don't ...

C: (Whispering) They're not real.

J: know, yeah.

(Rogues laugh)

J: They're first, don't confuse chemtrails with contrails. Contrails are a combination of frozen water vapor and aircraft engine exhaust, right? So, this is all that you are actually seeing that comes out the back of a jet when it's flying at high altitude. The water vapor freezes because of the very low temperature up there at the cruising altitude – five to ten miles, or eight to sixteen kilometers above the surface of the Earth.

Chemtrails are also not cloud seeding or crop dusting. The chemtrail conspiracy theory – people have also referred to chemtrails as covert geoengineering – is an unproven theory that high flying aircraft deliberately spray chemicals or biological agents into the atmosphere for a host of evil purposes.

What evil purposes you ask, Cara? Well, how about psychological manipulation, human population control, weather modification, biological or chemical warfare.

C: How would that work, Jay?

J: Well, let me explain it to you, because the rabbit hole begins here. The chemtrail conspiracy theorists, they also claim that chemtrails are causing respiratory illness and other various health problems, and damage to the environment.

Chemtrails are the product of something called, “SLAP,” or Secret Large-scale Atmospheric spraying Program. Now I would have this secret organization called, “CRAP,” C-R-A-P, that stands for Chemtrails Are Really Pathetic.

(Evan laughs)

B: Jay, would you describe yourself as anti-SLAP?

J: I'm anti-SLAP! Bob, good job!

E: Hey, way to tie it all in.

J: To summarize, what we have here is extreme anomaly hunting, where those who believe in chemtrails claim that contrails do not last as long as chemtrails in the atmosphere, that broken or colored contrails are not normal. They could take on swirls and shapes and things like that.

The problem is that chemtrail believers have zero scientific evidence backing their claims, of course, and there's no proof that the lines that they see in the sky are full of harmful, deliberately sprayed chemicals. Not to mention that, you know, how many thousands of people would all have to know about this conspiracy and be quiet about it?

So I called up our friend, Joe Anderson, who has been a professional airline pilot for the last twelve years. And Joe and I had a real awesome conversation tonight. We talked about the TV show, “Stranger Things,” among other things, which is a freaking ...

S: Awesome show.

J: awesome TV show, especially if you're ...

C: So good.

J: in the age range to appreciate it. But Joe and I came up, just from a pilot's perspective, and from the mathematical perspective. So think about this: First of all, pilots have to know their airplanes really well. They don't just have a vague idea of the airplane that they're flying. They have an extraordinarily detailed understanding of the aircraft. So they would notice weird activity in and around the aircraft, right? Wouldn't they? Don't 'cha think they would? Don't you think they'd know that ...

C: Unless they're in on the conspiracy.

J: Exactly! Interesting. Great point, Cara. So let's do a little mathematical fun here, real quick. If all the pilots were in the know, then it would be ridiculous to think that they're all keeping it quiet, because there's an estimated sixty thousand professional airline pilots in the United States alone, right?

E: Yes, it's probably active, and then there are retired ones as well.

C: Oh yeah.

J: So even if a quarter of that (and whatever, I'm just pulling numbers out of my butt at this point), but let's say a quarter of them were in the know, that's a hu-u-uge number; tens of thousands of pilots would have to be in on it and keeping it perfectly quiet. Now, let's say ...

B: Right, Jay. Real quick though, this ties into a very interesting talk we gave months ago that described grand conspiracy theories based on how many people knew about it; and from there they extrapolated how long it would take to fall apart. The more people involved ... so, for something like this, this chemtrail conspiracy; with so many people, it would literally fall apart within months, if not even days. People would be coming out, saying, “They made me do this. Here's the proof: Blah, blah, blah.” So it's so ridiculous!

J: So you have, the first idea is: All the pilots know about it, and they're quiet. The second idea is: None of the pilots know about it, and they all would have to be ... the chemtrails would have to be hidden from that many people. Ridiculous, right?

But let's not forget the ground crew, which greatly outnumber the pilots. So we're not just talking about sixty thousand pilots in the United States, as an example, but there's probably ten to one, twenty to one ground crew involved with an airplane taking off, including the guy that drives the food up to the airplane. All of those people would have to be either completely blocked from it, or completely indoctrinated.

Back to the whole point to this news item, which is actually the real interesting thing here is: There was a survey. So, in an international survey, seventeen percent of the general public say that they believe in chemtrails in some degree. So, to put that theory to rest, Christine Sheer, Mic West, Ken Calderia, and Steven J. Davis published a paper on August 10th, 2016 where they surveyed two groups of expert atmospheric chemists with expertise in condensation, trails, and geochemists working on atmospheric deposition of dust and pollution.

S: Ah, what do they know?

J: They were asked to scientifically evaluate the claims made by chemtrail conspiracy theorists. And this is really cool, guys. Here are the results: Seventy-six of the seventy-seven scientists (ninety-eight point seven percent of them) that were part of the study, they claim that they have not found evidence that chemtrails are real, and that they claimed evidence of chemtrails can be explained with well-understood physics and chemistry associated with aircraft contrails and atmospheric aerosols. The one ...

C: But what about the other guy?

J: Yeah, let's talk about that one other guy.

C: (Chuckles) Oh my gosh!

E: The hold out.

J: He or she said (this was the other person), they discovered evidence reported that they came across quote-unquote, “High levels of atmospheric barium in a remote area with standard low soil barium.”

Okay, they found a reading that was out of the ordinary, but that doesn't prove this grand conspiracy theory under any interpretation, but I will take that as the one person reserving the ability to say, “Maybe there are chemtrails or not,” but the vast majority ...

S: No, but actually, if you read deeper into the study, Jay, so they were just saying, “Yeah, there's high levels of atmospheric barium in remote areas.” But then when asked, “Do you think this is evidence of SLAP?” They said, “No.” A hundred percent said there's no evidence of SLAP.

J: So there you have it.

S: Yeah.

J: There it is. So another thing that happened was all the scientists were shown images of supposed chemtrails, and they all agreed that there was no evidence of chemtrails, and all the images could be explained with simple, scientifically plausible explanations. As an example, light refracting through the ice crystals that are left by the jet, the contrail of the jet. Those ice crystals would refract light as they go through it and possibly pick up a hue of a different color, or reflecting light from a different part of the atmosphere, coming from somewhere else, right? That's super-plausible, very easy to explain why sometimes you see different colors. It's not them actually seeing chemical inside the contrail.

So this study now firmly puts the chemtrail community on the hot seat, because the scientists have given these rational explanations for all of the observable quote-unquote, “phenomena” that are witnessed. The conspiracy theorists, if they don't have better, or more compelling explanations than the scientists do, then their claims are now formally disproved, and that's it.

S: It's also, I like the fact that scientists are publishing in the peer reviewed literature, smacking down conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

C: Yeah, that's great.

S: That alone is just awesome.

E: Yeah, we need more of that.

S: Yeah, we need a lot more of that.

J: Yeah, because once they do that, once they draw that line in the sand, it gives a formal reference, so new people don't get duped. They have something legitimate to look up and digest.

S: Okay, let's move on.

Sugar Hyperactivity (15:13)[edit]

S: Cara,

C: Yes?

S: You're gonna address a very, very common and persistent myth about sugar. Tell us about this.

C: It's true. So, I think most people just assume that if you feed a kid sugar, it will make them hyper. This is an age-old question, or an age-old kind of truism, a conventional wisdom as it were. And it reminds me a little bit of the conversations that we've been having recently on the show, like about flossing, or last week we talked about Olympic pseudoscience; and a lot of times, when something is conventional wisdom, there's just not a lot of research that covers it, because there's just kind of assumed that it's true. I think that the sugar and hyperactivity link fits within that umbrella, but there is some solid research.

Now, this isn't a new topic, but it is resurfacing, in the media, there was coverage in a Live-Science article by Laura Gacal this week. And that kind of peaked my interest. She sort of points to the fact that most of the studies on this topic show that there is actually no link between sugar intake, and hyperactivity. But what it really seems to come down to is good old confirmation bias.

So, for example, Dr. Mark Wolraike (I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly), he's the chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center. And he's been studying this so-called “link,” or lack thereof, since the 1990's. And he himself says, researchers simply haven't been able to find it.

So here's a quote from him, “If a parent believes that sugar affects their children's behavior, their ideas are reinforced by seeing it in those circumstances.” And he continues, “The body will normally regulate those sugars. If it needs it, it will use the energy. If it doesn't need it, it will convert it to fat for storage.”

So I think the first thing to remember is basically how metabolism works. And the truth of the matter is, our bodies are very good at regulating the different types of nutritive substances that we intake. So if a child has a normal nutritional amount in their system, and then they eat sugar, it's very likely that they'll utilize the sugar that they need as energy (like we've talked about, converting it to ATP, all that good stuff), and that if they don't need it, it will downstream, and end up being stored as fat.

Now, the only time when we might actually see a significant difference in behavior is if somebody is suffering from low blood sugar, and they're sluggish; they actually have negative symptoms associated with low blood sugar. Generally speaking, eating food in general, but sometimes that food may be made up of sugar (might be carbohydrate food), could actually affect the behavior, meaning that it brings it back to baseline.

But there are some studies that have been done. So one of the earliest ones in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, all the way back in 1994, actually showed that this confirmation bias is really important in I think the societal understanding of sugar ingestion, and the interaction of parents with their children, and the expectation of hyperactivity.

So what they did is they took boys, age five to seven, and they randomly assigned them to experimental and control groups. They gave the experimental boys sugar, and they gave the control boys a placebo. They gave them aspertame, which of course is sweet, and tastes like sugar, but it doesn't have sugar in it. And then they watched the parents afterward, the mothers and their sons.

And they found that there was no significant difference in behavior of the children, but the mothers were actually very different towards the kids who thought that they received sugar. So they tended to be more critical, they tended to interact with their sons more often, and to be much more in control. So they actually found that there was a significant difference in the expectation and the action when parents thought their kids had ingested sugar.

Another study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed no significant difference between kids that were given sugar and kids that were given controls. This time they were given both sacharine and aspertame – so there were two different negative control groups, and there's no significant difference there.

And then later on, that same scientist that I quoted did a meta analysis, and they were trying to find all of the studies that they could find up to that point that were good, solid studies, and at that point in time (this was in the '90's also), they were only able to find sixteen studies that met all of their inclusion criteria, but across these sixteen studies, they found that there was no significant difference in behavior or cognitive performance of children that had taken sugar either in the short term or the long term. So there have been different studies that showed either single-doses or controlled diets over a long period of time.

I think the question here is why does this myth persist? And I think the answer is that because we think it's supposed to. And the truth of the matter is if you've ever been in a situation where you think of kids eating sugar and getting crazy, it's commonly a situation where there's some other variable present, right? It's either that the babysitter is there; the mother-in-law is watching the kids. ;maybe it's Hallowe'en; maybe it's a birthday party, where there're a lot of sugary substances that are present. And so we think of those things as being the cause for the hyperactivity in the children, when in actuality it's just the excitement of change, it's the excitement of a party, and honestly, it's the excitement of putting a whole bunch of kids together in a room and seeing what happens.

I also love that one article in a health magazine called, “Spectator Health,” in the UK, working on debunking this sugar rush myth – this was published this year, actually, in 2016 in February. The very first comment on this article says, “Great article. If you remain unconvinced, and you're a parent of toddlers, I suggest you serve nothing but savory low-sugar snacks at your next children's party. Your house will still see the same level of destruction.”

S: Yeah. I have spoken to so many people about this, and they're utterly, utterly convinced that sugar makes kids hyperactive, and they have a hard time believing me when I tell them the scientific evidence shows absolutely no causal link there.

C: Yeah

S: Yeah, they're just not familiar with how powerful confirmation bias can be. It's just hard to imagine. They see the evidence so many times, but it is, I think, testimony to the power of confirmation bias, or they're making false assumptions about cause and effect. There may even be an association because, as you said, birthday parties, et cetera.

But even without that, just in day to day life, usually the anecdotes they give are just from everyday life. And it's part of ... it's funny how it works sometimes. It's like, the kid's acting hyperactive, and then the parent asks, “Oh, did they get any sugar?” And if the answer's “yes,” that confirms for them that the sugar made them hyperactive. But of course, they don't ask the question, “Did the kid get any sugar,” if he weren't hyperactive.

So that's the toupee fallacy, right? They're only asking when they're looking for the positive confirming evidence. They're never asking for the disconfirming evidence. That's all part of confirmation bias as well.

C: And think about how common these two events that we tend to correlate in our minds are. Eating sugar, which all kids do quite often ...

S: Oh yeah.

C: and hyperactivity, which all kids are quite often. I mean, these are normal – like you said – everyday occurrences, and it's so much easier, I think, for confirmation bias to take hold when these things that are quite common, when this is so socially acceptable, when every single person is talking about it all the time.

It's not like the kid's hyperactive and you say, “Oh, did he eat squid today?” You know, which may not be very common ...

S: Yeah

C: in your household. It's sugar!

S: Did he breathe today?

C: Everything! Yeah, exactly. (Rogues laugh) It's like, of course!

E: Must be sugar!

C: Yep.

S: Kids find a way to get access to sugar.

C: It's so true!

S: They do. And if you ask about it, the answer's probably gonna be yes. When I was doing some background research for this piece, I looked up the “Twinkie” defence. Do you guys remember that?

B: Oh wait ...

C: Oh no! Did somebody say their kids ate Twinkies, so that's why they like ...

E: The Twinkie defence?

C: hurt somebody?

S: No, this goes back to 1978, Dan White, who is the guy who murdered Harvey Milk ...

C: Oh

E: Right, right.

S: Remember that? George Boscoe and Harvey Milk?

E: That I remember!

S: And he got off on premeditated murder, and was convicted of manslaughter. Part of his defence was that he was mentally compromised, and therefore not able to perform a truly premeditated act. Now this was widely reported in the media that the lawyers got him off by saying that he was so hopped up on junk food and sugar that that made him mentally compromised. And that became known as the Twinkie defence.

B: (Chuckles) I love it!

S: You guys don't remember all this?

E: Wow! No, I don't remember that!

S: Oh my god!

C: I saw a documentary about Harvey Milk too.

S: Yeah, but here's the thing:

B: Tell me about the Twinkie, Steve.

S: It's not true. It's a myth. So the actual argument that the lawyers made were that he was depressed, and his major depression is what mentally compromised him; and they offered as evidence that he was depressed, changes in his eating habits, that he was relying more on eating junk food.

So they weren't saying that the junk food made him compromised, just that the junk food was evidence that he was depressed, and the depression made him compromised.

B: Oh my god!

S: But the media skipped the middle part there, and jumped ...

B: Damn you media!

S: coined the phrase, “The Twinkie defence,” and that ...

E: That's it. That's what stuck.

S: That's what stuck.

C: I blame Nancy Grace.

S: Yeah

C: I know that she wasn't on TV yet, but I still blame Nancy Grace! (Laughs)

E: Oh gosh. Don't get me started on Nancy Grace!

S: (Accent) Don't get me sh'tarted.

Augmented Reality Cognitive Load (25:57)[edit]

Fifth Force (37:16)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (44:11)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Miss Cleo

What's the Word (46:41)[edit]

  • Flocculation

S: Cara, What's the Word this week?

C: The word this week is flocculation.

S: Ooh!

C: O-o-ooh! Which doesn't sound good. Wouldn't like that one, flocculation.

S: Sounds like a dirty word.

C: It does sound kinda dirty. Flocculation is the production of floccules, or flocc, which are wooly, downy, or fluffy masses from a colloidal suspension. So that means that the individual particles within the suspension aren't actually fully in solution, like a traditional solution. They're actually still suspended in there. So it's a little bit different from precipitation in that way.

Flocculation is actually a clarifying process that's necessary for water purification. But specifically, this week, the word flocculation was recommended by listener Adam Bering, who reached out via Facebook. He says that he learned the word from home beer brewing. But in the brewing process, flocculation actually has a slightly different meaning. So I looked on some brewing blogs, and learned what I could.

Apparently, in brewing, there are three core processes. There's pitching, attenuation, and flocculation. Pitching is the addition of yeast wart to start the fermentation process. Attenuation is the amount of sugar that yeast consumes during fermentation. And flocculation is the process by which the yeast itself comes together, and then drops to the bottom of the fermenter. So, in that way, it's a little bit similar, but it doesn't come out as floccules.

I found some more info: Most quote, “wild yeast” doesn't flocculate well, and tends to remain in suspension for too long a period of time. So, brewers, over history, have continuously collected yeast from the bottom and the top of their fermenters, and in doing that, have artificially selected for more flocculent strains that are better for beer brewing. I thought that was pretty interesting.

The noun, flocculation was first coined in 1875, and it comes from the root, flocculate. That verb comes from the Latin floccus, meaning flock of wool, 'cause it looks like wool.

S: Cool

C: Yeah

S: That is one of those words that could sound like a lot of different things if you just use it a certain way, you know what I mean?

C: (Laughing) Yep!

S: Oh! You've got a really flocculent rash there.


C: And the funny thing is, you could potentially be describing woolly or kind of downy masses. Like, if somebody had a rash

S: Yeah

C: that had fluffy-looking masses, they'd probably be reasonable to call it a flocculent rash.

E: Flocc you!

S: Jay likes to flocculate when he's alone.


S: It's a perfectly cromulent word.

C: It really is!

E: It is now!

C: It really is!


(Commercial at 49:29)

Interview with Fraser Cain (50:56)[edit]

(It is based on anonymous rumor from a team member, not actual data)

Science or Fiction (1:06:11)[edit]

(Science or Fiction music)
It's time for Science or Fiction

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:23:36)[edit]

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

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.

Today I Learned:[edit]


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