SGU Episode 145

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SGU Episode 145
April 30th 2008
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 144                      SGU 146

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


K: Kirsten Sanford

Quote of the Week

'Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.'

Arthur Schopenhauer

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

News Items ()[edit]

Mystery Lights and Sounds in Maryland ()[edit]

Academic Freedom Law Passes Florida Senate ()[edit]

Gary Null HIV Denier ()[edit]

Special Report ()[edit]

  • The Real Iron Man

Interview with Kirsten Sanford (37:12)[edit]

  • Kirsten Sanford is the host of This Week in Science and is a cast member for the pilot of The Skeptologists. She has a PhD in Neurophysiology and her area of research involved bird intelligence.

S: Joining us now is Kirsten Sanford. Kirsten, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

K: Hi! Thank you very much for having me.

S: Kirsten is the host of This Week in Science, a popular science podcast. She is also a fellow Skeptologist.

K: That's right.

S: But why don't you tell us first about your training in science? You are actually a PhD in neurophysiology. Why don't you tell us about that?

K: Yeah. So, my area of – I guess – expertise is bird brains. I spent six years in graduate school just trying to learn about the intricacies of the way bird brains work.

S: And how ... but you didn't spend too much time actually doing research after you got your PhD.

K: Yeah, while I was in graduate school, I realized that I really enjoy being a science educator, and that's really where my passion lies. And as much as I love research, the lab is not where I need to be personally. You know, so I had a lot of fun going out in the field, and doing my own lab research, and learning all sorts of stuff, and, but at the same time, it became really important for me to finish grad school, and kind of use my PhD as credentials of credibility, to be able to get myself out into the public eye, and to be able to become a person that people would trust.

S: Right. So, before you go around teaching science, you wanted to actually do some science for a while.

K: Yeah, exactly. (Laughs) Say, "Look, I know what I'm talking about. I've done it. I've been there." Yeah.

S: Well, before we talk about your media career, which I guess is just really getting started, tell us about some of the more of the details of the specific research that you did do. Tell us about the bird brains.

K: Well, I was really interested in spacial learning and memory in birds, and I initially worked with a professor named Nicola Clayton. She's now at Cambridge University. She's one of the individuals in bird brain research who was at the forefront of looking at the avian cognition as more than, I guess, more than just bird brains.

So, thinking that the birds can actually, their memories are probably a lot better than we give them credit for. Their intelligence was a lot higher than we give them credit for. They're very well adapted for their environments. So, and very well adapted for specialized behaviors like foraging, migration, food caching.

And so I started looking at the work that she was doing in food caching, and just got so interested in trying to figure out how these birds could remember so many locations of food items over the winter; be able to survive off of individual caches of food for several months. And I forget where my keys are all the time. Nicola, she used to forget where she'd leave her car. So, you know, it was kind of that those who can't do it.

I worked with her on some scrub jay research, where she was looking at episodic-like memory. So, episodic memory is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence and the theory of mind. The idea that we can remember these particular events in our past history. Like, you know, you can remember the exact moment that you say, say, graduated from high school, or graduated from college, and went to the commencement ceremony, and what you were wearing, and who you saw. And all of the particular elements of the event that were all wrapped up in that memory.

So, we were looking at scrub jays as having this system of episodic-like memory, where they can cache food items like a peanut, or a piece of dog food, or a worm; and then remember days to weeks later, not only where they put it, because, you know, it's good to know where it was. But also, when they hid it there, and what the content of the cache was. So, they could discriminate whether or not they had cached a perishable worm in a location, and whether or not it would be worthwhile to go back to that place to collect the item; or whether they should go to another location that has a more long-lived thing like a peanut.

So I started doing some more work looking at less specialized species of birds; Zebra finches, which are nice, little, happy birds that people see in bird stores all the time. And they go, "Meep meep! Meep meep meep meep!" And, you know, they sound like little squeeze toys. And these birds aren't really specialized for food caching, but they move nomadically from location to location, looking for good.

And so I wanted to know what kind of aspects of spatial memory were important to them. Was color important? Was actual spatial location important? And I found that the birds were not really, you know, they didn't have the same capabilities as the scrub jays. So they're definitely adapted for different behaviors; and their brains are specialized for those behaviors. Their behaviors are totally different for it.

So, the crux of the story was these less specialized birds become more able to remember more aspects of a particular type of memory with the more experience they have with it.

B: Is it difficult to perform these experiments? I mean, you're not doing it out in the field.

K: Yeah. It's a, field experiments are really hard to do; so, because you can't really control for them very well. And there aren't very many people who are doing this kind of field research. Sue Healy is a researcher who's doing some really interesting work with humming birds, actually looking at, she puts out bird feeders that are filled with nectar, and then she tracks birds going to these bird feeders; and which ones they return to, and which ones they don't; and how long between their visits.

And so she's doing some really, really cutting edge research into this that is a lot of very field based stuff. Most of my stuff was in the laboratory, just very highly controlled , based on psychology research in general. The birds had, they were individually housed, and they had these little trays that had a bunch of possible holes in which food could be found. So I had to train the birds to first learn to associate these trays with food, and so there was this long training period.

And then you had to get the birds then to learn to flip over these little cardboard flaps, that "Oh! There's gonna be food hidden under these things." And so there was months of preparatory training before I actually got to the actual testing. And when I got to the testing, it was day after day after day after day, and it's rigorous, and it was kind of draining. (Laughs)

S: So, obviously, you wanted, the bottom line to all of this, is that birds are a lot smarter than anybody thought they were, up until this research was done over the last 10 years or so.

K: Yeah.

S: Is the thinking that this can teach us something about human intelligence? Or did bird intelligence, is it just too far divorced evolutionarily from human intelligence at this point?

K: Well, I think that's the question, is trying to figure out how far apart our memories are. I was just talking with Gary Marcus, who's, he studies language acquisition in children. And we were talking about how there's this idea that humans don't really have a template inside their brain. And there's just, we just have our brain. And when we are born, language comes in through the ears. We hear people talking, and eventually, we figure things out, and neurons fire, and synapses connect in the right way, and we learn language.

And that just seems a little bit strange, because in the bird world, there's a definite template for language learning, and there are definite nuclei in the brain that have been associated with the location of these templates. So, birds are born almost knowing what they're supposed to say. And then it's just a matter of comparing what they hear in the outside world from adults to what's already in their brain; and then developing their own use of that language.

And I think there's a lot of research suggesting that human language acquisition is very similar to that. And so these old ideas are having to be thrown out. And in terms of memory, I don't know! I think that's still wide open. And there are differences that have been found in the ways that the neurons work in the hippocampus of the birds. There could be actually molecular differences, although the bird hippocampus, the area for the memory formation, it does have a very similar structure to the human hippocampus.

We have a 3-layered structure, where neuronal information comes in from the bottom teir, and then it moves up through these two different tiers. And then out to the rest of the brain. And the avian hippocampus seems to have a very similar structure.

S: But I actually want to segue to talking about more of your media career, which is what you're sort of transitioning in to, or doing now.

K: Yep.

S: And your blog post for today is actually a good way to make that segue. I suppose this is an email that you have from 'em, but a parent of a 9-year-old daughter who is thanking you for the work that you have done. I suppose they're referring to This Week in Science, or I guess they could be referring to something else. But anyway, what they're talking about is that you have become a real role model for her daughter, and letting her know that it's okay for a girl to be a girl, and also be smart and interested in science.

K: Yeah, it was an interesting comment on my blog that I got. And she said that her daughter was going through that age in which all of her friends kind of were, I don't know, getting down on her a little bit. She was starting to bend to peer pressure that science is not cool. And science is not something that she should be interested in, even though she was interested in it.

And I just felt so special to get that note that I had actually helped to keep her daughter going; I mean, it's something that's so important. I mean, and so often, there is peer pressure for girls to look good and kind of hide their smarts.

"Oh! Learn about clothes, and look really cute. That's all that's important. And you're gonna have to find a boy to like you." And I think it's really important to have strong female role models out there for girls who do act like girls, but at the same time, aren't dumbing themselves down. You know, and aren't playing something that they're not. It is sexy to be smart.

I think that we're really getting to a point in time where women have, really, it's been just over I don't know, what, it's like 60 years, probably, that women have really been exposed to as many career choices as they could ever want. You know, it really has not been that long. And so we're still fighting against a lot of the stereotypes of, a woman is supposed to, you know, be pretty, and make the home nice. And you can be smart, but, you know, don't show it off too much. And there are a lot of things that are still endemic to our society even though there are more and more people who are aware of it and trying to work against it.

So, I think it's just really important for people like me, and I know there are many, and Rebecca, and many other women out there who are scientists to actually get out there, and not be afraid to wear high heels, not be afraid to play with lip gloss, and act like a girl sometimes. But also not be afraid to be smart.

S: Yeah, you talk about the fact that there's really these sort of two stereotypes that you run into. Either you're a pretty girl who has to be ditzy or dumb, or if you're a smart girl interested in science, you have to be nerdy. And this is absolutely pervasive in the culture.

You know, I have an 8-year-old daughter, and I look at the shows that she's watching, and that's what they get. You have the gorgeous girl who's interested in nothing but fashion, and becoming a movie star, and the really smart sciency girl is a complete nerd. And that's it! Those are the only characters that exist in the television that I'm seeing, that my daughter's being exposed to.

K: Yeah, and I think The Big Bang Theory is the TV show that's out there that really, the show is great. I love it. The humor, it's really well written, and smart, and funny. But it's a bunch of scientist guys, who, yeah, they're all kind of nerdy and everything, which is, that's okay. But the two female characters that have been on the show so far, is the one female character who's kind of the ditzy blonde; and then the other female character who's a scientist, and she's frazzled, and she's nerdy, and she's really not all that attractive in her personality or in her looks. And so it just kind of just, I watched the show, and it's like, "I really love this show, but I don't like it because of what they're doing with these stereotypes.

E: Feeding the stereotypes. You know, I have a daughter that's turning 5 next month. And, you know, she really is coming on as far as asking questions, and we're learning about things together. I'm encouraging her to ask questions about all sorts of things. I actually, one of her favorite television shows – and we have a lot of these disks – is The Magic School Bus, which is a cartoon, sure. And it's geared more towards a bit of a more, and older child. Maybe 7 to 10 or so. However, she is fascinated with the science and what is going on in that show, and everything they teach. And it is good science, and it doesn't pander to any kind of stereotypes. So, I think that's a good sign for my daughter, and for other kids who watch a show like that.

S: Yeah, that's true. At that age, because I also have a 5 year old daughter, at that age, the educational stuff is definitely breaking the stereotypes. Like Dora the Explorer, and The Magic School Bus, and other shows that are geared towards that sort of preschool age. But once you get to preteen, forget about it. All you get are these really cardboard stereotypes. It's really terrible. Just wait a couple years, Evan. You'll see. Once they get, it's done. It's over with.

E: No, I'm ready for it. I'm ready to meet that challenge with my daughter. But at the same time, I like the fact that we're sowing some good seeds here, and ...

S: Yeah, yeah.

E: She won't be hopefully totally enamored with the world of glam, and not pay attention to other, frankly, more important things that are going on in life.

K: Yeah, but I mean, part of it is it ... I guess it's just that you can have both. I think that's the whole thing. A preteen girl does not need to be worried about all that kind of stuff. That's still just kids, you know? Go outside, play in the dirt. (Laughs) Don't worry about being too pretty. But at the same time, being glam, it's fun! And I like dressing up. And I like looking fancy and being fancy occasionally, and I think that's what I'm trying to portray, is that you can be both. You can enjoy, as a girl, you can enjoy the girliness of being a girl, and the smartness of being a girl.

E: Yeah, but it's not proportional as far as what you get from media, from television, from other sources. It's really 95% of women and girls looking their best, as opposed to thinking their best. And I wish that would even out a little more at least.

K: Yeah.

S: Tell us, what's your experience been like so far? So you're shifting your career into being a public educator, trying to educate the public in science. How has that been going for you? What have you been doing? And how do you think you being a woman has influenced that?

K: Well, it's going fairly well. I mean, I gave myself a couple of years to actually try and make a go at being a science educator independent of any kind of big media, or any outlet of that kind, and try and use the new media format to be able to get out there. It's going pretty well. I've done a lot of work to, I just signed with Podango, which is a podcast network, to work with them because I'm really terrible at marketing, and PR, and advertising, and all that kind of stuff. So it'll be great to work with a group who can do that for me.

And then through people I've met, through the podcasting network, I've been able to get into some new video podcasts. I've done one called, "Food Science," which was really fun to work on. I'm not sure whether we'll be doing any more episodes or not. But it's a great show about the science that happens in the kitchen. So it's kind of demonstrating scientific principles using every day objects. Things that are around you all the time.

And then I also, I'm working now with Revision3, doing a segment for their weekly show that's called popSiren. And on that, I do a weekly science segment. And it's kind of Mr. Wizardy, but I try and keep it from getting dumbed down. I try and get as much information into it as possible. And people seem to be responding pretty well. And I'm really excited about where it's going. I'm getting a pretty good positive response from people, and I think that just goes to show that what I'm doing is something that needs to be out there more.

S: Yeah, there's definitely a huge need for this. Because you have to have a combination of talents. You have to not only understand science pretty well; you also have to have the ability to explain it to people who aren't scientists; and you also have to know how to interface with media and be personable, etcetera. So it's kind of a combination of skills that I don't think enough scientists have.

K: Yeah.

S: So you either end up with media people who don't know science, or journalists who don't understand science, or scientists who don't know how to educate or interface with the media. But to have all in one package, I think there's definitely a dearth of people like that out there.

K: Yeah, and I'm glad that I'm able to, I'm in a place where I'm able to do this. I love talking about science. I could talk about science all day long. You know, I'm always so excited about this new study that came out, or that new study, and it's just such a wonderful opportunity. You know, as I get out there more, I am coming across people who are like, "Oh, you know, you're too this, or you're too that." You know, you can't make everybody happy all the time.

And so, I'm just gonna try and keep an eye on what the bulk of the criticisms are, and whether or not there are lots of people kind of maybe saying the same things over and over again. If that happens to be the case, then maybe start taking that criticism seriously. Critical thinking and science are so important for the future of the world! It's a little grand-sounding, but it really, really is!

S: Yeah, I agree! I absolutely agree. I mean, as many of us have said and written, our civilization is increasingly dominated by science and technology, and the public is increasingly scientifically illiterate.

K: Yeah.

S: Something's gotta break, right?

K: I keep wondering, you hear all these things, I was watching The Daily Show the other day, and there was this, Jon Stewart gets the best quotes from people. And there was this one from I can't remember which Senator it was, but there was some Senator, and he's talking about, I think they're talking about sex education, and how it should be taught in the schools. And the Senator said, "Oh, these people, they go to school, and they study this stuff, and it's like they think they know it, and they know better than the parents how to teach the children."

S: Right.

K: And it's just like there was some kind of disconnect in my understanding of that comment. It's like, "This does not make sense!" (Laughs)

S: These people with their studying, and their knowledge, they think they know stuff.

K: I know! You think you know something! Ah! They don't know anything! (Laughs)

S: Yeah, I mean, there definitely is an anti-intellectual undercurrent in American politics, and American society, which is something else I think that we're sort of fighting against the trend.

K: Yeah, absolutely.

B: I think that's gotten better though, in recent years.

E: Really? I don't know, Bob. I don't know.

B: It's not as uncool to be a geek any more. It's definitely not as uncool.

K: Yeah, that's true.

E: I mean, the political context though, I'm quite appalled often at the lack of science and critical thinking that our politicians exhibit. Just take the presidential candidates, how all of them are really falling down on the whole autism and vaccines issue.

K: Yeah, they're really kind of following political waves instead of looking at the actual scientific evidence.

S: Now, I'm interested in the fact that you chose, you said, to sort of work the new media for your career, rather than traditional media, which is obviously what we're doing as well, primarily. The reason why we did it was because the mainstream, or the traditional media, I think, is too narrow in their concepts of what can and should be packaged for the masses, and skepticism is not on the shortlist, right? It's just not the thing that I think your average TV or newspaper executive thinks is something that would sell.

So we've been able to bypass all that and go right to the public and build pretty substantial audiences. We're still about an order of magnitude or two below the mainstream media, but the lines are definitely moving in that direction. Don't you think?

K: Yeah. I definitely think, if you look at any of the advertising, any literature that's out there right now, they're all talking about how new media is becoming stronger and it's becoming a force. And more and more people are going online for their information. Online is the location where people can get a much broader range of subjects. And people know that now. And advertisers are going there more.

And I bet in the next year or two, we're really going to see a shift in where a lot of money in the media is going to be going. So there's always going to be the place for long format programming and television; or at least cable TV, or whatever. As people try and get what - the information that they want. There's so much information out in the world, and they want to find specific information. They want to listen to it, or watch it, or read it when they want to watch it or listen to it or read it. And they don't want to have to be tied to a timeline. The internet is going to become a much more major force.

S: Yeah, absolutely. For the skeptical movement, I think it's transformed it. Because I think the skeptical movement has probably grown by an order of magnitude or two really, since the new media has been out there. We get emails almost daily ...

K: That's great.

S: from people saying, yeah, "I never realized that I was a skeptic! I mean, that I was part of this broader community. I've always been this way, but I didn't know that it had a name attached to it. There were other people who thought the same way, that there was a community of people." You know, so here we are.

B: We used to have a newsletter. We put out a quarterly newsletter. We would hit, we had a few hundred members, and we'd send newsletters to all the members, and maybe they might pass it around to a few people. Now, every week, we've got 35,000 people listening to us, and that was just a few years ago! It was zip. So, it's incredible, the leap.

K: That is absolutely incredible. And it's all because of the communication that's available through the internet, which I love so much! (Laughs) Yeah, I mean, I find that there's just so many more people finding things that people who maybe were in the Midwest and not in a (inaudible) town, where they were finding more people of similar mindsets. Or there are all sorts of places that were maybe limited in the number of people that were thinking a particular way. Now they're finding these groups of people online. I think it's great.

S: But we're also still trying to use this as a launching pad to break into other media, like television or cable. So, let's talk a little bit about The Skeptologists. How were you contacted for that? Or did you contact Brian?

K: No, Brian contacted me, actually. He sent me an email, and said that he thought that I should send in my information. He thought that I might be good on the show. And so, I was like, "Okay! I'll give it a try. That sounds like fun." (Laughs) And then I got a phone call from Brian and Ryan, and they both, they interviewed me, and then about a week later, they called up and said that I got the part. I was pretty excited.

S: Now before that, had you ever considered yourself to be a skeptic, or part of the skeptical movement? Or you were just thinking of yourself as just a science and a science educator?

K: I definitely think of myself as a skeptic, and as a critical thinker, and a scientist. But I have not been incredibly, I haven't participated a lot in the skeptical movement.

S: You didn't think that one day you would be a Skeptologist?

K: Yeah. (Laughs) Not as such. No. Yeah, I mean, I've always just promoted that way of thinking. And trying to be as skeptical as possible about things, and not just accepting what comes to people in the news, or whatever.

S: And what's your feeling about the show?

K: Well, I thought it was a great group of people. It just, everyone had such amazing energy, and such just positivity about the whole thing that it just made me really excited to think that there is a possibility to get a show out into the public, to reach a much more mass audience than any podcast does currently. I think it's very exciting. And I think the show is very well put together. I mean, I haven't seen anything other than the trailers that anybody else has seen, I don't think.

But from what I saw, it was well-produced, well handled, there were some great ideas going on in there. Even now, more great ideas being thrown around as to episodes that could come up if it were actually licensed by a network.

B: Steve, is anyone actually writing episodes, scripting episodes at this point? Or is it just fleshing out ideas, or ...

S: For each episode, there would be two topics, and we're just writing a one paragraph summary of what the topic would be. It's like a pitch for that topic. It's not a script.

B: Oh, okay.

S: The show is unscripted anyway.

K: The show is, yeah. So we just have to have the general idea, and the way that we would approach all the different topics. You know, show them that this could be approached in a really exciting visual manner, and not just be some kind of boring thing. There's always a chance, and I'm just hoping that someone in a network will look favorably upon it, and I think it's gonna be, I think, I don't know, I just think there's a lot of capable people putting this show together. So, it's going to be a good product. And it would be fabulous. (Laughs)

S: Well, Kirsten, it's been a pleasure talking with you.

K: Yeah! It's been a lot of fun! Thank you for having me on.

S: Yeah, thanks for being on The Skeptic's Guide, and I certainly hope that you and I have a chance to work together in the future. I hope the whole Skeptologist thing works out, because it a lot of fun.

K: I know! It was a lot of fun. I mean, if nothing else, I have a lot of hope for this project going forward. But if nothing else, I just am so thankful for the opportunity that I got to meet you and all of the other Skeptologists, and the people on the crew, because it really was, it was just a special group of people, and just a special event. Yeah! I was very excited about it.

S: It was. I enjoyed just hanging out with everybody. As you say ...

K: I know!

S: Even if it comes to nothing, it was a fun week actually.

K: Yeah, I mean, I got to hang out with you, the Bad Astronomer, Yau-Man

B: Yau-Man!

K: Michael Shermer. (Laughs) Mark Edward, a magician. I mean, I never hang out with magicians. It's pretty cool.

S: Alright Kirsten, good having you on the show.

B: Thanks, thanks ...

E: Thank you.

B: Kirsten!

K: Yeah, thank you very much. It was nice talking with all of you. Have a great evening.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Question #1: A new study finds that the psychedelic effects attributed to the popular bohemian drink known as Absinthe were entirely due to its alcohol content. Question #2: A new brain imaging study shows that alcohol disinhibits certain emotional centers in the brain, exaggerating the response to a perceived threat. Question #3: A new study shows that virtual reality 'video game' environments can trigger drinking behavior and can be used to treat alcohol addiction.

Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.' - Arthur Schopenhauer

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at 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 voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.


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