SGU Episode 10

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SGU Episode 10
23rd August 2005

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 9                      SGU 11

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis

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S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. And with me tonight, as usual, is Perry DeAngelis...

P: Hello.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Hi everyone.

S: and Bob Novella.

B: Hello everyone.

In Memoriam[edit]

Philip Klass (0:24)[edit]

S: So we're going to start tonight with an In Memoriam. The skeptical movement has lost two people in the—since the last broadcast. The first is Philip Klass. Phil Klass was the preeminent UFO skeptic. He almost single-handedly founded the area of UFO skepticism. He was an editor of Avionics and Aviation Week & Space Technology for over thirty years. Received numerous awards for his work as a journalist and the latter part of his career was essentially spent debunking Roswell and UFO sightings. He is author of the book The Real Roswell Crash Saucer Cover Up, which came out in 1997 and UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game. Have any of you guys ever met Phil Klass?

E: I did not have the pleasure.

P: I met him at the world skeptics conference.

S: Right. I met him at the same conference. He was already fairly old at that time and that was maybe ten years ago. Interesting thing about Phil Klass, he is—the rumor is that he was the inspiration for The Smoking Man on The X-Files. This was the—the older agent who seemed to know what was really going on with the government and UFOs, whose character was constantly smoking. And Phil Klass was a chain smoker. Not sure if that's true or not; that was the rumor. So unfortunately, he passed away a little over a week ago.

B: Steve, did you know that in '76 he helped found CSICOP?

S: That's right. He was one of the founding members of CSICOP.

B: And he served on its executive council, so that's pretty...

S: CSICOP is the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. And he was a senior research fellow basically in charge of their UFO research.

P: He wrote me a... a very nice letter once after an article of mine appeared in the New England Journal of Skepticism regarding a close vote up at CSICOP. And... He certainly was very concerned about the skeptical movement and the direction that some of the people wanted to take it. Particularly Dr. Kurtz. We've all had criticism of him over the years. In this particular case, Phil Klass agreed with me and he wrote a letter stating so. When he asked me to keep it discreet at the time I did. Now its—it's not relevant anymore.

S: Yeah. There has been some, sort of, internal debate about what the relationship should be between organized skepticism, scientific skepticism, and organized secular humanism. And along those related lines, to what degree skeptical movements should take on purely religious issues. Not matters where religion crosses over into science, like Creationism. Everyone agrees that that is a fair topic of our criticism. And some of the old guard, some of the real hardcore skeptics that are and were within the inner workings of CSICOP were very much against this—overly merging these two movements, whereas Paul Kurtz is very much in favor of unifying them. In fact he has done so as far as CSICOP is concerned under the Centers for Inquiry, or CFI. So—although things, you know, keep chugging along happily, we're certainly very friendly and cooperative with CSICOP, it remains a bone of contention within the movement. One without, I think, an objective resolution, at this point of time. But Phil Klass was definitely on the side of keeping skepticism, scientific skepticism, separate from religious issues.

P: Which is certainly the position of the New England Skeptical Society.

S: Yes. That has been—we have advocated for that position within our own group and to CSICOP, as well.

P: Why, Steven, cause you're the President, can you articulate for the people why that's our position?

S: Well, I could refer you to the article that I wrote about it that was actually published in the Skeptical Inquirer[1]. If you look on their archives you'll find it, but basically, I think that the way we define scientific skepticism is essentially defending the turf of science and advocating for high standards of rigor and logic and evidence within the realm of science. Religious—religions, however, often deal with issue of value and morals. Things that are—or untestable claims that are not within the realm of science. They're untestable, therefore they're non-scientific. We would say that the only thing that you could really say about them is that they are not amenable to scientific investigation. And that's it. Whereas—to secular humanists—deal with a lot of, sort of, political and social issues surrounding religion and also directly take on the faith itself. So, it's just—there's a—it's a difference in mission. It's not our mission to do that. It's also not our interest and not our expertise.

B: Steve, what about morality? That's always a point that bugs me a little bit, in that a lot of people think that—if you're an atheist, if you don't have religion, then you're an amoral wild person, just totally hedonistic and—get what you can. Which I think is ridiculous. I don't think you need religion, or faith, to be moral.

S: Well, it's certainly contradicted by the facts. I mean there are plenty of people who are atheists or agnostics who are perfectly good citizens. Who are moral, ethical people. I don't think there's even any positive correlation between a religiosity and morality. And, I think, it gets down to, also, a distinction between "morality" and "ethics". Ethics are essentially a system of behavior, rights, and privileges that we can mutually agree upon as members of civilized society. We shouldn't hurt each other, steal from each other, people have the right to privacy, right to—not to be killed. There's certain basic things that we can agree upon and you could start from some very self-evident first principles and develop with careful thought and philosophy an ethical system that can—is certainly constantly being revised and debated but can be the basis of a system of ethics upon which you can base laws and a rational society. Morality is, I think, more the realm of personal choice. It's how you choose—the standards by which you choose to live your life and if you want to base that on a religious faith then, fine. Go right ahead. But it's not necessarily something that you can logically argue or demonstrate to anybody else as a cultural imperative. And if—again, I think, that would be a distinction between—similar to that between science and religion—between science and faith you could make the distinction between ethics, which is philosophy based and morality, which is either choice- or faith-based.

P: It's also been my personal experience since I've gotten involved with the whole skeptical movement—it's now a decade ago. It's—is that they people who sort of advocate organized atheism, secularism are quite fanatic and disquieting and off-putting and I think that they don't do—they do not deliver their message well and I think that it's extra baggage that the scientific skeptical movement simply does not need. And that's why I oppose the union of them as Dr. Kurtz sees it.

B: I remember when we were up at the headquarters of CSICOP in upstate New York...

P: Buffalo.

B: and I remember—in Buffalo and I remember running into a handful of militant atheists and—very off-putting. Just so forceful and adamant and in your face.

S: Of course some people think that about us. (laughs) About skeptics.

E: That's for sure.

P: Perhaps so. Perhaps so.

S: But, so even by our jaded standards they were a little bit rough. But, I think, the—there is a difference in, I think, background, in demeanour, in what they're interested in. I think a lot—certainly this is anecdotal, this is our personal experience, but a lot of the people who are involved with organized atheism or secular humanism are really angry at religion. They're really—either have a personal story where they were in some way harmed or repressed or oppressed, whatever, as a child by a religious figure or a tyrannical religious faith or their philosophy is just so adamantly anti-faith that it becomes a very emotional thing for them.

P: Very emotional. Extremely emotional.

S: I think more so than skeptics. I think we tend to have a more of a scientific background and we care mainly about defending science. Just like—for myself personally I really couldn't care less what other people have as their personal faith. It's an internal, personal choice.

P: Right.

S: Who cares? It really does not bother me. I'm interested in defending science and reason and logic. Whenever—when any—if anyone makes a factual claim, a claim about the factual state of nature then they step into the ring of science, then they're fair game. But if they're talking about personal faith in the unknowable, they're outside the realm of science and I really couldn't care less. That's—which is why I'm involved in organized skepticism but not organized...

P: Secularism or atheism.

S: Secularism. Even though I consider myself an agnostic, it's just not something I care to put my time and effort into. Which is fine. I think—again I—I wish these secular humanists well and I certainly am... I certainly support their philosophy and their beliefs and what they're doing. I just don't think that I need to take it on as a skeptic. And that's what it really comes down to is the secular humanists, to some degree, feel like skeptics need to be fighting for their banner, too. That they're one and the same and they kind of resent it when we won't do that. "Why won't you take on religion. It's just as bad as UFOs and Bigfoot." It's like, "Yeah, but it's different. Because..."

B: Plus, it's also the fact that—you know as tough as it is to dissuade people of their beliefs in paranormal phenomenon, religion is a much, much tougher nut than anything we're dealing with. I think, that to the end—to the last day that humanity survives, whether it be a century or a thousand millennia, there's—we're still gonna—people will still have faith. And that's just so hard-coded into our—into our brains that...

S: Perhaps.

B: I don't think—that's going to be like the last—one of the last things to go. It's just too comforting. Maybe once we're all—once we all live for millennia it won't—people won't concern themselves with it, as much.

P: Well, you can still be a good scientific skeptic and maintain faith. They're not incompatible.

E: Right. That's true.

P: As far as our movement goes. Certainly not.

B: That's true.

P: Nor have I ever seen somebody involved in scientific skepticism demanding that organized atheists or secularists defend our banner. It's a one-way street they're on.

S: And you know what? And they don't. There is a different in agenda. About... there's admittedly a great deal of overlap between the two groups. About seventy percent, by surveys. Seventy percent of self-identified skeptics are also non-believers, also either atheists or agnostics or secularists. And about the same is true of secular humanists, although, I think, a lot of them—more of them consider themselves skeptics. Some of them are amenable to a lot of superstitious beliefs. A lot of them are enamored of alternative medicine or acupuncture or, sort of, eastern spirituality and even when confronted on this say, "Well, this is not religion cause it's a different culture. It's eastern. It's not western." Which is kind of silly.

B: That was a surprise when I realized that. It's like, "Whoa."

S: Yeah. So, it—again, there's certainly a tremendous overlap. I think that the majority of both groups are in—are members of both groups, are both skeptics and non-believers, but as skeptics we need to be tolerant of what people profess as their personal faith. Again, I think we have to respect the freedom of religion. The freedom to believe whatever you want to believe. And if it's outside the realm of science, then it's not amenable to the rules of evidence. And then the only other thing you can really demand of the belief system is that it's internally logical. It does not, sort of, contradict itself. But if it's a belief in something that's unknowable, unanswerable, and in and of itself—like Martin Gardner, I believe, considers himself a deist. Martin Gardner is one of the founders of modern skepticism. So, yeah, he believes in God but that's it. That's the beginning and the end of his belief. He does not make any factual claims about the state of nature. He's still a thorough materialist in terms of how the universe works and that belief is based on just personal desire and faith not any evidence, not any logic. He doesn't think that he can prove to you that God exists or that there's any evidence that he exists. It's not a scientific claim in any way. And fine, if that's the kind of faith that you maintain, if you basically strip from it any factual claims, any scientific claims, then it's benign, and who cares?

B: That's uh...

P: Right.

B: That's rare, though. That's, unfortunately, pretty rare.

P: It's not relevant to the discussion.

Robert Baker (14:51)[edit]

S: So, to move on, the second skeptic that I alluded to at the beginning of the podcast who passed away within the last couple weeks is Robert Baker. By coincidence, we brought his name up at the last podcast when we were discussing the book by the Harvard psychiatrist[2] who was talking about—What was the name exact—Clancy? Who was discussing the psychological aspects of people who believe they were abducted. Robert Baker was also a CSICOP fellow and he was one of the world's preeminent academic authorities on ghosts, alien abductions, apparitions, reincarnation, et cetera. He actually—He's one of the people who raised the level of skepticism of these things to really aca—the level of academic legitimacy. He served a really key role within the skeptical movement. It's one thing to analyze the claims of UFO abductees from a skeptical point of view. It's another thing to do psychological research to show what the psychological phenomenon is, and that's kind of what—what Robert Baker did. Certainly his... his writing and his influence and his contribution to this areas of skepticism will be greatly missed.

P: Is he the progenitor of the fantasy-prone personality?

S: Yes. He is one of the progenitors, along with Joe Nickell, who's also a CSICOP fellow. The idea of a fantasy-prone personality. Basically recognizing that certain people have a heightened tendency to fantasize and may actually have a tendency to not recognize the—where their own fantasies end, basically, and where reality begins. He—Some of Baker's books include, They Call It Hypnosis, Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions from Within, Child Sexual Abuse and False Memory Syndrome. He also was one of the early critics of—of the, so called, false memory syndrome, that proponents called recovered memory syndrome. And he also—I think his most recent book was written with Joe Nickell—that's not fair; this is not his most recent one. This is written in 1992, with Joe Nickell he wrote, Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and other Mysteries.

B: Excellent book.

S: Excellent book.

B: Steve, did he actually coin the phrase, "There are no haunted places, only haunted people?" Was that Baker? Did he coin that?

S: I don't—I don't know if that is attributable to him. It may be.

E: I've heard that.

S: I don't know if was him or Joe Nickell.

B: Right.

S: Or maybe it was just in their book and I don't know which one it was. Yeah. That's a good phrase. "There's no such thing as a haunted location; there are only haunted people."

P: Right.

S: Which very succinctly highlights the fact that haunting phenomenon are generated by people who believe in it, essentially. There's no such thing an actual haunted house.

P: Missing Pieces is certainly the best book I've ever read on the basics of investigating the paranormal. It is an excellent primer for anyone out there who is considering doing investigations in their local area.

S: Well, why don't we move on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction: Our Solar System (18:04)[edit]

Voice-over: It's time for "Science or Fiction."

S: So, each week I come up three science news items or facts, two of them are genuine, one is fake, fictitious, made up and false. I then challenge my panel of scientifically literate skeptics to figure out which one is fake.

E: Challenge accepted.

S: So far, you guy—I think that you guys are doing better than thirty-three percent, which is what you would get from random guessing. I think you guys are running around fifty percent, so far.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: You're doing—I think probably even better than fifty percent. You're doing fairly well.

E: Oh. OK.

S: There is a theme this week. I've been doing themes recently. I think it's fun. This week the theme is: "our solar system". Now this is to celebrate or commemorate the discovery of yet a new planet.

B: Sedna.

S: That's not going to be one of the items. No, not Sedna. And it—'cause I know you guys all know about this. Or at least I thought you did. This is the first planet larger than Pluto to be discovered in our solar system, since the discovery of Pluto. Have they given it a name yet?

B: No. I just heard a technical designation. No, nothing—I heard suggestions but nothing ironclad. I mean, they're still debating whether it's a planet.

S: Well isn't it—if I recall it's about three times four times farther out from the sun than Pluto.

E: Right.

S: But it's larger than Pluto.

B: That far, Steve? Three or four times?

E: How does it maintain the orbit? It seems remarkable.

B: Hey that's—gravity sucks.

S: You can maintain...

B: Evan, gravity sucks.


S: You can maintain the orbit up to a couple of light years. Basically until you get closer to another star than our star, you will be, to some degree, trapped within the gravitational field of the Earth.

B: And don't forget...

S: I mean of the sun.

B: at that distance, I mean—everything in our solar system attracts. I mean—all right, the sun is ninety-nine percent of it but still you've got Jupiter and—

S: On the NASA website, Bob, it's still calling it 2003-UB213?

B: Yeah.

S: Yeah. So that—it says it's three times further—farther away from the sun than Pluto. Three times.

B: I trust that site. Wow. That's farther than I thought.

P: I imagine it's a little nippy out there.

E: Does Pluto take about two hundred years to go around the sun?

B: Yeah.

S: 240, I think, is its year. Two hundred and forty years.

B: Yeah. It's something around there.

P: Probably a bit chilly.

B: For part...

S: It's chilly. Yeah. Quite chilly.

E: And dark.

B: For part of its orbit it's actually within the obit of Neptune. So for a while it's actually not the farthest of the original nine planets.

P: Right.

S: Right. So, I want to give you three other facts either recently discovered or known about our solar system. Item number one, and again, remember, don't answer until I'm done with all three items.

E: All right.

S: Number one: the rings of Saturn have their own atmosphere. Number two: one of the asteroids in the asteroid belt, you know, between Mars and Jupiter, is large enough to have its own moons. And number three: an active volcano has been discovered on Saturn's moon, Titan, making it only the third world in the solar system to have active volcanoes. You can name the other two for bonus credit on that one. So.

B: Io is one.


S: And what's the other one?

B: Umm.

E: Active volcanos, huh.

B: Active volcano—Oh, oh active?

S: Yeah.

B: Mars has Olympus Mons but that's not active.

E: No.

P: Mount Saint Helens?

E?: Oh, Earth. The Earth.

B: Aahhhh.


B: Very good.

S: Earth and Io are the only two. Anyway... Perry, why don't we start with you?

P: Eh, sure. The volcano sounds perfectly fine. The moon around an asteroid? Sure. There's some big asteroids out there. What's the thing about Saturn? That the dust has what?

S: The rings of Saturn. The rings of Saturn have their own atmosphere.

P: From what I know about the rings, I mean, it's just a bunch of debris. Atmosphere would be pretty tenuous. You know an asteroid; how would you tell if it had moons? I would you know it's not just more junk up there? I guess I'd say... the one about Saturn sounds a little farther out to me. I'll say that one.

S: OK. So you think the rings of Saturn having their own atmosphere is the fake one.

P: I think so.

S: OK. Evan?

E: I'm going to agree with Perry this week. I think—

S: OK.

E: I think, number two, the moons of asteroids is entirely feasible. There's a lot of material out there and some pretty big asteroids. It would not surprise me at all that some other satellites—some very small satellites have taken orbit around one of the larger asteroids. And the third one just, again, also sounds very plausible to me. Whereas the rings of Saturn, the first one... I always believed to be ice and mud yet to say it has its own atmosphere is a stretch, so I'll agree with Perry and say number one was the incorrect one.

S: All righty. Bob?

B: Tough one, Steve. Let's see, rings... the rings of Saturn have their own atmosphere. That's... that's damn bizarre. I mean, you've got particles from, you know, bigger than a bus or a house to dust-mote-sized. And you could—the smaller the particles get, the more you could say is gaseous and therefore you could say, "Oh. It's got an atmosphere." But the accumulated mass of the rings would be significant, but the gravitational pull would be pretty diffuse. I don't know about that one. That's bizarre. I don't like that one at all. The asteroid that has a moon. That's—this is going to be a semantic thing, because I don't think that an asteroid can have a moon. It could have—it could be binary asteroids orbiting around each other but...

S: Just to clarify I said moons. Plural.

B: Tell me again exactly the quote then.

S: One of the asteroids in the asteroid belt is large enough to have its own moons. Plural.

B: Well, Ceres, C-E-R-E-S, is the largest—is the largest asteroid in the meteor belt between Mars and Jupiter. It's a hundred miles across. Doesn't get any bigger than that in the asteroid belt. A hundred miles? I mean... that—the gravitational pull of a rock that big. I mean, you could jump and go into orbit.

S: Right. (chuckles) It's a pretty weak gravitational pull.

B: It's pretty weak. So, I mean, conceivably a tiny—tiny bits of rock could maybe—I guess it's possible, but calling it a moon.

P: I mean, what's the definition of a moon?

B: Well it's—yeah, that's—that's tough one too because—I mean we call our moon a moon but it's really...

E: A satellite.

B: It's really more of a binary planetary system cause there's no other... I mean, there's no other planet, except maybe Pluto, that's got a satellite...

S: Pluto and Charon, yeah.

B: Yeah. A satellite that's so close in mass to the primary planet. You could really—I mean, look at Mercury. I mean, I think the moon is—Mercury is only a little bit bigger than... than our moon. And there's—there's some... Titan—Titan is actually bigger than Mercury. So it's a lot of fuzz, a lot of grey areas. You can tell I'm stalling. Umm...


B: Let's see. Active volcano Titan. That's entirely plausible. It's a—It's a satellite of... Jupiter.

S: Saturn. Saturn.

B: OK. It's a...

S: It's the largest moon in the solar system...

B: I know that.

S: and it's a satellite of Saturn.

B: OK. I keep forgetting which one that one's orbiting. All right, I wonder—now... because it's so close to such a huge gas giant—I mean the tidal forces depending on its orbital distance is so huge. I mean that's why some of these moons have so many volcanos because they're—the tidal forces are just turning the planets inside out. So they're so incredibly active that any—like any surveys you have the surface are like out of date within a very brief period time.

S: Mm hmm. You're describing Io basically.

B: Right. Io. But, I mean, Titan—I mean, it's orbiting around Saturn, another huge planet with an immense gravitational pull, so it—the tidal forces could be enough to—for it to have a volcano, although...

P: I'm sorry, Mr. Novella; I must go over your answer.


S: Your time is up.

B: I'm going to go with an active volcano on Titan.

S: You think that's the fake one?

B: Yeah. It's too plausible.


S: OK.

E: So you're going to start with number two?

P: There ya go.

S: Um...

E: Cause no one picked that.

P: You should (inaudible)

S: Everyone agrees that number two is accurate then.

B: Eh...

E: That's my—that's my amateur opinion. Yes.

B: Nomenclature is...

S: So, all right, let's start with number two then. Number two is, in fact, correct.

E: There ya go.

S: Now, Bob, you're right. I mean there—in that there's a fuzzy line between two objects sort of entangled in each other's gravity and something that could be—meaningfully be called a "moon". However, astronomers are calling these two satellites "moons". Also, what's unique is that this is the first—this is the first asteroid triplet discovered. There are many doublets. There are many times where there are two asteroids that are—you know obviously... revolving about the sun but are also revolving about each other. They are caught in each other's gravitational pull.

B: Now I wonder if it was part of a—one big asteroid that broke up and just kind of stayed within the gravitational influence of each other.

S: Now they... it seems more these were captured.

B: Captured? OK.

S: This did—the asteroid is two hundred and eighty kilometer wide body, called 87 Sylvia, first sighted in 1866. Scientists have spotted—four years ago they spotted that it had the first moon and now they discovered the second moon of the same asteroid, of the 87 Sylvia, making it the first triplet. They are—the size difference is enough and—that they are calling those smaller satellites—

B: OK. Yeah. All right.

S: —asteroids moons of 87 Sylvia.

B: OK. I can see that. Now wait, a little asteroid trivia: whenever they show an asteroid belt in—in the—in science fiction movies, without fail, they show immense boulders hurtling—

S: Right.

B: —around in very close proximity to each other all going in different—with different trajectories. Which is—which is pretty visually interesting, but of course, if you think about it, pretty damn silly because how long would it take for all those asteroids to be so far apart that you wouldn't even see one if you were on top of the other one. And that's exactly how it is in our asteroid belt. If you were riding along on an asteroid and you looked around you would not see any other asteroids nearby. So it—they're pretty sparsely populated out there, but still.

E: You're saying when Han Solo went flying through that asteroid belt...

S: (laughs)

E: that he was not flying through the asteroid—our asteroid belt. (laughs)

S: Well it's a galaxy far, far away now.


P: I saw it with my own eyes.

E: (laughs)

S: Now some other—some other facts about this asteroid just that are interesting. The names of the two moons are Romulus and Remus.

B: (laughs)

E: Oh, the founders of Rome?


S: Yes. Also the two planets in the Romulan planetary system. Also, the density of—of the larger asteroid, Sylvis [sic] is only twenty percent higher than that of water, so it's pretty light. Sylvia. And, astronomers think that it is a so-called "rubble pile asteroid," which means that it's not one solid rock. It's actually a bunch of rocks that are stuck together by their mutual gravitational pull.

E: Remarkable.

S: But it's not—the gravitational pull is not strong enough to fuse them together like it would with a larger world. And that these two moons are probably... debris from the same collision that created the rubble pile, is one of the theories. But they—that they were captured by the—later captured by the gravitational pull of Sylvia. So interesting. So, we're down to: the rings of Saturn and the volcano on Titan. The rings of Saturn, now... when I read this I knew this had to be a Science or Fiction. This is true, guys.

E: Ah, man.

S: It struck me as odd, too, but the Cassini spacecraft

E: Right.

S: —which has been investigating the "majestic rings of Saturn" as NASA likes to say, has detected—the instruments on Cassini has detected that there is, in fact, an atmosphere within the rings of Saturn. The atmosphere is not an extension of Saturn's atmosphere. It is a distinct—its own distinct atmosphere.

B: But couldn't it be just absolutely miniscule chunks of the rings themselves? I mean—I mean it's really just, what? Ice and rock, right?

S: It's not miniscule chunks. It's actually molecular oxygen. So it's a gas.

E: And that defines an atmosphere?

B: Molecular oxygen? Interesting.

S: They say that it's very similar to the atmospheres—the very, very faint atmospheres that have been discovered on Europa and Ganymede.

B: Oh, so it's a remnant of the satellite that—might have broken up and...

S: Well, this is a different planet now, Bob. But, it could be similar origins.

B: No, but I'm saying—I'm saying—I mean what's the leading theory as to the genesis of the Saturn's rings? It might—

S: Yeah. It's possible a moon came too close—

B: Right. And tidal forces ripped it apart.

S: Ripped it apart.

B: But...

S: It could be a remnant of the atmosphere of that moon.

B: That's what I meant. That's what I meant.

S: Right. Right. OK.

B: OK. That's interesting.

P: I think it's quite obvious that the craft is malfunctioning.


P: It's spent a long time in space and it's sending back false data.

B: There's actually—Did you know—I heard—I was watching a very interesting show on Discovery and they were discussing about debris orbiting a planet after a collision and there's—there's a limit—I believe it's call the Roche limit that if the debris is within this limit, orbiting a planet, that the debris will slowly rain down back on the planet.

E: Wow.

B: And if it's outside that limit, the Roche limit, it will go in permanent orbit. And the show claimed that the rings of Saturn are within the Roche limit of Saturn and eventually the rings will rain down on Saturn and disappear.

S: Right.

B: And, I believe, that's what happened to the ring around Earth. When we—when we used to have a ring. Ya know, decades ago. Or billions of years ago.

E: Stand by over the next twenty of thirty million years. We'll see what happens to those rings.

S: Actually one of the—according the article on NASA, one of hypotheses as to the origins of the—this oxygen atmosphere is that water is essentially vaporized by sunlight off of some of the ice within the rings and the sunlight splits it into hydrogen and atomic oxygen and molecular oxygen and then the hydrogen and atomic oxygen are lost leaving behind molecular oxygen, which then clings to the rings as an atmosphere.

E: Interesting.

B: I dunno. I have a problem with calling it an atmosphere, but...

S: Well, send an e-mail to NASA.

E: (laughs)

S: I agree, obviously these are stretching the definitions of what's a moon, what's an atmosphere; these are things that are on the edge.

B: It's just a gas that happens to be in orbit along with the other parts of the ring.

P: We have a pseudo-moon, a malfunctioning craft and what about the third one?

S: OK. The third one is—

B: False.

S: —a volcano on Titan. It's just false. It's just not true. Now there's—Bob, you hit on the head in terms of Io's—why there are active volcanos on Io, which is actually the only other place in the solar system where there is an active volcano, other than the Earth. It's because Io is pretty close to the limit, the La Roche limit [sic]. If it were any closer to Jupiter it would broken up and just become another ring. But the tidal forces of Jupiter are pushing and pulling on Io so that it's molten, continuously, and it's basically turning itself inside out.

B: Literally, yep.

S: So it's constantly spewing essentially volcanic material, sulfur largely, on—from its core on—back onto its surface. The only other cause of an active volcano is if you have a planet whose core is still molten from its origin.

B: Right.

S: And therefore there's plate tectonics and fissures and volcanoes.

B: And a magnetic field.

S: And perhaps a magnetic field. The only rocky world that still that has that in our solar system is Earth. Both Venus and Mars, our closest neighbors in size and location, have long—their crust has long since solidified over. So they no—they have—there's evidence on both Venus and Mars that they had volcanos in the past, but they're not active.

B: Well Olympus... Right. Olympus Mons is the biggest... the biggest volcano in the solar system.

S: Yes.

B: It's bigger than Everest, I believe.

S: Yeah. No, it's huge. But not active. Titan is definitely too small to have—to have a crust that is not yet solidified. Because you can calculate how many years it would—it takes for these planets to solidify.

B: Right.

S: So the only hope for Titan is that the—it's similar—would be that it would be similar to Io in that tidal forces are the keeping the plates active.

B: But it's too far away.

S: But, I think, it's too far away. Yeah. It's too far away from Saturn for that. So, we haven't found any active volcanoes on Titan, and we don't expect to. If we did, then that would be a big surprise. That would be news. Maybe next week we will discover that and my...

B: Yeah. Right?

S: I'll add another notch to my prophecy belt. So anyway, that is the fake one for this week. The theme was the solar system. You guys did a pretty good job of thinking about the issues, but this was—I think this was—I kept it pretty challenging.

Children's Books (36:52)[edit]

S: So, Evan, you were telling me that you were looking over some of the books that others have bought for your two-year-old daughter, Rachel. Why don't you tell us about them?

E: I was going through her books the other day and she's, of course, in her two years has a received a lot of books. She's developed quite a library. And two books that just happened to be right next to each other on the shelf were two books, one's called, On the Day You Were Born and the other book's called, God Made You Special. So, the first book, On the Day You Were Born, I open it up and I'll just read you a couple passages of what they've written in here. Very nice pictures. Very nice drawings. And it reads,

On the day you were born, the round planet Earth turned towards your morning sky, whirling past darkness, spinning the night into light. On the day you were born, gravity's strong pull held you to the Earth, with a promise that you would never float away. On the day you were born, a forest of tall trees, collected the suns light in their leaves, where in silent mystery they made oxygen for you to breathe. While close to your skin, and high as the sky, air rushed and blew about, invisibly protecting you and all living things on Earth.

This is a book of, obviously, explaining natural science in a nice presentable way for a young mind to understand. And they—in the back, in sort of an index form, they talk a little bit more about all the subjects they cover in the body of the book.

S: Mm hmm.

E: They explain what pulling gravity is, for instance:

Every object in the universe is pulled to every other object. This force is—This force of attraction is called gravity. Even though all objects attract each other people are most affected by the pull by the closest, most massive object, which is the Earth.

And it goes on, of course, so.

S: Yeah. That's great. Yeah, it's definitely never too early to nurture curiosity and interest in science and the natural world in young ones. I think especially at that age, kids have a natural curiosity that can erode as they get older unless it is nurtured, in my opinion.

E: It definitely can. It was a wonderful from a good a friend and I was very, very happy to have received that for Rachel's library.

S: But it contrasts sharply with the other book that you had noticed.

E: The other book, called, God Made You Special, is also very colorful and this one explains the origins of vegetables with characters like Larry the Cucumber, Bob the Tomato...

S: Shouldn't it be Tim the Tomato?


E: You'd think so.

S: Chris the Cucumber.

E: Archy Asparagus.

P: This thing explains the origin of vegetables?

E: Yes.


E: It does. Well, let me—let me read for you.

S: Well, Perry, now some people—some people are vegetables, so...

P: I suppose. That's fine.

E: Here we go.

I'm Archy the Asparagus.

I'm reading from the book now.

S: Now that makes sense. Archy the Asparagus.


Like most other veggies, I'm also quite green. Like Larry,

referring to the cucumber before,

I have neither hips nor a chin so God made me special by making me thin.

(chuckles) Let's go to Larry. Let's see what,

I'm Larry the cucumber, I'm here to say, God made me special, in his own special way. God made me special by making me green. Without any hips I'm tall and I'm lean. God made us special. It's part of his job. And to say how he's special here's my friend, Bob.

And it continues and it goes through all—a lot of vegetables and all of the were—well, according to this book, created by God. So, what we effectively have here in comparing these two books is what I consider the battle for my child's mind as far as what she's going to be learning as she grown up and as—

S: And believe.

E: —and believe that at—especially at these early stages. I mean, it's going to be up to me, later, when she gets a little bit more of a grasp of these things, she's going to come and ask me, "Did God make tomatoes? Did God create all the vegetables? Did God create me?" And I now have to go back and explain the differences between the two. And, someone like myself, and of course Steve, you're a parent; Bob, you're a parent; we have—we have the tools as skeptics to be able to differentiate and rationally explain to our children what exactly is going on here. But, sadly, unfortunately, most parents out there, who will have the same book on their shelf, will have no tools and no skills to explain to their children really what's going on here.

S: Certainly the topic of indoctrinating or teaching young children can be a very emotional one. I think people feel compelled to pass on their belief system to the next generation. Which is fine if it's your own kids. That's every parent's prerogative. But it is interesting how, ya know, friends and relatives sort of passive aggressively buy you gifts of books for your children that are really designed to indoctrinate them into their beliefs, even if they are not in line with your own beliefs. My daughters, they're six and almost three now and they have a few books on their shelf that—they're not—they're not bad like endorsing creationism or anything like that but they're certainly endorsing the politics and philosophy of the person who gave the book even though they're not quite in line with my own. One that stands out is called My Daddy is a Pretzel and it's all about yoga. Not that there's anything wrong with yoga as a form of exercise or stretching, but some people attach a lot of spirituality—

E: Mysticism.

S: —mysticism to yoga and the book sort of endorses that. It's not exactly the kind of book that I would prefer for my children. Although, I think, that they're—even the older—my older daughter, Julia, who is six, doesn't pick up on the sort of mystical aspect of the book. She just thinks it's funny that, you know, this person is being twisted into a lot of different shapes.

E: It's interesting...

S: But it's funny.

E: because she's not aware of—how can she be?

S: Yeah.

E: These are children. They're not aware yet at the same time it starts to, I think, develop sort of a base in their mind by which they'll start to build other beliefs based on, for instance, mysticism. Based on creationism.

S: Yeah.

E: These things will start to perhaps add up in their mind and it just becomes...

S: Right. Right.

E: That's much more challenging for a parent who cares about differentiating between faith and science.

Raising Children Skeptically[edit]

P: Well, as you mentioned, Evan, I am the only one here that's child-free but do the three of you plan on raising your daughters—you all have daughters—in a non-religious environment?

S: That—I certainly do and that's cause—just—that's my faith or lack thereof. I see no reason why people who have a particular faith are expected to and are certainly granted the right to raise their children in their faith and yet—why shouldn't I as an agnostic raise my children—at least within their own choice to tell them that I'm an agnostic. This is why I'm an agnostic. This is, I think, what makes most sense. They're ultimately going to make up their own mind, but I think, some parents who are non-believers and—whether in and of themselves or they feel the pressure from society—like somehow there's this double standard where it's OK to indoctrinate a child into faith but it's not OK to indoctrinate them into no faith. And I think that that's wrong. I think it's a double standard. My plan is to expose my daughters to a lot of ideas. She has to know that this is what people believe. In face, just tonight I was reading her a bedtime story about the soles of your feet and the palms of your hand and it was talking about the lines in your hand and I was telling her, "Some people believe that you can tell things about people's life and personality by the lines in their hands. Isn't that silly?" And she started laughing, "Yeah. That's really silly." So, I don't mind letting her know about how I feel about things. I also think it's really important to—although I think the book that you were quoting is very good to—I have lots of books like that for my daughters about the universe and about the animals and about the ocean that gets them interested in just knowing a lot of facts about animals, but I think it's also important and, in fact, I was giving a lecture about skepticism and science to some high school science teachers and they asked me what my opinion was about how to teach children science. And what I said was I think it's important to teach them to ask questions. Not to accept things authoritatively. And when they do ask a question not to give them an authoritative answer.

E: Well that's my—that's certainly my opinion on this. I know Rachel will soon be entering an age, in the next coming years, in which I'm going to be bombarded with a lot of questions.

S: Yeah.

E: I want—I want to be able to, like you said, have her think about it.

S: Right.

E: Think about the possibilities. At the same time I'm not about endorse something that I know, obviously, isn't true, like that God created vegetables.

S: Yeah. I don't think you should feel any pressure to, also, cause if that's not in line with your worldview, you shouldn't be—feel obligated to expose your child to it in a favorable way. I do think, in terms of getting back to the que—to children asking science questions, I think it's a great opportunity to teach them to be critical thinkers and my approach has been... when my older daughter, Julia, asks—and she's six so she's already asking a ton of questions about why is this and why is that?—is to, again, rather than just giving her the answer, first I give her a lot of positive feedback for asking the question. It's like, "Wow. That's a great question, Julia. You really are thinking about that." And then ask her back, "Well, how could we possibly know about that? How would we know?" And then we sort of work it out together. And the stuff she comes up with is really fascinating. She clearly can think very abstractly and creatively.

P: That's pretty good for six. So I guess the goal then is to really—is to teach them to be critical thinkers and let religion take care of itself.

S: I think, and I think it would, but it's always a risk. I do—one secular humanist parent told that they basically took the approach of what you just said. Teach them to be critical thinkers but basically say nothing about religion and their children will grow up and make up their own mind, which they're going to do anyway. And they—and it turned out that his daughter became a Buddhist and he was not happy about that, and he thought, in retrospect, that perhaps he made a mistake by leaving it so open ended. Again, I don't have the answer. I'm certainly not telling people what to do when it comes to that. But, his conclusion was, if I had to do it over again I would have indoctrinated her into non-belief, basically. I don't believe in strong indoctrination of children. I think, again—I agree with you, Perry. I think, that leading people to critical thinking is the way to go. But, again, I think that—what I—what I'm going to choose to do is to do that, but at the same time let my—I'm not going to shy away from telling them what I believe and what I feel.

B: How straightforward are you, Steve? To your oldest? How—How straightforward have you been with her? Do you say...

S: I've told her flat out, "Some people believe that there is God," cause she's heard about this concept from her friends and neighbors, and—"but mommy and daddy don't believe in that. And we don't think—we think that the world occurred naturally." And her responses on it are at—so far are very superficial and child-like. She's not really expressing any kind of opinion about it. It's just—often she'll look away and then she'll start talking about something completely unrelated. Who knows...

E: But that doesn't mean that—

S: what's really going on...

E: —you're not having an impression on her now.

S: Right.

B: Right.

S: We'll see.

E: You'll see how it plays out in the next couple years.

S: We will see.

B: But also you're kind of lucky because you and your wife both are agnostics—

S: Right.

B: —where my situation is different where I'm an agnostic and my wife is somewhat religious. Not very, at all, but she believes in God.

S: She's a Christian. Yeah.

B: It's not like we go to church every Sunday or anything like that or she does it's very rare that they actually go...

S: Right.

B: But, it puts me in a little bit of a tough position and what I've been doing is just—just following her lead and seeing what she comes up with and I'm actually waiting for some—I don't know. At some point I'm going to get much more straight through with her—

S: Yeah.

B: —but, she's come out with a couple things that haven't—

S: Yeah, you told me one about—tell us that.

B: We were—out of the blue she just said something to the effect of, "I don't want to be a Christian anymore. I don't believe in God."

E: Wow.

B: And of course my jaw hit the floor and I'm like, "Well, why? Why do you say that?" She's like, "Well, how could you believe in God? What about God's parents? And what about their parents? Where did they come from? And how could he make the world?" and all this stuff.

S: And as far as you know she thought of that all on her own.

B: Completely. Completely. I've asked her about it.

S: Yeah.

B: I mean, it's hard to say where she gets ideas, but it seemed something that she'd been thinking about and it—she seemed very genuine.

P: It's very interesting.

B: And I was very impressed with it and I said—and I told her, "Ashley, that is a great question."

P: (laughs)

S: Yeah.

B: I didn't leap immediately leap into, you know, ding ding ding ding, "You got it!"


B: I didn't do that, yet.

S: Let's go get some ice cream.


B: I explained to her how—what a good question that is and kinda went from there but...

S: You know what else? Sometimes Julia will ask me a question and something that I don't know the answer to and I'll tell her, "You know sweetheart, that's a good question. I don't know the answer. Let's go find out." Or sometimes she'll ask a question that no one knows the answer to and I'll tell her, "Nobody knows. That's a mystery that we haven't solved yet. Maybe you'll be the person to grow up and figure out what the answer is." So, I think—and she's fascinated by the fact that adults aren't all equal authority figures.

E: Really?

S: You know like when mommy and daddy disagree on something she totally hones in on that. It's like, "Huh. Mommy and daddy disagree with each other. One of them has to be wrong."

P: Steve, you're—

S: And that's fascinating to her.

P: You and your wife disagree on things?


S: Occasionally. It happens occasionally. So, anyway, I'm trying to sow the seeds of not—not having absolute trust in authority, trying to figure things out for herself, feeling good about asking questions, thinking about not only what the answer is but how we know and how we could know, and investigation is the way to find the answer, not just accepting it from an authority figure. And hopefully this will bear the fruit that I wish it to, but we'll—it remains to be seen.

E: So parent—So some advice for parents out there: pay attention to books on the shelf, be prepared—and be prepared to be very patient with your children when it comes to these questions, and encourage them to try think it out for themselves and more often than not they'll eventually... they should reach the correct conclusions.

S: Now, some people ask me—many, many interviewers interview me about running the skeptical society and almost as like a humorous aside reporters love asking this question. "So, do you tell your daughters about—that there is no Santa Claus?"

E: Right.

S: Like, am I a total spoilsport? And I, what I tell them is, "Like, no, listen, they absorb belief in the Easter bunny and Santa Claus from the culture, from TV shows, and I let them have that. It's a magical fun thing." I don't know, I really—I don't know if Julia really believes in Santa Claus or if she's going along with it because it's fun and it doesn't matter because—

B: Really?

S: —like every other person she'll figure it out when she grows up. That Santa Claus—I have no fear that she'll be—go to be an adult and still believe in Santa Claus. And, in fact, I think, and some people have argued, that that's a good experience for them. They have this sort of belief in a magical, God-like figure, Santa Claus, with lots of miraculous, really unscientific, unrealistic claims about what he can do and as they grow older they figure out that it's not real. And sometimes they might—they might even conduct an experiment like, staying up at night and seeing what happens.

P: I think it's just a warm, pleasant tradition. There's nothing wrong with it.

S: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. My-my family—I still celebrate Christmas with my wife. It's a time of getting together with the family and appreciating people that you love. So, Bob and Evan—well, Evan, you're not Christian; you're Jewish, so the whole Santa Claus thing doesn't come up.

E: No but that doesn't mean—in thinking back on it when I was seven—about seven years old or so and I had formulated my opinion about Santa Claus even though my—obviously I was raised Jewish, I was—I am Jewish, but I still had an opinion about Santa Claus. And I figured out then Santa Claus has to be an impossibility. How can he fly? How can he do what he does?

S: Right.

E: I was very skeptical about these things early on, especially the myths. I never believed in the tooth fairy. I never had exposure or believed in an Easter bunny. A lot of these things—they don't have the equivalency in the Jewish religion, frankly.

S: Mm hmm.

E: They're more bib—they're really more biblically based than they are...

P: There's no Hanukkah Harry or...

E: (laughs) Right. No there's not. There's nothing like that but there are things like the spirit of Elijah that comes into your house during the celebration of Passover.

P: I remember that. You're supposed to leave the door open or something.

E: Right. That's correct. Elijah being the savior. The Jesus of the future for the Jewish people. That's who Elijah is.

S: Right. Now did you—do you believe in Elijah as a child the same way that Christians have Santa Claus?

E: Initially, I did, but I think by probably about the time I was nine or ten years old I realized is really when I pretty much abandoned any lingering beliefs I had in spirits and that sort of—that sort of fantasy and aspect of the religion.

P: Somewhat impressive coming from your household, I might add.

E: Oh, sure. Well,...

P: (laughs) Seriously

E: (laughs) Look we all have our relatives and loved ones that—

P: Hear hear. Hear hear.

E: —that cover a wide spectrum of beliefs and my family is no stranger to that.

Are Humans Naturally Scientific or Gullible?[edit]

S: One last point on this topic and I think that we're out of time for this show. There has been a little bit of debate among skeptics about what is the natural state for people, for humans, in terms of—are humans naturally scientific or naturally gullible. Now, Carl Sagan took the position that children are natural scientists; they're curious. He would speak quite frequently at schools, to children, cause he enjoyed doing that and his observation was which I be—he writes about it in one of his books—I believe The Demon Haunted World—about young children in grade school ask very good questions. They're extremely curious. They ask follow-up questions. They're less inhibited. And then by the time you get to sort of the preteen and high school years, the students are—they don't ask very good question. They're, in fact, shy and inhibited. They're afraid of sounding stupid in front of their peers. They're sort of encouraged to go along with the crowd and not be individuals and not think for themselves. So, in his opinion, he says that we're basically born with a natural curiosity of scientists but it gets beaten out of us by essentially an anti-intellectual and conformist culture.

E: Didn't Sagan also write—and I can't recall what book it was, and I think someone had told me about it—that perhaps, though, there was an evolutionary advantage to people to have a belief in a supernatural being, in an afterlife, and this somehow actually allowed our species to live a little bit longer than it would had it not embraced those sorts of...

S: Yeah. That gets to the whole evolutionary psychology thing which, I think, is probably a topic for another show. But—what are the evolutionary pressures that led to the hardwiring of the brain as it is today. For example, we appear to be hardwired to believe in something transcendent beyond ourselves. And there's a lot of speculation that that enabled us to essentially think of our group, our tribe, our people, our society as something bigger or greater than ourselves and that there's an evolutionary advantage to that because if—if individuals sacrifice themselves for the greater good, there's an actual evolutionary advantage to that in terms of your own genes surviving into future generations, because essentially you're saving your—people who are closely related to you. But, that's very controversial. You might remember that we spoke to Massimo Pigliucci about that[3]. He is not a fan of the evolutionary psychology because essentially their ideas are not testable. So it's hard to do rigorous science on those ideas. But to finish my original point about Carl Sagan's model, that we're sort of born scientists and then it gets crushed out of us by society, others have taken the opposite point of view saying that science is more about being disciplined and that children are born with magical thinking without really understanding the rules of evidence or logic. We have a lot of inherent or ingrained, sort of, counterintuitive thinking or illogical thinking and again—or magically thinking and that to be a scientist you need to learn discipline, which only comes with training and maturity. So those two positions appear to be at odds, although—and, in fact, they—Carl Sagan argued in writing with proponents of the other view in his own books. But, I think, that actually they're both right. I think that there's two primary characteristics to being a good scientific thinker: You need to have—be open minded and curious and investigational but you also need to be disciplined and rigorous and one we're born with and needs to be nurtured and encouraged and the other is learned and comes only with maturity and training. It's the combination of the two, sort of the exuberant speculative imagination with the rigorous discipline of science.

E: Sounds correct to me, Steve.

S: And—and I think, Einstein endorsed that point of view. He—his—he famously said that, something to the effect that scientific discovery is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration[4], by which he meant that you need to have the—that leap of imagination to think of things in a new way but that's only—you're only one percent of the way there. You need to do the ninety-nine percent of the hard work. The detailed and rigorous work to show that it's actually correct, and it's that ninety-nine percent perspiration that makes science, science.

E: And to have the discipline and the—and to know when—if you are following a theory or—or you're in pursuit of it and you're coming up with evidence that is negative as far as supporting the theory—

S: Mm hmm. Right.

E: —you have to be able to accept that and—in fact if it does leave you nowhere—

S: Absolutely.

E: —you have to be able to, you know, let it go and pursue something else. And that's where a lot of, even professional, scientists, I think, kind of lose their way. They're so...

B: Sure. They're so enamored—they're so enamored of their pet theories that—I mean, there's a saying. I wish I could remember the exact saying. Something to the effect that—I—theories and ideas change when the new generation of scientists come up and the other ones die. Because...

S: Right.

B: Even scientists...

S: Advances are made on the graves of the older generation of scientists. I think that was probably more true in the past. Science is—

B: So fast. Yeah.

S: —progressing too rapidly for ideas to become too ingrained. It is still true to some degree. The fact that there are constantly new generations of scientists who have to make their career, basically, by doing something new is good at driving the engines of change, the engines of innovation in science, but I don't think it's any longer true that you really have to wait for the older generation of scientists to die—

B: Right.

S: —before the new ideas can take any foothold.

Conclusion (1:02:34)[edit]

S: So, I think, that is a good place to stop. Again, just to conclude, I think that my final thought was that ninety-nine percent, the perspiration, that's a lot—basically what we're talking about a lot on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe and, I think, it's that ninety-nine percent that distinguishes genuine science from pseudoscience. Pseudoscientists are really good at the one percent, about the inspiration. Coming up with neat-sounding fantastical ideas to explain things, but they really fall down when it comes to sort of the rigorous work—day-to-day work of science. Sort of proving that their ideas are true or not true. So, with that final thought, again, Bob, Perry, Evan, thank you for joining me.

E: Thank you, Steve.

B: My pleasure.

P: Good night.

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

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]

  • The orbital period of Pluto is actually 246.04 years. Or maybe 248 years.
  • Saturn's rings have their own atmosphere[5]
  • An asteroid in the asteroid belt is large enough to have its own moons[6]


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