SGU Episode 571

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SGU Episode 571
June 18th 2016
SGU 570 SGU 572
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
RS: Richard Saunders
Quote of the Week
When you believe in things that you don't understand, Then you suffer, Superstition ain't the way.
Stevie Wonder
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, June 15th, 2016; and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

Interview With Richard Saunders ()[edit]

News Items[edit]

Kinked Nanotubes (13:33)[edit]

Crossing the Blood-Brain Barrier (21:52)[edit]

(Commercial at 32:02)

Gun Violence is a Public Health Issue (34:01)[edit]

S: All right, so, we are recording this show five days following the Orlando shooting. I'm sure everyone has heard about that by now. It's a very tragic episode. Forty-nine people were killed. I keep hearing a dozen-score of people were injured. The story's still evolving in terms of what the motivation was of the shooter. I've heard reports that the shooting took place at a predominantly Latino nightclub that caters to the LGBTQ community.

Obviously, extremely tragic. And often, after these episodes, there is a little spasm of concern about things like gun control, although so far, nothing really has come of that. But Newton shooting came and went, et cetera, and didn't result in any modification of gun regulation in this country.

But the reason why I'm talking about it this week is because something did happen, which I don't know if it will make any difference ultimately, but it is interesting, and it deals with a very interesting issue. So, the American Medical Association (the AMA) has reversed its previous position, and has decided to treat gun violence as a public health issue.

J: Wow!

S: And they've called upon congress to ends its de facto ban on research into gun violence. So here's the background to this story.

B: First though, how ridiculous is that? That the CDC is prevented from doing research on gun violence? What kind of world do we live in where that can actually happen?

S: Yeah, well, I'll explain it to you.

C: Yeah

B: Please do.

S: Yeah, so obviously ...

B: Hurry up.

S: the CDC is the Center for Disease Control, and they do a lot, primarily epidemiological research; and it's not just infectious disease, but all sorts of diseases. In the past, they have done research involving gun violence, either for teenagers, for kids as used in suicide, in various contexts. However, in 1996, the NRA (the National Rifle Association) accused the CDC of essentially promoting gun control – not just objectively researching gun violence, but of promoting gun control.

They put pressure on congress, and congress essentially threatened to strip the CDC of its funding. In fact, a Republican congressman successfully led an effort to strip $2.6 million of funding from the CDC, which is the exact amount they spent on research into gun violence the previous year. That money was then returned to the CDC, or added back to the budget in the CDC the following year.

C: (Groaning) Oh god. Because the best way to get a political point across is to take money away from public health.

S: Absolutely. So the CDC responded in self-preservation mode. They said, “Okay, so if we're gonna lose all of our funding if we research gun violence, we're not gonna research gun violence.” So from 1996 they effectively ended and they had a self-imposed ban on all research into gun violence. Although saying it's self-imposed isn't really ...

(Bob scoffs)

S: accurate, because it is imposed by congress' de facto threat to defund them if they do research on violence.

B: Was there a case? I mean, did the NRA even have to say, “This is why we think your supporting gun control?” Did that even matter?

S: Yeah ...

C: Nah, I don't think so.

S: They were just saying that, “Oh, that these studies are biased, and it's actually amounts to promotion of gun control, rather than just objectively researching it.” I guess because they didn't like the outcome of the research, you know, is what it comes down to.

So they bullied the CDC out of doing the research by threatening the funding. And it worked! And so there hasn't been any funding of gun violence research through the CDC since 1996, so basically twenty years.

B: I just listened to a speech by Obama, and he was saying how, he was talking about gun control, and I thought he gave a really good answer. But he gave an interesting anecdote. He said that when he was a kid, lots of people died in car accidents (as they do today). But more people died back then, I guess, per capita, or however you want to look at it. So he's said that (I'm not sure who; I wonder maybe if was the CDC or...) they researched how they can make roads safer, how they could make cars safer, what they could do, how they could change roads to minimize the numbers of accidents. So they found a problem, they studied it, they instituted changes, and now far fewer people die ...

S: Yeah

B: than – they used to die many, many decades ago. I mean, doesn't that seem like a reasonable response?

S: It's hard to argue against research, providing information. So science and research and facts should inform political decision-making. Whatever your political ideology with regard to the issue of gun control, there's no harm done in just having the facts. But if you're afraid to even have the facts, that says something, in my opinion, about your position.

In any case, the CDC is so paranoid now, one of the delegates from the AMA who was on the committee that was recently addressing this issue recounted that when he brought up this notion of the CDC doing research into gun violence, the director of the CDC, Tom Friedman, said, (this is now a quote), he said, “Stop. We can't have a conversation about this, and don't put it in a letter. Stop!”

(Cara laughs)

S: Like, just totally panicking. “We can't talk about this! We're gonna lose our funding!”

RS: Wow.

S: So, yeah, as anecdote, which just shows how effective the threat was, you know?

B: What if they just called their bluff? You think they would have decimated their funding?

C: Yes!

J: Bob, think about it!

C: The NRA is so powerful!

J: Look at what happened!

C: The NRA has so many partners in congress.

B: Part of me (and I'm not sure how I feel about this part of me) but part of me in this situation is like, “Yeah, go right ahead. I'm callin' your bluff.” And then, sure, decimate their funding, and then you see what the after-effects of that would be. And they'd be like ...

C: No.

B: “Okay, well that was ...

C: That's horrible.

B: really stupid.”

S: So, President Obama has tried to address this issue. Actually, in 2012, following the Newton shooting, he, by executive order, he essentially reversed the CDC ban. But the CDC has still not doing any research because they're just, they think that, “Yeah, sure. Obama says it's okay, but Congress controls the purse-strings,” right? They're the ones who can strip away the funding, so they're not buying it.

So, the AMA, their resolution essentially calls upon congress to allow the CDC to do research into gun violence. That was the essence of their resolution. They're basically saying, “Gun violence is a public health issue, and the CDC should research it as a public health issue. And congress should not interfere with that simply because they might find the results of that research inconvenient to their ideology.” And of course I completely agree with that.

What's interesting is I wrote about this on Science-Based Medicine today, and as of right now, there's four hundred and ninety-five comments on this article.

RS: Ooh!

B: Woah!

S: Yeah, that's a lot for us. It's a very active blog, but if we break a hundred, that's a good post. And this exploded. I also posted to our Facebook page, and if you want to cry, read the comments under the ...

J: What happened?

S: Facebook page ... well, it's just every bad argument, every logical fallacy you could imagine. It's an example of completely uncritical thinking in every form is happening there. False analogies, I mean, it's really just incredible. This is such an emotional issue in America. It really is. It's very divisive, it's very emotional, people lose their freakin' minds when you talk about anything to do with gun control.

Plus, there's a lot of regurgitated standard talking points. You could definitely see that. But they don't really hold up to even the tiniest bit of scrutiny. And again, a lot of it on the anti-gun control side, a lot of it is just paranoia about, “They're gonna take away our guns.” Well, that's not actually what anybody's – well, I know there are some people talking about that – and that's not the only response to this, “This is taking away your guns.” Most people are just talking about, “Can we at least do some research, and see if we can figure out some ways to mitigate some of the negative consequences of having so many guns in our society?”

I mean, America has by far and away more gun deaths than any other country; and nobody really knows why, you know?

C: Yeah

S: There's a lot of theories and hypotheses about why that is, but it's really interesting question about why is it that America's gun problem is just so much greater than any other country's.

C: It'd be really nice to be able to ... I dunno, research!

S: Yeah, exactly!

J: What are you saying, Cara? God!

(Cara laughs)

S: Yeah, that's obviously the point I'm building to. We need data! We need information, and then we can have a healthy conversation about how to balance the personal liberty ... and I get that. I'm not offering any simplistic solutions to this, but at the very least, we should be able to research it objectively, and not have politicians trying to stifle research. Because that's not gonna help anybody.

So I applaud the AMA for taking action, although it's a little late. I'm not sure why it took so long. And it was absolutely triggered by the events in Orlando, Florida. In fact the proposal came out of AMA's LGBT committee. Definitely, explicitly a reaction to the recent events in Orlando. But we'll see what, you know, we'll see if anything comes of it. The history is any guide, the only really predictable thing that happens after massive gun violence in the US is that people buy more guns.

J: Yeah, well wait, Steve, people also have - the debate starts anew, you know? The gun debate ...

S: Yeah

J: starts all over again. You hear the same old stuff on both sides, and then people do go buy more guns and ammo.

RS: One of the very sad things I've noticed over the years is that, from an outsider's point of view, sitting here in Australia, it comes on the news and we hear about another mass shooting in the United States, and we're sadly getting a bit numb to it, you know, instead of the utter horror and shock that it is, and it should be, it's more of a case of, “Here's the next mass shooting in the States. What's going to happen? Nothing. We'll wait for the next one.” It's just a very sad ...

C: Oh, we feel the same way. Yeah, that happens here too. But didn't they ban guns in Australia?

B: '96, right?

RS: Not exactly. What they did, we had a mass shooting twenty years ago which prompted the government to initiate a huge buy back of unnecessary military firearms, or any firearms that citizens just wanted to get rid of. No questions asked. “Give us the firearms, we will pay you a fair price.”

Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of guns were handed in. You can see pictures of mountains of rifles and guns and all sorts of things. And there's a very telling video doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment where they interview a group of college students in the United States, and they ask them about how concerned they are about gun violence and shootings. And they were all pretty worried, and it's in their mind.

And then they interview a bunch of college students here in Australia, and they're all looking, “What? Uh, no, no. Don't really think about it. Sorry? What are you talking about?” It's very telling.

S: All right, let's move on. I predict that's gonna be our number one email topic of the week.

(Richard chuckles)

C: Oh, for sure.

S: Let's move on.

Australian Government and Funding Pseudoscience (45:52)[edit]

S: Richard, actually, you're gonna give us some other news from Australia. And this is some good news.

RS: It is, hopefully. Now, the United States is not the only country having a federal election coming up. In fact, in Australia, in about two, three weeks, we have a federal election coming up. And we'll see who's going to win that. But the Opposition party here in Australia, called the Labour Party. The current incumbent party is called Liberal Party, but they're not a liberal party. They're a conservative party. It's just one of those funny quirks of names and things like that.

But the Opposition party, who, as all parties do at time, are making promises. They all make promises. Whether these promises will be born out is yet to be seen. They have an interesting move on their part. They're saying that if they win government, one of their policies is to cut taxpayer funding for natural therapy through the government rebate system.

Now this is pretty big. This is pretty big, and I'm sort of surprised they've done that, because a lot of their constituents would certainly be into alternative medicine, as a lot of people are. But owing partly to a review the government did some years ago into alternative medicine practices, discovering that none of them were effective, has really triggered this party to come up with this policy. And what they're going to do is cut funding things like iridology, aroma therapy, and things like that. And hopefully that will expand.

And they're saying that this may end up with the budget saving of a $180 million in the short term, more like $700 million in the long term. But what a powerful message it does send, that a party is willing to say this. The government have been subsidizing through private rebates and all sorts of things, these therapies. These therapies have shown in studies that they're not effective. And they're wanting to put the money obviously toward things that are effective. Maybe, I don't know, like operating theaters and science-based medicine.

Well of course you can imagine that the people involved on the other side, the alt-med crowd, are not happy about this at all, and they've released a press statement. In fact, it's from the Australian Complementary Medicines have released a press statement saying that this is a false economy. And their argument is that preventative medicine, one dollar spent on preventative medicine, in the long term, will save ten dollars further down the track because people are more healthy, because they've prevented the disease in the first place, et cetera.

Working on the assumption that these quack therapies actually work! And they're the reason that people are getting better, because they're seeing these acupuncturist, and aroma-therapists, iridologists and whatever, and that's what's actually working.

Well, a good friend, Ken Harvey, who's involved in a wonderful organization called, “Friends of Science in Medicine,” (who I'm sure you're familiar with, Steve), here in Australia, has replied on an online blog here from I think the Australian Pharmacy's Journal. I've got a blog. Putting this case, that it's not the fact that these people are getting benefits from these quack therapies, it's more likely that the people who are going to these quack therapies are probably more healthy to begin with any way, and more affluent. And it's not the fact that these aroma-therapy are actually changing anything.

But I think this is going to be an interesting test case. And I don't know who's going to win, which party will win the next election. But if the Labour Party do win the next election (which is possible, I guess), the thing is, “Will they keep this promise?” And what further backlash will they get from the alternative medicine crowd, who I imagine are quite powerful, as they are all around the world.

And I wonder if the current government, the Liberal Party, retain office, whether they'll take this policy on board, because it does represent huge saving if the government doesn't have to fork out precious taxpayer dollars to fund things which ultimately has been shown don't work, then it can only be a benefit, I would imagine.

And then this does (and I know you're gonna be covering this soon), this does relate to what's happening in the UK with homeopathy. Funding for that is being cut, and you'll be covering that next week or Michael Marshall. It's a very positive ...

S: Spoilers!

RS: Spoilers!

(Cara and Steve chuckle)

RS: It's a very positive trend, it really is!

S: Yeah

RS: And this came out of the blue. We weren't expecting that, and Australian skeptics have been keeping an eye on the policies of the various parties coming up to the next election. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, on The Skeptic Zone, I interviewed one of the spokespeople from the Australian Sex Party, of all things.

S: Yeah

RS: But they have very ...

C: What?

RS: Yeah, the Australian Sex Party. Look it up. They have a great time. (Clears throat)

(Cara laughs)

RS: But their policies have very, as far as we can see, very aligned with science and reason. And they put out a very strong statement against the anti-vaxx crowd here in this country. So it's worth keeping an eye on. And we could only wait and see whether this bears out after the election. But I don't want to tell anybody who to vote for. That's not what I do, but if the Labour Party win, I hope that's one promise they can keep.

S: We're saving money here in the US too Richard. We're cutting funding for research into gun violence.

(Cara laughs)

RS: Well, there you go! You see?

J: That's how we do it, man.

S: Yeah

RS: It's just a win-win situation. But I would encourage all your listeners to please Google Friends of Science in Medicine, they're a wonderful bunch doing very good work here in Australia.

S: Doing great work, yeah, yep. What's interesting is that sometimes the alternative medicine crowd, they do, like, cost-effectiveness research. They do anything other than efficacy research because that shows that their treatments don't work, so they go, “Okay, forget about the whole 'Doesn't work' thing. Let's just leave – it's cost-effective!” But of course, a treatment that doesn't work is by definition not cost-effective.

RS: Yeah! Yeah, absolutely.

S: So all they say is, “Oh look, it costs less than this other treatment.” Yeah, but that other treatment works! And your nonsense doesn't. So it's, by definition, not cost-effective. So, I agree, that's a great argument against any kind of funding for alternative medicine is that it doesn't work, therefore it's not cost-effective. And insurance companies in the US do know that. And that's why they don't want to pay for it. But they're being forced to pay for it by gullible state legislatures that are being lobbied by alternative medicine proponents.

So even then we lose because ... the one good thing about insurance companies is that they try to be cost-effective. And that's being taken away from them by politicians. It's just maddening.

More Gravity Waves (52:43)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (55:55)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Bullfrog

Flat Earth Frustration (58:02)[edit]

S: A very quick Dumbest Thing of the Week. You guys can figure out which person in this drama is the dumber one. But this story comes from Canada. A fifty-six year old man in eastern Ontario is wanted by the police. Last I heard, he was not yet captured by the police.

So apparently, this fifty-six year old gentleman and his son and his son's girlfriend were camping, and the father and the son's girlfriend got into an argument about the shape of the Earth. Apparently the gentleman maintained that the Earth is round, it's a spheroid of some sort. And the girl was holding fast to her view that the Earth is flat.

This discussion got the father so frustrated that he started throwing stuff into their campfire, including a propane tank.

B: Oh!

C: God!

J: What the hell?

C: Oops.

S: The authorities were called, and they had to extinguish the fire. The man fled on foot apparently, and as of this recording had not yet been acquired. That's not a healthy response there. We do not recommend ...

RS: No

S: as a skeptic, that you respond to a flat-Earther or equivalent by throwing explosives into campfires.

J: Well, wait, but we do want you to know, we understand your pain.

(Cara laughs)

S: Yes. We do. We feel your pain. It's interesting, because recently, well, without getting into any details; Bob, Jay, and I have been involved in discussions with an individual who might as well be a flat-Earther. I mean, there are some people who can't formulate a logical connection between two things, you know what I mean? And it's just an exercise in frustration to have a conversation with him about anything. So I totally get it.

But if you feel you're at the point where you're gonna start throwing hydrocarbons into fire, then just back off man! Just relax. Just stop the discussion. Obviously you're not making any progress if you're getting that frustrated.

J: (Starts laughing) My god ... I just can only imagine the scene when the guy increasingly becoming more and more irate. And then he snaps, and then he loses it and starts throwing explosives into fires.

S: Right

(Cara chuckles)

RS: It sounds like he would have done that regardless. It wasn't the flat-Earther that ticked him off. If someone, he could do that over that argument, maybe he's ...

S: Yeah, he may have an anger management issue.

RS: Maybe.

S: But flat-Earthers man, that's gotta be frustrating. All right.

What's the Word (1:00:39)[edit]

S: Cara,

C: Yes

S: What's the Word?

C: The word this week was actually a word that I learned on my other podcast, on Talk Nerdy. I had a guest on, who I met when I was at Reason Rally, last week. We had actually been communicating via email for some time leading up to that. His name is Phil Torres – the other Phil Torres, those of you who follow me. I have a good friend named Phil Torres as well. He's a philosopher, and he wrote a book called The End: What Science and Religion Tells Us About the Apocalypse. And as we started talking, he kept using this word over and over: Eschatology.

B: Yeah!

C: And eventually, I had to stop him and say, “What the hell is eschatology?

S: It was eschatological!

C: Yes. (Laughs)

B: It's end times, right?

C: End times, exactly! So, eschatology, according to Oxford dictionaries, is the part of theology concerned with the death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul, and of mankind. And so it's really interesting, because in his book, he actually makes an argument for what he calls “existential risk.” And he talks about how historically, there are many religions that have eschatologies kind of worked into their dogma, and that now more than ever, are we living in a time when these eschatological sort of callings could actually be carried out, because of the technologies that we have available to us.

And he's also really interested in looking at what he calls “secular eschatology,” which is this idea that through future technologies, used somewhat nefariously, like A.I.,

S: Yeah

C: nanotechnology, gene therapy, we could actually, potentially, destroy the human race. So it was a really fascinating conversation. I was so happy to learn this new term, because now I feel like I'm gonna use it all the time.

(Richard laughs)

C: And I wanted to make sure that everybody knew where it came from. So, it was first used in 1834, and it actually comes from the Greek “eschatos,” which means “last, furthest, uttermost, extreme, or most remote” in time, space or degree. And so, of course, that was then related as an ology to religion, and the study of the four last things: Death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

S: Yeah, I always hear that word “eschatological.”

C: Yeah

S: It always makes me think of feces for some reason.

J: Me too!


C: It sounds like scat.

B: Scat, baby!

C: I also feel like that's so you guys' Connecticut accent too, because he would say es-ca-tological

S: Yeah

C: like that, on the podcast, which sounds a lot less like poo.

S: That's true.


J: Oh my god.

S: All right, thanks, Cara.

C: Yep

(Commercial at 1:03:17)

Science or Fiction (1:04:29)[edit]

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

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:28:35)[edit]

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

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

Today I Learned:[edit]


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