SGU Episode 42

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SGU Episode 42
May 10th 2006
Eugenie Scott.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 41                      SGU 43

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

P: Perry DeAngelis


ES: Eugenie Scott

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


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 10th, 2006. This is your host, Stephen Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me tonight are Bob Novella, ...

B: Hello.

S: ... Rebecca Watson, ...

R: Hello.

S: ... Perry DeAngelis, ...

P: Right on!

S: ... and Jay Novella.

J: Good evening, everybody.

S: Welcome all.

R: Hi.

J: Hey, Steve.

S: Thanks for joining me again. So today is a podcast of distinction in that this is our one year anniversary, more or less,

P: Yay!

B: Whohoo! We made it.

S: We crossed the one-year mark. This is our forty-second podcast, and we've been doing this now for just over one year.

B: And, also, we've been renewed for a second season.

S: That's right. We've been renewed for a second season.

R: All right!

S: So more episodes to come.

J: Steve, aren't there fifty-two weeks in a year, though?

S: When we initially started, we had some kinks to work out and get our schedules in tune and everything, so the first few months we were a little intermittent, but I think for the last like six or seven months, we've been pretty much every week without missing any weeks. So, hopefully next year, we'll put out fifty-two episodes. We'll try not to miss a week.

P: We're also flying up on the iTunes download rating system.

S: That's right. We're up to, I think, twenty-four at last?

R: Twenty-four, yeah. I just checked.

J: Under the science category though.

S: Under the science category. That's right.

P: Well, of course.

R: Yeah, but you know, it's the only category that matters.

P: The meteoric rise has directly mirrored Rebecca's involvement in the show.

R: (laughs) Thank you.

S: She's a great addition.

R: Glad you noticed that.

S: So, thanks.

B: Is that a logical fallacy?

S: It's a ...

R: No. Correlation, causation.

S: Confusing correlation with causation? I think so, yeah.

B: Yeah.

R: (laughs) One and the same.

S: But thanks to all our listeners out there. You guys have made this quite an experience. Thanks for listening.

News Items[edit]

UFO's in the UK (2:11)[edit]

S: There's a couple of other news items. So, have you guys heard about the UK's pronouncement on UFOs? So they did an official review of all of the UFO data, and they concluded that there are no flying saucers.

J: Oh, my God!

R: Wow!

P: Astounding, astounding.

R: Next up: Santa.

B: Well that's it! That's it then. The whole phenomenon's finally over. That's it. All right.

S: It's over.

P: This is good.

R: Call it a day.

P: Project Blue Blood Book. Was that it?

S: No. Project Blue Book was a US Air Force investigation.

P: Project Blue Blood Book.

S: Blue Blood Book.

J: We didn't miss it, Perry. It just wasn't funny.

R: Technically, that wasn't a joke, Perry.

S: That's true. This is a confidential Ministry of Defence report on unidentified flying objects. It was actually completed in 2000, but was just made public through the freedom of information act, and, basically, reveals that the ministry's conclusion was that there is no physical or real phenomenon. There are, basically, no threats to national defense, no threats to collisions with any solid objects.

P: And no evidence, right?

S: Well, that's the bottom line. There's no evidence to suggest that there is an alien phenomenon going on. That the evidence suggests that meteors and well-known effects and other phenomenon are responsible for most of the sightings. Although I notice on the BBC article discussing this, they have a picture of a UFO. The caption reads "Meteors may have been responsible for some UFO sightings," yet the picture is clearly not of a meteor.

J: Yeah, I saw that.

S: It's a fake UFO. It looks like a model of a flying saucer. So I'm sure the ufologists are going to get a kick out of that picture with that caption. It's just a complete mismatch. They should have put it on the picture above it. The picture above it is a meteor. It probably is. There's two little bright dots of a meteor breaking up as it's reentering the atmosphere. That would've been a better picture to put the caption underneath.

P: Do they have any video of a UFO swinging back and forth?

S: Right.

B: Yeah, on a wire.

J: Steve, what started this? Why did they make this announcement?

S: Well, again, they made the announcement because the conclusion of the report was made public through a freedom-of-information request. It was made by Sheffield Hallam University academic Dr. David Clark — made the request, so the information became public, even though it was completed six years ago.

R: Wait a minute. It was a freedom of information request in England?

S: Apparently. They must have a similar statue.

R: I didn't realize that.

S: Yeah, it said freedom of information act, so it's FOIA, basically the same thing you would call it in this country.

P: Yeah.

S: It's a four hundred page report. Pretty comprehensive.

B: Cool.

S: Now, of course, we all know this isn't going to change anyone's mind. All of the UFO believers will just call this one big conspiracy cover-up, and it will not, I think, persuade them for one moment.

R: Of course.

S: But it's at least good to see that the official report was unbiased and scientific enough to come to a reasonable conclusion.

Scientology Superheroes (5:26)[edit]

S: Now Rebecca, again, reading your blog, which for those of you who don't read it, check it out. It's an excellent blog.

R: Thank you.

S: You talked about ...

P: What's that address for that blog?

S: We'll have a link on our site. But go ahead, can you say it?

R: You can link to it from [].


R: Yeah.

S: Recently you've been writing about Scientology, again. Why don't you tell us about that.

R: Yeah. I can't get enough of Scientologists, because every time you think that they couldn't possibly get crazier, they get just a little bit crazier. And, so, recently they announced that soon they're going to be opening up a superhero camp. They've got this facility set up in California where people can go and go through all of these different machines to hone their senses, and L. Ron Hubbard established fifty-seven different senses that he calls perceptics, that he feels that if people — or he felt — that if Scientologists can build up these perceptics to a high level, they can eventually take over the world ...

S: Hm, hm.

R: ... basically.

S: Now are we talking and DC Comics or Marvel, here?


R: It's actually more of like an independent image kind of comics.

S: I see.

R: Yeah, you weren't expecting me to follow that, were you.

S: Do you have to wear tights to get into this.

R: No, but it helps.

S: Tights are optional.

R: I've heard Tom Cruise is into the tights.

S: It's optional, but they all wear them, anyway, right?

R: (Laughing) Right. They don't have to wear them, but they let them wear them.

B: I bet they all wear capes, too.

P: Where do you get the word perceptics? That's a great word.

S: Gotta love the jargon.

R: Perceptics. Yeah.

S: The jargon is wonderful.

R: Yes. It's good.

S: Now give me an example. What are some of the perceptics that you ...

R: Okay.

S: ... can master and become a superhero?

R: Well, they have some that you might be able to guess, like sound, smell, things like that.

S: Actual senses, yes.

P: Those are the five perceptics.

R: Yes, the actual senses. And then there are things like — and I'm not making this up — one is rhythm.

S: Rhythm.

R: Because, you know, when you're taking over the world, you need a little jazzy beat.

P: A little rhythm. For the caucasion members of the camp.

R: I was about to say: a lot of Scientologists — very white. I don't know if anybody's noticed this. Lots of white guys. There's personal size.

J: What are we talking about here?

R: That's left open ...

S: ... to interpretation.

R: Yeah, it's not — who knows what they mean by that? I think I do, but there you go. Right now Tom Cruise is desperately concentrating on something.

J: What a jackass.

R: Let's see. Another is saline content of your body.

S: Salinity.

R: Yes.

S: "I am the master of salinity!" All tremble in my (unintelligible)


J: Salt man.

P: That's right.

R: The best thing I could come up with for that is destroying slugs that happen to be around the house.

S: Slugs beware! Right?

R: Yeah. I drew a little comic if anybody wants to see that on the blog..

P: (unintelligible)

J: The comic was utterly awful. It was awful.

S: But is was delightfully awful. It was delightfully awful.

R: You loved it, and you know it. Compass direction. Perception of conclusions past and present. I don't know. Oh, awareness of not knowing, which ...

P: Awareness of not knowing?

B: I wasn't aware of that one.

R: No.

S: Awareness of not knowing.

J: Rebecca, in your blog, the guy — I read the article, and the guy said that he saved some kid's life because no one else saw this truck barreling down on top of the kid.

R: Yeah, yeah. They were at a crosswalk, and apparently nobody saw a giant truck about to crush a small child, but this guy did.

B: What a superhero.

R: Yeah, and he didn't say he like pulled the kid out of the way. I think he said he just yelled or something. And the kid got out of the way himself.

J: The thing is, if you try to be more perceptive, you will be.

S: Right.

R: Yeah.

S: It's called paying attention.

J: Yeah, so how can they judge? Is there any way to test these claims?

R: You know, I really don't think that they're running through a whole lot of clinical trials over there at crazy international.

P: Probably not.

B: Well, here's my favorite superhero power. This one beats them all. Perception of appetite. Come on! What couldn't you do with that? You would always know when you're hungry!

R: Care for an apple, Scientology man? No, thanks.

B: I always have a problem figuring out when I'm hungry.

S: Knowing when you're hungry? Yeah.

J: When I was reading the article, I thought it was very humorous if you could encounter someone who has no perception of gravity. Wouldn't that be kind of like a drunk person?


S: Perception of gravity.

B: Well, maybe a drunk ...

S: Well, when you're describing what scientists [sic] believe, you have to always parenthetically say "Scientologists really believe this. I'm not making this up."

P: That's right.

J: That's true. Somewhere, Tom Cruise is sitting on a mountain of money. He's been with some of the prettiest women on the planet. He is amazingly famous and everything, and he is one of the dumbest people that walk face of the Earth.

R: Yeah, but you're not going to

S: Well, he's brainwashed.

R: be making fun of him when he improves his personal size.

J: My God!

S: He'll knock you over in your unawareness of your own gravity.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

S: Well, let's do a couple of emails.

Tracking Satellites (11:06)[edit]

S: The first one comes from a man named Tracy, and he says "Don't let the name fool you. I'm a guy." All right Tracy. Tracy writes:

Greetings from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Ah, so he's a local boy.

R: I've heard of that.


Stumbled across your podcast after listening to part of some other podcast where Lloyd Pye was being interviewed and couldn't believe the absurdity of how we dealt with science. I was looking for a dose of rationality and find it with you folks. In one of the earlier podcasts, you were talking about how various night-sky objects get mistaken for UFOs. There is a great website that tracks the various man-made satellites orbiting the Earth. Put in your location information and you can get a schedule of what is coming up or what has already passed by. I have noticed how some UFO reports coincide with satellite passage. If you get a chance, check out one of the Iridium Satellite flares when they pass over your area. They are quite spectacular. Some are magnitude negative nine.. The link is

He says:

Your podcasts have sharpened my critical thinking. I find them to be quite entertaining and as well as informative. However, there has been an unfortunate side effect: my echinacea seems to have stopped working. Keep up the good work and great shows.

Well, thanks, Tracey. Yeah, I remember reading about the Iridium flares a few years ago, and think I was talking to you about this, Bob, and thinking "Oh, my God! The UFO sightings are going to skyrocket." They're just going to go through the roof with these Iridium flares, because these are satellites that actually produce these very bright flares that you can actually see with the naked eye, and it's interesting that you can track them.

These are a very good resource for anyone who attempts to investigate UFO sightings. If you do that, what historically has been found is that the more carefully and diligently you look to find a mundane explanation for a sighting, the lower the percentage of unexplained sightings becomes. And some honest researchers in the area, even those that may have started out as believers, realize that, you know, if you just investigate hard enough, eventually you explain all of them.

Maybe there's a residue of a couple of a couple percent where there's just not enough information to investigate them properly, but no well-documented and investigable sightings that you couldn't explain if you had enough information and you were diligent enough, and this is the kind of resource that you need to use.

So, thanks for the link, Tracy. We'll watch the sky for those Iridium flares, and, incidentally, if you're — Lloyd Pye, I think we did talk about him on a previous podcast. I think it was in the context of the star child project. This guy thinks that somebody found a skull of an alien human-hybrid. I wrote a detailed article about it, which you'll find on the NESS website in our articles page, but Pye is an unadulterated fruitcake. This guy believes everything weird. He wrote the book Everything You Know Is Wrong.

Drinking Water (14:11)[edit]

S: Second email comes from Fred in Québec, Canada, and this is a quick follow-up of, I believe, our last show. He writes:

Hi, guys. I'm a big fan of the podcast. This week you talked about a spa pamphlet that said we should drink eight glasses of water a day. That sounds like bunk to me. Shouldn't it be the body needs the equivalent of eight glasses of water a day? Don't we get water from the food and juices we take every day? If we get a good nights sleep — eight hours — that leaves sixteen during the day, so that's one glass every two hours. My guess is that if you try it, you'll feel so bloated you won't do it again. Is it just me or is this bunk? Keep up the good work.

S: Well, we might have mentioned that as an aside when talking about the spa stuff as, yeah, it's generally a good idea to keep well-hydrated.

B: But I agree with him, Steve. I have read in a bunch of places where it is kind of a myth. Somebody actually tried to investigate. That's kind of like a common wisdom, something that's kind of very ubiquitous a feeling that, yeah, eight glasses a day. Somebody actually, and I'm sorry I don't have any citations — but somebody said well, I want to investigate this, and he looked through all sorts of records of experiments and things, and he could not find any reference, ...

S: Right.

B: ... any experiment or any evidence that, yeah, eight glasses a day is good, and I do tend to agree with him that you do get so much water from your food that you really don't — I don't think you really do need eight full glasses a day. It's just surprising how much water you get from solid food. I think I read somewhere that a slice of bread is like forty percent water, something crazy like that.

S: Right.

R: Yeah, and actually Snopes investigated that ...

B: Okay.

R: ... and found that it was false.[1] You don't need that much, yeah.

S: Baseless. It's just baseless.

B: There you go.

S: Yeah, absolutely, and, also, it makes no sense. Obviously, the eight glasses a day is a completely arbitrary figure. Who knows what the origin of that is? But people need different amounts of water. It depends on how dry the environment is, how much activity you undertake, what you do eat, how big you are, what your kidney function is like. There's all sorts of variables that you'd have to plug-in to really know how much water you need.

J: I thought that was just a good average when I've read that a million times. A lot of people were passing around that email about how bad it is on your body to be dehydrated. It was pretty interesting. Some of the things in there sounded really scary, but some of the things that I thought were interesting — and I've talked with Bob about this — where if you're hydrated enough, your metabolism actually could increase from it. You can lose weight from drinking enough water.

S: Only to the extent that it's better if you're not dehydrated.

J: Yeah.

S: Over hydrating is not helpful. In fact, it's harmful. It's kind of silly in that we have evolved over millions of years a very, very powerful, precise mechanism for regulating our water. When you need water you know it, because you get thirsty, and if you drink more water than you need you'll pee it out.

What I do recommend is that you just listen to your thirst. If you feel thirsty, drink. Just don't go thirsty for a long time. If you want to know if you're getting enough water, actually you could kind of do a rough estimate of what we actually do in the hospital, and that's just look at your urine. If your urine's really dilute, you're getting more water than you need. If it's really dark, you're probably not getting enough water. And if it's somewhere in between, it's probably just right.

The only real recommendation that I would make is that if you are going to do extreme conditions, like run a marathon or be out in the hot weather for a long time, then you may want to pre-hydrate a little bit and also just make sure you have access to hydration. You don't want to go a long time in the heat in a dry environment and not be able to hydrate yourself. But that's all common sense.

R: That's fascinating, Steve. I can't wait to go look at my pee.

S: Right. Look at your pee everyday.

R: I'm going to do that right now. Do you guys mind?

P: Absolutely.

B: We'll wait.

J: Do it on air. That's fine.

S: What's silly is thinking that you have to force yourself to drink more water than you think you need because it's somehow healthy. You're just going to pee it out if you drink more water than you need. And, in fact, there was a recent article — recent by like four or five months ago — that showed that marathon runners who like aggressively hydrate themselves, actually hurt themselves, because they dilute out their electrolytes. So, you can overdo the water.

R: That's why things like Gatorade are often better.

S: They're a little better. They are. It's still not the same.

R: Watered-down Gatorade?

S: You can still overdo. Even Gatorade is not anywhere near the salinity of your blood, so you could still dilute out your electrolytes.

R: But, Steve, what if you were a Scientologist, and you can control the salinity of your body.

S: That's right. Then it's not a problem.

B: There you go.

R: Well,there you go.

S: You could make your urine any color you want.

R: Oh, my God. Greatest super-power ever.

J: One time I remember I went to Bob's wife now — her family used to own an ice cream parlor, and one time I went and got a lime ice that he made there, and the food coloring he used did not metabolize, and I thought that I was really sick. I'm like "Oh, my God! Something's wrong!" And then it was "wait a minute. I ate something green yesterday."

R: (Giggling) Fascinating.

S: Well, we have a wonderful interview with Eugenie Scott, so let's go to that interview now.

Interview with Eugenie Scott (19:36)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Eugenie Scott. Dr. Scott is the director of the National Center for Science Education. She's the author of the textbook Evolution versus Creationism, and for the last twenty years or so she has been at the forefront of the battle between teaching science and evolution and against attempts at promoting creationism and intelligent design in our public schools. Genie, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

ES: Thank you, nice to be here.

S: Thanks so much for talking with us tonight.

Creationism and Intelligent Design (20:09)[edit]

S: So, this is a topic that we deal with quite frequently on this show. Creationism and intelligent design is one of our favorite pseudo-sciences, so just tell me, since you're on the front lines there, how do you think we're doing? How is the fight going overall?

ES: Well, at the National Center for Science Education we sometimes feel like the red queen. We're running as hard as we can to stay in the same place.

S: Right.

ES: We do get ahead of the pack every once in a while, and in this last six months or so there have been some notable successes for what I would consider the good guys' side in this. Clearly the one that most people would have in mind, if they're thinking about this, would be Kitzmiller versus Dover, the federal district court case about ...

P: Absolutely.

ES: ... the policy in Dover, Pennsylvania. That was definitely something that boosted all of our enthusiasms. But also some other issues which might not have made everybody's newspapers, shortly after the Kitzmiller decision, the state of Ohio rescinded a very bad policy that it had in it's state science education standards as well as a model curriculum that, basically, was a shill for intelligent design, and that certainly was very, very positive, because changes in science education curriculum around the country are one of the major ways that the anti-evolutionists have utilized in the last several years to try to advance their cause.

S: Right, yeah. It certainly seemed to me after the Kitzmiller decision, that a lot of the grassroots creationist efforts were in a little bit of a retreat. A lot of the decisions by school boards or whatever to introduce either wishy-washy language or anti-evolution language was withdrawn or pulled back, almost as if they were intimidated a little bit by this decision. Is that your sense as well?

ES: Well, yes and no. I think after Kitzmiller, partly because the Kitzmiller decision was just so solid. You can read it on our website as well as transcripts and witness statements and lots of other goodies. But if you take the time to at least just skim through this decision, it is just so solid ...

P: Scathing.

ES: ... against intelligent design as science. I mean it's quite, quite wonderful. I think there was a slight period of disarray, but I keep trying to remind people that even though we're all fixated on intelligent design these days, because it's been in the paper, it's actually in many respects a more interesting kind of anti-evolutionism, don't forget that approximately half of the country, according to just about any poll you go to, rejects the idea of evolution, and the major and largest anti-evolution movement is still the somewhat more old-fashioned, if you will, creation science movement.

Creation science is still the larger movement. It has more organizations; it has more money; and it reaches more people than intelligent design does. Intelligent design is fun, because it's tossing around information theory and molecular biology and stuff like that, but, I tell you, the traditional creation science people are far, far more influential.

Well, just this last — earlier the same week that we're recording this, a small school district in southeastern Missouri invited an evangelist down from the Answers in Genesis creationist ministry to do a full school assembly on Monday morning about the problems of evolution, the problems of origin of life, and although I haven't seen any tapes or haven't — actually, I've been on the road myself, so I haven't talked to anybody about what actually happened, but I suspect that he never mentioned the Bible once. I suspect he just went out there and trashed evolution; left the students with the idea that "Wow, evolution is really in tough shape scientifically. Gosh, I guess if evolution didn't do it, God did it."

S: Um, hm.

ES: So, you know, this whole trashing of evolution, the evidence-against-evolution approach, which you were asking where are we going next. Well, that's the next frontier. This has been part of the anti-evolution movement for a long time. Given the court reversals for creation science and intelligent design, it's only going to become stronger, and it's harder to deal with from a legal standpoint.

S: Um, hm.

R: Genie, I'm a little surprised. I didn't even realize that the creationists had separated themselves from the intelligent design movement so cleanly. Do they not interact at all?

ES: There's an interesting symbiosis between the two. In terms of content, as we showed very, very clearly in the Kitzmiller case, and you can read all about it. Intelligent design is just a subset of the ideas of creation science in the sense that there's nothing in intelligent design that wasn't already present in creation science, but intelligent design doesn't say anything about the age of the Earth or the Grand Canyon being cut by Noah's flood and some of the other, more off-beat ideas that creation science promotes.

And for the last, well, ten years or so, there's been this uneasy peace between the two, where the intelligent design people have said "Look, let's just set aside biblical creation for a while, and let us all link arms against evolution, and once we've vanquished evolution, then we can have a nice polite argument amongst Christians about how old the Earth is."

S: Right.

ES: And I think part of what happened was the intelligent design folks started getting all the attention, and I think there might have been a little bit of jealousy on the part of the traditional creation science folks, who basically supported them. And now they're starting to withdraw a little bit, claiming that the ID movement is insufficiently biblical. It's really not bringing people to Christ. It doesn't go far enough, and yet what we find over and over — we found this certainly in Dover, we find it in Kansas. I can give you any number of communities where people who used to call themselves creation science supporters morphed into intelligent design supporters, and, if they've gotten the memo from the leadership of the intelligent design movement now, they're now morphing into critical analysis of evolution supporters and other kinds of euphemisms.

R: Oh, my God!

ES: Oh, yeah honey, this is not over. It's not over in Dover.

R: The marketing efforts are just getting slicker, which is what's disturbing, I think.

B: Well, it's evolving.

ES: Oh, yeah. This is classic. If you ever have understood adaptive radiation as a biological concept, you see it here. Given the changing legal environment, it's necessary to adaptively radiate into new strategies. You're seeing it clearly.

R: Do you think that they're better at marketing than us?

ES: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And if you really want to see some good examples of this, go to the Discovery Institute.

R: Yeah.

ES: One of the things that I like to call to people's attention, just because it's amusing in a way, is this great enthusiasm that folks — you know the Discovery Institute? That's the main think tank for intelligent design.

B: Yeah.

R: Yeah, yeah.

ES: Okay. Well, just in case all the folks listening to us didn't know that, it's probably good to let them know right away. But over at the Discovery Institute they seem to have this fixation on Darwinism and the Darwinists, the dogmatic Darwinists doing this, and Darwinism says that, and it's almost like a tic with these folks. They can't seem to write a paragraph or maybe more than two or three sentences without putting Darwinism or Darwinist in it. And they use it as an epithet.

R: Yeah.

ES: And, of course, I was just up at the University of Washington, and I was playing with my audience a little bit, and I said "Okay, raise your hand if you've ever gone to a scientific conference." Of course, a whole bunch of hands went up because this is sponsored by the science departments, right? So, yeah, there must've been seventy-five hands went up in the audience. I said "Okay, keep your hands up if you've ever walked up to another scientist at a conference and said 'Hi, I understand you're a herpetologist. I'm a Darwinist.'" And everybody just laughed, and, of course, all the hands went down, because we don't refer to ourselves as Darwinists, right?

S: Hm, hm.

ES: We refer to ourselves as evolutionary biologists. But Darwinist is a practitioner of Darwinsim, and Darwinism is an ideology. And ideologies are bad. That's like communism or racism or maybe even feminism. But ideologies are bad. isms are bad. They've got nothing to do with science, and isn't it terrible that Darwinism is an ism. They want to equate evolution with atheism, ...

R: Yeah.

ES: ... and one of the ways that they do this rhetorically is by this compulsive use of this epithet Darwinism, and it works because if you — actually I was on a radio show with Michael Behe a couple of years ago, maybe just last year, and he was doing this "Well Darwinists do this and Darwinism says that," and I said "Hey, Mike, what do you mean by Darwinism?", and Mike kind of stopped for a minute, because he didn't know what I was talking about, and the host said "Oh, he means evolution." Bingo! And that's exactly the point.

S: Right.

ES: To the general public, Darwinism is the same thing as evolution. So if you make an ism out of it, then that further taints the idea of evolution with ideology, with atheism, and so forth. So, rhetorically, they do really well.

S: They're very slick. But they're coming out of a tradition that has itself evolved over centuries to be very appealing to human psychology. So, they know what they're doing. Religions have evolved over thousands of years, right?

ES: Well, I think in terms of American culture, though, the best thing they have going for them is their fairness argument.

S: Hm, hm.

ES: "Well, let's give the students all the evidence and let them make up their own minds. Wouldn't you want the students to know all of the information about evolution? Not just the evidence in support of evolution, which they properly should teach in the public schools, but also the evidence against evolution. The strengths and weaknesses of evolution." I mean, most Americans think "Wow, that sounds pretty good. Yeah, why don't we do that in our schools?" And yet if you were to say to parents, "Why don't we teach our students the strengths and weaknesses of the germ theory of disease?" They would probably say "Yeah, that's a good idea. Let's do that."

P: Yeah.

ES: Even though there really aren't any weaknesses to the germ theory of disease. (unintelligible) ... weaknesses.

S: Weaknesses of gravity.

ES: Yeah. The intelligent design people keep running this funny poll. They've run it in Ohio and they've run it in a few other places, where they — one of the questions that they ask is "agree or disagree that students should be taught the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin's theory of evolution," and, of course, they get seventy, eighty percent say "Yeah, we should."

I'll bet if you were to ask those same respondents — any sample of twelve hundred Americans around the country — students should be taught the strengths and weaknesses of phlogiston theory, you would get the same high percentage, because what you're testing there is not people's skepticism about evolution. What you're testing there, what you're polling, is the American cultural tradition of fairness and fair play and equality, which are very good cultural traditions.

P: You mention American culture a few times there, Genie. Is this whole problem specific to the US? We have listeners from around the world. Is it an international problem, or is it a US phenomenon?

ES: And your listeners around the world are scratching their heads and saying "What's wrong with those Americans?"


R: They're used to thinking that.

ES: That's what I always get from foreign reporters whenever they dog me: "What's wrong with you? Why is this big technological nation ...?" Yeah, basically the short answer is "Yes." There are very small creationist movements bubbling up hither and yon, generally speaking in places where you've got a strong evangelical Protestant Christian missionary movement.

So, Korea is a place where you have a small creationist movement. There are a lot of evangelical Christian Koreans. You find it in Canada, especially up in the Prairie provinces. You find that there's a small movement in Australia. It's not great, but it's still around. And I would imagine that it's growing in Russia, the former Soviet Union countries, because they are being flooded with evangelical Christians who are there to teach them English. Everybody wants to learn English, but, of course, along with the English they also get the creationism and other kinds of nonsense.

Actually, that is the single most common question I get after a public lecture. "Is this going on any place else?" I actually wrote an article very recently to sort of explain why we have this problem here, and it was just published in Cell. You can get it online. They very kindly made it available. The title of it is something like Anti-evolution: It's the American Way.

And we could take up the rest of the podcast on this, but the short answer is that there is historical reasons for it, there's idiosyncratic reasons for it, there's reasons having to do with the settlement patterns of the United States, but probably the single most important reason is that it was in the United States, back in the 19-teens of the last century that a specific conservative Protestant movement called fundamentalism began.

People don't realize that biblical literalist Christianity is a fairly new thing. That Christianity they have on the continent: Catholicism, Lutheranism, even most of the Calvinist traditions in northern Europe and certainly the Church of England — these are not literalist traditions.

It was pretty much American evangelical fundamentalists following the twelve fundamentals, as the booklets were called back in the early 1900s, that established this kind of back-to-Genesis biblical literalistic tradition, which, because it's so popular in the United States, we think that it's ubiquitous. We associate, many of us associate this with Christianity, but it's really a minority position within Christianity. And that's why you don't get this in England, and you don't get this on the Continent, because their Christian traditions say "Nah, what do you mean six twenty-four hour days. That's nonsense. Genesis is allegorical."

P: Thank God.

ES: So to speak.

S: So it's good, old just historical contingency. The movement grew up here, took roots here, and thrived.

ES: And never was terribly popular elsewhere. It hasn't been a terribly successful export, except very recently. In the late twentieth century, it was getting a little bit more of a purchase in, say, Africa, and with the collapse of Catholic liberation theology in Central and South America, the Protestant missionaries are gaining a foothold in parts of Latin America, where formally it was totally Catholic.

In Brazil, for example, Protestantism is the fastest-growing denomination, and the one little flareup that we had in Brazil in the summer I guess it was of 2004 (it's on our website — I forget exactly the date — so much creationism, so a little time) that this little blip that we had in Brazil a couple of years ago was because in Rio de Janeiro province the education minister pretty much says "here's the curriculum; thou shalt teach it," and she decided that evolution wouldn't be taught, and she just happened to be one of that sixteen percent or whatever it is of Brazilians who are evangelical Protestants. So, we may be seeing more of this in the future as conservative Protestant Christianity increases around the globe.

S: Now, what do you think of the notion, which is something that I've always felt, that it's also partly self-fulfilling in that the creationist movement in this country has eroded to a large degree the quality of teaching evolution in the public schools if, for no other reason, by intimidating textbook companies into watering down their treatment of the topic. So they've basically manufactured a public ignorant of evolution, and that's given them more fertile waters in which to stir up apparent negativity about it.

ES: Oh, absolutely. No the assault against evolution began right after the Scopes trial in 1925. According to the historian Ed Larson, by about 1930 evolution was effectively gone from the high school curriculum. It was taken out of textbooks. Everybody thinks Scopes won. No, Scopes lost, and science education lost, because evolution became a controversial subject, and textbook publishers decided they'd sell my books if they didn't have evolution as a prominent component of the textbooks. And so they just took it out. And it actually didn't come back until the 1960s.

S: So Sputnik, right?

B: Sputnik. Didn't that the resurgence of interest in science.

ES: Yeah, pretty much. Sputnik was very important in focusing attention at the federal level on the need to improve science education. Would be we could have something comparable, because we certainly are greatly in need of improvement of science education.

S: There's talk about it with China and India, so maybe that competition will spur some more science education, but we'll see.

ES: Well, the thing about China and India is that we have been, we in the United States have been the extremely fortunate recipients of their brain drain. They send their best and brightest over here to be trained, and a whole lot of those young people stay on as postdocs and as future professors and people who labor in the vineyards of biotech and computer technology and the other science-related industries and businesses.

Now this is not a xenophobic kind of statement, because, like I say, I think we've been enormously lucky to have benefited from their intelligence and their work ethic, and what's bad about that? The only thing that's negative is that, as you were saying, things are getting better in India and Taiwan and China, and so a lot of these really bright young people, young professionals, well-trained are thinking "Hm. I could be near my family and work in a biotech field."

S: Hm, hm.

ES: And so a lot of these young folks in the next ten years are going to go home, which means that we're going to have a big hole in our science and technology pipeline. Are we going to have enough well-trained Americans to fill that? I don't think so. Already, we graduate only twenty percent of the number of engineers that China graduates.

R: Wow!

ES: So there's a whole lot of reasons for us to improve science education, one being to improve the pipeline so that we can continue our technological domination of the world, for better or for ill. At least Americans have certainly benefited from that. And number two, something I've been concerned about all my life, is just general science literacy.

S: Um hm.

ES: We are living in a highly technological, industrial economy, and we're a democracy, and citizens make decisions about issues, many of which involve science. Are they making those decisions based upon information, based upon careful consideration of data and empirical evidence, or do they lack the ability to consider that evidence? And that is a very good reason to argue for general science education, just to improve the overall science literacy of our public.

S: Absolutely.

Project Steve (41:19)[edit]

S: So, Genie, before we go on to another topic, I wanted to bring up Project Steve for a couple of reasons now.

ES: (laughter)

B: Ha!

S: For the listeners, the creationists — I can't remember if it was the creations or the intelligent designers — but they came out with their list of scientists who are skeptical of Darwinism, and they had a couple of hundred ...

ES: There we go with Darwinism, again, don't we.

S: ... yeah, with Darwinism — and there were a couple hundred names on there. So just to show how insignificant this whole thing was, some scientists put together a list of scientists who support evolution, and the kick was that these were all scientists named "Steve" or "Stephanie." So, which is about one percent of the scientific population. So you could multiply those numbers by a hundred, and I believe we're up to seven or eight hundred by now.

ES: So, I think on the Steve List I think seven-fifty something.[2] I mean, we're way up there.

S: Seven-fifty? Right, so that means there's ...

ES: Seventy-five thousand.

S: ... seventy-five thousand scientists supporting evolution to the one or two hundred that signed that they're skeptical.

ES: I think they're up to five hundred, now.

S: Five hundred.

ES: You know the problem with ID? The problem with the Discovery Institute is they suffer from irony-deficiency anemia. They don't get it.

S: They don't get it.

ES: We did Project Steve as a parody of this "One hundred scientists doubting Darwin". So we got Two hundred scientists accepting evolution, all named Steve, right. And you'd have thought that at that point they would've gotten embarrassed enough that they would stop collecting names, but they just don't get it.

So they went on, and after four years, they managed to scramble up five hundred names, and they had this big press release a few months ago about "Oh, we're up to five hundred names, now." Well, we're not even trying to recruit Steve's and Stephanie's anymore, but they just keep coming in over the transom, you know. "Oh, we heard about Project Steve. Gee, can I be a Steve?" So, maybe after this podcast we'll get yet more PhD Steve's and Stephanie's, so you all go ahead and sign up. You get a cool tee-shirt.

S: Of course, the reason why I bring it up was I was one of the original two hundred Steve's. I have my tee-shirt.

ES: You have the collectors-item black tee-shirt.

S: Yes. Absolutely.

B: Ooh! Sell that on eBay!

S: With twelve names on the back.

R: I'm seething with non-Steve jealousy.

S: You have some Steve envy?

R: Yeah, I have Steve envy.

S: And it's just lucky. I think they chose Steve just to honor Stephen Jay Gould, ...

ES: That's right.

S: ... which is appropriate.

ES: But also because Steve is such an iconic American name.

S: Um, hm.

ES: The Tao of Steve and Steve McQueen, and Steve is just American.

R: It's just a funny name.

B: I thought Bob was.

R: It's a good, go-to, punchline name.

ES: Exactly. Exactly. That's it. It's got all sort of cultural reference here.

R: If you didn't do Steve, you would've done Larry, you know. Larry is another good name.

ES: Good question. What would we have done? But Steve makes sense. Actually, the person who suggested it was named Steve, and so, possibly, that might have been slight self-aggrandizement there.

S: My favorite, though of course, is the Steve Song.

ES: Oh, yes!

S: A Monty Python-esque song about Steve's believing in evolution.

ES: (singing) "Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve, ..." Quite silly. That was the Australian Robyn Williams. The same as the American comedian, but he's a broadcaster in Australia and a skeptic and a funny guy. He interviewed me at the AAAS meeting. He always comes with his reel-to-reel recorder, speaking of technology, and records — gets a bunch of stories from the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings, and then goes back and turns them into programs for his broadcast.

Yeah, Williams is a great guy. When he did the story on Project Steve, some of the guys in his office just thought that was such a great story that they came up with this four-part harmony on the Steve Song. We have had more damn fun with this Project Steve. This is just the gift that keeps on giving.

S: Yeah.

ES: I did, at the AAAS meeting — do you know the Ig Nobel prizes?

B: Oh, yeah.

S: Of course.

R: I was actually at the last ones. They were great.

ES: Yes, lucky you. Well, at one of Mark Abraham's Friday night Ig shows at the AAAS meeting, he usually does just this little funny thing — shows some clips from the eighties, and I did a little PowerPoint presentation on the morphology of Steve, which I then wrote up, and I am so proud — you know, I've published things in Science and I've published things in Reviews in Nature, and I've got a lot of publications, but I am so proud to have been the author of an article in the Journal of Improbable Research.

R: Oh, yeah. That's about as good as it gets.

ES: This is truly the highlight of my career. It's "Scott, et. al" On the Morphology of Steve. Is an article where we realized that — Glenn Branch in my office realized that we had the names and addresses of the Steve's and Stephanie's from all over the country, all over the world, really, because we've got Europeans and Australians.

We had — of course, we said "what's your tee-shirt size?", right? Because we sent these people the tee-shirt, and so we had a measure of body size, assuming small people chose small tee-shirts, and so. So we did this ridiculous analysis of correlating tee-shirt size — small, medium, large, extra-large, and tent — across geographic area. And we did Bergmann's and Allen's rule and island biogeography. We discovered, by the way, that island Steve's are smaller than mainland Steve's. And so island dwarfism occurred in Steve's just as in other mammals.

S: Right.

ES: This is so silly. I published this wonderful paper, I and four hundred and twenty-six co-authors. The four hundred and twenty-six co-authors, of course, being the Steve's of Steve.

B: Right.

ES: I'm co-author of an article with two Nobel laureates and Stephen Hawking. Not so many people can say that.

R: I think you're going to have to change your name to Steve, just to ... No.

ES: People have written us and said "If I change my name to Steve, can I be ..." "I'm sorry. You have to have a PhD and your name has to be Steve. No, we're not going to do a Project Bob."


S: That would skew the data, if people started changing their names. That's not fair.

ES: Well, I don't know.

Debating Creationists (48:02)[edit]

S: Let me talk to you a little bit about debating creationists. This is...

ES: Ah, yes.

S: For anyone involved with arguing against creationists, promoting evolution, and scientific skepticism in general, eventually gets the itch to debate creationists. We've had emails to us saying "Oh, we would love it if you guys would go head-to-head with one of these IDers or creationists on the show." But I know your position on this a little bit, that you think that it's kind of a double-edged sword and, in general, can be a bad idea. What's your current opinion about the whole notion of debating creationists?

ES: Well, you know, I'm the last person on the planet to say we should ignore these folks, right? That's my day job. So I feel very strongly that scientists and other people who take time to learn about these things should counter the false claims of the anti-evolutionists. Now, that said, do it in an effective way.

S: Hm, hm.

ES: Debate is a sport. Debate is not how we do science. The classic kind of debate, where you have person A on one side of the stage and person B on the other side of the stage, and A goes for an hour and B goes for an hour, and then A rebuts — the audience is comatose by that time, anyway.

But those kinds of classical debate setups mislead the public about what science is all about, because science really isn't about two people standing on opposite sides of this stage and declaiming. It misleads the public in terms of the huge amount of scientific support for evolution, because visually and what is kind of communicated just by the gestalt of the whole operation is A and B, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, whereas if this was proportionate to the actual support of evolution within the community, there would be tens of thousands of scientists on the evolution side of the stage, and a paltry few over there on the other.

Anybody who sort of gets the itch to debate, and I hear from these folks. Generally what I hear is somebody writes and says "I have accepted an offer, a request to debate a creationist at my school. Can you help me?"

S: Yeah.

ES: Well, come to me first. What I want people to think about is: what are your goals, and what are the goals of your opponent? And is this activity, whether it's a debate or a panel or what, is this activity going to achieve his goals or mine? I do directly appear with creationists. I'll do radio shows. I'll do panels. I will appear with creationists, but the setting and the circumstances have to be such that my goals are met, or that at least there's a chance. A classical debate setting is not going to work.

S: Yeah, it totally rigs the game against us.

ES: Particularly at a church, somewhere. Particularly in a setting where the other side is going to be busing in large numbers of supporters for the creationist. Now think about what actually happens. I'm assuming that our goals — people on our side of this issue — our goals for one of these exchanges is to try to educate the public about evolution, about the nature of science, and support the teachers in their effort to continue teaching good science in the schools, and keep creationism out.

That seems to be a reasonable goal. If you agree to debate, one thing that will happen is your opponent will get a much larger audience, and those supporters aren't really listening to you, no matter how good you are. I actually have a little article that I wrote years ago called Debates and the Globetrotters, where I compared the creation-evolution debate to a Globetrotter game, where the creationist is the Globetrotters and the evolutionist is the ...

R: Oh, man! The Generals?

ES: ... whatever it is.

R: The Generals never win. Oh, man!

ES: Exactly! And, you know, the opposing team that they take around with them, generally consists of some pretty good ball players. They are ex-college players or something like that. Now I think they're called the International All-stars or something, whatever. But the team that the Globetrotters beat up on get off some good shots, but nobody pays any attention, because you're there to watch the Globetrotters, right?

S: Right.

ES: And this is exactly what a creation-evolution debate is also. The audience is there to see their champion, and what happens is they get all revved up, they get all excited about this wonderful science of creationism, and then they go home and they make life miserable for teachers. Now, is this our goal? Is this really advancing our cause?

B: Wow.

ES: I think most of the people who get all excited about debating creationists, ought to think about their egos, and if this is the best way to assuage them, and I would like them to take up another hobby, because assuaging their ego or making them feel good "Because I really pounded that creationist into the soil".

They all seem to fell they win. They never win. They always lose. They always lose in terms of the way the audience hears the arguments and what the audience does with the information once it gets it. You often hear "But nobody at my university will defend science, so I had to do it." Baloney! If a creationist comes and says "Nobody at University X would debate me," so what!

S: Right.

ES: Whose he going to say it to? He's going to say it to forty people in a church basement who agree with him anyway. What a lot of universities have done is gotten the word out to the science faculty "No, don't debate so-and-so when he comes. This is a waste of time. Yes, we all understand this. This is fine." And just write a little paragraph to that effect, saying that "We don't feel that a public debate is the appropriate way to educate the public about the nature of science and evolution. We have examined the position presented by Kent Hovlind or whoever the creationist is, and we find that that is severely lacking is scientific credibility. He should be making his arguments to the scientific community, not to public school boards."

And then, if the claim is made that the professors at University X were afraid to debate, just show them the statement.

S: Yeah, I completely agree with you, although I think last year that sentiment was applied to confronting creationists in the courtroom, and there was at least one court case where the scientific community essentially declined ...

ES: Yup! Absolutely,

S: ... to give testimony.

ES: Okay, it absolutely was the best move, and let me tell you why. Because A) this was not a court situation. What you're talking about is the kangaroo court in Kansas.

S: Oh, right, right, yeah, right.

ES: This was a hearing that was sponsored by creationists on the Kansas Board of Education. This was evolution on trial. They were going to bring in famous evolutionists and famous intelligent design supporters, and the proponents of each side would be interviewed by lawyers. Well, could you imagine a bigger waste of time then that? A) there were no rules. Don't compare the kangaroo court with what happened in Harrisburg in the Dover trial, ...

S: Um, hm.

ES: ... because the Kitzmiller versus Dover was a real opportunity for intelligent design to present in a situation where there were rules, where there was great transparency on all sides. I mean, yes, everybody says "Wow, this was a long trial. It took six weeks." No, it didn't; it took a year. We started working on the Dover trial with the Dover lawyers — well, actually, before they even filed.

Once they filed, we helped them select witnesses. We help prepare witness statements. We helped prepare the witnesses for their depositions. We helped prepare the lawyers to depose the intelligent design proponents. We helped prepare our witnesses and the lawyers for the actual courtroom activities. Everybody knew what everybody had said in the depositions. Everything was on the table.

It wasn't this kind of free-for-all "Let's beat up on evolution" that the Kansas kangaroo court was. So, the whole structure of the event in Kansas was not at all anywhere near parallel to an actual evaluation of intelligent design. And, of course, the Kansas situation was wrong from the get-go, because it was evolution on trial.

S: It was a sham, basically, is what you're saying.

ES: It was an absolute sham. It was an absolute sham. Geographers don't defend the spherical earth.

S: Right.

ES: Evolutionary biologists don't defend evolution, and this is exactly what they wanted us to do, and, so, I supported the Kansas Citizens for Science strongly in their decision not to participate, and I was extremely proud of the scientific community for realizing why this was a bad idea. You don't know how many letters they sent out to the Kansas Board of Education — just wrote to just about everybody whose name has appeared in the newspaper in association with the creation-evolution controversy, and bless their little hearts, they all hung in there and said "No, no. We don't think this would be a worthwhile activity." So, basically, the sham went on at a great deal of expense, by the way, to the taxpayers of Kansas, which they didn't like very much.

S: Although, unfortunately, I don't think that the mainstream media really made that clear, that this hearing was a put-up job.

ES: We tried very hard, and some of the media did get it, but not all of them did. And, of course, the conservative media, the media that favors the creationist position, they, of course, (unintelligible). But we and the Kansas Citizens For Science did work very hard to try to help the media understand, and, actually, the Kansas Citizens For Science scientists and citizens were there at the hearing in the hall, and so the reporters who actually covered the hearing, they got it.

P: Genie, what's the current status in Kansas? Do you know?

ES: The State Board of Education has, unfortunately, passed some very inferior science education standards where they've redefined the definition of science so that it is not restricted to natural cause, and have scattered throughout the science education standards document all kinds of bad science that calls into question whether evolution is valid and so forth.

It's the evidence-against-evolution approach, and those are the standards that are extant right now. But what is actually happening that is of more interest is that various citizens in Kansas who really don't want the current school board to create any more problems for science education are working very hard to get moderate candidates to run for state school board, because three of the creationists are up for election this coming fall. What I hear from the Kansas Citizens For Science is that they do have good candidates, and they're trying to get people to campaign for them, and so forth.

P: We saw what happened to the school board in Dover. Out.

ES: Yeah, pretty much.

S: Yeah.

ES: If the bad guys are voted out, so to speak, in Kansas, then when they take office in January, they may do, basically, what their predecessors in the year 2000 did when the bad school board members were voted out and more moderate ones were voted in, and just basically rescind the old standards, which would be the best thing.

S: Yeah, so this is like a repeat of what happened five years ago.

ES: That's right, exactly.

S: It's probably just going to cycle, then they'll lose interest, and the creationists will worm their way back in, and they'll cycle back again probably.

ES: Well, my friend John Stavor has said back in 1999 "Democracy got us into this, and democracy's going to get us out." And he's absolutely right.

S: And it's a never-ending struggle, it appears.

ES: Democracy is much preferred over lawsuits, believe me.

R: That's actually what I was about to ask you, because we've talked a bit about what we shouldn't do, like confronting creationists and debates and things like that, but what can the average person do who's concerned about things like this? What can we do to stop it?

ES: Well, certainly inform yourself of the issues, and you can do that from our website, and there's other resources that we provide. Secondly, pay attention. Who's running for your local school board? Who's running for the state's Board of Education in your state? Are they people who have the best interests of science education in mind?

You'd be surprised how few people bother to vote for those positions far down the ballot, which means it's extremely easy to take over a school board if you are somebody with an extreme position. So keep the extremists out. That is the best way to solve problems. Don't let them begin.

If you do have a problem in your state or in your area, we also have information on our website for how to address the issues. Certainly op-ed pieces in the local paper, responding to letters to the editor that come in and make traditional creationist statements, and, again, they don't come up with anything new. The arguments have been around forever, and there's some pretty good responses to them. Go to [], which is an excellent site for refutations of creationist information, and, of course, our site as well.

S: Well, Genie, we are out of time. We appreciate you joining us on the Skeptics' Guide. It was a wonderful time talking to you. Thanks for joining us.

ES: Well, I enjoyed it. It's nice to sit around the phone and chat with friends.

S: Absolutely.

R: Thanks, Genie.

S: Keep up the good work at the National Center.

ES: Thank you very much.

S: We appreciate what you are doing.

B: Thank you.

R: Thanks.

S: Take care.

P: Good night, Genie.

S: Well, that was wonderful having Eugenie Scott on the show. She is the goods. She really knows her stuff.

R: She is super cool. I really like her.

P: She gets it.

S: Yup, incredible resource.

P: Yeah.

S: Well I think we have just enough time for a quick Science or Fiction. We do have a creationism-themed Name That Logical Fallacy, but I think we're going to save that 'till next week, because I think we only have time enough for a Science or Fiction, so lets go to that now.

Science or Fiction (1:02:59)[edit]

(musical intro) It's time for Science or Fiction

S: So every week, I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine; one is fictitious. I essentially make it up out of whole cloth. I then challenge my panel of skeptics to sniff out the fake from the real ones. Which one is fiction? And, of course, you at home can play along. The theme for this week is animal speech. You guys ready?

R: Yup.

J: Yup.

B: Um, hm.

S: All right, here we go.

P: Woof!

Again, three items: two science, one fiction. Item number one:

J: That was Stupid.

S: All right, Clever Hans. Item number one.

R: That's a horse.

S: Bottlenose dolphins appear to have names and identify themselves to other dolphins by this signature sound. Item number two: Studies with European starlings — those are birds, Perry, by the way ...

P: Um, hm.

S: ... indicate that they understand a basic rule of grammar previously thought to be unique to humans. And item number three: Primatologists studying the protolanguage of the rhesus macaque have discovered their vocabulary contains basic mathematical concepts such as numbers and operations like addition.

P: Is the rhesus macaque a bird or a monkey?

S: That's a monkey.

P: Right.

S: So either we have: dolphins with names, birds that understand grammar, or counting monkeys.

R: Wait, I forget. Are we supposed to pick the one that's right or wrong.

S: The one that's fake. You tell me which one is fake.

R: Okay. Okay.

J: How many show have you done, Rebecca?

S: I did change the rules last week.

R: Yeah, he mixes is up sometimes, just to confuse me.

S: To keep you on your toes. Apparently it's working. All right, Twinkletoes, you go first, Rebecca.

R: Um, okay. I'm totally going to get this one right. I'm fairly certain I know this. Dolphins was one. Dolphins are very smart, smarter than me, so I'm thinking that that one's true, that they have names. I mean Flipper. Flipper had a name.

S: Flipper was very smart, yeah.

R: And his name was "Flipper". It was in the song. So, and then, the starlings thing. Yeah, that's true. So I'm going with the macaque.

S: All righty. Jay?

J: Well, I remember reading somewhere about the dolphins, so I'm pretty sure, yes, that dolphins have names, so to say, you know what I mean?

S: Um, hm. So to speak.

J: Okay, so to speak. Okay, I really think that number two is the fake one. I don't think that birds — I know that Amazon Grays are very, very advanced with language. I just don't think that the way that you described it is the real one, with the birds, for the starlings.

S: Yeah, the European starlings. Yeah, grammar is the new bit in that piece, yeah. So you think that one is fake?

J: That's what I said, yes.

S: All right. Perry?

P: Yeah, I mean dolphins and monkeys, basically, could play chess together. Those are brilliant animals. Birds, you know, the pupil of my eye is bigger than their brainpan for most of them, so.

J: But Perry, African Grays, though, they can link together colors with a command and shapes.

P: I'm sorry, who's talking?


P: I thought I was talking.

J: Perry, this is your mother speaking.

P: Excuse me? Yeah, birds. They're right out.

S: You think the birds is fake, too?

P: They're right out.

J: The boids. The actual boids.

S: Bob?

B: All right, the starling grammar one, I did read about that, and you don't seem to have distorted it too much, so that's probably true. One is totally feasible, although it seems kind of weird. I don't see why not. They're so intelligent, why wouldn't they have designations for each other. So I'm going to say three: the macaques and the mathematical concepts doesn't seem quite right.

S: Okay, so we've got: two of you think that the counting macaques is fake, and two of you think that the birds who understand grammar is fake. Everyone believes that the dolphins have names. So let's go to that one first. That is true. Recent studies of the communications between bottlenose dolphins indicates that they often contain a unique signature sound, which they interpret — unique to the individual dolphin. It seems to be a way of them identifying themselves by name to other dolphins.

J: And I guess they come up with it then, huh?

S: Apparently. Number two: Studies with European starlings indicate that they understand a basic rule of grammar previously thought to be unique to humans. That is completely true. That is science as well.

R: Ah, ha. See, if you guys had actually read my website you would know that it was true, because I blogged about it last week.

S: Oh, did you? I didn't see that on your blog, or I wouldn't have used that if I knew that.

(Rebecca laughs)

J: Don't believe that trash.

(Steve and Bob laugh)

R: Ahhh. I should have made you bet more bacon that you were right.

J: You know, I'm getting hungry for this bacon. I'm ready for it.

S: Birds, Perry, are actually quite bright. Some of them can problem solve. They can work out puzzles.

P: (Groaning) Oh, will you stop already with the birds?


P: Please?

S: And they have quite sophisticated language. And now European starlings were shown to have a recursive grammar.

P: Okay, there's that one chicken in Manhattan that can play tic-tac-toe.

R: Well, you know, Steve, to be ...

J: You are a sick man.

R: To be fair, though, it's not conclusively proven. There is a chance. It is still up in the air.

S: Right.

R: The usual suspects are still contesting that it's not necessarily that way.

J: It's not the old horse bit where they're like "Okay, count to five", and then the guy basically says once the horse gets to five, the guy ...

S: Clever Hans, right.

R: But, that's just it, though, it could be that sort of thing. It's a tough thing.

S: There's always some legitimate skepticism when you're talking about animal language, because ...

R: Right.

S: ... you can't know what's going on inside the animal's head. But the evidence is reasonable. I did say "studies indicate," not "it's been conclusively proven." There's always some doubt.

P: I remain appropriately skeptical.

J: If you train, for example, an African Gray, because they're really, I think, the most intelligent.

S: That's a type of macaw, right?

J: Yeah, it's a bird.


B: And they're grey.

J: The thing I found interesting about this topic that you brought up — the thing is, they really did have an African Gray be able to identify shapes, colors, and commands to the point where they were telling it, you know, "go get the yellow triangle," and it would be able to do that.

S: Um, hm. Yeah. There's a lot of research in that area. You have to be very, very careful, and a lot of the gorilla and chimpanzee research, where they essentially were convinced that they were able to create sign language sentences.

B: Koko!

S: Yeah, it's probably, is very suspect, you know. There's a lot of biased interpretation going on, so you have to be very, very careful.

B: Yeah.

S: But there's no question ...

J: This is where we need the pet psychic.

S: Yes, the pet psychic. Absolutely. Now the third one: I had these two items which were animal language, so I have to make up an animal language one for the third one. There's a lot of research being done with the rhesus macaque, because actually their brains are pretty similar to human brains as far as monkeys go.

So they're also very easy to breed in captivity, etc., so a lot of research focuses around them. It took me a long time to come up with something that they haven't been demonstrated to do. I tried to think about how big their vocabulary is, in terms of identifying concepts and abstractions. Every time I said, all right, this is going to be my thing, and I looked it up to see if it's been demonstrated if they could do it or not, and there was research that you could reasonably interpret as that they could do it. I had to go to math, which I thought was a little out there, but counting and addition and stuff, I couldn't find anything about that, so that I made up. But it actually took me a while to make up something that actually wasn't true.

R: Steve, actually I just did a search, and I found this article Monkey Math Machinery Is Like Humans.

P: There you go.

S: But they don't have language for numbers and addition.

R: Ah, okay.

S: I know they can understand the concepts of amounts. With chimpanzee, for example, I think a lot of the research actually has been with that. So they can understand mathematical concerts in the abstract, but they don't have a language for it, which is what I ...

P: Also, any monkey could whip any bird's ass.

J: That's not true.

P: What do you mean that's not true.

J: You think a little spider monkey could kick an ostrich's ass?

P: He could trip him on his long, spindly neck. Absolutely.

R: Wait, wait. Is the monkey allowed to hold a shank of some sort?


J: A shank. Okay, I'm sure the monkey has a shank.


P: He'll jump right up on his neck and give him a nostril flip. That would do. Thank you.

R: I'm just saying. That's one of the monkeys main strengths is the ability to operate a sharp object.

P: The whole opposable thumbs situation, yeah.

J: There is something scary about a monkey with a knife, I'll give you that.

R: There sure is. Furious George.

S: Furious George.

J: Furious George!

R: That's a Simpson's joke. I can't take credit for that.

P: Ostriches are such chumps.

S: Perry, you're just an avian bigot. Face it.

P: Come on! Ostriches are chumps.

R: You're a birdist.

P: Along with their ...

S: Birdist.

J: Birdist.

P: ... avian cousins.

S: You have to stop ostracizing the ostriches.

R: Oh, that was bad.

S: That was bad.

J: Oh, God!

B: Perry, did you know an ostrich can kill a man with one kick?

P: Oh, please. Did you ever see Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds I mean, come on! It's really terrifying. "Watch out, we've got to tiptoe amongst the seagulls." Get away from me. Give those birds a dropkick.


S: All right. We've descended far enough, and we are mercifully out of time.

R: And we're done.

S: So Bob and Rebecca get credit this week for picking out ...

B: Oh, yeah.

S: ... the fiction from the science. That's a good job.

R: Thank you.

J: So smart.

R: We are.

S: So guys, thanks again for joining me. It was a fun show.

J: You're welcome.

R: Thank you, Steve.

S: It was a good one-year anniversary show.

B: Good show!

R: Very good show.

S: Evan could not be with us tonight, so we missed you, Evan. But he'll be back next week.

P: I'll be out next week; Evan will be back next week.

S: Yup, Perry will be in Alaska, right?

P: That's right. I'll be cruising around, keeping my eyes open for aromatherapy salespeople and anything else going on on the boat.

B: Yeah!

J: Perry, wait. I'm issuing you a Rebecca-level challenge right now.

P: What is it?

J: You have to come back with a very good story about how you found a skeptical issue while on your vacation, and how you debunked it.

P: Absolutely.

S: Unlike Bob, you have to actually confront it directly.

J: Yeah, you have to do something about it.

R: Somehow, I don't think that will be a problem with Perry.

P: Of course.

S: Well, that's our show. Thanks again for joining me, guys. Until next week this, is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

(The Steve Song)

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society. For information on this and other podcasts, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the "Contact Us" page on our website, or you can send us an email to 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.

Today I Learned:[edit]

The SGU did not produce a show every week in their first year. They only had forty-two episodes in year one.[3]


  1. Snopes: Eight glasses a day
  2. As of April 11, 2016, the list has grown to 1392 signatures(Wikipedia: Project Steve)
  3. The Skeptic's Guide: Archive
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