SGU Episode 14

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SGU Episode 14
28th September 2005

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SGU 13                      SGU 15

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


S: Hello and welcome once again to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, September 28th, 2005. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me tonight are Bob Novella...

B: Hello, everyone.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Goooood evening, everyone.

B: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello out there.


S: First some quick follow-up from our last show[1]. Bob made the point about phrenology; that it actually spawned a great deal of legitimate research into neurology and the structure of the brain, etc., which I was skeptical of, I must say, but I asked Bob for a source, and now he claims he has one. Bob, let's hear it.

B: My source is The Day The Universe Changed: How Galileo's Telescope Changed the Truth and Other Events in History that Dramatically Altered Our Understanding Of the World (it's quite a title), by James Burke who is the Connections guy. Fairly decent source, although I just found out that he is a post-modernist, which is kind of disconcerting—

E: (laughs)

B: —but his quote was, "by the end of the 19th century, interest in phrenology had gone, but not before it had spurred brain research well beyond contemporary scientific necessity. The phrenologists claim focused attention on brain function and structure, and over the following years, that led to the major early neurophysiological discoveries." So I remember listening to an audiobook of that book years ago—

S: Right

B: —so when the phrenology topic came up, that leapt to mind, and you didn't believe me!

S: No, I didn't. I guess I stand corrected. I knew that phrenology is the idea that you can read someone's personality by feeling the bumps on their head. The point I made in the previous episode was that the phrenologist's claim that the different functions of the brain are compartmentalized was actually correct, even though the rest of their claims were wrong, that the brain actually hypertrophies—

P: Right, I concurred with that.

S: —bumps out the skull. But the dispute was whether—how much of a role that played in the neurological scientific research of the time. I still think that... I take that point of view in mind, but I think that you have to keep in mind Burke's approach here is to find specific connections: A led to B led to C led to D. He's making the point that phrenology led to a certain amount of scientific discovery. My interpretation of that was different, though, just from other reading that I did. That dispute led to a great deal of neurological research. The compartmentalized view versus the diffuse view: is our brain function spread throughout the brain or do they localize to specific parts of the brain? That dispute spawned a lot of research. The phrenologists were part that of dispute. They definitely took sides in that dispute. But I still think that that dispute had an existence at the time that was separate from the claims of phrenology. It's—I guess it's true to some extent, but maybe not as clean-cut as Burke is making it seem.

B: Whatever.

S: (laughs)

E: (laughs)

S: But anyway, it's hard to make those kind of contingency arguments, because we can't replay history and say "What would have happened had the phrenologists not been around?"

UFO Landing Strip (3:39)[edit]

B: The next topic I thought we would talk about was an article, I believe, that was sent to me—Evan or Perry—which one of you sent me the UFO landing strip article?

E: That would be Perry.

B: So this was an interesting article about a town in Puerto Rico. I believe the town is Lajas. Would you pronounce that "la-hass", Bob?

B: Yes: "la-hass".

S: The people of Lajas, Puerto Rico, have decided to build a UFO landing strip in their town to welcome extra-terrestrial flying saucers.

B: How long is this landing strip?

S: That's a good question. I don't know.

P: I don't think specifics were included in the piece.

B: I mean, aren't UFOs or spaceships kind of like vertical takeoff and landing? They don't really need a runway.

S: Typically; so I guess it could be more like a heliport.

P: Bob, that's a very old-fashioned view of UFOs.

B: (laughs)

S: You have to accommodate all kind of aliens. They have the cigar-shaped rocket-esque craft.

B: So the low-tech interstellar travelers then.

S: Yes, you don't want to discriminate.

P: That's right.

S: Now the mayor basically admits that the purpose of this is to attract tourists. Shock! I'm stunned. They're tying to cash in on the popularity of UFOs and belief in UFOs. I guess they want to become the next Roswell. But he also—to bolster this plan, claims that "it's a very mysterious place, and a lot of people have seen things." For example, red lights zig-zagging above the hills. So that is the extent of their evidence: "people have seen stuff." They estimate the project's going to cost about $100,000. They are looking for money from private companies.

P: Is that all?

S: That's not a lot of money for a town.

P: Are you kidding me? Puerto Rico? Swimming with cash down there... for such projects.

S: Apparently a farmer by the name of Francisco Negron is offering or volunteering his property, I guess part of his farm for the landing strip. He had previously put up signs allowing for UFOs watchers to gather at his ranch. I wonder if he charged an entrance fee.

E: Yeah.

P: I'd pay 50 cents to see that.

S: He also claims that a UFO crashed—

P: Or a dollar.

S: Or a dollar, right?

P: Never mind.

S: Negron claims that a UFO crashed on the hill near his property in 1997. Another crashed saucer. I've got to tell you that the UFO flight insurance company must be taking a hit—

E: (laughs)

S: —because these saucers are crashing left and right. I mean you would think that—

B: They travel light years through interstellar space, and they can't navigate—

E: They can't land the damn things.

B: —over the Earth. We can go warp 50, but those electrical wires really pose a problem.

S: (laughs) It's fun. I mean, obviously crashed saucers are good for tourism. It's just silly to think there would be so many crashes.

B: How definitive would that be? Look, here is a crashed saucer—

S: Right.

B: —with all this amazing technology and materials and things. All you would need is just a tiny bit of that to get out and into the public and not hidden away into Area 51. What could you possibly say?

S: Hm-hm

B: "Here is a metal that we cannot identify. It's not on the periodic table, and we have no idea how this is made. This might be an alien artifact, then."

S: Right.

B: But just some tinfoil with weird letters on it.

P: Yeah, but Bob, they could have harvested the material from our planet millions of years ago, right? When they were colonized here. Isn't that one of the basic theories?

E: Hubbard had something to say about that.

S: When they were here building the pyramids?

P: The pyramids, that's right! I mean, this particular fellow's been communicating with them since he was thirteen.

S: Yes.

P: He says that was when white lights burst into his bedroom, entered his body, and cured him of a back injury.

E: Everyone experiences puberty in a different way. so, this was most likely.


P: What are you talking about? I got hurt in a basketball game, and they came in and they fixed it up.

S: Now, the military claims that there is a blimp in the area called the "aerostat", a tethered blimp with a radar system that they're using to detect low-flying, drug-smuggling planes. That this might actually account for a lot of the sightings in the area. Of course the UFO believers say "Ah, hah! The government has that radar system there to detect the flying saucers." There you go!

E: Yup.

P: Exactly.

S: The government; man, they have a finger in everything.

P: They do, they do.

S: So I guess we wish them luck; the Lajans, and their UFO landing strip.

P: I mean, I'll go. If one lands, I'll go.

S: Yes.

P: I'll go buy a burrito and go down there. They'll get some money out of me.

B: Steve, I thought they were "lajanites".

S: Lajanites? Lajanians?

P: Lajanians. It's true.

S: Lajaputians?


S: One of the best arguments I've heard about the whole crashed saucer thing, by the way, before we leave, was an investigator of airplane crashes who said that no matter how thoroughly destroyed a jetliner is or how long ago it has crashed, you can go to the crash site and find thousands of tiny flecks of metal; that when you basically have—

P: Really.

S: —a high-impact crash—

B: Interesting.

S: —it leaves behind lots of small debris that's there 50 years later. You can go—

P: Makes sense.

S: —to the site and they picked over the area all around where the Roswell saucer was supposed to have crashed and never found a fleck of anything.

B: Well obviously the metal is far superior—

S: Right, I mean that's the—

B: —than our cheap aluminum

S: Although the eye-witness reports are that the ship was destroyed; that it was broken apart. You can't have it both ways.

B: Sure they can.

S: You can't say it was a magical mystery metal that doesn't break, and yet it was broken apart when it crashed.

P: Well Steve, how do you know they don't use super metal that's indistinguishable from dirt?

S: Right. The unfalsifiable hypothesis.

E: I love those.

S: They're all-purpose.

E: They are iron-clad. They're just perfect.

P: It's possible.

E: Perry, anything in this universe is possible. If you try to walk through a wall a billion times, there is a slight chance one of those billion times you will not bounce off the wall.

P: Really?

B: That is true. It might take fifty octillion attempts, but theoretically, all your atoms just happen to jump in the same direction at the same time, it's possible.

P: So what you are saying is that things can be possible without being very probable.

S: Right.

B: Yes.

E: Is that what I said? Yes.

S: Hence the Infinite Improbability Drive


S: —of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There are no laws of physics keeping your underwear from simultaneously jumping three feet to the left. It's just really, really, really unlikely. On average, you'd have to wait longer than the age of the universe for something like that to happen. But it could happen.

E: It's bound to happen. (chuckles) Another 14 billions years and, hey! Who knows?

Science or Fiction (11:30)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on to Science or Fiction.

E: I vote fiction.

S: That joke is getting so old, guys. You have to give it up.

E: That's the first time I think I've said it.

S: That's true. You haven't had your turn yet. I think Perry used it a few times.

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

S: So the theme for this week is Evolution, which I thought was apropos, since it's one of the more common topics that we cover. We'll be talking about that this week, as well. Each week I will come up with three items. These are either science claims or facts or news stories. Two are real; one is made up, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to figure which one is fake. This is going to test your knowledge of evolution. I will warn you ahead of time this is a bit tricky this week.

P: Oh, good.

S: So again, the theme this week is evolution, and here are the three items: Item #1: evolution of genes related to male sexuality evolved more rapidly than non-sexual genes. In other words, genes that have something to do with male reproduction and sex, like for example, sperm or semen, evolved at a faster rate than genes that have nothing to do with male sexuality.

E: That's got to be true.

S: Hold your comments to the end.

E: All right. Sorry.

P: Certainly true in my personal case.

S: Topic #2: mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests that at one time, roughly 200,000 years ago, the human population was reduced to a single reproducing female. Topic #3: humans are continuing to evolve larger brains. Perry, why don't you go first?

P: Fine. One woman for the whole human race? I don't buy that. The sex one: maybe. Bigger brains is certainly a common belief. From what I understand, our brains are larger than any of the primates and any of our forebearers, I should say. The first one; I just don't know enough about it. The third one seems too obvious. I guess I'd have to choose the first one.

S: You think the first one's not true?

P: I'm sorry. Forgive me. I think the third one is not true.

S: The third one is not true.

P: About the brains. I do not believe we are any longer evolving larger brains. I believe the third one is not true.

S: OK. Evan?

E: I think the second one is not true.

S: OK. Any particular reason?

E: I just don't know that you can measure anything back to effectively a single host; to just one.

S: Single ancestor.

E: Right. I just think... although obviously, I wish I knew my evolutionary biology a little bit better. That one just seems a little bit more implausible to me, whereas the other two actually sound quite rational. I won't be surprised if I am wrong, but—

S: OK.

E: —I'll stick with my choice: number 2.

S: Bob?

B: I think one is false.

S: OK.

B: The mitochondrial DNA. That means it's easy to misinterpret that, especially the whole ridiculous "Eve" hypothesis, but there's something to that analysis of narrowing it down to very few people, at least the mitochondrial DNA side. The evolution of larger brains... I believe there's some recent research that points to that somehow. I forget the details, but I did read it relatively recently, so there's something to that. Although, last week if you asked me, I probably would have said no. but I think there is some research lately that kind of points in that direction. The evolution of the genes for male sexuality; I can make an argument in my head about why that would be false. I don't think genes for male sexuality need to evolve rapidly. What would evolve rapidly would be certain things that would cause women to select men to mate with them. That would be, I think, more likely to evolve more rapidly. So that's my take.

S: So Bob you choose one as false, Evan chose two as false, and Perry chose three as false.

B: Is that the first time that happened?

S: No, I think you guys have had an even split before.

B: Really?

S: This is a tricky one. I made this a little bit harder than the average one. Actually, I thought I was going to trip up Bob because a lot of the choices here are ones where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; it's likely to trip you up. Let's start. I'll just take them in order. Number one: evolution of genes related to male sexuality evolved more rapidly than non-sexual genes. That is true.

B: Why is that?

S: You alluded to sexual selection, where basically the choices that females make in terms of choosing a mate can produce very profound evolutionary selective pressure.

B: Right

S: And the reason why that can be so powerful is because reproduction is the most important aspect of Darwinian selection. If you can't reproduce, that's what it's all about. The thinking is that the same applies to reproduction in that genes which are related directly to reproduction—looking at the rate at which they change over evolutionary time by comparing related species, they show a much more rapid change in gene frequencies and mutations, etc.

B: OK.

S: So there's some recent research which supports that. This was a study published in the journal Science—I'm sorry, published in the journal Nature. The pressure on the male to find a mate and fertilize her eggs is constant. The stakes of success or failure are enormous. This is by the author Chung Wu. Presumably, genes governing male reproduction are under continuous pressure to evolve ways to out-compete other males when it comes to fathering offspring. So just greater evolutionary pressure leads to a more rapid rate of evolutionary change over time. Study published in the journal Nature. The second one: mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests that at one time roughly 200,000 years ago the human population was reduced to a single reproducing female.

B: I don't think that specific statement is true.

S: Well, it's not. That's why that's the correct answer, which Evan got right. That contains a lot of correct information, but I phrased it in a way that it is most commonly misinterpreted. Now there are several studies looking at mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is passed only from the mother's side. Most of our DNA is in the nucleus of all the cells in our body. But the mitochondria, which are the little energy factories inside all of our cells, has their own DNA, and it's a little bit different than the DNA in our nucleus. In fact...

B: It's provenance is very different.

S: Right. It's believed that this probably resulted from a sort of symbiotic union of some kind of bacteria-like cell—

B: It's fascinating.

S: —with early eukaryotic cells (nucleus-containing cells).

B: Can you imagine that? That's incredible that they would form some sort of symbiotic relationship and now, bam.

S: It's organelles. It's part of the cell.

B: Yeah, it's just a tiny machine in the cell now.

S: And the DNA actually has a different code. It has a different code than nuclear DNA.

B: It's got the uracil instead of adenine, guanine, cytosine.

S: Yeah, yeah. So it looks more like RNA than DNA, actually; but also there is what we call a trinucleotide code: three different nucleotides. There are four different nucleotides and a string of four letters, and words are three letters long, and each string of three letters equals one amino acid that build proteins by a sequence of amino acids. Every organism in the world has this same dictionary of which three letters correspond to which amino acid. Which means we all share a common ancestor who had the same code. But the mitochondria has a few differences in the codes and how they relate to amino acids. So, the organism that fused with early nucleated cells goes back even farther in the chain of life than the common ancestor of all modern life, basically. So, anyway, scientists have... It is a little bit simpler to trace the heritage of mitochondrial DNA because it only gets passed down from the mother's side. There's not a mixing of genes from mother and father, and the analysis has shown that all humans—every human being on the planet, by sampling populations around the world, by comparing mutations in the mitochondrial DNA—it's been calculated that we all share a single ancestor that lived around 200,000 years ago somewhere in Africa.

P: A single individual?

S: Yes.

B: That doesn't mean that there was only one female around.

S: Right, and that's the misconception. That's what I keyed in on. It doesn't mean that there was only one female.

P: What does it mean?

S: The reason—it just means that we all have that one female as an ancestor. It's possible we might have had a hundred females. The human race may share a hundred females or a thousand females in common as an ancestor, but over time it's possible for mitochondrial DNA lines to die out. Every time a mother bears only sons, her mitochondrial line dies out. So, what all that means is that from that period of time, which probably was a time when the human population was very small—maybe as small as two or three thousand individuals—from that very small population, the mitochondrial lines from the women in those populations, most of them died out, and one eventually dominated. And we all have—now share that mitochondrial line.

B: Well, Steve, could there also have been some selective pressure; some sort of advantage to this specific mitochondrial DNA?

S: I have not read anything that indicates that; so that's interesting speculation, but I don't know of any data that suggests that that's actually the case. It could have just been random gene sorting. It's enough to explain it. So that's wrong because it doesn't mean that there's was only one reproducing female, it just means only one mitochondrial line survived. There probably was thousands of reproducing females at that time. Topic #3: that was the one I thought was going to get everybody.

B: You would have got me if I didn't read that article.

S: I know, but that's it. But you read it, Bob. You read the same thing I read, that led to that, so I would have got you if you hadn't read it.

B: I think I would've jumped on that one, yup.

S: Yeah, I would have thought that was the fake one had I not read it. There were actually two articles published recently in the journal Science that indicate, looking at the frequency of different genes that are linked to the development of brain size, that the frequency these genes appeared in the human population, one about 30,000 years ago and one only about as recent as 5,000 years ago, and that the one that appeared 30,000 years ago already exists in 70% of the human population, and the gene, the mutation that occurred 5,000 years ago, is already present in 30% of the population. That means that they're spreading throughout the human population very rapidly, more rapidly than would occur at random, which means that there is some positive selective pressure.

B: What the hell? What is it?

S: These are genes which regulate the development of the brain, and these mutations lead to bigger brains. So this is after the appearance of homo sapiens; after the appearance of our species, mutations occurred which lead to bigger brains, and those mutations are spreading through selective pressures—

B: What's the selective pressure?

S: —throughout our population. That has not yet been established; it's a very good question. Bigger brains do not necessarily mean more intelligence—

B: Not at all.

S: —or any specific advantage. But there is the suggestion that it must; there must be some advantage. There must be some evolutionary pressure for these genes. The bigness may be a red herring. Maybe they have some protective effect.

B: Right.

E: Was there a time in history when it was more rapidly developing and now it's beginning to plateau?

S: The thinking was that once we got to the point that we were homo sapiens, that we've been stable for the last 200,000 years. This suggests that in that time we have continued to evolve, and through selective pressures, and one of those directions has been towards favoring genes that promote larger brains. It's very interesting; very interesting research. I don't know if this is continuing in the last couple of hundred years, since modern medicine and modern culture. But certainly since the arrival of homo sapiens we have continued to evolve larger brains.

P: Could be punctuated like has been theorized?

S: Well, you're talking about Gould and his theory of punctuated equilibrium? Which basically says that species are very stable over millions of years and then significant evolutionary changes occur—

P: In a spurt.

S: —very rapidly in a spurt, which can be as short as 5,000 years, which is a blink in an eye in terms of geologically. But even Gould admitted that although that may be a dominant pattern of evolution, there still are slow, more classically Darwinian changes that have been documented in the fossil record. I think that when we look at population genetics, the propagation of a gene through a population, that occurs in a more classically Darwinian way, basically a slow steady change over time, not a sudden change. So, Evan gets the point for this week.

E: All right.

S: Those were admittedly tricky. You guys thought your way through them pretty well. Bob had just read the same study that I did.

P: I was a little distracted, so can't count mine.

B: I wished I asked you to repeat the second one.

S: I thought you would pick up on that, but I said it very clearly, but I warned you that it would be very tricky.

B: It's funny because as you said it, I remember thinking "wait, have him repeat that", and then I just went off on a tangent and forgot to ask you to repeat it.

S: Well...

B: Oh, well.

E: Well, Bob, I'm sure had you looked up in your creationists sources, it would have fully explained the answer for you. So you should have that handy.

B: It's interesting because Bob alluded to the "Eve" hypothesis, that the scientists have called this alleged common female ancestor "Eve", and the creationists keyed in on that—

B: Oh, yeah.

S: —and distorted it out of all—saying, "oh look, scientists are saying that we all descended from one woman called Eve", as if that somehow supports Young Earth Creationism.

Intelligent Design Update (27:48)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on to a brief update of our favorite topic: "Intelligent Design and Creationism". There are a number of important landmark trials involving Intelligent Design that we like to keep our listeners up to date on. Again, for those listening, Intelligent Design is the idea that life on Earth is too complicated to have evolved by random, blind natural forces; that the complexity of life implies an intelligent designer. Basically, these are the arguments of good old fashioned creationism. In fact, they are literally 150 years old, these arguments, just repackaged—

B: Argument from ignorance.

S: —for this specific purpose of finding their way into academia and public school education.

P: Steve, why don't you remind the audience again what the difference is between Creationism and Intelligent Design. A lot of people confuse them.

S: It's our opinion, the opinion of scientists, that there really isn't a real difference. Creationism is basically the idea that God created the Earth and life on Earth and evolution did not occur. Although there are different flavors of Creationism, all the way from Young Earth Creationists, who think that the world was created completely less than 10,000 years ago, and that life was created pretty much as it is right now. There are those who think that some evolution may have occurred, but that God created the basic forms of life and they may have evolved from there. There are others who think that evolution occurred but it was guided by God. So there's a broad spectrum of creationism, but it's essentially any belief of a divine creative force resulting in life, or some degree of denial of the science of evolution. Now Intelligent Design, again, is basically Creationism, but they are—

B: In a cheap tuxedo.

S: —in a cheap tuxedo, right.

B: Whose quote was that?

S: I forget who that was quoted; some scientist. But basically what they did was they took the claims of Creationism and they removed any overt reference to God or religion and replaced that with this coy concept of a "intelligent designer", who, let's face it, we all know is G-O-D, specifically to get Creationism taught in public schools by saying this is a science; it's not religion; it's not creationism. It's a hypothesis about the origin of life based upon scientific arguments. The problem with it is that it is not science. That you can't test or falsify the intelligent design hypothesis because they basically say that the intelligent designer could have designed life to look like anything; to look like what it looks like. You can't make a statement to the effect of "if an intelligent designer designed or created life, it should have these features or it should look like this." They do not allow any such statements; that's sort of reading the mind of the intelligent designer. If you can't make those kind of statements, and you can't even in theory falsify the intelligent design hypothesis, therefore it's not science. And regardless what you think about its religious implications, it does not belong in a science curriculum, science textbook, or a science classroom, period.

E: Well it's good to see that the people who are pro-science are now challenging this in court.

S: Yes. So there are a number of court cases going on as well as public school boards having hearings about whether or not they should introduce intelligent design into their science classrooms. The one that's going on as we speak is in Dover, Pennsylvania, and here the Dover School Board in January voted... well, they voted previously and in January, intelligent design was introduced into their science classrooms along with statements about their claim that "evolution is just a theory", and it's not a fact, and they think that intelligent design is a scientific alternative that the children need to be told about. Well, parents of children in the school system have sued the school board for violating their constitutional rights and essentially for violating the separation of church and state by teaching religion in public schools.

E: They took them into a federal court.

S: Well, it's gotten its way up. So this is the first time that the teaching of intelligent design is being challenged in a court. So this is why there is a lot of attention being paid to this. Creationism has lost this legal fight at multiple levels—

E: In the '80s. For many years.

S: Occasionally, through the '80s into the '90s. Hence, the creation of intelligent design. Now they're coming around again. So this is critical. We really do have to hope that the judge sees through the smoke screen.

B: How far do you think it will go?

S: Well, if it loses at this level, it will go higher. It may find its way all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has heard—

E: I wouldn't be surprised.

S: —such cases. I don't think they have ever refused to hear such cases when the decision has gone against teaching evolution or in favor of teaching creationism, so hopefully they will hear the case if it gets to that point. Right now, it's in a US District Court, District Judge John E. Jones III is presiding over the case. Basically, he's going to decide it on two points: is the text of the intelligent design content overtly religious—

B: Uh-oh.

S: —and if he does not think its religious, then he will consider what the intent of the text was. If the intent was to support religion, then he can strike it down—

B: OK.

S: —on that case. So that may be what it comes to.

B: Right. The first point doesn't look good; the second one does.

S: Now, interestingly, a lot of the board members who are giving testimony are really shooting themselves in the foot. Let me read you some quotes here, which are just wonderful. I mean they really—

B: Great!

S: One said, this is Callahan... this is Board member Bonzell saying "if evolution was part the biology curriculum, creationism should be shared 50-50." "Creationism" specifically, not "intelligent design."

E: Right.

B: A slip of the lip.

S: "'Bonzell wants students to hear about Creationism, the Biblical account of the Earth's origins', testified Eroleen Callahan, a parent and former school board member." So this is the parent who raises the complaint, testifying that the board member is specifically interested in having the Biblical account of earth's origin taught in public schools.

B: These people weren't prepped by the lawyers, were they?

E: I find it interesting, so much that it is being taught in public schools, but it is being taught as science. Why aren't they trying to instead create either a new elective course in their curriculum called "Studies in Theology" or something to that effect; something where this perhaps a more appropriate arena for the idea of intelligent design. But no, they have to really try to shove it into a science curriculum, and really for what can only be determined in the purpose is to try to bring down science. It's an attack; it's a direct attack, and the way they go about is so blatant.

P: Evan, if they give way and say it's not science, then I think that they've lost. I think they know that. They can't give way on this.

S: Mm-hm.

P: They have to stand firm. They can't give way.

E: For some reason they can't exist in a world with both science and faith coexisting, separate; yet being able to embrace both. They have to use one against the other, and I just find that really underhanded.

P: I think they view science as a systematic attack on their faith. I think they see it as dissembling.

S: Yeah, because it does not allow supernatural explanations for the natural world. They want to change science so that it allows the introduction of supernatural hypotheses as explanations, which of course is incompatible with the methods of science by definition, which is what they don't understand. Some of the testimony given—witnesses gave testimony that some of the board members in question—this one man named Buckingham said that "somebody needed to take a stand for Jesus." And his wife Charlotte quoted Old Testament verses during public board meetings, one plaintiff testified. There seems to be a lot of evidence that the proponents of Intelligent Design on this school board do have an overtly religious agenda.

B: Well, that's kind of stupid of them. I mean, they're not on the same page as at least the people that are trying to be a little more subtle about it. You know what I mean? They're just totally showing their hand.

S: Mm-hmm.

B: I mean you think somebody would have instructed them "do not mention... you know... anything overtly religious".

S: This is during school board meetings, not during the trial. Witnesses are basically—

B: Oh.

S: —saying during school board meetings is where these issues came up; these are the kind of statements they were talking about. So this is getting to their intent. If they're supporting intelligent design because "somebody's got to stand up for Jesus", that pretty clearly establishes their intent, which hopefully the judge, if he believes that is credible, it seems pretty clear that he would have to decide that the intent here is to promote religion, which of course it is.

E: Is a lot this going to come down to what Judge Jones's personal beliefs are? Is he really going to make a ruling based on what's in his heart instead of trying to uphold the law?

S: It's going to come to those two points. Is the text religious, or was the intent religious? Not what he believes, but what was the intent of the school board.

E: You would hope so.

S: If the intent was to promote religion, then it gets struck down, period. In the face of that kind of testimony, I don't know how—of course, we are not privy to the entire trial, but those snapshots certainly do seem to establish that the intent of the school board was religious.

B: But Steve, will he even hear those quotes?

S: This was already given as testimony. The witnesses—this was the testimony given in court. Basically, witnesses saying these school board members said these things during meetings. This is on the record as testimony.

B: Good guess.

S: So we'll see, but it certainly would be a triumph if it gets struck down. And if not, I predict it will go to a higher level and work its way up to the State Supreme Court and to the federal Supreme Court if necessary. So far, it's gotten struck down at that level every time.

E: Right, well it's going to be interesting—it will also be interesting to see now how it plays out in the coming months, but I think eventually there will come a time especially if it does continue to suffer defeats in courts, they will try to come up with another term in five years, six years, eight years.

S: Yeah, it will not go away.

B: It will never go away.

E: They will come up with something else and they will do it all over again.

S: And they'll hope for a time when they have Supreme Court justices that are amenable to their point of view.

P: Have these Supremes spoken to this matter already?

S: On prior cases, which are virtually identical except the labeling is different, dealing with "Creationism" not "Intelligent Design", Scalia and Thomas essentially voted to allow the teaching of Creationism in public schools, mainly on the justification of State's Rights and that the Constitution doesn't specifically prohibit it. Rehnquist also did—he passed away so he's not on the Court anymore. We don't know basically how Roberts will come down on such issues; it remains to be seen. And the moderate and liberal justices voting that this is a violation of the separation clause; the First Amendment; the separation of Church and State by trying to use federal and state public resources to teach religion in public schools. A lot of these votes have split 5-4, which is scary. 5-4 is a close vote.

B: Wow! That's beyond—

E: Tenuous.

S: So it's not inconceivable in our lifetime there will be a court that might vote 5-4 the other way, which would be a total disaster. Imagine if the Supreme Court said it's OK to teach Creationism in public schools.

(multiple voices)

E: I guess you just avoid those states at that point. Any chance of that happening here in Connecticut, Steve? Have there been cases in Connecticut regarding this? None that I can think of.

S: None that I—and I try to keep an eye out for these things. None that has ever come to my attention. The northeast intends to be fairly intellectual and liberal. This is ghost country, not creationism country, basically.

E: (chuckles) Right. It's a different game up here.

S: It's a different game, right. So creationism really hasn't penetrated. I mean, it has gotten in Pennsylvania and New York. There have been motions. Obviously, this case is occurring in Pennsylvania. Not in New England, as far as I'm aware. There may have been some time over the last 50 years, but it certainly is not common.

E: Yeah, I was trying to think of it.

P: Unsurprisingly, the hotbed is the Bible Belt.

Katrina Myths and Conspiracies (42:25)[edit]

S: Well, in other matters, we are a few weeks after the Katrina hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans. And on the heels of that was a second hurricane, although not as devastating, Hurricane Rita. Natural disasters, or really any major disaster event like this, often spawns myths and conspiracies, and Katrina was no exception. I think the funniest thing I was sent—Evan, you sent this in: a forecaster, a weather forecaster, by the name of Scott Stevens, who was a weatherman in Idaho, and by all accounts, on camera he was just like any other meteorologist—

E: Right.

S: —he told the weather and nothing unusual. But it turns out that he has an interesting sideline. You want to tell us about it, Evan?

E: Yeah, if I can remember what that was.

S: You don't have it in front of you?

E: I don't have it in front of me, but he has a interesting theory, that he is off now pursuing, that the hurricanes are directly caused by the Japanese mafia—what are they called?

S: The Yakuza.

E: The Yakuza. The Yakuza took some Russian-built technology to actually form the hurricanes to hit the United States. And do you know why they sent the hurricanes over to try to devastate the United States? I'll tell you why.

S: Go ahead.

E: In retaliation for our dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

S: Of course. Why else? So the Japanese mafia created Katrina and sent it against the United States for revenge.

E: That's correct. They used Russian-built technology to do so.

S: Right.

B: So they created...

S: So this guy—this meteorologist believes this.

B: This guy's a meteorologist?

S: Yes.

B: So basically, they learned how to create a tropical depression off of Africa—the coast of Africa and kind of figure out—

S: Interesting.

B: —that, OK, this particular depression is going to become extremely powerful and head right for the southern United States. I can't believe he means it.

S: Well, I mean—

(multiple voices)

E: I don't know if they specifically said New Orleans or that area, the Gulf Coast; it started in the Atlantic, and, sure enough, by the time it hit somewhere in the United States, it would be a category 4 or category 5 hurricane and cause devastation wherever it possibly could.

S: Now of course, this guy's been getting a lot of exposure in the media, because the media likes to focus on extreme nut cases, as opposed to say, the mainstream scientific view of things. In fact, he quit his job as a newscaster, as a meteorologist, because his plate was full; he was so busy with requests for interviews. He was on Coast to Coast, which is the radio show of Art Bell, which is the late-night conspiracy, paranormal show. He was also—

P: That show's still on? Do you know?

S: Apparently, yeah.

P: It is? OK.

S: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was also on Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.

B: Oh.

S: Bill O'Reilly had this guy on as a guest. Can you imagine?

E: Oh, a new low.

B: What was O'Reilly's take?

S: I didn't see it. Perry, you watched it.

P: I often do, but unfortunately I must have missed that night.

E: I missed that one.

S: You didn't catch that one. I hope he gave him a hard time, but I mean—still, why does this guy deserve to be on a national—

P: It's a good, good question.

S: —show like that.

E: I mean, is the news world that slow that they have to have this otherwise insane person?

P: Well, I mean... it depends. They go for sensationalism. Along the same lines, Louis Farrakhan said that "divers" have found evidence of explosives by the levees in New Orleans. And that was on—O'Reilly reported on that. He said because they were trying to flood out the black people and take the city back for the whites.

S: Mm-hm.

P: I mean, they report it. At least Farrakhan is in the public eye. This other guy, he was on TV. Maybe that was enough. Even though it was local television, maybe that was enough.

E: Boy. Or just the crazier things you have to say, the more notoriety you get nowadays.

P: Maybe.

E: Kind of sad.

P: Maybe.

S: This guy has his own website,, where you can read all about how the Japanese Yakuza created Katrina.

P: Dot-info? I never heard of dot-info before.


P: Forget the website, but that's interesting.

B: Should be dot-C-R-A-P

S: Yeah.

E: That's coming soon.

P: Dot-L-O-O-N.


E: You, know. I don't know.

S: He says: "it has been established that the former Soviet Union developed and boasted of weather modification technology during the '60s and '70s with deployment against the United States coming in 1976."

E: Boy.

S: "These weather operations continue to this day." How does this guy know about it and the media of the world doesn't know about it?

B: What a great weapon that would make.

E: To control the weather? My goodness, yes. Oh, yes, it would be tremendous.

S: He also believes in chemtrails. Chemtrails are interesting. You know, you look up in the sky and see these... what look like the exhaust from jetliners—

E: Oh, no.

S: —streaking across the sky. No, no, no. These are chemtrails. These are the government poisoning people.

E: Boy. If you collected all the stories of what the government does and covers up; I mean, this is the most evil conception of a government that's ever existed in the history of modern civilization, I guess.

S: This guy thinks that if you look up in the sky, the evidence that humans are controlling the weather is unavoidable. This is obvious and there for anyone to see.

B: I can't believe he's got a doctorate in meteorology.

S: I can't believe this guy functions in everyday life.

E: OK, Steve; so how would you diagnose this patient?

S: (laughs) I don't make remote diagnoses.

B: Crazy!

S: One can only speculate about the...

E: Tell you what; let's not talk about this guy in particular, Steve. A person with the same qualities would be described as... what?

S and E: Delusional.

S: He's delusional, yeah.

E: Maybe a little bipolar thrown in there for good measure, maybe a little...

S: No, that's different. Bipolar's a mood disorder. He has a thought disorder.

P: Well, you know, the whole—

S: Look up in the sky. Look at clouds and you see human control of the weather. You have some thought problems.

P: You know, when I was a young skeptic, I used to always—the question would always rush to my mind whenever I encountered or read about a credulous person. I'd say "Are they full of baloney, and they know it, or are they true believers?" And really what I found, as I've been involved in skepticism over the years, is it's a continuum. It's a huge gray area, and people fall all over it. A certain percentage of true belief, a certain percentage of "they know it's nonsense," a certain percentage of "they just need it to be true."

E: Fool or fraud spectrum.

P: It really is, and Joe Nickell's discussions on the fantasy-prone personality. It's definitely a spectrum. It's not black and white like I used to think.

S: Here he pulls a quote out of an article. Quoting Khrushchev as saying, "The weapon we have today in the hatching stage is even more perfect and even more formidable. The weapon, which is being developed and is, as they say, in the portfolio of our scientists and designers, is a fantastic weapon." Well, obviously, he is talking about weather control.

E: Doomsday device.

S: So, again, he has these sort of vague statements, or statements which are not particular to the thing that he is talking about. Khrushchev making intimidating statements about them having a fantastic weapon. And to him, this relates directly to weather control. I mean, it's nonsense.

B: Don't you think they could actually make Siberia a little warmer, or just sell the technology? "We guarantee you will not have rain during this period of time." They could make a lot of money with this weather modification technology. They don't have to destroy, they could also...

E: They could conquer.

B: They could make millions.

E: More than that; they could seize control of parts of the Earth if they really wanted to and have means to do so.

S: How did the Yakuza get their hands on it?

E: Now, that's the real mystery, I guess. Yeah. I wonder how that leads into his delusion. That is very interesting. You don't think of the Japanese mafia—

S: Right.

E: —when you are thinking of Mafias in general, I'd say.

S: I didn't read deep enough into his article. Let me see if I can find it quickly, but I'm sure there was something taken completely out of context, which makes some tenuous link to the Yakuza and there you go.

B: He's got pictures of clouds here with arrows everywhere pointing out these things. I'm not seeing anything. And his descriptions are kind of out there.

S: There's also a lot of rumors that have been spread about Katrina, and again, in the face an event like this, not only do the nut cases come out of the woodwork, but the rumor mills start. Now I read some of these in mainstream media outlets, and they were reported as genuine without any skepticism. Some newspapers reported that there were sharks swimming in the flood waters in the middle of the street.

E: I read that.

S: Sharks from Lake Pontchartrain were swimming through the streets of New Orleans. That's totally fake. That New Orleans was essentially overrun by marauding hordes of armed thugs, hijacking cars, shooting at helicopters, and killing police officers. And again, that was completely overblown. There was some looting that occurred, but that was it. There were—and this is the one I heard, that there was a 10-year old girl that was raped in the Superdome.

E: Seven-year-old girl, I think it was.

S: That was not true. Another report was a seven-year old. But there were violent gangs roaming the Superdome raping little children. That there were bodies piled up in the freezers below the convention center.

E: Well you know, the media is being taken to task very harshly this week, and appropriately, finally—

S: Yes.

E: —for these outlandish panicked reports. Basically, they took anything and everything they heard and they decided to throw it up there to see what would possibly stick. I guess not caring if—what the fallout was going to be or what or how it would pan out to be true or false a few weeks later. Not surprisingly, these stories, most of them, if not almost all of them, have no basis in fact. And, you know what? The media is very culpable and responsible for a lot of these problems that we see, especially when it comes to the themes that we speak about regarding hoaxes, superstitions, and rumors and total falsehoods about these massive news events. They should be taken to task. They should be taken to task very harshly.

S: Right.

E: It's good to finally see that happening this week.

S: Well, here's a good quote by David Emory, who is an expert on urban legends. He says "if you think about the conditions the victims of Katrina endured, the stress and fear must have been unimaginable. When real news isn't available, rumors percolate to fill the gap. People start conjecturing." So that's what happens. You have a chaotic, stressful situation. There was a paucity of verifiable information, and the rumor mill filled the gap. That's understandable. That's what happens, and we know the average person is fairly gullible about such things. But the thing that really is inexcusable is the press being gullible. They're supposed to have some—

E: That's right.

S: —filter in place where they check sources before they print something as true or report something on air as true. But they really did a horrible job with Katrina. They are getting a lot of deserved criticism. Hopefully, this will shed some light on really how low quality the media is in general. Again, most people are mediocre at what they do, by definition.

E: Competent and adequate.

S: So most journalists are mediocre, and they will do a mediocre job of things. But when you have a profession, you'd like to have the minimal level of quality of the mediocre professional be sufficiently high. And I think that the profession of journalism in this country needs to take their quality up a couple of notches. I think that the average journalist is not skeptical enough; they don't check their sources well enough; they're repeatedly easily duped. I'm reminded of—

E: That goes for their bosses, too.

S: It goes all the way up. It goes all the way up. I'm reminded of a great hoax pulled off by James Randi.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: Do you guys know what I'm talking about?

B: Umm?

E: Uhhh. Where's my book? Carlos, thank you.

S: Carlos. Yes, Carlos. So Randi briefly trained one of his protegés to pretend to be a psychic, and he pretended to be a psychic named "Carlos". They sort of prepped the Australian media with reports about Carlos's incredible history of successes, his appearances on radio and television shows, and... in preparation for his trip, Carlos traveled to Australia, was greeted as a celebrity, made the rounds on all the talk shows, pulled off a few parlor tricks. The one I remember he did was he was able to will his radial pulse, his pulse at the wrist to stop.

E: No.

S: You remember how he did that?

P: I don't recall.

S: He appears to go into a trance while you have somebody—the news reporter or somebody you are duping—feeling his pulse, and as he does that, his pulse goes away! His arm becomes dusky. It's again, like all magician tricks, it's so ridiculously easy, you'll hit yourself on the forward when you hear it. It seems really amazing, but all he did—he had a tennis ball under his armpit, and he squeezed it and cut off his circulation.

B: Beautiful!

S: That's it! It so ridiculously simple, but it completely fooled the people who were there. The Australian press, almost unanimously, accepted the press releases and stories hook, line, and sinker.

E: Without checking a source.

S: Without checking. The sources were all fabricated. The radio stations didn't exist. The calendar days that were given were wrong. In other words, the days of the week and the date did not match up. They didn't check the basic facts of the stories that were handed to them. They presented it completely gullibly, and every time we try to do that to the press, it succeeds. The basic level of quality is too low, and I think Katrina really showed that quite a bit, and I hope that... they are getting the criticism, and I hope that it leads to something; some kind of self-criticism. We'll see.

E: The dollar, the mighty dollar still drives the businesses, and so long as they don't lose any of their numbers and advertising dollars, it's going to go on the same.

S: Not only that, but that goes to ratings. So I guess maybe the public will be more discriminating in how they consume journalism, and maybe we'll demand a higher quality. I don't know.

E: As a fellow skeptic, Steve, when we have to put our faith in the collective minds of the public, (chuckles) we are often let down. We are often let down.

S: That's true.

P: With criticizing this coverage, have any of you also heard the accusations by black activists—several of them: Charlie Rangel, Sharpton—that during the coverage of Katrina, when black people were shown with merchandise it was called "looting", and when white people were shown with merchandise, it was called "searching for food." The coverage was slanted like that. I've heard this accusation now half a dozen times. I watched almost non-stop coverage of that.

E: As did I. That Labor Day weekend.

P: See, because my wife has family there, of the hurricane. And, if it happened, it escaped my—I realize I'm just a "whitey"—but it escaped my detection. Do you think it's true? I certainly haven't seen any—

S: I don't know. It's the first I'm hearing of it. Yeah, I don't know. But that's at the plausible end of the spectrum of the claims that are being made. At the other end of the spectrum are blowing up the levees deliberately to murder all the poor, black people in New Orleans. Or, the more common one that George Bush was slow to respond to this because he didn't—

E: Right.

S: —care about black people, or about poor people. Again, when you are contemplating these kinds of conspiracies, even—this is kind of a soft conspiracy where there didn't have to be any planning or strategy meeting. There could have just been sort of an implicit conspiracy of no one's really going to be too quick to respond to this disaster because we all know that it's not important, but the vastly more likely and simpler explanation is—

P: Of course!

S: —mere incompetence. Incompetence is always the simplest and most likely explanation for these things. That's all. But how you interpret the motivations of others has to do a lot with your perspective. Unfortunately, it often is just confirmation bias.

E: Right.

S: It confirms what you already believe, rather than looking at it from a more objective point of view.

E: Most people can't do it; don't do it. They're not practiced at it. Takes practice.

S: And a certain amount of insight and awareness and... I think we learn—

E: And science.

S: —these principles by examining—certainly by learning science but also by examining some of the more ridiculous paranormal claims. But then, those principles can be applied to more everyday things, like the way the media covered Katrina, and do we think there really was some kind of conspiracy within the federal government not to rescue those people.

P: I think the fact they blew up the levees is pretty straight-forward, Steve. I think that's powerful.

S: Right. It just amazes me that people can believe that. They really think that somebody—again, we talked about this a couple of weeks ago. We talked about 9/11 conspiracy theories, that the people who believe that are really de-personalizing the people that they are thinking did this. They really are thinking of people as these sort of abstract entities. Seriously, who is going to plant dynamite in a levee and blow it up to flood a city to kill people, just out of naked racism. Who—

E: And coordinate it and time it so that a category-5 hurricane, when it reaches landfall, you time it exactly. Or just shortly after its initial impact.

P: It's the genius of it. The hurricane disguises it.

E: That is. It's the perfect disguise.

P: What do you mean, "who"? The President, Steve; he's got it right; he's got all the strings; all the buttons. The President.

S: It's just ridiculous to think—

E: More than one person.

S: —that he would do this.

B: Say you could prove—say you could show this guy is a racist or whatever. Just say someone had the desire and the hatred; still, I can't imagine them pulling it off. Could you imagine if the desire was even there?

S: Right.

B: And he could do something like that, I guess. But just would he? Would he do it? Even given that, which is an immense stretch as it is.

S: Right.

B: I mean, you'd have to be psychotic to think: "Yeah, I'll get away with this."

S: Right. Think about the political enemies that George W. Bush has. They're extreme and motivated. They hate him. If there were any way they could bring evidence to bear that there was an actual conspiracy, especially something as concrete as blowing up the levees; believe me, we'd hear about it.

B: That's all we would hear, Steve. That's all we would hear.

S: But that's because—

E: That's all we'd hear about.

P: From Condi Rice.

S: When I brought that point up in the past—when I have brought that point up in the past about George Bush conspiracies, not about Katrina, about other things—and I say, what about all his political enemies? Why would Kennedy not go after him for this? They say "well, he's too intimidated by Bush's power and reach."


S: Intimidated by George W. Bush? I mean, give me a break! It's just ridiculous. But that's the world these people have to live in in order to maintain these conspiracy fantasies. It boggles the mind.

E: Fantasyland. Once you visit it, you never want to go back.

S: (laughs)

E: I guess. Who knows?

S: Well, I'm sure we haven't heard the end of the Katrina conspiracies, just like we haven't heard the end of the 9/11 conspiracies. Every time something like this happens, the more ridiculous stories will be generated, and we'll hear about it. I'm sure that the press will give these stories a hearing, either because the press is gullible and doesn't do their homework, or because they know it's BS but it's—

E: Or a combination of both.

S: –good journalism. It's not good journalism; sorry, it's good entertainment.

E: Combination of both.

S: It's good television. I've had TV news producers basically tell me that when dealing with anything in the realm of the paranormal, the normal rules of good journalism don't apply. These are fluff pieces to them. They don't have to give both sides, let alone give the scientific or skeptical side at all. They can just completely, credulously showcase the gullible or the paranormal side, and then "let the audience decide for themselves." That's their justification for doing that. But they would never do that if they were covering a political issue. Can you imagine covering like just the Republican point of view and not covering the Democratic point of view at all and say "we're going to just let the viewer make up their mind for themselves. We don't have to present both sides." It's nonsense! But that's their view, that paranormal topics are fluff that can be treated without any journalistic integrity.

E: Very dangerous. Very dangerous. They obviously don't understand the serious side to that.

S: Right; they don't know the implications of it. Well, that's were we come in, I guess. That's the job for the skeptical press is to fill that void.

E: Yeah, continue to hold the ocean back with a broom, we do.

P: Fingers in the dike.

E: (laughs)

S: Right. Well, that is all the time we have for this week. It always goes by quickly. Thanks for joining us again, and thank you, guys: Bob, Perry, Evan.

E: Thank you, Steve.

P: See you all next week.

B: See you next week.

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

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

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Human brains are evolving to get larger[2]
  • Male sex genes evolve more quickly than non-sexual genes[3]
  • Every time a woman has only male children, her mitochondrial line dies out


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