SGU Episode 165
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|SGU Episode 165
|17th September 2008
|(brief caption for the episode icon)
|S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
BG: Ben Goldacre
JR: James Randi
|Quote of the Week
When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.
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 September 17th 2008, and this is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella,
B: Hey everybody
S: Rebecca Watson
R: Hello, everyone
S: Jay Novella
J: Hey guys
S: And Evan Bernstein
E: Hi everyone, how's everyone doin' tonight?
B: What's goin' on
This Day in Skepticism (0:36)
R: What's the day, Evan?
E: 1976, the first space shuttle, Enterprise, unveiled by NASA.
B: Ah, that's awesome
E: Not launched, just unveiled
S: Just unveiled?
J: I remember being a kid, watching the TV, seeing a bunch of people standing on the tarmac, watching it be unveiled, then playing the theme to the Enterprise, you know, Star Trek.
J: Remember that?
S: But I was devastated when I learned the Enterprise was never going to go into orbit.
J: What a gip!
E: That's right
B: Just a mock-up
S: They should've saved the name for the first one to launch, not just the training module.
R: I know a better day that's coming up, and that would be Friday, the 19th. You guys know what Friday is?
J: Friday, um…
S: September 19th?
R: Uh-huh, you give up?
S: The start of fall
R: (complete with accent) Aaar, it's talk-like-a-pirate day! Ye land-lubbers!
B: Yes! How could I forget?
S: Didn't we just have that?
J: That's a great day!
E: Last year we mentioned that.
B: It's an awesome day
S: Has it been a year already?
R: It has
E: Aaaar, matey, it has.
S: Good thing we're not doing the podcast on Friday.
R: Oh, can't we pretend?
B: Oh, the whole- the whole days as pirates?
E: Today is talk like a ninja day
S: Knock yourself out
R: You can't talk like a ninja!
S: Actually, today-
E: Sure you can,
R: They just sneak up and stab you
S: Today is international talk like a skeptic day
R: (laughing) You made that up
E: (with accent) I doubt that, har-har-har
S: Well, we have an interview that we recorded at TAM 6 with Ben Goldacre coming up later in the show.
R: That's aaaaar-some, Steve. I can't wait
S: Ben is a cool guy. Our first new item is about Ben
Ben Goldacre Defends Libel Case (2:17)
R: Only in that I know he's a douche
B: Er, no
S: Right, he is a giant douche, he really is. So he has an organisation-
R: (in the background) Am I gonna get sued for that?
S: -that sells all kinds of snake oil, and what Ben wrote about was Rath selling vitamins in South Africa to AIDS victims, telling them not to take their anti-HIV medications, but instead, to take his vitamins. You know, there's an actual death count that you can attach to that kinda behaviour.
S: So, Ben called him out on that. Now, Rath has a history of suing anyone who criticizes him, he has many, many lawsuits in many countries. You know, anyone who says that what he's doing is not legitimate, his response is to sue them.
R: Including in South Africa where he's causing the most damage.
S: Yes, South Africa, Germany, and again against the Guardian and Ben Goldacre. And he's won some of those suits, unfortunately. But this, recently he had to withdraw his suit against the Guardian and Ben Goldacre and he's going to have to pay about half a million pounds in legal fees as a result as well. So that was a very good outcome. Of course, we all congratulate Ben on seeing that through, you know, it's obviously something that cuts very close to home. We spend a lot of our time dishing out very harsh criticism to a lot of people. Some of whom are heartless charlatans who will kill people if it lines their pockets, and who have a history of defending themselves by intimidating others with lawsuits and-
R: Yeah, and you know, it's very different in England, where the laws aren't quite as much on the side of people who are making the statements, it's not quite on the side of free-speech as it is in the US.
R: I think that, you know, we have a certain amount of protection going for us, but in the UK, it's fairly easy for someone to sue for libel slander, because once they do, the burden is on the defendant, as opposed to in the US, where the burden of proof is on the plaintive, and I am not a lawyer.
S: No, that's correct. Although, in England, the one advantage in the UK, is that it's pretty standard, if you lose such a lawsuit, it's almost automatic that you pay the other side's legal fees. So that's the disincentive for frivolous lawsuits.
R: Right, and so sure enough, he's had to cough up, yeah.
S: These are critical victories for free-speech for sceptics everywhere who are trying to, you know, point out, especially this kind of really destructive behaviour. So, this is, I think, a very important victory. So, congratulations Ben!
E: Good job, Ben
R: Yay Ben!
Hubble Finds Mystery Object (5:20)
S: The next news item, the Hubble finds a mystery object that genuinely has astronomers baffled
R: Astronomers are baffled!
S: They are
J: They're baffled!
S: They're generally baffled.
E: are they flummoxed?
S: And flummoxed.
J: So what is it, Steve?
S: Now, this is pretty interesting
B: That's the question, Jay, it's- really nobody knows, according to a paper that's about to appear in the Astrophysical journal. Something extraordinary, never been seen before by astronomers appeared in 2006, so I was a little disappointed that it was two years ago, like, 'what? We're just hearing about this now?'. But to this day, it is not known what the hell it was, or if it will ever appear again. It started with the Supernova Cosmology Project in February 2006 using Hubble, looking for Supernovae in February. A previously unknown object started getting brighter and brighter, and brighter, and it just did not stop. And this continued for about 100 days, at that point, it pretty much stopped getting brighter and bigger, and then just started to symmetrically dim for the next 100 days. So it was really, perfectly symmetrical light curve where the dimming is perfectly matched by the brightening in the beginning. The spectrum of light was also an enigma, the spectrum basically just shows the rainbow of colors from a light source, but also, of course, includes the non-visible light, like UV or radio. And typically, these certain pieces of the spectrum are missing from a spectrum. And the lines that are missing shows you what elements must have been near the light source, or in the intervening space that absorbed it. So you've got these emission lines, but these emission lines made no sense.
S: Don't you mean 'absorption lines'? Just to be clear, emission lines are different from absorption lines. Emission lines are when- are from the body itself that's glowing, absorption lines are from something intervening that's absorbing the light that was emitted.
B: That's right, you were right. So this is a key deficit in our knowledge about this object, because if you can't determine what the elements are, what the arrangement of elements are in the spectrum, then you don't know how red-shifted the object is. That's one of the reasons why quasars were such a puzzle to astronomers early on, because quasars are so red-shifted, they're billions of light years distant, therefore, their red-shift is gargantuan, and it took a while for astronomers to realize 'wait a second, hydrogen's way over here, if it's way over here, it's gotta be immensely distant'. And that's gotta be one of the key insights that made them realize that these objects were so far away. So if we don't have this information, if we can't kinda get a picture of what's going on with the spectrum of this object, then you have no idea how far away this is. Is it in our galaxy?
B: Is it in another galaxy? We don't know!
J: Is that like a ball of hydrogen, or some hot-pocket of air, or expanding space somewhere?
B: All we know is what we saw. It was some sort of stellar object that got brighter and brighter, like a Supernova, and then dimmed. But it was not typical of any other object that they've ever seen before.
S: Yeah, they said it's specifically not a supernova.
R: And if you were a pirate, would you call it a quasaaaaarrr?
B: Quasaaaarr! Yes! Good one.
R: I suspect that they call it quasaarrr
S: That's not a (inaudible)
B: We do have a range though, this thing must be within a certain range by other measurements, and one of them is parallax. Parallax is the movement of one object due to movement of a foreground object, so if an object is close enough away, say less than 130 light years, you would see obvious parallax. We're not seeing that, so that means that this object is more than 130 light years away. So that's the bottom limit right there. So, what's the upper limit? Well, the only upper limit I came across for this thing has to do with hydrogen absorption. Because it's lacking hydrogen absorption in the spectrum, that means that it has to be less than 11 billion light years away. So our range is greater than 120 light years, less than 11 billion light years.
B: Nice range
E: Oh, narrowed it down, that's great
B: That's the best they've come up with in two years. So, it could be anywhere in the intervening space.
S: But interestingly, given that it could be- there's such a huge range for how far away it could be, they said that it's not in any known galaxy. So there's no galaxy, I guess, on that-
B: I have a problem with that. I have a problem with that because there's been mention of this Boötes constellation they referred to, which is just a constellation of stars within our galaxy. But they refer to it as a void where there's really nothing around it for many light years, apparently. Now, there is a (Boötes super-void, it's a void, one of the biggest voids in the known universe, it's 250 million light years wide. Now I think they are possibly referring to this, they're saying that it's within this specific void. If it could be 130 light years away or 11 billion light years away, why do they think it's in a void 250 million light years across?
S: I don't think it's just that, my reading was that it's not in any known galaxy, if it were in a galaxy, they're not seeing the galaxy that it's in.
B: Yeah, but why even mention this specific Boötes void or concept? Cos that, to me, just seems like a red herring.
J: Bob, do we know if it's heading in a direction? Like, what direction it was moving in?
B: No, there was no- you know, 200 days is not gonna be any- there wasn't really any discernable movement. Now, could it be a new type of Supernova? Scientists don't think so, there's a problem with that, because it doesn't match any of the known Supernova types and the brightening took much longer than normal, typically, Supernovas will brighten for 20 days, this one lasted for 100 days, and the spectrum didn't make any sense. The light curve should be asymmetrical for a Supernova, they fade more slowly than they brighten, it didn't make any sense.
S: They also said it was not microlensing
B: Right, the light curve doesn't match a microlensing event. Microlensing occurs when light is distorted as it travels over a gravitational source. They've ruled that out as well. It doesn't look like a quasar, I mean nothing that-
B: They put this spectrum through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey database, which has just a vast number of objects, and it didn't match anything in there. This is really quite a mystery and I-
S: Yeah, so this thing is probably a whole new class of object – which is cool!
B: Yeah, some people have speculated that it's some sort of- because it's so symmetrical and blah, blah, blah that it could be-
B: -some sort of sign from an intelligence, but obviously there's nothing that would really give you any confidence in that sort of conclusion. Not yet, anyway. But that would be interesting, if evidence pointed that way, but, man, I'm not counting on that at all.
S: You don't think it's like a Death Star blowing up or something?
B: They were talking about it in the comments.
J: We would need so much more freakin evidence, you can't jump to that, that's incredible
B: No, that's ridiculous
S: Well they thought that about pulsars when they first saw them, they were called LGM
B: LGM, little green men, it was so regular
E: Cos it was too regular, right? It could only have been created or something
S: But sometimes, nature is really regular and symmetrical
E: Aah, when nature is regular
S: Yeah, you can't jump to an artificial hypothesis just because it's so symmetrical
J: I'm pretty regular
E: And symmetrical
R: That's not what I heard
Creationism in the UK (13:00)
S: Well, creationism is creeping into the UK, traditionally, the United States has had a problem with creationists trying to infiltrate public schools and etc. But now, apparently, it's becoming more of a problem in the United Kingdom. And this came to a head recently by comments made by reverend professor Michael Reiss who was, until very recently, the Director of Education at the Royal Society. The Royal Society, I think is the oldest scientific institution and has a very important position in the UK science community. He made some controversial statements, and this is a quote from them
An increasing percentage of children in the UK come from families that do not accept the scientific version of the history of the universe and the evolution of species. What are we to do with those children? My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science that one really wants them to learn. I think a better way forward is to say to them 'look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms evolved'.
S: He made other comments as well that really sparked a controversy over what exactly is this guy advocating? And because he's actually a literalist, not just a reverend, but a literalist, a lot of people sort of had their eye on this guy, and were sort of waiting for this kind of thing to happen, this kind of controversy to crop up. So this, perhaps as much as anything else, is what lead to this incredible controversy, but I still have a hard time knowing really what this guy was advocating.
R: Well, you know what the Society, a spokesman for the Society stepped forward and confirmed that, you know, what he was saying was inline with what they believed, and their exact quote was
Our position is that if young people put forward a creationist perspective in the classroom, it should be discussed.
R: Their whole thing, they're talking about science, so we can assume they're talking about the science classroom, and it's kind of ridiculous just to put it like that. I mean, if you're going to talk about that subject, then let's be specific, how should it be discussed? Should it be discussed in terms of showing them that, for instance, a belief in god can be compatible with evolution? Or should you be telling them that there's no way in hell the Earth was created in six days?
S: (agreeing) mm-hmm
R: It's not very educational, it's not very helpful to just throw that out there like that. It sounds like a big case of covering of asses
S: Yeah, they definitely- the Royal Society put out clarifications, 'quote-unquote', the next day saying 'creationism is not science, it should not be taught as science in the science classroom, and we whole-heartedly defend the teaching of evolution'. But this guy, Reiss, you know, he's just made other statements that were very, very squirly, for example, he said 'I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not believe the theory of evolution, while still introducing them to it'. He also made some comments about treating creationism and ID, intelligent design, and evolution as different world-views. So, you know, he's kinda dancing around this topic, and I think that, given that he's a literalist, and that he's making these squirly comments, it certainly seems like he's trying to squeeze in a little 'teach the controversy' through the back door there, just by saying 'we need to be respectful of the students, and we need to address their concerns and talk about creationism- oh, we believe in evolution, I'm not saying evolution is wrong, but, you know, we really need to take- we can't just teach evolution, we have to address their concerns'
R: Yeah, it almost sounds like he's going for the catching more flies with honey defense, but-
R: And there's something to be said for exploring different ways of reaching kids who are unfortunately growing up in households where their parents are ignorant of the basic tenants of science. And, you know, it is going to be difficult if they've been raised to believe in something wholly incompatible with what you're teaching them. You know, we do need to look at how we're teaching them. But to make a vague statement that just doesn't jibe at all with anything we're actually aiming for, and then to run away from it-
R: Is kinda cowardly and suspicious.
E: It's just a case of this person, I think, trying to be somewhat politically correct, not taking a firm stance one way or the other, trying to please the most people possible with his statement to try and quell any controversy, it just did the opposite, apparently.
J: He stepped down from his position too, because of the controversy.
R: He did, and the really cool thing is that he stepped down when British members of parliament stood up and said 'Hey, what the hell are you guys talking about? That's not science' and can you imagine that happening in the US, where an actual congress person steps up and bats somebody in line and defends science?
R: It seems kind of foreign (laughs) So, I think that the UK kind of scores one on that point.
S: Yeah, although again this is in the context of increasing sort of insurgence of creationism into the UK, and increasing concerns. This controversy was all around the science blogosphere for the last week, the last few days, and some of the comments, like P. Z Myers for example wrote a lot about this, and he said that 'you can teach students how we know the Earth isn't 6,000 years old. How we know there is common descent, you know, we know the Earth is 14 billion years old, etc, etc'. you can say historically they used to think this, you know 150 years ago, and this is how we- our thinking of our origins changed over time and developed with evidence. So, you can teach students everything students need to know about how science works, about how specific scientific beliefs came to be. But based upon what evidence, what logic. Without ever talking about a religious belief, or talking about creationism, you don't have to do that. I think that confronting something that is a religious belief in the science classroom is the wrong approach, you're better off saying 'in this classroom, we're talking about science, this is what science is. This is how scientists come to the conclusions that they come to. And you could achieve all of the objectives that Reiss claims he was really talking about, without respecting creationism as a world-view. That has no place in a science classroom. Some other things that have been going on, though, I don't know if this is a coincidence, but the Church of England, the C of E
E: (with English accent) C of E
S: Apologised to Darwin!
R: I think that is-
J: Now that blew my mind
J: I can't believe that
E: Did he accept?
S: Good for them
E: Did he accept?
R: He couldn't accept, he was roasting in hell for his evil Darwinist ideas!
J: (with English accent) So sorry, Darwin, sorry about that, old chap
S: So, yeah, they said it was basically the wrong thing to do, to basically oppress Darwin's views at the time. And, it turns out, that whole evolution thing was probably a good idea. Now, in response to that, the pope said 'yeah, evolution is fine, but we're not apologising'.
S: He refused to apologise.
J: He basically said 'Oh, yeah?'
S: 'You pansies in England can apologise to Darwin, the pope's not apologising to nobody'. But, yeah, evolution's fine, you know, they
J: The pope's tired
S: Right, but the UK's got their own creationist museum now.
R: (flatly) Good for them.
J: It was just a matter of time
E: Has the UK largely over the years been, not influenced by creationism, and it's only making some recent advances and strides?
S: Yes, that's exactly correct, and it really has been, at least in the West, a US phenomenon. But now it is spreading to the UK.
E: Do we know how much of it is influenced by Islam? Because the Islam population is on a great rise.
S: That is a factor I know that Richard Dawkins has pointed that out as a factor, that they are creating faith schools, and teaching creationism from their religious perspective. Others have pointed to, you know, specifically political influence from the US have pointed to the Templeton foundation, which is dedicated to-
E: Oh yeah
S: Connecting science and religion, and they have a lot of money behind that, so they give money to anybody who will-
B: A million dollars, a million dollars a year to the person who does the most to join science and religion, right?
R: I've seen rich people die and leave mansions to their cats, and it's a better use of money than that prize.
B: Yeah, I agree
J: and is it that general? The criteria is that general?
S: Yes. The goal is for science to validate faith, that is the goal.
E: So, is Michael Egnor in the running for that prize?
S: I wouldn't be surprised.
E: Yeah, right?
S: He definitely wants to intermingle those two
R: You know who pirates' favourite scientist is?
B: Oh boy,
S: I can't wait to hear
B: Oh god
J: Rebecca, get back on your medication as soon as possible.
R: I ran out of gin!
E: Keep up some rum, aarrr
B: Keep it up, Rebecca, I'm loving it
Questions and Emails (22:52)
S: Well, let's go on to your email, do you know what the first email's about?
E: It's about 15 sentences
S: It's about 'big phaaaarrrma'!
S: This one comes from Nick Vockrodt, from Arlington, Virgina. And he writes a very long email, I'm going to cut to the question: (see show notes for full email)
My question is regarding "Big Pharma" and specifically fibromyalgia-
R: I'm sorry, Steve, about big what?
S: big phaarrrghma
R: Thank you
S: and specifically fibromyalgia I was discussing the pharmaceutical industry with a friend who claimed that diseases are-
J: What was that, Steve? Fibro- what?
S: Alright, enough!
S: who claimed that diseases are being "made up" by drug companies for the sole purpose of creating a market for their medicines. He mentioned fibromyalgia as a perfect example, claiming it to be a disease that anyone can convince themselves they have. This sounded like what Dr. Novella describes as symptoms of life … I wasn't very familiar with the malady at the time to argue, but I tend to defend the pharmaceutical industry when faced with what sounds like a conspiracy theory. In my subsequent research, I found that there is some debate on it, but that the disease is generally accepted by the medical community as being "real".
S: Well, this is actually a complicated question because there's a few components to it. Let's take the first component of it: 'Does the pharma company make up diseases that they could then market their drugs for?'. I think there, in my opinion, the answer is a pretty unequivocal no. The pharmaceutical industry in this country, regulated by the FDA, when they market a drug, by definition, if you are marketing anything and claiming that it treats or cures or modifies a disease, it's regulated as a drug. Right, so things are regulated based on the kinds of claims that are made for them. But you don't get to make up your own diseases though, you know, to say that your drug is gonna treat something that you yourself get to make up, or that a company makes up. Companies are not in a position to create or will into existence a new disease. Things like fibromyalgia are- that is a diagnosis that emerged from the medical community. Now, I think that fibromyalgia is a very complicated disease entity that I have a lot of doubts about the way it's classified and diagnosed right now. First of all, it's not a disease, really, even though-
B: a syndrome?
S: -it is recog- so what the-
E: It's a 'condition'?
S: Like for regulatory purposes, what the FDA will consider a disease is not necessarily what we would, in medicine, use the term specifically 'disease' for, meaning a pathophysiological entity. Sometimes there are clinical syndromes, or a recognised entity, but we don't understand the pathophysiology, so it may be described purely by the clinical picture that it creates. So like 'chronic fatigue syndrome' is a syndrome, not really a disease. Fibromyalgia, I think, is better understood that way, although there are some thoughts about what might be causing it, it's actually not well understood. In fact, recent evidence suggests that a lot of people who have the symptoms of fibromyalgia may just be the symptoms of an underlying problem, like a sleep disorder. In fact, I think a lot of people who have the symptoms that are used to make the diagnosis fibromyalgia, actually have an underlying sleep disorder. Others may have an underlying anxiety disorder.
S: And if you treat people for the sleep disorder, the fibromyalgia symptoms go away, so that's a pretty good indication. At least some of them. Other people may have a simmering auto-immune inflammation of the muscles. And that may be really- if there is something that's really fibromyalgia, I think that's what it is. But a lot of people get similar symptoms for other reasons.
J: Would you consider fibromyalgia kind of like a 'catch-all' for a bunch of different types of symptoms then?
S: Yeah, I think it's what we call a 'garbage-pail diagnosis', you know, you just get people who have symptoms in this area, then this is the label you attach to it. But there isn't any way to specifically say 'yes, this is a discrete pathological entity that they have '. I also see the diagnosis made on non-specific symptoms, without the specific symptoms that are supposed to be there. So if you are fatigued and achy, and etc., and you call that fibromyalgia, well that's just attaching a label to non-specific symptoms. You're supposed to have what we call 'trigger points', that are specific places in the muscles that are very tender. And if you have that pattern of 'trigger points' then I think it's meaningful to say 'well that pattern is called fibromyalgia. We still don't know what it is, we have some ideas, but that's the way we use the diagnosis'. If you call everybody who is fatigued and achey fibromylagia, then the diagnosis has no meaning.
Now, I believe that the pharmaceutical industry has targeted fibromyalgia for a couple of drugs because it is such a easy diagnosis to make, because you can attach it to these vague symptoms, so I think if they're guilty of anything, it's choosing a marketable disease. But they didn't make it up, they weren't the ones to make it up. But that's just, you know, when pharmaceutical companies look for an indication for their drug, that's based purely on marketing. They want to decide 'what's the biggest market? What drugs are going to sell the most? Which indication will allow us to speak to which specialty of physicians that we want to be able to market to?'. It's all really a marketing decision, of course the science has to be there as well. But often, with many drugs, there are different indications that you could go for. For example, if a drug treats pain, or treats nerve pain, now nerve pain is not a disease, so you have to pick a disease that causes nerve pain. Now, what diseases cause nerve pain are you gonna pick? Postherpetic neuralgia or diabetic neuropathy? They're gonna make a marketing decision, They're gonna choose the one with the biggest sales, the biggest marketing options for their drug, but again, they don't get to make up the disease. The other disease for which I hear this claim the most frequently is restless leg syndrome (RLS).
E: Oh yeah
S: Jim Carrey made that comment, that pharmaceutical made up restless leg syndrome in order to market a drug for it. Well, first of all, the drugs that have the indication for treating RLS, already have other indications, they were already on the market for legitimate indications, so it wasn't a way of rescuing a failed drug, that's a demonstrable myth. The other thing is, restless leg syndrom has existed in the medical literature for decades. I was able to go onto my bookshelf and find an old neurology text with a 40 year old reference to restless leg syndrome.
S: 40 years before there was ever a drug marketed for it.
E: Is that what they called it back then?
S: Yes! Yes, and, in fact, if you dig deeper into the literature, the references go back even farther, and I forget what- it was known by other names even before the term restless leg syndrome came into being. So, yeah, it's basically like 100 years we've known that this has existed.
J: (squeaky Irish voice?) 'Let me show you something'. (normal voice) A perfect example of why I don't wanna know what famous people think.
R: Right? At all
E: Well, some
J: It ruined it for me, I loved that guy, now I have to hate him
S: Oh, you do have to hate Jim Carrey, he is totally now on board with the anti-vaccinationist kooks.
R: But he was so good in 'Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind'!
S: He was
E: Sorry, so sorry.
J: Oh well
E: Move on
S: Terrible, terrible, terrible.
J: (singing) 'another one bites the dust'
S: So, anyway, this is just unfounded conspiracy theories. Now, again, that doesn't mean that the pharmaceutical industry is not an industry that, they're not companies looking at their bottom line, and that the companies are beyond reproach. I'm not saying that, this notion that they make up diseases is nonsense. That is just made up conspiracy thinking.
Name That Logical Fallacy (30:53)
S: We do have a 'Name that logical fallacy' this week, we actually got our first piece of hard-core hate-mail in a long time. And it's just so chock-full of logical fallacies, I thought it would make good example for us to examine this week. So here we go, this one comes from Melvin Lee, who gives his-
R: Melvin!... sorry
S: Gives his location as America. Thanks for being helpful. Now, Melvin writes (all indented quotes taken from show notes as written):
I think that u and all those mofos on that show are full of shit.
R: Wait, can you say that? You can't say that on the show.
E: Should you say 'mofo'?
S: How can u honestly say NO! there is no bigfoot just because I've never seen it, NO! crop circles aren't real because I'm obviously the creator of this world and I know EVERYTHING about.
U pussies or just.......ugh, words can't describe how I feel about u guys. WHO R U-
S: Now, you also have to- we'll obviously publish the-
R: All the "are"s are just the letter, all the "you"s are
S: Capital 'R', capital 'U', " WHO R U"
R: Melvin, actually texted this to us, it took him 16 texts
S: You know, if you're gonna write a critical email-
R: Cost him 35 cents
S: -take the time to spell out the words
E: You have to assume that the person crafting it can spell the words
B: Nah, this is a young kid, this is just a kid.
S: WHO R U to tell some that they didn't see something with their own eyes and what they saw was an illusion. plz reread over WHO R U. U r human, u r not some all knowing god. U cannot get mad at someone for jus reporting what they saw, where u there too?, so how could u possibly say they didn't see that they thought they saw.
R: Wait, can you just do that sentence one more time?
Their just reporting it. This world is full of secrets and jus because it seems mundane doesn't mean its fake. Another thing. if hundreds of people AROUND THE WORLD r seeing something (bigfoot, ufos, ghost), then it has to be true. Not every situation was a hoax r the product of an over active mind. all I'm saying is WE R ALL HUMANS u have the same brain as me, u r not the god who created this world, therefore u cannot say confidently that something's not there, when it obviously is.
(sound clip of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – Full Metal Jacket)"Holy jesus!"
B?: Thanks for that email, Melvin
E: Thank you Gunnery Sergeant Hartman
R: Thanks Melvin, it's good to hear from you
S: Thank you. All say 'thanks Melvin'
E: Keep on listening!
J: Honestly, let's honestly answer the email. Because if the guy-
S: That's what we're gonna do!
R: How? It's gonna take us all day. I think that's one good example of 'argument from popularity'. He said that, you know, if hundreds of people around the world believe in something, then it has to be true. But that is not correct because, you know, think about it this way: entire countries think that other entire countries should be obliterated off the map, and that doesn't make it true.
S: Yeah, or millions of people, billions sometimes, hold beliefs that are mutually exclusive to beliefs that other millions of people believe. So, either one or both of those groups of millions of people have to be wrong.
J: Yeah, and look at all the people that bought the Milli Vanilli albums.
S: That's true!
R: They all believed they were really singing, they were wrooong
B: There's a lotta 'straw men', he keeps throwing around tons of 'straw men'
B: Like "there's no Bigfoot because I've never seen it", "you can not get mad at someone for just reporting what they saw", "not every situation was a hoax, or the product of an overactive mind". It's a false dichotomy, I mean it's full of this stuff.
S&B: There's a lotta 'straw men'.
B: Mischaracterisations of what our arguments are, he's not even paying attention!
S: Right, so first of all, we don't say 'there is no Bigfoot, there are no aliens visiting the Earth, there are no ghosts'. What we say is there's no evidence compelling acceptance or belief in any of those things, the people who say that there is Bigfoot, have not met anywhere near a reasonable burden of proof.
R: The invisible pink unicorn could exist, we are simply agnostic as to its existence.
S: Right, where it's unfalsifiable, we're agnostic, if it's a scientific proposition, they haven't met the burden of proof, or the burden of evidence. And therefore, we do not accept it as an established or a proven scientific hypothesis, given the current state of evidence. But hey, if someone actually did find a Bigfoot body, and it stood up to peer review
R: And it wasn't a costume
S: It wasn't a costume
R: Sold by hoaxters
S: We'd accept compelling evidence as compelling
J: Yeah, and add to it, we'd actually be excited about it!
R: That would be mega-cool!
B: I don't know, it would smash my world view, and I would deny it to my dying day.
R: Well only if Bigfoot wasn't riding atop a magical unicorn.
E: Or a sacred cow
S: Now hang on, there's some other logical fallacies in here, the challenge is in finding all of them.-
R: Oh, we're not done yet, are we?
S: You guys are just picking the low-hanging fruit.
R: Alright, alright, alright. Well there's an argument from ignorance, saying that we can't say that it doesn't exist because we're not gods who created everything and everything.
S: Right, that's good, it's an argument from ignorance, he's basically saying that because we don't have perfect infinite knowledge, that we therefore have no knowledge, that we can't make any factual judgments about what's likely to be true or not likely to be true, scientifically. And I'll say that, you know, we don't know for sure, because we're not god, that Bigfoot doesn't exist, therefore, Bigfoot exists. And we should also then adhere to the argument ad populum, that other people say that they believe it, so that's enough.
E: Well there's ad hominem attacks all over the place.
S: Oh yeah, 'pussies'
R: Well, yeah, and not all of us are 'mofos', technically, only Jay.
J: Yeah, actually, I'm a proud mofo.
J: That one didn't bother me.
S: He also implies that, you know, the only way to assess someone's eye-witness testimony is to be an eye-witness ourselves,
S: When in fact, you can assess eye-witness testimony by putting it into context. And also if you're -
J: There are court rooms all over the world do that every day
S: (laughs) Right, we're just saying there's more than one hypothesis. If somebody claims they saw a flying-saucer, there's multiple hypotheses you can derive from that. One is that they saw a flying saucer, but another one is that they were mistaken, or they're lying, or they were simply confusing a more mundane object, or their memory was contaminated by the testimony of another person. There's lots of-
E: Or the alcohol they drank.
S: They were in a compromised condition, sleep-deprived or drunk, or whatever. There's lots of hypotheses, and we want all- you know, any good scientist should consider all of them, and accept the ones that are most supported by the evidence, and also, Occam's razor, you don't accept the one that requires the introduction of a major new assumption, that we're being visited by aliens, when you haven't ruled out the far more likely, simple ones.
S: Right, the guy simply made a mistake, or maybe he's pulling your leg. That's all, so
J: I think Melvin's email actually, as poorly written as it is and everything, and he's got a negative attitude and he's just like sounding off at us. It's not that far away from where a lot of people stand. I think a lot of people agree with this.
S: You're absolutely right, Jay, and that's what, even though, yeah, we're kinda poking fun at Melvin, partly because of his atrocious grammar and the way he constructed this email. But in fact, the same arguments, he's poorly constructed it, but these same logical fallacies, and these same arguments are the absolute bread and butter of the true-believers, or the anti-skeptics. We hear this all the time, the 'you don't know everything', equating 'not having infinite knowledge' with having 'no knowledge', the argument from ignorance, the appeal to popularity. We encounter these on a daily basis when confronting people who believe things that are not supported by the scientific evidence. So, we're not just attacking an easy target, this is absolutely bread and butter anti-skepticism.
J: And I would take it one step further and ask Melvin, if he's listening: write us back, pick any topic that you mention in here, like Bigfoot as an example, and we'll have a real email exchange discussion about it. I promise to do that. If you wanna have a discussion, I'll tell you everything I think, and you can tell me everything you think, and we'll just vet it out over time without swearing at each other. Or at least keeping it down
S: And also, my advice to, just generic advice to people who are going to send a ranting email, actually the title of the email was 'rant', so Melvin knew this was a rant. But, if you're gonna do that, make a real effort to understand the position of the person you're disagreeing with. That's always, generically, a good idea. Because there's nothing more worthless than arguing against a position that the other person doesn't even hold, because then you're just completely wasting your time, and all you're really declaring is 'I don't understand what's going on, I didn't take the time to even understand your position. I'm arguing against a "straw man"', basically that's the only thing you're accomplishing. Well, let's go on to our interview.
Interview with Ben Goldacre (40:18)
S: Ok, we're sitting here now with Ben Goldacre,Ben, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide
S: You run a website in the UK called 'Bad Science', is it .net?
BG: Yeah, yeah, BadScience.net, available all around the world!
S: Tell us about that
R: The world-wide web, Steve
S: Oh yeah, I keep forgetting
BG: (mocking) 'Ah yes, you're from the United Kingdom'. (normal voice) Well, it's a sort of mixture of my columns in the Guardian and other bits and bobs that I come across, and it's- maybe about sort of a quarter of it is about quackery, and most of it is about bad science reporting in mainstream media. I don't know if that's as much a problem in the US as it is in the UK.
S: It's more of a problem in the US than the UK
BG: Is that right? (laughs) I mean, in the UK, there have been some phenomenal bogus scare stories. I mean, there was one about theMRSA 'killer bacteria' that was essentially a bogus lab that was giving bogus results to undercover journalists, and of course the media's MMR hoax in the UK. Which I think you're about to get a run of in the US, with the thiomersal thing, which is going to be very interesting.
S: Well we're already- that's already passed its peak, the thimerosal (common name for thiomersal in US)
BG: Do you think so?
S: Yeah, well, it was removed, you know, from vaccines in the United States by the end of 2002
BG: Yeah, yeah, but –
S: Autism hasn't gone up
BG: But the media storm didn't seem to start until what, this year, really. There was that case-
S: It had a resurgence because of Jenny McCarthy, and Jim Carrey, and because of the mitochondrial DNA case. Yeah, so in the UK, I think the MMR was a bigger story. Thimerosal was bigger in the United States.
S: Is that still big over there? The MMR, are they still-
BG: It's dwindling, the Observer did a bogus front page story about how autism was now up to one in 58, basically misunderstanding an unpublished piece of research which was looking at comparing different ways of measuring the prevalence of autism. So obviously, if you use the widest net, then you get the biggest number. But what I actually find interesting about vaccine scare is how poorly they propagate between different territories. So for example, in the UK we had the 'MMR causes autism' because of the measles virus, that was the scare, and that was mostly, that kind of peaked in 2001, 2002. But it didn't propagate outside of the UK. In America, you have your thiomersal scare, in France, they have a story about the hepatitis-B vaccine causing multiple sclerosis, but nobody's heard of that outside of France. In the UK in the 80s, we had 'whooping cough vaccine causing neurological problems' driven by one fairly eccentric doctor from Scotland, and obviously in Nigeria at the moment in Kano province, the imams have issued a pronouncement saying that the polio vaccine is a plot by the Americans to make Muslims infertile and stop them from having children.
S: And spread HIV.
BG: Is that part of the scare as well?
BG: Oh no, yeah, you're absolutely right, yeah. And, you know, what's interesting about that, I guess, is the WHO's polio medication program was on target to eradicate polio from around the world by now. But it's not, and people have, you know, you can do PCR on polio outbreaks around the world and they've found that the specific polio virus from Nigeria, from Kano province, has triggered outbreaks of polio elsewhere in the world. It's very interesting to me how these vaccine scares are all, you know, structurally quite similar, but they propagate very poorly, and I don't think the thiomersal scare could take off in the UK, just because the MMR story has been debunked in the UK. So, it would seem ridiculous to the media- it just wouldn't fit the natural tempo of the stories to then suddenly go 'oh no, but it does, actually cause these problems'
S: Yeah, right
R: So does that mean you think you're pretty much past the worst of all of those kind of stories in the UK? Or do you think there's another one on the horizon?
BG: Certainly not, and actually for very interesting reasons, definitely not. If you look at France and Austria, you can see that they've come very close to electing, in the case of Austria, they did elect some seriously sort of right-wing fruitcakes, you know, bordering on fascism. Whereas in Germany, where they had to face up to what they did in World War II, there was a kind of truth and reconciliation process, and they have kind of green and liberal governments. There's no way, I don't think that Germany could re-elect a fascist government. I think that you have to go through the process of recognizing where you've gone wrong, in order to stop going wrong in the future. What I find fascinating about the termination of the MMR hoax, in the UK, is that it came to an end, not because the media suddenly went 'well actually, a 12 subject case series report isn't sufficient grounds to say that MMR causes autism'. It wasn't because they made a kind of critical appraisal of all of the literature for and against and went 'well actually, it just doesn't look like MMR causes autism, this was a storm in a tea-cup'. It came to an end because an investigative journalist called Brian Deer, for whom I've got a lot of respect, from the Sunday Times came along and revealed that the lead doctor who was driving the story had received half a million pounds, a million dollars, in legal sort of, you know, expert witness costs. And so he had, one could argue, a competing interest there. Now, I don't think for one moment that that's the reason why Wakefield held the views that he held, and I don't think that one man can drive a story. But now the media are all queued up to say 'oh, the original research has been debunked', when the original research was a 12 subject case series report that never meant anything about anything. And they're saying 'oh, you know, the MMR story has been disproven because Andrew Wakefield had half a million quid', so they're all queuing up to blame this one doctor for the hoax that was the media's work.
S: (agreeing) mm-hmm
BG: Collectively, the British media community have created this story, and they drove it for many, many years. And the fact that they're now trying to pin it on one doctor, I have to say, I'm not a big fan of Wakefield, but I think it's very healthy that there are, you know, doctors with idiosyncratic views on medicine, I think it's an absolute bizarre travesty that they're pinning it all on him.
B: So they're all right, but for the wrong reasons?
BG: Yeah, I think that's why they're not inoculated against future cock-ups
R: Well, you're doing a lot to help media, scientific literacy amongst the media in the UK, but do you ever think they'll get that realisation? Do you ever think they'll finally realise what they're doing wrong?
BG: I don't think you can stop people from producing stupid stories, but I think you can add some sense into the mix. So often, when I talk, people say- I do lots of talks in epidemiology departments and some medical statisticians, just cos the jokes can be a bit more interesting and sophisticated that way.
BG: And people are often outraged, and they say 'well we need some laws to- these people need to be- we should be able to chop the fingers off bad journalists', and I just don't think it's realistic. But what you can do, is approach newspapers, and I just rang one up one day and said, you know, 'can I write for you?', and they said yes. You know, there's no great mystery, I think you can add in more sense to dilute the nonsense, or at least give people an opportunity to see some sense. Cos otherwise, unless people who understand the evidence get in there and explain the mechanics of why it is that you hold a belief on the back of some published evidence, then science, at least in Britain, is only being portrayed as being about authoritative truth statements from arbitrary cultural figures called scientists in white coats, you know, "scientists today said-", "scientists today deny-", "scientists today refuted-". But it's never, you know, "scientists today said 'well, there's this study, and it shows this, and for that reason, we think this'". That doesn't happen
BG: And by adding that into the mix, you do something very powerful
S: And the Wakefield story reflects that, because it was about the authority of Wakefield, and when that was knocked down, the story was knocked down. Not about the evidence and the logic of whether or not there's any link between vaccines and autism.
BG: It was about the authority of Wakefield, but it was also about human interest versus these white coat guys saying 'there's nothing to worry about'. So on one hand you had a worried parent, and on the other side you had a scientist saying, you know 'there's nothing to worry about', and that wouldn't reassure me!
BG: You know, it would look like a cover-up, or it would look dismissive
S: Right, so like us, you're using new media blogs to try to fight this bad journalism in the UK. How do you think that's going? How much play does your blog get?
BG: It gets a lot of visitors, and it gets a lot of links, and the thing that's most exciting is there are lots of other people who are now blogging in the UK who do a really, really great job of pulling apart just sort of silly bit and bobs, but it's great when there's this kind of mass effect. Cos somebody will publish a tedious 'memory of water' paper, you know, homeopathy, and you'll be like, I can't be bothered to pull this apart. But someone somewhere will, you know, that burning sense of 'someone somewhere is wrong on the internet, I must put them right!'
BG: And that's fantastic. The only thing that disappoints me a little bit, I guess, is that I'm not as agitated about quackery as some people are, you get a lot of quite sanctimonious stuff from people kinda saying 'homeopathy is this public health scandal ', and I don't think that's true. I think homeopathy is really interesting, I think it's a really fascinating cultural phenomenon. I think it's really interesting that at a time when doctors are trying really hard to work collaboratively with patients, explain evidence with them and make decisions in concert with their patients, I think it's a tragedy that while doctors are trying to do that, quacks and the media are really kind of undermining the public's understanding of evidence. But I don't think that quackery is practically really dangerous, I think it's funny and interesting. I think it's interesting that there's a lot of bloggers who are keen to pick up on mocking quacks, which is funny, and it's great, and it produces great content. The thing that I wish that there was more of, is people taking down bogus news stories, because that's the thing that needs to be done so much more, because that's kind of the more culturally influential end of stuff, you know?
BG: But, I guess they're not such easy hits or, yeah, I don't know why it is.
S: Well, the news cycle is quick, you've got to do it very quickly. Right? You find a new story hits, you've got to get your blog that day or you're going to get missed by the news cycle.
BG: I guess so, although I'm not sure that's true, actually. I mean, I'm often cheerfully writing on things a couple of weeks after they've gone, but that's because I'm just smug enough to imagine that I can stand outside of the news thing. I actually think that's really interesting example of one of the more subtle aspects of how the media misrepresents science. I don’t think science makes a very good news subject, I think science is naturally a feature subject, because it's about emerging themes supported by a whole raft of evidence from a number of different disciplines that emerges over the course of many years. When you focus all your science reporting about a news story, a sudden breakthrough, a single piece of research, that's actually quite misrepresenting in a subtle way. Firstly because the stuff that makes a finding newsworthy, actually make it quite likely to be wrong, you know, it's incongruent with previous results, for example. And so it misrepresents stuff in that way. Obsessing over stuff being newsy is actually a bit of a mistake, I think people who are communicating science should feel cool with just sitting back and going 'what do we know about functional brain imaging and schizophrenia? There's a really interesting story there'
BG: It doesn't have to be new
S: I totally agree, I think the news cycle and the obsession with the story is really antithetical to the way science really works, which is taking your time and putting it together into the big picture. Often times I think you do that well, and that's we try to do, sort of take the news story and back up now into context, which is what the journalists don't do, right?
BG: Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't, I think there's a really interesting split in certain British news media, which has been studied quite carefully, which is: specialist health and science reporters are actually very good at their job, they know a lot of background, they know how to critically appraise research, and they will often make a fairly good stab at doing that with their articles, as long as they can get it past the desk. But what you find is, whenever a story becomes a big, political hot potato, whenever it becomes a big news story, like the MMR vaccine, or the GM food, the 'Frankenstein' food front pages of 1998, you find that the stories get taken out of the hands of the specialists, and put into the hands of the generalists, so the MMR story, especially after the question became 'did Tony Blair's son have the MMR vaccine?' – a fact that was mentioned in 33% of the news stories about MMR in 2002, when Andrew Wakefield's name was only in 25%, so Tony Blair's son was a bigger figure in our media coverage than Andrew Wakefield was. What you find is that, also, when there's a big story like MMR, also MMR was twice as likely to be written about by generalist journalists as a story about cloning, for example. And in the first two days after the Frankenstein food story hit the news stands, not a single one of the news or comment pieces in the entirity of the British news media, was written by a science columnist.
S: Yeah, that's definitely a big problem. Ben, you have a book coming out based on your blog, why don't you tell us about that?
BG: Yeah, yeah, it's called 'Bad Science', maintaining brand homogeneity. And that's coming out with Fourth Estate, Harper Collins in September, and it should be very good, although it's very, very UK-centric, because I write about misrepresentation of science in the media, and the media I know very well is UK media. And I have this huge raft of examples from a thousand stories now, that's not an estimate, that's like, the number. And I've kinda been able to- it kinda grew out of this bet with a friend where, like, we both teach epidemiology, and I was like 'I bet I could teach the whole of epi' – or epidemiholiday As the medical students call it=
BG: 'I bet I can teach the whole of epi, only using exaples of people getting things wrong in broadsheet national news papers'
BG: And it turned out to be true, but what I'd really like, actually, is to get a better handle on the ways that science is misrepresented in the media in America, cos it would be great to branch out and I'm not mercenary about selling the book, I accept that I will lead a life of obscurity in academia in a rented ex-council flat-
E: I fear that would be a volume of books if you attempted to do that, not just a single book.
BG: Right, that would be like Churchill's history of World War I
S: But, I'm telling you, following your blog, that the examples are completely applicable to the United States, I think they'd be very-
BG: Yeah, yeah, well, actually, if there are people out there listening who know about this stuff, what I'd really like – email@example.com - what I'd really like is for people to send me sort of examples from American media that mirror the cock-ups in British media. Are we allowed to say cock-ups in a Christian country?
R: Oh, we're allowed to say it twice, gosh
BG: Have I said cock twice?
E: You British are allowed to say anything you want
R: That's three now.
S: Alright, well sometimes the stories are the same, like I think you covered the regenerating finger story.
BG: That was hilarious! I mean that was-
S: And we covered that too,
R: Yeah, that was great
BG: Out of nowhere, and it was like three years old too
BG: But it was the BBC who reignited that story! And again, it was not a science or health correspondent, it was the BBC's New York correspondent, and you could see he was like, he was beside himself with excitement. He really thought he had found Nobel prize winning stuff with this, like, backwards guy in his model shop, who's finger had grown back. And he, this sense of holy reverence as he talked about the science, was just extraordinary, and just disproportionate to the reality, which was that, lop the top of your finger off and it just grows back, that's just nature
S: Yeah, it healed naturally
R: It just happens
S: You're hawking your brother's new product.
BG: New company, yeah
R: I should tell him about the holes for my earrings that closed up after I didn't wear earrings for a while.
BG: I mean, it's really interesting that there's this recurring theme in all of these stories in bad science and the media, and also in quackery, where we're sort of bringing all these childish fables, we're letting them take the credit for the amazing things that the body does, you know. Like when people were bringing in that placebo pill, and I'm like, I'm in sort of two minds about the ethics of giving placebos, I think it might be useful in some situations, but giving placebos to kids when they've got a cold, and I kinda think 'well, ok, you wanna tell your kid a reassuring story: here's a pill, you'll get better'. But how more empowering is it to say 'look, at the moment, there's this small, tiny microscopic organism that's gone into your body, it's called a virus, and it's really clever. What it does, is it exploits the machinery in your body that makes new parts for you, and it uses that to make copies of itself, and also it releases these other things that irritate the other parts of your body, and that's why you've got a cough and a sore throat, but your body's really clever, because on the surface of every cell, is holding out copies of all the stuff that's happening inside, and the immune system cells are floating around, and they have a look at what's in every cell by looking at this stuff that's being held out on the surface. And when they see something that's alien like that, they go in and they call all of their friends who arrive, following like a smoke trail to the source of the fire, along a chemotactic path, and then they go in, and they find the bad guys, and they wrap them up in, like, a little ball, and they squirt bleach at them, and they kill them'. Now that, to me, why is that a sugar pill?
J: I finally understand!
BG: Why let a sugar pill take credit for that? It's just insane, you know, and why let a healer take credit for that. But why let some magic powder take credit for the totally amazing fact that, if you cut the top of your finger off, it grows back like new, I mean that, that's a miracle, you know!
BG: Quite apart from the fact that in the stories they were sort of talking about powder made out of (mystically) endothelial cells!
BG: As if like-
S: It's some exotic thing, pig's bladder
BG: No, it was (laughing)
BG&S: 'extra-cellular matrix'
BG: and it was like 'and these are made of 'extra-cellular matrix', and you're like extra-cellular matrix surrounds the cells of every single cell in all of the bodies of all of the people in the world, extra-cellular, you know, there's more extra-cellular matrix in the world than you could shake a stick at.
J: That's like 'the super spectacular!'
S: 'Space-age technology', that's 50 years old!
S: Well, Ben, we certainly appreciate what you're doing, we love your blog and your articles for the Guardian, I fell like we're just getting started, maybe we'll have a chance to sit down again, if not here, some time in the future.
BG: Yeah, yeah, cool
S: And thanks again for sitting with us.
R: Thanks, Ben
BG: Cheers, thank you.
Randi Speaks: The Media (59:20)
(jingle) And now, Randi speaks.
S: Randi, tell us how you think the media deals with issues of science and skepticism.
JR: Rather badly, generally speaking, because the media is interested in a sensational story. Well, they say they want news, but they want sensational news. You know very well that puppy dog down a sewer is going to get much more attention than some political hack in the local community, unless he has something to do with puppies going down sewers. The media's that way, and it's understandable, they want to sell newspapers and programs and wot-not. I've said it before and I'll say it again: most people in the media are educated in the humanities, and they don't have a good grasp of science and reality, and how things work. They're very easily deceived, they're very naïve in some respects, and they're purposefully naïve perhaps because they want the story to be there. Now, an excellent example of that on a very high level is an ABC TV program that I did, I guess last year. They got me all the way in to New York city to discuss the 'John of god' situation. Now, 'John of god' is a so-called psychic healer and wot-not in Brazil, and he's doing very simple tricks that, kind of what people have known for a long time, sticking sticks up your nose and wot-not, and he actually sticks forceps up the patients' noses. I went armed for bear, I went to New York City, and they stuck me in the studio in front of a video camera. I had with me video tapes, props and wot-not, and I spoke with John Quiñones, he was the host on the show. They interviewed me for two and a half hours, two and a half hours they interviewed me!
I was on with a man called Dr Mehmet Oz, a very, very famous cardiac surgeon in New York city, a great reputation, but totally woo-woo. He actually has nurses specially trained in the art of balancing the aura, walking around in his operating room while he's got a patient on the table with his chest cavity open and his heart being fixed! And Mehmet Oz will throw up his hands when told by the nurse that she's coming through to balance the aura by passing her hands over it! Incredible! Incredible that a man in this day and age, let alone a very highly educated man like Mehmet Oz, would be involved in such quackery! Such absolute foolishness, such a juvenile approach to reality. But, nonetheless, he is a great cardiac surgeon, and I would trust myself to him any time. (quietly and suspiciously) As long as he kept the woman with the funny gloves out of the place. (in normal voice) But, he was on the program as well, it ended up that the program used nine seconds of what I said. Nine seconds out of two and a half hours. They didn't use any other recorded material, any other references to the video tapes with demonstrations of how the forceps up the nose trick is done, as I say, it's an old carnival stunt. But they used a great deal of Mehmet Oz, they used quotations from him, and he even said something – for a Dr, very foolish – he said that sticking up the nose came close to certain glands in the head and wot-not, but he didn't notice – because he doesn't operate on the head, I guess, that there's a half-inch layer of bone in between where the forceps go up. Now, is it supposed to be a magnetic influence? A proximity influence? A capacity effect? I don't know, but he mentioned that as a possibility. He really is a woo-woo artist. Unfortunately, with all of that education and very extensive training and great expertise.
So they used all of nine seconds, but they used it so unfairly, they had me saying – and this took nine seconds, "there are no greater liars in the world than quacks, except for their patients". Now, that was broadcast like that, but the complete quotation was "As that early American philosopher Ben Franklin once said, there are no greater liars in the world than quacks, except for their patients". So, I was attributing it to Ben Franklin, but they cut that out, because that made it look as if I was stealing it from Ben Franklin. I got emails, Steve, from all over the world, saying "you're quoting Ben Franklin, you stole that! You should have attributed it to them". I did! But they edited it out, and they edited out the complete explanation of how the forceps up the nose trick was done, and the various other things that 'John of God' does. Now this is totally irresponsible, it borders on the criminal, because what that does, ABC television in a feature program had this number about 'John of God', and that, I'm sure, brought hundreds of Americans to travel off to Brazil and spend their hard-earned money on this quackery. And 'John of God', I'm sure, was very happy with it. And they never did a retraction of any kind.
Science or Fiction (1:04:43)
S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine, and one fictitious. And then, my panel of skeptics tries to tell me which one they think is the fake. Are you guys ready for this week?
S: Here we go, number one: 'Astrophysicists have discovered the upper limit for the mass of a black hole'. Item number two: 'New research suggests that the rise of the dinosaurs over their contemporaries was due to luck, and not any inherent competitive edge'. And item number three 'New study in humans demonstrated improved strength and performance following transplantation of muscle stem cells'. Bob, go first.
B: (quietly) you bastard
B: 'upper limit for the mass of a black hole', it does sound kinda bizarre, I mean, what's preventing a black hole from just getting bigger and bigger? Um, so on the surface, that doesn't sound right, if you think about it. Dinosaur dominance 'due to luck, and not any inherent competitive edge', I mean, that makes sense on the surface, absolutely. A lot of evolution and whether you go extinct or not has to do with luck. That definitely can play a part, maybe that makes too much sense. 'New study in humans demonstrated improved strength and performance following transplantation of muscle stem cells', that sounds pretty cool, and that would be awesome, I'm gonna say that's science. I'm gonna say that… that the dinosaur dominance being luck, that sounds a little fishy, I'm gonna say that that is fiction.
S: Ok, Evan?
E: Well, 'upper limit for the mass of a black hole'… I mean, there would have to be some kind of upper limit, wouldn't there? It's just a matter of discovering it, one would think, but I'm not too sure about that. Dinosaurs having an advantage over contemporaries 'was due to luck'… yeah. But how were they able to determine that, you know, how do you equate 'luck' in a scientific context? I'm not quite sure really what's being said there. And then the 'improved strength and performance following transplantation of muscle stem cells', sure, yes, finding out all kinds of new things about all stem cells these days, cutting edge science, totally plausible. So I'll agree with Bob that the dinosaur one is fiction.
S: Ok, Rebecca?
R: See now, I'm not so sure, because I'm pretty sure I read something about this, and that they actually found these skeletons of an elderly pack of velocoraptors, surrounded by a field of four-leafed clovers, and a small pile of rabbit's feet next to them. So, I believe that that's actually science, and I also think that a black hole should have an upper limit, cos otherwise, well, you know, that's too scary to compliment- er, contemplate. So I think that transplanting muscle stem cells, I don't think we're quite to the point where we can improve strength and performance doing that, and that sounds like, are we doing studies on humans with muscle stem cells? That doesn't seem like it's going to work, I don't know. I think that's fiction, so-
S: Ok, alright? Jay?
J: Yeah, the upper limit to the black hole- the upper limit to the mass of a black hole, I would just assume that it makes a lot of sense, like Evan said, that someone would be able to sit down and run the math and be able to theoretically figure that out. 'New research suggests that the rise of the dinosaurs over their contemporaries was due to luck, and not any inherent competitive edge'. Mmm, that one seems … fishy to me for some reason, how could they determine it was just luck? I wonder how the fossil record could demonstrate that. And the last one, 'New study in humans demonstrated improved strength and performance following transplantation of muscle stem cells'. Yeah, you know, I think I would've heard this. If that happened, I think that it would be much bigger news, you know, definitely above the water line, or I would've read it, with the amount of reading I do on science news. I don't think that one is science, I think that one was altered by Steve.
S: Ok, so you all agree that 'Astrophysicists have discovered the upper limit for the mass of a black hole', correct?
S:Yeah, actually, this was the most counter-intuitive one for me when I first read it. This is science, and, you know, like Bob, my reaction was 'what would stop it from absorbing more mass? What would happen if a black hole reached it's upper limit, and then, you know, there was more material to suck in, what would happen?' Well, it turns out astrophysicists-
B: More to it.
S: -have calculated the theoretical upper limit for the mass of a black hole, it's a Yale astronomer in fact, Priyamvada Natarajan. What (s)he suspects is, there's a mechanism that, as the black hole gets to about 10 billion solar masses-
S: -that any matter falling into it would cause the radiation away of an equal amount of mass.  So it reaches an equilibrium point, you know-
J: baaahh (?)
S: -evaporate or radiate away the same amount of mass that was pulled into it-
B: Wait, but you're not talking about Hawking radiation though. My interpretation was that-
S: No, no
B: -you've got accretion disk radiation
S: Yes, that's right
B: Yeah, that's a big difference. And my understanding, though, Steve, was that this isn't a hard rule. If you've got so much in-falling matter, you would reach a point where the radiation being generated by the heat of the accretion disk would actually blow away solar ma- any material that would've fallen into the black hole, so you gotta kinda like a soft limitation in that way. But if you've got a 10 billion solar mass black hole, and it bumps into a neutron star, or a smaller black hole, nothing's going to stop that from getting bigger than 10 billion-
S: Well, see, I was not clear on that point from the article that I read. That was my question too.
B: That was my understanding from reading some articles, and reading a lot of the comments from people who seem to know what they were talking about. What I know about black holes, what is going to stop it, to go above it if it's as I described.
S: Yeah, but the press release makes it sound like that's just one possible explanation, but that other things were used to derive this upper limit. You know, we might have to do some follow-up to try and sort that out, but that was exactly the question that I had: is that a hard limit? Or is it a soft limit? You seem to think that it was a soft limit, right?
S: And my interpretation was that this was a hard limit, and one of the mechanisms proposed for that would prevent the black hole from getting bigger than about 10 billion solar masses, but, interesting either way. So let's go on to number two: 'New research suggests that the rise of the dinosaurs over their contemporaries was due to luck, and not any inherent competitive edge', and Bob and Evan, you both said that this one was fiction.
J: So it's down to Bob and Evan, and me and Rebecca, teaming up again
S: Jay and Rebecca thought this one is science, and this one… is… science!
J: You guys suck.
S: But you guys did ask-
B: There goes my run.
S: an excellent question, which is- 'how would-
S: -'how would they know?'. How would you even make this determination?
B: I don't know, you dominate the planet for 200 million years, there's gotta be some competitive edge in there.
E: Well explain what luck is, in this context.
J: Talk to us, Steve.
S: Well, luck would be that there was an environmental change, and you happened to benefit from that change, as opposed to-
B: Like humans, mammals
S: -you just out-competed, you out-competed your contemporaries. Now, what they did, was they, this is Steve Brusatte from Bristol University, department of Earth Sciences. And they looked at the species that were around early in the career of the dinosaurs. They found that the other major group at the time were the crurotarsans, which were alligator-like reptiles. At that time, they were a more diverse group, with greater disparity, and actually were dominant over the early dinosaurs at their time. He said, if you were, you know, in the early triassic, for example, and you looked at these two groups, you would predict, based upon their diversity, disparity and dominance, that the crurotarsans would have a much greater chance of dominating the future than the dinosaurs would. So by any measure of 'who was winning', the crurotarsans seemed to be winning in terms of spreading into more ecosystems and, you know, having greater numbers, etc. But then two things happened, there was the carnian-norian event 228 million years ago, which caused a lot of extinctions, with both the dinosaurs and the crurotarsans survived that, but it did eliminate a lot of competition, and then 200 million years ago, there was the end Triassic extinction, which resulted from a period of significant global warming, increase in temperature, and the dinosaurs weathered the increase in temperature, and the crurotarsans didn't. But until that climate change occurred, the crurotarsans were out-competing the dinosaurs, if anything. So that's what they mean by luck, they just happened to benefit from a change in the climate when, if, all things being equal, they were not directly out-competing their contemporaries. Which means that number three: 'New study in humans demonstrated improved strength and performance following transplantation of muscle stem cells' is fiction.
S: But what is true, is that they just identified what the muscle stem cell is. They didn't really know which muscle was in fact the muscle stem cell.
B: Crap, that's what I read.
S: Yes, perhaps that's what you'd read. So, and it turns out to be the satellite cell which is a type of progenitor cell that exists near the muscles, or in the muscle tissue, and, you know, in repair or exercise, etc. will generate new muscle tissue. But we haven't successfully transplanted muscle cells into people. That's not happened yet.
J: (mimicking) Stem cells are made of people!
B: Man, I hate when a vague memory of reading an article totally kills you
S: Yeah, I know, that's what got me
J: Yeah, sucks to be you, Bob
E: You gotta stop reading, guys.
J: So, Steve really is the bastard tonight
B: Jay, you bastard, you ended the run I had, it was like a nine-winning streak run (actually 10). How long was your run?
J: Four foot one
E: Four foot one
S: Well, congratulations Jay and Rebecca, good job.
J: Yay! Rebecca!
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:28)
S: Jay, do you have a quote for us this week?
J: I have a quote this week from a man called David Hume, he lived 1711-1776, that was a pretty good year, wasn't it? And I'm always surprised when I read quotes from people that lived centuries ago, especially ones that are exceptionally logical or rational, maybe I'm skewed, or maybe just from reading quotes from a lot of very smart people during that time, I don't know. I'd like to know if I'm just thinking that they're overly rational for their time, or maybe people were more rational in the past.
S: Well it was the age of enlightenment for a reason, Jay.
J: David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, an economist, historian, and an important figure in western philosophy, and he said, or wrote:
When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.
J: DAVID HUME! … I think this is also a good quote to go with Melvin's email to us. MELVIN LEE! (even louder) MELVIN LEE!
J: CONFUSED LISTENER!
R: Ok, the David Hume one didn't make me laugh, but...
S: Right, just a quick reminder that October 10th, New York city is the New York city's skeptic's first annual anniversary event, they're going to have James Randi speak for them, and then October 11th, in Fairfield Connecticut, Perry's home town, we're going to have the first annual Perry DeAngelis memorial lecture!
S: October 11th, noon to three at the Fairfield theatre company, we have the information on our message-board, and on our facebook page, and Jay, can we put that on the website? I know we're in the middle of the update and everything, but can we put that up?
J: I will put it on the homepage
S: and we have confirmed guests Steve Mirsky, from Scientific American-
J: He's awesome
S: -and Terence Hines-
S: -excellent skeptic and neuroscientist, and author of 'Pseudoscience and the paranormal', ain't it cool?
J: Yeah, he's a good dude
S: Well, thank you all again for joining me this week
(someone singing "going crazy"?)
R: Thanks Steve
E: Yes, it was good joining you
S: Fun as always, and until next week, this is your Skeptics' guide to the Universe.
S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.
Today I learned...
- The first space shuttle, Enterprise was unveiled by NASA on September 17th 1976.
- September 19th is international talk like a pirate day.
- In February 2006, astronomers using the Hubble space telescope spotted a mystery object that continually brightened for about 100 days, after which, it dimmed symmetrically for the next 100 days. The distance to the object has been said to be between 120 and 11 billion light years away, and does not match any object in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey at the time of the podcast.
- Church of England offered a formal apology to Darwin in September 2008! (BBC article)
- Restless leg syndromehas been documented for over 100 years.
- Astrophysicists at Yale have calculated the upper limit for the mass of a black hole, stating that as a black hole gets to about 10 billion solar masses, any subsequent matter falling into it would cause the radiation away of an equal amount of mass.
- New research suggests that the rise of the dinosaurs over their contemporaries was due to luck, and not any inherent competitive edge. It is thought that global warming in the late Triassic era may have led to the extinction of the previously dominant crurotarsans, whilst the dinosaurs survived.
- The muscle stem cell is a satellite cell which is a type of progenitor cell that exist near the muscles, or in the muscle tissue, and will generate new muscle tissue in repair or exercise, etc.
- Barbary et al. (2009) Discovery of an unusual optical transient with the hubble space telescope ApJ 690 1358 doi:10.1088/0004-637X/690/2/1358
- BBC news: Call for creationism in science
- Royal Society spokesperson statement – Times Online article (login required)
- SGU 5x5 episode 54 Skepticism 101 - False Dichotomy
- Jenny McCarthy body count website
- Neurologica article: Has the Government Conceded Vaccines Cause Autism?
- PlosMedicine article: What Led to the Nigerian Boycott of the Polio Vaccination Campaign?
- Ben Goldacre's Guardian article: The missing finger that never was
- BBC article & video: The man who grew back his finger tip
- Yale news: Yale Astronomer Discovers Upper Mass Limit for Black Holes
- Science magazine: Superiority, Competition, and Opportunism in the Evolutionary Radiation of Dinosaurs DOI: 10.1126/science.1161833
- Scientific American: Was the Dinosaurs' Long Reign on Earth a Fluke?