SGU Episode 564

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SGU Episode 564
30th Apr 2016
SGU 563 SGU 565
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria
MW: Michael Whelan
Quote of the Week
The claim of alternative practitioners to not treat disease labels but the whole patient...allows alternative practitioners to live in a fool's paradise of quackery where they believe themselves to be protected from any challenges and demands for evidence.
Edzard Ernst
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (1:14)[edit]

  • Annie Maunder

Annie Maunder was one of the first professional Irish female astronomers. The famous Maunder Minimum, a period of very low sunspot activity was named after her and her husband.

S: But first, Bob, you're going to give us a Forgotten Superheroes of Science. You haven't done one in a couple of weeks. You're a little behind.

B: Yes, this week, I'm talking about Annie Maunder, who was the first professional woman astronomer of Ireland. She and her husband had the Maunder Minimum named after them, a period of decades when Sun spot activity was shockingly low, and actually had an effect on Earth's climate.

The story starts in the late 1800's, which is when she lived. And as you could imagine, it was quite backwards at that time in its attitude towards women. The Greenwich Observatory considered it an unusual experiment when it hired college-educated women, even when it entailed giving them jobs meant for teenage boys.

Annie Maunder, who was then Annie Russel, joined the Solar Department, and studied the Sun spots and magnetic storms, and pretty much found her career. The department head was Walter Maunder, who wasn't as educated as his future wife. When they did get married, Annie had to quit because of the civil service ban. If you got married, you couldn't work, which seems kind of silly. And yet, she still collaborated with him for decades. She became an expert eclipse photographer, and even designed her own camera, which beat out bigger ones at capturing the biggest corona stream ever seen at that time, during one of the eclipses that she traveled the world to see.

That work, and most of her work, was published under her husband's name, as was required by all married female scientists, pretty much. Can you imagine that happening today? It's only in the past few decades that it was realized that a lot of this work was actually her work, or a significant contribution by her.

So together, both of them, they created the famous Maunder butterfly diagram, which showed how sunspots cluster at high latitudes early in the solar cycle, and then migrate down to the equator later in the cycle. If you put a series of these images together, you could tell that it looks kind of like butterfly wings. It's quite pretty. They also show that Earth's magnetic storms happen in twenty-seven day cycles, and are caused by the Sun's corona, and not the face of the Sun.

And they also conclusively confirmed an earlier prediction that between 1645 to 1715, there was a dearth of sunspots. This was in the middle of what's called the “little ice age,” when glaciers were actually on the move, and the London river Thames was frozen over. So that was big. They did not actually make that prediction, but they confirmed it to such a degree that they actually named it after them. And I just love the alliteration of course, the Maunder minimum.

And also, they have a crater on the Moon named after them, Maunder crater, which sounds kind of cool. So remember Annie Maunder, mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing magnetic flux tubes in convective zones.

S: By the way, Bob, it's Temes, not Thames, is the name of the river you were going for. But how cool would it be to have a crater on the Moon named after ...

B: Oh my god, yeah!

E: Yeah, there's enough of them.

C: People will buy them.

(Evan laughs)

B: Make one!

J: You know, what's funny about that, Steve, is I would look at a crater on the Moon as something that's gonna last a very long time.

S: Oh yeah.

J: And something that people are gonna see all the time too. It's cool.

B: Sure. My luck would be on the far side of the Moon. (Rogues chuckle) That's okay. I'd take it. I'd take it! If anyone's listening!

J: Is that from Dune? What do you call the mouth shadow on the second moon, right? Is that what he ...

S: That was Usal. [1]

J: Usal, right.

S: Yeah, that's where he got his Seech name.

J: Yep.


E: Dune.

S: Dune's a great series of books.

E: It's Duff.

J: One of the best.

S: And very skeptical, very, very skeptical. I recommend it.

News Items[edit]

Zinc Flash at Conception (5:07)[edit]

Plant Prion Memory (12:25)[edit]

Parents Convicted in Toddler’s Death (23:51)[edit]

S: Have you guys heard about the Stephane, David and Collet Stephan.

C: Oh!

S: The Canadians

C: Who are blowing up our inbox!

B: Oh yeah!

E: Yeah, lotta people telling us about this.

S: I wrote about it on Science Based Medicine today. It's a sad case,

E: Yeah

S: but it's one in our chain of “when pseudoscience kills,” kind of informal series. David and Collet Stephan are Canadians who, four years ago, their nineteen month old died from a bacterial meningitis. This is a parent's worst nightmare, bacterial meningitis. I've seen cases of it. It's just horrible, 'cause it could be very fulminent, you know? Essentially, the bacteria grows out of control, you get this puss filling up your skull, and you herniate, essentially your brain gets squeezed out the bottom of your skull,

E: Geez

S: and it gets destroyed. And then you're brain dead. The story is that the Stephans were recently convicted of neglect for not taking their nineteen month old boy, Ezekiel, to medical attention until it was too late, resulting in his death.

So they were convicted of failing to provide the basic essentials of life to their child. As it turns out, the father, David Stephan, runs essentially a supplement shop. The Truehope Nutritional Support Inc. So they're big believers in quote-unquote, “natural remedies.” They're also anti-vaccinationists. They've completely drunk of the alternative medicine, natural medicine Kool-Aid.

Apparently, Ezekiel had never been to a doctor's appointment, like a well child is sent to a pediatrician.

C: Oof!

S: So, he became sick four years ago, and they treated him with home remedies, and he didn't get better. So apparently, the mother talked about the case with a friend of hers who's a nurse. Still, it's unclear what exactly the conversation was, whether or not she said, “This could be meningitis,” and what exactly she advised her to do.

Apparently, the mother had looked up how to treat meningitis online. That came out in the court case.

B: Ah!

S: At one point, they took him to a naturopath. The naturopath

E: Oh boy.

S: apparently sold them echinacea out of the office, but never laid eyes on Ezekiel, never examined

E: Whoa.

(Cara sighs angrily)

S: this nineteen month old.

J: So did a remote analysis, and prescribed medication, whatever – prescribed something to cure this person without even seeing the quote-unquote, “patient.”

S: Yeah, never laid eyes on Ezekiel. It was just like, sold them echinacea out of their office, but it didn't treat it as a patient visit.

C: And one more time, how old was Ezekiel?

S: Nineteen-months.

(Cara groans)

S: Nineteen months. So, he continued to get worse. Strangely enough, the nutritional therapy, echinacea, and whatever roots they were given him didn't work. It got to the point where he was so stiff, 'cause the meningitis causes your neck and back to become stiff. He was so stiff, he could sit in a car seat. They had to lay him down on the back seat of the car.

And when he became almost unresponsive, then they rushed him to the hospital. And then there's debate about how responsive the ambulance was, and did they have the right equipment or whatever. But he was essentially brain dead upon arrival to the hospital. They couldn't revive him. He was, I think, on a ventilator for five days before they decided to take him off. But he was basically brain dead. Yeah, horrible case.

So, the state took the parents to court for neglect, for allowing Ezekiel to die without providing him proper care, and it was just decided yesterday as of this recording, the verdict came back, guilty. They were found guilty.

C: And this was in Canada?

S: Yeah, this is in Canada. So ...

C: Do we know how our laws compare to Canadian laws?

S: They're not dramatically different.

C: Okay.

S: They are in detail, but, you know.

C: So this could have happened here.

S: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, absolutely.

B: And it does.

S: And it does, yeah.

C: Yeah.

E: Sure.

S: I see this as no different than faith healing, right, except their ideology

B: Sure

S: was in nature,

E: Right

S: instead of God. But otherwise, it's pretty much the same.

E: Same idea.

S: Yeah. So, I agree with the verdict.

J: Oh, completely! As a parent, I hear about, something changes when you have kids, or, you know, you just have a massive perspective change. And now, I hear this, a nineteen-month old. You know, my daughter's seven months old. I have a three year old. Thinking about losing one of my children due to such a painfully ridiculous neglect, it crushes me!

S: Yeah

J: Like, I hear that,

S: Crushing

J: and I'm like, “This child would be happy and alive today if they literally went to the doctor for an hour.”

S: Um-hmm

C: And not to mention, I mean, aren't there meningitis vaccines?

S: For certain kinds, but probably not for what he had.

C: Gotcha.

S: Clearly, there's a lot of blame to go around, here. The parents made a wrong call. They prioritized their ideology over the welfare of their child. Of course, you have to believe that they felt that they were doing the best, and the right thing for their child. They were just massively misguided. But they don't have a right – and here's the thing: This is what the court decided, and this is why I so agree with the decision; that as a parent, it's not about you. It's not about your beliefs. You don't have a right to impose them on your child. You still have to adhere to a quote-unquote “standard of care.” That was what the prosecuting attorney, how he phrased it, and I completely agree with that.

So that's why they are guilty. They neglected a basic standard of care of parents for their children. Now, their children – this is also based upon the notion that children aren't the property of the parents. They are the wards of the parents. They're also

B: Right

S: the wards of the state, in a sense.

E: Partially, yeah.

S: The state has a responsibility for people who can't take care of themselves. They defer massively to parents, under the assumption that parents want to take care of their kids. And it's really very extreme cases like this. I wouldn't have been surprised if they were not convicted, but I am glad the jury brought back a guilty verdict here.

So the parents have the primary responsibility. I also think that the culture has a responsibility here, because we have allowed this alternative medicine philosophy to blossom and flourish in our society. A generation ago – one generation ago – this kind of stuff would be called “health fraud.” Now, it's alternative. And it's

E: Right

S: accepted. The state has a massive responsibility. They license naturopaths. There's an interesting wrinkle here, that in the province where this happened, naturopaths were licensed after Ezekiel died. So, we suspect that the naturopathic council won't do anything about this. They'll say, “Well, it was before our jurisdiction. So we don't ...”

B: Ugh!

S: So they probably wouldn't do anything anyway to be honest with you.

J: That's an epic, ridiculous cop out.

S: Well, the thing is, here's the thing: Naturopaths have no standard of care. There is no standard of care

E: That's right!

S: within the profession of naturopathy. They're not based upon science. Anything goes, as far as I could tell. They use homeopathy and acupuncture, and any crazy thing they want; water cures, and energy therapy, and all sorts of nonsense. And they're not based upon science. So how could you possibly have a standard of care?

J: Yeah

S: You know?

J: Yeah, it's interesting to think, Steve, that no naturopathic doctor is going to lay judgment on another naturopathic doctor in a degree where they would be involved in saying that they did something wrong.

S: You can't, because then the whole house of cards collapses, right?

J: Yep.

S: How could you possibly say that treatment was not appropriate? By what standard? Okay, let's apply that same standard to all of naturopathy! And it's all not appropriate. None of it meets any science-based standard, you know? So, yeah, they can't afford to apply a standard to what they do. So they, by definition, and in practice, they don't have one!

But the state licenses them, which legitimizes them. And so that might convince naive parents into thinking that it's appropriate to take a sick child to a naturopath. In fact, naturopaths in many states in the US and in Canada are fighting to be treated, to be given the privileges of a primary care doctor, which is shocking!

B: Ugh!

S: That is frightening! They are absolute quacks who shouldn't be practicing at all, let alone being the first point of contact for a sick patient. I mean, it's ridiculous!

C: Wow.

S: Yeah, this case is a good case of why that would be a horrible, bad idea, you know. It's not like you could say this was an anomaly. No, this is it! This is naturopathic care. This is the harm, right? They ask the question, “What's the harm?” This is the harm. This is the result of being uncritical about unscientific beliefs about pseudoscience in medicine. This is the answer to every shrugee, that's like, “Ah, what's the harm? Let 'em have their magical therapies or whatever.”

No, this nineteen-month old child, who should be a perfectly happy, healthy, six year old now, that's the harm. That's what happens when you treat magic as if it were legitimate medicine.

E: Yep.

S: So just, yeah, horribly tragic case. But the public has a short memory. I don't expect this is gonna change the narrative. We try, we try to use these cases, and try to get something good out of them by pointing out what led to these tragedies.

B: What's it gonna take? I mean, do we need a measles Disney level event for they type of specific situation where, “Oh yeah, we lost ten kids last month because of this alternative medicine.”

J: Probably, Bob!

B: Obvious, in your face! This nineteen-month old kid died because of neglect, ideological neglect. If that doesn't do it, what is it gonna take?

J: Bob, sadly, there's plenty of examples where, yes, the answer to your question is, “Yeah, it's gonna take something much bigger than just one kid dying.”

E: Sure

J: That's it.

C: At the very least, when we – we get a lot of emails here at SGU from a lot of different perspectives, from a lot of different angles, talking about what we did last week, what we did that week. At the very least, I was taken aback by how we probably got at least ... what, would you say? Ten, fifteen emails specifically about this case.

S: Yeah, which was a lot.

C: It is in the consciousness. Like, people are noticing it, and a lot of people wrote in to be like, “You guys should cover this, 'cause this is a big deal.” And that kind of gives me hope.

J: Yeah

S: Yeah, although that's our audience.

E: Yeah, our audience.

C: It is out audience. It's true, but to see the kind of camaraderie around that, something like this happens, and it is an outrage. And I think this is an extreme example, and so it can be a good teaching example, because it's obvious to most anybody watching that this was a travesty.

S: Yeah, I mean, I definitely think that we need to focus on legislation, because they are. They are getting laws passed to eliminate the standard of care. Like health care freedom laws, that's what they're all about. They're making a lot of progress eliminating the standard of care because they can't adhere to it. We have to reverse that trend, but that means convincing scientifically illiterate legislators, unfortunately. And that's been a massively uphill battle.

C: Yeah

B: We're f**ked.


C: (Slightly disapproving) Bob! (Laughs)

E: No we're not! We're just holding the ocean back with a broom.

S: Yeah, basically.

C: Oh god!

Who's That Noisy? (35:29)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Autopilot

What's the Word (39:20)[edit]

  • Hyperthymesia

S: Okay, Cara, what's the word?

C: Ah, the word this week was actually recommended by a listener; and it is hyperthymesia, which is having a really efficacious autobiographical memory. So, of course, autobiographical memory is memory relating to your personal past. It can be both episodic and semantic, but it always involves the ability to recall specific situations, experiences, and for some people, even emotions, in really vivid detail from any given calendar day. So you've probably heard of people who have hyperthymesia before, right?

S: Yeah

C: Can you guys think of any famous examples?

E: The gal from Taxi, right? What's her name? Mary-Lou Henner?

C: Mary-Lou Henner! Mary-Lou Henner is famously said to have hyperthymesia. And another famous case in the clinical literature is that of A.J., who was extensively studied. She claims to be able to remember every single day of her life from the age of fourteen. And yet another, more recent, from the clinical literature is a patient named H.K. And he claims to have remembered every single day of his life since the age of 11.

Now, although A.J.'s brain scans were relatively normal, H.K.'s right amygdala was twenty percent larger than normal, and appeared to have more connectivity to the hippocampus than match controls in his setting.

B: Makes sense.

C: Yeah, his brain was also, though, smaller, and he had several other anomalies because he was congenitally blind, and that seemed to have been secondary to hemorragic stroke before birth. So he had cerebral palsy. It's also reported that people with hyperthymesia have cognitive limitations and burdens by this great amount of resource that they have to dedicate to remembering. It's not to be confused, though, with people who have an intrinsic ability to calculate the calendar. You've probably known people where you're like, “June 7th, 1962.” And they're like, “Tuesday!”

B: Your date-day calculation.

C: Yeah, that actually can occur in some types of Savant syndrome, sometimes individuals with very select types of autism. This is not to be confused with that. These individuals more just hyper-remember almost every day of their life. They dedicate a lot of time to thinking about their past. And they dedicate a lot of time to recalling their past. And because of that, they actually have said that they struggle in other areas.

And there's also some new research showing that hyperthymesic individuals have certain features in common with individuals who have been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. And now the etymology of the word comes from the Greek “thymesis,” meaning “to remember;” and of course, “hyper.” Hyperthymesia.

S: Autobiographical memory is different than for other things. You know, it is

C: And I'm not good with that. I can't remember arguments that I had. I can't remember, “Oh! I met you at that time.” I'll be decades off from when things happened in my life. “Oh yeah!”

B: (Laughing) Decades ...

C: “I met you -” it's crazy.

S: You have CRS syndrome.

C: What's that?

S: Can't remember shit.

(Rogues laugh hard)

B: That's so true! Nice. Nice. Nice.

E: So what about false memories? Are these people susceptible to false memories the way, say, average people are?

C: That's an interesting question. And what's fascinating is the more that I read into this, the more I realized we know very little about these people because they are crazy rare. And it's hard to generalize anything that know about one individual to other individuals. I am totally speaking out of turn saying that they would have to also have false memories the same way that we do, because we know that memory as an encoding process is not perfect. And we know that memories encode in – we don't have a video camera in our brains. And we do make certain types of connections, and we do kind of, I would say, change our memories over time due to new experiences. So I wouldn't be surprised if individuals with hyperthymesia also have false memories.

They just seem to have more of a vivid, kind of lucid memory (and specifically about personal experiences) than the general population does.

S: We don't have to speculate. It's been studied. And in fact, people with hyperthymesia have the same false memory processes that people with regular memory do.

C: Oh, good!

S: Yeah, so they do. They do form – and every step of the way, they form false memories just like people without hyperthymesia do. All right, well thank you, Cara. That was a very, very interesting word this week. (Interview music begins)

C: Yeah.

Interview with Michael Whelan (43:54)[edit]

(Commercial at 1:09:21)

Science or Fiction (1:10:22)[edit]

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:25:18)[edit]

The claim of alternative practitioners to not treat disease labels but the whole patient...allows alternative practitioners to live in a fool's paradise of quackery where they believe themselves to be protected from any challenges and demands for evidence.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


  1. This got amended in the next episode
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