SGU Episode 5

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SGU Episode 5
29th June 2005

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 4                      SGU 6

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis


M: Michael Shermer

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


S: Hello and welcome to The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. And with me, as always, is my panel of skeptics: Perry DeAngelis,

P: Hello, everyone.

S: Evan Bernstein,

E: Hi, all.

S: And Robert Novella.

B: Good evening, everyone.

S: This week we have a special guest with us: Dr. Michael Shermer. Dr. Shermer is the director of the Skeptics Society, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, he is also the author of a column in Scientific American called-- can you guess what it's called? Skeptic. He is the author of many books: The Science of Good and Evil, The Borderlands of Science, Denying History, How We Believe, and I believe, his first skeptical book, Why People Believe Weird Things; still a classic in the genre. Hello and welcome, Michael.

M: Hi, good evening.

S: Thanks for joining us this week.

M: You're welcome.

S: So, I thought that we would-- since we're dealing with an expert skeptic, I thought that we would do our Science or Fiction segment with the guest and Michael agreed to play along. So we'll start off with that segment, but first a little bit of follow-up from last week. Now if you'll remember, the first Science or Fiction segment that we did, my fake science news item was that NASA scientists had discovered an Earth-sized planet. And within a few days, NASA discovered an Earth-sized planet[1].

E: I remember.

S: You remember that. We joked about how prophetic that was. Well, last week, you guys remember the fake story from last week was that scientists had successfully frozen a dog in order to test medical technology. This week, reported on June 27[2], was that US scientists have succeeded in reviving dogs after three hours of clinical death[3]. They brought them down to near-freezing temperature; they didn't quite freeze them, but they did bring their body temperature down to a few degrees Celsius. So I'm two-for-two on predicting future news stories.

P: They don't appreciate your own power of pre-cognition, obviously.

S: Obviously not.

B: Better give Randi a call, Steve.

S: Well, I hope you'll support my application to Randi's million-dollar giveaway.

B: Good luck repeating it.

S: This week, there's an animal theme to this week. I'm going to give you three amazing animal facts and you have to tell me which one of the three is not real.

B: Ooh

S: Are you ready?

B: Yep!

Science or Fiction (2:54)[edit]

Theme: Amazing Animals

Item #1: Koalas never drink.[4]
Item #2: The Sooty tern can remain aloft for up to ten years at a time, eating, drinking and even sleeping on the wing.[5]
Item #3: Chimpanzees have been observed communicating with each other in written symbols.[6]

Answer Item
Host Result
Rogue Guess

S: It's time to play (echoing) Science or Fiction

S: Topic number one-- or claim number one is that koala bears never drink. I'll name all three and then we-- I'll let you guys tell me which ones you think are real and fake. The second one is that a bird by the name of the sooty tern can remain aloft for up to ten years at a time; eating, drinking and even sleeping on the wing. Topic number three is that chimpanzees have been observed communicating with each other in written symbols. Those are your three amazing animal facts. Who would like the first crack at it? Bob? You've been two-for-two so far.

B: We'll let Michael go first.

M: I'll take number one, Alex.


S: You think number one is the fake one?

M: Yeah.

S: So, you think that "koala bears never drink" is fake and the other two are real. What's the reason for your choice?

M: Well, number three is true, and number two seems so improbable that you wouldn't have made that one up. Too improbable.


P: That's sound reasoning.

M: (inaudible) too ridiculous to make up. So it must be true.

P: Now the first one's not a trick question, Steve, you're not talking about booze.

B: (laughs)

S: No, it's not a trick; they never drink.

P: Period.

S: Period.

P: I don't know, I think that it's possible an animal can get enough liquid from what it eats. I mean, I guess it's possible. Number two sounds way out there. Number three seems reasonable. I'm not a creationist, so it's somewhat reasonable. I'll say number two is not real.

S: OK. you think number two is not real. Bob?

B: I think I agree; I think I read somewhere that koalas never drink so that seems pretty-- doesn't seem too unreasonable to me. Ten years at a time aloft; I mean, I've heard of some long-duration flights for certain species, but ten years I think is really pushing it. I'm going to go with that one.

S: OK. Evan?

E: Well, Michael, I'm sorry; I hate to leave you alone with your choice of number one, but I'm afraid I have to choose number two, for the-- because that one just sounds a lot more improbable, I think, than number one.

M: I agree.

E: Perry, you observed what, that it would get the food from-- water from the food? I think that-- that's a reasonable?

P: I think that's feasible.

B: Well, people don't realize how much water we consume in our food. I mean, just a slice of bread, you would think, "oh there can't be too much water in bread" but a slice of bread is like, you know, 30, 40% water. So you can get a lot of water from these things that don't seem like there's really any water in them. So, that makes sense to me.

E: So there you go, I'll choose number two.

S: So you're all going to abandon our guest for this week. Well, all right, so--

P: With all due respect...

E: I have to make amends for last week for getting the question wrong. Getting-- choosing the wrong one.

S: Let's start with number one: The koala bears never drink. That is, in fact, true. They do get all of their fluid, all of their water from the eucalyptus leaves that they eat. So that one is true. That is an amazing but true animal fact. Number two-- now who said that number two is wrong?

E: I said that number two was wrong.

P: The three of us.

S: All three of you did. Number two was the reason why I used this theme for this week. Number two is correct.

P: What?!

B: Ten years?

S: Ten years, between three and ten years as sub-adults; they only land when they mature and it's time to breed.

E: How do they observe that?

S: The sooty tern. Some guy sat there--

E: Exactly right.

S: They tagged them.

E: They tagged them?

P: I want to see a ten-year video of that.


E: That's the only good enough proof, yes.

P: All right.

S: You're skeptical of that, are you? Number three, now, I always try to cut it close to the edge. Now certainly chimpanzees communicate with each other, and in the laboratory they have been taught sign language, but in the wild, they do not use written symbols to communicate with each other. Michael, you said that you thought that was true.

M: Yeah, I guess I didn't hear you say "in the wild". Did you say "in the wild"?

S: I did not say "in the wild". I did not say "in the wild".

M: Well, yeah, because Koko has communicated with symbols to Michael the gorilla in the lab using sign language; that's symbolic communication between two gorillas--

S: Well, actually I did say "written symbols". "Written symbols".

M: You didn't say "written". You just said "symbols".

S: No, I did say "written". But that's OK, that was a tough one. It was-- the devil is in the details. I do have "written" in front of me; I thought I read it, you know, word for word what I wrote down.

M: You started to say "written" and then you said "symbols" and maybe it just cut off in my phone, anyway, it's all right.

S: Maybe. OK. I know I'm dealing with a tough crowd here; I'm not going to get easy ones past you guys, so I always have to take it one sliver beyond--


E: Steve, I really like this exercise because it points out a lot of different things and the thing that strikes me the most is that three plausible things-- I mean, how are the average people on the street gonna know the difference, how do they tell the difference between what's real and what's not? Anything that they're fed by the media, people will absorb, and the majority of it just happens to be wrong.

S: Psychology experiments show that people believe anything they're told unless it contradicts something they already believe.

E: Correct.

S: But number two is tough; I tell you, when I first heard it I didn't believe it. I had to really verify it before I would accept that one.

B: Ten years...

S: I knew that would be the one that would get you guys. I was shocked, shocked. But I guess-- you figure, once they can-- if they can stay aloft for a few days, you know, eat and sleep on the wing, then they can do it indefinitely, right? Once you get past that threshold of being able to fly asleep, I guess you could stay aloft forever.

B: Yeah, that's a big threshold.

S: It sounds dramatic, but once you think about it that way...

B: I wonder how they do it; I wonder if it's like dolphins that actually-- half their brain sleeps at a time. So they're like minimally awake but they are resting at least one hemisphere at a time of their brain. Maybe it's similar--

S: I don't know, that's a good question, what's the neurology of this. The other possibility would be that they have some sub-hemispheric, some primitive neurons in their brain stem that just turn on and enable them to hold tone in their wings and keep them aloft, even when they're not conscious, basically. That's an interesting question. So, I did get you guys, finally. Thanks for playing, Michael; thanks for being a good sport. So, you have just returned from--

M: Now, what if Jane Goodall's team observes this this week?

B: (laughs)

S: Right, right.

M: Written communication in the dirt out in the plains of Africa. Wouldn't you be surprised?

S: If they do, then on next week's show, I'm going to predict that some billionaire dies and leaves billions of dollars to the Skeptic's Society. That will be my next prediction.

B: And make it your only prediction.


Interview with Michael Shermer (10:00)[edit]

S: So, as I was saying, you just returned from a trip to the Galápagos Islands?

M: Yes.

S: Tell us about that; it sounds interesting.

M: Oh, well, there was a conference there: the world summit on evolution held on Cristóbal, which is the island that Darwin first landed on. So, they thought that would be an appropriate place to hold a conference on evolutionary theory. So they all had the big guys there, and since I was going to speak, Frank Sulloway and I decided we'd go ahead and put on a tour of, an 8-day tour of the islands and take all these scientists. So, that's it, just kind of a tour and lecture.

S: What did you talk about?

M: Oh, creationism and intelligent design theory. My usual stuff.

S: You-- at one point you debated the infamous Duane Gish. I think I believe I heard a recording of that debate. That's true, right?

M: (laughs) No, that's false. Sorry, you missed point number three. Yeah, I've debated Gish twice, actually.

S: Oh, was it twice? What do you think about that? 'Cause you know, the conventional wisdom among skeptics is that it's really pointless to debate creationists in an open forum.

M: Well, the creationist himself isn't going to change his mind and the true believers that are in the audience aren't going to change their minds. And the skeptics already agree with me, but it's the middle group of people, the people that have not made up their minds yet--

P: You were able to defend against the Gish Gallop, Michael?

M: Oh, it's no problem. You just use humor and if you're a public-- if you're a professional public speaker you can match his wit and humor and all that kind of stuff. That's not hard to do. It's really just kind of getting the point across for those who have not made up their minds--

S: I agree, I think it's a very tough thing to do, and I think unfortunately, people who are very good scientists who know evolutionary biology and natural history intimately think that that will carry them through such a debate; they get suckered into it but they're not expert public speakers or debaters and they don't know what they're up against. And they get sucker-punched. But you know, that's I think why the marriage of being not only scientifically literate but also skeptically literate and being a polished public speaker is what it would take, I think, to stand toe-to-toe with somebody like Duane Gish. You agree with that, basically?

M: I think that's right. You have to have the knowledge and information, but not necessarily just about evolutionary theory but you have to know what it is they are arguing, what their points are, so that's why we publish in Skeptic and in our little "how to debate a creationist" kit exactly what their arguments are and what the counter-arguments to those are so that people can be informed on, not evolutionary theory, you can get that from textbooks, but what it is they're doing, which is different, not science, it's something else.

P: Was there a lot of talk at the conference, Michael, about the things that are happening with the school boards, such as currently in Kansas?

M: Yes, it's a concern; people that work in the field find it difficult to believe that anyone can doubt what it is that they're studying. But they're academics, isolated in universities, which are very different environments from the rest of the country. As noted, politically as well. In these Midwestern towns where there's a university located, the entire town will be surrounded by Bush/Cheney bumper stickers but the university is chock-a-block full of Kerry bumper stickers, and that tells you something right there. It's not a normal environment; it's not a slice of Americana, it's a very slanted view of the world. So, they don't really know what people are thinking out there.

P: Is that a phenomenon of the United States alone? School boards trying to--

M: Yeah, primarily it is. Well, creationism, you mean.

S: Are you talking about the "ivory tower" syndrome or of creationism, Perry?

P: Creationism. School boards trying to change, to water down Darwin.

B: It's starting to be exported now, England-- I think England is seeing some of it now.

M: A little bit, New England-- sorry, New Zealand a little bit, Australia a little bit but it's primarily an American phenomenon.

B: Right.

S: The soil is not as fertile over there; it's not going to ever grow to the same proportions as it is here.

B: Right. Michael, what did you think of the strategy of the scientists in not-- in not debating the creationists?

M: Yeah, well, I respect it, but I think it would've been good to have at least somebody there for the school board members to hear explain why--

B: I agree.

M: The attorney that they had defending the current standard was OK; he gave an impassioned speech, but his interviewing of the experts on the other side was a little aggressive; it was kind of hostile and it didn't come off well in my opinion. You can download the entire transcripts-- I'm sorry, the entire proceedings on tape, on digital, from

B: Oh, great website. I love Audible.

M: There's probably twenty hours, maybe twenty-five hours worth of listening.

B: Oh wow.

M: So if you have a lot of free time you can just put it on your iPod, which is what I did; I listened to the entire thing. And, basically the crux of it was that-- two things: one is that evolution is like a religion that is dogmatic and close-minded and no criticism is allowed, and two: that science doesn't allow anything but natural explanations and that that's too limiting and that science should be redefined to include other explanations other than natural. So those are the two things that came out of that twenty hours of testimony. One of the points I made in my write-up for Scientific American on that evolution conference I went to in the Galápagos is that in fact the field is full of disputation and criticism and denunciations of different theories and arguments and debates and it's not that evolutionary theory's not open to criticism or that scientists are close-minded or dogmatic or "circle the wagons" or speak with one voice, it's just that the creationists have nothing important to say about the science itself. So that's why they don't get heard; that's the problem.

S: Yeah, it's a pretty-- it's a cheap shot to say that a scientific consensus is, by definition, dogma. No, sometimes, it's just a consensus of opinion based-- because the facts are overwhelming. The fact that evolution occurred is pretty well established.

M: Well, some of their criticisms, they claim, are not being entertained by scientists, but that's just not true, like for example, their criticisms of theories on the origins of life. Well, the origins of life science is pretty wide open and there's no general consensus on how it happened exactly. So, there's lots of different theories and these guys all argue amongst themselves; all the big guns were down there at this conference and there was no agreement. So, when the creationists say "oh, they have this theory, this Darwinian theory", well, that's really not true. In fact, Lynn Margulis was there and she was arguing that Neo-Darwinism is dead; it doesn't explain anything in her world that she works in, so she has her theories on abiogenesis, and so on. So, it was anything but a close-minded, dogmatically everyone's-going-to-agree-with-each-other kind of conference. So that's just not true. Of course, they feel that way because they're not being heard, but the problem is that they're not offering any scientific, testable hypotheses, which gets to the second point, which is that science only allows natural explanations. Well, it's not like there's a committee that allows or disallows by some rulebook; there's nobody doing that, it's just that anything other than natural explanations just don't produce any testable hypotheses. There's nothing to do with them; there's no science to be done. So, when you say "Well, I think it's a non-natural explanation for X", whatever the mystery of X is, well what does that mean? What do you mean, non-natural? Supernatural? Paranormal? Intelligent Design? God? What do you mean? And there they don't offer any opinions, they just say "well, we don't have that theory yet", "we don't have a theory of that yet". Of course, they don't want to use the "God" word, because then the gig is up.

B and P: Right.

M: So, really, if you press them-- you don't have to press very hard-- you hit the wall pretty quickly; their answer is "I don't know". "Well, do you have any speculation?" "Nope." "Do you think it was done-- how did the intelligent designer do it? Did he use gravity, electromagnetism, chemical bonding portions? How did he do it?"

P: Massimo said last week, he asked-- the gentleman's name escapes me-- he said "if you were given a grant to study creationism, what experiments would you do?" Who'd he ask that to, Steven?

S: I don't recall who it was, it was some ID proponent.

P: He said, "OK if we give you a grant to study, what would you do with it?" The guy couldn't answer; there's no experiments to be done.

S: Because, bottom line, it's not science. And yes, you're right, it's not by choice, it's necessity of the very nature of science itself.

M: Right.

P: Yeah. There's just nothing to do there.

M: So, that's, you know, that's the problem, and the ID guys come off pretty good; they sound-- I thought they sounded better than our side in the testimony, frankly. They come off very reasonable, you know, "shouldn't students hear both sides of the issue?" Seems reasonable, and gosh, aren't-- "shouldn't they be-- shouldn't they hear the criticism?" Well, they should; they should already be hearing that, in fact, they do if the teacher's doing their job. A teacher will say, "these are the areas where we don't have much data" and "there's two or three theories, there's the theory of gradualism and the theory of punctuated equilibrium" or "there's the theory of natural selection vs. group selection" or there's this or that. Those kinds of debates are very real and they should be pretty well known to most biologists who teach, so if they're teaching properly they're already teaching the controversy.

S: Well, the issue of – I mean, getting back a little bit to the so-called "ivory tower syndrome"; that the people in academia don't really understand one concept and that is that a lot of cranks and charlatans and true believers and pseudo-scientists are not playing by the rules of fair and honest intellectual discourse. So they'll often completely underestimate, really, the deception and the distortion of facts that the other side will use and that applies across the board. One area where I think, Michael, you've personally encountered a lot is the area of revisionist history, or specifically Holocaust denial. I recently came across an article on the internet where somebody really feigning to be or-- just a reasonable person who went to great lengths to explain that he was not a Nazi or not a Holocaust denier in fact attempted to tear down piece by piece the components of the Holocaust. What has been-- and you wrote-- this is a large part of your book Denying History, correct?

M: Right. So, although these guys have kind of fallen out of the limelight ever since David Irving lost his libel trial in England against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin.[7] They sort of lost that big battle and that was the turning point for them and they've lost a lot of membership and their impact has gone down considerably, so that's good.

S: That's good. They're marginalized?

M: I think so. You know, they're not like the creationists. Creationists have something else going for them and that's the evangelical support from the right and that's a far bigger threat I think than-- I mean, revisionist history in general is a broader potential problem for how things are written; how the war in Iraq is going to be-- is perceived and will be perceived. There you have much touchier subjects of just what constitutes revisionist history.

S: Right.

M: Or free speech issues like this Ward Churchill, professor at Colorado University, Boulder said yesterday that Iraqi-- that American soldiers in Iraq should be shot, or they should shoot--

P: Should shoot their officers, I think is what he said, Michael.

M: Yeah, shoot their officers, right.

P: Yeah, I think that's what he said.

M: So, you know, gosh, maybe we've played out the Holocaust revisionist game, but there's-- the whole subject of history is not a science. Well, this came up in the Kansas hearings as well, that history's not a science. there's only one kind of science; that's the experimental science, laboratory science, and anything that doesn't do that isn't science and therefore it's open and fair game. Well, to that, you just say, "OK, so my theory that the Holocaust didn't happen is equal to your theory that it did"? "Well, no, that's ridiculous." "Well, why is that ridiculous? "Well, because we have rules of evidence for historical events." "Oh, we do? I thought you just said it wasn't a science!" So in fact, there's two kinds of sciences: there's laboratory and field science or something like that but there's also historical science and experimental science.

Historical science is done slightly differently. You use different types of comparisons and convergences and like a crime detector, a CSI-kind of scientist, what you're looking for there is a convergence of evidence from different inquiries, signs of inquiry, that point to a particular conclusion and then you just go along until one kind of pops up and that's what detectives do. That's what historians do and really, evolutionary theory is that; it's pieced together from all these different lines of inquiry, such that when a creationist says-- points out to some small anomaly that doesn't seem to fit, he thinks that that's going to bring the whole edifice tumbling down. It won't, because that's not what the edifice was built on in the first place. You'd have to take down all 10,000 bricks before it would come tumbling down. So, I mean-- and it is testable; another thing that came out of that Kansas thing is that history is not testable. Yes it is! If you found-- I predict-- here's a testable hypothesis: that you'll never find mammal fossils in a trilobite bed, a Cambrian trilobite bed that's 500 million years old. You never will find mammals. And if you do? Well, maybe there's one accidental one from an intrusion, from an earthquake or something, and it kind of washed down there. But OK, dismissing that, if you found a lot of them in different areas, well then something would be seriously wrong with the theory of evolution.

So there's a testable hypothesis; you can go out and test it, keep digging, keep looking and tell me if you find anything. Of course, that's what paleontologists do and they never find that exception. So that's an experimental test and you can apply that to anything: the Holocaust, the Civil War, whatever, any kind of event that happened where none of us were there to witness it.

S: That's right; that's a strategy of the deniers in general; specifically, to narrow the scope of what is acceptable as science in such a way as to specifically exclude whatever it is that they don't want to be scientific, whether it's creationists trying to exclude evolution or revisionists trying to exclude some particular aspect of history.

M: I guess what's so bothersome is when the people on the other side are not willing to admit that they were wrong when it's pointed out and it's obvious and they don't change their tune. You see this with Michael Behe, with his example of the mousetrap and the bacterial flagellum, in which he claims these are irreducibly complex and cannot have evolved by Darwinian mechanisms. Well, there's been books and web pages and articles and it's all over the net; you can't miss it and he is-- it's there; you're wrong, yes I'm wrong, but why doesn't he say publicly "OK I was wrong; I have to revise my theory" which is what any scientist would do but he's not a scientist.

S: Right, he's not being scientific.

M: Same thing with David Irving. David Irving got his hat handed to him in this trial where he claimed certain things about Auschwitz that were just not true and there's "here's the photograph, Mr. Irving, here you can see the holes right here, OK I was--"

E: Like there were no gas chambers, right?

M: Right. So he stands there in court and says "OK I was wrong". But then I saw him a couple of months ago, he gave a talk and he didn't admit any of that, he just went on toeing the party line that he always used to say. No holes, no Holocaust, that business. And (chuckles) that's dishonest.

S: Because they're not engaged in an honest discourse; they're not searching for truth, they're defending a position that they hold and will not let go of. So when arguments they're using--

M: Scientists do that too. Scientists do that too. But the difference is that eventually they have to change their mind or else they just get dropped out of the whole system.

S: They get marginalized, right.

M: The science just moves on without them if they don't adjust their views to the evidence. And I saw this nice example of this. I wrote a column about this[8] with Vince Sarich, who is a pretty dyed-in-the-wool multiregionalist, that is, there is multiple origins of humans, current humans, races from around the world. Well, then the new mitochondrial DNA came in a few years ago and the evidence was just overwhelming that every single one of us on the planet comes from a single population out of Africa, therefore supporting the "out of Africa" hypothesis. And he just stated publicly in Science right there "I was wrong; I thought this was the theory but the new evidence comes in and OK, the other theory's right. So, I was wrong." Well, gosh darn, that's how it's supposed to work, and usually it does.

S: Right. Usually it does, and those that stick to their guns despite the evidence are really marginalizing themselves out of the mainstream and out of science.

M: Like the guy that promotes facilitated communication with autistic kids, Vickland(?). He won't change his mind. The evidence is just overwhelming and it's been overwhelming for over ten years now.

S: Right. Now, facilitated communication is basically holding the hand of a child who has some communication disorder or autism or mental retardation and they essentially point out or spell out words on a letter board. And it's been shown repeatedly, very reliably, that this technique is just the ideomotor effect; it's basically the facilitator is the one who is guiding the hand to the letters and the subject, the mentally retarded child has no awareness of what's going on. But the true believers, you cannot convince them with evidence that it's not true.

P: Very sad, very sad to watch those people at work. Facilitated communicators.

M: Shows you the power of belief. It's pretty strong.

S: It's very very strong. And all of these-- sometimes we can laugh at how silly people can be, but they all have a dark side if you look for it, like with the facilitated communication, there are many cases of estranged spouses using facilitated communication to accuse their ex-spouse of sexually abusing the mute child. People have actually spent time in jail based upon such spectral evidence. So the gullible underbelly of human nature can have a very, very malignant dark side to it.

P: Hear, hear.

S: Well, I was reading-- just to change topics, your very excellent column in Scientific American called Skeptic-- by the way, a funny coincidence, my brother Bob and I (who's also on the show) were on vacation in Florida together and I said, "you know what? Scientific American and other"-- I specifically mentioned it--" and other mainstream science journals-- journals that popularize science-- really need to have a hard-core skeptical column in it." And it was like three or four months later that your first column came out in Scientific American.

M: (laughing) Another one of your predictions!

B: Yeah, right?

S: Clearly, obviously, great minds think alike; so the need was there, and I've enjoyed every column since then. The recent one, "Hope Springs Eternal"[9], which is about Ray Kurzweil and others, their belief in the rapid progression of technology in the next century and specifically that it will lead, perhaps within the reach of people alive today, the lofty goal of immortality. And you do not think well of this idea.

M: Well, I hope he's right. (chuckles)

S: (laughs) Right, of course. Sign me up.

M: I have to disconnect from what I hope to be true from what is probably true. Well, this is based on this Moore's Law, that if you extrapolate out these kinds of doubling of computer power, information accumulation, and so forth, you get to this point in the not-too-distant future when we will essentially be omniscient or the ability to manipulate entire systems of genomes and... Well, you see the story in today's paper, J. Craig Ventner [sic], his new genome project to actually create an entire genome for bacteria. You know, this is impressive stuff. In my opinion, the problem is-- of aging is orders of magnitude more difficult than anything that we've even contemplated working on for biological systems, in that they're all inter-related and integrated such that fixing one system isn't like 10% closer to immortality, it may be even worse because it's tied in with the other nine systems, and it's probably more like a hundred systems that you'd have to fix, all at the same time, all in particularly the correct way to do it before you could halt the aging process, something like that, I just think it's so remote that-- it's fun to think about, but the stuff he's doing is just ridiculous, these blood purgings and antioxidants and mega-vitamins, the evidence for all those things is pretty weak.

B: Well, his ideas, I think-- I've read a little bit, I've read some of him and his idea's that if you could just-- the whole nutritional aspect is that if you can just survive as long as you can, the first wave of these treatments that could extend your life a little bit, you'd kind of reach that stage and then you could live a little longer and then you'd do something else to reach the next plateau until we come up with some method to really, essentially just stop aging, and I agree that his nutritional supplements and stuff are kind of-- they're definitely overstated. I mean, if you have a healthful diet, you're fine; you don't need to take supplements, so that stuff I definitely agree with.

S: It's pretty understated, I would say-- just to separate these two issues-- his beliefs about supplements; is not a little overstated, it's total bunk. Let's be fair. The mega-dosing vitamins, there's an increasing literature now that mega-doses of vitamins are actually harmful. Vitamin E, vitamin C, mega-doses of these seemingly benign vitamins actually increase certain diseases.

B: Is he actually mega-dosing? I'm not actually sure if he's actually mega-dosing but that's actually just an incidental thing; that's not the thrust of his argument. The thrust--

S: You're right. We could just dispense with that and say his...

B: Absolutely.

S: ... his "elixir of life" stuff is not scientific. Which is always interesting; the other thing that's interesting about that is here you have a very brilliant person within his field, and just like Linus Pauling the chemist, you step outside of your field of expertise and try to make bold claims in another field, you're likely to really embarrass yourself.[10] Expertise in one field does not give you global expertise. But anyway, the other claim which is more speculative and more interesting is: what will the rate of scientific progress in general be over the next century or so and is immortality within our grasp?

B: It's a little beyond Moore's Law I think; Moore's Law is subsumed under his law of accelerating returns, where the overall rate of technological, technical progress is doubling every decade and things and that's the main thrust-- that's the main problem I had with the column was that his law of accelerating returns and why, for example, it might take a millenia, if at all, for any sort of immortality to come about and I just think a thousand years, or not at all I think, is a reason I--

M: I heard another thing the other day that I had not included was that Moore's Law-- somebody was telling me, a computer person—tellimg me that Moore's Law applies to hardware, not software; that software information systems don't increase at that rate. Do you know anything about that?

B: That is true, but there's many aspects of the computer revolution, not just hardware, that this applies to, and he even applies it to just evolutionary change itself. So I see the whole Moore's Law thing as just a subset of his accelerating returns. Even if he was off-- he predicts 20,000 years of linear progress in this century-- even if he's off by an order of magnitude, that would still be 2,000 years of progress in the next hundred years at this rate.

S: Maybe he's off by five orders of magnitude. We just don't know.

B: Well, if you-- extrapolating trends is precarious, but ever since humans developed technology, it's been following this. So, I don't think it's unreasonable to say that these things are going to continue and he bases it on a couple things that make a lot of sense to me; this whole accelerating returns, he bases it on a couple things, and one of the most powerful is that technology improves exponentially, in that you have more powerful tools from one generation to help create the next generation, and if you kind of take that into account, I think you could see that the tools that we'll bring to bear in the next generation will allow us-- should allow us to do much more quality research and to compress research into a much shorter period of time.

That seems reasonable to me and it doesn't sound like something that we're going to fall off on and not put so much effort into; that just seems something that we're going to put a lot of effort into and not be satisfied with incremental gains. We're going to continue taking these tools and bringing them to bear.

S: What do you think about that, Mike?

M: I'm going to be really pissed if all this happens like the year after I die.


E: That's what I said! That's what I said two weeks ago with Bob when we were talking about this.

B: That's one of my biggest concerns. I liked your point that a lot of these guys, a lot of these prognosticators are saying, "it's in my lifetime, in our generation this is going to happen," and you're right, that should raise your skepticism when someone says that and I actually, I hope that it's in our lifetime, but I think that, hopefully my daughter-- in my daughter's lifetime, she'll have that opportunity, or maybe her children, but I think it's potentially-- we potentially can be the last generation, it's possible, even if we're not, our kids or our grand-kids could conceivably be this last generation that really has to deal with death in a meaningful way and that just seems just so poignant to me, that we could be the last of the dinosaurs, and years from now people will say, "Oh God, if they just lived a little bit longer they would have made it". And I think it's possible; I think that's entirely possible.

P: I tell you, people stop dying and we're going to have a whole 'nother [bevy] of problems to worry about, that's for sure.

S: Right, right.

B: Well, I mean-- So, what do you say to people, "we potentially might have a population problem, so please kill yourself. I know you can live as long as you want, but please make room for the next generation."

M: Addictive birth control pills.

S: Right.

E: Or move to the moon of Titan or something.

B: What's the carrying capacity of the Earth or the solar system? What percentage of the United States is populated? It's like 7%. People don't realize, they think "Oh, you know, 40%, 30%" but it's really a small percentage-- you know, if you consider the-- say, if nanotechnology, when that eventually comes about, we'll be able to build habitats in deserts and in oceans; I think the Earth can conceivably support potentially tens and hundreds of billions of people comfortably, given these technologies that eventually should come about. Overpopulation--

E: But, is the human factor ever taking into these equations? You know, Man is going to screw things up along the way, regardless of the amount of technology that they have achieved, there are bound to be setbacks, perhaps, based on that.

B: That's always possible; we could nuke ourselves out of existence tomorrow and that's possible too. We gotta get to the point where we don't have all our eggs in one basket, you know; It's inherently somewhat dangerous to be living in one place and eventually we'll deal with that; we'll have orbiting-- we'll have stations orbiting with the colonies around Earth, and if there was a catastrophe, at least some remnant of humanity would survive. But that's just well beyond our means now, but eventually it won't be a problem.

S: My problem with sort of speculating this far into the future is that although history has shown that the rate of progress does increase and accelerate, it has also shown that people are awful at predicting the ways in which it's going to accelerate and which technologies will take off and which ones don't. I think if you asked scientists and educated people fifty or sixty years ago if we will have cured cancer by 2005, I think almost everyone would have said "yes". Remember, we were the generation that was supposed to be flying around in hover-cars and those sorts of things and yet nobody predicted the Internet. I don't see any theoretical reason why immortality is impossible, so that leaves the door open, but I agree with Michael that it's a lot more difficult ...

B: I agree with that.

S: ...than any of the writers who are talking about the prospects of immortality think that it is. I don't know of any real medical or biological researchers who are saying-- who really have a handle on the complexity of humanity at the cellular level and the biochemical level-- who are saying, "Oh yeah, in 50 years (or whatever, in some short period of time) this is a problem that we can solve". A thousand years might be too long, but who knows.

B: You'll see it out there; Look up-- I think his name is de Grey or de Brea-- he's not a biologist, but he's extremely well-versed in biology and he's come up with this very reasonable--

S: Well, my premise was "no biologists."

P: That's true.

B: Well, this guy essentially is a biologist-- his wife is a biologist and he's studied ... this is his life-long project he's created I think it's called the Methuselah Project or something where he determined, alright, here are the ten things that happen within a cell-- here are the ten things that you can attribute aging to, and he lists all these ten cellular mechanisms or these events that--

S: Yeah, that we know of.

B: --that really contribute to aging, and if we tackle these one at a time, I think that's a reasonable approach to straightforwardly dealing with aging and senescence; by tackling these one at a time, you're turning it into a manageable--

M: I look at it like the SETI program: it's a long shot and let's put a little bit of money into it 'cause it's worth looking into, but I wouldn't count on it.

S: Right.

E: Very good analogy. Good analogy.

B: You definitely shouldn't be betting your life on it. It could take a while to get there. But from what I've gathered from it, it's potentially possible to happen a lot sooner than a lot of people think, and this law of accelerating returns really drove it home when you think that we could potentially accumulate centuries and centuries and thousands of years of technological progress in the next hundred years or so. Because people think linearly when they think of progress; they're not thinking of historically how it's been exponentially increasing.

S: Well, the one thing though that-- the things that are not taken into consideration with those kinds of rosy predictions are that even though our abilities increase in a non-linear fashion, the problems that we're tackling are getting tougher and more difficult. We've picked the low-hanging fruit, as it were, and now we're trying to tackle more and more difficult problems.

The amount of information that's required to solve these problems is increasing exponentially and in some ways it takes more and more and more work to get the same kind of returns back. We're able to do that, but I don't think that that really predicts the kind of-- 20,000 years of progress in one century just seems out of control to me. Based upon those factors that I don't think they're taking into consideration. OK, well, I think that that's all the time Michael has for us this week. Michael Shermer, thank you very much for joining us on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

M: Well, you're welcome and thank you for having me.

S: If you want to learn more about Michael Shermer, his society, and his books and articles, you can visit his website: and that will contain more information than you can handle. It's an excellent skeptical resource and scientific resource. Again thanks for being on our show.

B: Thank you, Michael.

E: Thank you, Michael.

P: Good night.

S: Take care.

M: Good night.

JREF Million Dollar Challenge (43:57)[edit]

S: Well, that was wonderful having Michael Shermer on the show. I hope we can have him as a guest again in the future, along with other prominent skeptics; perhaps we can invite James Randi on our show one day.

E: I'd like that.

S: Randi, as many of the listeners may or may not know, runs the million dollar psychic challenge. Basically, if you can prove that you have paranormal abilities, and you can prove it under proper observation, he'll give you a million dollars! And it's in escrow, held by attorneys, so he can't just say, "no, I'm not gonna give you the money." And in fact, the New England Skeptical Society often does screening testing experiments for the million dollar challenge.

P: Have we not also put money into that million dollar challenge?

S: We did, and before, the million dollar challenge used to be...

E: The $100,000 challenge.

B: Pledges, right, wasn't it pledges?

S: Right, it was done by pledges, and we pledged $10,000 to it.

P: Okay.

S: But at some point a few years ago an unnamed donor essentially gave the James Randi Educational Foundation a million dollars.

B: I wonder if it's Carson?

E: Yeah, that was my thought.

S: The rumor is that it was Johnny Carson. That's the rumor[11].

B: He was great.

E: Well, Randi's told us face-to-face that he's received many generous contributions from Carson.

S: At the $100,000 level. Checks would occasionally just arrive from him.

B: Right.

S: Randi runs his group off the interest on that $1,000,000 but that $1,000,000 is sitting there. I don't know if prior pledges are also thrown into the pot or not or if it's just the $1,000,000 now. But in any case, I have no fear that our money will be snatched up at any time. Some of what we were saying with Dr. Shermer about the ideomotor effect reminded me of the most recent test that we had done.

There was a couple, a husband and wife team, that claimed that they could essentially operate a Ouija board while blindfolded. They could ask the spirits a question and the planchette, the little thing that you hold your fingers on, would move around the board and spell out cogent, grammatical answers. So that was a pretty testable claim. This is certainly something that we've heard before, the whole Ouija board thing. And it was a pretty trivial matter; Perry was not there with us, but Bob scored the questions, Evan videotaped it, and I monitored the protocol, and basically what we did is we had them use-- actually, we had a couple of different Ouija boards but we ended up using a standard Ouija board for most of the test and we just-- I blindfolded them in such a way that they couldn't peek, and lo and behold, their powers vanished mysteriously. They couldn't spell-- they couldn't put two letters together, let alone spell a single word, never mind cogent answers.

P: Shocked. Shocked!

S: We were shocked.

E: That's when the special pleading kicked in.

S: That's when, yeah, well, you'll notice--

P: Did you use appropriate protocol, make sure their powers were OK that night...

B: They agreed that everything was suitable for them and that there shouldn't be any problem and they actually did not resort to the fact that, as far as I recall, that "Oh, tonight it just didn't work." The husband, I remember, seemed genuinely surprised that this ability vanished.

E: Well, hang on. But you guys remember she had an arm-support device, a brace of some sort.

S: Just a splint on one of her fingers. One of her fingers was splinted.

E: Is that what it was?

S: She had a boo-boo on one of her fingers, but she didn't think that that would affect anything. The husband was definitely very confident going into the test; the wife did not seem like she was in a good mood. During the test-- they had no way to know how they were doing during the test; afterwards we showed them the video of them attempting to operate the board and the husband was shocked. He was shocked. The wife didn't seem--

B: He really believed it was going to work, but the wife was a different story.

S: Afterwards, he did say "Can we try it without the blindfold just to see if it works?", and it didn't work. He said "Well, maybe our powers are just off tonight." He did do that afterwards. But afterwards doesn't count, you know, when you failed the test, coming up with excuses then. I mean, everybody does that. Everyone comes up with some lame-o excuse as to why they failed, they never say, "Oh! Gee, I guess we don't really have any psychic powers".

E: Well, you have them state their-- as part of the information ahead of time, you have them state what percentage of success they normally-- normally occurs and I think they said like 80% of the time, 90% they're correct, and ...

S: And we have them sign off on the protocol; they sign it and say "Yes, this is an acceptable pro-- this is a fair test of our power and the criteria for saying that we succeeded or failed is reasonable and fair" and we usually give them a wide margin. It's not...

P: This being the preliminary test.

S: This is a preliminary test. We're not even obligated to do it to a one-in-a-million probability.

E: No, I'm saying that they state themselves that they were-- it was something like 80% of the time. 80% of the information they get turns out to be factual.

P: Did this test take place at your home, Steven?

S: Yes, it did.

P: Then maybe it didn't work because the skeptical shield around your house that protects you from being abducted and possessed--

S: I didn't tell them about the skeptical shield, though, so they did not invoke that as an excuse.

E: I gotta get me one of those skeptical shields.

B: And Perry, that is a secret; we're going to have to erase this from the podcast now. But thank you very much.

P: Gentlemen, if you go to, read what you find there and begin to live your life by the basic principles of skepticism, you too can have a shield.

S: You too can have a skeptical shield.

E: In fact we'll sell you one.

P: (inaudible) protected from abductions and possessions...

S: In fact, there's a couple of different people are selling semi-joke insurance, basically anti-abduction insurance, that they'll pay out if you can prove that you were abducted by aliens. Which is--

B: Oh, I like it.

S: That's a pretty safe bet.

P: Doesn't work unless you're a true non-believer.

S: (Chuckles) A true non-believer. It is true that skeptics are protected from various nasty phenomenon, like alien abductions; we're never haunted by ghosts...

P: Possessed.

S: We're never possessed by demons...

B: That's why-- that's the only reason I'm skeptical: 'Cause I'm so afraid of that stuff--

S: To protect yourself from the boogeyman.

E: And we never spontaneously combust. Ever.

S: We never spontaneously combust. That's true. And our relatives never spontaneously combust, either.

E: Or our pets. Go figure.

S: So there are some advantages to skepticism; it's not all about pretty women and fast cars.


E: No, no.

B: Not even close.

E: But pretty cars and fast women.


S: Well, that, I believe, is our show for this week. Thanks again for being on the show, Evan, Perry, and Bob.

E: Thank you, Steve.

B: My pleasure.

S: Until next week, this is the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.


S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information on this and other episodes, see our website at

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Michael Shermer has debated Duane Gish, for whom the Gish Gallop is named[12]
  • The NESS does screening testing experiments for the JREF's Million dollar challenge.[13]
  • Koala bears get most of their water from leaves, and therefore only occasionally need to drink[14]
  • A bird by the name of the sooty tern can remain aloft for up to ten years at a time[15]


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