SGU Episode 50

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SGU Episode 50
July 5th 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 49                      SGU 51

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis


GP: Gerald Posner, American investigative journalist

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, July 5th 2006. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella...

B: Good evening everyone.

S: Even Bernstein...

E: Hello to my friends on planet Earth.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Good evening.

S: ...and Jay Novella.

J: Hey guys, good to be here.

S: We have an all-testosterone show this week, which is the first time in quite a wile actually.

J: All-male-review.

S: Since Rebecca joined the crew. Rebecca is in Europe this week... and we couldn't get her onto the show from Europe, although she's actually going to be in Europe next week but promised she will try to get on the show next week so we will see. She says she can get access to the internet in England but not where she is now, where I think is in France.

P: We technically can barely get her on from Boston.

S: (laughs) That's true.

P: Be interesting to see if we can get her from Europe.

S: So it shouldn't really matter.

B: So this is our fiftieth podcast.

S: Yes. It is a bit of a milestone, this is number fifty, big five-oh. It seems like only a year ago we started doing this.

E: (laughs) At least, and thank you all of the listeners who have helped make this podcast very successful today.

J: Absolutely.

S: We have a couple of news items this week and I'll mention the we actually have coming up shortly we have an interview with Gerald Posner, the author of Case Closed and other excellent investigative journalists books. I guarantee you it'll be an excellent interview so stay tuned for that. But first we'll do a couple of news items, couple of e-mails.

News Items[edit]

Secondhand smoke warning (1:50)[edit]

S: First is, now we've spoken on this show in the past about the science behind second hand smoke. And, in the last, I think it was last week the current Surgeon General, Richard Carmona came out with a big warning against second hand smoke. We will have the link to that actual report as well as some articles about it on our notes page. And it's interesting because there's been, the debate is how solid is the evidence for the health risks of second hand smoke? There is the anti-smoking campaign, and in the last twenty years there has been a significant shift in public opinion against basically allowing smoking in public buildings and restaurants, etc. A lot of this is being driven by the evidence that's been accumulating over the last twenty years about the health risks of second hand smoke, specifically heart disease and cancer are the big two that people actually talk about the most. Although actually the evidence is best for the pulmonary, the lung effects of second hand smoke, such as exacerbating asthma, especially in children. But there's still those who are skeptical of this body of evidence. I think we had brought this up in the context before that Penn and Teller had done a show on second hand smoke, where they said it's basically bullshit, on their show by that name. Although, I don't think they got it quite right. It's certainly true that the evidence is a little over-simplified for the purposes of communicating a clean and unambiguous message for the public. It may be the statistics are presented in a way to make the magnitude of the problem seem as big as possible, even though it may not be the most accurate way to present those statistics. I was kind of a soft sceptic on it saying yeah, the evidences is pretty weak, but it's enough to base policy on the fact that there is some risk. But since then, in the last five or so years, the evidence is consistently moving in the direction of more and more evidence for the health risks of second hand smoke. When there's a real phenomenon, typically what we see in research over time is better and better studies get done as the criticisms of earlier studies are fixed, and new designs are done. The size and the magnitude of the effect will tend to grow, if it's a real effect. If it's not a real effect then the size will tend to shrink, eventually down to zero. I think the trend over time, I think, is for this evidence to be, in fact, more robust.

P: The war on smoking, in the United States, I'm told it's the polar opposite in Europe-

S: Yeah.

P: -and other parts of the world. But in the United States it's been so vibrant. I mean a virulent war against smoking here, and very successful. I mean to the point where we have a miasma of laws now against smoking.

S: Which I heartily endorse by the way.

P: (laughs) I'm sure you do.

B: Absolutely. Are you guys familiar with Japan's attitude towards smoking?

J: Yeah, right? How self-deluded can a nation be?

B: Their major concern, from what I read, was not politeness in terms of oh I don't want to bother anyone smoking, a lot of what they're concerned with is the mechanics, the best place and time to smoke, and how to go about that whole aspect of smoking.

J: There's like a ritual behind it.

B: Right, that's a good word.

J: The other thing about it is they also, it's like a national belief that they're not affected it like every other human is.

B: They actually have doctors saying that smoking does not harm Japanese people, essentially. They are, for whatever reason, they are essentially immune to it.

J: Smoking is downright encouraged in France.

P: Absolutely. It's really been a unique war, as I was saying, in the United States, and second hand smoke is now sort of the new target. You simply have to make sure the new studies are good and viable.

S: Of course, and I'll point out a few interesting aspects to this body of literature. One is that the tobacco industry still consistently funds a lot of studies into, now it's been second hand smoke is the big political issue they fund, studies into second hand smoke. A lot of the studies they fund are curiously negative, and they're negative out of proportion to studies that are not funded. In fact early on a lot of the skepticism was well if you do a metanalysis, you look at all the studies of second hand smoke, it's a mixed bag. Some show there's a risk, some show there doesn't and it all comes out even in the wash. But if you take out all of the tobacco industry studies, there's a fairly consistent positive result. That, in fact, has been resolved by just doing more definitive studies that everyone agrees the protocol is good, and those have positive. So the tobacco industry was actually successful in creating doubt and confusion in this body of literature.

P: But was then weeded out.

S: But was then weeded out, that's right. Although it still has created enough confusion that sceptics can cling to those negative studies.

B: Don't they do a lot of lobbying as well, Steve?

S: They do but they're being very coy. If you read their websites, like Philip Morris, they say, they don't, they never admit there's a connection, they'll never admit their connection, they say it's prudent to listen to what the government is saying about their recommendation. Something to that effect, I'm paraphrasing so the Surgeon General, we should do what they say. But they won't say yes there's a proven link between second hand smoke and harmful outcomes, they will never admit it. The Surgeon General, his sort of catch phrase, even to the point where I think it was very highlighted in this report, is the notion that there is no safe level of second hand smoke. That may be an effective public education campaign, but it's scientifically very suspect. I think that they unnecessarily watered down the accuracy of their science by saying things like that, because there are toxins in cigarette smoke and all toxins have a threshold level for physiological or biological effects.

P: It's too far-reaching.

S: Yeah, of course there are safe levels-

P: Yeah.

S: -you mean if I just get a waft of cigarette smoke just once in my lifetime that's going to have ill effects on me? Of course not. There's gotta be some threshold-

P: Right.

S: -where the effects become meaningful. So that's, I think, that's a bad strategy on my point, that's just grist for the denier's mill, and they do other similar things like that, they emphasize the aspects of the evidence which may in fact be the weakest scientifically even though they're might be the most dramatic, they have the most dramatic effect on the public. I think the bottom line is, it's an interesting dilemma in the healthcare, public healthcare industry, in that the things that you say effect what people do, and that actually you can add it up in terms of lives, health, and life and death. You can say, if I say X vs. Y, X may be more accurate than Y, but if I say X vs. Y that's going to lead to a hundred-thousand extra deaths, if I say Y that can save a hundred-thousand lives, even though it's not quite as accurate as X. So where are the ethics there? It's very difficult, I acknowledge it's quite a dilemma. The same is true of vaccines. The CDC does not publicize every little fluctuation in the data that might suggest there there's a risk here or there, because that will constantly be bombarding the public with risks which really are not legitimate. They say let's give it time for the scientific community to really sort through this and decide if it's real or not. But by playing their cards close to their vest like that, again, they sort of open themselves up for criticism by people who are shrilly trying to say that vaccines are actually harming people. The same is kind of true of the tobacco question, is by crafting the message to be most effective rather than scientifically accurate, it may do more long-term harm than good, I guess is the point.

P: Yeah.

S: It's a genuine dilemma.

J: Who does, who's behind the truth campaign? You guys know who's behind that?

S: I don't know.

J: Did you hear the last one where they said that one of the executives in one of the cigarette manufacturing companies said that most people die in their sleep, so they should ban sleeping?

S: By denying correlation? That's been their schtick by saying correlation is not causation, therefore you can't make an argument that smoking causes cancer just because there's a correlation, well you can if the correlation holds up no matter which way you look at it.

E: Right.

S: Multiple independent correlations can actually point, can triangulate to a causation.

J: I think most people today, they have a pretty good idea that it causes cancer, it's bad, and anyone that chooses to still do it today is making a personal decision to be disgusting as far as I'm concerned, but.

Questions and E-mails (11:05)[edit]

Email #1: Binaural beats (11:08)[edit]

S: Well let's move on to your emails. The first comes from Christopher Lund, who gives his location, I assume somewhat tongue-in-cheek as "The USA, The United Social Agnostics". Christopher writes:

Dear Skeptics, I am working my way through your podcasts; if you have covered this, I apologize. Clearly I have forgotten my critical thinking courses I took in college. There is a subject called "Binaural beats." Though it sounds wonderful, that is just it: it sounds wonderful. Rather than try to describe and misrepresent it, I will defer to the plethora of info out there. If you Google it, there are a couple of other names for it too. Here are a couple of links:

– Christopher Lund, United Social Agnostics

He provides a couple of links which we will put on our notes page. Basically what, I'll give you the skinny on Binaural Beats. It's a legitimate neurological phenomenon. If you present tones of different frequencies to your different ears, what you hear in both ears get combined at the brain stem level, and you will perceive this sort of fluctuation in the volume of those beats, of those tones, at a frequency which equals the difference of the frequency between the two originating sounds. You got it?

J: Is that the warble noise you hear when the two notes are very close to each other, but they're not quite in sync?

S: If yes, if you're listening over headphones where each ear is getting a distinct sound.

J: Well Steve if you're tuning an instrument and you have two notes, usually a lot of stringed instruments, musicians will tune the strings to each other. So you'll tune one string-

S: Right.

J: -correctly and if you're tuning them when the two notes are very close but a little bit out of sync you can actually hear a pulsing tone happen-

S: Yeah.

J: -that lets you know they're not in sync. Is that the same effect?

S: I dunno, I think that's a harmonic phenomenon. I think you really need to have the headphones to get the Binaural Beats-

J: Okay.

S: -because that's more of a neurological phenomenon. It's basically an auditory illusion because they don't really exist, you know what I mean? They don't exist in that you can't record them as vibrations of air, it's purely a neurological illusion-

J: Oh yeah, okay.

S: -your brain perceives this because of the way it's processing the two sounds, and that's really it. It's kind of an interesting neurological observation, and it was made in fact I think over a hundred years ago. Why it's interesting today, is because in the last ten or twenty years there has been a cottage industry of pseudoscience built up around this auditory illusion. They basically claim that by listening to tapes over headphones, and using this binaural beat phenomenon, that they can train your brain to make you more intelligent, improve your ESP, (Perry laughs) make you lose weight, whatever it is you want to do you can do it by just training your brain subliminally, as it were, with these Binaural Beats. It's pure nonsense. They couple it with some EEG, cause you know EEGs are sexy, it's like brainwaves! So they say you can train your brainwaves and their evidence for this is that if you subject somebody to Binaural Beats, to tones that produce it, their EEG may actually match the Binaural Beats in frequency. See, there's evidence that the Beats are training the brain, that's actually affecting the brainwaves! But again, that's a complete misrepresentation of what's happening. The same, in fact, will happen if you use a strobe light, if you flash the light in your eyes at a certain frequency. Yeah, that will drive the EEG at the same frequency, that's called photic driving, it's a normal phenomenon, it has absolutely nothing to do with your brain function, and they cannot train your brain to have any kind of preternatural or supernatural ability, or even just make you smarter or better at anything. Before this pod, in preparation for this podcast I did a basic medical literature search for binaural beats to see what was out there. There's really only a couple of articles, and they're very small studies looking at actual clinical effects, and one shows that there may be somewhat an alerting effect to this, it may make you a little bit more alert than a tonal sound does. But that's it, there's obviously nothing about any of the fantastic claims that are being made in the marketing of these things. First of all, the effect was only while they were wearing the headphones, it did not persist past that, there's no evidence that it's doing anything to your brain. And that wasn't even replicated so we don't know if that was a legitimate effect. But even if we take that at face value, you can't even extrapolate that from any, again, of the sales pitches being made for these products.

P: Any thinking person knows that there's only one proven way to actually train your brain waves, and that is of course listening to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. (laughter)

S: That's right. The bottom line is that there's no easy path to making your brain function better. You can't just listen to tapes in your sleep and learn Italian.

E: Oh rats.

S: You have to actually do the cognitive work to make your brain function better.

E: Work?! (Perry laughs)

Email #2: Aubrey de Grey (16:21)[edit]

S: The second email comes from Mike Fitori. He asks us the following question:

I have a suggestion for a topic. There is scientist by the name of Aubrey de Grey. His shtick is proclaiming that through the application of science we can extend human life by several thousand years. His ideas are an amalgam of nano-technology, molecular biology, biomechanics, etc. He seems like such a nut that it amazes me that anyone takes him seriously. And yet, he seems to be routinely written up in popular magazines such as Technology Review (MIT) and Fortune. I do not know whether you would call what he preaches pseudo-science; he is different from your run of the mill crackpot. But his ideas are so out there that he seems nuts. And yet, as I mentioned, he gets a lot of popular press. Anyway, I enjoy your podcast, and I think the ideas discussed are quite valuable. – Regards, Mike Fattori

Well, thanks Mike. A very interesting question, although I think Mike used the term nuts even more than we tend to do in this podcast. (laughs)

S: But Bob, you were actually at a conference recently with Aubrey de Grey.

B: Yes, I was in New Haven. He talked, I dunno, three or four weeks ago. I enjoyed it, I've read a lot about him, I've listened to tons of podcasts with him on it. This guy is pretty compelling from my point of view. Granted, it's a struggle that I've always got to keep at the forefront of my mind as a skeptic not to let my biases and my strong desires to color my assessment. But I've prepared a little bit of an overview just to give you an idea what this guy is all about, and I'd like to-I did talk with him, he was more than willing to do a podcast for us. We'll hopefully get him on the show, and I'm just dying to see you and him, you and he go head-to-head Steve.

P: So our emailer Bob perceived him as a nut job.

B: Right.

P: And you perceived him as compelling.

B: Well absolutely. Let me...

P: That's quite divergent.

B: Well let me just give you a little assessment of his point of view, and then you can go from there, and then after our interview with him you'll probably have a better idea of what he's all about. Couple of things about the email, and Mike thanks for the email, you did mention that he's claiming that science can extend human life by several thousand years. Actually that's bit misleading, one of his big claims is that within 25 years he sees, with the proper research, he sees maybe a 50% chance of extending life 20 or 30 years. He does believe that in the farther future that we will be able to greatly extend that, but right now he's mainly focused on 20 or 30 years of improvement as a start. Just a little bio on Aubrey de Grey, he's a Biogerontologist at the university of Cambridge in England, he's trained as a computer scientist-

S: Wait, does he, Bob, does he have a British accent?

B: Yes.

S: Oh then I have to believe what he says. (Perry laughs)

E: Jolly good.

B: Alright, next topic. (laughter) He's a self-taught biologist, but he does have his PhD in Biology. His basic idea about this, a lot of money is needed for this research, and it's going to take a lot of time. But his whole attitude on aging is that it is essentially a side-effect of being alive; it is a side-effect of metabolism. What he wants to do is he wants to un-link, his idea is to un-link pathology from aging, and he's come up with the seven manifestations of aging that lead to frailty and eventually death. Let me lay out a few of these. The loss of cells that we need, they're the accumulation of cells that we don't need, DNA mutations in the nucleus, DNA mutations in the cell's mitochondria, one other I'll say is the formation of cross-linked proteins outside of cells. Now you've got these seven things that slowly accumulate, and he's come up with solutions, his plan is to use his engineering history, he's come up with a plan to address each of these, one by one. His goal, if you want to look at a bigger picture, is he thinks that we might be able to achieve what he calls life extension escape velocity. We are essentially extremely complicated machines and eventually we'll be able to engineer our way out of death. To me that makes so much sense, and I know you've got to guard against that kind of thought, you can't be so convinced that you get confirmation bias where you're only looking at the positive things, facts, that support your belief, but to me that just makes a lot of sense that death is an engineering problem, that eventually we will lick it.

S: Let me quickly give the other side, first of all I think this is an excellent topic and we need to spend more time on this to really get into it, and if we have him on our show then obviously that will be a time to really go over it in detail. It's also, pseudoscience is not this clean dichotomy where there's something is either pure science or pure pseudoscience and I think this is a good example of something that's kind of in the middle. I mean this guy is obviously a legitimate scientist, his ideas are grounded in legitimate science, but he's kind of taking it to a new level and there are a lot of legitimate criticism of what he's proposing. Just to name a few, he is sort of counting on the fact that there aren't a lot of effects of aging we haven't discovered yet, and that's, in my opinion, a big leap of faith which probably not justified.

B: I would disagree with that, I don't think he just discounts that, and if there are other effects of aging like types of diseases we might get that maybe we wouldn't anticipate because we never don't live that long. I mean wouldn't some of these therapies deal with them as well?

S: Well that's the whole point is we don't know. But again, he's not claiming that he has the cure for aging right now-

B: Right.

S: -he's just saying this is how I think we should do research, and this is the path of future research that will likely and most quickly lead to significant results, and that's a very interesting and legitimate debate to have, where should we be spending our research dollars? In my experience there needs to be a proper balance between basic science and applied science. He's basically saying alright, let's take the basic science we have now, and focus it now directly in applied science to try and fix the problems we know are there, and assume that problems that we don't know about are not going to be significant.

B: Right.

S: I think the most legitimate criticism of what he's proposing is that maybe we're just not at that point yet, I think we may have to spend more time doing basic science research because if you prematurely go to applied science you end up wasting your time and not really achieving anything.

B: I agree, if you go prematurely.

J: Well, Steve, I think to simplify it, he's formulating an outline or a path in which he believes people should follow, scientists should follow, which way the research should go in order to tackle these things, I don't think he's saying this is the absolute way to do it, but he's putting his best judgement on the table and saying I think this is the direction I think we ought to go.

S: Yeah, and I think we should have this debate, and it's a very fascinating debate, and a lot of topics come up. But again my take reading his writings and also written debates between him and his critics, I think on the balance he, I think is prematurely arguing to shift completely for applied research, and I think he is systematically underestimating or downplaying what we don't know on a basic science level. But that's an opinion, based upon your reading of the research, this is what we need to have experts debating that exact question. Well we have to come back to this topic, because this is a very interesting topic, but we're out of time for this episode.

P: I also want to interview him.

B: I will get him, I will get him.

S: I think we should have him on the show, but it's time to move on to our interviews, so let's do that.

Interview with Gerald Posner (24:34)[edit]

  • Investigative journalist and author, Gerald Posner, has written some of the definitive histories of recent epic events in American history. Posner was educated at the University of California at Berkeley (1975) and Hastings Law School (1978).

His books include:

Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (1993)

Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (1998)

Why America Slept: the Failure to Prevent 9/11 (2003)[2][3]

Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection (2005)

S: Joining us now is author and investigative journalist Gerald Posner, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

GP: Great to be with you Steven and everyone else.

S: Just to review, Gerald Posner is an acclaimed author of many excellent books. I think my favorite of yours is Case Closed, which is, I think the definitive debunking of JFK assassination conspiracy theories, but more importantly just a really good history of Lee Harvey Oswald and his involvement with the assassination. Also of Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., more recently Why America Slept: the Failure to Prevent 9/11, and Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection. Now let's just, for a little background you actually started your career as a lawyer, and graduated like I said the University of California, Berkeley and then Hastings Law School, and you were actually in private practices as a lawyer for a while is that right?

GP: Yeah, you can't actually use that against me that I was a lawyer (laughter) I'm the best type of lawyer right now which is non-practicing. (laughter) I did start out as a lawyer and actually was doing a lawsuit against the German government and the Mengele family, the family of Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death from the Auschwitz concentration camp for a group of survivors who had been experimented on by Mengele, and the lawsuit went nowhere. But I had like 25,000 pages of documents on Mengele's life on the run when I finished all the legal work and with a co-author from England who had also never published. We put out a biography on Mengele back in 1986 and that was the beginning of the investigative and writing career, I sort of got hooked and never went back to law.

S: Yeah well that was my next question was how you made the transition but that answers it. Before we start talking about the specific books, if you don't mind I'm going to heap some praise upon you. The thing that most impressed me about your approach, especially since it's in stark contrast to many pieces of history and journalism that we read today, is that no only are you doing exhaustive research before you put pen to paper, but you seem to really let the evidence go where it goes. The evidence determines the story that you ultimately tell. I believe I heard you say before, for example with Case Closed, you started that book thinking you were going to uncover some particular conspiracy theory, is that right?

GP: Absolutely, looking at it without knowing the facts or the details, you look at this murder of this 24 year old assassin Lee Harvey Oswald just two days later in police custody by a fellow with mob connections, Jack Ruby, and until you've investigate the case you think to yourself that looks like a silencing, maybe there is something there. But what you said a moment or so ago though is absolutely key, and that is any journalist worth their weight in salt should, and many do and many don't, but the good ones do, that is just follow the facts, let them take you where they're going to take you. I've had conspiracy theorists say you know, you just had made up your mind that it was Oswald alone and you went out and filled up a book that had those facts to support that conclusion, and I always think to myself it goes to show you how little the know about journalism.

S: Mhmmm.

GP: From somebody who pays their mortgage from writing as I do, it's a much bigger story if you go ahead and investigate the Kennedy assassination for a couple of years and you come back with definitive evidence that there was in fact a conspiracy, and you can convince the Dan Rathers, the, then at that time, Peter Jennings, the Tom Brokaws of the world, the New York Times, of the incontrovertible proof that there was in fact a conspiracy in the assassination of JFK, you've got a book bigger than All the President's Men (Woodard and Berstein) rolled up into one. You come back from a couple of years of work with the conclusion that the Warren Commission basically got it right and that basically doesn't get anybody very excited, including your publisher-

S: That's right.

GP: -so in terms of your financial interests, the financial interest is always there to prove the most outlandish case, but if it's not there, if the facts don't make it, unfortunately you have to go with them even if it's not a very sensational conclusion.

S: That's right, that's a very interesting observation, I think think there's a lot of analogies you can draw between the difference between real history and pseudo-history, or real journalism and pseudo-journalism, and science and pseudoscience. Because we often even joke with each other about the fact that all of the money is on the other side, the non-skeptical side. For me as a physician, if I endorsed some wacky pseudo-scientific medical modality I could be a millionaire, I mean it'd be really easy for me to make a lot of money if I just had absolutely no ethics and morals and didn't care about the truth, and what you're saying it's basically the same in your profession as well.

GP: Yeah very much so, although what's interesting is that in your case you would know for instance that you had given up your ethics and morals, that you were endorsing some bit of quackery in order just to make a killing financially. I have found that with many of the hardcore conspiracy theorists, and I'm not just talking about the JFK case, but whether it's on 9/11 and the fact that they think the buildings had been imploded, or it happens to deal with Princess Di being killed by a nefarious plot by British Intelligence at behest of the Queen, that many of them aren't just charlatans out there to make a quick buck, but they are true believers. Somehow their brain is wired differently, and they see and read the same evidence we are looking at, but interpret it completely differently. They also often base their conclusions on bogus evidence and witnesses that are false, and documents that have been picked apart just to support one proposition. But it's really fascinating to me often how they can dismiss evidence that is quite clear and convincing on one the hand, or otherwise take evidence that we all accept as being valid and somehow turn it on its head in its interpretation. They are in fact often true believers.

S: Yes. Oh I agree with you, that phenomenon you're describing exists in the pseudoscience arena as well I think, and there's always that spectrum from charlatans to true believers, and-

GP: Yes.

S: -they exist everywhere. Tell me if you agree with this, I think that the key difference is exactly what you were accused of falsely, and that is starting with the conclusion and then working backwards, I think the conspiracy theorists, just like many pseudo-scientists, start with a desired conclusion, whether just because it's fantastical or because they are enamored of conspiracy theories, that's the way as you say their brain is hard-wired, whatever. They have a conclusion that they want to believe, and then take in the great number of facts that exist, it's really easy to reverse engineer a story to fit your conclusion.

GP: Absolutely. I see it constantly done in the books that I read, in which it's clear to me that, and books are some of the worst offenders, worse than even articles. Articles if they're written at least for a good publication, The New Yorker, The New York Times magazine, some others, there's some other vetting that goes on in terms of fact checkers, but that doesn't mean they always reach the right conclusion, because you're still basing your conclusions on those facts and the journalist may have their own ax to grind, but there's some fact checking that goes on. In books, people, the lay person who's not connected in publishing often thinks that books have more gravitas because they do weigh a couple of pounds, and they do cost twenty dollars or more, therefore they must be a bit more on the side of being right than just some magazine that somebody throws away at the end of the week. But that's not true at all, there's no fact checking that really goes on in books, there are lawyers that look at the books to make sure they aren't libelous beforehand. But beyond that, there's no checking to see that what somebody has put in is right, and I often find books in which somebody has reached an outlandish conclusion, and they've gone ahead and cherry picked the evidence, or relied upon witnesses or evidence that really is outlandish and false and then just bolstered their case in 500 bloated pages of nonsense.

S: Right right. Before we just leave the topic of journalism in general, give me your assessment of the state of journalism, at least in this country today, how would you characterize it?

GP: Well I hate to sound like, although I will sound like a-

P: (laughing) Go ahead, go ahead.

GP: -after apologizing beforehand, a cynic. But I'm increasingly cynical of the state of journalism because I use to say "info-tainment", we've all said that at some point, but infotainment use to be shows like Entertainment Tonight or something like that, it use to be People magazine, and now increasingly if you pick up Time or Newsweek the cover story is about your finances, how you can retire safely. It's sort of the lifestyle or health piece that use to be somewhere inside the magazine is now the lead story. The five minute piece at the end of the evening news the use to be the lifestyle piece will now the second or third story, and much of what passes for journalism increasingly in this need to fill 24/7 on a real news breaking day, on a day of 9/11 or a on day the Challenger explodes, it's easy to fill the news because you've got a lot going on. But often it's just remarkable to me what pads out the news cycle, and I think I would have a tough time in 2006 getting my Mengele book published that was published 20 years ago. I think today a publisher, much more bottom line oriented would say gee, Angel of Death. Nazi murderer. We've had a lot of books about the Holocaust. You don't have any name at all. Who's going to read that? Why should we publish it? Thanks a lot, see you tomorrow. I see far fewer serious books being published by major publishers, and the same in magazine articles as well, and that's a shame.

S: Yeah. Well unfortunately I have to agree with your cynicism, and I would add my personal experience with journalists is very negative, in that what I've experienced is that the writer producing a news segment, or writing an article, they know what their conclusion is, what the story is ahead of time. There's only a few thematic stories that they tell, the ones that they think sell or that people will read. And then they're really just looking for quotes that they can use to basically put together the story they already know they're gonna tell, and it's very hard to push them off of the conclusion that they come into their investigation with, you know what I mean?

GP: I think that's very true, as a matter of fact recently I was interviewed about a year ago, maybe a little less than that, for a documentary being done by Discovery on the JFK assassination.

S: Mhmm.

GP: And the New York-based producer approached me, and they'd clearly done a number of interviews beforehand, and he told me that they were doing a re-analysis of the case, and that it was going to be very fair. This was one of the few times that I actually greeted an interviewer without knowing more about the production, but I knew I was flipping a coin, exactly. I didn't know. They clearly had an idea of what they were going to do with that documentary before they came to me. I didn't know if I was just going to be interviewed to the foil, to present the idea that it was a lone assassin, that I would be torn apart through the rest of the piece, whether in fact they were being honest and it was a fair piece. It turned out to be fair, and I was quite pleased with the final product. But you just don't know, because I agree with that, that many of them come in, especially television journalists or magazine pieces or newspapers working on a short deadline, and they're hoping to get one quote from you, and if you give it to them it doesn't matter if the rest of the interview was quite lucid, you may just give that one inflammatory quote that they need, and that's what they're running with.

S: That's right. Since you bring up the JFK assassination, let's talk about that, because from a skeptical point of view of course that's sort of the media's book, that you have. The JFK assassination is probably the biggest magnet for conspiracy theories out there. Although 9/11 is giving it a good run for its money right now, but-

GP: Right.

S: -give us just, in your, how would you summarize the case for Lee Harvey Oswald being a lone assassin?

GP: Well I mean, just in very brief summary I think the forensics evidence is overwhelming that there was only one shooter at Dealey Plaza that day, I don't care if there were ten assassins there, only one person shot and hit the president and the Governor of Texas on that day and the forensics evidence for that is overwhelming. And also the physical and forensics evidence is overwhelming that those shots came from behind, in the vicinity of the Texas schoolbook depository, the building where Oswald was last seen, and coupled with that, understanding Oswald, knowing Oswald, following him on that day, what he did subsequently in killing a Dallas policeman, it leaves me no doubt at all that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963. As a matter of fact I'm surprised that so many conspiracy theorists on that case spend so much of their time in Dealey Plaza. What I mean by that is they spend much of their time on trying to prove the so-called single bullet, one bullet that hit both the president and the governor really didn't happen, that it was a magic bullet, that there were additional assassins, that the head shot had to come from the front which would have meant another shooter. That forensics evidence is really definitive that that's not the case. I think the much more difficult question, which I also answered to my satisfaction that it's Oswald, would be for conspiracy theorists to say all right, I'll give you all of the forensics evidence, I will grant you that it was a shooter from behind, I'll grant you that it was Oswald, but prove to me that Oswald wasn't doing it for somebody else, that he was just doing it for himself, he wasn't acting for the Cubans, he wasn't acting for a group of mobsters, that it was his own motivation. In the end I think the evidence around Oswald does prove that, but that would be a tougher challenge than the one conspiracy theorists often throw out.

S: Right. Well it's hard to prove a negative, and they're shifting the burden, to say "prove that there isn't a conspiracy!" Well, actually you should prove there is a conspiracy-

GP: Well that's right.

S: -where's the positive evidence for a conspiracy?

GP: Well that's what so interesting, one, two, or three years out from the assassination the documents hadn't yet been released by the Warren Commission, the material on the autopsy wasn't yet public, you can understand why a conspiracy theorists could say it's not my obligation to prove there's a conspiracy, I don't have the evidence yet.

S: Yeah.

GP: But 43 years later (chuckles) and we're still waiting for somebody to come up with the evidence, the deathbed confession, the one file, it seems a little bit long to me. And now you have, it's very very interesting, but conspiracy theorists, not only in the Kennedy assassination, but in other cases as well, they shift the sand underneath you in the sense that you go ahead and prove something, and you think you've done it to your own satisfaction, and the satisfaction of scientists, and those who are concerned about evidence, and investigators, and then they'll move the target. The perfect example in the Kennedy case is the Zapruder film, the so-called home movie of the assassination. It had been cited repeatedly by conspiracy theorists I did Case Closed, there's evidence that there was a fatal shot from the front of the president, and after other sort-of forensics analysis that I cited in the book, it really showed, I think without any question, that that film helps establish a shooter from behind. A new group of conspiracy theorists challenged, and started to challenge, and still do, the authenticity of the film itself-

S: Right.

B: Wow.

P: (laughs)

GP: -claiming it has been altered by the CIA, that there are frames missing, that one person is wearing one color shoe in one frame and a different color shoe in another based upon a shadow being cast. So it's absolutely fantastic that for decades that film was accepted as being Bible-true evidence by conspiracy theorists who cited it to prove a conspiracy. Once they realized the evidence actually worked against them, they started to say well of course it does, because the evidence is false. So-

S: Right.

GP: -you never can really pin them down.

E: I see a book title here called The Great Zapruder Film Hoax: Deceit and Deception in the Death of JFK. That's just one of many titles that seem to, like you say Gerald, tearing into the Zapruder film as if it were doctored or certainly a hoax that has been perpetrated on the American people.

GP: And you know what's great about that is you cited one there called the great hoax, it leaves open the possibility for then more books down the road the greater hoax (Perry laughs) and the even greater hoax, there seems to be a never ending-

P: Bestest mostest.

GP: -That's right. I wanted to do for a while, I wanted to do a sequel to Case Closed called "Case Still Closed" (laughter) but I could never convince the publisher into doing that.

P: Gerald what do you think invigorates the conspiracy theorists for the Kennedy assassination, what venerates them, why so passionate and so loud after all these years?

GP: I think that their shrill enthusiasm for the case is still there in a hard core group, but is being replaced as you mentioned before in some ways by the new ruckus grumblings about 9/11, and maybe a new generation around that. But for many who lived through the Kennedy assassination, it's not an assassination by the way, it's not a case, it's not a conspiracy that attracts 18 and 19 year-olds. When I see the conventions of the conspiracy buffs, they're often people who had been alive at the time of the assassination, they've held this belief for years, they've been convinced that the real murderers are still out there, and it's very interesting that when Case Closed came out in '93, and was well received and became a best seller, that further convinced them that a conspiracy was afoot, because here was the 30th anniversary of the assassination, Oliver Stone had put out his film two years earlier, there was a renewed interest in the case, then suddenly the official media is endorsing a book that says it was Oswald alone, which must mean in fact that they were getting close to the truth, and I was a dupe working for the CIA. So I think they are still sort of, they are soldering on in the belief that somewhere out there there is the truth, but they certainly seem to me a sorry group, in that after four decades and you haven't come up with any evidence you really have to hang your head in shame.

P: (laughs)

S: Right.

P: Hear hear.

E: Agreed.

S: It's interesting, one quick comment, it's interesting that I wonder if you ever looked at the Lincoln assassination because basically there was a generation of conspiracy theories about Abraham Lincoln's assassination that eventually died out and most people today don't even know about it, and I wonder if the Kennedy assassination is going to be the same thing, that you seem to be suggesting that it's the generation of people who were alive at the time, and that the next generation is moving onto other conspiracies.

GP: I think that is definitely true about Lincoln, there's no doubt about that, and there have been people that have studied both assassinations in conjunction. Although I think one of the things I think that may keep the Kennedy assassination alive longer than even Lincoln is that it's really the first television assassination. There's still the Zapruder film, there's still the ability to look, as there's still a 9/11 destruction of the towers, you can watch the Zapruder film, you can go out and rent a DVD of it or buy a DVD of it, you don't have the equivalent on the Lincoln assassination, you can watch that film and come up with your own theory about what happened on the headshot. Lee Harvey Oswald seems a much more contemporary figure than John Wilkes Booth, and yes I agree, that given 150 years down the road in the almost inevitable insertion of another national tragedy like an assassination that may well replace the Kennedy one of interest, that Kennedy may have life of its own in some ways that may be a little bit more vagarous than even Lincoln.

S: Bob you had a question?

B: Yeah, I was going to say do a lot of the conspiracy theorists, are they still pointing to classified information that the government hasn't released, in kind of pinning their hopes on maybe there's some nuggets in there that when they eventually are declassified that it will finally show that there was a conspiracy? How much information is still classified about the assassination?

GP: You know Bob, a remarkably small amount of information is still classified about the assassination. In regards to the Warren Commission, that's now 2/10th of one percent (0.2%) still related to some material on Cuba-

B: Oh okay.

GP: -which will be coming out soon. In terms of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, it's still running at about eight percent (8%), and those are still files that were considered sensitive for intelligence matters, most of are related to the Soviet Union but hopefully will be released in the next few years. I'm a big believer in release the files, let's get it all out there. I do think that there are some conspiracy theorists who believe that they will find the smoking gun in those remaining files, but my favorite, my favorite position, my personal favorite, is Peter Dale Scott, who is an English Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, my alma mater, and I think that Peter Dale Scott is absolutely humiliated that I ever went to Berkeley because he just can't stand me (laughter). And although he's an English professor, he's made himself a historian on the Kennedy assassination, I use that term loosely, but he's written some books, and one of his books, he has some of the most outlandish theories. He has a thing he calls the negative template, which is if you go into a file, let's say Lee Harvey Oswald's file, and you found a file for Oswald at the CIA, and you looked inside of it and you expected to find evidence that he was an employee of the CIA or an agent of the CIA, and you did not find that, that's the negative template-

B: Oh.

GP: -since all the rest of the evidence points to him being a CIA agent, you should've found that. The fact that it was not in the file is exactly what you expect. They removed it, therefor proving that he was a CIA agent (laughter) so under that theory you can go into the files and then when the last file is released on House Select Committee on Assassinations, and the last file is released on the Warren Commission, and nothing proves a conspiracy, people like Peter Dale Scott would say exactly what we expected, they cleansed the files, therefore there was a conspiracy. That's my personal favorite.

B: They're bulletproof, that's the nature of conspiracy theories, they're completely and utterly bulletproof. Just the fact that they can use that kind of missing, lack of evidence, as evidence, and we've seen it before, Steve-

S: Yeah.

B: -we've seen it before, and it is, it's amazing what the human mind can.

S: Classic.

GP: It is, but you know, one of the things gentlemen, I mentioned and you may well be aware but some of your listeners may not, but in '94 I did a story on the Berlin Document Center, which was the largest at that time repository of captured Third Reich documents in the world, captured by American forces at the end of World War II, maintained by the Americans, it was being transferred over to German custody then. I did a long article for The New Yorker, and the head of the Berlin Document Center, the American director David Marwell at the time told me, I asked him about the security at the archives thinking they had guards posted and they had people watching inside the room, and he said they had increased security over recent years not because they were having thefts of documents, although they had had some people come in in earlier years and steal a document because it had a signature by Göring or Goebbels that they would try to sell as part of an autograph collection, but they problems from people trying to insert documents, something I had never thought about-

E: Wow.

B: Whoa.

GP: -so they would have somebody not coming in and trying to put in a document that proved the final solution never happened, nothing like that. But they had amateur historians who were their area of passion and compulsion was, let's say, one aspect of the Battle of the Bulge, and they would try to put in a forgery of a document that changed the line of the chain of command at the Battle of the Bulge, so that a future historian would come in to do archival research and might rely upon that document in laying out what had happened in that battle. And I thought that was absolutely fascinating, that people not only were committed to their view of history, whether right or wrong, but they were so committed to it that they were willing to change it by falsely inserting documents into the records. So it would be the equivalent of somebody having access to the files in the Kennedy case in the National Archive for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and instead of trying to steal something putting a document in that appeared real for all ostensible purposes, and that's the danger of people who are so committed that they're willing even to change the nature of research for real historians. It's rather frightening.

P: It's vile. Absolutely vile, yeah.

GP: Yes it is.

S: Well let's change gears a little bit to your two most recent books, Why America Slept, The Failure to Prevent 9/11. Now this is primarily about the period of time leading up to 9/11, and why the powers that be failed to prevent it from happening. You don't spend really a lot of time talking about the conspiracy theories that arose after 9/11, is that right?

GP: That's right. Because they really had not arisen when I was writing this book. The real idea for this book started shortly after the attacks themselves, when my wife Trisha and I were volunteering our time doing whatever we could, we lived in New York at the time, we were there that day when it took place. We were essentially doing what a lot of New Yorkers were doing. There was no place to give blood because the Red Cross wasn't taking that, there were no injuries unfortunately, you either died or you didn't from the blast. (general agreement) But we were sort of giving our time handing out material to the firemen as they came out, and one night around 1:30-2:00 in the morning we sat down next to a young girl. She turned out to be a college student, we were talking to her about what she did, and she said what do you do?, and we said we were journalists. She said well what are you doing here? Why don't you go out and find out what happened? It was sort of like a light bulb went off in our head, and I approached my publisher and said this can't have happened without a major intelligence screw up somewhere along the way, let me go out and find out what it was and they said go and do it. Then in the next 18 months or that, it seemed like a lot of newspapers and magazines and TV journalists were doing the same thing, trying to find out what happened. I actually uncovered the information about Agent Rowley and the FBI and what took place in Minnesota and with Zacarias, early on, with Moussaoui, but unfortunately that broke before I published, that just the nature of doing a book-

S: Right.

GP: -sometimes you get things fresh then you lose then before you get it out. But it turned out to be really a book about what went wrong in the lead up, and then the theories started to come out after I had published.

S: Well, let's go back and talk about what you spent most of your time writing about then in that book, but tells us again in a nutshell what did go wrong before 9/11?

GP: Just about everything you can imagine. Look it's always easy, everyone looks bright on Monday morning, looking back at the game (Perry laughs) or the orgy after the stock market crash of 2000, we all know where we should've had our money. So I'm looking back at this event, dissecting the evidence, and knowing what happened. But no withstanding that, this isn't just a case of looking back and saying gee, you should've realized in 1993 that Osama Bin Laden was a big threat or you should've picked up this terrorist when they were first coming in. This is a case where incompetence reigned supreme at times inside the FBI and the CIA. Not just the failure to share information but the competition between the two worked to our detriment, and there may be no better example of it than when the CIA followed two of the 9/11 terrorists into the country in January of 2000, and then lost them immediately because they can't do domestic surveillance, did not pass the information over to the FBI, had watched these two at a meeting in Malaysia with other terrorists, known terrorists, knew who they were, and one had a permanent access VISA to the United States, and then literally a month before the 9/11 attacks, said to itself as the number of warnings about a possible terrorist attack grew over the summer, inside the CIA there was a meeting in which they said what about those two guys who came in and we lost? Someone said maybe we ought to tell the FBI, an they did in fact tell the FBI, and the FBI then did a short hunt for them and couldn't find them before the 9/11 attacks obviously, even though they were living openly in San Diego. They had bank accounts in their own name, they had a car they bought in their own name, they had California drivers licenses, they were listed in the phone book in their own name.

B: So they were deep under cover is what you were saying? (laughter)

GP: Yeah deep under cover, and nobody of course thought about telling the FAA, even though there were warnings of a hijacking over the summer, and the FAA could've red-listed them, these men bought the tickets for their 9/11 flights in their own names.

S: Yeah.

GP: So if we had stopped them, if they had been red-listed and we picked them up, we still wouldn't have known about the plot, and they wouldn't have necessarily given it up, but we might have inadvertently broken it up, or we might have spooked the rest of the teams, we don't know. It's a bit like what the FBI agent Rowley said in Minneapolis about the Moussaoui case, we could've gotten lucky, and that's absolutely true.

S: You're also pretty critical of the Clinton administration's dealing with Osama Bin Laden and security in general in the eight years prior to 9/11.

GP: I am in fact critical of the Clinton administration, but I must say, I've often said this, I'm pretty much an equal opportunity blamer. I blame both the Republicans and Democrats for their handling of this before 9/11, and Clinton gets the brunt of the blame because of the fact that he was in office for a critical eight year period leading up to 9/11, a period that saw the first bombing of the first World Trade Center, that saw the action in Somalia with Black Hawk Down, that saw the bombings in Saudi Arabia that killed Americans in '96, the Soviet attack on the Cole. He was there during a period of time at which Bin Laden was indicted by a grand jury in '96, Bin Laden moved from Somalia to Pakistan, but I happen to believe whether right or wrong, this is my firmly held belief, that if the Republicans had been in charge over that same eight year period not much would've been different. The country didn't wake up until 9/11 took place, and then even George Bush seemed energized in a way he had not seemed beforehand. If 9/11 hadn't happened I don't think we'd be hearing the word terrorism much. In the entire election in 2000 it was mentioned once in the presidential debates by Al Gore in response to a question not based on terror. But that was it, it wasn't-

B: Wow.

GP: -a political issue.

S: Just was not an issue.

P: Definitely, definitely true. Gerald I've heard it said going back even further all the way back to 1975 that it was the Church Committee, led by Senator Frank Church that really sort of, well I dunno, people use the term gutted the intelligence agency, I mean really the foreign surveillance act really hurt intelligence, have you found that to be the case in your studies?

GP: Well, there's no doubt that the Church Committee, did in fact by calling the CIA a rogue organization, and the restrictions that were placed on it, moral was probably its lowest after the Church Committee hearings, and I've talked to agents who have since retired who said it was like a death chamber over there, nobody was holding their head up very high. So I think that hurt, but I also happen to say that the analysis that I did in Why America Slept really castigates the CIA not withstanding what happened with the Church Committee. There was never an emphasis to try to infiltrate radical Islamic organizations, the emphasis was always on the Soviet Union, until the Soviet Union fell, and then really they were looking for somebody else over in the intelligence group, and they found them sometimes in what was happening in Eastern Europe. But nobody at CIA said after the fall of the Soviet Union the next threat over here is Islamic Fundamentalism, let's start to target them, and we all know now after 9/11 the FBI and the CIA had to scramble to find analysts who were fluent in Arabic, to be able to handle the incoming information.

P: Right. Right.

S: So let me tie it back in again a little bit to the conspiracy theories then. Would you say that this analogy is accurate, just like with the JFK assassination, the biggest thing that debunks the conspiracy theorists is as you say really proving the case that Lee Harvey Oswald was the shooter, and in fact was probably working on his own, would you say that the biggest case against 9/11 conspiracy theories is the case you built that in fact this was a Islamic fundamentalist terrorist act, and the government really was asleep at the switch, would you say that's fair?

GP: Well I do think it's fair, except that one of the things that I wanted to see after the publication of Why America Slept is what is, how, what possibly could the conspiracy theorists who hated me so much after the JFK book say, because here I was criticizing the very government organizations they've also disliked, the FBI and the CIA, what could they possibly say in criticism of that? I went on the internet and looked for Gerald Posner 9/11, and I found some immediately that said I was again, and I may be paraphrasing here, but you'll find them yourself if you take a look, I was again serving my pay masters, I love that one. (laughter) because what I was doing was diverting attention from the fact that this was really a government and Bush led conspiracy by making it look as though it was all sort of incompetence, and that it was really a Muslim extremist plot. So, see, again I have diverted the evidence from the real nefarious plotters, the government, in order to pin it on somebody else. And I must say that I really am surprised, I should not be surprised any longer at what conspiracy theorists come up with, but after 9/11 if you would asked me a month later if I thought there would be conspiracies about this, I really would've have said unlikely. I've been surprised at the extent to which they've taken root and grown with some enthusiasm, and become widespread beyond just a fringe group. The evidence seems so overwhelming to me here, over what took place, at least the physical act that day, that I didn't think you could tamper with that. But they are.

S: Yeah. It's a fascinating sociological experiment, where you have an extremely well documented historical event. I mean there's an overabundance of physical evidence, we actually have film, multiple cameras filming the jets plowing into the towers, and yet the conspiracy [theorists], no amount of evidence is too much for a conspiracy theorists to overcome. They can still find their anomalies and run with them.

B: I can just hear them say the evidence is too perfect. That wouldn't surprise me if they said that.

S: Right.

GP: You're absolutely right, and as a matter of fact the thing that I've head now a number of times is that the hijackers were induced somehow by US agents who were posing as their friends or collaborators, or probably even Israelis, to go ahead and hijack these planes, thinking that that was their mission, and then once on the planes, of course the planes were controlled like drones and they were run into the World Trade Center so that the hijackers, the terrorists did not know this was a suicide mission, it was one that was hoisted on them by more nefarious forces. And what I think irritates me the most about this, is not just that it mocks the memory of the thousands dead from that day, but that as with the Kennedy assassination, as with James Earl Ray killing Martin Luther King, and here with these 19 hijackers killing thousands of Americans, the conspiracy theorists excuse and let off the hook the people with blood on their hands.

S: Right.

GP: They do it time and time again, and I just find it appalling that those who are actually guilty of committing a crime are viewed somehow by conspiracy theorists as too dumb to have done it.

S: Right.

E: Gerald in the past you have said understanding the person who pulled the trigger is essential in these cases. In the case of Ray and Oswald, and certainly is the case here again, as far as the many Islamic radicals and their history leading up to the events of 9/11. That's what, that's why I think your books are so good, because you really delve into that, you spend a lot of time trying to understand: who are these trigger men? Who are these people behind these acts? And it all falls into place, it certainly makes la lot of logical sense. You certainly support it with a lot of evidence and facts of the time.

GP: Well I think if you don't do that as a journalist or historian then you lose sight of the case. If you have a book that just talks about ballistics and bullet angles on the Kennedy assassination's, you don't talk about Oswald. People can get distracted and think that's the entire case and forget about who's behind the trigger as you said a second ago. If you talk about the 9/11 case, talk about just explosives and the melting point for steel, and that's the entire discussion, and you don't talk about the 19 hijackers and what drove them, you can get lost in that minutia, and I think people do. They are misled, they're taken off the main points of what really took place, and that's a shame because it's too important for that to happen.

S: That's a good observation: lost in the minutia. That is I think a fairly common attribute of pseudo-scientists in general. They basically, it's almost like they get very myopic, they put blinders on, they can focus on the minutia that can be distorted to meet their ends, and they lose sight deliberately of the big picture.

GP: Right, you're right. And I must say that one of the things that happened in Why America Slept, in the final chapter I disclosed the results of an interrogation with the leading Al-Qaeda suspect who was captured by American forces in March of 2002, and it turns out that there are four deaths, what I call mysterious deaths, that take place after this interrogation, and I don't know what to draw of those deaths, nor does American intelligence. They may be nothing, they might be just coincidental, but I did think that this was fates way of evening out the score with me, since in the Kennedy assassination I had an entire appendix called the non-mystery mystery deaths-

P: (laughs)

GP: -in which I sort of debunk the hundred and three so-called mystery deaths of the Kennedy assassination where witnesses were supposed to have seen something mysterious and then died of unnatural causes or car wrecks or heart attacks at young ages, and I sort of go through each of those deaths in short order and show you why there are no mystery deaths in the Kennedy assassination, and here I am in 9/11 talking about four mystery deaths raising some questions for me. So it's my comeuppance after all this time (laughter) that I have come back to talking about mystery deaths, and only four of them.

S: Right.

P: That's funny.

S: That sort of anticipates there's a last segment here which is to get to your most recent book Secrets of the Kingdom, which seems like it jumped off from the last chapter of Why America Slept to talk about the connection between The United States and Saudi Arabia, and you are making a case for somewhat of a conspiracy goin on here. Although it's a different kind of conspiracy, this is a plausible manageable conspiracy that could actually be enacted by a finite number of people, not the, what we call "grand conspiracies" that people weave about 9/11 or JFK. Can you summarize that for me?

GP: Yeah, I don't even know if it's a conspiracy, and what I mean by that is I point out, and this is one of the things I enjoy doing often, how the government has misled us, whether intentionally or not, on different items regarding the flights of the Saudis after 9/11. I don't actually think there was a conspiracy here, I don't think there was anything untoward done, I don't think that any of the people left America on those Saudi flights that Michael Moore talks about so much were involved in 9/11. My point is that we did what you might expect, there's a very good relationship between the Saudis and the American Government. George Bush, then president, had been friends with Prince Bandar, then Saudi ambassador to the US for some time. Bandar and Bush met and shortly after that the first of the flights left inside the United States to ferry some of the Saudis around. I would not be surprised if the US government did a favor for Bandar and the Saudis, to say let's get some leading prominent Saudis outside of the US so there's no backlash against them, and if the US had said that in the immediate aftermath there might've been some criticism of Bush but it would've blown over. Instead, they wouldn't admit to that, and it led to the Michael Moore film. The same thing happened in a very different way when I did an article for The New Yorker a few years ago on the death of Princess Diana, I concluded, not surprisingly, that it was a car wreck.

S: Right.

GP: But the French authorities had hidden all types of material around the autopsy that were mistakes, the autopsy of Henri Paul, the driver, because they were embarrassed by them, giving father to the conspiracy theorists that thought there was something else here. So even in Secrets of the Kingdom, there isn't so much a conspiracy that I make out, as what I think happens often on these cases, which is government agencies make errors, they bungle certain things, and then later instead of admitting it or releasing the documents around it, because they are embarrassed, they will cover it up, hide it, not disclose it, and then eventually when it does become public it looks embarrassing and it's taken by conspiracy theorists to be evidence of a coverup of a crime. Whereas I only interpret often as further signs of government incompetence that I'm not surprised at it any longer.

P: How that lesson could not have been learned by 2006 is almost beyond belief.

GP: I agree with you, I keep thinking they will learn the lesson from the Kennedy assassination and others that disclosure if better early on, rather than holding on, but it seems to be a knee jerk response. I've seen it even on Freedom of Information requests, I will request a document that I've heard about from a government agency, and I assure you there is some bureaucratic at that government agency who is not concerned at all about that document until I ask for it, and once I do, they then wonder what I want in that document and they refuse to release it (Perry laughs) So it's just a remarkable process. In the Kennedy assassination as you might well be aware, in 1993 when the CIA declassified about 30,000 pages of material they had. Included in those 30,000 pages, and I'm not kidding you, were newspaper articles that were classified secret. Now tell me, what type of dunce would take a public article that was available from a newspaper and classify it as secret and put it in a CIA file? (Perry laughs)

S: Right. Occam's razor definite favors incompetence as the simplest explanation in most cases.

GP: Yes, I agree.

P: Absolutely.

S: Well, we're almost out of time, and just before you go are you working on anything right now?

GP: I am as a matter of fact and I'm getting worried about meeting my deadline, which is 6 months away. But I go through this panic about this point on every book. This is on the business of the Vatican, and we'll sort of look at the Vatican as a multi-national corporation as if I was doing a book on Microsoft, so a-

S: Interesting.

GP: -I don't mean to say the Pope is like Bill Gates, but (laughter) it would be an interesting book, and it'll go back a little ways in history as I always do, and I don't know my conclusions yet.

S: Good.

P: Even if you are pronounced a heretic, you are always invited back here Gerald.

GP: Thank you very much, I may spend a lot of-

B: Thank you Gerald.

GP: -after this book I may spend a lot of time in purgatory. (laughter)

S: That's right, you can journalism in purgatory. Gerald it was wonderful having you on the show, thanks for joining us.

GP: Thank you gentlemen.

S: I hope we can have you back soon.

GP: I look forward to it.

S: Take care.

GP: Thank you, you too. Good night.

S: Well, extremely interesting having Gerald Posner on the show, definitely have to get him back-

B: Yeah.

S: -he is an excellent speaker.

E: Especially with that new book coming up.

S: Yeah. Yeah, we'll get him after his new book.

P: (snickers)

Science or Fiction (1:09:13)[edit]

S: So we're out of time, so we're going to just do a quick Science of Fiction, and we'll, actually we need to give the answer to last week's puzzle, as well, and I do have a new puzzle for this week. So we'll do that quickly, let's go on to Science or Fiction.

Answer Item
Fiction Aluminum foil hat
Science Brain repair
Gum disease & atheromas
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Aluminum foil hat
Brain repair
Aluminum foil hat
Aluminum foil hat

Theme: Neurobiology

Item #1: New study shows that wearing a hat or helmet lined with aluminum foil reduces the frequency of seizures in certain epileptics.[4]
Item #2: New study shows a link between gum disease and carotid atheromas (a significant risk for stroke).[5]
Item #3: Man recovers from 19 year coma with evidence of brain repair and regrowth.[6]

Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Every week I come up with three science news items or facts, two are genuine, one is factious, and then I challenge my esteemed panel of skeptics to figure out which one is the fake. And of course, you at home can play along. There is a theme for this week, the theme is neurobiology.

P: I happen to be an expert in neurobiology.

S: You guys read?

E: Yes.

S: Item #1: A new study shows that wearing a hat or helmet lined with aluminum foil reduces the frequency of seizures in certain epileptics. Item #2: A new study shows a link between gum disease and carotid atheromas which are a significant risk for stroke. Item #3: A man has recently recovered from a 19 year coma, and evidence shows that his brain actually repaired and regrew over this time. So, does aluminum foil lining reduce the frequency of seizures in epilepsy? Does gum disease give you strokes? Or did a man's brain repair itself after 19 years and it allowed him to wake up from a coma? Evan, why don't you start off?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Number one is fiction.

S: Okay.

E: There you have it.

S: Alrighty. Jay?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Okay well, the whole aluminum foil thing, off the cuff sounds really, really really fake. And it's one of those things that where I have to question whether or not you would throw, you would sit there and make up something so unbelievably cheesy. It just kind of reminds me of that guy you see out, that wears a triangle on his head, you ever see those people?

B: Just last week I did.

E: Oh they're not ridiculous.

B: It was funny.

J: I see that guy at Costco all the time.

P: Total fruit loop.

B: Yeah! That's where I saw him Jay.

S: Is that a pyramid thing though?

J: Yes, yeah. Blocking your head from alien transmissions or whatever, I'm not... but I'm going to go with number three, because I distinctly remember you telling me at one point that brain tissue doesn't regrow. You can't damage it, it's unlike other tissue in the body, once it's damaged, your brain will re-map things and use other parts of the brain to pick up slack. But re-growing brain tissue? No, I think that one's false.

S: Perry.

Perry's Response[edit]

P: Ummmm, yeah. The third one is believable. The second one seems reasonable. The first one, you know, I had a UFO protection foil hat for 30 years.

E: Its worked so far right?

P: Yeah, but now, I didn't realize it had this other benefit. But I mean 30 years, and I find that not to be true. The first one's fake.

S: Alrighty. Bob?

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Oh man. Number three, I believe that's correct. You might be subtly changing this, I do believe that happened. The gum disease link, that just seems to coincide with other things that I've learned about that. The helmet one is just so obviously (Perry laughs) bologny, and I think maybe that's what you're hoping we're going to think. Or, or maybe you were hoping we were gonna hope and...

P: Because you know and I know that you know!

B: So uh...

E: Don't spend an hour over-thinking this.

B: I know, so I'm gonna have to, I'll go with one. I'll just go with one because-

S: (laughing) Okay.

B: -it's ridiculous, and I can't imagine how this tinfoil is going to interact, except for a placebo effect, I don't know how it's going to react, interact, with anything about brain activity, outside your head. Go.

P: You obviously haven't trained your brainwaves.

S: That's right. Well let's start with number three...

J: And the answer is...

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Man recovers from a 19 year coma with evidence of brain repair and regrowth. This one is science. This has been in the news, I'm not surprised if you guys had heard about this.

B: His name's Terry, isn't it?

S: Yeah, right Terry, his name is Terry.

P: Hey how 'bout that.

S: It's a male Terry. Not to be confused with Terri Schiavo.

P: No, no, no.

S: There's a critical difference between this case, and the Terri Schiavo case, and other cases of people in a "coma" and coma isn't really a precise neurological term, and often I think that's where people get confused. This guy was in a minimally conscious state. So his brain was actually able to generate some level of consciousness, but not enough for him to move and talk.

J: Ooooh. What a nightmare that would've been.

P: So he was locked-in Steve?

E: Yeah, gee.

S: No, locked-in is different, locked-in means you're fully awake, but you're just paralyzed from the eyes down-

P: That's worse.

S: -this guy, probably has done a, he has no memories of this period of time-

J: Oh that's good.

S: -maybe like, again, it's minimally conscious. But, after 19 years he crossed some threshold where he was able to speak and move. He's not fully neurologically functional, but he crossed this threshold. And this definitely has happened before. It's these kind of cases that sort of lead people to think that somebody can "come out of a coma", but these cases cannot be compared to cases, say, like Terri Schiavo, where she was in a persistent vegetative state.

P: Totally different.

S: Totally different. People do not come out of persistent vegetative states. That's why they're persistent.

P: Well Steve, to the best of your knowledge in what you know about this case, when you say "cross a threshold", was even that, and they put it very specifically from what I recall, but are we talking about at 5 PM Tuesday he didn't have these abilities, and at 5 PM Wednesday he did?

S: Yeah, usually there's just like one day where they wake up from a sleep cycle, and they have a little bit more function than they did the day before-

P: That's amazing.

S: -it's some threshold where somebody notices he's different. It may be over a couple of days they start to talk more, and starts to do more.

J: Steve this guy's brain tissue grew back though?

S: Yeah, the new bit here is that studying this guy's brain they believe they've documented actual increase in neuronal tissue over this period of time. They think the brain was slowly repairing itself, and Jay you are somewhat correct in that the brain certainly, and especially as we get older, has a very limited capacity to regrow new neurons. Although, we use to think that it couldn't, and it's actually only been recently in the last 10 years or so that we've accumulated evidence that new neurons can in fact be made in the brain.

J: Neurogenesis.

S: Yeah so this is more evidence to support that that can actually take place. But let's move on to, let's work our way back we'll just go to number two.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: This was, very quickly, this was a dental study actually was looking at dental x-rays and comparing the amount of gum disease with the carotid hardening of the arteries, atheromas that you can see on those x-rays. This is purely a study associating the two, linking gum disease with atheromas, it says nothing about a causal relationship between the two. There are a number of theoretical connections that could be made, one could just be people who take better care of themselves have both fewer cavities and less arterialsclerosis. It could also be that you get more bacteria in your blood if you have a lot of gum disease, and maybe that's playing a role in the acceleration of atheromas, so. Anyway, this study didn't even explore that, this' just counting gum disease, how many cavities compared to how much blockage.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Which means that number one, aluminum foil reducing the frequency of seizures in certain epileptics is fiction.

P: Yay.

B: Ohhh...

J: Two in a row.

S: Now. Yeah, you guys are right, the aluminum foil hat thing is kind of a classic (Perry laughs) silly thing, and I thought I'd change things up a little bit and throw, make the fiction one sound-

E: Throw us all off.

S: -sound really ridiculous and not be too predictable.

P: But we knew that you knew!

S: I wanted to see if I could lure any of you...

B: Almost! You almost got me Steve.

S: I got Jay! I got Jay. But yeah I know, you guys almost over thought it, I wanted to see if I could lure anyone into actually thinking that aluminum foil helmets stopped seizures.

P: Of course.

E: I believe I gave the answer in about one second...

S: Yeah you did.

E: ...Told you exactly what it was.

J: You're so smart Evan.

S: Well done, well done.

P: It's true, it's true, it's true.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:18:28)[edit]

Last Week's puzzle:

In the old game show, Let's Make A Deal, contestants were asked to pick which of three doors they thought contained a valuable prize. Once the contestant picked a door, the host, Monty Hall, would often open one of the two doors not chosen and then ask the contestant if they would like to change their pick to the other door left unopened. The question is, should a contestant stick with their original choice, change to the other door, or there is no difference statistically?

Answer: The contestant should change her pick to the other door. If she sticks with her first pick her chances of winning is 1/3, if she changes her pick her chances of winning is 2/3.

S: Alright, now last week, last week when you guys were, what were you doing last week, you were not around, you were skipping the show.

B: Skipping?

E: Yeah I was on a ghost podcast.

B: You skipped us!

S: I gave out the following puzzle, I did. I was out of town, I gave out the following puzzle, and this is an old one I did not make this up. This is a classic example of how bad people are inherently at statistics and mathematics. So this is the puzzle of the gameshow Let's Make a Deal. Basically you have a contestant who's presented with three doors, behind one of the doors is a fabulous prize. They are asked to pick one, the door they think has the prize behind it, they pick one door. The host, on the show Let's Make a Deal, it was Monty Hall. So there are two doors that the person did not pick, he opens one of those two doors, showing that the prize is not there, and then will ask the contestant "do you want to stick with your original choice, or do you want to change your choice to the second door?" The question is what should the contestant do? Should they stick with their original choice, should they change to the other door, or does it not make any difference, meaning it's 50/50 either way?

J: Very interesting.

S: Yeah. It's an interesting problem, and a lot of people, their first instinct is wrong-

E:: Right.

S: -often people, their initial instinct is well, there's two doors, so it's 50/50 still it doesn't matter, but actually the contestant should their pick to the other door. If they stick with their original pick, even though one of the two doors has been revealed, it's still only a 1/3 chance that their original pick is correct. If they change to the other door, the chances go up to 2 out of 3.

B: They double their odds.

S: They double their odds. There's a lot of different ways you can think about this to try and understand why that is true. I think the simple way, for me the simple way is that no matter what door they pick there'll be two doors left, and at least one of those doors will not have the prize behind it. So no matter what door the contestant picks, Monty Hall can still open a door that does not have a prize under it. That's actually does not change the odds in any way.

B: It's a little bit of misdirection, it kind of, you know.

S: Yeah. So it's still those, you see those, the probability that the original pick was correct is still 1/3, the probability that the prize is behind one of those two doors is still 2/3, and in a way you can think that Monty Hall just collapses the 2/3 probability into one door, so-

E: Right.

S: -that door has a 2/3 probability of having the prize.

E: I remember us having a hard time convincing an auditorium full of-

S: Yes.

E: -full of teachers.

B: I was having a hard time doing that, it's not intuitive.

S: It's not intuitive.

J: The problem with is, your brain just says "there's two doors left, it's 50/50."

S: Right.

E: Right.

J: Because you're discounting the first door.

S: Yeah. It's just that our brains are really not hard wired to really be good at statistics and math in this way.

E: Yeah. Steve you said a long time ago on a lecture "people's brains are very good at pattern recognition, but they absolutely suck at probability."

S: Right.

E: And that stuck with me.

B: Here's another way to look at that. This is a decent way to do it. Essentially what Monty Hall is doing here is giving you this option "would you rather pick door one, or doors two and three?"

J: Right.

B: "What would you rather do?" Now obviously, anyone would say "oh I'll take two and three!" That's essentially, that's essentially what he's doing for you right there.

New Puzzle (1:21:57)[edit]

Name the medical pseudoscience that, although now is thoroughly disproved and rejected by mainstream science, at its inception was on the correct side of a major scientific debate of the time.

S: Let's quickly give the puzzle for next week and then we'll give you the answer on next week's show. This is another historical question: Name the medical pseudoscience that, although is now thoroughly disproved and rejected by mainstream science, at its inception was on the correct side of a major scientific debate of its time. Now I have a very specific answer in mind, if any of you think you know the answer to this, send it in, you can email me with the answer. I'd be interested in knowing if I get any responses that are true, that meet all the criteria that I laid out, but that's different than the answer that I have in mind. So, it's possible there's more than one correct answer to this, but I have a very specific answer in mind. Again, a medical pseudoscience that is total bunk, but at the time was on the correct side of a major scientific debate.

Signoff/Announcements (1:22:51)[edit]

J: Steve I have a couple of announcements real quick. On the bulletin board, if you go into the general discussion area, we have a link on there which is very close to the top or second from the top now called Skeptics Guide Contest, where we're asking our listeners to give us ideas for things we can use on marketing material, like T-shirts, hats, mugs, and we're basically looking for witty skeptical sayings or anything that you've heard, or something you've come up with that you think is funny or witty.

S: Yeah what would you like to have on a cap a mug or a T-shirt? Let us know and we'll do it. Well that is all the time that we have guys, thanks for joining me.

B: Great episode.

J: Thanks Steve.

P: Thank ye-yeah.

E: Very good, very good.

S: Always a pleasure, always a pleasure, had a good time.

P: And back to guide you through the universe next week.

S: Yep, thank you.

S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[7]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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