SGU Episode 1

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SGU Episode 1
May 4th 2005

In the spring of 2005 during their mating season, toads in Germany and Denmark began exploding.

SGU 1                      SGU 2

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis

Quote of the Week

I believe in truth and the pursuit of truth.

Errol Morris, American film director

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


S: Hello and welcome to this week's show, the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is May 4th, 2005. I'm your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me, as always is Perry DeAngelis...

P: Hello.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Hello everyone.

S: And my skeptical brothers Bob Novella...

B: Hellooooo.

S: And Jay Novella.

J: It's great to be here.

News Items[edit]

NPR's "What I Believe" (0:42)[edit]

S: On this weekly skeptical podcast, or skepticast as we call it, we talk about all things paranormal, controversial, pseudo-scientific, fringe science, the border-lands of science, we cover it all. So, about a few days ago, I was listening to NPR, and they have a new program that they're doing called "What I Believe" [sic], and it's essays by famous people talking about what they believe most. And by coincidence I was thinking if I had to sum up what I believe in a sentence, I would say that I believe in truth. And just as I was thinking that, this week's essayist opened up by saying, "I believe in truth and the pursuit of truth", which I thought was not only coincidental but perfect. The essayist turned out to be Errol Morris. You all remember who this is?

B: No, not at all.

E: Can't say I do.

S: Errol Morris is the writer and director of the movie The Thin Blue Line.

P: Ah.

B: He directed it as well?

S: Writer and director, yes.

B: OK.

S: What followed was actually quite a good essay on the nature of truth, the fact that the truth does...

P: What's The Thin Blue Line about?

S: The Thin Blue Line is a movie about a convicted person who Morris believed may have been innocent, so he essentially reinvestigated the case. Investigated the evidence that the police used and the attorneys used to convict him.

P: It's a documentary

S: It's a documentary, and the movie ultimately led to the release of this person from prison. So I thought it was interesting because Morris pretty eloquently summed up the skeptical philosophy, you know, the truth is out there, but the way to the truth is through careful logic and investigation. We can't know metaphysical certitude, Truth with a capital T, but we can come up with answers and some answers are better than others. And that, to me, is what this show is really all about. We're going to investigate and explore interesting, again, paranormal, pseudo-scientific ideas and claims and try to see where logic and the evidence takes us. And certainly we do believe that some answers are better than others.

Exploding Toads Baffle Scientists (3:17)[edit]

S: So, did any of you read any of the news articles this week about the exploding toads in Germany.[2]

B: I read that.

E: Yes.

S: It's interesting, I read about 20 of them, and they were almost all word-for-word the same, I think there was one article written about it and all of the papers were just pulling the same article off the APS. It's typical. So, apparently in a pond in a city just north of Hamburg, hundreds or maybe as many as 1000 or so toads have been observed to swell to enormous proportions and then just explode. Their guts simply fly out of them up to a metre, according to reports.

P: Yummy

S: Interestingly, almost every headline was the same, exploding toads baffle experts. Or some permutation of that. Experts are always baffled, I notice, they're never confused or... they're always baffled.

J: yeah it paints the picture like these scientists in lab coats running around with no idea what's going on.

S: No idea what's going on. They trump up the mystery element of it.

E: The Keystone Cops of scientists, picture that.

S: The conspiracy theorists and paranormal theorists were making light of it as well. A few people were talking about, speculating about government experiments or whatnot, but they really didn't touch this one too much. I guess it'll take them some time to weave some tales about the exploding toads. So we'll see what emerges over the next week, but it was an interesting piece. The scientists do not have a good explanation for this so far. The working hypothesis is that they're suffering from a viral infection.

J: That does seem to make the most sense. Obviously there's nothing supernatural going on, and I haven't heard anyone make the claim that it is something outside the bounds of what we would consider to be explainable.

B: yeah.

J: But the thing is, the thing that troubles me about the whole exploding frog thing is that the media is trying to sensationalise it and no-one really has anything to make it sensational other than the fact that these animals are blowing up.

E: I liken it to the quandary or puzzle, years and years ago, when they said that scientists could not explain how a bumble bee flies. I heard that for many years, that story, until eventually I think in the early 1990s or mid 1990s a scientist eventually did come up with the explanation for it, and it was physics, there was nothing supernatural about it. I kind of liken it to that.

B: I mean how often have you heard people use that expression to try to justify their super-human feats or super-normal paranormal feats? "Well, you know scientists can't even prove that a bumblebee can fly, therefore I can do X", you know, it's an easy way to justify their incredible, supposed abilities.

S: And what do we call that logical fallacy?

E: Right, that's a logical fallacy.

B: That's the argument from ignorance.

S: The argument from ignorance, and that is number 2 on our top-20 list of logical fallacies. Ad ignorantiam, so we keep score on the Skeptics' Guide to a logical fallacies, we have our top 20 logical fallacies on our website, which you can find at The argument from ignorance. So we can't explain how something works, therefore you can't prove that it's not true, therefore it must be true.

B: Yeah.

S: It's unknown, therefore it's what we want it to be.

B: Well the other wrinkle that is kind of implied is that somehow, since the bumblebee does not know, that scientists can't explain it, that somehow it's able to transcend the laws of nature and go beyond them with this ability. It doesn't know that physics says that it can't fly so therefore it's going to fly anyway, just with pure force of will.

P: Even just using 10% of their brains.


B: Yeah right

S: Well I think the implication is that scientists don't really know anything, that the fact that scientists cannot explain something doesn't mean that it's not true. It's basically just meant to say that science is not a good means to judge whether or not something is likely to be true or not. Which of course...

P: Unexplained does not mean unexplainable.

S: Well, that's right, which is another logical fallacy.

B: Here's the classic example, though. Back in, oh I don't know, was it the 70s or the 80s when pyramids were really big, a lot of people were saying, well look at this pyramid, look at the architecture. Nobody could possibly imagine that they could have achieved this, therefore aliens must have helped them.

S: Right

E: Right

B: And everyone believed it, books were written about it. Aliens help Egyptians construct the pyramids. Because they couldn't conceive of the way it was done.

J: The aliens didn't help them?


B: and of course right around the time that was happening, they actually did determine a lot of the techniques that must have been used to construct the pyramids and it faded away.

S: right, right.

B: And that's how it is with a lot of things.

J: Well I find that a lot of times when something isn't explained, you know, to science's satisfaction, first of all, a lot of people, they like that idea. Also, that they'll immediately jump to the most bizarre explanation, it's not like, OK, well we can't think of a reasonable way how they built these pyramids so therefore it has to be something that is just so far out of the universe that it's... that you know they bring in aliens for example, is a very common thing people do whenever something is unexplainable. And for me, the alien explanation is probably one of the most absurd because you're making a gigantic claim.

S: You're introducing a huge new assumption to the equation.

P: Yeah, it totally insults our Occam's razor.

S: Right, right.

B: Right.

S: It is a violation of Occam's razor to introduce new elements. The other point of logic that I think, the bigger point of logic that ties all of this together is that there are different kinds of arguments and evidence that one can bring to bear on any claim. And you could think of them generally as negative arguments or positive arguments, or negative evidence vs positive evidence. And negative evidence, not knowing how something does work, or absence of evidence for a specific phenomenon is always the weaker form of evidence, and it's always suspect, it always has a question mark next to it. Again, not knowing how the Egyptians built the pyramids and therefore using that to speculate, or to conclude, even worse, that therefore they used psychic energy or aliens helped them or there was another ancient race that built it, whatever the belief is that you fill in the gap, that's always very, an inherently very weak style of argument. As opposed to having positive evidence that aliens actually existed and were here and participated in the construction of the pyramids.

E: Well I think we can agree that the media's pretty weak when it comes to understanding science, basically. Basic science.

S: Unfortunately.

E: Very weak.

J: You have to always consider the idea that the media is driven by sales.

E: Oh yes.

J: It's a business. And anything that has to do with, as far as magazines or publications, any kind of mass-produced media is to me very untrustworthy, because it boils down to somebody's income.

P: The point is though, Jay, is the, you know most people get their information from the mass media. That's why it's mass. You simple have got to have in place the appropriate filters so that when this information that's flooding in to you, and it's an ever-increasing volume day by day, you have to have the appropriate filters to be able to listen to the information and dissect it in a proper way.

S: Yeah, right.

J: It's a good point.

P: And filter out the nonsense and determine what is most likely true.

S: What Carl Sagan called the Baloney Detector.

P: Exactly, and that's one of the things we hope to do here.

B: It's critical thinking skills, something they don't teach in school. Just rote-memorization, and they don't teach kids how to think.

P: And one of things we're going to try and do at the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is hone your Baloney Detector.

S: Right, right.

Reverse-Engineering UFO Technology (12:00)[edit]

S: Another interesting piece, talking about sensationalism in the media, what do you guys make of this headline? "Reverse-engineering extra-terrestrial UFO flight patterns. Fast, completely erratic and unpredictable with gaps in motion". So this is an article—[3]

P: Quite a mouthful, first of all.

S: An article about analysing the apparent patterns of UFO flight and then using this information to speculate about the physics behind it. It's interesting, it's accompanied by a photograph of a cloud, by the way, which is supposed to be I guess a space ship, but I think anybody should be able to tell this is simply a lenticular cloud, not uncommonly mistaken for UFOs.

B: How do you mistake a cloud for a UFO? I mean I'm looking at the picture right now, it's got the classic saucer shape and OK, yeah, you can kind of see that it looks like a UFO. But my god, you look at it in the sky and you see this immense object that's not moving and you look a little more closely, and yeah that's a cloud. I mean, how do you mistake that?


B: It's happened, I mean it's happened in the past.

E: Oh, it sure has.

B: And it just amazes me that these lenticular clouds, you know, people think that they're UFOs.

J: If I had a space ship and I was flying in an alien atmosphere, I would fly as erratically as possible just to confuse them.


J: That makes perfect sense to me.

B: But wouldn't you just put...

P: I thought the UFO was just hiding inside the cloud, that's what I thought that was a picture of. I thought everyone knew it was a cloud.

S: The UFO's behind the cloud, right.

P: That's all, in it...

E: It's just such an incredible assumption for this article to start of by effectively saying, 'hey UFOs are real, let's not even argue about that, let's talk about the physics behind it'. It's just ridiculous.

S: It's the unstated major premise of the article is that UFOs are real. My favourite line is, "achieving navigation and stability while neutralising gravity and the electromagnetic properties of Earth over a local region is not easy".


B: Yeah, neutralising gravity. That's an understatement.

J: I'm going to get that tattooed to my forehead.

E: You know what else isn't easy? Apparently, being skeptical about these things, apparently is also not easy.


S: Well talk about wild speculation, I mean they are going from an erratic pattern of movement, which by the way is much more easily explained as just optical illusions, and then speculating about electromagnetic properties and neutralising gravity, it's ridiculous.

J: The aliens obviously don't know that they can't neutralise gravity.

S: Right.

J: And that's what's been powering their ships.

B: Guys let me tell you a quick story, one of my favourite UFO stories, that I read a few years ago. These three or four experienced pilots were walking to their plane, and they're just about to get on the plane and they see something near the horizon that grabs their attention. It appears to be this unidentified flying object that is pulling manoeuvres that just blows them away. 90 degree turns, incredible acceleration, deceleration. It just totally amazes them that whatever this apparent craft is, is just pulling manoeuvres that no jet fighter could do in its dreams, and they stayed watching it for a few minutes, and they're standing there contemplating their futures on the Oprah show, making millions of dollars with this incredible event that they were witnessing, when the object dropped in the sky a little bit, got closer to the horizon, and then it started to go behind a row of trees that were nearby, and instead of going behind it, it went in front of it, and immediately the illusion broke for them and they realised that this wasn't a distant, huge object, but a very close small object like some floating flax seed or something that was just being buffeted by the winds and it just goes to show that, I mean these guys were serious pilots and even they were fooled by just a trick of nature, just something just floating in the wind.

S: The brain is a brain, we're all susceptible to optical illusions.

B: Right, the brain is not a passive recorder, it's interpreting and trying to figure out at all times what exactly you're seeing, and that's where illusions come from, because your brain messes up.

E: Seeing is not believing, Bob, is that what you're saying?

B: Absolutely, absolutely.

P: And also, you know, flight school doesn't teach you how to think critically.

S: No.

B: Well...

P: You don't have to be a critical thinker to be a pilot. And these guys obviously weren't.

J: Well, it's very, very difficult to become a pilot. You have to be an intelligent person to become a successful pilot, especially for an airline. But I agree with what you're saying though Perry, you're figuring that people that are flying air planes that can potentially hold, in today's standards, up to 800 people that you would want these people to just be brightly burning torches of situations like that, but you know the sad fact is it's very common for pilots to make UFO claims as well. That's not uncommon.

P: Being intelligent is only only one component of being a critical thinker.

S: Right, and there are different kinds of intelligence. I mean, having the intelligence to navigate and having good eye-hand coordination and to make judgement calls quickly when you're in the cockpit has absolutely nothing to do with understanding the nature of science and claims and logical fallacies and evidence. A friend of the family that we know is a commercial airline pilot, he's a very good pilot by all accounts, he's also one of the most gullible people I know. He believes absolutely everything, and has... doesn't have the tools, doesn't have the toolkit to sort through claims like UFOs.

E: Remind me not to fly on his plane, Steve, please.


E: That's not a pilot I want.

S: It also, again a bigger issue is don't assume that because somebody has one intellectual skill set that they have another. That those tools apply to all types of intelligence or thinking. They don't.

P: I'm sure you've met many, or several, physicians in the medical business that-

S: Yes, for those in the audience who don't know, I'm a practising physician and neurologist. I deal with the brain and the nervous system. And certainly medicine is science-based and getting through medical school you have to learn some science, but some people still manage to get through it and to learn sort of the practical aspects of practising medicine without really learning sufficiently the scientific underpinnings, and you know the bottom of the heap of physicians can also be totally gullible and susceptible to errors in logic and thinking and not really understand how to evaluate evidence. Or they're just overwhelmed by their personal philosophy or ideology. Sometimes you want to believe something enough, it doesn't matter what your intelligence or your education is, you can... the capacity for self-illusion is practically limitless.

E: True.

B: That's true for lots of skeptics, I mean I know many skeptics, people who profess to be skeptics, that have a soft spot for one little bizarre belief that just, you know makes my eyebrows raise thinking whoa god, you know a lot of this other paranormal stuff is baloney, but you believe, you go to a chiropractor?

S: Right, they have a sacred cow, right.

E: Sacred cow, sacred cow.

P: We had a close friend who was a pretty good skeptic, thought that UFOs were nonsense, and big foot and everything else. But one day I was talking to him and he said 'yeah, all that stuff similar, but that voodoo, look out for that', he totally believed in voodoo. I mean nothing else, apparently, of a paranormal nature, but boy he sure believed in voodoo. Another thing in this article on the UFOs is multiple places it starts off paragraphs by saying "according to scientists", "according to many experts", "engineers believe". Never once is there a mention of a name, what engineers, their institutions, what studies were done, it simply goes on and on about scientists, engineers and experts.

S: Right, so it has a vague reference to authority without any specific reference. Always a red flag. And you're right, absolutely right, it's typical of this type of reporting: "Experts say", or "engineers believe", but there's not a single name, institution, specific reference that you can check up.

E: Maybe it's not doing well...

B: That's a fallacy in itself, right there, argument from authority right there.

E: Yes, maybe it's not doing well tonight...

B: Trying to bolster your argument, by alluding to some vague authority figures that you can trust.

S: That would be logical fallacy number three, the argument from authority. Authority figure says it's true, therefore its true.

P: "According to many experts, many countries are closely watching these flight patterns in designing their next generation of aircraft".

S: The next generation, it's right around the corner.

P: Yeah, I'm going to put in a call to Boeing tomorrow and find out how many of their aeronautical engineers are watching these UFO clouds.

J: That makes no sense though, how would they benefit from a UFO's flight pattern?

S: From wild speculation?


P: What do you mean? They're going to learn how to build the pulse neutraliser and get rid of gravity and electromagnetism. There you go.

E: Well, thank goodness for the media.

Intelligent Design in Kansas (21:39)[edit]

S: Speaking of not making sense, the Kansas City Star reports on hearings that are being held this week in Topeka about defending evolution and whether or not intelligent design should be taught in Kansas public schools.[4]

E: Here we go again.

S: This is an issue that won't go away, although we seem to be in a flurry of such cases, this also comes at a time when Michael Behe has written an op-ed piece in the New York Times essentially defending intelligent design.[5] So we could pull out just some of Behe's quote from the article, I mean essentially it is a summary of what he has published in the past, there's really no new ideas in there. Essentially, the central claim of intelligent design is this: That life, biological organisms, look as if they were designed and since we can't completely explain how they might have evolved, that therefore the only explanation left is that they were created by an intelligent designer, ID.

E: Steve, that sounds like another logical fallacy to me.

S: There's about five or six logical fallacies in there.


B: It's riddled with them.

S: It's riddled with them, and we could go down the list.

B: Yeah, that's an argument from ignorance, classic.

S: It's the god of the gaps, argument from ignorance, argument from personal incredulity.

B: Begging the question.

S: Begging the question, confusing unexplained with unexplainable. That's just off the top of my head.

E: I mean isn't that incredible, just in the last 45 seconds, I mean it's incredible that...

Questions and Emails (23:23)[edit]

S: So, Behe, in his book, Darwin's Black Box, gives as his prime examples as evidence for intelligent design what he calls "irreducible complexity". So this means that there are structures in nature that could not possibly function if they were any simpler than they were, and therefore they could not have evolved because evolution requires that they have passed through simpler stages. But how could they have been simpler if a simpler form could not have functioned? In fact, often on this show we will do questions that we have received, we have an Ask the Skeptic on our webpage at and also listeners can send in their comments of questions. Simply visit our website or send an email to and maybe.

P: We've got some real doozies in those questions over the years.

S: We do, but here's one question on this topic. The question is:

I recently read a book called Darwin's Black Box by Behe. Its thesis is that there are systems called irreducibly complex systems which appear to have no evolutionary advantage until all of their parts are present and so would not seem to be candidates for evolving via natural selection through small changes. His conclusion is that these systems are evidence for intelligent design, I'd like to see an analysis of his example systems by a skeptic or hear a proposal for how such systems might have evolved.

S: Now, we responded with a rather elaborate answer, but I'll hit the high points. The problem with that line of argument, essentially, is that irreducibly complex structures are, first of all, not irreducibly complex, so his premise is false. He uses the cilia of a bacterium as one example, that it could not function as, this is the flagellum, the little tail-like appendage that they twirl around in order to move themselves through the water, and it has a little motor that swirls it around, and they say it could not function in that purpose if it were any simpler. Well, first of all there are examples in nature that are simpler than the examples he gave that do function that way, so he simply was wrong. But even if it were true, that it could not function as a flagellum, as a motor, if it were any simpler, that still does not mean that it could not have evolved for multiple reasons. First of all, it could have evolved from a simpler structure that served another purpose. Perhaps it was just an appendage that moved food particles closer to the cell so that it could absorb it. It could function in a much simpler form for that purpose. I'll bring up just one more thing because we could spend our entire hour just talking about this. But it also ignores the fact that biology is very, very messy. It's not, you know, this perfectly constructed machine. And one of the things that is very messy about it is that genes which code for proteins often, through errors in replication, when organisms are reproducing, undergoes gene duplication. So an organism may have two or three or four genes for the same protein. This means that one of those genes can produce the protein in its original form which will serve its original function, the other genes are redundant and they're free to evolve in novel and random and new directions, in essence, experimenting with new proteins and new structures that eventually could hit upon some new function. So the logic of his argument is completely false. But what's most interesting is that Darwin himself pointed out the flaws in this argument 150 years ago. We've known for 150 years that—this is Paley's old argument—that it's flawed. But creationists now, under the guise of intelligent design, are really dredging up falsified ideas that have been shot down over a century ago, and yet they're passing it off as new scientific ideas.

E: It's because they only have to convince a school board panel that their idea has some sort of validity, they don't have to go up toe-to-toe with the scientists who know better. They just have to impress a school board in order to get their agenda passed.

P: It's true, in Topeka, the education commissioner, a guy named Andy Tompkins, he appointed a 26 member committee to report to the board, who were going to make this decision. And they came in with a draft that said that evolution is the proper way to teach, and it's going to tighten up the standards a little bit but make no major changes. It's the minority report-

S: Right.

P: -the second report that was made eight members of this 26 member committee that is advocating the teaching of intelligent design. And a much more critical look at evolution, a very design-

S: Right, and watering down the teaching of evolution too, not just introducing intelligent design, but watering down evolution by saying it's just a theory, it's not proven, etc.

P: Right, and the force behind that is a guy out there named John Calvert who is the founding director of the Intelligent Design Network of Shawnee Mission, that's a part of Kansas City. So you know, he's one guy out there, he's a founding director of that network, and he got this railroaded through to the point now where they're going to have this hearing.

S: Right, they're an interesting, they're a vocal minority. But they can be influential.

P: But the scientists in Kansas City really, they looked far and wide for people to come testify. They're not going to testify because they say this is really nothing more than giving Intelligent Design people a showcase for their theories. I was wondering what we thought about that. Do you think that's the right thing to do, not testify at the hearing?

B: I'm not sure if it's a good idea. My first inclination is to think that we've got to get somebody in there to support science and evolution, but giving them a platform itself is not a desirable thing either. So I'm not sure what to think on that one.

S: Well I agree that we shouldn't create platforms to debate creationists or ID proponents because that just plays into their hands. They don't deserve a platform side-by-side with legitimate scientists and legitimate science. And that's what they're looking for because it's a lot easier for them to confuse the public than it is for a proper scientist to educate the public. Duane Gish, who runs the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank, likes to debate scientists about creationism because he knows that he can create more confusion, more inconsistencies in 5-10 minutes than it would take the scientist to correct in hours. There's even a term that has developed to refer to that called the "Gish gallop". He just spews out misconception after misconception after false fact after logical fallacy and there's no way you can get to it all so it leaves the audience with this sense that, "well, there's got to be something wrong with evolution because the scientist wasn't able to address all of Gish's claims". And this is the same thing. But I do think that when they have a platform, and when that platform is in front of a school board or is in a court of law, we absolutely better represent the scientific side of things, we shouldn't give them a free pass.

P: Right, well they've got one lawyer to, who's acting for free, who's going to be speaking on behalf-

B: But he's got no science background.

P: He doesn't and he says he's not going to debate the question. I suppose, he said he's just going... it says in the article he's going to show some exhibits and give a closing argument. And that's it. Kansas Citizens for Science, the evolution people in the area, called for a boycott. They said don't do this, and most people apparently are agreeing with them, and no one's going to be there I guess except this Pedro Irigonegaray.

S: Well, it's an interesting strategy. We'll see how it plays out. We'll watch and learn. If it works, maybe it deserves replication—

B: Right, yeah.

S: —if it doesn't work, we'll learn from this. But in the past there are two things really have stopped the creationists from advancing. One is ridicule, like what happened over the last few years when school boards decided either to put stickers in text books or remove evolution from the science standards, the world turns its eye to that state or that county and the ridicule pours in and eventually it has an impact. The other thin line that prevents them from advancing their cause is the courts. Because in a court of law where there's rules of evidence, the creationists, they have no hope, they cannot, as opposed to an open debate where they can create a lot of confusion, in a court of law where there’s rules of evidence and arguing they cannot stand toe-to-toe with, you know, the truth, with science and reason.

B: You can't say I object at a debate, you know.

S: (laughs) Yeah, right. Well, you know, if you're going to debate creationists, you need to have a very controlled forum. And rather than an open-ended debate you need to be able to focus on very limited questions in enough detail for the truth to come out.

B: But generally it's a bad forum, I would stay away from it.

S: Unless you know what you're doing, unless you can control the forum it's usually a lose-lose proposition, but courts of law, so far evolution wins every single time.

J: Steve, is this happening in other countries as well?

B: It's starting to, it's starting to.

S: It's primarily an American phenomenon, but it does, this is one of those unfortunate things that America exports to other countries to some degree like some other aspects of pseudoscience.

P: In the United States of course, religious conservatism is in the ascendancy, and there's a lot of reasons for that, but it is definitely in the ascendancy right now, and unfortunately one of the offshoots of that is this more open forum for these creationist people, I mean that's... I mean which is what they are. People want to call it Intelligent Design, it's another word for creationism.

S: Right.

P: That's certainly how I see it. The paragraph that I find most interesting in this piece, says that the board held hearings in February, on that first draft, then it says this, I quote, "the board's conservative majority decided to hold the upcoming hearings to learn more about intelligent design. The hearings will be before a three-member board subcommittee chaired by board chairman Steve Abrams, a conservative Republican from Arkansas City."

S: It's unfortunate that it's tied to one end of the political spectrum.

P: Definitely, I mean you know, I think that they chose very deliberately to put that in this piece, the fact that the guy is a conservative republican.

S: Right, right.

P: Who apparently decided to hear more intelligent design.

S: Matters of science should be divorced from politics. The only thing that really matters is what the logic and evidence say. And evolution is established as well as any theory in science, it is a scientific fact. Intelligent Design is a house of cards. It is a house of logical fallacies. Again, many claims that have been shown to be false over a century ago. But that never stops the creationists from using it as an argument.

P: We'll have to follow this and see if this boycott is a good way of dealing with it.

S: It'll be interesting to follow and I'm sure Genie Scott, who for those of you who don't know, Genie Scott runs a national organisation[6] that is basically the primary watchdog on creationism and the attempts—grass roots attempts to get creationism taught in public schools, so I'm sure her organisation and her people will watch this closely as well.

Group Discussion (36:01)[edit]

S: There is a magician.

J: Is he Egyptian?

S: He's not Egyptian. That, what is his name? Nu. Are any of you familiar with him. There are many magicians and they can do seemingly fantastical feats. But some of them claim that their feats are actually paranormal in nature. While others admit coyly that it's merely a trick, and illusion.

J: Well, Uri Gellar is a prime example of that, of basically claiming that his magical ability is, you know, his sleight of hand ability is actual magic mind power, mentalist.

B: Be careful what you say about him, you don't want to get sued now.


S: If you don't believe that he does his magic tricks through miracles, he'll sue you.

E: Well, maybe anyone, I don't know 45 or older, might be familiar with the name Uri Gellar. I mean, certainly Uri Gellar is well past his heyday and past his celebrity.

S: Thankfully.

E: At least in the United States. However, there is a gentleman who has a show that's been airing lately on the learning channel. His name is Alain Nu and his show is called the Mysterious World of Alain Nu. So I was channel surfing the other night and I came across his program and he's doing some pretty impressive street magic. I love magicians, I love magical tricks, and most skeptics do. So stopped to watch his show for a little while. I'm watching the show for about 15 minutes or so, and Alain has just performed this mentalist trick for some observers in the street. Now I can't quote exactly what he said, but he's telling his audience that he's using the power of mental energy to fuel his tricks. Well, this of course piqued my interest a lot more due to this comment. I continued to watch the show, I watched it to its end, another 30 minutes or so. During the course of that time, Alain must have used words and phrases such as energy, chi, psychic, mental power, half a dozen times or so, if not more. I wish I had my VHS stack running during the show so I could actually pull the exact quotes that he said for this show but I-

J: Evan, was he representing it as a show or was he kind of instructing people or was he like trying to sell it off as he was really doing it, what was the feel of the show?

E: It's much like, if anybody has seen what David Blaine has done in his street magic performance and how that show is edited for television.

S: Right

E: And presented to people, this is essentially the exact same thing.

J: It's as if it's real then.

B: Sounds more so even, though.

E: Right, exactly. But you know, the problem with Alain, David Blaine, some other people like this, is that here we have a talented magician, he's making a very entertaining program for the viewers, and his tricks were excellent, no doubt about it, those tricks were really really good. He has to go ahead and invoke his pseudo-scientific terms, energy, chi and so forth, to his awestruck audience to explain how the magic is happening, and good skeptics should be upset when they see this happening. Especially on a nationally televised program.

S: Now the thing is though, there is a grey zone here because, traditionally magicians, it's all stage presence and they have to create a mystique about them and they will often play act at saying that their powers are mysterious and mystical and so magicians will often do that. How do you know he is earnestly trying to convince the public that he has chi and mystical magical powers, versus just play acting at the stage magician.

E: I went to the Internet. Thank goodness for the Internet.


E: Now there wasn't... I wish I could have found more in my search. But I did find a few things. A few quotes, a few phrases attributed to Alain and let me just share a few of these with you real quick so you can understand a little bit better where I'm coming from. So in an interview, he was asked about how he does a spoon bending trick, here we go with Gellar who sort of made that phenomenon.

S: Uri Gellar was made famous on his spoon bending trick which can be replicated by any trained magician and our friend James Randi certainly delights in bending spoons to show how simply it can be done. In fact he says that if Uri Gellar is bending spoons with mystical, magical energy he's doing it the hard way.


E: Exactly, exactly. Alain claims that his spoons are bent by his chi-charged fingertips. Actually chi, which is short for chi gong, which is an ancient Chinese energy balancing exercise of some sort, and that's his claim as to why the spoon bends.

S: Now Evan, is it actually an ancient Chinese secret?


E: I think only the ancient Chinese could answer that Steve.


E: So we're going to have to find some elderly Chinese men or women.

J: Well guys, obviously he's not using any kind of supernatural powers to do this, he's a magician, he's a very good magician and the only concern that I have is, if this show isn't really couched in, "it's entertainment, it's part of the allure of the show that he's pretending that it's real when we all know it really isn't". If it's coming off much more like the way Uri Gellar does it which is, you know, I'm really doing this, I've gone on talk shows, and you know he really has the personality of "this is for real", it's a completely different show then.

E: Well Jay, I'll tell you what, here's how I sum it up, here's what I think after I was done watching that show. What people like Alain and maybe David Blaine fail to realise, is that what they're really doing, yes they're entertaining people with their tricks and so fort, but really the bottom line is that they're enhancing the audience's belief in pseudoscience and fantasy, whether they know it or not, willingly or not, that's what people are walking away from when they see this performance and he starts attributing these simple tricks that people like Penn and Teller or James Randi could easily also replicate and not invoke any sort of pseudoscience as to why it's happening. He goes ahead and he just totally undermines himself and his profession by attributing it to these special forces. And this is the problem I have with this, and I think that's the harm that someone like Alain Nu causes. And certainly the learning channel, of all places-

J: Well it kind of makes him a snake-oil salesman, you know. It basically reduces him to selling something that has absolutely no special effect and-

E: May I make one more quote I found of Alain off the Internet? Here's a direct quote from him, "science cannot explain what I do. Many people have tried to guess, I am just an ordinary man, I do not try to explain myself".

P: Which is backed up, your quote from Nu, Evan.

E: Yes.

P: Is unfortunately braced and backed up, no pun intended as you'll hear in a second, by Eric Brace of the Washington Post, no less. I looked the guy up, he's the Art Editor at the Washington Post.

S: Well.

P: Reviews art, you see. And he wrote that this is on, this is the quote on Nu's homepage. Right underneath his picture, featured very prominently, it says this: "To watch him is to throw out all the rules of physics. Time and space are malleable in Nu's deft hands". That's Eric Brace from the Washington Post.

B: Well, that's open to interpretation.

J: Steve, you should issue a formal challenge to this guy. Steve, do what Randi did to Uri Gellar. Just say, OK, you know, let's put your money where your mouth is.

S: Well, we can certainly formally challenge him with the Randi million dollar psychic challenge.

J: That's a great idea.

P: He's not going to put himself...

S: No. Whenever these people are called out like this in public say yeah, absolutely I'll do it, and then they never, ever, ever do it because, you know why? Because they know they're cheating, and the ones who know that they're doing magic tricks, will never subject themselves to another magician who knows how they do it.

E: Not in a hundred years.

S: Who knows how they're doing what they're doing.

E: Alain even... something I read on him, he knows who James Randi is, and he describes James Randi as one of his early inspirations as to getting into the magic performance business.

J: Oh my god.

E: So he's certainly well aware of James Randi and I'm sure he doesn't want to go anywhere near him.

S: Of course. So I mean he's clearly over the line with that. David Blaine I think just flirts with the I'm just a mystical aura kind of musician. Uri Gellar is a con artist, let's face it. This guy sounds like he's somewhere in between these two guys.

B: I don't know Steve, I don't know because if you're like doing palm reading or reading, doing a seance possibly or, I mean there's a lot of parts of paranormal phenomena where the person can actually be self deluded and actually think, yeah, I've really got something going on here. But somebody like him, you've got to consciously doing these tricks, I mean you've got to know well yeah, I'm doing the trick this way, but I'm saying it this other way. That's conscious.

S: No, I agree it's totally conscious. I'm saying the degree to which he's using it, I mean he's just using it to enhance his stage presence as opposed to deliberately con people out of money. Uri Gellar was using dowsing, was accepting million dollar commissions from companies to tell them where to dig wells.

E: Out and out.

B: A million dollars.

S: Using his dowsing ability. At least by his own claims, by his own claims. So I mean if you want to talk about conscious, you know using the mentalist or magician tricks consciously in order to sell yourself to the world as a paranormalist, let's talk John Edwards [sic]. I mean, he's the king of them all.

J: Yeah, he's done the best out of all of them.

B: Is he still on TV?

S: John Edwards has this show Crossing Over for a while.

E: I believe it was cancelled.

S: It was cancelled.

P: I think it's cancelled.

B: That's awesome, why didn't we have a party?


J: what channel was that on?

S: He claims to channel or to be able to see the dead and to speak to the spirits of the guests who are there, the people who are in his studio. And what he really does is a sloppy cold reading. Now, again for those who don't know, a cold reading is simply starting with general statements that are likely to be true about most people, making a lot of guesses and then, when you get positive feedback, when you hit upon something that's accurate, you get some positive feedback from the person you're giving the reading to.

J: Give an example, Steve.

S: Well, Edwards will say, I see an older female figure associated with you, I'm getting the letter M is in her name.

B: Mom!


S: The person they volunteered will say Mary! He says, yes Mary, the name is. You know, so and this has been made fun of in many many venues, of course the best of which is South Park, the South Park episode about John Edwards.

B: Oh, classic.

S: The thing is that this is a mentalist trick that has been around for hundreds of years, and it's using simple deception and misdirection and illusion to make it seem as if you have special knowledge that you don't have, that is what mentalism is about.

B: And don't forget that it's a two-way street there's also human psychology that comes into play. You have things like selective validation where it's just part of human psychology that someone throws 20 wild-ass guesses at you, and hits 2 of them, I mean that's pretty bad, that's pretty bad guessing but generally you will go away thinking, 'wow he's so accurate', and you'll only remember the hits and you'll forget the misses.

S: Right.

J: And also his show is heavily edited.

S: Yeah.

J: They really...

B: Oh god, I believe it.

J: They shoot three hours and they reduce it down to an hour, at least that's the way they did do it.

S: And by report he worked the audience ahead of time, I mean he did more than a cold reading, he cheated. he did a warm reading. And there's even reports that he, I don't have his name handy, but a fellow skeptic went into the audience just to see it first hand and he reported that his answers were clipped so he had the answer to one question which was spliced together with another one. So it made it seem as if he was agreeing with something that he never agreed to. I mean that's just kind of cheating.

B: Heinous.

S: But someone who is half way decent at cold reading could do a better job than John Edward did in pretending to talk to the dead. One thing that is clear is that because of the techniques that he's using, we know that he's consciously lying. He's not self-deluded. He's lying.

P: Right.

J: It all goes back to the fact that it made him rich and it brought that station in a ton of money and they just, the station's media just does not care what the truth is.

P: The sci-fi channel actually produced it.

S: Initially, yeah but then I think.

P: But it was cancelled over a year ago.

E: Too much fiction, not enough science.

J: How about the woman, the pet psychic.

P: Oh yeah.

J: My favourite all-time thing that she said, every once in a while I catch 10 minutes of it, as long as I could stomach it. My favourite thing was this guy had a pet alligator, and she said, "oh your alligator is hungry".

S: That's a stretch.


B: Wow.

E: That's a stretch.

J: She's brilliant.

E: I wonder if he got sleepy later, I mean that's remarkable.

J: I'd like to say, everyone, you should all go to, that's James Randi's site, there's a ton of information on there.

P: yep.

J: Definitely worth looking in to, you should go every day.

E: A wonderful resource, a wonderful resource.

B: After you go to the NESS go to

E: Yes, go to the NESS first.

P: (laughs)

B: Hey Evan, I was looking at your write-up on this new guy and there's one quote that jumped out at me that I think you got off the Internet. He was saying here, and I just wanted to mention it with a brief response, he said something about, I think it's important to be skeptical, to be skeptical is to be open, but to completely close your mind off to something that doesn't seem rational is not exactly skeptical.

E: That is a quote.

B: That's a straw man argument right there, I mean a true skeptic does not just turn their minds off to something that doesn't see rational. If they did then quantum mechanics would seem to be hogwash. It's not just that, it's also evidence.

S: Right, right.

B: Quantum mechanics has plenty of evidence, Ouija boards don't, period, and that's it, that's a key thing he's missing. And you know (inaudible) it's a straw man.

E: He's another person who just really doesn't understand what skepticism is, he doesn't... he thinks he does but he doesn't.

S: Well, we don't know that, he may also not care because he's selling something. We don't know how much he believes what he's saying. That statement is a cliché. It's very standard, the idea is that skeptics, scientists are closed-minded to the possibilities of the paranormal or whatnot, that's in a sense an ad hominem logical fallacy, it's basically saying that we're wrong because we're closed-minded, because we're not open to these possibilities.

E: Well, shame on him.

S: Either way, either he's deluded or lying. Either way, shame on him, I agree.

B: That reminds me of a great little saying I heard, I forget, a few years ago, but it's great to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.


P: There's a difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head.


S: Well, I think, I've argued in the past that it's the people who make these claims who are closed minded because they're closed to the possibility that their claims are wrong, and that's the hardest lesson that scientists have to learn, is that the evidence can show that they're wrong, and when it does, that is when their heart and soul as a scientist is truly tested. And the good ones, the ones that are respected, the ones that can stand up and face their peers, are the ones who, when proven wrong, say "all right, this claim is wrong, let me go on with my life". But the true believers, the paranormalists, do not do that. When you show them evidence that their claim is wrong, they dismiss it, they deny it, they're totally closed to it. They refuse to even consider the possibility that their cherished belief might be wrong.

J: The beliefs you hold the most dear are the ones you should question the most.

S: That's absolutely correct.

B: absolutely.

P: That's true.

J: And also, is this guy going to be our loser of the week?

E: Sure, why don't we make him the loser of the week.

S: Loser of the week: Alain Nu.

P: And a gullible believer.

E: Alain Nu, look him up, or not.

P: Absolutely.

E: For a laugh maybe, but that's it, don't buy his products.

P: Fortunately, if you watch his show, well, hopefully it'll go the way of John Edwards, be cancelled after a four episode run.

S: We can hope, but let's face it, the appeal of the paranormal, of mystery-mongering is far greater than the appeal of cold, rational logic and science, which is a shame, because science is fascinating. Science is the most liberating, interesting, fascinating things in the world. I mean the most bizarre ideas that have been thought of by human beings are things like quantum mechanics and black holes and the fact that all of the information necessary to make a person is curled up in every little cell in our body. I mean these things are much more fantastical than anything the paranormal gurus have to say.

E: And in a much simpler scenario, here. I think magical tricks are fascinating, good magicians, the Penn and Tellers, the James Randis, the Harry Andersons of the world, they're not relying...

P: The good skeptical literature is great too, you know. I mean it all has a place, it just doesn't have a place in being your guide to living your life. To what's real.

B: Guide to the Universe.

S: It shouldn't be taught as science in the science classroom of our schools.

B: Absolutely.

E: Agreed. Well that's right, that's the most important, perhaps.

S: But you know, we're talking about the media and these television shows and it does bring up the point that although we fight passionately over what passes for science in the public schools, and we should, but in reality, people learn a great deal more, and their beliefs are shaped far more by what they see on television and now on the Internet and on computers, than what they learn in the classroom. So, and we have absolutely lost the battle for the hearts and souls of the mass media. Because they sell mystery-mongering, they sell sensationalism and they love the paranormal, and they just do not have the desire, the inclination, the patience for good science.

B: And didn't Jennings, just this last month, do some big show on UFOs.

S: Yeah.

P: Yeah, he did, he did.

B: That was totally, totally credulous or just partly credulous.

S: It was mostly credulous, the skeptics had their say, but it was almost token skepticism, they really didn't do a balanced job, which was disappointing, previously Jennings had done a piece on the JFK assassination, and he came to a very hard-core skeptical conclusion, there's no conspiracy, there's no evidence for a conspiracy, all the evidence points to a lone shooter, you know the lone-nut theory, Lee Harvey Oswald acting on his own. And he said that's what the evidence shows, and that was the premise of the whole show. I was hoping he was going to take the same approach to UFOs, but he didn't, he spent the bulk of his time letting the true believers really ramble unopposed.

J: Hey, well, Stone Phillips on Dateline NBC just about a week ago ran a bit on showing a live exorcism.

S: (laughs)

B: Really?

J: Yeah, and the thing that...

S: Lame, they're so lame.

J: ...there's something about an exorcism that I find curious, I can understand from a programming perspective why they would want to do a show like that, but the thing I really don't like is these reporters, they do that whole thing where they don't commit, they show like half the show is the people who perform the exorcism and they're whole routine, kind of giving them some credibility, and then they mix in there the skeptical people and then you walk away not knowing...

S: But who knows what's really true?

J: Yeah.

B: And it's up to you to decide.

S: They think that is balanced reporting, but if you balance total and utter nonsense with logic and evidence you don't, that's not balanced reporting, that's elevating nonsense to the status of evidence and logic and science.

B: Right.

E: That's scary.

J: Steve, what reporters do you like?

S: Well, John Stossel deserves kudos. He's excellent.

B: Yeah, I've seen a bunch of his stuff and he's very good.

S: You know, Scientific American Frontiers is an excellent program.

E: Hosted by Alan Alda.

S: Hosted by Alan Alda, very good. Bill Nye the science guy, good scientist, good skeptic, good educator.

B: He's coming out with a new show I think.

P: Yeah right.

S: So there are bright spots out there.

J: Hey what about In Search of...?

B: Come on, Spock did that one.

J: I was mesmerized by that show as a kid. I mean Spock could have said anything...

S: And it sounded logical, it has to be logical if Spock... That was the worst piece of crap reporting ever to stain the airwaves. It really was.

B: Controversial statement, Steve.

S: Bob, have you seen it recently? I've seen some episodes recently.

B: No, not recently but.

P: Oh, it's terrible.

B: There's a lot of crap out there.

S: But I think that it's not that, I don't think that this was a show that was produced by true believers, or just naïve reporters thinking that they have to give a balance between nonsense and science. They totally distorted the evidence to manufacture alleged mysteries. It really was shameless. A shameless manipulation.

J: That show was worse than The Six Million Dollar Man. If you catch one of those reruns, it's horrible, painful.

B: Really, oh it's been so long.

J: You watch it and you're like, how did I watch this show?

B: Oh, I loved that show.

J: Bob, it's terrible.

B: Oh, I believe it, I'm sure it didn't age very well.


S: Well, I think we're out of time. Thanks for listening. This was the first podcast of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, with our Rogues gallery of skeptics once again: Perry DeAngelis, Evan Bernstein, Bob Novella and Jay Novella, and I'm your host, Steven Novella. We all run the New England Skeptical Society. You could take a look at our articles on the web at You can also look at our podcast page, which has more links and information about the topics we talk about. Send us your questions and topics and whatever you want to hear us talk about. Send email to And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.


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