SGU Episode 410

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SGU Episode 410
25th May 2013

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 409                      SGU 411

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


RS: Richard Saunders

Quote of the Week

What do you think science is? There's nothing magical about science. It is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. Which part of that exactly do you disagree with? Do you disagree with being thorough? Using careful observation? Being systematic? Or using consistent logic?

Steven Novella on Reddit

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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 22, 2013 and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey, guys.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Good evening, everyone.

S: And we have a special guest rogue this week, all the way from Australia: Richard Saunders!

RS: And in my case, it's good morning everybody.

S: (chuckling) Good morning, Richard.

All: Richard!

RS: Hey!

E: Top of the morning.

R: Oh, see, that's what we've been forgetting, Evan, when you do your greetings from around the world, you should have been doing them in the local time zone.

E: You think so?

RS: Oh yeah; that's always a good idea.

E: Or I could just do what I've been doing. Yeah! I could do that too.

S: So, Richard, how are you been?

RS: I've been really well; I've been traveling and in fact, I had the great pleasure of bumping into a certain Rebecca Watson a few weeks ago in the Czech Republic.

R: That's right; that was a pleasant surprise.

RS: It was great. We were both the guests of a scientific film festival called AFO in Olomouc in the Czech Republic. Academia Film Festival in Olomouc. And it was just a really fantastic time. So um... yeah. I've been busy; I've been traveling; I went to Norway; I went to Ireland; I went to the UK giving talks in all those countries. And before long I'll be getting on a plane heading for TAM Las Vegas.

S: Excellent. That'll be the next time that we'll see you, in Las Vegas. Looking forward to it.

RS: Yeah. Looking forward to that.

S: So, you've had a lot of—you've had some projects you've been working on, too, as well as traveling around the world.

RS: I'm always working on projects, Steve; you know me. I think, personally, the biggest thing I've been working on was my very own radio adventure or audio adventure, so to speak, inspired by the good old-fashioned radio adventures of years gone past and I finally wrote it, produced it, and got the Skeptic Zone gang together. And it's called "Solar Flare", it's a big sort of adventurous space opera starring none other than Jay Novella as a special guest villain.

R: Ooh.

J: (laughs) Yes. So Richard emails me with dialogue and he goes... he gives me a very short description, right? He didn't really want to go into too much detail. I was trying to get some feedback, Richard, if you remember, I'm like, "what do you want?" and you're like, "just do it".

RS: (laughs) Yes. Well, I didn't want to give too much away.

J: I put on, like, a voice that I thought would fit the genre and I... after I heard it produced and edited in, you know, I didn't even have anybody else to play off of, it was just me pretending in my head that I'm hearing the other person's lines. And it was so much fun!

R: You're used to hearing other people's voices in your head, though.

J: Oh yeah, believe me, I don't... it really wasn't a deficit for me at all; I'm really—

S: I like to pretend out of my head. That's always better.

J: But I... I listen to an early cut and I love it. I mean, Richard, you really did something excellent. I think the whole project is awesome and you had... now, who did you have on your end do voice acting?

RS: We had everybody involved in the Skeptic Zone; as many people... Dr. Rachie, of course; Eran Segev, Jo Benhamu, Stephan. All the people who work—Maynard—on the Skeptic Zone—I got as many of them together in one room as possible, 'cause you can't get everybody together in one room... on the same day. And for a couple of hours, we recorded dialogue into some good microphones. And then I got the rest of the cast scattered around the world, including yourself and other people in the United States to send in their lines, like you did. And then it was up to me to put them all together; it was like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Add sound effects; add music... it took months to put it all together, but finally I did it. Something I've always wanted to do: make a radio audio adventure. And it's got excellent reactions; people love it; they're writing in, telling me that certain parts of their anatomy had fallen off from laughing... while they're listening to it.

R: Uhhhh. I don't think that's supposed to happen. I don't want to alarm anybody.

J: It's that funny, Rebecca, OK? Especially the part I'm in. It's that good.

B: Well, Richard, how could we hear it?

RS: If you go to, which is the web page for the Skeptic Zone podcast, the Podcast for Science and Reason from Sydney, Australia, and scroll down just a little bit, you'll see there it is: "Solar Flare: a Space Adventure."

E: Sweet.

This Day in Skepticism (04:35)[edit]

May 25 - Geek Pride Day

R: Hey, speaking of, happy dork day, everybody.

J: (laughs)

B: Dork day?

E: Excuse me?

S: Dork day?

E: What part of the body?

R: I'm sorry. I mean, happy Geek Pride Day, everybody.

RS: That's better.

E: That's—that's the—

S: Geek Pride?

R: I don't know; Geek Pride is a bit funny because, I mean, maybe in the 80's or something, the idea of geek pride had some sort of necessity, but today the geeks rule the world, so you don't really need a Geek Pride Day.

J: Rebecca, I have a question for you.

R: Yes.

J: Are all geeks dorks or do you have to be a geek to be a dork?

R: No. Not all geeks are dorks.

B: What about nerds?

R: And in fact, most geeks these days are not dorks.

J: OK, are all dorks geeks?

R/RS: No.

R: Because I think geek requires a vast amount of knowledge about a particular subject—

E: "Dork" is more of a derogatory term.

R: —but dork does not.

RS: I think there were dorks long before there were geeks.

B: The real battle is between geeks and nerds.

R: Yes.

B: Those are the real heavyweights.

R: But that's a... we could do an entire podcast on taxonomy of...


R: ...of nerds and geeks and dorks. So, May 25th is Geek Pride Day, which started around 2006, like the first Geek Pride celebration was like a Spanish day called Dia del Orgullo Friki—I completely butchered that; I apologize to all of our Spanish speakers in the audience. But it's—May 25th is notable for several reasons. Number one, it was the day in 1977 that Star Wars: A New Hope was released.

S: Or as we know it back then: Star Wars.

E: Right, Star Wars.

R: Indeed. It's also Towel Day, which is probably most appropriate for listeners to this podcast. Towel Day comes from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books; the idea being that today you must... you should carry your towel around with you at all times because it's the handiest tool you could possibly own, according to Douglas Adams.

J: Well, Rebecca, it's not just that; you have to always know where your towel is.

S: It's critical.

R: Well, I mean, if you're carrying it with you.

E: My favorite line from that part of the book says, "any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with."

B: And don't forget the best towels are soaked in nutrients and have little tools and gadgets embedded in them. Those are the high-end ones.

R: There's one other reason why May 25th is considered Geek Pride Day, and that is because it is the Glorious 25th of May, which is referenced in Terry Pratchett's series Discworld, which I haven't read yet and it's on my list; like, one of my next books to read, so no spoilers.

S: They all die at the end.

R: Aaaaah.

B: No, they don't. It's all a dream.

S: Turns out they were dead the whole time. How many movies can you say that about? Well, happy Geek Day, everyone. Rebecca, when you sent me this item, I mis-read it as Greek Pride Day, and I'm like, "what the hell does Star Wars have to do with Greek Pride Day?"

R: That's actually like next week, though; I'm not even kidding. I was just talking to my friend about how in Buffalo there's a Geek Pride Festival thing coming up and it's a lot of fun because they set cheese on fire.

S: Flaming cheese. Got it.

News Items[edit]

McCormick Sentenced (07:52)[edit]

S: All right. Well, Jay, you're going to give us a quick update on the fake bomb detector sellers con artists scumbag.

J: Yeah, we talked about this three or four episodes ago[1]. The guy that faked these bomb detectors that ended up being fancy-looking divining rods, James McCormick, we finally found out that he's going to jail for 10 years. I don't think 10 years is even close to long enough for what this guy actually did. So let me give—for those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, real quick... James McCormick decided that he was going to take a novelty golf ball... like, finder—it's like a joke gift that you would give somebody; they actually found some place to buy these in bulk—and he modified them, put some stickers on them and then ended up selling them to governments as bomb detectors. And then what he did, once he started making some money is he made his own and it looked a lot more robust and a lot cooler but the bottom line is that it didn't really do any—this new one didn't do anything either, and what his whole premise was... if you take a piece of the substance—a bomb, whatever it is—money that you're looking for, whatever you're trying to find with the detector, and you put it in a jar along with one of these stickers that supposedly absorbs the essence of whatever the substance is, then you take that piece of paper or the sticker and you put it inside the detector, the detector would then be able to detect that substance. Now, when you go to the airport and they do this to you, they rub you down with that little swab and they put it in a machine, that machine is actually smelling the swab and seeing if there's any molecules of bomb residue or whatever they're looking for on it and they can look for a lot of different things with that. This machine isn't doing that. See, this machine doesn't have any electronic devices in it. This machine is not doing anything. It's a divining rod. And he was selling these to governments under the idea that they could detect anything, virtually anything, at huge distances; you know, miles underground, and whatever it is that you wanted. It's an amazingly versatile machine taht could do all these different things. Well, turns out that people actually died because of this guy. These were being used at checkpoints that indeed had bombs exploded and people were injured or died because of this. So some of these quotes that came from it were, "Judge Richard Hone said, 'You are the driving force and sole director behind this fraud. The device was useless, the profit outrageous, and your culpability as a fraudster has to be considered to be of the highest order.'" So they weren't kidding when they passed sentence on this guy. A lot of a lot of people were blogging about this and chiming in; there was a lot of people upset about it and I actually, like I said earlier, I don't think 10 years is even close enough. It's great and they did seize his money and you know, people are getting compensated that were injured and governments that spent a lot of money on this are being compensated, but 10 years?

B: And Jay, that's the maximum sentence. That surprised me. That—I mean, you could make an argument that he was directly related to the injuring and killing hundreds, if not thousands of people, and that's the maximum?

S: He clearly wasn't convicted for that. He was only convicted, I guess, for the fraud; not for the death of people... or death or injury of people who suffered because of those detectors were in use.

B: They should've charged him with more, then.

S: Well, in his the sentencing, the judge did note that this is the maximum sentence he can give and he justified that. He also noted that while it can't be proven that his actions led—directly led to any death or injury, it is probable that it did. So perhaps that was the reason that they weren't able to legally prove that he directly caused any deaths. And also it should be noted that he's only going to spend five of those ten years in custody and then five on parole. Unless, or course, he violates his parole.

RS: Jay, one of the things I find most interesting about this sort of story is, because this is something I've been studying for many years, ever since I've been into skepticism, is the water divining action, or what we call the ideomotor action, is why the water divining rods move and twitch and swing and all the rest of it. And what is fascinating to me is that there would have been soldiers trained, if you could use that term, into using these devices who would've been also convinced that the things worked, because they'd walk along and the rods would be moving back and forth. It's a really interesting area of psychology.

J: Yeah, I agree. I thought about that, Richard, you know, when you have these people that are actually using the device, walking up and down lanes of cars and they're saying that they're getting an effect, but after a certain amount of time of false positives, you'd figure that they would even come to the conclusion that's BS.

S: But Jay, the device always works, except when it doesn't.

R: And there's no witnesses.

E: That's ironclad in a court.

S: It's superstitious thinking; I mean, or confirmation bias. You can convince yourself that it works even when there's absolutely no effect whatsoever.

RS: There are many arguments along that line; I've heard people say, "well, if it only works 10% of the time, then it works" and arguments like this.

B: Below chance.

J: One more quick quote that I think paints a really clear picture here of what's going on. Detective Superintendent Nigel Rock was talking about what the judge was saying inside the courtroom and he said, "And finally, and perhaps most importantly, he has shown no shame, he has shown no remorse, and he carried on with complete cavalier disregard for the consequences of his con-trick."

S: Yeah. In other words, he is a psychopath.

RS: Yeah.

S: All right. Well, you know, at least he got 10 years. It's better than nothing.

RS: I wonder if he's a naturopath too.

Meteroid hits Moon (13:17)[edit]

S: All right, Bob; you're going to tell us about an asteroid smacking into the moon. We actually saw it.

B: Yeah, some people I'm sure did. Guys did you see—find that this news item was everywhere? The past week, everywhere I looked, it's like this thing was just in my face. But last March, a meteoroid struck the moon that was visible to the naked eye if you happened to be looking at the right place and the right time. I keep—when things like this happen, I just keep thinking how awesome it would be if you could actually—if you just happened to be looking up and saw that. And I of course I was thinking today as I was pulling together my notes, that no psychics predicted this. Obviously, right? I mean, all it would take—if one psychic predicted something like this just once or twice—if you did this twice, that would be very compelling. I don't know. I always think about that when things like this happen.

S: Yeah.

E: Do you guys catch yourself when you're looking at the moon that you're... you know, in the back your mind, like, what if there's an impact while I'm looking at the moon? I think about that often.

B: Oh yeah.

RS: It has crossed my mind once or twice, especially when I'm in your part of the world and the moon's upside-down.

B: (chuckles) So what are the stats—what were the stats of this bad boy? This was a meteoroid; sure you guys know the difference between... a meteoroid is in space; a meteor is within an atmosphere and a meteorite is on the ground. So this meteoroid was reportedly the size of a small boulder, about a foot or a third of a meter across, and I think it weighed about 88 pounds. I'd call that a big rock, wouldn't you? I wouldn't call that a small boulder. A foot?

S: What's the cutoff? What's the official definition?

B: It's subjective but a foot across? That's a big rock. It's not a small boulder. But, it hit the Mare Imbrium. I love that name, and it was going about—

E: I hope they're OK.

B: —56,000 miles an hour or 90 thousand—

E: They're not OK.

B: —90,000 kilometers an hour, so this thing was really booking and as I often say, that's a hell of a lot of kinetic energy. NASA thinks it was the equivalent of about 5 tons of TNT. So it was pretty pretty big. They actually have a video of it online, so go to check that out. As I said, it was visible to the naked eye; in fact, they estimate that it was as bright—I guess it's not an estimation if they've got it on tape, they know—it was as bright as a fourth-magnitude star. I'm going to just briefly go into this classification; it's interesting. The Greeks first classified stars by their brightness in this way. It was all naked eye; the brightest was a one and the dimmest thing they could see in the sky was a 6. And we've kind of adapted that system and extended it a bit. So Hubble can see—what do you guys think Hubble can see? If the human eye can just barely make out a magnitude six star, what do you think the Hubble can see?

S: 25?

RS: 362.

S: Good guess, Steve; it's 30. Magnitude 30, so incredibly, incredibly dim. And it's important to know that each each subsequent number is 2.5 times dinner or brighter, depending in which direction you're going. Just for example, Sirius, the brightest star is a negative 1.4, the full moon is a negative 12.6, and the Sun is a negative 26.8, so very, very bright. Now the explosion itself was interesting; it's different on the moon than it would have been on the Earth, right? Because there's no atmospheric gases to ignite on the moon, obviously. So the photons that we saw came from superheated vapors and molten rock, so there was no ignited atmosphere. And this was also—

R: That was so disappointing. Really disappointing. It was like—all these headlines, like "explosion on the moon!" And then I watched it and I was like, oh.

E: Yeah, one pixel. It could have been like a computer mosaic error or something.

B: No, it was... this actually over-saturated some of the recording devices. This type of event is just unprecedented, in terms of the monitoring they've been doing. This was news-worthy not only because anyone could have seen it, but also because it was biggest impact ever observed, by an order of magnitude. So this was 10 times brighter than anything that's been recorded, since they began systematically looking for these events starting in 2005. They see about 300 of these a year. So I guess that would mean that there's, what, 600 then, if you factor in the dark side of the moon. So that's 600 events like this and this is the brightest they've seen in ten years. They looked not only because it's interesting to do that, but they also did it for the safety of future moon inhabitants. And I hadn't considered that, but yeah. If you're going to be living on the moon, and I hope someday soon people will be, you're going to need to know what you're dealing with in terms of impacts. And ironically, big impacts like this—they aren't even the main concern for these future inhabitants of Moon Base Alpha, It's the tiny millimeter-sized impacts that are the thing that's going to be really nasty, these micrometeoroids; they're much more common, as you might imagine, 'cause they're a lot tinier. They can put a hole in your spacesuit or your habitat module very easily, so those things are kind of scary. For that reason they would probably have to—and other reasons, they'd probably have to bury these modules underground if they could, to escape them. And I recently came across a news item—you guys hear this? Astronauts recently found a hole in one of the solar panels of the space station caused by one of these micrometeoroids. So these things are nasty; they could really do you in. And one last thing that was interesting: it turns out that this entire event was part of a shower of meteoroids that hit the moon and Earth all around the same time and they calculated their orbits and they had almost identical orbits between the Earth and the asteroid belt. So this is—this could be a swarm of meteoroids that could happen annually. So next year, you know that they're going to be looking for this kind of thing to see if they can discern a pattern, so they could help out—so they would know and potentially help out any moon denizens in the future. So, cool stuff.

S: Bob, I believe that the meteoroid was in fact a boulder. Do you know what the official cut-off is?

B: No I don't, obviously.

S: 256 millimeters in diameter.

B: What?

S: Little bit less than a foot in diameter.

B: I disagree with that entirely.

R: Why... who determines that?

J: I'm shocked.

B: That's baloney.

E: The boulder lobby out of Washington.

B: Come on. Then what's a rock?

J: This is ridiculous.

S: The geological society or something? And... what do you call a rock that is between 64 and 256 millimeters?

R: Wait, I've heard this one.

B: A rock!

E: Stone.

B: A nano-boulder. Nano-boulder.

E: Semi-boulder. Hemi-boulder.

R: Boulderoid.

S: It's called a cobblestone.

B: Oh my God.

R: Really?

E: Oh, I like that.

J: Is that where cobblestones come from?


RS: Cobblestones come from cobblestones; it all makes sense.

R: Oh, God.

S: I don't know why 64 and 256 they're... um.

E: 256.

S: Yeah, multiples of two. You know... just like kilobytes or megabytes or whatever.

RS: Yes, yes.

S: Whatever. 64 to 256 is a cobblestone; greater than 256 is a boulder.

B: That's crazy talk.

DSM-5 (20:20)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on. You guys familiar with the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual?

B: Yes, I am.

R: Indeed.

E: My doctor says I am.

RS: Oh, I have one right here.

R: Read it cover to cover.

B: From reading your blog.

S: It is very fine, very entertaining read. So the DSM has been in the news recently because version 5 was just released by the American Psychological Association [sic]. And the DSM has been shrouded in controversy for decades. Basically, this is the official list of mental illnesses and disorders, of diagnoses; essentially they're clinical diagnosis determined by a list of symptoms—signs and symptoms and this became the standard that insurance companies use for reimbursement, FDA uses for indications of medications and has also become important in defining research as well; if you're doing research into mental illness, traditionally studies would follow DSM diagnoses. Like, for example, schizophrenia; you would research into something associated with the official DSM diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder or major depression or whatever. Each time a revision comes along, there's always a lot of discussion about which diseases were created, which ones were eliminated, which ones were combined or separated out. For example, this time around hoarding is now its own disorder. It's no longer considered to be—

B: Oh wow

S: —part of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

B: Interesting.

R: Do you think—it that an effect of reality TV, seriously?

S: I was wondering about that. 'Cause it has its own TV show, it's gotta have—

R: Yeah, because it's—

E: Very popular; very popular.

R: I don't know what's happening, really, in the psychiatric industry at the moment, but yeah, it's like a popular TV show all of a sudden and then bam...

J: By a weird coincidence they made drinking wine, scantily dressed, sitting around with a bunch of other women with big boobs; like, that's its own mental disorder.

R: Real Housewives Syndrome?

J: Yes. Thank you.

B: Guys, I tell you, though: hoarding, just a quick little tangent on hoarding... I helped clean up an apartment of somebody who had died and was a hoarder. O.M.F.G., it was a sight to behold. You know, seeing it on TV is one thing, but when you're walking through it, it's incredible. Just amazing—

J: Well, give us some—tell us some details.

B: Well, basically you would walk in and there was a pathway into the kitchen and there was a pathway to the couch and the TV and that was pretty much it. You really weren't going to do too much more in that place.

E: What else do you need?

B: Well, the bedroom. How about the bedroom?

E: Sleep on the couch.

B: Exactly. The bedroom was covered, like four or five feet high on the bed; everywhere. It took us days and days to clean all that stuff out. It's amazing what people can get used to and what they put themselves through.

S: So, this time around more than any other release, there is another layer to the controversy surrounding the DSM and that is the entire theoretical basis for the DSM itself. Not the implementation or the execution of the DSM in terms of which diagnoses to have, but just the entire idea of basing a mental illness diagnosis on a list of clinical signs and symptoms that are determined by consensus of expert opinion. In fact, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health—and this is really, I think, what spawned the controversy this time around—Thomas Insel, put out a statement saying that the NIMH is no longer going to use the DSM when determining research protocols for for mental illness.

E: What are they going to use?

S: They're going to you something else. So, this is—it's really interesting, because there's multiple layers here. I don't know how much I'm really going to have time to dissect—we can spend a lot of time talking about this. One issue is how evidence-based versus opinion-based are the specific diagnoses? Critics argue that it's largely opinion-based and not terribly evidence-based, however what practitioners say is that—and the people who actually are doing it—is that it's deliberately pragmatic. You know, it's—this is a clinical book; it's not really meant to guide research. It is a pragmatic guideline for clinicians to help patients and is actually more true than you might imagine across the board in medicine. One thing that's been interesting is the psychiatry critics, psychiatry deniers have been using this whole episode to launch another spin campaign against mental illness and against psychiatry. My criticism of their rhetoric—well, I have lots of criticisms, but what they do is they list criticisms of psychiatry as if—and they specifically claim that they are unique to psychiatry, which is just incredibly disingenuous and/or naïve, because there's—none of the criticisms are unique to psychiatry. They all exist to some degree in the rest of medicine. And this conflict between real disease entities and pragmatic disease categories exists in the rest of medicine as well. In fact, we often don't really care as much about giving a patient a specific diagnosis; a specific pathologic—pathophysiological diagnosis—if that diagnosis does not specifically lead to a treatment. What we're interested in is how is the patient presenting and what's the probability of risk versus benefit for an intervention, and an intervention includes a diagnostic test, not just a treatment. So we end up treating based upon risk versus benefit of how patients present, not on, "here's a very specific disease that has a very specific treatment." Obviously that also occurs in medicine but that's probably more of an exception than a rule.

And so psychiatry is no different, really, than the rest of medicine in this regard. And the DSM may be an extreme manifestation of this, where it's all sign- and symptom-based clinical categories based—pragmatically designed for treatment rather than trying to identify specific biological entities. But that's not necessarily a bad thing depending on its purpose. Now we flip it to the NIMH. This is a research organization; they want to do research into mental illness and the director, Thomas Insel, is basically saying that this doesn't work for research, that these entities are not necessarily even valid, biologically. And therefore when we try to do gene studies or brain studies to try to figure out, for example, what OCD is and OCD is not a real category—a real biological category, just a pragmatic clinical category, then that dooms our research to failure, because we are studying something that doesn't really exist. So what he's recommending is actually stepping back from the DSM, from these pragmatic clinical diagnoses and trying to deconstruct how patients with mental illness, what their signs and symptoms are, to try to relate them to a more fundamental neurological function, and then try to really, like... nothing short of completely re-categorizing all of mental illness along biological lines and then using that as a guide towards genetic and neuroscientific studies, function MRI studies. Which is fine; I think as a research approach, that's all fine. If you remember, we recently interviewed Heather Berlin, who does OCD research as a neuroscientist and that's essentially what she said, is that we're trying to get really reductionist, to try to figure out what fundamental unit of neurological function or behavior is really going on here and what's the neurological correlate, the neuro-anatomical correlate of that and let's try to study that, rather than studying entire clinical syndromes, which are a mish-mash of probably many different things. I found that whole discussion very interesting. I think, though, what happens, and I think Thomas Insel went too far in his criticism of the DSM is that it misunderstand the context of the DSM; it is a clinical document, not really supposed to be a guide for research. So I think it's appropriate, rather than say the DSM serves no purpose, but it's more appropriate to say that it shouldn't be used as a straitjacket for research. It probably shouldn't even be used as a straitjacket for insurance company reimbursement, maybe not even FDA drug indication; that all does need to be rethought.

I also totally agree that the DSM diagnoses may not be biologically real entities, discrete entities, and there—but we know that. We know that clinical diagnosis are placeholders. That's what we call something until we understand the pathophysiology. And what's interesting is that if you look at past—back at the last hundred years of medical history, this happens over and over again. We start out with a clinical scheme of diagnosis just describing what we see. And I give tons of examples in the two blog posts I wrote about this during the week. One, for example, is muscular dystrophies. You have entities like fascioscapulohumoral muscular dystrophy or limb-girdle muscular dystrophy. They're just describing where people are weak. It's completely defined clinically; it's inherited; age of onset; pattern of inheritance and pattern of weakness and other clinical signs that occur. And now, fast-forward 50, 60, 70 years, where we start to actually understand the genetic mutations and how those genetic mutations translate into specific muscular dystrophies, a lot of those muscular dystrophies got re-categorized along genetic lines. Now we—now we have—we categorized them based upon their genetic mutation, not their clinical presentation. So the same thing will probably eventually happen more and more to psychiatry. It just hasn't happened yet. Again, Insel so made the point that we've been promising for years or decades biological markers; you know, blood tests that you could do to say, "yeah, this person actually has autism or schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder", but they're just not coming. He's blaming that on the DSM; I think it's more that it's because mental illness is horrifically complicated. I think these are—we're not going to have clean categories because there are no clean categories; they don't exist. These entities are inherently fuzzy at the edges. Think about the controversy that we had over the categorization of Pluto as a planet versus a dwarf planet and trying to decide what the dividing line is between a planet and a dwarf planet. Right?

B: Yup.

S: Multiply that by a 1,000 and that's what you're talking about with mental disorders. Not only are there hundreds of disorders—it's not just one thing:planet or dwarf planet—but there's multiple variables by which you can think about and define them and they don't all break out in any kind of clean way, so you have all this overlap and all this fuzziness and there's just no—there's never going to be a clean system. I think if Insel thinks—so he's at the extreme biological end of the spectrum, where in 50 years we're going to have a completely revamped biological scheme of defining mental illness. I think that's delusional. I think that rather, we're going—there's always going to be clinical criteria mixed in there, because while we may find genetic predispositions, I don't think we're going to find genetic—one gene or one mutation, one disease kind of genetic diseases. I think we've already found most of those. While there may be biological markers and fMRI markers that tell you who's likely to have a disease or the probability of having a diagnosis, the clinical manifestations are going to be so variable that it's still going to defy any easy categorization system. And while I don't think—I don't think the DSM is going to survive without massive changes over the next 50 years—I mean, it's been—it's a very much a dynamic document that's changing all the time. I think that it will include more and more biological and neuro-scientific markers, we're never going to completely get away from clinical diagnosis. So it's very interesting; lot of angles to this that's interesting just in science in general. How do we define things; how do we categorize things, and in medicine, you know what is the approach that we take? This so-called "Dr. House approach" is very far from what actually happens in medicine most of the time. It's not like—we don't just hunt for that one magical, very specific, diagnosis and once we find it, we can cure it. You know, that that happens, but it's much more the exception than the rule. It's more that we just take "this is what may be going on" and then everything else is probability risk versus benefit from there.

RS: Steve, I find it fascinating you're using terms like "entities" and I know why you're using them; I know the meaning in your context. But this whole discussion—I can't help thinking in the back of my mind the arguments from the Scientologists, who of course are the enemies of psychiatry, and their entities are of course the Thetans, which are the root cause of mental illness and things like this. This ongoing discussion in medicine, generally speaking, and other arias of science too, is a wonderful opening for the enemies of reason to say, "ah, you see? They can't even get it right", or "they've changed their mind", or "they don't know what they're talking about."

S: Yeah, exactly, and that's what they're doing; they're saying, "oh, look, the DSM changes every edition. That shows they don't know what they're talking about." If you look at the broader context here—I'd put it in the context of all of medicine—what it seems like is that—if you're being optimistic, anyway—is that perhaps we're on the cusp of psychiatry transitioning from the descriptive phase, which all medical diagnoses passed through, the descriptive phase, to the sort of quasi-biological phase. And then and how far we can take that remains to be seen, where we understand something about cause and effect and pathophysiology but it's always going to be really complicated with mental illnesses. And good for Insel for saying, "all right; we have to rethink our strategy and because we're not really... we're just not making the progress we would like to be making." That's fine. But that doesn't mean that the descriptive phase was wrong. You know, it was what it was; it was a placeholder describing we can know until we—as a way of guiding our ability to do—because how can you do research on something that you don't have a label for. You know what I mean? How could you talk about it in the literature? You need placeholder labels as a way to guide further research. As long as that guiding is not a straitjacket. So I think that's a legitimate criticism.

RS: This complexity you talk about, which again is the normal natural part of scientific investigation and endeavor is also a good opening for the enemies of reason to come in, chime in with a far simpler explanation: "Oh, it's aliens. It's aliens."

S: Right. And sometimes they don't even have—they're just deniers; they don't really have an alternate explanation; they're just "mental illness doesn't exist." Just flat-out doesn't exist. It's all politics; it's political. They say that; they interpret the consensus of expert opinion as political opinion.

Well, of course culture and politics intrude on anything like this, but that's not a fair characterization. You actually have clinicians trying to help patients. It's not just, "this is what the fad of the day is, so let's enshrine it in the DSM as a diagnosis". And again, they don't... the psychiatry deniers, the real hard-core, like the ones who say mental illness doesn't exist, they don't really have anything reasonable to put up in its place, it's just "it's all good; there is no illness, it's all just psychiatrists abusing patients, you know, for political ideological reasons". It's just—it really is almost bizarre, you know, when you get to the extreme end.

RS: Well, you get arguments like that from the anti-vaccination crowd, too.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

B: Creationists, too.

Placenta Madness (37:12)[edit]

S: All right; well, Rebecca, you're going to finish off the news section for us with a story about placenta.

R: Yeah... normally when we... when you hear skeptics talking about placenta, it's usually... eating it, right? That's the big sort of pseudoscientific thing about placentas is that a mother should keep the placenta and then eat it and it will gain super powers—baby-related super powers, I assume. But this is a different trend related to... that, but yet somehow more disgusting, in my opinion.

E: Oh, great.

R: So what could be more disgusting than eating a placenta that came out of your body? How about a leaving the placenta attached to your baby as it rots away until—

RS: What, the baby rots away?

E: The placenta.

R: (laughs) Until the baby rots into nothing. Uh, no. Until the umbilical cord detaches naturally. That's the trend; it's... it could be called a new trend, it was in the New York Post but apparently it goes back to the 70's; the late 70's. So, I guess people have been doing this for quite some time.

E: Surely there's science to back up this claim of benefit.

R: No, there is not and don't call me Shirley. I... OK, so I haven't been able to find any science to back up these claims that if you leave the baby attached to the placenta, the baby will be healthier, like in terms of... including long-term health, you know, the baby will be a healthier person growing up. Those are the sort of claims they make and there's really—I couldn't find anything to back it up except for... there are a number of studies that suggest babies can benefit by not clamping and cutting the umbilical cord immediately after birth. Like, right now a common thing to do is within—I'm talking like really quickly, within a minute.

B: Moments, really.

R: Yeah. Within a minute—

E: Snip and go.

R: —you cut the umbilical cord. There are a number of studies to suggest that the baby could benefit if you just let it go a little bit, like 90 seconds longer. Long enough for the placenta to give, like, one last push of blood and antibodies and stem cells into the baby and then cut it off. There's really nothing to suggest—there's no back and forth—

E: Like topping off your gas tank when you're at the pump.

R: Sure. Why not.

S: And Rebecca, that's... the evidence really is only compelling for preemies. For full-term infants it's actually still a raging controversy whether 3 minutes is better than 30 seconds. So that's delayed cord clamping; we're talking 90 seconds to 180 seconds. You know, a few minutes. Not 10 days. Or well, if you leave it—if you just leave it go by itself, it takes an hour or so to clot off by itself. So—

R: Well, that's for to clot, but not necessarily to, like, fall off and that is what you say can last up to ten days.

S: Takes up to ten days. Yeah, but once it clots, there's no more transfusion from the placenta.

R: Exactly.

S: Yeah, so that would be the equivalent of clamping.

R: Yeah. Like, so after an hour... yeah, there's really nothing to benefit. So now basically, you've just got your baby attached to this rotting organ that is just flopping around. The good news is that you can purchase little of bags to put them in, like little cheesecloth bags.

S: Put it in a Ziploc.

R: No, no. Ziploc is bad, because...

S: Unnatural?

B: Smell!

R: Well, no, because the smell... OK, so if you leave the placenta just out in the air, then if you have a bit of luck the placenta will dry out. But if it's very humid or if you pack into some Tupperware or a Ziploc, then you're going to trap that moisture in and... (laughs) the placenta is going to start to rot and it is not going to smell good.

J: Yeah, but at that point, what—

RS: Could you imagine that Tupperware party?


J: What do they think is being passed to the baby after, you know, hours or—

S: Jay, Jay, it's all natural, man. It's just—


S: This is just a completely evidence-free fad. Somebody completely made this up and pulled it out of their posterior and they're saying, "oh, the placenta's made of the same cells as the baby." Yeah... so what? Therefore it's not waste material. Wrong! Once the baby breathes, there is absolutely no function to the placenta whatsoever. It is literally waste. But the argument is completely irrational; it makes absolutely no sense. It's just naturalistic granola nonsense.

R: Yeah it's—a lot of it is metaphorical. Like, "you're cutting the cord; you're cutting the bond between mother and child." And I don't know if you know those people who, like, metaphorically still haven't cut the cord today as adults, but those are the sort of people that I'm believing these children will grow up into unless something is done.

B: Jay, I got one quote from... what's her name, Mary—how do you pronounce her last name—Sel-ah? She's a big—

E: Selah!

R: I would say Sel-ay.

B: OK, Mary Ceallaigh. One quote from her about this—she said that "invading the natural process"—she described it as "invading the natural process when there's a healthy mother and baby is likely to cause harm in some way seen or unseen." I mean, she thinks that this is a natural process. I don't think there's been a human in the history of humanity that kept that thing attached for ten days or even three days. I mean, even our ancestors, you know, in caves, I'm sure they just kind of took a sharp rock and cut it off as soon as they could.

S: Well, you know what animals do?

J/B: They eat it.

R: Bite it.

S: They chew it off!

R: Yeah, and so—

S: Why don't they chew it off? That's what's natural.

(all talking)

E: Dig in.

R: On that note, I did want to mention if anyone in our audience is still considering this, you probably shouldn't if you have pets.

S: Mmm-hmm.

J: You don't want to drag that thing around.

R: Don't carry a rotting organ attached to your baby around if you have a dog or a cat in the house.

J: I could just see my dog like trotting in from the other room with half a placenta hanging out of his mouth.

B/RS: Oh!

J: So, coming from someone—Steve probably has a lot more experience because Steve's delivered babies but I was, you know, at first base watching my wife deliver my son and I got—I actually had like a 10-minute conversation with the doctor about the placenta and watched the whole process of it coming out and took a good look at it and the doctor actually showed me like what it is, hands-on. Like, this—holding it right in front of me. This is what this does; this is the sac; everything, right? That is the most disgusting proposition I could imagine! The thing—fresh, brand new placenta sitting there—

B: (chuckling) Brand new. Still has the tags on it.

J: It doesn't get any fresher than, like, five minutes after the baby's born and it's phenominally disgusting.

E: Farm-fresh.

J: It's disgusting. Like, you want—it's so weird-looking you just want to throw it out the window. Like, get rid of the frickin' thing. Who'd wanna carry it around with them?

R: I'm all for, you know... I often get on a soapbox, like trying to make people accept the fact that our bodies are our bodies and they're nothing to be scared of and there's certainly nothing to be disgusted by, but... throw the placenta away! Just throw it away. It doesn't—

S: Its purpose is over.

R: The other thing is, I ran this news story past my fellow Skepchicks, a number of whom are mothers, and Elyse Anders had a very good point. She said, "I'm not sure I can even be convinced that having a rotting organ attached to a newborn baby is a good idea, especially when it doubles as a strangulation hazard and the kid's only hope is some sleep-deprived people who have no idea what the hell they are even doing in the first place."

B: (chuckling) Oh, yeah, right.

R: So, I thought that was a good point; it hadn't occurred to me before that yeah, having a cord attached to your baby is a strangulation hazard. So... yeah. It serves no purpose; cut it off, throw it away, get on with your life. And actually, one other thing while we're on the topic—

S: And one other thing!

R: One other thing.

E: One more ting.

R: In addition to it having no purpose. This is yet another thing that now... luckily hopefully a minority of people, a small group of people, will be throwing in the face of new mothers to tell them that they're not good enough. Like, along with whether or not they're breastfeeding, whether or not they're having a glass of wine—

E: Listening to Baby Einstein.

R: —this is one more ridiculous standard for new mothers to live up to. "Oh, you didn't leave your placenta attached to the baby for a week and carried around with you to the park and, like, on your errands, into the bathroom?" No! Let's stop putting this crap—

E: Like being Jewish at a country club.

J: It's already so difficult; like, that first week or two weeks after you bring a baby home. It's really hard.

S: I couldn't wait for the little nub of the umbilical cord to fall off.

R: That's what one of the other mothers said. Yeah. One of the other mothers said she felt it was really weird and she couldn't stop poking until it fell off.

(all laughing)

J: Yeah, like we have a natural tendency to pick at weird things hanging off our body. Like, imagine you have this dried-up placenta. Like, I would be scratching at that thing all day!

R: Yeah.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Water Heaters (47:17)[edit]

  • Follow-Up

S: Well, we got a couple questions to cover this week. The first one actually is a follow-up to a follow-up that I did last week. If you recall last week, I discussed the fact that water heater temperature—the fourth Novella brother is an at-home energy expert and he pointed out that you should have your home water heater set to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, that's 49 degrees Celsius, or lower in order to save energy and to prevent scalding risk, especially if you have children or older people in the home. A number of listeners wrote in to bring up the the counter-point that lowered water temperature in water heaters is a risk for Legionnaires' disease; that it allows Legionella to breed. So...

B: Hello.

S: I had to do a deep dive into this issue; of course it's always more complicated than you think, right? Can never just touch on a subject; there's always so much complexity there. So here's the bottom line. That is true; that we are absolutely at cross-purposes with this. The temperature that is recommended in order to minimize burn risk is 120 degrees Fahrenheit or 49 degrees Celsius. The temperature that is recommended in order to minimize the risk of Legionella growing and surviving in the water tank is 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 60 degrees Celsius.

B: Oh.

S: 140 degrees is a scalding temperature; it would take only about 6 seconds of exposure to water at 140 degrees Fahrenheit to cause a very bad burn to a child, so there absolutely is that risk. So which—what's the greater risk? Legionnaires' disease or getting burned from the hot water?

(all talking at once)

E: —burned is probably more common.

S: It depends. So...


E: Trick question.

S: There's also difference—

R: Are you a Legionnaire, number one.

S: There's a difference between electric water heaters and fossil-fuel-based water heaters. Fossil-fuel ones are better.

J: Why?

S: Because... because of design. Because the water is a more uniform temperature. Some electric water heaters have cold water at the bottom—colder or cooler water at the bottom. And that's where—in the cooler water the Legionella can proliferate. In fact, in one review that I found, they found quite a—found 40 percent of electric water heaters were contaminated with Legionella.

(all react)

S: But none of the fossil-fuel-based ones were. So you could make an argument that if you have a fossil-fuel-based water heater you can go down to the 120 Fahrenheit, 49 Celsius temperature. If you have an electric water heater then you should consider going up to the 140 Fahrenheit, 60 Celsius temperature. However, there's one other wrinkle to this and that is: there are water heaters that have an anti-scalding feature. What that means is you can set it to 140 degrees and... so that is high enough to prevent Legionnaires' but that water will get mixed with some colder water before it comes out of the faucet. So the hottest the water will come out of the faucet is 120, even though the water's sitting in the water heaters at 140.

E: Will the colder water have already gone through the process of being heated and then cooled?

S: Well, like, really cold water is too cold for Legionella, so it's really—it's that warm water that's the risk.

RS: Will the hot water kill the Legionella?

S: Yes.

RS: If it's coming through that system you're talking about?

S: Yes; so if the water gets to 140 degrees at least once a day, that's enough to prevent Legionella from proliferating. 160 degrees is what you really need to just kill it all. That's bacteria-cidal.

J: What does that do to you, Steve?

S: It's a respiratory infection and it's like 12 percent fatality; it's serious. The other—the article I found also said that for every 10 degrees you raise or lower the temperature, that results in a difference of 3 percent efficiency. That's Fahrenheit. So the difference between a 150 degrees Fahrenheit and 120 degrees is about 12 percent on your heating bill for the water heater. So not insignificant but not huge. But probably better than either being scalded or getting Legionnaires' disease.

RS: Can anybody get Legionnaires' disease? I thought it attacked mostly older people.

S: Well, it's... anybody can get it, but the elderly, the young and the immuno-compromised are most at risk. Which is like most infections.

E: Yep. Elderly, young and immuno-compromised.

S: Right.

E: That's a pattern in nature.

S: Yep. The World Health Organization errs on the side of the hotter water; 60 degrees Celsius, 140 Fahrenheit. 'Cause they're a health organization and they're more concerned about the spread of Legionnaires' disease. If you really want to be obsessive, get the anti-scalding tank and keep it hot.

RS: Yeah, their motto is: "don't get into hot water; get into hot water".


B: Oh, my God.

E: All right.

Question #2: Creationist Interview (52:37)[edit]

S: All right. One more email; this one comes from Frank Denisi from Boston.

J: Frank!

E: Denisi!

RS/R: From Boston!


E: No script necessary.

S: Frank writes:

Hi, my name is Frank, I have been listening to the podcast for the past year and love the show and would like to thank you for making my 4:30 AM gym visits fun and interesting.

S: Wow, 4:30 AM.

I am a mechanical engineer, and work for a MEP consulting firm and specialize in healthcare, laboratory and high-rise and skyscraper design. At full disclosure, I am also a Christian. I just listened to podcast 408, the Don McLeroy interview, I very much enjoyed it, but it was painful to listen to. Don presented no hard facts or studies and kept presenting his interpretation of popular books. When I design a building, I start with the prevailing laws, building codes and standards and base all my design and calculations on a foundation of fluid dynamics, heat transfer and strength of materials. At the end of the day, I have to be able to defend my design. I could never simply depend on a popular engineering rule of thumb. I love the podcast, but honestly, Don may not have been a great choice, he failed to argue his case from any solid studies. Is there anyone out there who can argue the side of intelligent design by presenting potentially hard facts and studies? I believe in evolution, but would love to hear a solid discussion presenting both sides.

Thank you,


So, short answer: No.

R/RS: No.

B: There aren't any.

S: There aren't any! There aren't any hard facts or published studies or anything that really defends intelligent design or creationism. Don really is as good as it gets. Seriously. I mean, having read all their stuff and you know... had tons of debates and discussions with, you know, even the leading lights of intelligent design, this is as good as it gets. It is just frank denialism.

R: Frank.

S: Now sure, somebody like Michael Behe

E: Denisi.

S: —like Michael Behe might—

RS: From Boston.

S: —you know, couch his... irreducible complexity and, you know, put it in those terms, but his arguments have been completely destroyed by scientists; they are vacuous. [They] really are no better, even though he might put them in somewhat better terms. And honestly, Don's read all the intelligent design stuff and he did an honest and fair job of presenting that side; that is really just as good as it gets.

R: Unfortunately

RS: This reminds me of a discussion I had when I was in this film festival with Rebecca in the Czech Republic; they asked me to introduce The Enemies of Reason by Richard Dawkins, which I did. And afterwards, there was a question and answer session... me, I guess, speaking on behalf of Richard Dawkins or the views expressed in the film and one of the complaints I got from the audience was, "well, this movie's really silly because he chose the really stupid people to argue their case." No! He chose some of the best people on the other side. But their arguments were really stupid.

S: Yeah. It could seem that way; it could seem like you're going after the easy targets, but it's all easy. Just as a note, for those who are interested, the week after the interview with Don McLeroy, I wrote a four-part[2] blog post on NeuroLogica dissecting the interview and Don's arguments, and I invited Don to reply. He actually did send me a couple of replies, which I then answered to in the later blog post. He hasn't responded yet to my last two, and he said he would so I'm still waiting for—I guess he's trying to articulate a response to my last two blog posts. So we'll see. We'll see if he comes back with anything; we'll see if maybe—who knows, maybe I'll even change his mind.

R: Maybe.

S: Maybe. We'll see.

Occ the Skeptical Caveman (56:21)[edit]

S: Before we go on to Who's that Noisy, just a quick message: we are in the midst of pre-production for Occ the Skeptical Caveman and we are still looking for your help and support. So there's a casting call going on right now for actors, so just check the SGU Facebook page for details if you want to audition for a role in the series. We're also looking for a crew, so whatever skills or film experience you have, let us know; contact us; just sent us an email at with the subject "Occ". And let us know that you're interested and we will get back in touch with you. And of course, if you wish to lend your financial support to the series, we are always happy to accept further support to increase the production value of the show.

Who's That Noisy? (57:10)[edit]

S: So let's go on now to Who's that Noisy. Evan!

E: We had a puzzle last week, everyone. Do you recall? Remember I asked everyone about cake?

J: The cake, yeah.

E: Who likes cake? Who wanted a piece of cake?

S: The cake is a lie. Yeah, I remember.

E: The cake was a lie; it was a big lie. Let's say there are eight people who want to share a cake, but you, the person who is going to cut the cake, can only make three cuts. So how can you cut a cake using only three cuts and wind up with 8 equal-sized pieces?

S: Now Evan, is a round cake or square cake?

R: Good question. Or a pentagon.

E: The shape of the cake was not given, so it was up to you to imagine your own shape of the cake.

R: Can make a cake shaped like a bear.

S: So it must not matter.

E: And of course, the point is there were lots of correct solutions to this puzzle, but one of which, the classic one is: you cut the cake the long way, horizontal way first evenly, right? And then you can make your cut top to bottom, turn it 90 degrees, make another cut top to bottom; there you go; 8 equal pieces of cake. "Pieces of eight", we like to call it.

RS: Haha.

E: Thank you, Richard. Quite kind of you, actually.

R: It's the appropriate response.

J: There's a flaw in this that quite a few people pointed out that I thought of. One: if there's any kind of delicious filling in the cake, that really blows.

E: Understood.

J: Right? Number two—

R: You mean 'cause then you're cutting straight through it?

J: Well, you know... 'cause, you know, these things aren't exact and you're probably going to cut above or below and you're not going to get in there. Then you don't get any of the filling. The other thing is, if there's a topping on the cake... then whoever get the bottom half of the cake really gets the shitty end of the stick on that deal.

E: Yes. All these are—

J: Look, I'm just trying to point—Science, Ev. I'm just trying to point the facts out here for you. It's a flaw and I'm concerned about this.

E: No, no, these are great assumptions that everybody is making about this cake. I mean I did offer up—

J: What if it's a bundt cake? The bundt cake has that big bubble top to it, you know? And the frosting is—I just don't agree with this whole thing. We're going to have to experiment more with this.

S: See, I like the solution where you cut it into four and then you stack them on top of each other and cut right down through them.

E: There you go. Another solution.

R: That's an unnecessary step.

E: Oh, gosh. Unnecessary steps? Read some of the suggestions on the message boards on how people came up with it.

R: I will not.

E: Quantum equation calculations. It was one winner for this week's drawing. Morius13 [sic] from the message boards. You are this week's winner, so congratulations.

S: So what do you got for this week?

E: All right. Another puzzle this week. Lot of people felt last week's was kind of on the easy side; I'll grant them that. How about this week; we'll challenge you. This one comes courtesy of Martin Gardner. But you won't find it online, folks. If you have any of his old books, though, you might have an advantage. So.

A bank teller made a mistake today. The teller switched the dollars and cents when they cashed a check for Mrs. Jones, giving her dollars instead of cents and cents instead of dollars. After buying a newspaper for 5 cents, Mrs. Jones realized that she had remaining exactly twice as much as the original check. So based on that information, can you figure out how much was the amount of the original check?

S: Sounds like math.

E: What, Martin Gardner, math? For those of you who wish to give an answer by email, please use; that is our official email address for all Who's that Noisy answers and also you can leave your response on our message boards, which is, and as I say every week, good luck everyone.

S: All right; thanks, Evan.

Science or Fiction (1:00:55)[edit]

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

J: I am.

S: OK. We got just three news items; no theme; nothing unusual. Here we go: Item #1: New research finds that vitamin C can effectively kill even highly drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria. Item #2: A new analysis finds that the US has enough land and water resources to grow enough algae for biofuel to meet 100% of our fuel needs. And Item #3: A recent study finds that bed sharing increases the risk of cot death, or sudden infant death syndrome, by five-fold. All right. Richard, why don't you go first for us this week?

RS: New research finds that vitamin C can effectively kill even highly drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria. Haven't heard that one; I don't keep up with all medical news from around the world, but I've been under the impression for quite a long time that vitamin C, while it has its uses, is overblown; its effectiveness can be overstated. So I'm not sure about that one. A new analysis finds that the US has enough land and water resources to grow enough algae—yeah that—number two, with the biofuel, sounds reasonable to me. And number three I think I'm going to have to—about the five-fold increase of SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome. I think we would have noticed that by now. So after looking at those, I think the one about the SIDS; I'm going to pick the one about the SIDS as being the fiction.

S: OK. Evan?

E: Vitamin C can effectively kill even highly drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria. The issue I'm having with this one is "the highly drug-resistant tuberculosis". The next one about the US has enough land and water resources to grow enough algae for biofuel. A hundred percent of our fuel needs? Well, I think that's conceivable; would we need to like to convert... (chuckles) You know, how can we get everything to—we might be able to produce enough energy, but do we have the infrastructure and stuff to deal with the energy that that would exactly produce. How do we harness it, store it and all that. Might be able to produce it, but storing it and distributing it and everything else might be something else entirely. But I think that one's right. The last one about bed sharing increasing the risk of cot death by five-fold. I don't understand the correlation there. It's—I'm drawing a blank—an absolute blank with this one. But I think it's between this one or the tuberculosis one... I will throw my dart at the board and it hit the tuberculosis—highly drug-resistant tuberculosis. That one's the fiction.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: Gosh, yeah, I don't—I don't know. I haven't heard any of these. Vitamin C killing tuberculosis—like, how would that work? I don't see—I don't understand how vitamin C could directly be responsible for killing bacteria, but I don't know much about bacteria or vitamin C. So who knows. Growing enough biofuels to meet a hundred percent of our fuel needs... that's all so tricky. Biofuel, I've always heard, has just not been particularly efficient, but that... I think is mostly about corn and other food crops being used as biofuel and not necessarily algae. So... I mean, if this is true, that's very exciting. I don't know; I find that suspicious. A hundred percent of our fuel needs; that's a lot of fuel. SIDS... I was under the impression that bed sharing was already considered a problem for SIDS, but as far as I know, SIDS is still a rather mysterious sort of thing, so. I think I'm going to have to go with biofuel, just because meeting a hundred percent of our fuel needs just seems so... crazy. That's like a huge jump. So I'm going to go with that one.

S: OK. Bob?

B: Yeah, the cot death. I don't know, just seems odd to me. Sharing a bed with an infant; I mean, who really does that?

R: A lot of people do that.

B: I'd be too afraid I'd just roll over on the kid in the middle of the night. Put the baby in the bed next to yours; don't... I don't know; just seems odd to me to be sleeping in bed with such a tiny little baby. Vitamin C... I'm not sure how drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria can be. For all I know, they're not very resistant and therefore, the fact that vitamin C can effectively kill it isn't saying too much. But on the other hand, it could be very resistant. I'm just not sure how resistant it is. Yeah, I agree with Rebecca about... 100 percent is wack; that's just such a gargantuan amount. Now, they are restricting the claim to just land and water and it doesn't mention technology at all. So, given certain technologies, I could see how land usage would be minimized, but... not sure there's much of a way to get around huge amounts of water. I'll go with the biofuel and say that one just slightly edges out the tuberculosis one. I'll say that number two is fiction.

S: And Jay.

J: The second one about the biofuel things; yeah, it occurred to me what Rebecca said hit me when you first read it out, Steve. Like, a hundred percent of our fuel needs. When you say a hundred percent of our fuel needs, like right now we need multiple forms of fuel. When you say a hundred percent, we're talking about all the electricity, all the petroleum products that we burn; like, that's a—

S: Not all of our energy needs; all of our fuel needs.

J: OK, thank you for clarifying. Even still, that's quite a bit, and I do see the logic in and thinking that that one is the fake. Absolutely sleeping in bed with your child is a no-no. So yeah, that one is definitely science. So I think number two—the fuel needs—a hundred percent of our fuel needs is the fake.

S: OK. So I guess we can take these in order. Let's start with number one: New research find that vitamin C can effectively kill even highly drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria. Evan, you thought this one was the fiction and this one is... science. This is a very surprising study.

E: I guess if you're going to be wrong, that's a good one to be wrong with.

S: Now, this was an in-vitro study. This was in a petri dish, not in people. Not even in animals. What the researchers were doing is they were trying to figure out how to enhance the effectiveness of anti-tuberculosis drugs. And Bob, the drug resistance among tuberculosis is becoming a significant problem. There are now multiple strains of TB that are multi-drug-resistant and nine percent are even extensively drug-resistant. So it's becoming an increasing problem, especially in lower-income countries.

B: OK.

S: So researchers are looking for ways to enhance the effectiveness of existing antibiotics. So one thing that the researchers noted was that cysteine, which can be a reducing agent, when added to a typical TB drug, isoniazid, that it enhanced the killing effect of the antibiotic—it killed off the bacteria. And they hypothesized that the cysteine was producing free radicals and the free radicals were damaging the TB bacteria DNA and killing 'em. So they said,"Let's see if we can replace cysteine with another reducing agent and see if it has the same effect". So they replaced it with vitamin C and it had the same effect; it sterilized the culture. Then as a control, they did not include the antibiotic, the isoniazid, just straight-up vitamin C, and that sterilized the culture; that killed off all the TB as well. So they still need to figure out why that is happening. They think it might be because of the... it's somehow triggering the production of free radicals, which is killing off the bacteria.

J: Oh, free radicals, huh?

S: Yeah; it's interesting—

R: I thought they just existed in, like, commercials for beauty creams.

S: They really do—it's part of the reason why the simplistic notion that taking antioxidant is good for your health is probably not true, because oxygen free radicals are actually part of our immune system; that's how our immune system kills off invading cells. It's also important for cell communication; it triggers cells to do things that are also beneficial, so just simplistically externally taking extra antioxidants to reduce your amount of oxygen free radicals your body is not necessarily a good thing. And this is kind of an example of it, in that that's a mechanism for killing off these bacteria. So remains to be seen if this is going to translate in any way to a treatment that's useful in people, but it was a surprising result. Let's move on to number two: a new analysis find that the US has enough land and water resources to grow enough algae for biofuel to meet a hundred percent of our fuel needs. Jay, Bob and Rebecca, you think this one is the fiction and this one is... the fiction.

B: Yay!

RS: Ahh!

S: Sorry, Richard and yeah, it is... they did an analysis; they did—it was just focused on land and water, not on the technologies to develop the biofuel, not energy efficient, just if we were trying to make biofuel by growing algae, where would we grow the algae? Do we have enough space and enough water to do it? By these more recent calculations, they figured that we could make enough to meet 1/12 of our fuel needs. So they're still an order of magnitude away from all of our fuel needs. But that's a greater than previous estimates, which were more like around the five percent or 1/20th. So they think it's a little bit more of an optimistic but still only 1/12 of our actual fuel needs. But this would use a ton of water; they estimate this would use 40 percent of the amount of water that we currently use for agriculture, which is a lot. Yeah. So I don't think that this is going to pan out. I don't think we're ever going to get up to the 12 percent—I mean, not 12 percent, to the 1/12 marker. I think even five percent is a lot. I think... if we're, like, making gasoline from algae in the future, it'll be one percent or less of our gasoline needs.

J: Gotta go electric.

S: Yeah, well, interestingly, if for example, that our entire fleet goes electric and is being fueled by clean energy or fission reactors, whatever, we still need jet fuel; we'll still need fuel for certain kinds of transportation where electric vehicles won't cut it. So maybe we can meet our diesel and jet fuel and those kind of needs through biofuels, but not the current fleet that we have, in terms of most cars being regular gasoline cars. So let's move on to number three: A recent study finds that bed sharing increases the risk of cot death or sudden infant death syndrome by five-fold. Richard, you thought that this one was the fiction but this one is science.

RS: Yes; the number, the five-fold, that got me—

S: That was surprising! That's why I chose it; that figure was surprising, both for you and the researchers. So we knew that this was a risk, but actually, previous studies only really documented that it was a risk for parents who smoke. It's also a risk for parents who drink alcohol or use drugs. But this is the first study that really shows that it's a risk even for parents who don't smoke, drink or use drugs. And the magnitude was huge. This was a pretty comprehensive study. They looked at individual records of 1,472 cot death cases and 4,679 control cases across five major studies. That was the figure they came up with. Also the researchers estimated that 81 percent of cot deaths among babies under 3 months without other known risk factors—so if you take just that subpopulation, that they could be prevented by just—if all parents stopped sleeping with the beds in the... with the kids in the bed with them. So 81% reduction. Not all cot deaths, but in cot deaths in kids less than 3 months old who have no other risk factors. Other estimates—one estimate was that in the UK, this advice could save the lives of 40 percent of all cot deaths. That's still a lot. That's a lot. So Jay, you're right; SIDS is still mysterious; we don't know exactly what causes it. This is not from parents rolling over on their kids. Maybe that's some of them; you know, who knows, but that's not...

R: Well, the tie-in to parents using drugs and alcohol certainly to me says, like, maybe that's something to do with it.

S: Something is happening there—

J: It could be temperature-related; could be carbon dioxide.

S: Yeah, although, Jay, there is evidence to suggest that the baby sleeping in the room with the parents may be beneficial and that may be because CO2 levels from the parents act as a respiratory drive. So imagine you have a young infant, respiratory system that's not totally mature yet, and again, respiration is driven mainly by CO2; much less so by oxygen; by decreased oxygen. So, a slightly higher CO2 level, theoretically, could provide a stronger respiratory drive for the immature brain and prevent just stopping breathing, because the brain's not fully developed. So there's a theoretical reason and some evidence to suggest that sleeping in the room is beneficial, but in the bed, that's a no-no. All right, well, congratulations Jay, Bob and Rebecca. Good job.

R: Thank you.

J: Yay!

S: Richard, thank you for playing along; being a good sport.

RS: (weakly) Yay.

R: Aww.

S: We had a good spread this week, so that's always a good sign; tells me it was reasonably challenging.

Announcements (1:15:42)[edit]

S: So, Richard, tell us about—you have an announcement to make about a movie coming out in Australia about the anti-vaccine movement.

RS: Wow, the anti-vaxxers have been getting a hammering in Australia for quite a while now but nothing like I've seen in the last month. The newspapers have been tearing into them; speeches in our Parliament here specifically against the Australian vaccination network; laws have been changed; it's quite dramatic. For more information about these very dramatic moves against the anti-vaccination movement in Australia, I can only recommend that you follow our colleague Dr. Rachael Dunlop on Twitter; she's @DrRachie or listen to her report on a recent Skeptic Zone episode 238, and that was only a couple of weeks ago, which goes into this. But seriously, for those listeners in Australia, run to your TVs on Sunday night; this Sunday coming. SBS One; there's a documentary called Jabbed by Sonya Pemberton and it's a fantastically good well-balanced—and I know I hate to use that term, but it's true—documentary about vaccination looking into all sorts of issues, including some of the adverse reactions to vaccination. It's a quite frank and honest look at the whole issue and I can thoroughly recommend it.

R: I saw the film at the Olomouc film festival and met the director and it was amazing. And highly recommended if you know anyone is on the fence about vaccines, this is one of those documentaries that will push them over onto our side.

S: And Richard, we're going to be seeing you in Vegas in about six weeks.

RS: I can't wait. Yeah, I love catching up. I'm so pleased I got to see Rebecca recently and I'll see all you guys soon, and yeah, it's one of the things I love about this whole business is catching up with—

S: So Evan, you're doing a new workshop at TAM 2013 you haven't before. Tell us about it.

E: Yeah, yeah, I'm going to be a hosting a panel, actually, and the title of the workshop is called "Taking on Woo in Martial Arts". So we're going to examine the crossroads of where the martial arts industry, sport and, you know, what people train for fun meet the lines of skepticism and science. And on this panel are some real real heavy hitters who are all very experienced in the martial arts, including Jennifer Ouellette, John Rennie, MMA fighter Brent Weedman, and Dave Jones from the Hiyaa!! podcast will be joining me, so—

S: Davy Jones.

E: Yeah. (chuckles) Davy Jones' Locker. Yeah, so it's going to be a great a panel. TAM has not—we've not covered this before—

S: Yeah. It's cool.

E: —at TAM, so this'll be a new for a lot of people. So I hope you can join us for that.

S: And we'll be doing our Science-based Medicine workshop as well, as well as a Science-based Medicine panel and the SGU will be doing a live show, and we'll have the SGU dinner, and Jay, you're going to be doing again the SGU Poker Tournament.

E: Yeah.

J: Yeah, Joshie Berger's hosting. I think we have a hundred seats this year. And last year it was awesome; I came in third but I'm just still thrilled by that.

S: And it sold out very quickly, so if you want to—

J: Yeah, I came in third; it was awesome.


J: Yeah. It's going to be a great time, so you can sign up on the TAM 2013 registration page for that.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:19:05)[edit]

S: Jay, you got a quote for us this week?

J: I have a quote. I have a very impressive quote.

RS: Yeah.

J: This quote made it to the home page of Reddit. Does anybody want to guess who the author of that quote is?

B: Carl Sagan.

RS: Nope.

B: Isaac Asimov.

E: Wink Martindale.

B: Steve Novella.

RS: James Randi.

J: It's Steve Novella; Dr. Steven Novella.

R: Never heard of him.

S: That's pretty cool.

J: Yeah cause I thought you said something—you said something like this but then this was pulled from where, then?

S: I don't know. It's part of my Science-based Medicine lecture series, so I probably have said it multiple venues but I don't remember exactly where that was pulled from.

J: OK, well... we had a listener actually post a quote that Steve probably wrote down at some point up on Reddit; it got to the front page; the guy's name is Andrew Krueger. So I'd like to thank you, Andrew. He made a graphic and it's a good picture of Steve in front of the microphone.

What do you think science is? There's nothing magical about science. It is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. Which part of that exactly do you disagree with? Do you disagree with being thorough? Using careful observation? Being systematic? Or using consistent logic?

Dr. Steeeeve No-vellaaaaaaaa!

S: All right. So, that's a response to people who say, like, "oh, we don't need science to know what works or what doesn't work in medicine" or "science doesn't have all the answers". Basic anti-science statements, as if... what? I mean, science is just... those things. What they're really saying is, "we don't need to be fair and thorough and logical". Well, yeah. You do. You actually do. When you break it down like that, it's kind of hard to disagree with the individual components. Yeah, so thanks Andrew for posting that up in Reddit; it was kind of fun to see that get all the way up to the front page.

J: Yeah, and I'll be posting that on the SGU Facebook page in case you want to take a look at it.

S: All right, well, thank you all for joining me again this week.

R: Thank you, Steve.

S: Any time. And Richard, thank you for joining us. Always a pleasure to have you on the show.

RS: Thank You Steve; thank you, gang. It's always a pleasure to be a guest rogue.

(All saying good-bye)

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptics' 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]

  • A meteoroid is in space; a meteor is within an atmosphere and a meteorite is on the ground.
  • A boulder is a particle bigger than 256 mm, and between 64 mm and 256 mm is a cobble.
  • More than I ever wanted to know about placenta practices.
  • Electric water heaters are more susceptible to contamination by Legionella than fossil-fuel-based heaters.


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