SGU Episode 528

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SGU Episode 528
August 22nd 2015
SGU 527 SGU 529
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
It speaks to some basic human needs, that there is a tomorrow - it's not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids - human beings built them because they're clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.
Gene Roddenberry
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Brief introduction to the skeptic's movement

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (2:51)[edit]

S: So, we start the show, typically with – this is one of our newer segments this year, but I think it's been very popular: Forgotten Superheroes of Science.

B: Yes, for this week in Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm covering Frances Kelsey, who was a pharmacologist and a physician who was instrumental in preventing the crippling drug, thalidomide, from being sold in the United States. Now, thalidomide, I'm sure a lot of you have heard about it. It was a drug with multiple uses, but at that time, over half a century ago, it was primarily used for treating nausea in pregnant women. And it had been released in Canada and about twenty other European countries.

And Frances Kelsey was a drug reviewer for the FDA, and accompanied the William S. Meryl Company in Cincinatti was trying to sell it in the United States. And she kept pushing them back, pushing them back. She was saying that, “Look it. I've gone over some of the experiments that you've done, some of the studies. And I'm seeing some unusual nerve issues with some of the people that were studied. I need you to look at that more closely, and do some more studies.”

But people, representatives from the Meryl Company were like, they went to her boss. They said that she was a petty bureaucrat, and they were complaining to her boss, and she was very strong about it. She kept pushing back, saying, “No, I'm not gonna approve this drug until I'm satisfied.” And she pushed back for about nineteen months – so, over a year and a half. She was pushing back.

S: Just long enough.

B: Just long enough, because right at that time, after nineteen months, the results were coming in, in all these countries, thousands and thousands of children were being born with crippling deformities. I think the classic manifestation would be maldevelopment of arms and legs – they're like flippers! Your arms were just like, these little flippers, really deformed and terrible.

S: Yeah, it kept limbs from fully growing.

B: Right

S: So you would have, just a little limb-bud, or nothing, and that's it. So, yeah, people were being born, essentially, without functioning limbs.

E: Was it turning off the genes that would otherwise …

S: Yeah, it was a genetic effect, regulation of the genes that would kick in to make the limb grow, yeah.

B: And what I did not know, is that a lot, a significant percentage of these kids actually died. I thought they were just deformed, and had to live in that state. But like, forty to fifty percent of these kids actually died. So the death toll is even higher. I think the final number was like, ten thousand babies were born with this.

She was instrumental in preventing this from happening in the United States. And she received many honors. The Washington Post described her as a hero in a front page article. She said, “Kelsey was a heroine, whose skepticism and stubborness prevented what could have been an appalling American tragedy.” John F. Kennedy actually gave her the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service. She was the second woman to ever receive that.

And actually, another thing I didn't realize, was that there were some, in the wake of this, there were drug regulations that were passed by the FDA which were very important, such as the Kafaver-Harris amendment, which passed unanimously in Congress in October, 1962. So, the effects were actually good for this, at least for the FDA. And, she died August 7th, at a hundred and one. So, she only recently died.

E: Just this year!

B: Just this …

S: A week ago.

E: Oh my gosh!

B: So, amazing. That's a hell of a – hundred and one, that's amazing.

S: Good run.

E: Wow.

B: Yes, so remember – yes. So, remember Frances Kelsey; maybe mention her to your friends, perhaps when you're discussing anti-angiogenic and oxidative stress inducing effects, whenever it comes up.

(Audience laughs)

J: Whenever it comes up.

B: Hey …

S: What's ironic is that, the case of thalidomide is often thrown in my face as a failure of regulations to protect the public from drug side-effects.

B: Whoa!

S: I know! It's like, no, actually, they totally get the story wrong. It's like, that happened in Europe, and didn't happen in the United States because of the FDA.

B: Right.

S: So, they completely get – again, within alternative medicine, or whatever anti-mainstream medicine circles, this has become a story with the exact opposite lesson of the truth.

B: Incredible, incredible.

S: Which is, yeah, yeah. Anyway, good story, yeah.

B: And regulations, at least in the United States, were even stronger after.

S: Yes

B: Even though it did not affect us.

S: Yeah, obviously, it's not perfect. The regulatory system is not perfect. We're always trying to balance protecting the public, but not impeding progress.

B: Yeah

S: Right? Getting drugs out there. Which is funny. I also get people push back, saying, “No, the FDA is slowing down the adoption of new drugs for people who really need it.” Yeah, it's like, “Remember thalidomide.” That delay saves a lot of lives too. It's not perfect. Vioxx and other things still get through. You can't know what's gonna happen to a million people until you give it to a million people. But, it's, you know, we need that layer of protection in there.

B: Until we can simulate a million people in the computer, but that's a little ways away.

S: Eh, more than a little ways away. Five years?

(Audience chuckles)

E: Ten years.

News Items[edit]

Year Long Mars Simulation (7:39)[edit]

Naming Exoplanets (14:11)[edit]

Fusion Reactors (19:05)[edit]

Robot Evolution (25:55)[edit]

Building the Death Star (32:18)[edit]

Does Science Prove God? (40:30)[edit]

Sunspots (51:44)[edit]

(Commercial at 1:00:30)

Science or Fiction (1:02:06)[edit]

Item #1: Exoplanet PSR B1620-26b is estimated to be 13 billion years old, and orbits a white dwarf and a pulsar. Item #2: FW Tauri b is the only circumtrinary exoplanet discovered. Item #3: GU Piscium b is 2,000 AU from its parent star and has an orbital period of 163,000 years.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:21:49)[edit]

'It speaks to some basic human needs, that there is a tomorrow - it's not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids - human beings built them because they're clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.' - Gene Roddenberry

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


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