SGU Episode 328

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SGU Episode 328
29th October 2011

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 327                      SGU 329

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


Ba: Banachek

Quote of the Week

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge".

Isaac Asimov

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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, October 26th 2011, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Jet-lagged.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Heeeey, happy Halloween coming up for everyone!

J: Isn't it too early?

S: Yeah, that's true, and this show comes out with two days to Halloween.

R: Yes, Steve and I are on our way to CSICON, for a Halloween in New Orleans.

E: That should be a lot of fun.

J: Are you guys gonna wear costumes?

S: Apparently.

R: Yeah, there's a costume contest.

J: (excitedly) Come on! Spill it, guys! What's the costumes?

R: This will actually go out the day we're at CSICON, so...

S: I was gonna go as Dr. Horrible, so I need a mad scientist's lab coat, and I found one online, and it's out of stock.

R: What? Steve?


R: How do you not have access to hundreds of lab coats?

B: Do you need a stethoscope too?

S: No, the mad scientist lab coat he wears is very different from the medical lab coats that I own.

B: That's true.

J: It's actually more like a fencing jacket.

B: Yeah, that's true; it is different. I would totally win that costume contest.


R: I know, I don't know if my costume's gonna get here in time or not, but if it does, I'm going to be Max from Where the Wild Things Are.

S: That's cool.

B: Oh, awesome.

R: I think the movie's been out long enough that not everyone should be dressed as Max anymore, so...

B: That's awesome; that's really cool

R: —that's my plan. Yeah, it's like a spot-on costume, too.

E: With the hood and the right feeties.

B: Oh, great.

R: Yeah, we were talking about what happens if it gets here after CSICON, and I'm just like, "I... don't... care."

S: "I'll wear it" (chuckles)

R: I'll wear it, yeah, everywhere I go. So it's fine.

E: OK.

R: I'm gonna try to find a stuffed-toy version of one of the monsters—

S: One of the wild things?

R: Yeah, and then I'll, yeah, I'll cut it open and turn it into a purse.

E: Oh, my God.

B: Awesome.

This Day in Skepticism (2:09)[edit]

S: Evan, tell us about witch hunting

E: Because it has to do with this day in science and skepticism, what with witches and costumes, and Halloween coming up and all.

S: (with British accent) What with Halloween coming up an' all.

E: October 29th, 1390, the first trial of witchcraft in Paris takes place, leading to the death of three people. Now, I pulled that single sentence from our friends at Wikipedia, and it turns out, on doing a little digging into this Wikipedia fact... it turns out that the trial that had begun on that date was the second trial for witchcraft in Paris, not the first one. And, in addition, there were only two people killed as a result—

S: Damn Wikipedia.

J: Otherwise it was accurate

E: —not three. Otherwise, hey, that sentence was totally accurate. So, real quick, the first trial actually took place, or began, on July 30th of 1390, with two women, Margot de la Barre, who was a woman of ill-repute, with the added repute of possessing magical powers, and another woman, Marion la Dreygorere (Droiturière), and that's they closest I can pronounce this—

S: (laughing) Yeah.

E: —14th century last name. Marion's husband had left her for another woman, so Marion hired Margot to cast a charm first, and then a curse. So, the charm was a love charm, hoping that would save the marriage, but it didn't. So after the charm failed, to try to keep the husband around, Margot cast a curse that would make Marion's husband impotent with other women.

S: Uh-huh.

E: So, upon torture, both of these women confessed to their dealings. Margot admitted calling upon demonic forces and the two of them were burned at the stake in late August of 1390.

S: Well, they deserved it.

E: Yeah.

B: Even though they confessed?

E: I have no— (chuckles)

B: That's not fair.

E: Yeah, to confess and then—well, it's the only way to clear your soul, Bob.

B: I see.

E: If you confess, you get a more merciful death. If you don't confess—

R: Yeah, that's what I was going to say; like, at that point, death is the... that's the good sentence. That's what you want; you don't wanna keep getting tortured.

E: Now wait, but the second trial, now this is the one that actually began on October 29th of 1390—Wikipedia take note—and again, this one involved two women: Jehane de Brigue and Macette de Ruilly. Jehane had a reputation as a diviner, and she had once even been hired by the authorities of a local church to help recover some stolen artefacts from the church. And, because she was deemed to have been successful for her efforts, she earned a year in jail for the crime of practicing magic. She was only spared death because she made a promise to never practice magic again. But once she got out of jail, she sort of fell right back into the magic business, as it was. Now, the story gets a little bit sketchy because I found two different versions about what happened next. So, I'll give them to you real quick. In version one, Macette conspired with Jehane to cast a love charm on Macette's husband, Hennequin, which resulted in Hennequin asking for Macette's hand in marriage and the two were wed. However, Hennequin turned out to be not such a great catch after all, and Macette didn't like the arrangement. So she and Jehane got together again and performed more mumbo-jumbo on Hennequin that would render him fatally ill. The second version of the story is that Jehane was summoned to treat the already ill Hennequin, upon suspicion that he was suffering from a curse due to, of course, his infidelities. Now it turns out that Macette had admitted casting the curse on her own, but in both cases it was reported that all of this was confessed upon... (expectantly)

S: Torture.

E: You got it. Torture of the two women, and on August 19th of 1931 [sic] they were both burned at the stake.

S: See, women are such trouble-makers. That's the lesson here.


R: The only way to handle a mouthy woman is to burn her at the stake.

S: Yeah. They need to be singled out, tortured and then burned.

R: It worked for them for quite a while.

E: And deemed hysterical in the process, just for added salt in the wound.

R: Well, that's what the uterus is for.

S: Now, in 1398, a few years later, in reaction partly to these trials, academics from the University of Paris pronounced that magic is real and dangerous, and this contradicted the current doctrine of the Church, that magic was imaginary. So we have a case of the Church being the voice of reason in this particular case, and the academics from the University of Paris saying, "yup, magic is real and dangerous."

R: Mmm, brilliant.

E: What a world that was.


S: It's like a crazy world!

E: It's a mad house!

J: (laughs)

R: Cats and dogs living together...

S: Total chaos.

E: I mean, really, medieval times is... a brutal, brutal time to have been alive.

R: But a fun restaurant to visit.

S: Right?

E: (laughs) You're right, as long as you can go home at the end of it all, then I guess it's OK.

R: The jousting is just amazing! It's all worth it.


B: I like the chicken.

News Items[edit]

Seeing Through Walls (7:15)[edit]

S: All right. Well, Bob, tell us about seeing through walls.

E: It's called a window.


B: Well, I wouldn't call it a wall, but—

E: Excuse me? Window on the wall right there! I'm looking at one right now.


E: All right, but we'll leave it to the pros to tell us how it happens.

S: To do it the hard way.

B: (laughing) Right. MIT has come out with yet another cool piece of tech, a radar system that can see behind walls, but no windows involved. Now it's not yet like making a wall completely transparent, but it is still pretty cool and useful, especially for a first-gen device. And the science behind it, of course, is pretty awesome. Even when you look at people through walls, you can't really get around the basics, and the basics are, essentially, you have to get light to bounce off of something, get that light back to the detectors, and then you have to interpret what you're looking at. Now, like I said, the team at MIT uses radar instead of photons to see the people. The antennae consists of two rows; there's a top row of eight receivers lined up next to each other. And the bottom row has got thirteen units that are used, not to receive the radiation, but to transmit the radar. And of course, there's also the associated computer technology and all the other parts to actually... to control it and interpret it, and do everything. Now, the test performed by MIT didn't go through wood or wall-board. They did a demo using 10 feet of Krell metal[1]

S: (laughs)

J: Oh yeah, no, you wish

E: Huh?

B: No, sorry, Steve, I knew you were gonna laugh at the one. Sorry, it was four inches and eight inches of concrete walls, and I guess that's pretty good too.

S: Yeah.

B: You may think the walls would block all the light hitting it; that's kinda like why they call a wall.

S: Were they opaque?


B: Yeah, opacity. Actually, walls block only most of the light, meaning that some does actually get through, surprisingly. And in this case, walls like these concrete walls block 99% of the radar light that hits it, which actually sounds like... I'd think it'd be more than that, but still, 99%. So then of course, light gets through, it bounces off of something, reflects off of something, and then it's gotta come back, and it's gotta come through the wall again. So again, 99% of that 1% is blocked. So what you have left is pretty much a signal that's weak, and it's really only point-oh, let's see, 0.0025% of its original strength, so it's pretty attenuated. But, so there's not much to work there, but of course amplifiers these days are cheap and powerful, and surprisingly, that wasn't even the hard part, according to the researchers. The real challenge was developing a system that could provide three key things: they had to have speed, resolution and range. Without them, they wouldn't be useful for real-time applications, which is the key application they had in mind for this. It was military, of course, but it had to be real-time, otherwise these things wouldn't be as key. Now, Gregory Charvat of the technical staff of Lincoln lab, and he's a leader of the project, he said, "If you're in a high-risk combat situation, you don't want one image every 20 minutes, and you don't want to have to stand right next to a potentially dangerous building." So, in terms of range, this thing can operate 60 feet from a wall, which is pretty good, I did some Googling around for other devices that can see through walls, and the ones that I came across were these devices that you actually had to hold up to the wall. So, I'm not sure if they were real-time, but having to hold this up to a dangerous wall obviously wouldn't be good for these urban combat situations.

R: Bob, as I understand it, those only return one frame every, like, 20 minutes or something, so it's not like a real-time thing.

B: Yeah, the ones I saw were actually kinda small too, so it doesn't surprise me that there wasn't much processing power. Now, for the speed, it's real-time, which, as I said, is pretty key for lots of these applications. And for resolution, it's claimed to be good as well, because of the state-of-the-art digital processing that they do, and they've got all these sophisticated algorithms. So they're saying that the resolution's good, and I'll mention size as well; the size is manageable; they had to kind of balance the size a bit, because if you go with a longer wavelength of radar, then your penetration would be a lot better, but the device you would need would have to be way too unwieldy. So, the one they ended up with is still kind of big; someone's not going to carry it around. But they could mount it on a truck, and that's OK; that's pretty good for that application. So one website described it as big as a grocery cart. So now for the drawbacks, of course. The imaging processing uses what's called a subtraction method, so each new image is compared to the previous to see what the difference is, to see what's changed. Now that means that static objects are essentially invisible. And that's kind of OK too, because, even if someone's trying to stand perfectly still, they can still be detected because of all the small involuntary movements that can't really be controlled. Oh by the way, the frame rate; it was like 10.9 frames per second, which is decent, it's not the standard 24 frames a second, but it's still decent enough. But the real disappointment for me was the image of people that it creates. I mean, they're actually described as blobs; I mean, they just use the word "blobs". Now, I guess just knowing that a blob is a person is valuable intel, but I mean, come on; Star Trek wouldn't have a device that sees through walls and only showed a stupid blob. I was kind of disappointed when they described it. And Charvat said that... he said something else that was kinda disappointing too, he said, "To understand the blob requires a lot of extra training". I mean, what does that even mean?

J: (laughs)

B: A blob is a person; how much training does that require?

R: OK, well, you know, but have you ever seen a sonogram? That's a blob that you see professionals be like, "here's the head, and here's the feet", and I couldn't pick out anything; it just looks like... mush

B: I know; so, yeah, apparently there's lots of training-

J: I don't know, it's still—

R: The training is mostly like, "you see this part at the top of the blob? That's the head." (laughs)

B: Yeah.

R: (laughs) "This part at the bottom of the blob; that's the feet'

J: I bet they're talking more about, like, what direction it's moving in, and things like that, because it's probably very blurry.

B: Yeah, I guess, Jay, that there's subtleties to the general shape of the blob that could inform you as to what, you know, more precisely what you're looking at, or maybe what the person might have on them. Or even how it moves could also potentially provide additional important information. So, currently, they're working on algorithms that can convert this blob into what they're calling a "clean symbol" so it's more user-friendly, so it's kind of a, you know, an easy to identify blob. But the things that I wanted to know that I couldn't find was, what would it really take to get a fairly clear image of a person through something like a concrete wall? What wavelength of light would you need? How big would the device be?

B: They should just use that Adobe, that new Adobe anti-blur technology. That should work.

J: Yeah, that's great stuff, man, did you see those before and after pictures?[2] Incredible.

R: It's amazing! They can do anything.

B: I can't wait to check it out.

J: What are you talking about? I don't know.

R: It's a new anti-blur thing, like filter, that you can do in Photoshop that literally takes a blurry, out-of-focus picture and puts it into sharp focus.

E: Recreates it.

R: There's an amazing example online showing a crowd scene, and the "after" you can see everything in the crowd; it's really amazing.

B: Anyway, like I said, it's a pretty slick device. It seems like it could be very useful, especially in urban combat situation. And if it saves some lives, and helps us take out others, then who am I to argue?

E: Well, OK, but if you're seeing a blob, how do you know it's not a... it's a friendly or a non-friendly?

B: Yeah, that's true, I mean, so a lot of times—

R: It's a different color.

B: Yeah. (laughs)

R: Like in video games.

E: Yeah, the bad guys are red, the good guys are green.

J: No, maybe the way they add those—

B: Don't be silly.

J: —those cheesy 8-bit sound effects too. That'd be awesome.

B: (laughs)

S: Are you guys familiar with Troy Hurtubise?

B: Of course!

J: What'd he do to you?


S: He's the guy that won the Ig Nobel award for making the anti-bear armor. Remember him?

J: Yeah, he's awesome.

R: Oh yeah.

B: That' wasn't really worthy of an Ig Nobel. I mean, that was a pretty—

S: Well, he got it for surviving.


R: And Ig Nobels aren't just given to idiots, you know—

E: Or cranks, yeah.

R: They're not just mean awards; they're for people who do science that makes you laugh and makes you think.

B: Yeah.

S: Right.

E: And idiots.

B: I didn't pick up that—

S: So Troy claims he has a device that will enable you to see through a wall.

J: It's called a drill!

B: Or an RPG.

S: Yeah, and it's called an "angel light".

B: Oh god.

S: But he makes it sound like you could see through a wall, invisible light, as if the wall's not there. Claims you can read, like, look through the wall into his garage and read the license plate number.

B: Heh, MIT wants to talk to him.

E: He has this device? Or a theory about this device?

S: No, he says he has a device; he tested it and did it.

E: (laughs)

S: But he also could knock planes out of the sky with it too. It shuts down any electronic device that—

E: Within 35,000 feet.

J: Yeah. OK.

B: Well yeah; you make the plane invisible; the pilots can't see which buttons to press, and it crashes.

J: Get back on your medication, pal.

S: And he says he put his hand in the beam, and he could see his tendons and his blood vessels, as if the skin were removed.

B: All from a light, huh?

S: But then—

E: He got whacked around in his bear suit a little too often.

S: But then he started to get some symptoms. So it had negative side-effects, so he decided he had to dismantle it.

B: Dismantle it. So, forget the idea that the principles he discovered might be helpful in other things. Let's just take it apart; let's destroy it.

R: He's like, "you know what, guys? I ran out of batteries in my remote, and the only ones left in the house were inside the machine, so, you know, sorry".

E: Maybe he's a lucid dreamer or something.

S: I think he's just nutty. He's clearly off the deep end on this one. And he's talking about it like he's going to win the Nobel Prize and change the laws of physics, and, you know, how amazing it is. Compare that to the story about the strengths and weaknesses of this new device that Bob was describing. This is real science; this is fake science.

E: And the real science that Bob is describing is the first generation—

B,J&S: Yeah

E: —of whatever's going to come next. Like, the first generation of radar that came along. They couldn't tell the difference between planes and flocks of birds, right? There were inherent, you know, limitations, and it will only get better from here on out. They'll keep working on this.

B: So what's going through this guys mind? Is he batty? Or is he just knowingly lying for some nefarious purpose? What's he thinking?

J: No, I think he's bat-nut!

B: Sounds a little delusional.


R: Go with bat-nut!


S: (inaudible) fruit bat? Or...


B: Oh my God, I mean, does he really think people are going to go along with him and say "yeah, that's so awesome. Here's your Nobel Prize"?

J: Yeah, Bob, because he's kooked-out! He does.

R: Yeah, sounds like it.

S: Right (laughs)

Malaria Vaccine (18:22)[edit]

S: Well, let's go on. Let's talk about the new anti-malaria vaccine.

R: (quietly) Hooray!

S: Did you guys hear about this—

J: By the way, I got vaccinated today.

S: Proud of you.

E: Excellent.

S: My two daughters got vaccinated today as well.

E: Excellent. Very good.

R: For what?

J: Flu.

S: Flu. It's flu vaccination season.

R: OK, but you also could have gotten whooping cough, for instance.

E: Yeah.

R: Something like that.

J: Yeah, I like to whoop it up.

R: There are plenty of vaccines that adults can get on a regular basis.

E: Yeah, a little booster.

S: So, Joe Cohen from—working for GlaxoSmithKlein, that's GSK—spent the last 24 years trying to develop a vaccine for malaria, and finally succeeded.

E: Awesome.

S: Came up with the vaccine called the RTS,S vaccine, or Mosquirix. Like mosquito, Mosquirix.

R: That's terrible.

S: It's terrible.

E: Yeah, I'd rather RTS...


R: It sounds like a Batman villain.

S: Let's stick with RTS. Yeah, right, or an X-Man or something.


J: What the hell are you talking about?

R: That really got Evan.

E: (laughing) It's awesome.

S: This reduces the risk of developing malaria by 50%.

E: Nice.

S: In the trials. This is the largest clinical trials ever conducted in Africa, were done on this vaccine. 16,000 children were tested.

R: And previous to this, I mean, the best efforts I think we've made are just in terms of reducing mosquito populations, right?

S: Yeah, so, interestingly, recently it was also reported that the malaria rate has dropped by 20% worldwide, but that's due to just anti-mosquito efforts; netting, you know, basic stuff.

R: Netting, and there was that fairly recent breakthrough with scientists breeding mosquitoes that they could let out into the wild which would then breed with native mosquitoes and render them unable to carry malaria.

S: Right.

R: I don't know if that ever actually came to fruition.

S: Then there were those giant mutant lizards they released in Africa that eat up the mosquitoes.

E: And half the population.

R: And then there were the giant cats to hunt down the giant lizards.

S: Yeah. It got a little out of control.

R: It all kinda—

E: That's the Australia story, right? With the toads—

S: Before you know it there are elephants running all over the place.

E: —and dogs.


E: Huge ones, huge!

S: So, but seriously, it's not ready for use yet. They say they can probably roll it out by 2015, but they did complete the first clinical trial and present the data. So this is a tremendous breakthrough; this was a hard problem to solve; it took him a lot longer than he thought it was going to when he first started on the project 24 years ago. But they've found a way to interrupt the plasmodium life cycle and reduce the exposure turning into an actual infection. They're actually hoping to eradicate malaria worldwide; that would be nice. This is one more step, and this is again—

E: Except that the anti-vax crowds of people will still have malaria.

S: Yeah, right; they'll do their best to hinder our efforts to eradicate malaria, I'm sure. Like with the seeing-through-the-walls technology, this is first-gen, but they're hoping that as they continue to work on it that they'll get the success rate higher and higher, you know. Still, 50% is a lot; I mean, that's a lot of child and infant deaths that they will be able to prevent with this vaccine.

E: Glaxo stock went up a full point the day it was announced.

S: Yeah, I'm not surprised.

Luckiest Cities (21:42)[edit]

S: So Rebecca, tell us why San Diego is the luckiest city in America.

R: No malaria.

S: Yep.

E: I'm moving there.

R: For starters.

E: I hear it's a beautiful city.

J: So, we're gonna start with no malaria?

R: Right. That's what we're leading with. Yes, San Diego is a beautiful city with beautiful weather, however, that's not the reason it is the luckiest city in the United States, according to Men's Health magazine, which listed America's 100 luckiest towns. And they found this out by looking at a set of qualities for each city. Those qualities included the most lottery and sweepstake winners, the most hole-in-ones on the golf course, the fewest lightning strikes, the least deaths from falling objects, and the lowest debt due to playing the lottery and race betting.

J: Oh, man.

E: Yeah.

R: Which, I find that particular quality to be absolutely baffling, because don't most people who win the lottery end up bankrupt?

S: Yeah.

R: Isn't that the usual story?

S: Wouldn't that depend a lot on whether or not you have a racetrack in your state or city?

R: And also, to me, the biggest thing is how you manage your money when you put—it's not luck what happens after that. I don't know; it doesn't really make any sense. So, San Diego came on top because of its multiple jackpot winners, low lightning strike count, and low number of lightning-related injuries and deaths.

S: And skilled golfers, apparently.

R: Apparently.

E: Well, the weather's nice so much, you're playing golf constantly, you know. So you probably have more rounds of golf being played—

S: Evan, are you saying there were confounding factors in this study. Is that what you're saying?

E: (laughs)

R: I refuse to believe that.

E: I'm saying that the climate had something to do with it.

S: It's not magical luck?

E: And the fewest lightning strikes? well, OK, jeez, how much lightning rolls through a city that sees, what, seven rainy days a year?

R: It's funny, because it almost seems as though, yeah, there's more to this than just being luck. But here's the weird thing: so you can kinda see San Diego being on the top of a list like that. Supposedly it's a beautiful place to live, and who wouldn't want to stay in beautiful San Diego? Number two luckiest city in the US is... Baltimore. Baltimore, Maryland.

S: I actually lived in Baltimore for five years.

E: Pimlico Race Track is there.

R: Did you feel lucky to be living in Baltimore? Is that the main feeling you had?

S: It wasn't the first word that would pop into my head when I reminisce about Baltimore.

R: It's not—I think if you were to do just a general survey of the people within the bounds of Baltimore, and just asked them, you know, "do you feel lucky?", they would probably run because they would think that you were about to shoot them, like Clint Eastwood.

S: Yeah, like, "well, punk, do you feel lucky?"


R: Not that I don't love—I grew up in south Jersey; I spent some time in Baltimore going to the ball games and stuff... but dear lord, Baltimore. Come on.

S: (laughs)

R: Number three is Phoenix, Arizona, which—

S: It's an up-and-coming city; growing very quickly.

R: Arizona?

J: I like Phoenix.


B: (laughs)

E: Wow, they actually graded these cities A through F. A+ through F.

R: Number four: Wilmington, Delaware.

S: Delaware has a very low tax rate; very low corporate taxes.

R: I, it does?

E: People go there to open businesses to—

R: And it has a zero percent sales tax, so it is the home of tax-free shopping. And, yeah, I have family who live there. I'm not sure how lucky they feel to be living in beautiful Delaware.

E: They're lucky 'cause they're not living over the river in Camden, New Jersey.

R: Hey now. Hey.

E: I'm sorry. Any listeners in Camden, I'm sorry.

R: Never, never besmirch the good name of south Jersey.

E: (in high voice) OK, all right, all right, sorry.

R: No, I'm just kidding; I have no allegiance to New Jersey. Number seven is Las Vegas. Number seven luckiest city in the US, which is idiotic considering that Las Vegas is built upon the dashed dreams of unlucky people.

B: That's gotta be a joke.

E: And mobsters.

S: They didn't include casino losings or winnings, though, in their calculations; just racetrack losses.

R: Yeah, so, you know, it's not really the most scientific list, but I found it interesting. MSNBC printed a press release that had this quote from the editor of the magazine: "'Luck is basically our modern-world magic,' said David Zinczenko, editor-in-chief of the magazine. 'People need to believe in luck because it allows them to give a name to the randomness of life and, when you name something, you have more power over it'". For a minute there, he was actually on track.

S: He was; I mean, I think he needs to add, "you have the illusion of more power over it", fine. Then it's fine.

R: Exactly.

S: But maybe that's what he meant—that's what he meant. If we're being generous.

R: OK, yeah, let's go with that.


S: Since you've been trashing some cities throughout America, maybe we can be generous at the end of this—

R: It's true. Good point.

E: And also I noticed Loserville was nowhere to be found on this list.

S: (laughs) Quittersberg and Loserville.


S: Yeah. But this is just a giant exercise in dredging the data for clumpiness.

R: Clumpiness!

S: Yeah.

J: Yeah, you're right, they're looking for patterns.

R: It's worse than that, I think, because they don't need to find any patterns, really. It's kind of like our problem with The One, you know; the show where they try to find the world's best psychic. You know, at the end of the show, they're gonna find the world's best psychic, because they've determined that they will. It doesn't matter if the person is any good at it; it's just that that person happens to be better than everyone else at the test they give.

S: The world's least horrible psychic; right.

R: Right, and it's the same thing with this; they've set out to—

S: Yeah, some city had to be on top.

R: —determine which city is luckiest. That one. Does that mean that the residents are actually lucky? No.

S: I betcha they got a nice bell-curve, you know? In terms of these variables. Someone had to be at the end.

R: Yeah.

B: Bell curves are so unnatural.


S: All right; well, just a couple of quick ones left.

New Name for VLA (28:29)[edit]

S: Jay, tell us about the Very Large Array. Big changes coming.

J: The Very Large Array, or the VLA is...

S Or the "vlaah", as I like to call it.

R: (chuckles)

J: You guys have definitely seen it; it's been in movies; it's a, you know, one they use a lot in news items whenever they talk about radio telescopes. This one is located in New Mexico in the United States. There's 27 of those radio... those wacky giant radio arrays.

B: Telescopes.

J: The telescopes. They're really cool looking. And if you guys remember, these were the ones that were used in the movie Contact?

S: Oh yeah.

J: So the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, who runs the facility, decided that they wanted to update the electronics, because when the array was built in the '70s, the electronics were the original electronics. So we're going back... 30 years. Things have progressed a little bit since then. So they decided to do a massive overhaul. It took them 10 years to just update the electronics; they weren't really updating the actual telescopes themselves, because they do a fine job of collecting information; it's just, being able to take the information, process it, do the things that they need to do to sift through it and everything. They updated their computers and everything. It was actually very extensive update that they did, and the array's actually now 10 times more powerful, an order of magnitude more powerful than it was—

B: What is it? 10 times, or an order of magnitude?

J: Exactly, yes. The reason why this is in the news, is because not only did they update it and they've finished the update and they're all very excited about it, but they want a new name for it. And that's where people like us, the geeks of the world, come in, because we, the general public, get to actually submit a name on their website. Which I think is awesome that they're opening it up to the public, so you can go to, and you just have to give them your email address, and you can submit your name, the idea you came up with. I'm not sure if you can do more than one. It didn't say that you could or couldn't. I'm gonna put in as many as I can think of. Actually, I have one—

S: But also, we're gonna have our own contest, right? We're gonna have listeners send us their suggested name.

J: Yeah, so we'll announce the names we like best.

S: And we'll submit it, too.

J: Well, I think the people should—

S: Not that they couldn't do it themselves—

J: Yeah, they should submit the name themselves before they send it, and before we read it online so they get credit for it. But I did come up with a name that I like, and I'll tell you guys if you're interested.

B: Naah.

E: Oh yes.

S: Sure.

J: "The SGU Observatory".

E: Yeah.

B: (chuckles)

R: No, I don't know if they're gonna go for that one.

J: No, I actually came up with "Mag 10 observer".

B: That's not bad.

J: Like mag 10; magnitude 10; 10. No.

B: But it's not 10 magnitudes.

J: It's 10 times better than it was.


S: How about "Magnum"?


R: How about "The Magnum P.I. Observatory"?

S: "Blue Steel"

E: (laughing) "Blue Steel"! Oh no, here we go.

B: I got one. I got one.

E: "HAL 9000".

B: "The Argus Array". What's that from?

E: Oh, that's Star Trek!

B: Yeah, it was a Next Gen episode, one of my favourite episodes; the Argus array.

J: All right; listen: the director of the NRAO, Fred Lo, said, "we want a name that reflects this dramatically new status. The new name should clearly reflect the VLA's leading role in the future of astronomy, while honouring its multitude of past achievements."

S: All righty. All right. I like "Blue Steel".

E: (laughs) It's not blue!

Another Failed Prophecy (32:12)[edit]

S: So Evan, how did Harold Camping's latest doomsday prediction turn out for him?

E: It went perfectly; his batting average is fully intact; he is 100% perfect when it comes to predictions about doomsday.

S: Yeah, he didn't want to spoil his perfect record of being wrong.

E: For those of you who don't know, our dear friend Harold Camping—(laughs) a preacher and Biblical scholar and engineer, told us back in May—or said as May was approaching this year, that May 21st was going to be the end of the world. And when that didn't happen, it was "oops, well, his math wasn't exactly correct"—

S: Well, Evan?

E: —the judgment, yes?

S: He always said that, to be fair; he always said May 21st was gonna be the judgment, and then October 21st was going to be the end of the world. In between, though, there would be, basically, hell on Earth. There'd be earthquakes...

E: Gotcha, yes

S: So then he concluded that May 21st was just a spiritual judgment.

E: That's right.

S: Which was indistinguishable from nothing happening.

E: Indistinguishable, yes.

S: Yes.

E: Look, he did predict, Steve, that earthquakes were going to happen that day, on May 21st.

S: Oh yeah. He was wrong about that, and that's what he revised.

E: You know what he said about the earthquakes, actually? He said they'd apparently come in the form of "manquakes", since mankind shook with fear from the rapture, and the book of Genesis describes man as made from dirt. Ah, see? See that?

S: OK. So now, October 21st there was supposed to be, no matter what else happened—

E: That's right

S: That was the ultimate, final end of the world, gonzo, and... yeah

E: Yep. Well, to quote Camping, he said people "will be annihilated together with the whole physical world on October 21st 2011".[3] Now, there's not much ambiguity there, I'd say. That's pretty definitive.

J: But I also read somewhere that he said "approximately".

S: He started back-pedaling significantly, saying things like, maybe, probably, approximately, in a month or so. He also said it's going to be very low-key, very quiet, people are going to quietly just pass away, while the believers quietly ascend into heaven. No fanfare or horsemen or whatever.

J: But what about the whole Book of Revelation? I mean, I wanna see trumpets and people's faces melting off.

E: Well people—I think his followers' faces all melted when, in preparation for May 21st they were selling all their possessions, and buying advertising space, and ruining their lives, basically, based on that May 21st prediction.

S: So Evan, what's he saying now that the world is still here?

E: He apparently sent an email out to some his followers, which leaked out, of course, onto the Internet, and here's what his email had to say: "seeing it is now clear that the Lord didn't return on October 21st, we are left with two possible conclusions. Number one, the Biblical calendar discovered about 40 years ago is incorrect in some way. Number 2, the Biblical calendar of history is correct, but we are missing some additional information".

S: Number three: I am a hopeless fraud.

E: (laughs)

S: He didn't include that one.

E: (laughing) No, he omitted that last one; I can't explain why though. Two possible conclusions! Only two.

S: Only two.

E: You can only have two.

J: Well, sorry, you know, to sum it up: sorry, you're wrong; you've been wrong two times—

S: Twelve!

J: I'm dying for him to make a—I want another date.

S: This is his 12th failed prediction.

E: Yup, according to some of his followers—

J: Two times this year—

E: Yeah, two times this year, but—

J: —but I hope he does it again.

E: Jay, this might cheer you up, and I'm hoping this will also cheer up some other followers of this story and maybe Harold himself. I wrote a little limerick to kinda sum up the occasion:

There once was an eschatologist named Camping,

Those he swindled, their feet were all stamping,
Mad as hell that he'd promised,
The rapture was upon us,

So his story, he is now revamping.

S: That was your haiku?

E: No, that was a limerick.

S: (laughs)

E: We went over that off-air last week—

J: That was so bad, Steve, it was a "low-ku".

E: To save me the embarrassment of having said, "I wrote a haiku! Oh wait, it was a limerick".

S: In fact, it was a limerick.

J: You should actually call that a haiku.

E: (laughs)

Who's That Noisy? (36:32)[edit]

S: All right. Well, Evan, let's go on to Who's That Noisy.

E: To remind everyone, we're going to play, once again, last week's Who's That Noisy:

(Applause) Ladies and gentlemen, the Great Randi! (applause)

S: (laughing) OK, so who was that introducing "the Great Randi"?

E: Well, there were a lot of people who thought that maybe that was Johnny Carson actually saying it from one of Randi's many, many, many appearances on the Johnny Carson show—

S: No.

E: But no, no. That was the name of an actor, his name was Peter Lawford. Do you guys remember Peter Lawford?

S: Oh, yeah.

E: A member of the Rat Pack—the original Rat Pack. You know, Sinatra's band of brothers, and Sammy Davis, Jr. (laughs) just thrown in there as well.

J: (impersonating) Yeah, baby.

E: Well, in any case. So, he was, in fact, referring to of course, our dear friend James Randi, who was appearing on the show I've Got a Secret when it was hosted by Steve Allen. This was back in 1965. Randi was on the show; he had just performed one of his amazing escapes, handcuffed in a box or some such thing.

J: What's in the box?

E: What's—(laughs) And the audience, as he breaks out of the box with no handcuffs on, they're all applauding, and Peter Lawford says, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Great Randi!". I think someone forgot to mention to Peter that his stage name was actually The Amazing Randi. Not the Great Randi.

S: Amazing, Great, "the Fabulous Randi!".

E: (laughing) It's like Rebecca—

S: We have to make a point now, of introducing a different superlative at the beginning, yeah.

E: "The Unbelievable Randi!"

J: "The Hipster Randi!"

S: Who was the guy who got it correct?

E: From the message boards, from our forums, Dr. Atlantis, good friend of the show, long-time listener; he was the first one to guess correctly. Congratulations, doctor, if you are a doctor.

S: Good work. Well, what have you got for this week, Ev?

E: All right, folks. Put on your thinking caps, and listen to this week's Who's that Noisy:

(music) I'm your lover, come to my side. I will open the gate to your love. Come settle with me, let us be neighbours in the stars

J: I don't know where you come up with these, Evan.

E: Sometimes listeners send them in and sometimes I just find them on my own.

S: Thanks, Evan.

E: You're welcome. Good luck, everyone.

Interview with Banachek (38:58)[edit]

S: All right. Well, let's go on with our interview.


S: We're sitting here at "TAM 9 From Outer Space" with Banachek. Banachek, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

Ba: It's a pleasure to be back.

S: Always a pleasure to talk to you. So, Banachek, I think since we spoke to you last time, you have taken over the JREF Million Dollar Challenge. Tell us how that's going.

Ba: I spend more time dealing with emails, voice mails, than I do getting anything else done.


E: So it's a secretarial position, is what you're saying

Ba: It's sort of become that, yeah. That will change, I'm sure, as time goes by. But right now, it's just dealing with emails, sometimes 20, 30 emails with the same individual. Just back and forth with little fine details, before they even want to send in an application that probably won't be filled out properly anyway by the time they get it to me. Just questions about "what about this? What about that?" and trying to define what it is that they do.

S: Remind our audience what the Million Dollar Challenge is.

Ba: The Million Dollar Challenge. We have a million dollars for anybody that can do anything paranormal or supernatural under proper, controlled conditions.

S: You mentioned about applicants.

Ba: Yeah

S: So what's the process they have to go through?

Ba: They... that's been changed; that is something that I have accomplished this year. In the past, they had to send in multiple things in order to apply. They had to send an affidavit, from a... well, it wasn't really defined fully exactly what it was; it was a little bit open to interpretation. What I've done is I've made it "either/or"; they also had to send in a media presence; they had to be in the media. And part of that, I think, was to weed out—sometimes you get people a little bit mentally challenged, and we wanna try to weed some of that out. We don't want to be seen ever that we're taking advantage of those type of people, and that did weed some of that out. It also gave the people that were applying a bit of responsibility. They had to follow some sort of a process before they could—they couldn't just say, "hey, I wanna take the challenge" and show up. I did change it because I wanted to make it a little bit more open, a little bit more easy for people to apply, because that is what we've been accused of many times, of making it too difficult for people to apply.

R: And are you regretting that now?

S: (chuckles)

Ba: No, I'm not, because they still have a responsibility. Some of those things are in place, but rather than having to send in multiple things, it's an "either/or" thing. And I've added a third selection that we become judge and jury on, but they know that; but it certainly makes it easier, because some people in other countries; they have a difficult time getting things, say, notarized. They have—some people just don't have the media presence, but they may get somebody else that's serious that might be at a university or college, or may be able to get a doctor to write a letter for them, saying, "look, this should be studied". So they can either send in the affidavit, or they can show us they have media presence. By "media presence", that doesn't mean a YouTube clip or something like that; it means you're in a book; it means you're on a TV show; it means you've had a magazine article written about you, in a decent magazine, not a little local neighbourhood school magazine, or something like that. And then the third one is, you can send in a video. What that allows us to do is to take a look at the video. We can sort of judge a person, to a point, on the video, but we can take a look at the claim. We can clearly see what the claim is, sometimes—once in a while you might get a video where you can't—"well, what is that? I still don't understand", but in most cases, you can understand what it is. It also gives us a teaching tool to be able to put up on the website at a later date. With the video, it's kinda the worst one for you to send in, because we become judge and jury on it, and we also do not have to let you know why we've rejected you. On the other hand—

S: 'Cause you don't wanna have to tell people, "you just had those crazy eyes, and we just didn't wanna"—

Ba: Yeah, I could go back and say, "look, I need you to get... I need you to be certified by a doctor". I could go back and say, which I probably would not, but I could go back and say, "some people would think that claim is crazy, and we just wanna make sure that a doctor says that it's OK". I don't think I would ever do that.

S: Yeah.

Ba: But if you get rejected on the video, I personally, at least right now, will allow you to still go back and send me some other type of media...

S: Yes, without prejudice, so they can meet the other criteria.

Ba: Yes, exactly; they can still send those things in. The other thing that we've discussed, and it's been discussed even before I came along, was going after psychics and having specific challenges; a catalog of tests that they could take. The problem with that, as Randi has said, is that once a psychic takes one of those tests, they're gonna say, "well, this is not what I normally do". They will always say that. But you get people like—we just had Nightline, a couple of weeks ago, call us and say they wanted to do the Million Dollar Challenge. Now, Steven, I've asked you to take a look at a few things—

S: Yeah.

Ba: —and you've realized now—you probably did before, but even more so—the back and forth that goes on with one applicant.

S: Yeah.

Ba: That can take up to a year, even two years at times.

S: We've actually done a few of the preliminary tests for the Randi challenge, years ago as our local group; we test local claims. So we've been through the process a little bit before.

Ba: And it can be a long process.

S: Yeah, this is, was a little bit more elaborate. Absolutely, you have to... we were talking before we started the interview. It begins with a claim, like, "I can do this power, anywhere, any time", and then when you start to say, "OK, let's hammer out a protocol", then they start to bring in all the restrictions. "Well, it only works under these conditions, and I need this condition", so that process is...

Ba: And you can even get to the point where you think you've agreed on all the protocol, and then when push comes to shove, "oh, I didn't think about this", and they throw one more thing in the mix.

S: Yeah, right.

E: Is that technically special pleading before the fact? Usually we talk about special pleading after someone has tried and failed.

Ba: Yeah, I think it is. I think people start getting a little antsy, and they really start thinking about their own limitations, and sometimes it may be the fact that they've done it under those circumstances, but they just want to be 100% sure, if they're going after the million dollars, that, you know, everything's in line for them. But going back to this other thing. So, we get calls from TV stations, and they say, "we would like to take the Million Dollar Challenge next week, and we don't have anybody". So this time, because it was Nightline[4], we thought, "we'll put a catalog of tests together and we'll try it anyway", because we don't think anybody's going to show up, because what they wanna do is flier all the psychic stores in New York City, and most of those people don't want any attention put on them.

S: Right.

Ba: So we didn't think anybody would show up. But we'd go in the day before; D.J. would do a reading for them and talk to them about psychics; I would talk to them and I might do some things that I do, so at least they get something. But we offered this invitational, sort of an MDI, you know, a Million Dollar Invitational, and Jamy and I put the catalog of tests together two nights before we went out there. It was very, very last minute, all of this. We had the stats from Chip the night before, and some changes on that the morning of, like an hour before we were about to do it. And we kind of made all of the tests work along the same line, say with 12 participants. And we made it for astrology; we made it for handwriting analysis; we made it for palm readers; there was a whole list that we went down, and the last two that didn't use the 12 subjects was a medium and a clairvoyancy test that we had as well. What we did was we ended up getting 12 individuals that had different zodiac signs, and we got a biography. We asked each of them the same questions; we got a short biography for each one of them. And then we would bring the psychics in, and I would tell them, you know, I would ask them, "what's your ability?"
"oh, my ability is tarot cards"
"well, I have this test for you. Let me tell you what the test is. We have 12 individuals and we have 12 biographies. If you could do a reading, you can have them come over, they can cut the cards"

Now, the subjects all wore these big huge gloves, because I didn't want them to see rings, so they would have to use the right hand. I said, "they can cut the cards, or do whatever it is you need them to do, and then they'll go back to their seat. You'll read the cards; you'll match it up with the biography. Now, you have to hand all 12 back. You can get four of them wrong, but you have to get the rest of them right". And these were the questions we had for them up front. "Is this within the realm of your abilities?", and they would say yes. "Is it a fair test?", they would say, "Yes, it is a fair test", and then my next question, because I want to make sure they weren't just going after the million dollars: "how well do you think you will do?", and if they said "oh, I'll do great". Now, the responsibility's on them, because they're taking that test. Even if they come back afterwards and say, "well, that's not what I normally do—"
"Well, you're the one that said it was a fair test. You said that it was in the realm of your capabilities." So... and we also gave every single one of those people the chance to do a custom test at a later date, if they wanted to. If they hem and hawed at any point, and they said, "Well, I don't know how well I'll do", then I would say, "Well, why are you taking the test? We're not looking for someone to just try to win the million dollars. We're looking for somebody who truly believes that they're psychic, somebody who believes they can beat this test. If you want to do a customized test at a later date, we'll be happy to do that for you". We ended up with five people doing these tests. Five people. And I've gotta tell you, it was really strange for me. We did a "living and dead" test, where there was one envelope that had a dead person, a famous dead person in it, and all the other ones had living people in it. And the very first person we did, they hit it right on the first try. And when you've got a million dollars that's not yours that's on the line, I've gotta tell you, my butt-hole puckered just for one second there.


Ba: It was really great. It's amazing the excuses that people come up with; it's amazing to watch them hedge their bets. There was one guy; he went through... we did the living/dead; they also had to do that 12 times; that one they could get wrong three times; on the fourth time that they got it wrong, they were out of the equation. But the one guy, we go through, and I'm going through one trial, and he's got it wrong, but I've got to show him all the other envelopes. We start from the left going to the right, and I'm opening them up. "OK, this one's living, this one's living, and the one you got is also living"; he's already seen that, but we continue. We've got two left on the right-hand side, and what does he do? He knows one of those has to be the dead person, so he just kinda nonchalantly, non-verbally, and it's hard to do on the radio, but he points at that last envelope and nods his head and makes a face like, "ah, I knew it was that last one if it wasn't the one I went with". Luckily, it wasn't; it was the one before that, so I pull it out, and there's the dead person, and I never let them get—I wasn't mean, but I never let them get away with any of that stuff. I pulled it out, "and the last one that you thought it might be as well? It's not, it's a living person".

We had one lady who was absolutely—she had a million excuses. She was fantastic, though, because they were allowed to speak and show us the process, because it's TV. And she goes through the trial, and the first time it's Elvis Presley, and she knows it's a famous person that's dead, and she says, "I understand why it didn't work. Elvis Presley. I was asking them, 'are you alive?', and Elvis doesn't like to think that he's dead. He likes to think that his legend goes on, and he wants people to think as if he was alive". So we go through it another time with her, and she gets to a point, and at the end says, "I think I know what went wrong this time." She says, "they're in envelopes, and envelopes are organic material, so the envelopes are living, and I'm asking them 'are you alive?' And the envelope is telling me it's alive". It was just amazing, and a few of them would be one-off. What I mean by "one-off" is it would be the one to the left or the right of it, and they'd go, "my energy was in that area". Stop and think for one second. That's three envelopes out of twelve. That's one fourth of a section on that table that they can claim that they had a hit for.

S: Right.

Ba: So, it was just, it was a very, very interesting experience, but it was a fun experience, because now it allows us to take this out there. I don't think the MDI will be a separate challenge. It'll fall underneath the MDC, which is the Million Dollar Challenge, same as the mechanical claims and things like that; all of these will fall under the Million Dollar Challenge, but it allows us to do things that we haven't been able to do in the past with the Million Dollar Challenge.

E: Did this take place, like, one, two weeks ago?

Ba: It took place last week.

E: So this is the one I applied for, because ABC had an open invitation for people; 12 males to come down and be part of a psychic experiment.

S: Ah, we didn't know it was you.

Ba: Yeah, it was us.

E: We had no idea—

S: Why was he rejected?

Ba: Aw, that would've been funny if he'd have shown up.

E: Did you—I guess this is my question: were you guys separated from the 12 males who gave their information for this experiment? Was there that separation?

Ba: We were not. We were not separated from them.

E: So I would have—and they initially chose—

Ba: Oh, so you would've been one of the 12 males?

E: They initially chose me, and I was ready to come down early the next morning. It was 10 o'clock the night before. They contacted me back and they said, "Mr Bernstein, I'm sorry, but we have enough people already, and it was a mistake, and we don't need you to come down."

Ba: Yeah.

E: And what I figured had happened, is that they, at that point, after they had accepted me, they started to Google me and figure out who I was—

Ba: No, what happened was Jamy had some names, and we only had like three, but they got most of the people.

E: So here's a follow-up question that we can move on: had I shown up, and we realized that we'd known each other, what... would you have disqualified me?

Ba: No, I wouldn't have, because the psychics didn't know your zodiac sign. Even when we did the palms—when we had the palms taken, I didn't know which palms matched up with which person.

S: He was gonna be a subject.

Ba: Jamy did that separately. You would've been a subject. You weren't a psychic; you were a subject.

S: Yeah.

Ba: You would've been sitting there with these big, like, huge humongous work gloves on you. Which really gave us some nice visual things. There was a point where the tarot card had to match up, like I said, and there was a point where the... Jamy had an index of which palms matched up with which biography, which I did not know because I was conducting the test. And the psychic had to look at the palms; do a reading off that, and go through the biographies and match them up with the biographies. And then, at the end, Jamy would read out which palm went with which person. They would get that, and then there came a point where I'd say, "now, I want you to take a look at the biography. Don't give anything away, but I want you to read the biography in your head and see if it's your biography. Make sure you know whether it's yours or not. On the count of three, if it's your biography, show it to the camera. If it's not, crumple it up into a ball". Now keep in mind, they've got these humongous work gloves on, so it's very clumsy, but then you go "one, two, three" and it's this great visual of them crumpling it up, or turning it to the camera. And even the producer, because they were really trying to push us—we knew these things were going to take some time, and they were trying to push: "can you do less trials? Can you do this?" and just all these things they just don't understand, and it's like "No, we've got a million dollars on the line here; we're not just going to give it away". But when that moment happened, the producers were, "YAY! That's fantastic! That's wonderful! It's worth sitting here all that time!" Now, the tarot card reader and the palmistry, they got one out of twelve, which is pretty much what you would expect.

S: (agreeing) Mm-hmm. So, the special pleading that you're describing—the excuses for why they fail and the near-misses, and everything, I mean, I think what they're displaying there is the mechanisms of self-deception. This is how people trick themselves into thinking they have psychic powers in the first place.

Ba: Yeah, the host asked all of them as well. She said, "does this discourage you? Does this make you think that you don't have any psychic powers?" and they went, "No, it's not what I normally do. I think if I was to do this over time I would figure out how to get it—how to succeed."

S: Yeah, but it's interesting. It's always like, "oh, I was just one to the left". So they were expanding the probability of hitting. But I think that's the same process they go through to talk themselves into thinking they have psychic powers originally. I don't think they're necessarily disingenuous; I think that they really believe that.

Ba: I don't think they are, I think there are times, even when they take advantage of something they see... I'll give you an example. Here's where they thought they were taking advantage of something, but they weren't, because they had already handed numerous biographies back. But I was watching them. And, like, the lady that's doing the tarot reading, she's supposed to be doing the reading and matching that up with the biography, but the people are all sitting there. And some of these ask things like, "what do you do for a living?", and there were two magicians in there, there's a doctor and a few other things. And instead of looking at the cards, you see them looking up at the people that are sitting there, judging who can this go with? And it usually happened when they got down to like the last four or five. But at that point, if you've already got the others wrong, it's not going to help you a whole lot at that point. And I saw that both on the palm reader, and the tarot card reader. But I think—they both said it themselves afterwards. They said, "this is not what I normally do; I usually have to have feedback from the person". Now, when we hear that, we immediately think, "OK, that's part of the method".

S: It's cold-reading.

Ba: For them, they don't think that; they think it's a bonding with that person, a communication with that person. And it allows them to hone in their ability as to whether they're on the right track or not, because until they get to know that person, there's no gauge, and once they get on the right track, then they can open up with that person.

R: Yeah, I suspect that many of these people really do have a power of sorts, but it's just the power of empathy.

Ba: Well, they feel like they have to calibrate with an individual. And, OK, it sort of makes sense, I guess. I don't know how you would test that.

S: Yeah, that's interesting. It reminds me exactly of... like, with the scientific community's interaction with the alternative medicine community, where they keep saying, "we do these standard, double-blind placebo-controlled trials, just like your blinded tests" and they say "well, this is not how I normally practice" whatever it is their practicing. "I need the interaction with the patient. I need to individualize my treatment". It's the exact same thing. They need the placebo effect in order to make their treatment work, because there's no real effect there. It's exactly the same thing.

Ba: Here's an example, even though it sounds very different, it's sort of the same thing, that calibration process. Doing the living and dead test, the one lady said, "things are happening, and I don't quite know what they mean yet", and I said, "what do you mean by that?" She said, "well, when I started doing this"—and you can't see what I'm doing on the radio, but I'm sort of tapping sort of above my bosom here. She said, "when that happens"—I don't really have a bosom, per se, but I—


R: Now the audience has a really interesting mental picture of that.

Ba: Exactly


Ba: So, she was tapping like that, you know, on her chest. And she said, "when I first saw that, I didn't know, but it's a symbol, and I had no clue what it meant, and it took a while before I realised that when a man's doing that, it means he died of a heart attack. When a woman's doing it, it means she died of breast cancer, and it took me a long time to understand those symbols". So she has to calibrate that, and what she gets, and that's like what she said with the living and dead test. Over time she feels she could figure it out when she gets these symbols. And there was one point, one lady said—the dead person was actually five from the left, and she had picked five from the right, and she saw it immediately, and she said, "Yeah, I was asking them, give me a number, give me a number. And I didn't know, but I got five, and I just got five from the wrong end". So I said, "well, I can't tell you what to do, but I can make a suggestion to you, and you take it for whatever you want; I just don't want to interfere with your process. But maybe next time, you need to ask them, 'give me a number from the left'". And she went, "Oh, that's a fantastic idea!"

S: There you go. But, you know, people are really good at rationalizing.

Ba: They sure are.

S: And, it's just sort of a psychological experiment in how good can you rationalize your failure, essentially.

Ba: I think almost everybody does it on some level.

R: Yeah.

Ba: Well, you know, just superstition a lot of times, when you're watching a—we were talking about soccer yesterday—er, earlier, the women's soccer game, and I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "well, if I sit on this couch it's good luck; if I sit on that couch, it's bad luck. They lost because I sat on this couch". These are normal, rational people. Or, "I'm not good luck; I need to leave the room, because they were doing well when I wasn't watching it".

E: (laughs)

Ba: And sometimes, I've got to say, there have been even moments where I step out the room and my favorite team who's on and I'm like, "I need to go back out the room again so they can do well!"

E: I've thought the same thing sometimes; it's weird.

R: We're in the capital of the world of that kind of thinking.

Ba: Yeah, exactly.

S: Of magical thinking.

R: Look at those people at the slot machines. If they get up for a second and you take their slot machine, they will slap you!

Ba: You know what, I understand why. I fully—first time I went to see Penn and Teller at Bally's, I went and I was playing this machine, playing this machine, playing this machine, and I was playing four quarters all a time. I'm sorry, we're at Vegas, so I'll tell the story anyway. And I didn't want to get up from the chair because I'd put a lot of money into this machine; "it's my machine". But I didn't want to be, like, the ladies with the pink hair and the cigarettes—(puffs) "this is my machine!". So, finally, I said, "all right, I'm gonna get up and get some change." I got up. I went and got some change. I came back, and I was literally, literally about six feet away from my machine, and a guy sat down, an English guy. I was like, "OK, big deal". He put four quarters in, pulled it on the first try. He won a brand new car and $50,000. And then he had the audacity to tell the people, "I can't have the car because I live in England, so can I just get the money for it?".

R: (laughing in sympathy)

Ba: So, yeah, when you talk about those little old ladies, I fully understand why now.

R: Yeah.

(general sounds of agreement)

E: That's powerful; very psychologically powerful.

S: Well, Banachek, we certainly look forward to you being in charge of the Million Dollar Challenge—

Ba: Thank you.

S: —working with you on that. I think it's great to reinvigorate it; I know it kind of was languishing there for a little while.

Ba: Well, I still feel like it's a little stagnant right now, and I'm waiting for the website to make its changes with the JREF so we can do a lot of things. Once we have that in place, I think it's going to be really exciting. And, you know, we will hopefully talk next year and there will be a lot of exciting things that have happened.

S: Well, we feel good that it's in good hands.

R: Yeah.

E: Yes.

R: Thank you very much, Banachek.

Ba: You're more than welcome. And if you want a guy who can detect ghosts with his mustache, I'll bring him along next year.


Ba: Bye-bye. Thanks, guys.

S: Take care.

Science or Fiction (1:01:02)[edit]


S: Each week our host comes up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fictitious. Then I challenge my panel of sceptics to tell me which one is the fake. But this week, Bob is going to host Science or Fiction.

R: Whaaaat?

S: It's crazy land!

R: I didn't agree to this.

B: OK, guys, are you ready?

S: We're ready.

R: Yeah, let's do it.

E: Oh yeah.

B: So, number 1: Research shows that IQ scores change little throughout most of the teen years. Number 2: A new study has found that including enough protein in our diets, rather than simply cutting calories, is the key to curbing appetites and preventing excessive consumption of fats and carbohydrates. And number 3: Scientists have found a direct link between the number of friends a person has on Facebook and the size of certain brain regions. So, I will roll my 20-sided die, and... (suspicious lack of die-rolling sounds) Rebecca goes first.

R: (laughs) All right. I will take these in reverse order. The number of friends corresponds to the size of certain brain regions? Of course! You know, some brain regions, I'm sure, are responsible for more social aspects, so that makes sense to me, that one part of your brain being bigger in the social area could want you to have more friends. Including enough protein in our diets... is the key to curbing appetites and preventing excessive consumption of fats and carbs. That makes perfect sense to me as well, because I've noticed, anecdotally, and I think that I've read this before somewhere, that for instance, eating a lot of simple carbs like sugar, you'll eat more; you'll crave more; you'll get hungry faster, sooner. So, yeah, the reverse I can see being true. More protein means you'll stay full longer, and consequently you'll eat less. Which leaves us with the idea that IQ scores change little throughout most of the teen years, which I think is total bunk. Because, first of all, teens are stupid. That's proven by science. OK, except for of course the teens in our audience and Teen Skepchick. OK, no, I think that—why wouldn't IQ scores change? Your brain is changing drastically during that time, and also, you know, you see, for instance, child prodigies... eventually, the rest of their class catches up. I think that's the general rule. So, I don't see why intelligence couldn't grow or shrink during the teen years, and I think that's where it would be most drastic. So I'll say that that one's the fiction.

B: Is that your final answer?

R: Yes, it is, sir.

B: Steve! You're next.

S: I will also take these in reverse order, follow Rebecca's trend. "Scientists have found a direct link between the number of friends a person has on Facebook and the size of certain brain regions". Yeah, I mean, you know, there's a lot of these kinds of studies; if you look for differences in the brain, you're going to find them. It's a question of how much; what was your threshold; what were you using to look for it. But I believe—I find it very believable that this kind of study would show these kind of things. You know, how social people are is one of those very dominantly genetic, hard-wired things, so I find that very believable. The two—the study about proteins and dieting—even without believing the actual findings of the study, I believe that a study showed that, because there are studies that show pretty much every relationship between macronutrients and weight loss, depending on how the study's done, and who's doing it.

B: I forgot to add to number 2 that it was a definitive study.


R: Too late.

B: Oh, OK, sorry.

J: Nice try, Bob!

S: But it is, you know, there is previous data that proteins are helpful in cutting calories, or cutting the appetite, at least short-term. That's sort of a big variable on a survey; was this over three months, six months, a year? Anything up to six months, I believe. Then number one, "Research shows that IQ scores change little throughout most of the teen years". You know, we used to think that most of the brain spurt was over by the time you were a teenager, but it has actually been known for a while now that the brain is still growing quite a bit. That there's a lot happening in the teenage years in terms of brain development. So I think it's probably a very volatile time, in terms of any cognitive thing you choose to measure, so I think that one is the fiction.

B: OK. Let's see, Jay! You're third. Hurry up!

J: How you doing, Bob?

B: All right.

E: (chuckles)

J: How's "Science or Fiction" going for you so far?

B: Er, no comment. No more dawdling.

R: (laughs) Nice try, though

E: That's a comment.

R: That was a really good try.

J: I can't imagine how ice queues—(laughs) IQ scores don't change throughout most of the teen years. I mean, teen years, 13 to 19. That's a looong time, and a lot of time that, you know, the brain changes and there's a lot of studying going on, for most people. That one's the fiction.

S: But keep in mind, IQ scores are relative.

J: Settle down.

R: (reprimanding) Steve!

B: That's all you got, Jay?

J: I mean, Steve and Rebecca pretty much covered it. I'm just saying that that's it.

B: OK, Evan.

E: Oh my gosh, you expect me to add to this?

B: What you got, Evan?

E: What the neurologist has to say about IQ-

R: G.W.R. G.W.R.

E: Certain brain regions—

B: Go with Robert.


E: —diet and health, really. I have to agree. I'll go with the herd.

S: Moooo!

E: With the herd, the IQ one, that's gonna be the fic—

R: (laughs)

E: Oh, I'm sorry! What am I—(sarcastically) Steve's wrong and I'm right.

S: Ah, I've led you all astray again. (laughs)

E: Nah, I'm going with the herd. The IQ one is the fiction.

B: OK. So, who's next? That's it!

E: Elijah.

B: OK, so I think I'll take it in reverse order as well, but please do not read into that. So, number three: "Scientists have found a direct link between the number of friends a person has on Facebook and the size of certain brain regions". And that one is... science!

R: Yay!

B: Yeah, this one is true, and you guys did a good job with it. One thing I thought of is that this raises the possibility that using online social networks might actually alter our brains, which is a conclusion you can come to, but, of course, you can't really know that it does that. Perhaps people that have these denser regions actually are attracted to it, for some reason. So it's easy to jump to one conclusion, but you've got to understand there's at least two. The areas of the brain identified are connected to memory, emotional responses and social interactions; those are the areas we're talking about here. The scientists used Magnetic Resonance Imaging on the brains of 125 university students, and luckily they weren't using them much anyway, so they were available. The researchers found a strong connection between the number of Facebook friends the students had and the amount of gray matter in the following areas: the amygdala, the right superior temporal sulcus and the left middle temporal gyrus, and there was one more, the right entorhinal cortex. Now, the gray matter's a layer of the brain where a lot of the mental processing occurs, and it includes parts of the brain that deal with muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions and speech. So, the part that was interesting was how thick the amygdala's gray matter was—was linked to the number of real, non-virtual friends that people had. So that was in distinction to the size of the other areas, so that seemed to be directly correlated only to the online fake friends. And this was published recently in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.[5]

So then, we go down to number two. Number two was: "A new study has found that including enough protein in our diets, rather than simply cutting calories, is the key to curbing appetites and preventing excessive consumption of fats and carbohydrates". And that one is... science. Very good, guys.

R: Wooo!

B: Researchers from the University of Sydney showed recently that people who consumed 10% of their calories from protein will snack more often, and eat significantly more calories in total than people on a 15% protein diet.[6] Now this is the first—I didn't know this—this is the first evidence supported directly by science that protein in our diets plays such a key role in our appetite and total food consumption.

S: What was the duration of the study?

B: It was four days, I believe.

S: (makes buzzer noise) Doesn't tell you anything.

B: Yeah, I know, I know, it wasn't very long. And they also think that this information could help us deal with things like global obesity epidemic. Now, humans—

S: Not from a four-day study.

B: No, yeah. Humans have a particularly strong appetite for protein. When the proportion of protein in the diet is low, this appetite can drive excess energy intake. So this is what Dr. Alison Cosby, who conducted the study with Prof. Steve Simpson, says. The researchers found that the test subjects who had a diet of 10% protein consumed 12% more energy over a four-day period than those eating a 15% protein diet. So that's pretty much the gist of it. But, 70% of that increased energy intake on the lower-protein diet was directly attributable to snacking. So that's pretty much—people were just driven to snack in between meals excessively, and it was significantly more calories that these people consumed. So there's a direct correlation actually to weight loss, if you were trying to take it from that perspective. And then—this is cool—they then tested people with a 25% protein intake, which is kinda like something, you know, you would normally think, "all right, if a little is good, is a lot better?" But no, that's not the case. The people that ate 25% protein didn't have really any difference compared to the 15% people. So 15 was pretty much the magic number. So that means that "Research showing that IQ scores change little throughout most of the teen years" is indeed fiction. Now, Steve, I really kind of thought I would get you on that one, because we've talked about this before, about how you're really not—people do all these weird things to their kids, or their babies, and they think that they're gonna make them smarter. But, pretty much, your intelligence, your IQ level is pretty much set. So I thought you would kinda mull this one over a little bit more than you did.

S: It is true, though, yeah; we sort of approach our maximum IQ, but it is true that there's a lot happening in the teenage years. It makes sense that it would be a pretty volatile time in terms of, you know, people would still be shuffling around in terms of where their IQs are gonna settle in.

B: OK, you bastard. Now, it's like I said, it's long been believed that one's IQ remains pretty static during life, and that is why this one was a little bit of a surprise. The journal Nature reported on this, and they reported on tests on teens that were like 14 years old on average. They took a bunch of teens that were around 14, and they showed improvement and deterioration four years later when they tested the same group, when of course, their average age was 18.[7] Now, the study seemed pretty small on this one, 19 boys and 14 girls. That seemed kinda low to me.

S: Yeah, that's a small study.

B: Yeah, but, so they performed brain scans on these kids, and they did... oh yeah, and in conjunction with the brain scans, they also did verbal and non-verbal IQ tests. And the tests showed that a change in verbal IQ of 39% in the teenagers, 21% of them showing a change in spatial reasoning, which they call "performance IQ"—I hadn't heard of that one before. The findings were interpreted as having greater validity than previous studies, because for the first time, the variations in IQ were correlated with changes in two specific areas of the brain. Now, an increase in verbal IQ corresponded with an increase in density of part of the motor cortex, which is an area activated during speech. And an increase in non-verbal IQ was correlated with an increase in the density of the anterior cerebellum, and that's an area associated with the movement of the hand. The paper says that the results could be encouraging to those whose intellectual potential may improve, and a warning that early achievers may not maintain their potentials. So...

R: Called it!

B: Yeah, it can give you a better way to assess and not be so discouraged, or conversely, encouraged by—

S: Or complacent.

B: Right, about very high or very low IQs early in life. So, good job, guys!

R: Yeah.

B: I totally blew it.

S: Thanks, Bob.

R: Well, it was good, though. I think our listeners probably learned a lot, and those were some good items.

S: Well, thanks for covering that this week, Bob. Jay, you got a quote for us?

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:05)[edit]

J: This is a quote sent in from a listener from Sweden who happens to be 14 years old, and the name is Cal Knutson (spelling guessed). And the quote is:

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge".

That's an awesome quote.

S: Yeah

E: Who said that?

J That quote was probably written by ISAAC ASIMOV!

E: Ooooh. I've heard of him.

S: Thank you, Jay. Well, thanks for joining me this week, guys.

B: Sure!

E: Yeah, it was fun

S: Happy Halloween!

E: Yes, happy Halloween, everyone.

R: Yay

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe

Voice-over: 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 You can also check out our other podcast, The SGU 5x5, as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune, or your portal of choice.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • The first trial for witchcraft in Paris began on July 30th, 1390. Allegedly, after Marion la Droiturière's husband left her for another woman, she hired Margot de la Barre to cast a love charm. When this didn't work, Margot cast a curse that would make Marion's husband impotent with other women. Upon torture, both confessed and were burned at the stake in late August 1390.
  • A team at MIT have developed a radar system capable of detecting movement behind 4-8 inch thick concrete walls. It can operate 60 feet from a wall and refreshes at 10.9 frames per second.(MIT news article and video)
  • A new anti-malaria vaccine has reduced the risk of developing Malaria by 50% in the 16,000 children tested. This was the largest clinical trial ever conducted in Africa, and it is hoped the drug will roll out by 2015.
  • The malaria rate has dropped by 20% worldwide, due to anti-mosquito efforts, such as netting (World Malaria Day 2012)
  • The recent refurbishment of 1970s electronics for the Very Large Array telescope has increased its power by ten times.
  • Harold Camping has predicted the end of the world erroneously 12 times (to date).
  • Scientists have reported a direct correlation between the number of "friends" a person has on Facebook and the size of certain brain regions[5]


  1. YouTube: Clip from Forbidden Planet
  2. Adobe Photoshop anti-blur technology - MAX 2011 Sneak Peek - Image Deblurring
  3. ABC News: Harold Camping Predicts End of the World, Again (original text on Camping's website removed)
  4. ABC News: Nightline clip
  5. 5.0 5.1 Kinai, Bahrami, Roylance & Rees (2011) Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1959 Proc. R. Soc. B
  6. University of Sydney News: Protein key to curbing overeating and preventing obesity
  7. Nature: Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain
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