SGU Episode 359
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|SGU Episode 359|
|2nd June 2012|
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|S: Steven Novella|
B: Bob Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
|Quote of the Week|
The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.
You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.
S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday May 30th 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: And Jay Novella.
J: Hey Guys.
S: Evan Bernstein has the week off because he is sunning himself in Italy.
B: I am jealous.
R: But hey, look at the bright side: I'm back.
J: That's right.
S: Rebecca's back, that's true, it's a good trade.
R: Back from beautiful Germany. The beautiful beaches of Germany.
J: Wha, beaches?
R: There are canals.
R: There's a river, there's the Rhine.
B: You meant beer didn't you, not beaches?
R: Oh right, yeah yeah, the beautiful beers of Germany...
R: ...that's what I meant. Yeah. Yeah, I was at a few conferences, the...
B: A few?
R: ...World Skeptics Congress in Berlin and the European Atheists' Convention in Cologne. And both of them were very fun, I saw a lot of our friends, both from the US and from Europe and met a lot of really awesome people. Tons of people came up to me and said that they listen to SGU every week...
J: Oh, awesome.
R: ...so it was really cool to see some listeners in Germany.
This Day in Skepticism (1:22)
June 2, 1692 Bridget Bishop is the first person to go to trial in the Salem witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Found guilty, she is hanged on June 10.
R: Hey, I have a depressing This Day in Science and Skepticism.
B: Ooh, I like it.
R: On this day on June 2nd 1692, Bridget Bishop became the first person to go to trial in the Salem witch trials, of course in Salem, Massachusetts. And she was hanged by June 10th, 1692.
S: That's a quick trial.
R: Yeah, they didn't need much. Apparently-- There are some differing accounts of who she was really and the exact evidence against her, or maybe the exact reasons why she was chosen to stand trial for witchcraft. I've seen some suggestions that maybe she owned a tavern and-- you which, not many women did and maybe she dressed a bit lasciviously, and maybe she was a bit outspoken.
B: Skirt, the dress above the ankles, that kind of crazy stuff? Wow.
R: Yeah, exactly.
S: Like she had a bit of red in her bodice instead of all black and white, yeah.
B: Oooh, ooh.
R: Exactly. Yeah, but apparently those are not necessarily true; there's a very good chance she did not own a tavern, that she was confused with someone else with a similar name who was married to someone who owned a tavern and also red clothing was apparently fairly common amongst the Puritans. So, who knows? But the fact of the matter is that she was accused of being a witch an apparently she was quite saucy on the stand and that was enough to convict her. She was said to have owned a lot of-- a number of small voodoo dolls that were found around her house.
R: She was accused of poisoning a pig.
J: She had, wait a second, wait whoa whoa. All right, first off she had just random voodoo dolls like, strewn around her house.
R: Well, she's accused of yeah.
J: And then somebody actually said, during the proceedings, accused her of actually poisoning a pig.
R: Yeah, and as far as I can tell, the pig didn't die, I think the pig was just acting funny and they thought that the pig had either been poisoned or bewitched, apparently.
S: And apparently she was cavorting with the devil, so there you go.
R: Obviously, yeah. And actually to make a connection to my trip to Germany, at the atheist convention in Cologne, we were very privileged to see Leo Igwe speak and he campaigns on the serious problem of witchcraft in Africa; mostly, you know-- we've talked about this before-- Christian ministers who blame children and old women for witchcraft and they drive them out of their homes, they beat them, they murder them. There are even whole villages set up sometimes to take these people in. It's crazy you know, I think about this happening in the US in the 1600s, well it's still going on in Africa, so it's still-- this is still a serious problem four centuries later.
S: Apparently, large, well-armed men in their prime don't do witchcraft.
R: No. No.
S: No, just children and old people.
R: Oddly enough, yeah it's only the people who are least able to defend themselves.
Medical Zombies (4:52)
S: Well let's move on, Jay and Bob, I think you're going to be particularly interested in this next news item. Apparently the zombie apocalypse has already begun.
B: I knew it.
S: Have you guys heard about this?
B: Yeah, I'm speaking, I'm podcasting right now from my safe house 200 feet underground.
B: So I'm good.
R: I knew I should have moved to Connecticut.
J: Bob, your proposed safe house would be so epic.
S: Well in Miami, police officers came upon a grisly scene where one naked man was eating the face of another naked man and the police officer told the cannibal to stop, he said "stop eating that man's face". The man refused, he just kept, in an apparent rage, just kept eating the other man's face, so the cop shot him. The man still didn't stop, he continued to engorge himself on the other man and then the cop had to shoot him four more times and finally killed him.
B: The head shot got him, right?
S: Reports indicate that it was five shots to the chest.
S: Took him down.
R: Was it meth? It seems like a meth thing.
J: Not really.
S: It's in that ballpark, in that ballpark. So, the news reports I believe have been a little inaccurate; somehow the meme of LSD, like a new form of LSD or an LSD-like drug got out, but that's not, that's inconsistent with the reports and this is in the same articles, saying that it's a street drug called bath salts.
R: Oh, yeah.
S: That is-- apparently the main component is a stimulant, a methamphetamine like drug called mephedrone. So it's not in the LSD class, it's in the methamphetamine class. And one of the side effects if you like really OD on the stuff is that it can raise your body temperature which might explain...
B: Hence the nakedness.
S: Yeah, why the man was naked.
S: You take all your clothes off because you just feel really hot.
B: And extreme hunger or psychosis, apparently.
S: Yeah, yeah kind of a bad combination. Extreme paranoia, delusions, agitation.
J: Did you see pictures of the two people?
R: No, I don't want to see that.
J: Well, no no. Not afterwards, they didn't show their corpses.
S: They're not showing photos of, it was a homeless, like 60 year old homeless man who, by the name of Ronald Popo. A lot of the news articles are not showing pictures of him post-attack, but they do describe the pictures and apparently his eyes were eaten out, his nose was eaten off.
S: Just his beard was left.
J: There are a few things in here that ask for more information like, the homeless man who I believe was about, what 65 years old, why was he lying there; how did that happen? How did that guy come to just lie there while his face was being...
S: Well he was physically subdued and barely conscious according to reports. So the guy attacked him, Rudi Eugine is the younger man, 31, who was eating-- you know, the eater in this exchange, he apparently attacked, beat up and subdued the homeless guy and then ate his face.
J: Well, as sad as that whole story is, I mean it's horrifying and profoundly disturbing, the thing that actually bothered me the most was the health ranger's interpretation of this whole fiasco.
S: Yeah, yeah.
J: And Steve, you blogged about this right?
S: Yeah, so you know, Mike Adams, who is a conspiracy nut and also a promoter of all kinds of dubious "alternative" treatments wrote an article about this. Now clearly, in my impression, his article was mostly tongue-in-cheek, saying that the zombie apocalypse has started because he writes this way. I'm fine with the use of satire and metaphor etc., but he writes in a way that makes it confusing, like where he's drawing the line between what he means and what is metaphor or satire, and I think that's deliberate, because that enables him to cater to the conspiracy theory mongering community-- different people could read into it, whatever level they wish so the people who visit his website just for the alternative medicine can say "oh it was all metaphor" and the conspiracy nuts can say "oh no this is real, he really means it", all in the same article.
B: Wow, that's a good trick.
S: Yeah, so here's one, the quote where I think he's really getting to the meat of the point he's trying to make. He says
Humans who subject themselves to fluoride, aspartame, psychiatric drugs, vaccines and street drugs end up
S: this is his emphasis
lobotomizing their higher brains. Vaccines, for starters, cause extreme neurological damage, and some vaccines are actually made of aggressive viruses designed to "eat" targeted regions of the brain, resulting in a biological lobotomy.
J: Yeah I mean like that is...
B: Isn't he just making that shit up?
S: Yeah, he's just making it up.
J: Yeah, it's patently made up, that's the epitome of "I need something dramatic in my blog; let me just make it up on the spot".
S: But apparently he believes this level of nonsense. This, you see this paragraph-- I think he's dead serious about it; he is an anti-government, conspiracy mongering, anti-medical establishment, anti-science in my opinion, nut-job.
J: I would love to see his reference for that statement.
S: Right. Yeah what, so there are not vaccines that are made of aggressive viruses, most vaccines don't have intact organisms in them, either viruses or bacteria, they have pieces, like proteins. Those that are live virus vaccines have attenuated viruses, the exact opposite of aggressive; they are bred to be not aggressive, to not be virulent. They're a weakened form of the virus that the body can easily fend off, and certainly there's no vaccine that has a virus in it that eats your brain, that is designed to eat your brain and cause a biological lobotomy. That is made up fear-mongering nonsense.
J: There's a segment in his blog where he calls it "the zombification of America" and he goes through a list of things that he's bringing to your attention as the reader that he thinks are bricks in the wall of this slow movement towards making everybody in the United States a-- you know he's not saying a literal zombie, like a flesh-eating zombie of course. He's talking more about how we're being physically or emotional and mentally handicapped by the environment, by the drugs that we're on and all this stuff and there's just things in here-- like I actually have to ask you, Steve, because I'm not sure what parts of this you think he's joking about and what parts would you consider serious, like let me just read a couple of these and you can let me know here. The one about sleep-driving where people are reported to be sleep-driving and then they suddenly wake up and find themselves driving, I thought that was a reference to Ambien right?
S: Uh, there are some medications that cause parasomnias in some patients, like Ambien. That's been reported.
J: But the fact that he brings that up as a brick in the wall here just seems utterly ridiculous to me, you know we've read about drugs that can do this and there's a lot of people taking a lot of sleep medication and the numbers of these events are going to go up, but no way does that point to any kind of de-tuning of someone's intelligence or-- there's something that's going to deprive them of their higher intelligence.
B: I think the reason he brought it up is that it just goes to support his point of, you know, having an example of Americans, or people in some sort of altered state of consciousness and going about their daily lives, it's just tailor-made for that kind of idea--
J: It's a big stretch.
B: --and he just threw it in like yeah look, see? It was kind of a tame example of what he's talking about but it's just so stupid.
J: Again, he goes into the complete lack of intelligent questioning about events where the official government explanation makes absolutely no sense, 9/11, the killing of Bin Laden, etc. Now, I don't know how that's a brick in the wall. It's an example of the lack of intelligence according to him, which I of course don't agree with.
J: That's not really proving any point there, he's just bringing up more of his BS.
S: He's tying together these disparate threads that are filtered through his conspiracy view of reality and that's what conspiracy theorists do, right? They take these little threads and tie them together, weave them together into their conspiracy narrative. That's what he's doing.
B: Yeah, you don't see that connection, but I see that connection.
S: Yeah, you don't see that connection because you're a zombie; you're a metaphorical zombie because you drink fluoridated water. I mean that's right out of the movies, right? I mean, the government conspiracy!
R: My precious bodily fluids.
S: Yeah it's "precious bodily fluids"-level.
S: Aspartame-- again there's no evidence that there's any neurological effects from fluoride or from aspartame or from vaccines; you know, street drugs are the only thing on his list where yeah, you can actually cause altered states of consciousness and brain damage from abusing these drugs. Yeah, don't abuse street drugs.
J: How about this one where he says, "the rise of a whole new generation of mumbling neurologically damaged children who are now routinely seen out in public. Many of these children are, of course, vaccine-damaged." I mean this guy really-- he's up there man, he's trying to jockey himself into the number one anti-vax position. These comments are ridiculous.
S: Yeah, you know, it's interesting because you think, the fact that he's combining really off-the-wall conspiracy theory stuff with the standard unscientific alternative medicine promotion might be an advantage to defenders of science-based medicine because you might think "well, at least he's exposing the thought process here", you know, people who see these two things together will go, "oh OK well, how much legitimacy could there be to the alternative medicine stuff he's promoting when he's also promoting this conspiracy nonsense?" But reading the comments, people easily compartmentalise that. They go, oh yeah. They just ignore the conspiracy stuff, that's just him, he just writes that way but they just completely buy into his anti-medical-establishment, natural medicine, alternative medicine nonsense and not seeing, yeah these are the products of the same unscientific lack of critical thinking process that this guy's engaged in. I concluded my blog saying, you know, ironically not using your higher brain, which is what he's talking about, is exactly what he's engaging in; he actually even says that he at some "deep gut level" people realise that our civilised world is crumbling. I'd say yeah, you're thinking with your gut, you're thinking with your...
R: Oooh yeah, that's where the higher brain function happens, right at the gut level.
S: Yeah, you're thinking with your primitive brain, you're not engaging your meta-cognitive practices that are in the higher brain that you're now lamenting the so-called loss of. It's supremely ironic in my opinion.
J: I mean he's against everything.
S: Anything that makes sense.
J: He comments on the next thing here, aspartame, which he claims pickles the brain in formaldehyde. And then he said, he goes, "continues to be consumed in ridiculously high quantities through diet sodas", which you know OK, that's legitimate; a lot of people are drinking a lot of diet soda.
S: You would have to drink 60 litres a day every day to overwhelm your body's ability to metabolise aspartame.
J: Yeah, but that's science, Steve, and I'm sorry but that doesn't belong here.
S: He says the aspartame gets metabolised into formaldehyde which pickles the brain.
R: Yeah, how does that happen?
S: Well it does happen, but a lot of foods we metabolise get metabolised into formaldehyde. It just happens to be one step in a chemical chain of metabolism. Chemicals get changed from A to B to C to D. Somewhere in that chain is formaldehyde, it's a transitional phase on the way to water and carbon dioxide.
R: Right, it doesn't fill up your brain.
R: Pickle it like it's in a jar.
S: And other foods, foods he would call natural also get metabolised into much higher amounts of formaldehyde, it's a natural part of our bodies' metabolism. It's there at certain levels in the background all the time, aspartame is no different.
J: Oh yeah!?
S: But that's a perfect example of how you could pull out a little factoid and distort it and spin it into a conspiracy theory without putting it into the proper context that actually makes sense and that is all that he does, that's what he does.
J: He finished that statement about aspartame with, "have you ever noticed that people who drink a lot of diet soda are also the most brain-numbed people around?"
S: Yeah, it's confirmation bias.
J: (laughs) Rebecca, right? You just keep going and literally, Rebecca, I haven't skipped one; I'm going right down his list, I'm not cherry-picking. This happens to be them in their order right here. I can keep going but you know we'd be here all night.
R: No, that's OK. I've heard enough.
B: We get the idea.
Science of Reruns (18:01)
- NewsWise.com: The Science of Re-Runs: Why We Watch Our Favorite Episode of a TV Show, or Listen to a Favorite Song, Over and Over Again
S: All right, well Bob you're going to tell us why we watch so many reruns.
B: I'm-- actually I'm a sucker for news items that begin with "the Science of X", whatever X might be, especially if it's a topic that's generally not treated scientifically. And yesterday I ran across "the Science of Reruns" and I thought it would be a fun discussion, even if there's really no earth-shattering revelations or even nanotechnology involved. Professor of marketing Crystal Russell-- she's from the Kogod School of Business at American University, she examined why people are so motivated to re-watch a lot of their favourite movies and reread their favourite books and even revisit specific locations like when they go on vacation. She calls this "re-consumption" and the reasons may seem obvious and most of them are, they're fairly obvious. One that she mentions is the idea of guaranteed results; you know, you look forward to certain parts of a show or a movie that you really like or a book that really brings you pleasure and that's kind of obvious; there are certain parts of it or aspects of it that you really really enjoy and you really look forward to it so you want to watch it again, of course. One that I was interested in was the idea of uncovering new details or nuance, and I think that's a powerful draw for me for certain things that I'm really into or obsessed with, say, whether it be a movie or even, say, the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of The Caribbean ride at Disney World, I loved going on them and riding them multiple times and finding things that I never noticed before, these little tiny details that might have escaped my notice the first 40 times I went on it.
R: Easter eggs.
B: Yeah right. The other thing though that-- why people would want to take part in just so much re-consumption, some of them might be more complex. They did a lot of interview with people from New Zealand and America and they cited reasons like, they would want to re-watch some of these things because of the growth that they've experience between the views, say the show that they watched when they were a teenager and they knew why they liked it when they were young but now they could also enjoy it again in a different way because they have, you know they could appreciate other aspects of it. Like Jay, I'm sure you can watch some things that you've seen many times before but now that you've got such an eye for things like camera movement and direction and lighting, things that you could appreciate that would have totally escaped you even 5 or 10 years ago for certain things or movies, say, that you really enjoy, right?
J: Oh yeah, I mean I don't even know where to begin; just as an example I was watching American History X not too long ago and I hadn't seen it in a number of years. I just notice how incredibly well shot that movie was and of course it didn't lose any quality, but there's the reverse effect though Bob. We've talked about this on several occasions about how some older movies like, are absolutely unwatchable today, like ET as an example.
S: I'm watching a lot of old movies with my daughters and it's interesting-- I also, as a side point, I noticed they didn't talk about one reason I like to re-watch movies I've seen before because I'm watching them with someone else so you get to sort of vicariously have the experience of that other person seeing it for the fist time, but I have been very interested in how a lot of movies that I remember as being very good held up over time. Some movies hold up extremely well, the Back to the Future series, good family movies, my daughters loved it, it was still enjoyable to watch. The Dark Crystal was almost unwatchable. I remember it as being really good and then now I'm like wow, look at the 80s haircut on that Muppet.
S: And it's something that of course you would not notice in the 80s; you know, it wouldn't stand out to you and it was just terrible. So another one that really surprised me because I really liked it when I saw it and then when I watched it again recently with my daughters, it was really bad, was Total Recall.
S: I don't know, it did not hold up.
J: It didn't do it for me either.
R: Don't worry, that's why they're remaking it.
S: Definitely due for a remake.
B: Wow, that's a bummer I loved that movie.
J: But it's also interesting when...
S: (Imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger) Get your ass to Mars.
J: Oh there's a ton of awesome one-liners in that movie, but yeah I agree with you on that. I think Steve, were we talking about this recently, about the idea that movies could also be timeless; like as an example, I believe my all-time favourite movie is Casablanca and there's a lot of reasons why we can't really go into deconstructing why I love that movie so much, but I find it very interesting that a movie that is that old can be that good to today's standards. And there's a lot of things that you have to consider, like the fact that we're used to incredibly fast editing and pacing in movies today with a lot more action and a lot less dialogue. We're just trained that way, you know if you watch kids watching cartoons on TV, you know it's frenetic, these cartoons are clicking so fast, if there's anything on the screen for more than 3 seconds, you know it's on there twice as long as it should be to the kid, the way they're training kids to think with all that fast editing garbage. But you know, you go back to this movie and it still makes absolute perfect sense, it's beautiful, it's fascinating, it's an emotional roller coaster, how could they have made a movie 60 years ago that today is still so amazingly relevant and wonderful?
S: Yeah, that's the difference I think between a pop movie and a real artistic film. That's what you're seeing there, like for me it's 2001, it's amazing to me that that movie which is now 40-something years old.
B: '68 I think right?
S: Yeah, so 44, 45 years old, and it's science fiction. Science fiction movies generally don't hold up for 40 years, it holds up really well, the special effects, everything; it really is a testimony to Kubrick's brilliance, he was able to make a movie at that time that, in my opinion still holds up as long as you're in the mood for a very slow-paced movie.
B: That's it, that's key.
S: You've got to be in the mood for that, you can't go in thinking you're going to be on a roller coaster because you're not.
R: You know, I want to get back to the survey though because I'm surprised. So you're saying that the point that Steve brought up, the idea of re-watching something because you want to see it with another person, that's not, that wasn't one of the common answers? Because that's the main reason I re-watch things these days; like, my partner and I like to re-watch things that we love with the other person just so we can see how they react.
B: That's a really good point, I mean I think that really enhances. But the other thing I thought about this was that, you know this is kind of interesting, but is worth this multinational study, I mean why did they find this so important? And according to Professor Russell had one kind of one quote that I thought can answer that question. She said that "understanding re-consumption and the motivations behind it is incredibly important. If we can look at the underlying drivers of re-consumption, we can help businesses to better understand their customers and help them create products that consumers will use again and again." And so the bottom line of course, you know a big part of it is money; obviously, multiple articles that I read about this news item all said something like reruns are like one of the biggest money makers for Hollywood and its media empire and it really is, if you think about it, it's such an, this idea of re-consuming things is such an important part of the world economy. Think about TV shows and movies and vacations that you go on; this re-consumption idea is so, so important. TV shows especially, the research pointed that TV shows are especially dependent on this idea of reruns or "syndication" as they call it. Think about just the money involved is huge, you might not realise how big it is, Seinfeld has made 2.5 billion dollars on syndication alone. Just on syndication, and most recently the Big Bang Theory which is a comedy that I absolutely love, it's gone to syndication relatively recently and they set a record, 2 million dollars per episode for syndication rights, so there's huge amounts of money in this.
R: A lot of terrible shows will be kept on for an extra season or something, even if it's terrible, even if the audience numbers aren't that great; you know if they're just barely good enough, they'll keep it on for at least one more season because they have to have a certain number of episodes in order to qualify for syndication. clean up info box B: Exactly, I think it's 100, I think 100 might be the magic number, if you hit that, yeah.
R: Yeah that's what I was going to say but wasn't sure, yeah.
S: So Star Trek can't be in syndication? The original series? There's only like 76 Star Trek episodes.
B: Yeah, it's too iconic not to be in syndication.
S: It does seem that children have a higher tolerance for re-consumption than adults. My speculation has been that that's just part of the learning process; that we're attracted to re-consumption, we have a tolerance for it because that's how our memories work, it reinforces our learning, so it would make sense from that perspective.
J: I think a lot of it though, Steve-- if I were to summarise why we do this-- I think it points to the idea that we're remembering a time in our life when we were innocent and happy and there's a feel-good type of like, eating your-mom's-cooking-type of thing with it.
R: I think that's true for some things, yeah.
R: There are the things that, like I watched Avengers twice in a row in the theatres because I loved the film and it made me happy.
B: Oh my god that movie was awesome.
J: It was awesome.
R: You know, it made me happy and I wanted to be made happy again immediately, you know. But yeah, there are nostalgia things that yeah, you watch over and over again.
Leakey on Evolution (27:35)
S: Well Jay, Richard Leakey recently wrote an interesting, or gave an interesting interview about, his thoughts on the future of public belief in evolution.
J: Yeah, before I get into that I'll give you a quicky on who Richard is in case you don't know. Richard Leakey is a Kenyan palaeontologist who is currently a professor at the Stony Brook University on Long Beach in the United States and he's known for discovering a 1.6 million year old skeleton in 1984 known as Turkana Boy and this happens to be the first known early human with long legs, short arms and a tall stature.
J: Yes, that is what they claim. I don't know, I haven't been able to find anything to validate that, but I did read that on several occasions. He stated recently that he believes that the next 15 to 30 years, evidence for evolution is going to be so blatantly obvious at that point that even the religious will accept it.
S: (Imitating "sad trombone") Wah wah waaaaah.
J: Yeah, here's a couple of quotes-- I mean, his heart's in the right place but I think he's on obvious and very shaky ground here but I'll let you decide on your own. He said, "if you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence--" Well, that all by itself is a magnificently huge statement, but he continues: "So, if you can persuade people on the evidence, that it's solid and that we are all African, that colour is superficial, that stages of development of cultures are all interactive, then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges." And it's like yeah, well, of course but the fight here, as you guys know, is the education part of that. Of course all-- it's obvious, he's saying-- you know once, if we can convince people of all of these things, then we can have all of these great things that come after that. But the skeptical community has been attempting to persuade the media and global governments and the general population that we need to follow the evidence, which is what he's saying, if we just follow the evidence we can get to this next level. And the fact is we have enough evidence right now to fully accept evolution.
S: Yeah, if the evidence that's available now isn't enough, I don't think, no matter how much more we gather it's not going to matter.
R: Yeah and he betrays exactly how naive he is I think, that he's even referencing the idea that soon we'll be able to logic people out of severe racial and cultural differences, which is just absurdly naive. Like, "oh we're all African everybody", "oh OK we'll just stop the gross systemic discrimination that has existed in our culture for thousands of years", what like you know, he's such an intelligent person obviously, like it makes me wonder how removed from reality he is, that he thinks these things.
S: I mean you know, it's one of those things, you wonder, there's always that aphorism about futurism that we tend to overestimate short term gains and underestimate long term gains. And I wonder if-- that's with technological advancement and scientific advancement. I wonder if that's also true with social advancement, perhaps people 100 years ago would not have imagined that today we would have had the level of racial and sexual equality that we have in the West.
R: I don't know that, that seems, you know I've been reading a lot recently about activists fighting for the right to vote for women and at the same time campaigning for the freedom of slaves in America, and it seems to me that by and large all those activists expect... actually no, I guess that does fit in, never mind (laughs) like I'm actually just about to support your point and I didn't even realise it, that they all expect that it's going to happen, like in the next year or so and then it doesn't.
S: Yeah, but it doesn't but then...
R: Yeah, never mind, you're right.
S: But down the road it probably exceeds expectations. You know, I certainly don't think in 10 or 20 years evolution denial is going to go anywhere, but you wonder about 50 or 100 years from now, maybe we might be farther along than we might be led to believe by our skeptical outlook. You know, hitting our head against the wall. For example, I just recently got an email about a Carol County Church that wants Georgia schools to stop teaching evolution as fact. Here's the quote from a member of the church saying that evolution, Darwin's theory of evolution, "It's bad science, and it's bad for the culture." You know, he says, "we're going to teach our children that I'm an ape with less hair?" As if this is responsible for the moral decay of the country. Quite obviously this is the connection. So this is what we're dealing with, he thinks that teaching evolution is lying to people. He's got it completely wrong, so it doesn't matter what the facts are, these people are insulated from those facts, they're existing in a propaganda bubble that is actually fairly sophisticated.
R: Yeah, there's the old saying that you can't reason someone out of a position that they reasoned themselves-- or that they didn't reason themselves into. I think that holds true, unfortunately. You can't just say oh yeah, now the evidence is incontrovertible, you know.
S: Yeah, the power of motivated reasoning should not be underestimated and I think that's the bit that Richard Leakey is missing.
J: That's why, Steve, it's not to gain more data as he described; in my opinion, it's to educate the next generation to understand real science from everything else.
S: That's a good point and that's mirrored in the experience of scientists who debate creationists, that there are-- like we talked about the fact that Duane Gish made a career out of going around the country debating evolutionary scientists and kicking their butts. And the reason for that is that the evolutionary scientists, much like Richard Leakey in this interview, think that being right and being armed with a lot of factual information about what makes, you know, how we know that evolution is a fact, that that was enough, that they were going to win because they were right and they had the facts. And then they got their clocks cleaned because what they didn't understand is skepticism. They didn't understand, you know, how people get themselves into those belief systems in the first place; the logical fallacies and other mental distortions and pseudo-scientific arguments that people use in order to distort the science, he didn't understand the skeptical angle to creationism. So, turning that around, I think you're right; if we are going to achieve the goal that Richard Leakey thinks it's not going to be just by gathering more facts that prove to an even deeper degree that evolution is true, it's going to be creating a more skeptical and scientifically literate culture. That, of course, no one knows what the future holds in that regard, but I think that's exactly what we're working towards.
Who's That Noisy? (34:35)
Answer to last week: L Ron Hubbard
S: All right well we do need to move on. I'm going to cover Evan for Who's That Noisy this week. But first, let's play the noisy from last week.
Well psychiatry has to do with the insane, and we have nothing to do with the insane whatsoever. They are, the insane, uh well they're insane.
S: All right, so did you guys recognise that voice?
B: Sure did.
R: That sounded kind of familiar, yeah.
S: I recognised it instantly when Evan played it last week. That is L. Ron Hubbard. Science fiction writer who created his own religion, Scientology, quite successfully unfortunately. Well, the SGU listener who guessed that correctly first, a lot of you did, I did think that was a bit of an easy one, but the winner from last week is chexuma from the message boards.
R: Congratulations chexuma.
S: Good job. So let's listen to the who's that noisy from this week, here we go.
(rhythmic whooshing noise)
S: All right, so there we go, make your best guess, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join us on the SGU forums, and you can post your guess there.
Questions and Emails
Local Dark Matter Followup (35:52)
S: We're going to do one email this week, this one comes from Paul Hatchman who writes:
Dear Rogues, Thought you might find this paper interesting given your use of the Moni Bidin paper's claims of finding no evidence for nearby dark matter in science or fiction. Unsurprisingly perhaps, a more thorough analysis of the data actually shows evidence for dark matter in quantities consistent with current models. I enjoy the show very much. Cheers
S: Thanks for the link Paul. Bob you looked into this a little bit deeper.
B: Yeah, I was not terribly surprised but happy none the less. Just to recap, I think it was just this past April when Bidin and his team announced that they had vetted 400 stars within our galactic neighbourhood within about 13,000 light years and they did some calculations and the mass that they derived could be explained by the visible mass alone so what they were looking for, regular mass and dark matter mass and the mass that they found didn't need any dark matter to explain it in this local vicinity, which was fairly surprising. So that meant of course that perhaps there is no local dark matter for us to get our hands on; it also could have meant perhaps, but not likely at all in my opinion, that the whole idea of dark matter was suspect. I don't think a lot of the die-hard dark matter scientists were really terribly concerned since they have so many lines of evidence pointing to the existence of dark matter, and even local dark matter I think, but currently this most recent bit of news that, according to Jo Bovy and Scott Tremaine of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, Bidin and his colleagues made a subtle error. Now what they did was they assumed that the motions of stars are the same whether they orbit in the plane of the galaxy or if their orbits take them above or below the plane of the galaxy, the bright disk of the galaxy, and that they say that was incorrect; when they plugged in the proper values and the proper orbital motions of the various stars, the dark matter reappeared in quantities that not only agreed with the current dark matter models, but also ironically it seems that there's even a little bit more dark matter in our vicinity than we had previously thought, as much as I think 20%. So yeah, that's an update and so this was, I guess this did come from a Science or Fiction Steve, from April.
S: It was a Science or Fiction at NECSS at the live NECSS show that we did.
S: And yeah, this happens all the time; you know, a paper comes out, it's news, it makes a claim, just because it's published doesn't mean it's correct, of course. The really important peer review, even though we use that term to mean getting into the literature, the really important peer review happens after a paper is published, when the entire scientific community gets to pick it apart and look for errors, and this is what happens most of the time; you know, a lot of the time, that there are subtle, sometimes fatal, flaws discovered in how data was analysed or how it was gathered or whatever; in this case we have an reanalysis of the same data coming to the exact opposite conclusion. They make what sounds like a reasonable and persuasive argument, but you know Bob, you and I don't know enough physics to know who's right in this debate, we just have to let the experts duke it out and we'll see which view is the one that survives within the broader community.
B: Yeah, I think the key thing I'm waiting for with this is: Bidin hasn't commented, he said he wanted to fully assess this new paper before he even comments on it, so I'm curious to see what he has to say once he fully digests what Bovy and Tremaine have written about this, and if I had to bet, I mean I would bet that yeah, there is dark matter locally. Part of me feels kind of sad for Bidin, like oh man you know he made this assumption that seems to be in error and it seems a little bit embarrassing to me, but hey, that's science, that's how it works, and it looks like we may have even learned a little from this as well in terms of how much dark matter there is locally, which is interesting, so.
S: It's a good example of the self-corrective nature of science.
Interview with with Debbie Feldman (40:06)
S: OK, well let's go on with our interview.
S: We're sitting here at NECSS with Deborah Feldman. Deborah, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.
D: Hi, I'm so glad to be here.
S: Deborah is the author of the New York Times best-selling book Unorthodox. Something about completely rejecting your heritage or something.
D: The scandalous rejection of my Hasidic roots, yes.
S: That's right.
D: It's a tough title to wrap your head around.
S: So tell us about that.
D: The word scandalous is actually a bit misleading because it's not scandalous in the sense that I left and joined the real world, it's scandalous for my community that I abandoned. They're the ones who are kind of talking about me non-stop and trying to figure out how they're going to bring me down.
S: You're good with that.
D: Oh totally.
S: They're scandalised.
D: I'm honoured.
S: And what are they scandalised about?
D: They're scandalised about the fact that I left and I spoke out about it. There are people who leave, but they just kind of slink away and disappear. And I didn't, I got up and I started talking and I talked about a life that they would like to keep hidden, you know they're really insistent upon remaining mysterious and unknown and I just kind of laid it all out there, and I said look this is how they live, this is the life I grew up in. And that disturbs a lot of people who want to keep the lifestyle secret.
S: Why do you think they want to keep it secret?
D: I think because it wouldn't hold up under scrutiny. Talk about the fact that women are impure when they menstruate and have to purify themselves and go to ritual baths to become available for sex, the fact that women can't use birth control, that they can't have access to eduction, they can't drive a car; these are not facts that they would like to have out there and you know people talking about, they would like to just come across as sort of romanticised, nostalgic versions of the shtetl Jew. They don't want to talk about the more difficult aspects of gender segregation, racism, lack of education, lack of legal advocacy; they'd like to not discuss that.
E: So they know that their actions and their customs and what they're doing is frowned upon basically by the rest of the world, it's a deception on a certain level.
D: Yes, exactly. And this is something they'll actually like clearly admit to. They understand that their way of living, if it was sort of exposed and available to the outside world, that people would be horrified, that people would-- well, they say that people would misunderstand, but the bottom line is that they know that it makes them look bad and therefore they are incensed that I dared-- that I had the guts to go out there and do that.
S: But that's how they justify it, they say that the outside world just wouldn't understand I guess the reasons why they do these things?
D: Yeah. They don't understand the beauty of the ritual, it's beautiful. It's like going to a spa.
S: Yeah. But they don't, do you think they don't really believe themselves when they say that, they're just covering up traditions that...
D: I think that you get the programming when you're a kid; you get told that this is beautiful but other people wouldn't understand, so you start to believe OK well, that's the reasoning that the rabbis gave me, it must be beautiful. It must in someone's eyes be beautiful. Maybe it's only God's eyes, maybe it's not beautiful to the human perspective, but it's beautiful to something or someone.
S: But it, still there's, there seems to be a calculation behind that so I'm trying to figure out, it's a calculation on the part of whom? Is it the rabbis who know that, all right this is scandalous, the outside world-- really we don't want them to know about this, we want to keep it a secret, but they still have to know on some level that's because there's something wrong with it. If not, then how do they reconcile keeping it secret with the fact that this is their world view? Because usually religious groups want to proselytise, they want to share their beliefs with the world, so how do you...
D: Well the Satmars are completely against that, they're against being missionaries, against proselytising, against asking less-orthodox Jews to join their group, they actually would just like to stay completely insular and isolated and have no inside-outside interaction whatsoever, which is very different from some Hasidic groups like Chabad-Lubavitch, which is all over the world and constantly trying to get people to join, but even Chabad has to have two faces: the face, you know the public face of the community that you know is like "oh we're all laid back Jews and we accept everybody", and the private face of the community that beats up other members for not believing that the rabbi was the messiah. So you have again, you have the private community and you have the public face of the community where Satmar doesn't want to have a public face at all. They've always had this attitude of "it's us and them, the rest of the world hates us and we can hate them right back; this means that we, the laws of honest behaviour don't apply to outsiders, they only apply to insiders. We have to be honest to each other, but the outside world is an other, it's an enemy." And this belief evolved in response to the sort of the Holocaust trauma, the birth of Zionism in the early 20th century and the Haskala movement, which was the enlightenment of the Jews in Europe. So what happened was you had a Hasidic movement which started, you know, about bringing sort of solace and comfort to uneducated Jews in Eastern Europe who were feeling oppressed, and that completely sort of dissolved into this new fundamentalist way of thinking which is "oh well, here are Jews assimilating, here are Jews becoming Zionist and taking back the state of Israel before the messiah gets here, those Jews caused the holocaust, and we have to just go in a completely different direction so that we can prevent another holocaust happening again so that we can appease this angry god that was punishing us."
S: Mmhmm. That appeasement involves completely isolating themselves from the world?
D: It involves recreating the ghetto; again, it's going back to their idea of exile and Diaspora, we belong in exile and we have been forgetting ourselves by thinking that we can take ourselves out of exile before God is ready. So it's about going back into exile, which often means separating yourself from the mainstream population, separating yourself from access to the rights of every citizen in the country; it's no education, no real freedom because this is what God wants, obviously. And if we don't accept, and if we don't obey then we make him angry. So they take all these basically Jewish laws, like you have that married women are supposed to cover their hair, which is like a really ancient law and it applies in many other cultures as well, and the rabbi, the Satmar rabbi who came over to the US after the war said, "oh well, that's not enough because you know, what if the hair slips out or what if women are tempted to take their coverings off, let's have them shave their heads." And now that's part and parcel of being Hasidic.
S: Is that right?
D: Yeah, I shaved my head after I got married. Kept it shaved for a couple of years and then I just like, got so frustrated that I refused to do it again. I grew it out when I was pregnant and I never, I didn't cut if like four or five years afterwards because I was so attached to that new growth.
B: What was the reaction to you not cutting your hair?
D: Well, the first people who knew that I wasn't cutting my hair was my husband, because he started seeing, you know, inch after inch and he was like, "well, what are people going to say if they find out?" He was more worried about appearances and about what other people's perceptions of us would be and he was scared of getting in trouble. Rightly so, because the community is so controlling that they do this, there's this culture of punishment where the minute you step out of line they're there to get your right back in. So, he was nervous that someone in the community would see and you know gossip is so huge there; it's like everyone's pastime, there's nothing else to do. And so that spreads like wildfire, and of course the rabbis would have found out and he was scared that we'd just be blacklisted and then we'd never have a life, because we'd never be accepted anywhere and that was our only world; we didn't want to lose it. So you know, my hair kept getting longer and longer and at some point I showed up at a salon to get it dyed, because you know, it was virgin hair and the woman thought I'd had cancer and she's like taking care of me and she was being so sweet because she thought I was a cancer survivor and I was like, I didn't want to tell her the truth, I was embarrassed.
E: Different kind of cancer.
J: So was that the start or did you already...
D: My hair?
J: Well the hair, is that the genesis of your leaving the faith?
D: I think that's like a symbol of my rebellion; I mean the cover of my book has got this photo, this image of a woman with really long hair kind of blowing in the wind and we chose that image because hair for me has always been a symbol of liberation and freedom and especially for women it's-- well, it's just associated with strength. I mean, you have the story of Samson and Delilah and Delilah cutting his hair and him losing his power but I really feel like that's switched around for women these days, and you often see that in mainstream media as well: women who want to appear powerful put in extensions, they'll just have like really long hair. I don't know if this podcast is censored or anything, but can we say it's the equivalent of the penis in a sense?
S: Yes you can.
D: OK. Because with long hair I do feel more powerful, I do feel more feminine in the sense that men feel more masculine if they're better endowed. So for me the hair has always been a symbol, not necessary the birth as you assumed, but just very symbolic of what's going on inside.
S: That's interesting you make the allusion to the penis, seriously because that in film and art that has been a sort of a symbol, in like cutting the hair is a castration.
S: And the castration is the ultimate way to control somebody to repress them.
S: So I think that that symbol has been there in art and culture for a long time.
D: And it's so clear in the Hasidic community women's sexuality is considered so threatening that to shave a woman's head essentially negates that, negates that threat and it's so obvious to me where that thinking comes from. Of course no one will ever put it that way, it's like, "oh we want to protect you because we don't want you to be attacked by men who can't control their lust", it's all about protection because we want to shelter you. That's what these men will tell you. I mean I've had rabbis try to come and debate me after my book came out and the way they spin everything, it's completely ridiculous to me that they don't see through their own fallacies; like, how can you possibly say these things and not realise that they sound absolutely ridiculous?
J: Well their logic is flawed and they never were taught how to think.
D: True story.
J: It's very pathetic, you're confronted with that and you want them to see the logic and you're quite obviously a logical person now.
D: Now! (laughs)
S: Going off on that, you say "now" as if you weren't always logically.
D: I really wasn't, no.
S: So there was obviously a journey for you. So give a little bit of an idea what that journey was like, where did you start off from and how did you get out of it?
D: I think that the way to start that conversation is to explain-- and this is probably really hard for you and anyone who's listening to imagine, but if you're never given basic tools to think critically, it never really shows up as an option in your life; you never really, you're never presented with an opportunity to do so. So I never was aware that I could think critically or think in a certain way or analyse information in a certain way, because the only way that people in my community think is by absorbing information and memorising it. For example, when men study Talmud, they're not actually encouraged to question or analyse the statements they're studying, they're actually just encouraged to memorise, and what's considered genius or prodigy in my community, if you can memorise a really large portion of Talmud. And so when they would want to show off how smart people were, they would say "oh, he can point to any phrase in Talmud and tell you which page it's on" because he's memorised it. That's how we measured genius and intelligence in the community, by absorbing information and being able to spit it back without thinking, so the entire approach to scholarship is actually just blind memorisation. So we-- I was never exposed to any kind of analysis, processing, digesting or absorbing of information in a really sort of critical way, and so my whole relationship to the information I was being given was more about, it was at an emotional level, it was more like this doesn't feel right. Like that would, it would be this gut feeling and this sort of response of "no, that's not OK and I don't know why," it just isn't. So eventually when I left, I left for emotional reasons, I left because I was unhappy, I felt oppressed, I felt like I couldn't keep going, I couldn't raise my son in this community. So I left the community, but I left with that same framework of belief, the same "I still believe in God; God has a path planned out for me; this is all predestined and I'm just waiting for a sign to keep going." And then I got out and there were no signs. (laughs). And I waited for a while (laughs).
S: That must have been a huge shock.
D: It was disappointing and scary and then I had a bunch of people come into my life and wanting to offer me signs, you know, Christians wanted to show me the way and plenty of people wanted to give me a belief system to replace my old one with, but I was still sort of stuck in the whole like "well, what happens next, am I not going to receive a message, like is this really how it is out here in the big bad world?"
S: You're on your own?
B: What kind of message, what kind of message did you expect?
D: I just um, I expected miracles, you know. I expected things to fall out of the sky, I expected the whole world to just operate in this, on this level where nothing is realistic and everything just falls into your lap magically. Because that's how I was raised to feel and to be honest when I was a kid I read fairy tales and that really kind of makes you believe that too, that whole like that's just how life works.
J: Oh absolutely.
D: You make that big brave leap and everything figures itself out for you.
J: I think we're all kind of victims of fairy tales and the adventures that we see in movies and everything which you grow up-- hopefully you grow up-- you realise first of all, you have to make your own adventure; they don't usually find you, you have to go get it.
J: And second of all, it's never like it is in the movies or in the story books, that's the biggest...
D: Except that was the only information I was able to get, was when I went to the library and I read the fairy tales and I read the children's books. I always thought "I just have to leave a glass slipper somewhere, I just have to wait for a pumpkin to turn up." It was always about like waiting, it was never about acting on behalf of myself or being proactive. And right around that time-- I was a year or two out-- I met my friend BJ Kramer and he had left the orthodox community; he had divorced his wife, he had shared custody of his two children and he seemed to be doing pretty OK, but he didn't believe in anything. He pretty much figured that after he died he'd be gone and there would be nothing there, and seeing him totally comfortable with that kind of boggled my mind. How could anybody be comfortable with that idea, that's the most terrifying thing I could have ever imagined, especially after having been through what I'd been through. My only consolation at that point was it'll get better one day, maybe only after I die, but it'll still get better. When he found out that I was still a believer, I think he was really shocked because everyone assumes you leave the Hasidic because you make a rational sort of split; you reject it intellectually, but not everybody leaves the community for that reason. Some people really just leave because they're unhappy, and I've met both kinds. And he was so surprised, and he could have just like turned his nose up and said, "well you're just ignorant and I don't want to be friends with you", but instead he just let me kind of hang around the periphery of his life and he would keep sort of passing books my way and just sort of mentioning bits and stories he'd picked up from TAM and from his friends Penn Jillette, who I didn't know was famous at the time, because I wasn't really exposed to that world, but he would just talk about his different interactions with the skeptical community, and just kept putting you know throwing a bit of information my way without any judgement or condescension. Eventually I started to understand my relationship with my beliefs and how it was all, again, emotional; it was all about like that crutch, that like, being able to keep going because of that hope that it's not in your hands, it's actually in someone else's hands and you don't have to take responsibility or really be in charge, you know, in the driver's seat of your own life. And I was like, "that's not me at all", like I know myself as a very strong person, very independent, why would I be comfortable admitting that I'm not in the driver's of my life? That's not cool, and it was just kind of like that click in my head, just like actually "you have been undermining yourself this entire time; you've been underestimating your own ability to survive and to accomplish your goals". And the minute that happened, the minute I let go of that mental and emotional crutch, things did start to happen, I did start to accomplish my goals because I stopped waiting and I started doing. And since then I've felt truly liberated.
J: Deborah, would you say that most people in the community are unhappy or have a feeling like you did, like something's wrong and I just don't know what it is?
D: Based on the mail I get, yeah I feel like most people are in some way unhappy. The funny thing about unhappiness is that um, when it's the only thing we know, it's very hard to realise that we are unhappy. And I think that the conditions of life in that community are such that you get sort of lulled into acceptance of the everyday routine; you just don't know any better, you don't know any different, and until someone feeds you that bit of information that shows you that, that shows you that there's a bigger better world out there, it's really easy to just sort of stay complacent. And that's kind of why the community wants to keep that information out there; they want to keep education out of the community; they want to keep advertising out of the community; they try to control everything about that piece of land they live in, because they know that the minute that kernel of information is available, that one thing that can spark a train of thought, they're done, they're finished, everyone will get up and go.
J: What about the internet?
B: Yeah I was just going to say that.
J: How do they avoid it?
D: Here's the funny story. The internet is banned in the Hasidic community, but you can't ban phones, and I remember when cell phones came to be, you know, everybody got a cell phone; a cell phone isn't non-kosher, you can talk on the phone, but then smart phones came along and the rabbis didn't know what to do because they were-- you know, the Hasids were saying, "we need them for business" so they legalised Blackberrys for men. Uh, I don't know why Blackberrys over iPhones and Androids, is it something about the way Blackberry accesses the internet that's different?
S: It's more for email and less...
D: Apparently, you know they can trust the Hasids who need it for work purposes to only use it for work purposes, but of course everybody is accessing porn whenever they can and you know, these are the Hasids you're running into at strip clubs and dungeons, you know, dominatrix dungeons in Manhattan all the time. I mean, my best friend worked as a dominatrix on Manhattan; most of her clients were Hasids. So of course they're trying to access the internet but it's usually the select few; the group of men who are higher up in the hierarchy of the community who can get away with making their own rules because they understand that this is the exchange. They have to stay and sort of play the game and they can do their own thing on the side. But the women are completely not allowed to have that kind of access or interaction with the outside world; they can't just get in their car and go to Manhattan for a night with their friends. They can't have Blackberrys or work or live that kind of life so they really are stuck, they can't access the internet or go to college or find out this information. So when a woman lives in Williamsburg, she's got nothing.
S: So before you got out, you said that you did not have access to education and obviously your world view was authoritarian and not critical thinking, were you taught to read as a girl in that community?
D: We were taught alphabet and we were taught to write but when I was in class-- I remember I was in high school, I was 15 or 16 years old, the reading practice that we got were these little censored pamphlets taken out of literature textbooks. And I remember when I was 15, we were reading an excerpt from Milo and The Phantom Tollbooth, which is, I believe that is for kids way younger. And we'd get these sort of two- or three-page samples from the book, and it would be passed around the classroom and all of the girls would take turns reading a paragraph and it took us three weeks to get through that pamphlet because the girls would stumble over every world and they would sort of sound out the syllables and it's really clumsy reading. And I was the only girl in the class that could actually speed through it and everyone was suspicious of that; I had to pretend sometimes, read more slowly than I could because I knew it would raise eyebrows. "How the hell does she know how to read and what is she doing to get that kind of skill?"
J: Wow. You know, I'm realising that we don't even know what's going on, that they did insulate themselves so well that the regular people walking around have no idea that these weird things like swinging chickens over your heads and all of that stuff is taking place today right around the corner from us.
S: And it's easy to think when you do hear stories about an insular community, it's easy to think "oh, that's just a myth, that's just people talking about another group" because people make up stories about other groups.
D: Like the hole in the sheet.
S: Yeah, it's all kind of rumours so it's easier to assume that the really weird stuff is probably all just stories so...
D: Yeah, and that's actually the kind of belief that these Satmars rely on.
D: So that they feel confident you don't think they're crazy.
S: Right, right.
D: Because they figure if there are any rumours out there, everybody thinks they're just stories, but they're not stories.
S: Right. But we're only knowing it now because people are like you who are coming out of the community...
D: But they're still trying to poke holes in my book and say that they're just stories. They're still trying to deny that everything I'm saying is true; they're trying to deny that there's blatant sexism in the community; they're trying to deny cover-ups of sexual abuse; they're still trying to deny all of that.
S: So what's your next step? What are you thinking of doing next?
D: Well, I actually just sold my second book, and my second book is kind of about, not so much my story but stories of people who have left religion all over the world. And it's kind of the story of the religious landscape in the 21st century, which is a topic which has become really interesting to me ever since I left because I discovered that there are people all over the world that feel like they have a lot in common with me even though they didn't grow up Hasidic. Because they grew up in a closet of sorts, and in the end it all does feel just like a closet, and you just have to open that door and come out, and we're all coming out in one way or another, whether it's intellectually, sexually, spiritually.
S: Yeah I mean at the end of the day oppression is oppression.
S: You know when, thinking shutting down critical thinking, not letting you think for yourself, removing any ability to be self-sufficient, it's all the same machinations.
D: And we always have to stay vigilant and aware of when that's happening so we can fight back.
S: Absolutely, I mean, it's almost ironic that they're so Fascist in their approach and controlling; I mean, do they perceive the irony of that? I mean, I wonder...
S: Mmhmm (laughs).
D: It's not ironic.
J: Wow, don't do that.
E: Don't do that, yeah.
D: No no, it's fine, it's fine. (laughs) I think he's out of my league anyway. (laughs).
S: All right well Deborah thank you so much for joining us, it's really been interesting.
D: It really has, thank you very much.
E: Thanks, Deborah.
Science or Fiction (1:02:27)
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 is the fake. You guys ready for this week?
J: We are; we discussed it before the show, Steve; we're ready. Continue.
S: All right, here we go.
R: There was a huddle.
S: Item number one: A new study confirms the popular belief that old people can be identified by their smell. Item number two: A new analysis indicates that children are more imaginative in their play today than they were 20 years ago. And item number three: Updated data indicate that American brain size continues to slowly decrease over historical time. Jay, why don't you go first?
J: The first one about the study that confirms this so-called popular belief that old people can be identified by their smell. Steve, how dare you? That's a horrible thing to say, Steve.
S: I just report the science, Jay; I don't make it up unless it's the fiction.
J: I will pluck this piece of information out of the ether that is my brain and say that I know that...
R: Your brain is named Esther? (laughs)
J: Yeah, hello, come on Esther! Uh, the idea here is that as people get older they don't metabolise things as well, their organs don't work as well and if people's kidneys and liver are having issues, I know that they can get a backup-- absolutely can get a backup of urine in their system. That could be what this is about, and that smell could be identified, sure. But it's saying here-- for some reason Steve left this very vague, about-- "can be identified by their smell", it could be that he's saying uniquely by their smell or in general be...
S: They can be identified as being old people because of their smell.
J: All right then I will agree that that one is the science from the information that I have loosely stored in my brain over the years. The second one: An analysis that indicates that children are more imaginative today than they were 20 years ago. I'm going to directly relate that to video games. That's the only significant thing I can point to that's changed is the amount of time people are playing video games. You know, the question here is did Steve pull a switcheroo? Are they more imaginative now or are they less imaginative now, and I can make cases for both of those. Anecdotally, I know that when we were kids, Steve and Bob, and I know from talking to you, Rebecca, I know that there was a hell of a lot more going outside and building cardboard rocket ships and playing Star Trek and making home stop-action movies and blowing stuff up with fire works and all of this stuff that we did as kids. I haven't seen any of my friends' kids or any of my nieces or nephews go to the degree that we went to and that's such an anecdote, I know, but that's my real life experience here and I can make a very good argument for why that one is the fake. And the last one: updated data that indicated that American brain size continues to slowly decrease over historical time. Mmmmm. Don't know, I don't know; that seems odd, if that is happening that it would be happening, what would be the reason behind that, there's got to be something going on, and I'd hate to say something ridiculous like this next statement which is, are people using their brains more or less now and does that even factor in? I don't know, I don't know. Is society allowing people that are less intelligent to survive longer, to pass on their genes because it's easier to survive today versus previous generations? I don't know. That's a big "I don't know" so I have to wipe that one off the plate, so between the first and second news item, I'm going to say the one about the kids being more imaginative today than 20 years ago is the fake.
S: OK, Rebecca?
R: Yeah, I haven't heard any of these, so kudos. Although it might have been because I was traveling, so if I lose this one, I'd just like to put that out there.
S: Yup, pre-excuse, good strategy.
R: Yep, yep, just in case. So old people could be identified by their smell; at first I thought you meant differentiating between old people, and I wasn't aware that that was a popular belief, but after Jay went, I get it. So old people have an old-person smell. And yeah, why not? Babies have a baby smell, why not, why couldn't old people have an old-person smell? Jay brought up a lot of good points there, so. "Children more imaginative in their play today" makes sense to me. I think that could be very much true; I mean sure, even if what Jay says is true, that he's not seeing kids going outside and playing as much, I was a tomboy as a kid; I was outside all the time, but that wasn't the extent of my imaginative play, my imaginative play was greatest actually probably holed-up in my bedroom writing stories or producing radio dramas and things. And I think that today children have actually more tools than we had when we were little in terms of creation; there is more, there are more creative toys that could help stimulate kids now than there were before. So I think that that one could be true. Which leaves the idea that American brain size continues to slowly decrease over historical time. That's weird, I don't-- I mean maybe that's true, but I mean why just Americans? I mean, I'm sure there are a ton of snarky responses that our European listeners are making right now but I don't see our culture as being so distinct that there is something-- some huge thing that's causing American brain size to decrease but no others'. Not that that's what the question says, but it seems odd that it wouldn't say "human brain size" or something, as opposed to just Americans, so I'm going to go ahead and say that one's the fiction.
S: All right, Bob.
B: OK, I don't think I have a tremendous amount new to add to the good comments that Jay and Rebecca made. Yeah, the old people smell, yeah I mean, as soon as you say those words like I could almost smell them, you know, in my mind; yeah, the array of products that many elderly people use have distinctive odours and I'm sure there's other things that could contribute to that, so yeah, I mean, obviously I have no problem seeing that as science. Obviously, it wouldn't apply to everyone, but in general, sure. Let's see, yeah the other, the children's imagination in number two, I'll have to go with Rebecca on this one as well. It's easy to think that 20 years ago we had to make up all this extra stuff, but I think that kids today not only have an array of tools for being creative like Rebecca said, but also lots of things to draw from including games, Jay, and movies and TV and cable and all the many plethora of things on the internet; there's just so many things to spark their imagination. It kind of makes sense to me that they can be even more imaginative today than they were 20 years ago. And the third one about the brain size shrinking, yeah, that just rubs me the wrong way, I think the interplay of increasingly decent nutrition and cultural aspects and sexual selection and things-- like I think that would kind of-- makes me think that it wouldn't make it-- brain size decrease but actually increase over historical time, not much obviously, but a measurable amount, so I'm going to have to say that one is fiction.
S: OK so let's take these in order. Number one, "a new study confirms the popular belief that old people can be identified by their smell", meaning being identified as an old person. You guys all think this one is science and this one is... science.
S: Yep, so this one is science; the study shows-- what they did was they had subjects, either between 20 and 30, the young group; 45 and 55, middle-aged; and 75 to 95, old age; they had them wear stuff under their arms for five days and then they had the 41 young participants try to guess the age of the person that the odour on the item was identified with. And they were able to correctly identify the odour of the older individuals, but they weren't able to distinguish young from middle-aged. The researchers said yeah this could be due to just different metabolic, perspiring, physiology in old age. Interestingly, although the common cultural belief is that yes, there's an old-person smell and that it's unpleasant, the subjects, the sniffers characterised the old person body odour as being less intense and less offensive than the other two age groups. They also stressed that this was looking at only one part of the body and that maybe there are odours being contributed to from other bodily fluids that they did not test, so this wasn't definitive from that point of view. Let's move on. "A new analysis indicates that children are more imaginative in their play today than they were 20 years ago". Jay thinks this one is the fiction, Bob and Rebecca thinks this one is science, and this one is... science.
S: But yeah, this is a tough one, you can go either way with this, Jay; that's why I thought it was a good item.
J: That's what we hear about you.
J: I got you, Rebecca (laughs).
S: Researchers have been using the same exact research paradigm or methodology to look-- to analyse children's play over the last 20 years, which gave them an opportunity to make longitudinal comparisons over time. And so-- this is a bit of an artificial situation, they put children in a room with blocks and puppets and they just asked them to play and they just observed them, and they scored them on certain features: how many positive versus negative emotions they express, their comfort, their imagination, the quality of their story telling, using a specific scale. But what they found is that while, generally speaking Jay, you are correct, that children engage in less unstructured play today than they did 20 years ago, when they do play they actually display greater imagination. The quality of the story telling is unchanged over time, so the ability to tell a coherent narrative has been steady; it was not different from 20 years ago to today. So, I thought that was all very interesting. It's hard not to draw upon your own anecdotal experience, especially if you have children, when reading this. Certainly, my observation of my daughters-- and there are times when one or both of my daughters is playing in the other room and I just listen to them play because it's fascinating. When they are not aware that anybody is paying any attention to what they're doing, and my God, do they have elaborate imaginative self-play sessions, they-- and I can tell that they are drawing, as you said Bob, they're drawing from multiple different works of fiction and games that they play and movies that they've seen and sometimes even things that they've done at school, it's all weaving it together into this very imaginative scenario. So, that wasn't surprising to me.
R: I would have been really embarrassed as a kid if I found out that my dad or someone was listening in on me playing, because I just remember like playing with dolls or toys or whatever, like the stories I would construct would be so complex and deep and personal that I would be really freaked out, I think if I knew that anybody...
B: It's like somebody reading your diary, right?
R: Yeah, I guess like that, yeah.
S: Yeah, but she's doing it right in the next room so there's no expectation of privacy.
R: But also...
S: But I see what you're saying, yeah.
R: I mean also though, it makes me wonder about the kids in the study, though; you know, if they knew that somebody was listening in, were they more subconscious, and how did that change...
S: Yeah, you've always got to, you've always got to worry about the observer effect, the effect of the study itself, you're right.
S: Which brings us to the last one, which is a very interesting item, and again it's one of those ones where I didn't know whether to make this the science or the fiction and which one would be more-- I don't know what you guys knew about this whole story, let me just read the item.
S: "Updated data indicate that American brain size continues to slowly decrease over historical time". That one is the fiction, but did you guys know that brain sizes of human beings everywhere around the world have been decreasing over the last 15 to 20 thousand years? And our brain sizes are about 200 CCs smaller than humans living 20 thousand years ago.
B: I did know that early, what is it? Um.
S: No this is homo sapiens, Bob. No Neanderthals had bigger brains because they were robust, because they were ice age.
B: Right, that's what I'm talking about.
S: But this is our own species, this is homo sapiens, not Neanderthals, and it's been an enigma, you know there isn't one accepted explanation for it. The possibilities that have been raised; the hypotheses to explain why our brains are shrinking are several.
B: More efficient.
S: One is that they are more efficient; that this actually represents and improvement in the design of the brain, the wiring is actually-- yeah it is more efficient and it's functioning faster, it's leaner and meaner. That's one theory, and that does fit with the fact that, you know, if you look at IQ scores over time, they're actually going up. And there's also other genetic studies looking at genetic variations that correlate with higher intelligence, they're actually increasing in frequency in the population over the last couple of thousand years, so that's a reasonable hypothesis. Another hypothesis is that it's nutritional, although you would think that would have reversed by now. I know we've spoken previously about the fact that, ironically, with the advent of agriculture, nutritional status actually decreased for a while because early on, our agriculture was primitive and we hadn't cultivated the variety of plants that we really need. And so our ancestors traded a varied diet for a reliable diet but it was narrower, nutritionally; but of course, over centuries, over the thousands of years, agriculture improved; we cultivated a much greater variety and...
B: We got the hang of it.
S: Yeah, we got the hang of it and nutrition took off, and you know, certainly in the last couple of hundred years you would think our nutrition, especially in the West, is very good so that shouldn't be an issue. Another hypothesis is that-- and I think Jay alluded to this, or raised this as a possibility-- some people are actually proposing that we don't have to be as smart as our ancestors because society takes care of us and because we live in a civilisation, we can rely upon other people; that the demands of modern civilised life are not as great as they were 20 thousand years ago. It was a lot harder to survive back then; you had to be much more self-reliant and people who were less, I guess, less savvy were weeded out, so there was more selection. Whereas today, we rely upon technology and on each other and we don't have to be as smart. I don't buy that particular speculation; it doesn't seem to be very plausible to me; I think again my bias, my reading of the evidence is that I think our access to technology, information, etc. is actually making us smarter, not less smart. Now the news item that this is based on is a new analysis-- and this is why "American", Rebecca; it's because the data was American, that's all; it did not involve non-Americans-- that an analysis of skull sizes of Americans over the last couple of hundred years shows that our brain size is increasing and this is actually a reversal of this otherwise established trend. So this contradicts, or updates in a way, this older information, so while human brain sizes have been decreasing overall-- again there's no reason to suspect that this is a phenomenon unique to America, it's just that's the data that they looked at-- that our brain size has been increasing over the last couple of hundred years by about 200CCs for men, 180CCs for women, and the only difference there is because just overall body size is smaller for women. And again, what's the reason for that? I guess that would depend a lot on why you think that brain sizes were decreasing in the first place.
B: What about skeletal maturation?
S: Well, if anything-- oh actually, I didn't say there's another theory as to why our brains are shrinking which is very interesting and that is that we've been selected for non-violence; that civilisations tend to execute repeat violent offenders and that that was a significant selective pressure against violence and that we essentially domesticated ourselves, which is interesting. Some-- you know, a lot of primitive societies might actually like execute or banish-- which, if you're a tribe living in a pre-civilised area, that's the same thing as executing-- up to 40% of their males. That's a huge selective pressure, so once civilised law was put into place, massive selective pressure against being a violent criminal and that had the tendency to make us less violent. Now, being less violent also can go along with more juvenile characteristics.
J: Oh boy.
S: And part of that equals overall smaller size and smaller brains. In fact, domesticated animals have smaller brains than their wild counterparts, so that's the "humans are just domesticated", we domesticated ourselves, that's one hypothesis, which is interesting. But anyway, so getting back to this news study, so all those same theories are essentially in play, but this is a new piece to this puzzle. So, good job Bob and Rebecca; so this was a bit of a tricky one but you guys sussed it out well.
R: Thank you. It was, yeah.
J: Even though I said a lot of intelligent things, once again.
S: You did, yes.
J: I lose.
S: If you're judged on the process, not the result, right?
J: Right. Thank you Steve. (blows raspberry).
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:22:14)
S: All right Jay, what have you got for us this week for a quote?
J: A listener named Patrick McComb or McCoomb sent in a very interesting quote by someone named Daniel J. Boorstin, who was a historian, a professor, an attorney and a writer and he was also the 12th librarian of the United States Congress and I had to look that one up. The quote is:
The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.
J: Daniel Boorstin!
S: That's a good quote.
J: Thank you.
S: Yep, when you think you've arrived at the truth as a destination, then your journey is over; your journey of discovery is over. Well, thanks for joining me again this week, everyone.
R: Thank you, Steve.
B: You're welcome.
J: It was fun, Steve.
S: We will have our full complement back next week when Even returns home. And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.
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