SGU Episode 521

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SGU Episode 521
July 4th 2015
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 520                      SGU 522

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


Jo: Jo Benhamu

Quote of the Week

The problem with today’s world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion AND have others listen to it. The correct statement of individual rights is that everyone has the right to an opinion, but crucially, that opinion can be roundly ignored and even made fun of, particularly if it is demonstrably nonsense!

Brian Cox

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

S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Thursday, June 25, 2015, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey everybody!

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey guys!

S: Evan Bernstein,

E: Good evening, folks!

S: And joining us all the way from Australia, is Jo Benhamu! Jo, welcome to the SGU!

Jo: Hi, Steve; hi everyone!

B: Jo!

E: Hey Jo.

J: How are ya?

Jo: I'm good; how are you, all?

B: Great!

E: Good!

S: You're actually, even though we're talking to you over Skype, you're a lot closer than you usually are. You're on the east coast of the US, visiting.

Jo: That's correct. I'm visiting the States for a couple of weeks, having a bit of a holiday.

B: So, what have you done?

Jo: Well, it's a bit of a family holiday. I've been up to Baltimore, spent a bit of time up there, taken a lot of Amtraks, and enjoyed the lovely summer weather, which is a nice change from Melbourne, which right about now is freezing cold. And, yeah, just hanging out, really.

Special Report (1:08)[edit]

S: So, Jo, give us an update. What skeptical shenanigans are going on down under?

Jo: As the listeners probably know from Richard Saunders giving you fairly regular updates, I think things are usually pretty busy down under. The main thing is I'm dealing with the anti-vaxx community in Australia, which has been a project which has been carried out by a combination of both the Australian Skeptics, Friends of Science in Medicine, and Stop the AVN for years now.

We've been dealing with anti-vaxxers in Australia for decades, much like everyone has, really. I mean, here, they've been around since vaccination's been around.

B: Really? Even way back then, when it was, I would say, more obvious?

Jo: Have you ever seen the cartoon? There's the cartoons where they were saying that people who had smallpox vaccinations, if I remember correctly, because they used the cowpox … but essentially those caricatures of those cartoons showing people turning into cows from having the vaccine.[1]

E: Oh!

B: Oh my god...

Jo: Anti-vaxxers have been around since vaccines were invented. They don't go away, but I have to say, we're doing a really good job in Australia of dealing with them.

B: Sure.

Jo: And Stop the AVN's really been the main force behind that. We started about eight years ago now. Sadly, the catalyst for us starting was the death of a little girl by the name of Dana McCaffery, who caught whooping cough at the age of four months.

She was too young to be vaccinated, and her parents Sarah and David lost her, and unfortunately became the target of the anti-vaccination community, merely for just for the fact that her death was in the media. Meryl Dorey and the group that were then known as the AVN, the Australian Vaccination Network, leapt on to Dana's death, and started targeting the family, and claiming that she hadn't really died of whooping cough, and really engaging in some pretty horrific techniques to kind of question what had happened, question whether she had the diagnosis, and started doing what a lot of anti-vaxxers do to grieving parents who've had children die of vaccine-preventable illnesses, which is to start targeting them, and harassing them, and so on.

And at the time, a number of people, including some from the Australian Skeptics were absolutely outraged at what this family was experiencing. And the group Stop the AVN was formed as a result. And essentially for the last eight years, we've just been plugging away, and just finding every possible avenue we can to get rid of anti-vaxxers in Australia.

It's not like it's something that we just sort of snapped our fingers and got rid of them. It's been a lot of hard work; a lot of dedicated people really just trying to deal with this issue, because they felt passionate about it.

S: Fanaticism really turns people into horrible human beings.

Jo: It does, it does.

S: Because you can justify a lot of nonsense.

Jo: Absolutely! And, look, I have to say, there have been times when … certainly, you look at what groups like the AVN have actually, you know, the techniques they use. There was a recent case in the media where they were … and in fact, this is the kind of thing where the AVN always painted themselves as this very sort of caring organization who cared about the welfare of children, and so on.

But when you looked at their techniques, they often would show their true colors. And they got into a lot of trouble recently when, for the second time, they made a comparison between vaccination and rape. And they used a horrible image of an assault, a woman being assaulted, and made the comparison between that and vaccination. And of course, that outraged a lot of people in the community. And they've really shown their true colors through a lot of that.

But the thing is that even with Stop the AVN, when we first started, we were a group of very angry people. But over time, as we've kind of grown, as we're now … really, we're just a Facebook page. We're not an organization that has sort of a formal membership. But we've got a core group of people who've kind of been working at it all this time.

But initially, we were disorganized, and we were angry. And we sort of had to, we were a diamond in the rough so to speak. But we've had to become more organized and professional as we've realized who's actually listening to us, because we now have the attention of politicians, and the media. We've received praise within the Australian senate, and had ministers contact us, because they're now really aware of the importance of this issue. And we've become a highly effective lobby group.

So, you know, it's redoing that. We've had to kind of give up some of the, I guess, the anger that drove the group initially; had to really recede a little bit to allow us to kind of find our focus, and really gain a better understanding of how we could be more effective.

We've had to think really hard about things like our brand, and what our position are on things. We've gained the support of the media, the Australian Medical Association, a lot of academics and politicians. Our strategy really has been to challenge the AVN everywhere we can. We correct their misinformation on Facebook, and elsewhere on the internet; we're constantly reporting them to government regulators, as we call them, the acronyms. Just generally trying to hold them accountable for what they do.

One of the terms that has come to be used is - and I think it was Dr. Dave Hawkes who actually came up with it – is the concept of the professional anti-vaxxer. The people who really, they make money off of what they do. And it's kind of really important to separate out the difference between these people who are really quite calculating in their actions, and often know that what they're doing is quite despicable; and then the vulnerable parents who are just frightened of hurting their children, and who are susceptible to the misinformation that they're putting out there. As a skeptic, you've got to learn to not belittle and shout down people who are questioning. But you've got to find a way to kind of keep that dialogue open, so that you can help them come around. And with parents who are worried about their kids, that's something that is really hard to do; especially when they find themselves immersed in this culture which is telling them that they're going to damage the children if they vaccinate.

But in terms of our successes, we've had a huge effect in Australia. We've managed to see new legislation come in so there's a recent policy called the “No jab, no pay” policy, which was brought in by the current government.[2] In the past, something that really bothered us was the fact that in Australia, you could get an exemption from vaccinating your kids just by getting a doctor to sign a conscientious objector form.

The problem with this was parents are able to get a tax bonus by being up to date with immunization schedule. This loophole meant that if they got this conscientious objector form signed, they could still get that money without actually vaccinating their kids. And that's just outrageous. That's just basically, you're failing in your social responsibility, and you're getting a bonus for it. So, the government has now stripped that from them.

We've been plugging away at this issue for eight years now, and it's become, through a lot of what the AVN has done, it's become socially unacceptable to hold anti-vax views in Australia. Looking at the landscape in America, I know you guys have got quite a different landscape to deal with in terms of the number of states you've got, the number of people, and various issues around how you deal with the anti-vaxx community,

S: Yeah.

Jo: And I know the groups here are quite different in how they operate.

S: Yeah, although I do think that we are turning a corner, and it is also becoming, as you say, politically unacceptable to be anti-vaccine. They have been marginalized a lot. Although they have their subcultures. There are little pockets where anti-vaccine views are still entrenched.

Jo: And they congregate around similar communities where they are an ideological heartland, where they all sort of congregate. But I mean, you had to have a measles outbreak for that to sort of become part of the conversation again. And in fact, interestingly, that outbreak happened around the same time that we had Sherri Tenpenny coming to Australia. And that was a perfect example of how just really being … the way we've been able to challenge the anti-vaccination crowd is by getting to know them inside out. We know who the people are, we understand how they work, we understand their language. And we're sort of almost there all the time to kind of challenge them wherever they turn up.

S: To get back to something you said previously, I do think that you have to walk a fine line. You do need passion, and sometimes that means anger. You've got the anger at the world, to really have the persistent motivation to put in the years of work trying to change things. But, you really have to be careful about coming off as passionate in your activism because that will be so quickly turned against you. You'll be made to seem like you're the fanatic, when you're just defending science and reason, somehow, you're now the fanatic, because you show …

Jo: Absolutely

S: some passion, yeah.

Jo: Yeah, and I think I always, Carol Tavris has made such an impression on me in the years that I've been involved with skepticism, and she wrote the book, “Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion.” And I remember actually speaking to her; and she talked about the fact that anger is so important for starting a movement, for getting that fire going. But it can't sustain it. This was what got us fired up in the first place. But we very quickly were accused by a lot of people of being fanatics, of being extremists; and it's something that we experience in Friends of Science and Medicine.

It's very easy, even for example, with chiropractors. You've got the straights or the mixers in chiropractic, the ones who believe in subluxation, and so on, and then you've got the chiropractors who are essentially, they are practicing a musculoskeletal therapy, and who should be physical therapists. And you kind of have to make a decision of, do you completely alienate all of them, or do you find a middle ground where you can work with the chiropractors who are more open, who are gonna, for example, on the issue of vaccination, who are gonna be advocates for vaccination, who aren't anti-science?

You've got to kind of not just write everyone off; and you've got to find that ability to say, “Look, we can work together on this, and we can find some common ground.” And picking your battles as well. And certainly with the vaccination issue, it's just really really hard to make sure that you don't alienate people, and come off as just angry, raging activists.

S: Yeah, but I think you guys are clearly doing a great job. You've accomplished quite a bit. One of the real success stories in skeptical activism.

Jo: And it's something we're really proud of, and everything from the changes to legislation, to things like having publications in peer review journals. We've got a paper on HPV by a number of – because we've got a lot of academics involved. And we've had a systematic review published, and a couple of other papers. We've been invited to attend national vaccination advocacy symposiums, and we've had posters at conferences. And we've become a group that people take seriously. And it's no longer, while we are just that group on the internet, on Facebook,

S: Yeah.

Jo: there are people out there who are working really hard, who have developed it into something that is really effective.

S: Well, keep up the good work,

E: Yeah!

S: you guys.

Jo: We will, we will, we don't stop. There's not a minute where we're not thinking about it, and working on it. So, we hope that we can set a bit of an example for other groups.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (13:37)[edit]

Wikipedia: Maria Goeppert-Mayer

S: All right, Bob, we're gonna get started with the regular show. You have a Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: Yes, for this week's Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm covering Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who was an influential physicist, and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for theoretical physics, and the second woman to win at all, after Curie of course. And she did this for her work on nuclear shell structure.

Now, Goeppert-Mayer was born in 1906, and died in 1972. She was interested in science and math, and growing up early in her career. And she ran into a lot of the typical roadblocks that a lot of woman of that era did at that point in history. Schools just flat out would not teach her because of her gender. And some of the early science jobs that she did get were often for no pay at all.

Yet, still, she did leave quite a mark in that field. Her career in just pure mathematics kind of ended voluntarily when she plugged herself into the quantum mathematical community in Europe, where she was exposed to the two greats like Neils Bohr, and Max Born; and she just fell in love with that community so much, and what it was all about, that she actually switched her career to physics.

Now, there are a few high points to her career that are interesting. She wrote a landmark paper on double beta decay, and she also worked for the Manhattan Project, working in the top secret Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. But the one place where I think she really left her mark was in nuclear shell theory.

This theory is … it's a model for how the nuclei of atoms work in terms of their structure and their energy levels. And one of the major mysteries they had to solve at that time was this idea of magic numbers. Now, these magic numbers, the numbers themselves are two, eight, twenty, twenty-eight, fifty, eighty-two, and 126. These numbers correspond to the numbers of protons or neutrons in an atomic nucleus.

So, if you had say, twenty protons in that atom, it would be very, very stable. What that stability actually means though is that you would have to pump in a lot more energy into that nucleus to actually dislodge anything. So that's what they kind of meant by stability. And if you had, say, the protons and the neutrons, each of them having the magic number – say, twenty protons and twenty neutrons – then it would be what's called “Double magic,” because you would be exceedingly stable.

So, what she did to resolve that, is she basically mathematically described this model in such a way that it became more clear what those magic numbers mean, and other characteristics of the nuclei themselves. So it was an incredibly successful model. And for that, she won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1963, along with J. Hans D. Jensen, who came up with a very similar treatment right around the same time; and also Eugene Wigner, who's a very famous physicist. They all contributed, and they all won the prize.

So, remember Maria Goeppart-Mayer. Mention her to your friends,.perhaps when discussing three-dimensional harmonic oscillators, and spin orbit interactions.

E: But not two dimensional ones.

B: No.

E: Don't mention it then.

B: Don't even go there.

S: Bob, what were the magic numbers again?

B: Two, twenty-eight, twenty, fifty, eighty-two, and 126? No, they are not, they are not the Lost numbers if that's what you were thinking.

(Bob and Evan laugh)

S: Because that corresponds to, like, twenty is calcium; twenty-eight is nickel. So that means that those are especially stable elements?

B: Sure.

News Items[edit]

Bionic Lens (17:22)[edit]

S: All right, Jay. You were gonna tell us about a new bionic lens.

J: All right, so I thought that this was, if it's true, this is a pretty damn amazing thing, a pretty awesome advancement in technology, that we're all gonna benefit from. So I'll go through this thing, and then you guys can let me know what you think. I had a few red flags go up when I was reading about it. It sounds awfully promising, but it could be true. So, let's take a deeper dive into this.

So, there's an optometrist in British Columbia named Garth Webb; and he has developed a bionic lens that he says will give patients perfect vision. So Webb has been in development on this project for the past eight years, and he's only spent three million United States dollars on this project, which I thought was not that much if you think about it. Three million bucks for this kind of research doesn't seem like a lot of money. But I don't know. You never know why the dollars weren't above that, but that's what he spent.

He calls it the Ocumetics bionic lens. Those of you who get it, Evan, I'm sure you're gonna run out and get this. You'll never need glasses or contact lenses again.

E: (Chuckles) Where are my glasses?

B: But Jay, but Jay what do you mean by – you said “perfect vision.” What does that actually translate to? What does that mean?

J: Well, okay, so they're claiming this will give you three times the quality of 20/20 vision. So, how would you translate that, Bob?

S: I would translate that as bullshit.

(Jay laughs)

B: Well, yeah. If that were the case, that would be the equivalent of, instead of 20/20 vision, you would have 20/6.6. And that means that what the average person with 20/20 vision could see at six and a half feet, you could see it at twenty feet. So that's dramatic.

E: Whoa!

B: That's actually so dramatic that it exceeds what's possible with normal human eyes. Because I think 20/8 is the biological limit of what people can see. If you have the best vision, it's 20/8. If this is actually 20/6.6, then that is truly remarkable. And I guess you could call it bionic, because it's really augmenting what's possible.

J: Yeah.

B: So, that's cool, if it's true.

S: Which it probably isn't.

J: They also said that this bionic lens actually replaces your eye's existing lenses. So this eliminates the possibility of getting cataracts because a cataract is the blurring of that lens that you have. It's supposed to be clear, but as you get older, and for certain reasons, that lens can turn cloudy. This of course, you know, they whip out that lens, they put a new bionic lens, and you have perfect vision again.

So, anybody can get these, regardless of age, except that Dr. Webb recommends that people don't get them until they're twenty-five, because that's when your eyes are supposed to be fully developed. Each lens has to be custom made for

B: That old? Wow.

J: each of the patient's eyes, right? They insert them into your eye, folded over, so it's kind of like a taco-shape. They make a sub 2.7 millimeter incision with the aid of a femtosecond laser.

So then it gets in your eye, and ten seconds after they put it in there, it opens itself up and flattens out, right? So, if you're a little bit queasy, you might not want to hear this next thing, but they use this syringe to stick in your eye, and they squirt it in there. It's pretty nasty.

The entire procedure takes only eight minutes, Evan. What the hell? That's pretty fast for them cutting my eye open, and swapping out my lens.

E: It's like cooking with a microwave; I like it.

B: Jay, just so you know, a femtosecond is pretty damn fast. We're talking one quadrillionth of a second, or a millionth of a billionth. So, that's very fast. But not the fastest. I think they actually have attosecond.

J: Well, I'll tell ya, Bob,

E: Picosecond.

J: if I'm getting my driver's license renewed, and I'm on that line, I get bored in a femtosecond. I hate being there.

(Bob laughs)

J: All right, so this bionic eye is made of a bio-compatible polymetric material, which I think sounds awesome. Guess what that means? It just won't, your body won't reject it. It has camera-like optics, and it can shift focus from optical infinity – which is cool-sounding – to a very close range, more rapidly than the perceptual limits of the human brain, according to the company. That was a very impressive statement.

B: That is. And that's, I think, one of the cruxes of this new technology, I think. Because, if they're just slipping this in to the eye, without any mention of actually attaching it to muscles and things, I just don't know how it could possibly know that it needs to focus, and that it would actually achieve any focus. So without that question being answered, it just raises my skeptical alarms even more. But that's just my thought.

S: That's the actual only new bit here. I mean, taking out a lens, and putting in a fake lens is old news. That's how you treat cataracts now!

B: Well yeah. I agree, Steve. But from what Jay is saying, it seems like the optical clarity is probably better with this than those as well.

S: Why?

B: Well, because even if you put in a replacement lens, a non-bionic replacement lens, I don't think … so we talked about this earlier. We said that you could probably focus at a distance very well, but then you would need glasses for close up, because it doesn't focus.

S: Yeah.

B: But even with your long-distance vision, I don't think it would be the equivalent of 20/6 vision. I think it would be good...

S: No, no, no. So, first of all, the 20/6.6 vision, that to me just sounds like complete bullshit. I have no idea how...

B: Totally could.

S: a lens will even do that. The only thing a lens can do is correct refractive problems, and lens problems. So, yeah, it'll treat or prevent cataracts, fine. But other than that, the best it could do is give you perfect refractive vision. Why would that give you better than 20/20 vision? There's no explanation to that.

B: Well, what about the quality of the image that's focused on your fovea? Can't there be a range of quality?

S: But why would that be better than a young, healthy lens?

B: Biological lenses are not perfect optical devices. They've got imperfections and things with them that are just because they're biological. They're not...

S: Yeah, I don't buy it. I don't buy it.

B: Well, okay.

S: They give no explanation of why that would be. There's no details. There's absolutely no explanation on the company's website, on anything that's published. There's nothing published in the scientific literature about this at all. We're basically getting a promotional press release from a company who is still in development. Or they have it, but it hasn't been tested on people. They need to do clinical trials. So what are they basing these claims on? It's wishful thinking and marketing.

But the big thing, the big thing is they give absolutely zero indication of what the technology actually is. How is it possible that this lens can change its focus? Now, there are three different types of lenses you could put into an eye in cataract surgery. One basically is just a fixed, monofocal lens. It focuses essentially in the distance, and then you wear reading glasses.

You could have what are essentially multi-focal lenses, like bifocal glasses, that could focus far and close up. But they're not perfect, and people will often need to wear corrective lenses in any case.

And then there are lenses that can correct for things like astigmatism. That's it. There's no such thing as lens that could change its focus. So, if that's what he's claiming, then that's huge! That is a completely new technology, and he's just asserting it. He's just saying, “I have a lens that can do this,” without giving even the slightest explanation for how the technology actually works.

And it doesn't seem possible that such a simple operation – eight minutes, you just squirt it into the eye, it unfolds, and takes up shop, it just sort of fits in the cavity where the lens fits. Again, that's standard. But, okay, and then what? How is this little piece of lens that folds up and can unfold, how does that change its focus?

I can't imagine how it would work, and the company gives us no indication how it does work. They might as well have said it's magic. Not holding my breath. Not holding my breath.

J: I'm not either, because it does sound like it's so good, and everything about it is so epically awesome that I very rarely combine those two words. But they are really making phenomenal claims here.

Jo: I suppose, given that it's seemingly such a leap ahead from existing technology, it's strange that there's little on what the technology actually is.

S: There's no paper trail, there's no research trail, this guy doesn't have much of a trail himself, other than that he runs an optometry clinic in Canada, and he's got some patents to his name. But nothing! There's no trail leading up to this. And again, if they said, “Ah! This is the technology. This is the new bit. This is how we did it,” without giving away trade secrets, some indication of what kind of technology we're talking about, but we don't even have that! I just see no reason to take this seriously.

J: They said that they are gonna be running clinical trails soon, and that Canada and Europe is about two years away from it being used. And the US, FDA clearance is three years after that. And the early estimates are that it would be about $3200 dollars per eye.

E: That's a wild boast. I think clinical trials, and

S: Well that's if the clinical trials go well, so it's a huge if. It's like, “If I win the lottery.” And, I think that price, Jay, is not including the surgery. That's just the price of the lens.

Jo: Yeah, I was gonna say, (chuckles).

E: Wow.

B: Materials cost.

S: Yeah.


J: And I gotta ask the doctor a question, because I want to know if I actually zoom in on stuff with this. Could you imagine?

(Bob laughs)

S: Well, if the wild ass claims are true, this is an actual bionic lens that could focus, that could magnify, then there's no limit! Then yeah, then except for how much you can miniaturize it, sure you could theoretically get zoom-in vision.

J: Okay!

E: Go for broke at this point. But like you said, we've got nothing right now.

S: We just have an extraordinary claim in a corporate press release, looking for investors, and saying that they plan on doing clinical trials. This is worth almost nothing.

J: It's undoubtedly dubious, but I hope it's true.

S: Yeah, I hope that EM drive works too. I hope that every free energy claim is true, but none of them are true. I'm not holding my breath. This is not a free energy claim, but it's almost. It's not impossible, but it's claiming such a leap forward in technology with nothing to even hang your hat on. It might as well be. All right, let's move on.

Inside Out Brain Metaphors (28:19)[edit]

S: We're gonna do a sort of movie review. I saw the movie “Inside Out,” Pixar's new movie for the summer. This is a very cute story, like all of Pixar's movies. I highly recommend it; I very much enjoyed it. Basically, it's a story of an eleven year old girl who's going through some stuff in her life. But the new bit, the clever bit with the movie is that you get to peek inside her head, and see the inner functionings of her mind. Of course, played out through cute, cartoony metaphors, right?

But what I found was interesting was the thought experiment of, if you wanted to create a metaphor for the inner workings of the brain, and you wanted to make it really neuroscientifically accurate, how would you do it?

So, let me tell you what the Pixar writers did. So, first of all, he did say that they did a lot of research, and they tried to be as accurate as they could, although they made a lot of choices for the drama and entertainment value and plot of the movie. Being a good movie came first, and being accurate came second. And that's fine. This is not criticism. I totally get that this is not a neuroscience primer; it's a movie!

Again, just as a jumping off point for a thought experiment about what kind of metaphor, what would you craft? So, the main component of the inner workings of the brain that they were showing was the command center, right? Like the central command center of the brain, which is actually a pretty terrible metaphor, because there is no such thing as a command center, really. There's no centralized location where memories get played back, and where the control panel is. Consciousness is distributed. It's more like a committee all over the brain, sort of all vying for attention.

And there was, they chose five primary emotions: Joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. They said while they were doing research for the movie, they talked to psychologists, to experts, and they got all kinds of different answers. Everywhere from three to twenty-seven in terms of how many emotions there are.

B: Wow! Not much consensus there, is there?

S: Yeah. Twenty-seven different emotions. But then they whittled it down to five, just for simplicity, just for again, for the sake of the movie itself. But there were some, like, surprise was one. They said, surprise, any gag they would have for surprise, they could pretty much run off of fear, and so that's why they just sort of got rid of surprise, because it was dramatically redundant, again, regardless of whether it was appropriate for the metaphor.

So anyway, the different emotions, when the girl was happy, joy was at the controls, and then that would tinge the controls, joyous. And when she was angry, anger was at the controls. So, I kind of like that metaphor, where different emotions will be dominant at different times, you know, thinking of the idea. Like when you're out of control with anger, anger is at the controls of your brain. I think that's fine. That's a fine metaphor.

What was entirely missing, however, was executive function. So, it's like, half the brain was missing.

(Bob laughs)

S: So you had the deep, primitive, lizard brain emotions were there.

B: Limbic system!

S: The limbic system. But where was the frontal lobes? Where was the executive function, which should be at war, essentially, trying to control those more primitive impulses. I would have liked a metaphor where you had, if you're gonna have the limbic system, where different emotions were at the controls, that would work. It wouldn't be the command center though. It would be a little bit deeper down. But then there should be executive control upstairs that actually had control over the emotions, although emotions were rebellious. They would sometimes, the executive function doesn't always control the emotions.

B: They could have had a big hand come down, and just …

S: Yeah!

B: hold the emotions. Like, “No, I'm gonna control right now. Sorry, I'm not gonna listen to you.”

S: Yeah, there was a lot of cute things they could have done with that if they wanted to go in that direction. I thought of, I would have loved, so if you think of executive function as the King or a Queen, up in the head office upstairs, with the rebellious emotions downstairs, always trying to make trouble; and then the King has a Gríma Wormtongue standing behind him, whispering in his ear, and that would be a metaphor for rationalization, right?

So it's like, “Oh anger wants to do this, but I know it's not the right thing to do.” But then Grima's like, “Yeah, but if we did, we could do this. And this would be okay.” You know what I mean? So, rationalizing how to accommodate the planning part of your brain with the emotional part of your brain.

Jo: See, I just get the old guy with the broom, and the noisy kids upstairs; and him just banging on the ceiling and telling them to keep it down.

B: Quiet down!


S: Yeah. So that was interesting. I liked the … some of their metaphor that they used for memories was okay, but they were essentially hard glass spheres, right? Each memory was a discrete glass sphere. That doesn't really represent memories. I mean, it would have been much better if they were like soap bubbles, or amorphous blobs that could …

B: Change.

S: merge with each other, and were morphing …

E: Yes.

S: every time you tried to access a memory, you would change it and morph it, yeah. That would have been … memory should have been more fluid, not just discrete glass balls. And then not only that, not only were these solid immobile things, but you can replay the memory in perfect fidelity over and over again.

E: That doesn't happen.

S: So, completely the wrong metaphor for memory.

Jo: I think a lava lamp would be quite a nice one...

S: Yeah.

Jo: because you could have that thing...

J: Yeah!

Jo: but it's constantly changing. It's the same structure, but it's constantly changing.

S: Yeah, it should be semi-stable, right? Not totally unstable.

B: Yeah.

S: But they've got to have the ability to morph, and to merge, and all that kind of stuff that memories do.

B: That's just something that our culture in general has just not internalized yet.

S: Yeah.

B: The quality of memories, and what they're really like, and how malleable they are. We're just not there yet. People just, the average person just does not appreciate that effect.

E: Yeah, but we think we do. We think our memories are practically infallible.

S: Um hmm.

E: That's the catch.

B: Like a video tape, store it away! Just like those glass spheres. That's how, that's the conception of it. But as skeptics, we know that's

Jo: It's one of those things that's incredi... again, it's that whole thing of challenging peoples' perceptions, challenging peoples' memory is something that's incredibly difficult to do.

S: Yeah, yeah.

E: Which is why we live in... one of the advantages of living in the age we live in today is that so many things are recorded. And I think that helps over all. You can go back and, “Let's see the video tape, and let's see what really happened.” So I think there's an advantage there.

Jo: It doesn't matter if it's recorded. You're still not gonna convince them that orb isn't an orb.


J: Steve, how do you think they settled on the emotions that they picked?

S: I think just for dramatic effect, you know what I mean?

E: The best ones they could write around ...

S: They wanted ones that would be different enough that there wouldn't be dramatically redundant, but that would be basic emotions.

B: And that would lend themselves to a cute characterization, a cute character, right?

E: Yeah.

S: Yeah, like disgust was fine, but why disgust? I agree that that's actually a much over-looked emotion that's very important. I actually like that choice.

Jo: Do each of the emotions have their own character arc? Because that's also what would feed into how they'd write, make those decisions around, you know, if you've got too many characters, it's a matter of how you actually can (inaudible)

S: Yeah, that's why they chose five. They were the five main characters of the show, were the five emotions. Yeah, absolutely.

J: And do they interact, Steve?

S: Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah.

B: Oh yeah.

S: They were like people.

E: Hey, Jo, this is like the old television show from the nineties, Herman's Head.

(Steve laughs)

Jo: I love that show.

B: Ha! Ha!

Jo: That's one of my favorite shows of all time! I love it!

E: That was funny.

B: Now Steve, did they give any insight into other characters' heads in the movie?

S: Yeah. You would pop into other peoples' heads at different times in the movie. It was mainly...

B: Any differences?

S: Yeah. And that's interesting, is they... so how could you represent the differences among people by the different ways the inside of their heads look? So, the control panels would be different, would be more elaborate for older people. In fact, I love the fact that the infant's control panel was a single button.

B: Ha!

S: Right? So you either had, either Joy was pushing the button, or sadness was pushing the button. Another one, so each memory was tainted with the color of one emotion. So you had angry memories, and sad memories, and happy memories. But then, when she got older, you had memories that were combinations of emotions. Then she would have both an angry and happy memory at the same time.

B: Interesting.

S: So more emotionally complicated, which I get that. But I thought there should have been more emotions. They should have allowed more interaction.

E: Yes, as many as twenty-seven emotions.

S: Yes, that's right. The control panels get more sophisticated, the memories got more complex. And then the other main metaphor that they use, and this is really a major part of the movie, was they had core memories, which has no real analogue in neuroscience. And the core memories established personality islands, right? So, the main constructs of our personality, like her family, her love for her family, was based upon a core memory of being with her mother and her father.

So that was, I thought, that was totally contrived, and not real! I think that that's not a good metaphor for accuracy. Personality in the movie was based entirely on memories. There was an implicit blank slate assumption in that metaphor.

B: No environment

E: Yeah, that's not right.

S: We're born completely blank, and then it's only our memories – our exposure to the environment – that establishes our personality. And without those core memories, like the personality literally goes away. Whereas, in reality, a lot of your personality is just genetic, and hardwired. It's just there.

J: So they start that them with a blank slate, Steve?

S: Well, that's the implicit assumption, yes.

B: That environment is everything.

S: Environment is everything, yeah.

E: Well, think about an animator's perspective on things. That is sort of how they approach all things. Everything is a blank slate, and then you start drawing...

S: But imagine this...

E: or you start sculpting, or whatever.

S: How about this metaphor: That the personality could have been represented by something like the architecture of the structures inside the brain

B: Yes, I like it!

S: and that was more fixed.

B: I like it.

S: So, yeah, the way the things were created. How neat and tidy it was, and how, whatever. You could make, the environment could be completely different. And not completely immutable, but pretty hardwired in there. And it would change only slowly, not the kind of thing like, “Oh! That core memory's gone, or tainted, so that changes your whole personality.”

B: Right. So, if they showed a kid, the environment for a kid's mind could be a little bit more malleable and amorphous, but if it's an older person's mind, it's like stone. This is not gonna change, right?

S: (Laughs) Right. So, anyway, it was, there was lots of cute bits in there. They did … certainly did not explore that metaphor for all it was worth, because they didn't have time. And I've read, doing my research for this segment, that there was a ton of stuff. They wrote a ton of stuff that never made it into the movie.

But I'll give you my favorite bit, my favorite bit that they did keep. At one point there's a box...

E: What's in the box?

S: There's a box of these chips, that are labeled “opinions.” And there's another box labeled, “facts.” And they get spilled, and they get all mixed up.

B: Aaa!

S: And one of the characters says, “Just put them back. That happens all the time.”

J: Oh my god!


J: What a great idea!

B: Awesome!

S: Yeah, that was cute.

J: (Laughing) That's awesome!

E: Yay, Pixar, another hit.

S: It was a great movie. Again, I recommend it. It was very cute, very fun. And again, do not email me and say, “Steve, it was just a movie.” I know that. I get it. You need to get, I'm just using it as an excuse to talk about metaphors for how the brain works, how the mind works. And that's it.

E: Fine, I'll delete the email.

J: Why do you care?

S: Yeah.

E: Yeah, I'm typing it now.

S: Don't read the...

J: Steve, you rotten bastard, Steve!

E: You totally …

J: We don't know what the heck you're talking about.

S: Don't read the Facebook comments, when I posted about it.

E: Oh no! Bad for your health!

S: Yeah.

J: All right, so...

Jo: I read comments with one eye open.

E: Oh, gosh!

J: All right, so go see this movie? Yes or no.

S: Oh yeah, absolutely. Very, very cute.

B: I can't wait. It's Pixar! You really don't need any other reason.

(Commercial: 41:13 – 42:19)

Pyramid on Mars (42:19)[edit]

S: All right, Evan. I understand there are pyramids on Mars, and the largest asteroid, Ceres.

E: That is correct! And they both made the news this past week. Well, let's start with Mars. So, I read about this in The Mirror, the online news rag.

S: Oh boy.

E: (Laughs) Unfortunately. Occasionally they have some interesting stuff, but here's how their headline reads: “NASA's Curiosity rover spots PYRAMID on Mars.” And I say pyramid that way because it's in all caps, And then the second part of that headline is, “Is it proof of an ancient civilization?” That ancient civilization notion idea, that's ridiculous. Obviously and frankly, it's just eye candy, just to make you click on the headline, in case the PYRAMID didn't get you at first.

S: But Evan, the Daily Mail also repeats the story, so there you go.

E: Well, you know, that's what they do! Yes, in fact, the Curiosity rover has taken many, many, many, many photos on the Martian surface, and all sorts of things, it has revealed. In this particular picture, it, well, have you guys seen the picture?

S: Yes.

E: There is some sort of pyramidish-looking either protrusion coming up from out of the sand, or something that is sitting on top of the sandy surface. We've heard about all sorts of crazy stuff on Mars before. We've seen images that appear to be for example an iguana, or a forest of trees...

S: Or Bigfoot.

E: And Bigfoot, in fact! Yes, so, those are zany and impossible, as far as I'm concerned. But something that looks like a pyramid on Mars, I think is one of the least zany and perhaps impossible things that I can think of that has ever been suggested as on the Martian surface.

According to the article itself, they pretty much concentrated on what the conspiracy theory crowd sort of had to say about this. They kind of went right to that source. And they got lots of funny, interesting quotes. You know, here's one that says, “It is the result of intelligent design, and certainly not a trick of light and shadow.”

J: Huh! Really? (Laughs) That's awesome!

E: Among many, many other comments.

J: And science will never disprove this comment!

E: How about we talk about some things that are much more plausible, such as, for example, a rock, or a large boulder. Or, like I said, some protrusion of rock substance coming up from under the sand.

S: The thing is, if you look at the big photo, the photo of the surrounding scene, it's clearly just a freakin' rock. It's on the side of a hill. It's not even flat. You know what I mean? The ground is sloped. And there's all kinds of a jumble of rocks there. This is just one that happened to be caught at an angle, where it is a trick of the light! It's exactly what it is!

E: That's exactly, right. You're right, Steve, it is (inaudible)

S: It's just a rock, clearly.

E: But why should that interfere with a perfectly good headline that reads, “It's proof of ancient civilization.”

B: When I looked at it, I didn't look at the big picture. I looked at the smaller picture. And my first reaction...

J: You never look at the big picture, Bob.

B: Yeah, right. My reaction was that it was fake. That it was photoshopped, that it looked too much …

S: Yeah

B: like they took a pyramid, and just threw it in there. I'll take a look at the big picture. But that was my take on the small picture.

S: Yeah, if you zoom in on the tiny picture, and you don't really have a sense of scale, you think it's like a structure. You could think, “Oh, that's actually somewhat impressive.” But when you see the big picture, it's clearly just a freakin' rock.

E: And it's not like a pyramid-shaped rocks don't exist, naturally.

S: Also, it's not the whole thing. It's just a corner of a rock, that's sticking out of the ground, you know what I mean?

E: We have this one picture from this one angle. Really, you can't judge anything by that.

Jo: There are so many possibilities of how it could be, assuming it was the shape that it is, there are so many possibilities of how that could happen. It could simply be that a piece of another rock has been cleaved off, and that's what's left.

S: If you look at the other rocks in the photograph, there's a lot of flat surfaces. There's even another rock that looks sort of like a pyramid, except the top is broken off a little bit. This is the type of flat surfaces, this, whatever this mineral is is forming. The other thing is this is totally the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy, right? You're looking at, there's hundreds of rocks in this one photo. You're looking at thousands of photographs. The possibilities are endless. And then anything that looks interesting, that's your bullseye.

It's not like they went looking specifically for pyramids. They went looking for anything interesting. And so they completely underestimate the probability that given enough chances, you're gonna find something that meets the vague criteria of “interesting,” and that's all that this is.

E: And guess what? You don't even have to go to Mars to do this. You can just look around your own planet and find these exact sort of similar shapes and rocks that kind of look like pyramids and are pointy.

S: Yeah.

E: Ancient civilizations need not apply. So that one's done.

Lone Mountain on Ceres (47:28)[edit]

E: Moving on to Ceres. Yes, very large asteroid. Dwarf planet? No? Yes?

S: Yes, it's a dwarf planet.

B: It's a dwarf planet, yes. Used to be thought to be a planet, actually, but...

S: It was a planet briefly. It's still an asteroid. It's still the largest asteroid, but it's also a dwarf planet.

E: Now, Steve, you mentioned the Daily Mail earlier.

S: (Chuckling) Yeah.

E: Here's how their headline reads: “Pyramid,” which are in quotes, “spotted on Ceres. Mysterious lone mountain discovered towering over the surface of the dwarf planet.” And reading this article, I thought it was an interesting contrast to what was happening over at The Mirror. They actually did not consult the conspiracy theorists for their opinion as to what was going on. No, they actually spoke with some scientists. So this is a much better article, as it turns out!

What's happening is that as the Dawn probe, or Dawn, the spacecraft, approaches Ceres, and is bound to get closer and closer. As the upcoming months go by, it's taking more and more photographs. And of course, this is the one where they have the shot of Ceres. And you can kind of see along the horizon, there's this protrusion! It's, well, a mountain, in fact! And they estimate it to be five kilometers tall! That's a big mountain.

The reason it's special is because there are no other mountains around it. In fact, it's on what would be considered a relatively flat part of the dwarf planet. So, that's interesting! What is it doing there? And how did it get there? And why the lonely mountain? And why not a mountain range? Well, basically, we don't know. Hopefully, as Dawn gets closer, and takes more high resolution photographs, we'll learn some more about it.

But there are lots of reasons why mountains, or even lone mountains, can possibly appear on a planet, or an asteroid.

S: Yeah, but that's a genuine mystery, because it doesn't really fit the usual explanations. Like, it's not in the middle of a crater. There's none of the uplifting that would explain, it's not part of a mountain range. So, yeah, right, at the moment, from what I've read, astronomers really don't know how to explain it. Doesn't mean it's magic, or intelligent aliens, or whatever. It just means that, “Oh, that's a curious geological feature that's not immediately obvious how to explain how it arose. That's a genuine mystery. Much like the bright spot on Ceres. I can't wait to figure out what the hell that is.

E: Yeah.

B: It's pretty cool.

E: Yeah, they took some new images of the bright spot, and it's actually a series of spots.

S: Yeah.

E: Not just one; it's several. And again, as we get closer, as Dawn gets closer, it's right now at about 4400 kilometers above the surface. But come December of this year, it will be a mere, say, 250 kilometers above the surface. So we're gonna get some much better photographs, and be able to really get a better handle on what the mountain's all about, what the bright lights are about, and who knows what else will turn up? But like you said, Steve, these are the cool mysteries of science that keep scientists sort of on the edge of their seats …

S: Absolutely

E: and guessing, and speculating on lots of different things. This is good stuff.

J: I think it's just a reflective, probably metal or something that was exposed.

S: Or ice, or something.

B: Or salt, I think salt.

E: Could be salt.

S: Now, CNN covers this story. They have a picture of the bright spot on Ceres. And next to that, a picture of Los Vegas from space at night; and it looks the same!

E: You mean, like if they were to superimpose one over the other?

S: Therefore, they look not the same in shape. They look the same in, it looks like a bright blob. Therefore, it must be a city.

E: Or a series of casinos.

B: CNN did that?

S: Yeah. I have to say, Ceres is turning out to be more interesting than I thought it was going to be.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: A couple of genuine mysteries, because you figure, yeah, an asteroid. It's just a big rock. We're gonna see it's cratered, little planetoid. But no, there's some cool stuff there.

Dumbest Thing of the Week[edit]

Guitar Pick Caused My Cancer (51:28)[edit]

S: We have a couple of Dumbest Things of the Week this week. Very quickly, the first one, which was my first pick for it, but then it got supplanted by another one. But I'm still gonna mention it. So, Eddie Van Halen, you guys are big Eddie Van Halen fans, right?

Jo: Oh yeah.

S: One of the best rock guitarists.

E: Sure.

S: And he, a few years ago, developed tongue cancer, which apparently, he's doing well, recovering from it. But what came out recently is during an interview he said, now, even though he was a smoker for many years, he blamed his tongue cancer on putting metal guitar picks in his mouth in the studio, and the electromagnetic waves sort of getting into his mouth...

B: Oh boy.

S: the brass or copper guitar picks.

E: Ooh. Uh huh. Well, if it was a lead pick, maybe he'd have some sort of point. But no, not leads.

B: Or a pick that was dipped in cancer or something?

E: (Laughing) Dipped in cancer!

S: Or if it was like asbestos. But yeah, so just interesting. Maybe there's a little bit of denial in there, assumption of cause and effect. Probably why do people go for the interesting and obscure rather than, yeah, you smoked for decades.

Jo: Well, Eddie Van Halen's got a bit of a history though with the bit of flawed thinking. He went on some kind of fad diet a couple years ago, and I think he ended up with a perforated bowel as a result.[3] So...

S: Really?

Jo: He's got a little bit of a history going a bit of a (inaudible)

E: Oops. Not thinking critically.

Jo: But I did get to see him play recently, and it was damn good, so...

S: He's an amazing guitarist.

J: I've seen Van Halen several times, they are awesome. Eddie Van Halen is a kook.

(Steve laughs)

J: And if you read any of Sammy Hagar's stories, or whatever, he and his brother, the drummer in the band, they smoked, like, they chain smoke!

S: Yeah.

J: And the entire day, every day. That's it. And for him to think it had nothing to do with the thing that I do that causes cancer, and mouth cancer.

S: Yeah.

J: For him to have to come up with some other thing is so ridiculous, it blows my mind.

S: Hence, the Dumbest Thing of the Week.

Evolution caused mass murder: (53:41)[edit]

S: But, I saw something today I had to include, because it's just so outrageous. You know, unfortunately, we had another mass murder in this country? Dylann Roof decided to go into a black church in South Carolina, hang out for an hour, and then shoot up the place. And he killed nine people I believe, correct? Horrible, just horrible.

And the kid is, according to his own writing, his own manifesto, he is a horrible, racist, and white supremacist, and he felt he needed to kill black people because they're ruining the world, that sort of thing. I'm just … real hardcore KKK-style racist.

E: Pure hate.

S: So some commentators on the right are doing some mental gymnastics to try to correlate his behavior with anything else that they can come up with. One of the worst – this is just absolutely despicable – this comes from Evolution News and Views from the Disco Tute, right? The Discovery Institute, the cesspit of intelligent design. This is a writer, David Klinghoffer, who somehow managed to make a connection between Dylan Roof's massacre and evolution.

E: What?

S: So, yeah. Wow. It's just totally ridiculous. Get this. So, apparently the white supremacist who was in Dylan Roof's group, or was the head of his group, also heads another group. And this other group, which Roof was not a part of, as part of their rhetoric, they justified their racism with bad evolutionary arguments. White people are evolutionarily superior to black people, basically. So, that's it.

So, apparently, this kid's head was full of evolutionary thinking when he shot up that church in South Carolina.

E: Of course, because we all know evolution is the root of all evil thoughts.

S: It's just...

E: It all starts there.

S: ridiculous. And of course, he's still trying to tie evolution to Hitler, and eugenics, and all that stuff. And racism is, somehow it's the result of evolution, which is historically nonsense. There was plenty of Biblical justifications for racism. And a lot of KKK and racist used the Bible to justify their racism.

And eugenics was based more on breeding than evolutionary theory. And in any case, it doesn't matter if somebody abuses a scientific theory for a stupid reason, it says nothing about the validity of that scientific theory. It's all just ridiculous nonsense. But the blatant intellectual dishonesty, it's really disgusting. And it's totally on display at the Discovery Institute.

They have much closer ties to racism than anything that evolution does. And of course, it's irrelevant. It doesn't say anything about the scientific evidence. But it just shows that they are engaged not in science, but in a hit job on evolution, because that's their job, is to...

E: Sure.

S: to oppose evolution because it conflicts with their religious beliefs. That's what they're doing.

E: Yup. They'll say anything.

S: Apparently. Apparently they will.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Skeptical Lessons (57:04)[edit]

S: We have one question this week. This comes from Dominic. And Dominic writes:

I really enjoy listening to your show and especially guidelines on how to discuss skeptical topics with family & friends. It's often very hard when you have a wife who is a fan of homeopathy (very common in France), a sister in law who is against GMOs, a best friend who is really into astrology. I have taken to heart your advice to not just laugh at their beliefs, but instead engage in a discussion, even though we come back to the usual debate points (but I know homeopathy works for me!). I was wondering if I should not start by discussing some baby steps in critical thinking, such as confirmation bias, the importance of double blinded trials, looking at more than one experiment, fishing for positives... What would you say are the top four to five conversations to have, that would pave the way for a better critical discussion later on? Thanks and keep up the good work!

Alright, so we each get one. So, everyone, pick, if you could tell Dominic one critical thinking lesson to try to implant in his family members, to lay the groundwork, and plant those seeds of critical thinking, that he could then bear fruit later on, what would you pick?

J: We have to talk about how to begin this process of trying to help someone, and that I think the first step is, find common ground. Find something that you could talk to each of them about as an individual, that they don't have any value to. So, as an example, the brother in-law, he said, or the friend that believes in astrology, might actually think that homeopathy is BS, or not even care about homeopathy. So talk to him homeopathy first, and get a common ground.

So you could start teaching scientific principles with something that he doesn't care about, or something that is in an interesting discussion that you could then elevate his thinking. Elevate his processing and his logic in that area.

S: Yeah, I agree. Find something that he really doesn't believe in, that they are very skeptical of. And then spend time exploring that skepticism. And you could say things, “Well, all right, you don't believe in Bigfoot. You think Bigfoot is BS. Okay. Well, how do you explain people who see Bigfoot?” And then that opens a doorway to how unreliable firsthand accounts are, eye-witnesses, faulty memories, faulty perceptions, all of that. Poor scientific rigor. You can bring a lot of things into that discussion, and they'll agree with you, and you can educate them about a lot of critical thinking principles on a topic on which you have common ground. I totally agree with that.

Jo: I think that's somewhat similar to what I find quite useful, and I tend to think that we assume a basic level of knowledge that isn't remotely close to what the average person actually understands about science. So, I think sometimes you can find yourself going into those discussions about randomized controlled trials, and logical fallacies, and so on. But even when we talk about things like evidence, those very, very basic terms that you might be familiar with, as a sort of hardened skeptic, are things the layperson out there really sees from a completely different standpoint than what you do.

So, I avoid going straight into trying to teach them any of those techniques, or about logical fallacies. And I actually, first I tried, I think it's important to try and empathize with the person, and have more of that, putting yourself on the same level as them, and perhaps using an experience that you've had, where your own thinking has been flawed, as a way to demonstrate to them how you have actually got to a process of seeing something differently.

So, you know, it could be something like, okay, I suppose it's kind of a big one, that I wouldn't necessarily use for say, something like homeopathy or astrology, but I can think about the fact that I used to think that climate change wasn't real. And I have kind of through a process of thinking about that, and seeing things differently, I've changed my mind. So, I often find it's useful to sort of just try and introduce them to the process you went through to change your mind about something, or to see something differently, without necessarily drawing them straight into the complicated issues around the scientific process that a lot of people just struggle with.

S: Bob, I know what you're gonna say.

B: Yes, Steve, you probably are. For me, I think it's absolutely key to understand the real nature of human memory and perception. Memories aren't recordings. Like we were talking with that Pixar movie. They're not little video tapes in your mind that are just absolute and pure. And the idea that's really important, I think, is that the reality that we think is absolutely real, it's an active construction.

S: Yeah.

B: It's not a passive recording. It's an active process that changes with time! So, I think once you have that understanding of how fallible we really can be for lots of important detail, I think that is a very good, initial point to start for breaking down your sacred cows.

S: I agree. People, if they really embrace an understanding of the constructed nature of perception and memory, our concept of reality, that would go a long way, I think, to diffusing a lot of belief. What do you got, Evan?

E: Carl Sagan once said, so perfectly, “Science delivers the goods.”

S: Yeah.

E: So, an understanding that the core of science is in fact the scientific method, you can then accept that for what it is because we have all these incredible things, down to the medicines we take! And that is applicable to everything! And that's how we know what works, and what doesn't work. How we know what's real, and what turns out not to be real.

S: I agree with that, Evan. But, that's probably the most challenging one, because the problem with that is that you basically have to teach people science. There's a lot that goes into that, because ninety percent of the way along that process of understanding how science works, they're still gonna be vulnerable to pseudoscience, right? They're gonna believe in homeopathy, and think homeopathy is scientific until they get to a very sophisticated level of understanding science.

What the research shows, is that you basically need to get to a post-graduate level of understanding science before your belief in pseudoscience really starts to diminish.

E: But I'm not even talking about explaining to them biology, or chemistry, or any of the sciences that we learn in the classrooms. I'm just trying to take some practical every day things, and make a lesson out of it.

S: I understand that, but I'm saying that that's a good thing to do, but that's the hardest. You may need to focus on the specific area that you're interested in. Like if they're interested in homeopathy, you may need to lay the groundwork about what clinical trials are, and the placebo effect. And you might need to put a few pieces of specific scientific knowledge together, and then try to bring it all together around homeopathy.

Either that or you just need to go for an appreciation for how to understand what the scientific consensus is. And then say, “Okay, let's find out now what the scientific consensus is on homeopathy.” You know what I'm saying?

So that might actually be a good approach as well, but just a blanket appreciation for science and the scientific method unfortunately isn't enough. It actually makes people believe more in pseudoscience, because it opens...

Jo: Especially if you look at, for example, a lot of the courses out there in those pseudosciences, they teach them alongside a degree of science. So, you might do a course in homeopathy, and you'll also do some biology. You'll do some anatomy and physiology, and you'll do courses which really do encompass some science, but it's distorted, and it's taught alongside the rest of it. And they're unable to actually tease out what's scientific and what isn't.

S: That's pseudoscience. What you're saying Evan, would be better for attacking antiscience. But the examples that Dominic gave, homeopathy, anti-GMO, and astrology are pseudosciences. They're not anti-science. And so, if people say, “Well, astrology's scientific. It follows the scientific method. They have charts and information and whatever. Blah blah blah.” You need somebody who's basically scientifically illiterate, and make them scientifically literate. That takes years. But if you had one specific thing that you could focus on, like GMO's, you could do a deep dive on that one topic. It will still take you a long time, and you've still gotta lay a lot of ground work. So, I hear what you're saying. It's just, I think that's a tricky one, because it's so deep.

For mine, you guys mentioned all good ones. You covered a lot of the things that I would have said. I will add to that, I think an appreciation for narrative. And what I mean by that is that … you could also call it ideology. But just the idea that we come up with the belief, and then that belief colors everything that we think. The narrative comes first, and then we back fill facts and arguments. That's called motivated reasoning, right?

So, if you're starting from an ideology, whether it's a political ideology, a social ideology, a religious ideology, whatever. We are really good at back filling the justification for that belief, at allowing the narrative to come first, and then the facts and reasons to come later. You have to get people to flip that, to really step away from their ideology, to step away from their preferred narrative, to look at facts and evidence first.

If you can get somebody to appreciate how that works, I think that's a good skeptical hook to have in somebody. And it could be on anything. Just pick one topic. Let's say they have political ideas about gun control. And then get them to lay out why they believe what they believe, and say, “Okay, let's do a different process now. Let's pretend we have no beliefs about this whatsoever. Let's agree ahead of time how we're going to look for the facts. What kind of facts are gonna be important. What kind of evidence. And then we'll see what it says. We'll see what it says together.”

And if that dramatically contradicts their apriori ideology, yeah, they may walk away from that with a good skeptical lesson. Then, the trick is, of course, applying all of these things to their own beliefs. That's always the hard part, right?

All right, thank you Dominic.

Science or Fiction (1:07:55)[edit]

S: Well, guys, it is time for Science or Fiction!

(Music) It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fictitious. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Except this week, Evan is at the helm. Evan...

E: I am!

S: you are running Science or Fiction.

E: I have the wheel! I have the (inaudible)

Jo: Oh,you mean I'm up against Steve?

S: No, you're up against yourself. You're up against yourself.

E: Fear not, fear not. I have a feeling that this week's Science or Fiction will be, in a way, a great equalizer of all things, because we have a couple special things. We have a theme this week.

(Bob groans)

Jo: Oooh.

E: And, we have four items, not just three.

B: Double ungh!

E: The theme this week is effects. Effects. I'm going to describe to you four effects.

B: Or affects?

E: E-ffects.

B: Okay. Gotcha.

E: I'm going to describe to you four effects that are, well, three of them are actual effects, but one of them is fiction. Are you ready? All right, number one:

B: Don't know.

E: This is called the Brown Willie effect. It is an optical phenomenon visible during a transit of Venus or Mercury in which something resembling a drop of water appears to connect the disk of the planet with the edge of the sun. And its named for the discoverers of the effect. Brown, Willie.

All right, number two is called the Jack-In-The-Box effect. This is a catastrophic kill on a tank, or other turreted armored vehicle, in which an ammunition explosion causes the tank's turret to be violently blown off the chassis and up into the air. Jack-In-The-Box, the name comes from the child's toy, which is the Jack-In-The-Box, in which you crank the box, and a puppet pops up.

Number three is called the Overview effect. And this is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during space flight, often while viewing the Earth either from orbit, or from the lunar surface.

And the fourth one is called the Woozel effect. And this occurs when frequent citation of previous publications that lack evidence misleads people into believing that there is evidence. Urban legends are an example of the Woozel effect.

I have, before we started the show, I determined the order in which we're gonna go. I rolled a D4. I designated each one of you one of the numbers. And guess who came up first? Jay Novella!

J: Heh, heh. Okay, the Brown Willie effect. I don't know why,

E: Right Jay? Brown Willie.

J: I don't know, it just, come on Evan. So this is when two bodies come close to each other, and they look like they're touching each other before they get there?

E: It happens during the transit of either Venus or Mercury, so that's when from the Earth, you see the planet cross the disk of the Sun.

J: All right, sure. Then we got the Jack-In-The-Box effect. I used to eat at Jack-In-The-Box when I was a kid.

B: Ha!

J: And there was a different Jack-In-The-Box effect that I could describe here,

(Bob laughs)

J: but I won't.

(Evan laughs)

B: Awesome!

J: The catastrophic kill of a tank, now this one is awesome! Yeah, I know that something like this exists. I just don't know if this is the name, and therefore that's what Evan is quizzing us on.

S: Evan, can I clarify? So, is it possible for the fiction to be a fiction because the name is wrong, even if the effect is real?

E: Correct. That is correct.

S: Okay. So all of these are real effects. Just one of the names is fake. That's correct.

J: All right. Okay. That's a good clarification. Thank you Steve. The Jack-In-The-Box effect does seem to match this effect. Because there's a guy in a box. So this is fine. I'm gonna say that one, I'll agree with that one.

The Overview effect, again, I was thinking about this when Evan was reading it. This was the shift in awareness reported by some astronauts. Yeah, I've read something about this. I don't know what the name was. I don't remember, but I do remember reading something about this because I'm so into space travel. And the overview effect sounds like a very good descriptor of what's going on. So I will put that one in the “correct” bin.

The Woozle effect. Jesus, Evan. You know, bamboozle, woozle, fufoozle, moozle. I like the word. That kind of goes with this. I guess I'm not liking the Brown Willie effect, because it just sounds ridiculous. It sounds like something that Evan would make up. A brown willie. Get away from me with that wet finger. Go ahead. Next!

E: Okay, Jay. Next on the list is... special guest, Jo!

Jo: All right, I'll start from the first one. So, I don't know why the Brown Willie effect kind of works for me because, I don't know whether it's in Australia, we just have really weird names for things. There's sort of like a tornado, when you get one of those little tornadoes where you see a plastic bag floating around. It's called a Willie Willie. I don't know why; that one kind of works for me. But it doesn't seem to quite work with what it's describing.

The Jack-In-The-Box effect makes sense. I can kind of, yeah, that seems to fit with it.

The Overview effect seems, it's actually one that, yeah, something about that one's just not sitting right with me.

But the Woozel effect I think makes sense to me in terms of the name as well. I'm kind of tossing up between the Woozel effect and the Overview effect, though. And I think I'm gonna go with the Overview effect as being the fiction.

E: Okay. Next up is Bob.

B: Oh yeah. I'm familiar with pretty much all of these effects. Not the names of course. Actually, pretty much none of the names. But they all kind of make sense to me in terms of the name of the phenomenon. But the only one that seems to be an outlier is Woozel. That doesn't really fit. I don't know where Woozel would come from, except bamboozle, or something like that. But Woozel? I've never even heard that word before.

The other ones make sense. Overview, Jack-In-The-Box, even the Brown Willie, that's named after two people. So that's fine. Although, clearly, Brown Willie has weird connotations to it, and that's fine. Maybe that's why he picked it. I'm gonna say the Woozel effect is fiction.

E: And finally, Steven.

S: I agree with Bob that Jack-In-The-Box and the Overview effect make sense. I have no problem with those terms. If it's Jack-In-The-Box, Evan, then congratulations, because it is perfect.

(Evan laughs)

S: But, I'll accept that one. Yeah, the Brown Willie. Two people's names. It just, it sounds funny because of the wet willie, so you know, Free Willie. There's something about it. The second name being Willie certainly. But I've heard plenty of other two people being cited as credit for something, and it kind of sounds weird. Medicine is loaded with those.

So that doesn't sound abnormal to me. But, yeah, it certainly is something that Evan could have made up.

The Woozel effect, I have a big problem with, but you could go either way, because I could think to myself that it's so crazy, Evan had to make it up. I could also think it's so crazy, Evan never would have made it up. You know, if he had given us a soft ball, like the Woozel effect as the fiction... So that's why it can go either way with that one.

If I don't choose it as the fiction, I'll feel like an idiot if it's the fiction. Come on guys, the Woozel effect?

(Evan laughs)

J: Woo-woo-Woozel!

S: Yeah, so I'm stuck. But I think, I guess I'll choose the Brown Willie effect as the fiction.

E: All right, then I'm gonna review this, just to make sure I've got your answers correctly. For the Brown Willie effect, both Jay and Steve say that that one is fiction.

J: Yes.

E: Jo, you said the Overview effect for you is fiction? And Bob, the Woozel effect. For you, that one is fiction.

S: Yes.

J: Yes.

S: Quite.

E: Which means, we're gonna start with the Jack-In-The-Box effect. And I'll read it again. It's a catastrophic kill on a tank or other turreted armor vehicle in which an ammunition explosion causes the tank's turret to be violently blown off the chassis and into the air. Named after the child's toy, the Jack-In-The-Box, in which a puppet pops up. And that one is...

B: Is it is sweep? Is it a sweep?

E: science.

B: Ah! No sweep, baby.

E: Science … science. Nope, no sweep this week.

S: It sounds like the kind of thing World War Two people would. Right? That's like, very cheez-

E: Yes! World War Two! Perfect Steve. That's exactly correct, in fact.

B: Yes.

E: Tanks of the World War Two era were frequently seen to have lost their turrets in this manner, in which they were … they had the ammunition stored, but the compartment was buttoned up. There was nowhere for the pressure if the tank took a hit to release. So, guess what? The ammunition took the whole thing off.

S: Yep.

E: And they do have some evidence and photographs obviously, and some video of these things blowing up like a Jack-In-The-Box. And they did dub it the Jack-In-The-Box effect. For modern tanks, that doesn't happen any more.

B: Oh, really?

E: The ammunition compartments are designed to fail safely under fire in a fire fight. If they're damaged, there are vents that open, and they prevent this from happening. So, World War Two, yes, but not in modern times.

S: Good.

E: So that was a good pick-up Steve. I'm gonna start next, the Woozle effect. Bob, you said that this one was the fiction. And the Woozel effect is in fact, science.

B: Crap!

J: Oh...yes.

E: There is a Woozle effect. The term “Woozle effect” was coined by Beverley Houton in 1979. Now, a Woozle is an imaginary character in the book “Winnie the Pooh,” which was first published in 1926. In chapter three, in which Pooh and Piglet go hunting, and nearly catch a Woozle.

Jo: Of course! I knew that word was familiar!

J: Ah!


E: There you go! So, what they do is, the characters, Pooh and Piglet start following the tracks that are left in the snow, believing they're following the tracks of the Woozel. But the tracks keep multiplying. And Christopher Robin then explains that they've been following their own tracks, and going around in a circle.

S: Now, if they had called it the “Heffalump effect,” or the “Snuffleupagus effect” …

Jo: That would have been a dead...

E: Oh

Jo: give away (laughs)

E: Well, yes.

S: Less obscure than the Woozel effect.

E: Again, this one reads, “The Woozel effect occurs when frequent citation of previous publications that lack evidence mislead people into believing that there is evidence.” And, yes, in fact, like you said, Beverly Houghton was the one to coin this term. She was a researcher who studied basically patterns of self-bias seen within the social sciences.

This effect occurs when frequent citation of previous publications that lack evidence mislead individuals, as we said. Also affects groups and the public into thinking or believing that there is evidence and facts having to do with either social sciences, or government, or policy making, and these sorts of things. And, of course, urban myths and urban legends also arise out of this effect.

S: And we talked a few weeks ago[link needed], I think, on the show about citation bias. Literally, citation bias, about citing studies that support your premise, and under-citing studies which contradict it.

E: Right.

S: Creating a Woozel effect!

E: Woozel effect! We will not soon forget that one. So, we're down to two. We have the Overview effect, and the Brown Willie effect. Going in reverse order still, the Overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during space flight, often while viewing the Earth, either from orbit or the Lunar surface.

Jo, you felt that this one was the fiction. And this one is … science.

J: Aww...

Jo: Aww... (Laughs) It just seemed like all of the effects have got really, really daft names. It was just too simple.

J: It's a very profound experience. Especially the isolation aspect of it, I think adds to it.

E: Rusty Schweickart in 1969 did a space walk, and here's what he had to say about it. He said, “When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change. It comes through to you so powerfully, that you're the sensing element for man.” And he felt a euphoric sensation through all of it. Also a bit of space sickness, but … (laughs).

J: Space sickness.

E: Right! Exactly! Which means the Brown Willie effect, an optical phenomenon visible during the transit of Venus or Mercury, in which something resembling a drop of water appears to connect the disk of the planet with the edge of the Sun, is fiction. That is an actual effect; it is not called the Brown Willie effect. It is in fact called the Black drop effect. Actually, I didn't make up Brown Willie. The Brown Willie effect is an actual...

J: What?

E: Yes, the Brown Willie effect! A meteorological phenomenon that sometimes occurs across the southwest peninsula of Britain. It leads to heavy showers developing over the high grounds of Bodmin Moor, in Cornwall, England.

J: Cool.

E: Which then often travels a considerable distance downwind of their place of origin. It's named after the hill, Brown Willie, the highest point on the moor, and in Cornwall as a whole. And it's thought that there was a flood in 2004 that was caused by this particular effect. And the pictures of it is just devastating. I mean, it looks like basically landslides and mudslides all over the place taking out cars, houses, people, and all sorts of stuff.

So the Brown Willie effect is a real effect. So, glad you all enjoyed it. We spread out the answers a bit. Congratulations to Jay and Steve.

J: Of course.

E: Bob and Jo, better luck next time.

J: Yes.

Jo: Thanks.

E: Thanks for playing!

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:21:59)[edit]

S: Evan, hit us with a quote of the week.

E: This week's quote is as follows:

"The problem with today’s world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion AND have others listen to it. The correct statement of individual rights is that everyone has the right to an opinion, but crucially, that opinion can be roundly ignored and even made fun of, particularly if it is demonstrably nonsense!"

None other than Brian Cox, scientist, astrophysicist, populizer of science, wonderful television show host, all around great guy. And very well said! We talk about this a lot in skepticism.

Jo: Absolutely, and in fact, it actually reminds – sorry, Evan, I interrupted – but it actually brings it around nicely to where we started the show, because there was a Patrick Stokes, who is a doctor of philosophy from Australia, who's involved with Stop the AVN, wrote an article on on the conversation called, “No, You're Not Entitled to Your Opinion,” which has been one of the most widely read on that exact topic. So, it's a really nice, little summary of it.

E: Sure! Sure! And we've also talked recently about this notion of false balance. Of having to report both sides of the issues. And, no! That's not the case! Especially when one side is absolute nonsense, and has absolutely no place being next to or compared to anything having to do with actual science.

S: Jo, thanks for joining us!

Jo: My pleasure Steve; it's been great! Thank you for having me on!

S: All right, well thank you joining me this week everyone.

J: Thanks Doctor Steve.

E: Thanks Doctor.

Jo: Thanks Steve.

J: We love you, Jo.

Jo: Oh, I love you guys too. (Laughs)

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

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

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • Steve can identify elements from memory based on their atomic weight, as displayed during this week's Forgotten Heroes of Science segment.
  • The Woozle effect is named after a story in Winnie the Pooh. It involves frequently-seen citations being believed simply because they are cited a lot.


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