SGU Episode 350

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SGU Episode 350
31st March 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

Mars Cloud.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 349                      SGU 351

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


JR: James Randi

DG: D. J. Grothe

Quote of the Week

Fear believes, courage doubts. Fear falls upon the earth and prays. Courage stands erect and thanks. Fear is barbarism. Courage is civilization. Fear believes in witchcraft, in devils and in ghosts. Fear is religion. Courage is science.

Robert Ingersoll

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, today is Wednesday March 28th 2012 and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella

B: hey everybody

S: Rebecca Watson

R: Hello everyone

S: Jay Novella

J: Hey guys

S: Evan Bernstein

E: Welcome to episode 350!

S: 350 that's right

E: three fitty

R: Hooray! A round number

S: Yeah, an arbitrarily round number

J: does that mean I can retire now?

S: if you want, Jay, you can retire whenever you want, man.

R: No!

J: I'll go another 300, OK let's go

E: Three fitty

S: and we're coming up on our seven year anniversary, a couple of months.

B: Holy crap

R: wow

E: I've gotta look up what to get you guys this year

This Day in Skepticism[edit]

Patenting Life (0:49)[edit]

R: Guess what today is!

J: Not your birthday

R: Jay is right, it is not my birthday

S: It's your un-birthday

R: No! On this date in 1981, March 31st, Indian American microbiologist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty received the first ever patent for a living organism.

B: Cool

R: it was me! No, just kidding.


S: that explains a lot

R: it was right after I was born though, and that would have been epic. Uh, no he created a new species of oil eating bacteria called pseudomonas?

S: Pseudomonas

R: Pseudomonas?

S: Pseudomonas

R: I'm going to say Pseudomonas because it sounds better. Putida, which sounds filthy, which turns oil into simpler substances which can be eaten by aquatic life. He genetically engineered it because there are already four species of existing oil metabolisers, but they apparently competed with each other for the oil. So he made this new species that consumed oil an order of magnitude faster than the others. And it was a very interesting case because initially when he applied for the patent, it was denied, and then he appealed and the US court of customs and patent appeals overturned it. And then it went to the supreme court, and on March 17th 1980, the supreme court case was argued, June 16th 1980 the supreme court decided 5-4 in favour of Chakrabarty. And so on March 31st of the following year the patent was issued, and that paved the way for other genetically engineered micro-organisms and other things to be patented.

S: yeah, the issue was whether or not you could patent a living organism. And yeah he won that, that was a landmark case. Interestingly, how he made the organism was to plasmid transfer. There are examples in all of the domains, but bacteria especially can have part of their genetic information bound in these small circular usually transferable units called plasmids. That's how bacteria can exchange genetic information with each other, they can transfer antibiotic resistance, for example. So he took the oil eating genes from four different plasmids and he found a way to make a stable new plasmid thereby creating this new super oil-eating bug, pseudomonas putida. And it is related to a lot of other species that do lots of neat things, you know, breaking down not just oil but also toxic chemicals, insecticides, it really can clean up the soil with all kinds of nasty chemicals in it. Some of them, however, can be human pathogens, so most of those are banned, you know, you can't really use those. The pseudomonus putida, however is not, it's a safe bacteria, so this is actually a really useful one.

B: Well, where the hell were they last year, I mean what's going on, that was so long ago, what the hell?

R: Well, they just don't work fast enough I guess. They're not efficient enough to take care of our large-scale disasters.

S: Well, the use of bacteria in the deep horizon spill is complicated actually, first of all, there are a lot of different chemicals in crude oil, that were released from that spill, a lot of different types of molecules, and bacteria could eat some better than others. It's still controversial what impact bacteria had on biodegrading the oil spill and also there are concerns that bacterial overgrowth in the gulf can cause problems: health problems for people living on the coast, perhaps even depletion of oxygen in the waters, and other environmental effects, so they're not a magic bullet.

E: We need to develop an organism that could eat up carbon emissions, wouldn't that be handy?

S: Yeah, they're called trees.


E: More trees!

R: zing!

E: We need, what eight times as many trees? 10? 12?

S: Well, it's also just phytoplankton, it's just a matter of how much of it we have.

E: yeah.

R: I think that there was, speaking of things that can conveniently eat things for us, there was recently a plastic eating fungi that was found that you know, would obviously help a great deal in terms of the huge amounts of waste we produce.

E: He's a fun guy.

News Items[edit]

Tennessee Anti-Evolution Bill (5:19)[edit]

Neurologica: Tennessee’s Anti-Evolution Bill

S: Down in Tennessee though, they're not having such a great time, I understand they're having some creationist shenanigans going on down there.

R: Correct, they are. Yeah, last week I talked about the news of an anti-science bill in New Hampshire, and this week's story is another anti-science bill that's passed through the state senate so far of Tennessee. The crux of it is that the creationists are continuing to sneak their religion into science classrooms, this time with a bill that would protect the jobs of teachers, and I quote "teach the strengths and weaknesses of topics that" I quote "can cause controversy", and these topics include global warming, human cloning, and of course our old favourite, evolution. Of course, they're not talking about scientific controversy because you would have to be pretty ignorant to think that there's any scientific opposition to the theory of evolution. No, what they're actually talking about is their own made-up religious controversy in which they're having trouble marrying a literal interpretation of the bible with reality. So the really amazing thing is the language they use in this bill to justify themselves. They're actually co-opting our language. Let me read you a part of it.

An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students to develop critical thinking skills necessary to become intelligent, productive and scientifically informed citizens.

R: That sounds pretty great, right? We agree with that. The bill states, though that when it comes to controversial subjects, and I quote "some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects". Those subjects being evolution, cloning, global warming. One of the big issues that's been brought up by opponents of this bill, opponents that include every scientific advocacy group ever, pretty much. They rightly point out that it's the job of state science standards to make sure teachers have the tools they need to present materials, not the job of a bunch of conservative Christian law makers who wrongfully think that they're the ones who should be insulted when we point out that they're related to monkeys. So it is yet another one of those bills that is in the wedge strategy of creationists, you know, change up the language a little bit in order to protect teachers who will go ahead and start teaching creationism as a way to teach the weaknesses of evolution. And once they let that through, they'll keep pushing and pushing and pushing until they've got creationism recognised as some sort of official topic for science classrooms. So, people in Tennessee, please let your representatives know how you feel about this. As I said it's passed the senate, it has gone to the house now.

S: It passed the house this week.

R: Well, shit (laughs). There's still hope, there's still hope that the governor may go ahead and veto this, he did make some rumblings about how this should be up to the science standards, not lawmakers.

E: Hey!

R: So, yeah.

S: Yeah, it sounds like he's making a legal justification for vetoing it, not because it's the wrong thing to do, or not a scientific justification, it's just not in the purview of the legislature to step on the board of education, it's their job to do this. But that may just be a politically acceptable way for him to veto a bill he knows is bad. It's also a bad bill, the science aside, a lot of people are critical of it because the only net effect of this bill is to create million-dollar lawsuits on the back of the taxpayers, this is just wasting Tennessee taxpayers' money, because it's going to generate lawsuits that they're going to lose because we already have enough precedents to know how the higher courts are going to rule in cases like this, and it's utterly transparent what they're trying to do here. But you've got to love the long term strategy here. They make this fake controversy over evolution, and then they say, oh and because we made it controversial, now we have to pass laws to water down the teaching-

R: Teach the controversy

S: -to teach the contravener essentially. But really what the sweet-spot goal of this bill is to provide cover for teachers to teach creationism in the public school, so that the hope is more science teachers who are creationists will have the courage to do just that, to present creationist arguments without worrying about being fired. Because they'll say, hey I'm protected by this bill, I'm just doing what it mandates, to present the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.

J: It's our role as critical thinkers in the community to point out these things because you could just imagine how this would just go right over the heads of our politicians, they'd never find this, or discover this on their own, right Steve?

S: I don't know, I guess it depends on how savvy the politician is, but yeah I mean it's certainly, the fact that there's a skeptical community and specifically the National Center for Science Education and Genie Scott who keeps an eye on these things, we have to be right there and say Nope, this is what this bill is all about, this is a stealth creationism bill, this is the goal, this is why it's anti-science, this is all the things that are wrong with it. It certainly makes it more likely that politicians will get the message. But let's move on.

Origin of the Moon (10:50)[edit] New research provokes more questions about the origin of the moon

S: Bob, you're going to tell us, or give us an update about thinking about the origin of the Earth's moon.

B: Yeah, the moon was in the news again this week, it seems this past year it's been in a bunch of times. Recently scientists seem to have obliterated the most popular moon formation theory by finding new compelling evidence that the moon is not made up of bits of Earth and another planet that hit us 4 billion years ago.

J: or cheese, bob

B: or cheese, yeah, they debunked that last year, Jay. For years now, the prevailing theory of the formation of the moon was the giant impact hypothesis, a Mars sized planet called Thea hit us, spewing debris from both planets into orbit around the decimated Earth. Is spew the right word there? I kind of like it, I'm going to go with it. After a century or so, this orbiting debris kind of gravitationally coalesced into the moon that we know and love. So there was little research that cast doubt on that scenario. Even a weird oxygen isotope comparison couldn't really put a dent in it. Different isotopes of an element like oxygen for example, have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons in its nucleus, years ago they compared oxygen isotopes from Earth and those found in moon rocks and they discovered that the ratio of isotopes were the same. So that means that when they compared the ratio between say oxygen 16, 17 and 18, those three different isotopes, they were the same on Earth and the Moon. This seems odd though, because normally you'd think that since the planet Thea comprised perhaps 40% of the moon, the ratios would be different. And that ratio is important because it's kind of like a fingerprint, every planetary body out there has a unique genesis, that they formed in very unique circumstances, and so their ratios of the various isotopes would be different, so...

S: So bob, on that point though, I understand why that's the case, but you could also think, well everything in the solar system formed from the same cloud of dust and gas, why would the isotope ratios be so different for one hunk of rock that formed one place in the solar system and another hunk of rock that formed some place else? But, if I'm remembering correctly, I believe it has to do with the distance from the sun, you know the relative gravitational strengths and etc. do actually create this sort of layering out of different isotopes

B: Right

S: and so the exact location in that cloud does affect the isotope ratios, right?

B: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, I mean you're not going to have a completely homogeneous mixture in that cloud, and that's pretty much the thinking of why there should be some difference, some detectable difference, but which they really didn't find when they compared these oxygen isotopes, but you know those crafty scientists, they explain this away, they explained away this apparent anomaly saying that it's very possible that Earth's oxygen mixed with the oxygen in the orbiting magma soon after the collision, so nobody really had a problem with that, and that's fine, it makes a lot of sense. But now, however, they found another isotope ratio that can't be explained away so easily, and this time it wasn't oxygen, but titanium. So what they did was they compared titanium 50 with titanium 47. The ratio between the 50 and the 47 is the same for the Earth and the moon and this is why essentially the old Earth collision theory, the big impact theory may actually now be dead. For oxygen, exchanging is possible as I just said, there is a mechanism that might explain it, but for titanium a similar type of exchange is essentially impossible, and that's pretty much, as far as I could tell, due to its very high boiling point. So this is an anomaly that really stands out and really is at odds with the current theory. So how do we then explain that the geochemistry of the moon seems identical to the Earth? So let's look at a few of the earlier Moon formation theories that were bandied about years ago.

S: Well bob, before we... I'm not sure I'm ready to get rid of the impact theory here just on one line of evidence. Is it possible this is just sampling error, or the idea that this is just too small a sample to make a generalisation from?

B: You know, I thought about that, and I'm just going with the scientists here on this one, thinking that that's just such an obvious' issue, that they had to account for it by taking moon rocks that were gathered at different points of the moon, and yeah sure we're going along with the assumption that they believe that Thea comprised 40% of the moon, and that could potentially be incorrect which would impact this, but to me Steve...

S: But couldn't they have sampled it from one of the 60% that's from earth?

B: Yeah, I'm sure that's possible, but I thought about it and that just seemed like that's too obvious for them to have missed so I'm just kind of going with the scientists on that one, and-

S: Yeah, but how do you know how accurately the reporting is reflecting the real consensus of opinion, or have they just talked to one guy? You know what I mean? We don't know that the reporting that you're talking about is really a consensus of scientific opinion, or is it just some of, a narrow opinion that whoever is doing the reporting is presenting as...

B: Well I've read some of the abstract and that seems to be the angle they're going for here, so yeah maybe it's a little premature and there won't be a consensus on this, maybe there's something that they're missing, sure that's possible. But it seems like a significant blow to this theory that has held sway for so long.

S: Yeah.

B: And definitely, yeah, more research, let's get some more lines of evidence going, let's look at some other isotope ratio comparisons, absolutely

S: Yeah

B: So maybe I'm being a little bit too definitive in this.

S: It just seems a little early to toss out a perfectly good theory because of one piece of evidence that doesn't seem to fit.

B: Yeah, sure I'd have to agree with that, so let's see how this plays out before we make more definitive statements

S: Well what are some of the other theories

B: Well there's the capture hypothesis that says that the moon came in from outside the solar system or other parts of the solar system and that the earth pretty much captured it, and that's really not viable because if this was a distinct body that did not co-mingle with the Earth, then the isotopes should be obviously different, which they're not, and also I recently discovered that the Earth, for this to be a viable idea, the Earth would need a hugely extended atmosphere to dissipate the energy of an object like the moon passing by, so that theory I guess fairly quickly, maybe not quickly but it's pretty much not highly regarded any more for these obvious reasons. There's also, this one was good, an ice collision, you know if it wasn't a planetary body, it could have been a gargantuan chunk of ice that hit the Earth, the evidence would then have evaporated away, there wouldn't be much left of it to mess with the isotope ratio. I don't hear much about that theory though, I don't think it's held in very hard regard. There's the spin theory,[1] I remember this one as a kid. That there was no collision but the rapidly spinning Earth spewed chunks of itself into orbit. But the problem with that is that this would require the Earth to have too great of an initial spin, that they really can't explain so that's pretty much not believed any more. There's the co-formation theory,[1] that the Earth and the Moon just were created at the same time and I remember seeing animations of this theory, how they're just kind of these spinning balls of debris and gas forming together, so they're just companions, twins that were just created the same time. But I think that the Achilles heel of this theory is that there's so little metallic iron in the moon that that theory is kind of defunct. This latest theory could perhaps suggest another hypothesis or another theory, maybe called the collision spin theory, which is kind of like a fusion of the collision and the spin ideas. And the idea here is that a glancing blow from a planetary body, a blow that would have the effect of causing the Earth to spin much faster but not really, I guess it could be such a glancing blow that there really wasn't any major exchange of material, and this other body just kind of, for the most part, just kind of went on its way after slightly impacting the earth, if that's really even possible. And because it increased the rotational speed of the Earth, then you'd segue into the spin theory where this piece of the Earth is just extruded away and becomes the moon, so I think that's kind of like the preliminary hypothesis they might be going with that would kind of work with this discovery. But of course there are issues with this new idea as well that need to be worked out, such as the angular momentum. If the Earth had such a great angular momentum that a chunk of it could spin away, where did that angular momentum go? How was it finally slowed down to what we're seeing now, beyond the tidal breaking that we might see from the moon. So yeah, we'll keep an eye on this and we'll see Steve, we'll see what other scientists say about this, and maybe there's some fatal flaw that doesn't seem apparent to me. Or it might just completely supplant the old giant impact hypothesis and they'll just have to kind of work out the details of this new hypothesis.

S: Yeah it sounds like there is no one good theory then. Right? I mean so there are significant problems. The impact hypothesis was the prevailing idea because it actually was the best fit to the data that we have, now we have one piece of data that is problematic, but we're still not left with any really good replacement theory.

B: Yeah, unless...

S: another reason why I wouldn't toss it out so quickly.

B: Yeah, unless this whole collision-spin theory has legs. Yeah, who knows, I mean that's... what would it be like? I'd like to see simulations of what a real glancing blow would be like? Could you actually speed up the spin of something the size of the Earth but still go on your merry way and not really interact much with the material? And to such an extent that maybe there's only 1 or 2% of the Thea planet mixed in with the Moon, and then that would be a good explanation, or maybe it's as high as 10 or 15%. But 40% which is what some of the latest figures I've seen, is fairly significant, and you'd think that if you have a good enough sample, which I'm not sure how many samples they used, if you've got a good enough sample, you think you'd find some hint of those isotope discrepancies.

S: OK, interesting.

Mystery Cloud on Mars (21:47)[edit]

Cosmic Log MSNBC:Mystery cloud spotted on Mars

S: Evan, I want to move from the Moon to Mars.

E: Well, you're going to need a company to help you do that, Steve. Sorry, I don't think I could be of much service to you.

S: (imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger) Get your ass to Mars!


J: That's cool though, Evan before you start, do you think that some day there's going to be a moving company that will help you move from planet to planet?

E: Well, of course, Planet Express!


E: Give it about 1000 years, we've seen the future. Futurama reference for all those who don't know. But Mars, yes, Mars is in the news this week. We just – and when I say we, the Earth – recently lapsed Mars in our revolution around the Sun so we're actually relatively close to Mars but we're fast pulling away. This recent close encounter we have every two years or so we have with Mars has given amateur astronomers a chance to get their telescopes and point them in the direction of the Red Planet. And they've been capturing some very good, very clear, very cool images of Mars, which you can find, you know, just about everywhere on the web. But a few photographs in particular made some headlines this past week. Wayne Jayski, who is an amateur astronomer from Westchester, Pennsylvania, has been photographing Mars all during this time, the past week or two, and he noticed something actually rather odd in some of his photographs. There is a blob, this sort of bulge that he captured at the edge of the planet. We're not exactly sure exactly what that blob is. Lots of theories out there as to what it possibly could be. Phil Plait seems to think of all the options out there, that it's most likely an atmospheric event, in other words a cloud, some sort of high atmosphere cloud formations that have taken place on the planet, which actually has been recorded before back in the 1990s and around 2003 as well, the captured some similar pictures of Mars and this particular phenomenon. But it is rare, and we still really don't have a good handle on exactly what it is. Is it a gas cloud? Is it a dust cloud? Is it an ice cloud? And how exactly might the trick of light playing off that cloud be either skewing the picture, so what we're actually seeing in these photographs may not be the most accurate representation, but these clouds, based on measurements would be as high as, they're saying, 150km above the surface of Mars. Which for a planet with an extremely thin atmosphere is pretty remarkable.

S: yeah so one question is, can just a weather phenomenon produce a cloud that high? With so big and with such an altitude, and we really don't know. Is the bottom line.

E: We don't know, and one of the interesting things about the photographs that made the news this week obviously is that well fist of all, it was an amateur astronomer that took photos, although it's since been correlated with other people who have also taken photos during the course of the week, but Wayne was the first one to sort of notice this anomaly. And got the community, both the amateur and the professional astronomical communities taking a closer look at this, and they've actually pointed the thermal emission imaging systems which is one of the instruments on the Mars Odyssey orbiter, which is one of NASA's orbiters on Mars right now, so NASA's taken an interest in what Wayne has discovered and they're starting to conduct some tests, they're going back and looking at the data that they've collected from Mars over the past few weeks and they're trying to also get a better idea of exactly what this is.

S: An alternate theory I heard is that something smacked into Mars, that this is basically the plume of a little meteor strike.

E: That is one of the theories, other theories include aurora, some people are suggesting that aurora are taking place on Mars, which is apparently possible, there is evidence to suggest that that is happening on Mars, even though the atmosphere is much thinner than Earth, right, that maybe is electrically charged, but it does have a magnetic field unto itself and it can reflect those charged particles in the form of an aurora, but not too many people... they're kind of playing that down as one of the less likely scenarios.

B: Well they could tie that directly to solar activity. If the solar activity matches the timing of this phenomenon, then I would think it would be more likely but I wonder if anyone's done that.

E: And some folks think that this could just be a rare trick of lighting.

S: It seems to be rotating with Mars though, when you look at the little quicky animation there.

E: And what some people are proposing is that this is taking place in an area of Mars in which you have some of the higher elevations of land formations and what you're seeing is the light hitting that crest.

J: So there's enough wind or air movement to actually kick up some dust on Mars?

S: Oh yeah!

E: Very large storms, huge relative to the size of the planet

J: I saw a picture not too long ago of a dust devil on the surface, did you guys see that?

S: Yeah, those are not uncommon on Mars. Yeah, Mars can get wracked with planet-wide dust storms that last for months.

E: wow

S: they don't tell you about that in the brochure you know. Oh man, we came to Mars during dust season again.


S: well, thanks Evan.

Newage Mountain (27:44)[edit]

Neurologica: Escape to Newage Mountain

S: Now we're going to move on to a little bit of lighter news, or we like to do some light-hearted news every week. Jay, you're going to tell us why new-age hippies are flocking to a mountain in France.

J: Yeah, so there's a small town in Southern France called-

S: No offence, Rebecca, by the way

R: What?

J: Bougarach? Boogarach? What is it?

R: Because of my French background.

J: Boogarach! Boogarach! How do you pronounce that, Steve?

S: Boogarash?

R: Try it again.

J: There's a small village in Southern France called

R: what's it called?

J: Boogarach, I believe.

R: That's not what it's called.

J: I'm a guy that cannot pronounce French words at all! Bugarach! Bugarachie, how about that?


J: A population of about 200. And this town has the fortune of having many myths about the outlying area and a mountain that's right around the corner from the town. The mountain is called Pic de Bugarach.

S: Literally, the peak of that town, right?

J: That's right. And some of the myths are that the mountain has a strange magnetic force, that it has a concealed alien base, that there's access to an underground facility, and quite a few other things that people were making claims about the surrounding area. And there's a growing number of people, and I've read that anywhere between two and twenty thousand people are now making their way to the town or I think those numbers were estimates of how many people are actually there.

S: My favourite myth, by the way, about the mountains, which has nothing to do with the rest of the story that we're going to tell, but there's the myth that the mountain is somehow upside-down. Did you hear that one, Jay? Like the top of the mountain was somehow taken off, flipped upside down and put back down on top of the mountain.

E: What!?

J: Yeah, because there's like an area where it's flat on the top or whatever, that's something I read as well, I did read that.

E: that's one of the...

J: My favourite myth about the mountain is that there was a Nazi archaeological dig that was conducted there and they think there were some shenanigans going on with, remember the Nazis were trying to, you know there was rumours about magic and whatnot.

E: Opening up the arc and everything

S: Oh yeah

R: And their faces like melted and stuff

S: They were obsessed with the occult

E: They got what for!

J: So we've got all of this wonderful mystery percolating and all that and there are a growing number of people that are trying to get to the town and that are at the town and it's turning into a little cult of people there that believe that this is one of the few places, or sacred places that will be saved during the upcoming Mayan calendar predicted apocalypse.

E: I agree, it is one of the safe places, along with the rest of the planet.

J: Rationalists know and understand that this Mayan calendar hubbub is just the end of another 5125 year cycle and the end of the world is not coming and there's nothing that anyone has legitimately predicted like a meteor coming to destroy the earth or anything, there's nothing tangible that's going to do this, so of course it has to be aliens or magic or whatever. Now, of course, and as Steve pointed out so eloquently in his blog, these people have also wrapped up the idea that they're going to be saved, which is awesome! They believe that the aliens are going to come and they're going to save them when the end of the world happens on January 21st.

S: December 21st.

J: No, I'm predicting it's January 21st.

S: Are you pushing it into 2013, are you?

J: So anyway...


E: You're sending a lot of pilgrims over there, Jay.

J: They're calling the mountain the alien garage, I guess with the idea that the aliens come here and use it as a way-station or whatever, but for some reason the aliens are going to come and they're going to be picked up. So one of the guys that's there said something kinda funny that I'm going to read to you. He said

The apocalypse we believe is the end of a certain world and the beginning of another, a new spiritual world. The year 2012 is the end of a cycle of suffering and Bugarach is one of the major Chakras of the Earth. A place devoted-

R: Bugarach!


J: Bugarach... come on... I just gave up on pronunciation long ago.

R: I know.

J: -is one of the major Chakras of the Earth, a place devoted to welcoming the energies of tomorrow.

J: I mean this almost sounds like it was written by Disney World.

S: Yeah, it's blah blah, new age nonsense, blah blah. Right, I mean it's just it's like spin the wheel of new age words and whatnot, in fact, you could make magnetic poetry out of these new age words and just throw them up on your refrigerator and come up with something as coherent as that.

R: you mean like the awesome skeptic word magnets that SGU is now producing?

E: I heard about those

S: Oh you think I brought up the concept of word magnets by coincidence?

Skeptical Word Magnets (32:44)[edit]

R: Yeah well that was truly an amazing coincidence that you brought that up, and if people were to go to right now and go to the SGU section of the store, they will find that they can purchase for the low, low price of $16, more than 200... 200 words that they can stick on the refrigerator and create beautiful skeptical art.

B: Remember 200 words means 1100 phonemes.

R: Yes, thanks Bob

B: You're welcome

R: Yes, you can create such classic skeptical phrases as "to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe", or "science or fiction", of "the plural of anecdote is not evidence", or "bird vs monkey", or "Steve debunked homeopathy".

J: "Steve believes in yeti".

R: You can say that. Uh no, you can't say that. You can say "Steve believes in bigfoot".

J: There you go.

R: You can make Steve believe all sorts of things. Yes, all our names are in it.

J: Including Perry too.

R: As well as a lot of SGU related things. Perry is in it as well, yeah.

E: yeah.

R: And if you purchase a set, then you can make your best awesome skeptical magnetic literature attempt, take a photo of it, and email it to us and we will sort through the entries, pick the five that we like the best, which we will read on air, and the very best one will receive a free skeptics guide t-shirt.

S: Awesome!

R: So yeah, go ahead and buy your set at and send us a photo by May 1st.

J: And I'm going to pick my favourite. You will win nothing, but you will get praised by me.


R: and isn't that enough?


Who's That Noisy? (34:42)[edit]

S: Evan, we had a very interesting who's that noisy for last week. It was a challenge to our listeners. Why don't you tell us about it?

E: We put the challenge to our listeners to come up with the best skeptical words uttered by a cartoon character in all of cartoondom – a new word I just invented. And our listeners did not disappoint. There were lots of entries, lots of suggestions and thank you all, everyone who did play along and what we've done is put together for you the three most popular ones.

B: Can I say my favourite first?

E: Sure, Bob

B: This is a quote from Dexter from Dexter's Laboratory. "Science, the only true magic." Love it.

R: That's beautiful

B: Isn't it?

E: Poetic, you could have almost have arranged that in magnetic words on your fridge, but I digress. So I'm going to play for you the third most popular cartoon phrase uttered, having to do with skepticism that was sent in by you, the listeners, let's take a listen.

"That makes no sense, sometimes you just have to believe in things even when you can't figure them out."

"I will not believe in anything I cannot explain."

S: That sounds like My Little Pony.

E: My Little Pony, yes!

J: How kick-ass is that, that kids are hearing that?

R: I think it's mostly men in their 20s.


J: How kick-ass is that, that men in their 20s are hearing that?

E: It's interesting, of all the cartoons, you know, My Little Pony, I didn't know that would even register with people, but within the skeptical community it has a bit of a following I guess, in a sense.

R: Yeah

E: And rightly so, because, in more than one of their episodes they sprinkle in, you know, some good thoughts, some good critical thinking notes for the kids. And whether they know it or not...

S: We heard from one of the writers, said it was very deliberate. He's a skeptic.

E: And thank goodness they're doing that. So.

S: That's number three.

E: My Little Pony is number three. Now, for number 2, is from one of our favourite shows, Futurama, chock-full of good skepticism, all over the place. Matt Groening is definitely one of the good guys, he's definitely, firmly in the skeptical camp.

R: You've got a degree in Bologna!

S: You've got a degree in Bologna... that's my line, hey.

R: Sorry! Sorry, beat you to it.

E: But the one that the listeners pointed out the most, or came up most frequently from the show Futurama was the debate that Professor Farnsworth had defending the pro-evolution stance vs Dr. Banjo, an orangutan who is also a creationist. So I'm going to go ahead and play for you the first little part, and then I'm going to follow it up with another bit so you can kind of get the gist a little bit.

Dr. Banjo: Why has no one found the missing link between modern humans and ancient apes?

Professor Farnsworth: We did find it, it's called Homo Erectus.

Dr. Banjo: Then you have proven my case, sir. For no one has found the link between apes and this Homo Erectus.

Professor Farnsworth: Yes they have, it's called Homo Habilis.

E: And it progresses from there, and it continues to go, and it goes, in fact Rebecca and I are gonna kind of play out the rest of the dialogue of that scene for you. Rebecca, are you going to take on the role of Banjo or Farnsworth?

R: I will be Banjo

E: Very good, and it picks up with Banjo saying:

R: Ah hah! But no one has found the missing link between ape and this so called Homo Habilis.

E: Yes they have, says Farnsworth, it's called Australopithecus Africanus.

R: Ho ho, I've got you now!

E: And then there's a little transition to the near future. The harp music...

R: Fair enough, but where then is the missing link between apes and this Darwinius Masili? Answer me that, Professor.

E: (sigh) OK, granted, that one missing link is still missing, but just because we haven't found it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.

R: Pischaw. Things don't exist simply because you believe in them. Thus sayeth the almighty creature in the sky.

E: End scene. Well done Dr. Banjo.

R: Thank you, I was Dr. Banjo in my high school production of that episode of Futurama, so I got a lot of practice.

E: Were you the understudy or did you...

R: no, I was the lead. That was me.

E: Perfect, so. Fit like a glove.

R: It's my orangutan like features that made me perfect for the part.

E: But the number one skeptical phrase uttered by a cartoon character comes to us courtesy of, of course, The Simpsons. Our dear, dear friend Lisa Simpson. And I've cut this one up into two little segments. We're going to listen to the first segment first and the second segment second, isn't that novel? Here we go, take it away.

Homer: Aaah not a bear in sight, the bear patrol must be working like a charm.

Lisa: That's specious reasoning, dad.

Homer: Thank you honey.


E: Now it continues, the dialogue does continue right from there, which is the perfect finale for this. Here we go, take it away Lisa.

Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.

Homer: Oooh how does it work?

Lisa: It doesn't work

Homer: uh huh.

Lisa: It's just a stupid rock.

Homer: uh huh.

Lisa: But I don't see any tigers around here, do you?

E: and then Homer pauses, thinks about it, and says to Lisa: Lisa, I'd like to buy your rock.


S: Of course.

R: It's a classic.

E: Classic.

R: You know, Lisa was the inspiration for Junior Skeptic magazine.[2]

B: Yeah, because she was reading it in one episode right?

R: There wasn't a Junior Skeptic until

E: That's right, in one of the very early episodes of The Simpsons.

S: So what are we doing for this week, Evan?

E: This week, we have the classic Who's That Noisy. I'm going to play a noise and you, the listeners, are going to try to guess exactly what it is you are hearing. Without further adieu, did I pronounce that right, Rebecca, I hear you're French.

R: No, you didn't but...


S: Close enough.

E: The Jay Novella school of French language

J: France!

R: Ado is not French.

E: Here we go

(sound of a Tesla coil)


S: Cool

E: is our email address. We'd love to hear from you guys on Who's That Noisy and anything else that's on your mind. And join our forums, and our moderators do an awesome job of keeping that site up, running and squeaky clean for your entertainment. So hats off to all of them. Good luck everyone.

S: Great, thanks Evan.

Interview with James Randi (41:44)[edit]

S: Well, we have a great interview with James Randi, so let's go to that now.


S: We are joined once again by James Randi, Randi, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

JR: Yeah, it's been a while, Steve.

S: Yeah, you've been travelling quite a bit, you're quite in demand these days.

JR: Well, a moving target is harder to hit, you see.

S: Yeah... right. In fact, you're in California right now, isn't that correct?

JR: I am in California as we speak, ladies and gentlemen, in Los Angeles yet.

S: What are you doing out there?

JR: Oh, all kinds of things, I've been doing interviews all afternoon, and for everybody, you can imagine. I've been spending a lot of time with D. J. Grothe, our president of course, and it's valuable to have eye-to-eye relationships like that with them, and we get a lot more accomplished that way.

S: So we're going to talk, in a second, about two upcoming conferences that we're going to be seeing you at, NECSS and then, of course, TAM. But before that, I understand that you gave away the Pigasus awards recently, can you tell us about that?

JR: Of course I'd be happy to tell you about that, and you know there are several categories, we have five categories this particular year. This is very interesting to me, at least. This is the April 1st, of course, so I don't know why we chose April 1st, it was just chance, of course, as you can imagine. The Pigasus Awards are given each year by the JREF to highlight para-psychological, paranormal or psychic or fakers, and we think that they do so much harm to society that we really want to call attention to them. So here are the official announcements. First of all, for the scientist that did the silliest thing this past year, to Daryl Bem[3]. It always reminds me of bug-eyed monsters because in science fiction a Bem is a bug-eyed monster, and I have no idea what Mr. Bem, Dr. Bem looks like at all, but it was the stuff that he did was really shoddy research and it has been discredited by, well let me see, we've got Richard Wiseman, and we have, of course, Steve Novella, I've heard of him, have you heard of him?

S: Occasionally, yeah.

J: (laughs)

JR: Steve, you did a very good job on that by the way. And of course we've got all kinds of friends all over the world who are scientists and who are really qualified to criticise this kind of thing. Bem used all kinds of strange paradigms did he not Steve?

S: Yeah, well he you know, it's interesting idea, sort of reversing the direction of standard psychological studies to see how it works, but he came up with these barely significant little signals and there's every indication that he probably massaged the data a little bit. It's not really surviving replication. As you say Chris French, Richard Wiseman have tried to replicate it, all with negative results. And also, in Bem's own book on psychology he discussed how you could massage the data and get a signal out of the noise, basically. Really sort of giving away the game.

JR: And Steve, I would say as well, you used the term massaged the data. Also, there's data selection. If you do enough experiments, you are going to find some that appear to be significant, and if you just ignore all the rest of them and just publish the ones that seem to have some positive results, that's massaging data.

S: Yeah

JR: It's just shameless. I'm not a scientist, but I know how these things are done. Magicians do it all the time.

S: Yeah

JR: On stage they show you where they're right and they show you where it seems to have worked, but they don't show you when it hasn't worked.

S: It's a bit of the magician's choice.

JR: It is indeed. It is indeed, yes. Anyway, there is another, the one that I find most important to me personally is funding. The silliest funding done for a really ridiculous cause. And Syracuse University, they really have to be ashamed of themselves. They are still promoting and funding, as well, the facilitated communication idea[4]

S: Yeah.

JR: And facilitated communication, as you gentlemen know, and as we all know, and I think the rest of the world is getting to know, is just such a farce, it's just such a cruel, cruel farce where parents of autistic children are very encouraged by getting the false belief, and it is a totally false belief, that their children are able to communicate with them. The messages are always 'I love you mummy dear', kind of thing, which children would give you, of course. And that's what they'd expect and that's what they'd like and they choose to believe it, even though the child is not looking at a keyboard that's perched in front of it. It can be looking at the floor, can be singing, or screaming for food or whatever, but they have a facilitator there, that's an adult, that holds the child's hand and makes a pointer finger out of it, and then presses the keys on the keyboard, and the facilitator has his or her, usually her, eyes glued to the screen and to the keyboard while the child is not even looking. And they want people to believe that the child is originating the data, and the child is not originating the data. This is a cruel farce. And yet, Syracuse University makes huge sums of money every year, mostly from parents, wealthy parents of autistic children who think that their children are talking to them. This is a terrible farce. But Syracuse University does it for the money.

S: They definitely need to be singled out, you're right.

JR: Absolutely

S: Syracuse University should be ashamed of themselves. It was dubious from the get-go, but it was absolutely demonstrated that it's fake, that it's, as you say, it's the facilitators who are doing the communication. It's not just autism, by the way, just to clarify it's any child or adult even, that has difficulty communicating.

JR: Of course, yes.

S: And in fact, what I discovered in the last few years is that younger clinicians, physicians, etc. who went through training, came up after the whole facilitated communication thing in the late 80s and early 90s had no idea what it was and they're getting duped by it all over again, a whole new generation of people are getting fooled by it. And it's up to us to point out, to say no, 20 years ago that was all completely debunked, just check the literature.

JR: We will all admit, of course, with no hesitation at all, that there's nothing as sad as an autistic child that can't communicate with the world. Now there are all kinds of degrees of it too.

S: Yeah.

JR: I saw all kinds of degrees of it in my career of investigating this sort of thing, and I have given tests, definitive tests, to these so-called facilitators, and what they have the child typing out all of a sudden is: 'I don't like this man from Florida, you tell him to go back, because you and me, we have an arrangement together, we are soul mates'. And the children are talking about all kinds of technical terms. 'I need a new hypothalamus'. That's from an eight year old boy, saying to the facilitator, 'I need a new hypothalamus'. Come on! People can only believe a certain amount about this sort of thing. But Syracuse University continues to rake it in.

S: I agree, they definitely get my vote. Jay, do you have a comment you want to make.

J: Yeah, Randi you said before that the children are communicating through the facilitated communication, 'I love you mum and dad' and things like that, but it even gets a lot more, I don't know how to put it other than ridiculous. They'll have these children writing poetry and coming up with very profound thoughts and statements that-

JR: Now I even have examples that I'm putting in my next book, 'A Magician in the Laboratory', a whole chapter on this, because actually, can you believe this, they've got kids going to college with their mother sitting beside them as facilitators.

S: Even worse than that in my opinion are cases where children, through facilitated communication, accuse an estranged husband of sexual abuse.

JR: Oh yes, yes, that is the worst, yes.

S: Yeah, that's spectral evidence. I mean that's like a witch hunt, that's terrible.

JR: So they get our Pigasus award, Syracuse University, I hope you're happy with the money you're bringing in for the university. Be happy with it.

S: (laughs)

JR: And then, for the media, oh boy. The Learning Channel. What a misnamed channel. This is ridiculous, they have such shows that promote belief and paranormal folderall. They used to have more science, of course, and they have our friends the Mythbusters on their sister network, the Discovery Channel which is not really very discovering either, but they also have shows like the Long Island Medium. Just utter dangerous nonsense. Have you seen that show?

S: I've not managed to see it yet. I've seen the promos for it.

JR: Yeah well the promos are bad enough, so you know enough to avoid it. Because it's just a silly woman with a silly voice saying silly things, of course. But they see that there's money in it. And then here's another category for the Pigasus prize. It's for the performer. And for the performer for this year of the Pigasus prize is... oh, Theresa Caputo because she is the Long Island Medium, isn't that strange? I mean this is a double honour for them, I'm sure they're very proud of it. And then, the final Pigasus prize this year is the Pigasus prize awarded for refusal to face reality, and we give this with great honours and great fan fair to, da dah! James van Praagh.

J: Oh, here we go.

JR: He's still peddling his nonsense, even after we've exposed him time and time again. As you know guys, D. J. and a team of our volunteers even brought a zombie group to one of his spirit circles. It's a big viral video right now and can be looked up on youtube. And it got great press but rather than just admitting how much of his stuff is utter nonsense, it all is utter nonsense, he keeps plugging away. So he is refusing to face reality. But he knows what he's doing, fellas. He knows what he's doing because he knows that there are people out there, no amount of evidence will ever talk them out of their belief in these things, and James van Praagh knows that that's a good enough percentage of the American and other parts of the world, public and he can benefit from that and he'll continue to make a handsome living. So those are the Pigasus awards for 2012.

J: (laughs)

S: All deserving. Well, let's turn to the conferences that we'll be seeing you at. The next one coming up, April 21st and 22nd is NECSS, held in New York City. And you've been to this conference before.

JR: Oh yes.

S: And we're always happy to have you back. What are you going to be doing for us?

JR: Well, Michael Feldman of course is the guy I look at as being behind all this, he's a great organiser. I'm giving a talk, but I want to keep it a bit of a surprise, because it's something from my next book, A Magician in the Laboratory, I keep plugging this up and I think that, I expect that everyone's going to buy several copies of it, of course.

S: Oh, several.

JR: Oh, by the way Steve and Bob, and everyone involved here, I must say it's going to go out digitally first, on Kindle or whatever they've got planned for it. I don't know, about publication. Before it goes into actual print. So forests will be spared. I hope a lot of forests will be spared. But it's quite a book I'll tell you it's quite a book. This is stuff I've saved up for years and I've wanted to say for a long, long time.

S: So you're going to be giving us some secret lecture based on your upcoming book.

JR: Yeah, I'm going to take some excerpts out of it, I think I have some very special surprises for the NECSS group. So I hope they're looking forward to it.

S: Awesome.

JR: I am certainly looking forward to being there, of course.

S: Great. You'll be joining us on stage for the live recording of the SGU as well. (see SGU Episode 354)

J: That's right.

S: And we love to have you on. And Jay, there's also going to be a bit of a raffle involving Randi, tell us about that.

J: OK, so we decided to do something cool this year, we wanted to give someone the chance, well basically anybody that buys a ticket at NECSS will be entered into a drawing. And what's going to happen is we're going to announce the winner on Saturday at the conference. And the winner gets the following, the winner gets to go to the speaker dinner for free on Saturday night. That's worth $100, and also, something that you can't put a price on, the winner will get to sit right next to Randi at his table, have an entire meal with him, which means that you're going to get to talk to Randi and listen to him tell stories. And just trust me, I've done this many times, and Randi very rarely repeats himself and the stories are amazing.

JR: And some of the stories are true too!

S: (laughs)

J: And that's the good part! And then finally, the thing that I think everyone can appreciate, Randi is also going to do a magic trick right there for that person at some random moment during the meal. And I've also seen Randi do quite a few magic tricks and it's always fascinating and always fun, and Randi is, in my opinion, one of my favourite entertainers. So don't miss out. And like I said, all you've got to do is buy a ticket, you're going to be automatically entered, and we'll do the drawing at some point during Saturday.

S: Awesome, yeah we're definitely looking forward to seeing you again. And then of course we have TAM 10 or TAM 2012 or TAM X, what are you guys calling it this year?

JR: I think we're just calling it TAM 10. But I would have liked to have called it TAM X. But there aren't too many ancient Romans around to appreciate that, you see.

J: Well, actually I was talking to George Hrab not too long ago, because we did a project together and George told me that, I think from D. J., that they want to call it TAM 2012 to clarify things, right?

JR: I believe that's what they're doing, yes.

J: But actually I really love the TAM X idea, there's a lot of jokes, if you think about it there's some funny things that they could have done for the graphics and all that for it, but I'm sure, now if you remember last year, I don't know if everyone was as blown away as I was by the graphics that TAM came up with.

JR: That was beautiful, that was beautiful. We had a company do that for us. Um, D. J., are we having the same company do the graphics for TAM this year?

DG: Um, yeah we hope to, it's not finalised yet.

JR: It's not finalised yet, D. J. says from the couch across the room, which is his usual stance. He handles me very off-handedly. He doesn't really pay attention to what I say.


JR: But yes, it was great, wasn't it? And we had a lot of people asking for second copies of the programs and such. It was very very well done, I was very happy about that.

J: Yeah, me too. I was hoping that they came up with something as interesting as last year. I mean, I don't know can you top the throwback 1940s sci-fi, you know the old-style rockets and the funny space suits and everything, I mean I loved it.

JR: Well they wanted to do a thing on my naked dance-on-fire but I didn't want to feature that.

S: Is that the surprise, your naked dance on fire?

JR: Yeah well I'm finding the enthusiasm for the audience seeing that has been waning in recent years. I've no idea why.


JR: Well you know we have the usual great line-up, I don't want to spoil it all for you. We've got Lawrence Krauss, for example and, have you ever heard Lawrence Krauss speak?

S: Oh yeah, he's great.

J: Absolutely, yeah. He's awesome.

S: We had him on our show, yeah.(see episodes 124 and 334)

JR: He's a fascinating speaker, I was just with him a few days ago, as a matter of fact. And Brian Dunning will be speaking as well. And Penn and Teller. Oh, get this now. You know how great Penn and Teller are with us, they really are astonishing. They go all out. And we're going to throw... uh pardon me, Penn Gillette is going to throw an even bigger, rock and roll, doughnuts and bacon party, that's what he called it, than he did last year. And all attendees of TAM are invited for free, of course. Isn't that great?

J: Oh awesome.

JR: And this is our 10th, I mean, our 10th in Las Vegas. Now we've had a few other ones. We had a 5.5 one, for example. I don't know how that worked out. But it worked well, we got lots of people. But the attendance last year, 1,652 people. We're going to have to build our own casino next year.

J: Yeah, I would imagine with the astounding growth that TAM has had, like I can't imagine us fitting in that room any more.

JR: hahaha, yeah that's true. But now, I've got to tell you this too, that D. J. Grothe, our amazing president - not too many things are amazing in my estimation, I'm one, and D. J. is another - he's negotiated an incredibly affordable, even cheaper than last year, rate to attend TAM. And we're keeping the registration the same as last year we're not raising the price, even though our costs have gone up substantially. This is four full days of skepticism and science, big evening shows, workshops, lots of social activities and parties. I can't wait to get there.

S: Alright Randi, is there anything else you want us to ask you about before we let you go?

JR: No, I think not Steve, but hey I've got to express this thought. Steve, your contributions to TAM and to the JREF in general have been quite substantial, and I wanted to thank you for your support and your participation. It's very good of you and we're happy to have you on board as we say, and, well we can't get many people that are that valuable and that knowledgeable, but remember, get out to TAM, that is, get registered for going out to TAM as early as you can, because we're going to fill up this year, I'm absolutely sure of it.

J: (imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger) Get your ass to TAM


S: Well, thank you, Randi, and thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate it, it's definitely an honour working for the JREF and working with all of you guys and we look forward to seeing you at NECSS in April and we look forward to seeing you at TAM in Las Vegas in July.

JR: Looking forward to it with great enthusiasm.

S: alright, thanks again Randi, good night.

JR: good night.

J: see you soon, Randi.

NECSS Announcements (1:00:22)[edit]

J: A couple more NECSS announcements while we're at it. I have a few more cool things to let our listeners know. First, single day sales are going to open next week. And those are going to be at $85 each for Saturday and $85 dollars for Sunday. We only have a limited number of those single day tickets so if you want one I suggest you just jump on and make the purchase as soon as possible.

S: Yeah, we had a lot of people asking us for single day tickets. They can't make the whole weekend but they want to come, so we opened some up to accommodate those requests, but I do expect that they're going to go pretty quickly.

J: So Steve, we have a new night-time event that I recommend that you go to. It's called the 'Story Collider' event and that's happening on Friday April 20th at 8pm, and the idea of this is Brian is going to be asking a certain number of speakers that are going to attend the conference to come up and tell a short, maybe 10 minute story. This event is run by Brian Wecht and what he does is he gets people to come up and give a 10 minute story that's based on something to do with science and the list of people are: I'm actually doing it, which I'm incredibly excited to do it. D. J. is going to be there. Jamie, Hai Ting, Brian will actually be doing it and Rebecca, and Page, who if you don't know who Page is, Page is the president of the New York City Skeptics. So there's a two thirds discount to NECSS attendees who will have a code mailed to them very soon. And if you're a member of the NESS and you need your discount code for this or for the overall NECSS event, then email us to make it simple, please just email us at with the subject line 'NECSS code'.

Science or Fiction (1:02:00)[edit]

It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. Everyone read for this week?

R: Yep.

E: mmmmhmmmm

S: Here we go. Item number one: 'Palaeontologists demonstrate that the arrangement of bones in fossil aquatic dinosaurs is likely the result of the dinosaur carcasses exploding after death'. Item number two: 'A new study indicates that adults learning a second language can achieve native-like language processing which can improve even after a period of no exposure'. And item number three: 'Scientists have demonstrated the existence of a new layer of genetic information in genes previously thought to be redundant'. Evan, go first.

E: 'Arrangement of bones in fossil aquatic dinosaurs is likely the result of the dinosaur carcases exploding after death'. Is it a problem that I've never heard of this before?

J: I don't think so.

S: It's a problem for you.

E: Come back to it. The next one. Study indicates adults learning a second language. Well, this kind of flies in the face of things we've talked about before and things I've looked at, found on the internet. The younger brain, the child's brain, still forming, certain centres still very active, having to do with language. And adults have a natural hindrance towards that, a barrier essentially. Did we call that plasticity of the brain if I recall? Becomes less so in the adult, which is why. But this seems to fly in the face of that. Which is fascinating for me. I'm going on to the last one where scientists demonstrated the existence of a new layer of genetic information in genes previously thought to be redundant. I think of the three this is the one that might make the most sense to me, actually. Let's see. Exploding carcasses or language. I'll go with my instincts, simply, and say that the adults learning the second language achieving native-like language processing, I'm going to say that one's the fiction.

S: OK, Bob.

B: I'll start with three. A new layer of genetic information in genes thought to be redundant. That's really cool, a new layer of genetic information, that's fantastic I really hope that's true. But yeah, I could see something about redundant codons that can somehow influence gene expression in some way, sure. The adults learning a second language. Yeah, kids have much more facility learning languages, definitely. But it's not just that they could learn it in a way that adults can't possibly do it. I think it's more that they could just learning it with much more facility, much more quickly and I think often accent-free. So this one kind of makes sense to me. The improvement after a period of time of no exposure, sure I mean I could see the brain kind of reorganising and consolidating itself during the no-exposure period which could actually make it more reflexive and requiring less, you know more efficient to more efficient to actually think in that other language so that kind of makes sense to me too. The arrangement of bones, yeah I mean this is obviously... exploding after death has got to be due to the creation of post-mortem gas that the bacteria create. But the arrangement of bones in fossil aquatic animals... something about that, um. Before that happened, wouldn't they just be torn apart by predators anyway? And would there actually be places in the body where the gas can accumulate to such an extent before they're just ripped apart by whatever. I mean I think it would take a little while before the gases would accumulate so much. Yeah, I'm going to say that one's the fiction.

S: OK, Jay.

J: I have heard of large mammals like whales exploding because of gas build-up. I've never heard of dinosaurs exploding. So, listening to what Bob was saying... you know the thing that seems strange to me in this one is that they're saying the arrangement of the bones, aquatic dinosaurs were exploding. That seems kind of strange to me if you think that if they exploded, then wouldn't the bones like drift apart from each other and stuff? You know I'm just picturing what would happen if something that's on the surface of the water or got beached and exploded or whatever, it just seems kind of weird to me and then I listen to what Bob said. It makes sense. The one about the adults learning a second language. That's news to me if that's true, it's pretty interesting. I mean I always heard that you can't learn languages later on in life. In this situation we're saying it's not just them learning the language, but they're learning it with a native-like language processing, and maybe the word processing is an indicator of, you know maybe it's not that you're learning it as well as a native could, but there's certain elements of the processing in the brain that can achieve that level or whatever, I think that might be the tricky thing there. And then scientists said, the last one, have demonstrated the new layers of information. I've no reason to doubt that. I think if that's true that's fascinating and I can't wait to hear about it and I just can't really shoot any holes in that. So it's between the exploding dinosaurs, the aquatic explosions and then we have the language thing. So I think at this point I'm going to GWB.

S: OK, and Rebecca.

R: Yeah, for me it's between the exploding dinosaurs and the new language. I think they're both pretty out there. But the exploding dinosaurs, like Jay said we know of whales and whatnot exploding, but these are animals that have been beached and the way this is written makes me feel like it's suggesting it's a more common occurrence for dead aquatic animals and I think that an animal that dies in the water has a very low chance of exploding due to, as Bob sort of hinted at, due to the vast amount of predators picking at it, but also when you're in water there's a lot more wear and tear on a corpse that when it's exposed to the air, so you're constantly having little bits of it washed away and there's more bacteria and things like that I imagine. So I would think that the exploding aquatic dinosaurs would be pretty rare. So I'm going to say that one's the fiction.

S: OK. So you all agree in the third one, so we'll start there. Scientists have demonstrated the existence of a new layer of genetic information in genes previously thought to be redundant. You all think that one is science, and that one is science.

E: Ooo

S: That one is science.

E: Very cool science

J: Cool

R: Yay.

S: Yeah this wasn't totally new, it was kind of presented that way but I've heard other studies suggesting this before as well. So essentially there are often different copies of the same gene, and thinking for a long time was that the extra copies, especially if they produce an identical protein, sometimes there's obviously a gene was duplicated but there are slight differences in the two copies and sometimes those duplicated genes go on to evolve to be, to have a completely different purpose. And we could demonstrate branching descent within genes. But anyway, there are sometimes we have duplicate copies of genes, even though there are mutations, there is a different code, the code still results in the same sequence of amino acids. The same exact protein and the thinking was, OK there was a duplication and that extra copy is completely redundant. However, what new research has showed is that those other copies actually can have a dramatic effect on the amount of protein that is produced by a cell. So Bob, you're correct, it does affect the gene expression and in fact, this is probably an important mechanism of regulating ribosomal activity. Ribosomes are the organelles that convert genes into proteins. They use a technique called the ribosome profiling which allows them to see how much...

B: Isn't that against the law?

S: ...activity, essentially each ribosome and each gene is having. OK, let's go back to number two. A new study indicates that adults learning a second language can achieve native-like language processing which can improve even after a period of no exposure. Evan, you think this one is the fiction, everyone else thinks this one is science. And this one is ... science.

B: Science.

J: ha ha!

R: Yay!

E: I've got to go relearn about this whole language thing now.

S: Yeah I was hoping to get a lot of people on this one, Evan, your thinking was reasonable. Children do have an easier time learning languages than adults. But there's a critical distance though, and that is, I think Bob maybe you hit upon this, children have a much easier time, they have a window of opportunity where they could learn the phonemes, the different sounds that make up a language, and it becomes very difficult to overcome that, it really depends what language you're trying to go to and from. Sometimes after a certain age there may be subtle distinctions in a foreign language that your brain just can't distinguish. But this is actually not talking about distinguishing different phonemes. But grammar, about the way the brain processes the language syntax, so the language grammar. And this is totally learnable, you could completely learn and think in the syntax of a language as an adult. But actually what the study was looking at was the difference between classroom learning of a language and immersive learning. Ironically, I mean people, the naïve sense would be well immersive learning is better. But actually up to this point, studies have shown that classroom learning of a language produces superior results, however the weakness in that evidence is that maybe it helps people perform better on tests, but not necessarily to be more fluent and also they were relatively short-term. So we don't know if there are long term advantages. So people are still holding out for the notion that... immersive just seems better. The data is sort of pointing towards classroom being superior, but maybe immersion in a language is better. So this was looking at those two different ways of learning and what they found was that immersive learning does produce better native-like processing of the language than does classroom learning. They both produce it, but the immersive learning was a little bit faster, a little bit more. They also then followed up the study by bringing students back 5 months later. You know, the subjects back after they hadn't been exposed to the language. And both groups were even better than they were 5 months earlier, as if as you said Bob, I don't know if you read the study or not, they think that they were probably consolidating what they had learned and therefore the brain was able to process the language even better. Do you know how they know for sure that in those 5 months their subjects were not exposed to the language that they were taught?

E: They put them in a box

R: They were astronauts.

S: In a box, astronaut, nope.

J: They bribed them with chocolate.

S: It was a made-up language.

R: Oh.

B: Oh, awesome.

J: Great idea.

E: Oh cool.

B: Wait that's kind of annoying.


S: They also made it up for another reason because part of the weakness of the earlier data is that it was short term, but it takes so long to learn a language that they didn't know how it really related. So they made up a very simple language so that they could teach the subjects this made up language very quickly. So let's go to number one. Palaeontologists demonstrated that the arrangement of bones in fossil aquatic dinosaurs is likely the result of the dinosaur carcasses exploding after death, and that's obviously the fiction. I didn't get you guys with exploding dinosaurs. I thought you would go for that because it's cool.

J: It sounded fishy from the beginning, Steve.

R: It's a great idea. I'm sad it's not true.

E: Haha, fishy.

J: Wait but whales explode.

S: Yeah actually until this recent that I'm about to talk about, the notion that... actually they weren't dinosaurs, they were aquatic reptiles that existed at the time with the dinosaurs, but since this was the fiction I could just say whatever I want. But like ichthyosaurs, the belief was that they were exploding, that was actually the prevailing theory. The new evidence actually contradicts that.

R: It's such a great theory.

S: The exploding "dinosaur" theory. So some fossils of ichthyosaurs were of pregnant females and the foetal bones were strewn about a little bit and they couldn't figure out how that might have happened, so one hypothesis may be that the carcass exploded after death because of the build-up of gasses of decomposition as Bob was saying.

B: Gases.

S: What the new analysis showed was that the gas build-up would not produce sufficient force to cause the carcasses to explode. So it contradicts that hypothesis. The notion that the creatures would be eaten and stuff. I don't know how valid that reasoning is, because that's true of pretty much of anything. Most animals that die get scavenged and eaten and whatnot. So it's always a rare event that a carcass finds itself in an environment where it's going to be fossilised, where it's going to be protected from either the environment or scavengers or whatever that would destroy it before it has a chance to get buried essentially and fossilised. So the palaeontologists were trying to come up with scenarios in which an icthyosaur, the carcass would survive the environment, would not just be rotted away by the water or be eaten by scavengers, long enough that it could sink down into the sediment but still produce this spread of the bones that they were finding. And that's why they came up with the exploding hypothesis but that hasn't panned out in this latest research. Now they think that just the water currents, after the body decayed to the point where it was essentially open, that the currents could have washed the foetuses away a little bit. Just a little distance away, that's why they weren't found inside the mother.

E: It's like the scientists said 'Look at the bones'!

J: (laughs)

S: So Jay, you have a quote for us this week?

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:04)[edit]

J: I have a quote sent in from a listener named Tom Hale, and I'd like to thank everyone who does send me in these awesome quotes. This quote was written by a man named Robert Ingersoll. And does anyone know who Robert was?

S: Oh yeah.

R: Of course.

B: I used to.

R: He was one of the greatest free-thinkers ... ever.

J: That's right. A cool guy, he was a civil war veteran, American political leader, an orator during the golden age of free thought, and he was also noted for his broad range of cultural and his defence of agnosticism. He was nicknamed the great agnostic. Which I thought was very cool. And the quote is:

Fear believes, courage doubts. Fear falls upon the earth and prays. Courage stands erect and thanks. Fear is barbarism. Courage is civilization. Fear believes in witchcraft, in devils and in ghosts. Fear is religion. Courage is science.

J: Robert Ingersoll!

S: Awesome.

R: Robert Ingersoll was new-atheist before it was cool to be new-atheist.

S: right.


S: thanks, Jay.

Announcements (1:18:16)[edit]

J: So Steve, you know who that kid Ethan Brown is?

S: Oh yeah.

J: Ethan is the 12 year old who's going to be presenting at NECSS coming up on April 21 and 22 and Ethan does a magic show. I think they call him a mathematician.

S: A mathemagician.

J: A mathemagician. He is a mathematician and he does math magic. He's awesome, he's done a lot of little things for me. I've gone out to breakfast with Chris and his family a number of times and Ethan is always there ready to go he's got his cards with him and it's really cool I really like what he does. It does a lot of really cool things to inspire other people and especially other kids to not be afraid of math and learn it and actually have fun with it. Which is... if you can have fun with math you can have fun with anything.

S: Right.

J: well at NECSS, Ethan is going to be doing a mental math show, and he actually performs his show all over the country and he's going to be doing something in Atlanta, St Louis, New Jersey as well as NECSS just in the next few months. So here's the deal, Ethan's doing something I think is very interesting to raise money for his home town library. We've talked about the number Tau on the show before. Remember that, Steve?

S: Yep, the golden ratio.

J: Yeah, so it's considered an irrational number, which means that it goes on forever. And Ethan is going to try to recite 2000 digits of this number from memory in front of two judges. And he's raising money by asking people to pledge some money for every digit he gets correct. So basically if he gets all 2000 digits and you pledge 1 penny for each digit, you end up pay $20, 2c would be $40 and you can do the math from there. It's also good to point out that efforts like this will be supported by the skeptical community, you know, it's not just something fun to do but it is about awareness, it is about getting people involved and excited about learning and especially about science and critical thinking and math. So here's the details, you go to and click on the button to support the event and fill out the pledge form right on line. It takes about 20 seconds to do the whole thing. Now on the form it's going to ask you how you heard about the event. Type in SGU. So we're going to be giving away three t-shirts signed by the entire SGU crew to three lucky people who help out. The first t-shirt goes to whoever sends in the most money, whoever ends up donating the most money, so don't be afraid to be generous if you can swing it. And if you can't afford a lot, no problem, the second two are just going to go randomly.

S: well thank you for joining me, everyone.

J: my pleasure.

R: Thank you Steve.

E: Heeey it was fun.

B: Absolutely.

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

Voice-over: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can also check out our other podcast, The SGU 5x5, as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune, or your portal of choice.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • On March 31st, 1981, Indian American microbiologist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty received the first ever patent for a living organism, pseudomonas putida. This is a safe bacteria that turns oil into simpler substances which can be eaten by aquatic life, and consumes oil faster than the four existing species oil metabolisers by an order of magnitude.
  • Scientists have demonstrated the existence of a new layer of genetic information in genes previously thought to be redundant. Gene copies were found to affect gene expression and may be an important mechanism of regulating ribosomal activity.(USCF news)
  • Adults learning a second language can achieve native-like language processing which can improve even after a 5 month period of no exposure. This was found to be better for immersive learning of a made-up language than for classroom learning. (PlosOne article)


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