SGU Episode 102

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SGU Episode 102
3rd July 2007
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 101                      SGU 103

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis

Quote of the Week

The primary tool of science is skepticism, whose light shrivels unquestioning faith.

Mike Huben

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday July 3rd 2007, and this is your host Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella -

B: Hey everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson -

R: Hello everyone.

S: Perry DeAngelis -

P: (mumbling) Good evening

S: Jay Novella -

J: Hey guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

This Day in Skepticism (0:33)[edit]

E: Welcome to the dog days of summer everyone.

R: That's the best you've got?

E: Well, today's the official first dog day of summer.

R: The – what? That's not even a thing, you made that up.

E: No it's not, I'm looking at it right now on the internet, it must be true.

J: Rebecca, you've never heard of that?

R: I've heard of the dog days of summer, I -

S: You don't think it's real?

R: I don't think there's an official dog day.

E: According to this website.

S: And tomorrow is a very special day as everybody knows. Tomorrow July 4th is Bob's birthday.

B: Yeah.

R: Ohhhhh.

J/R/E: Happy birthday, Bob

B: Thank you. Also Independence Day.

J: Bob, how old are you?

B: Ah, according to that carny, thirty two, the blind carny.

J: Do you smell like cabbage, Bob?

S: You don't have to tell us how old you are in reality Bob if you don't want to.

E: You're younger than the country.

S: And of course happy Independence Day out there to all of our fellow Americans.

B: Oh, yeah, that too.

E: Yes.

News Items[edit]

Barry L. Beyerstein 1947-2007 (1:23)[edit]

S: Unfortunately we have to start this show with some very sad news. Barry Beyerstein who we interviewed actually just a couple of months ago, (see episode 94) a very nice guy, passed away last week very unexpectedly. From what I hear he had a massive heart attack. Apparently, the story that I have so far is that he passed out the week before, was admitted to the hospital, was evaluated, was essentially cleared. But because of the episode a cardiac work-up was planned, but before it could be completed he then had a massive heart attack and died.

B: Oh, god.

J: Steve, what would have happened if they gave him the exam before the heart attack?

S: Well, it depends, they could have had either a by-pass or angioplasty and it could have prevented it. If the work-up was done quicker of if he just didn't have a heart attack so quickly after his initial symptoms.

P: Do you know if an autopsy is performed?

S: I have not heard either way but I doubt it. Unless the family requests it, it's not something that would be done routinely.

P: It's another kick in the teeth for the skeptical movement, that's for sure.

S: Yeah, it stinks to lose good people so young, he was only sixty, so it was definitely a premature and unexpected death. Of course our sympathies go out to his family and his daughter. His daughter actually blogged about her father. We'll have the link to that, it was very nice. Barry was a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and they've been putting out a retrospective and tribute to him as well. So we'll link to that.

P: Well you sound in your blog Steve, that when you peel it all away, the sort of core of the skeptical movement really isn't all that big.

S: Yeah.

P: And we get to know these people. You in particular with Barry. It's a real loss, when we lose some of these people.

S: Yeah, it's a close circle, the inner circle of the skeptical movement, it isn't that many people really. You do get to know everybody and you do feel -

E: Four or five of us. Some days it feels like that.

S: It hurts, it really is a big loss when you lose somebody like Barry. And I also said, he was, again without exaggeration, the single nicest guy I've met in the skeptical movement. He was just a really nice guy. I think if you listen to the interview that we did with him, it really comes across, he's just very very upbeat, cheery guy.

J: Yeah, he definitely was one of those people that everything was a good mood, everything was positive.

S: Mmm hmm.

J: And he just made me feel good just talking to him on and off the air.

S: Yeah.

P: He was surprisingly lively.

R: That's one of the people we most need in the skeptics movement because it shows people that we're not just all cynics, there are people out there who are enjoyable to be around

S: Yeah, we certainly don't do that.


R: I mean no, yeah, we do the opposite of that. He's definitely going to be missed though.

S: Definitely. So this is our Skeptics' Guide tribute to Barry Beyerstein, he definitely will be missed.

P: So long Barry.

Herbal Link to Liver Failure (4:22)[edit]

S: The next news item is actually two herbal remedy-related news items. The first one has to do with black cohosh which is an herb that is used for women to treat the symptoms of menopause. The article discusses the fact that there have actually been quite a number of cases world-wide of sudden and total liver failure related to use of this herb, of the herb black cohosh. [1]

P: Liver's one of those important organs, right?

R: Sometimes.

S: Yeah, it's kind of an important organ. So this discusses four new cases in Australia of complete liver failure requiring liver transplant. That's complete - basically they would have died without a liver transplant. Again, we point this out because yet again it makes the point that herbs are drugs, there is nothing magical or different about them, they're not somehow not drugs just because they're derived from plants. They're drugs - they can have the same risks as drugs, they can have organ toxicity just like drugs do, and they really should be researched, marketed and regulated like drugs. I think -

R: The thing is, I think at this point, correct me if I'm wrong, - I'm not sure – but we're not positive that the black cohosh caused the liver damage, right, because from what I've read it seems like it just hasn't been studied enough at this point and we don't even know the extent of what it will do to a person's liver, and there are a lot of other possible side effects it might have, so because it's not studied in depth in the way that your regular medicine would be, we just don't know.

S: Well, that's sort of true, we don't have the kind of clinical trials that we would do prior to a drug being on the market. But even when drugs get out on the market, there is still the "after market" research that is done, and this kind of information that we have on black cohosh is exactly the same as the kind of information we would have after the market for drugs.

R: Right.

S: If the same number people taking a prescription drug had liver failure and had to get liver transplants, the drug would be pulled from the market or at the very least the data would be reviewed, it wold probably get a black, what we call a "black box warning" in the United States where the FDA puts a black box warning on the drug. They might include the requirement for monitoring of liver function tests while on the medication. But none of those safety precautions are now in place with black cohosh because it's not a drug, it's a "supplement."

R: Yeah, I think that the worst that's happened is is Australia's put some kind of warning on the label saying that the product might contain black cohosh which might cause harm to the liver.

S: Right.

J: Steve, do they know what the doses were? Because almost anything can damage your liver if you take too much of it.

S: Yeah, that's a good point, and in general we don't really have a good idea of what the dose is in the herbal preparations because they're not controlled well enough to know what the actual dose is in an individual pill or preparation or water or whatever. So the answer to that is "no," although generally the amounts of active ingredients tend to be on the low side because they're not purified. It tends to be lower than prescription drugs. But the bottom line is you don't know, and it could be that this is cropping up in those products that maybe have a higher than average concentration of certain constituents in the black cohosh, certain chemicals. Again, lots of questions we don't have the answer to because research is not required prior to marketing these things.

P: Because our laws are insane when it comes to supplements, that's why.

S: They're not in line with the science.

P: No. And the Supplemental Safety Bill's been languishing in Congress since '03, you can't get anything passed. It really, it's created an insane environment.

B: Unfortunately it will probably take a lot of deaths before people really start seriously considering regulating these supplements.

S: Yeah, we joked about the fact that it will take probably a celebrity death to really bring the issue to the forefront. Just regular deaths may no be enough unless it's actually a large number of them. It actually didn't, there were about a hundred or so deaths linked to ephedra and that didn't really change the market at all -

B: Wow.

S: - but it was enough evidence for the FDA to pull it from the market, so the FDA can't block herbs from getting to the market but if the FDA meets a burden of proof that it's harmful, then they can use that to pull something from the market and since 1994, ephedra is the only thing the FDA's been able to pull from the market because of evidence that it wasn't safe. And that's being challenged, that's being challenged by some of the companies who make ephedra. So, we'll see if the FDA, I mean six deaths or a dozen deaths probably are not enough evidence for the FDA to pull black cohosh from the market of the United States. Again, they have a pretty high burden of proof to prove something is unsafe before they can take it off the market. Again, it is completely backwards to what would really make sense based upon a scientific approach.

P: Maybe Paris Hilton can do something useful with her life. Just a thought, just a thought.


Echinacea Meta-analysis (9:40)[edit]

S: Alrighty. The other herb related news has to do with echinacea. There is a recent meta-analysis, ooh, it's almost a bad word on this podcast -

R: You know how we feel about those.

S: - published, looking at fourteen studies, looking at the efficacy of echinacea as an herbal extract or an herbal supplement in the treatment of the common cold. And the researchers concluded from the meta-analysis that the research supports the use of echinacea for the treatment of the common cold, that it reduces both the risk of getting the cold and the duration of the cold if you do get it. Of course this has been now widely touted in the media [2][3] and of course by people who sell echinacea and promote herbs in general as the vindication or evidence that echinacea actually works.

But the lay media has basically missed the point that this is not new evidence - this is just a re-analysis of old evidence, and it's not a particularly good analysis or re-analysis of this data because all of the weaknesses of meta-analysis are in play: these are different studies with different preparations, different outcomes. They did try to use reasonable selection criteria, (only the abstract has been published at this point, I couldn't find the entire article at the time we're recording this, this was sort of a pre-online publication, press release with the abstract, so the full paper's not available yet,) but from what I can find, they made the reasonable attempts to do a decent meta-analysis but the problem is in the data itself - that these fourteen studies have serious problems.

A meta-analysis is just the wrong way to look at this complex set of data. This is the kind of thing that's generally missed outside of epidemiologists or researchers or medical experts, that when you have a question such as this, such as "do preparations of echinacea treat the common cold?" and the research evolves over many years with different kinds of studies getting done and then those studies get criticized, better studies are designed and then hopefully eventually you have some large, well-designed consensus trials where the results are robust and fairly definitive.

Those kinds of trials, those placebo-controlled, what we call "Class 1 Trials" have been done with echinacea and they were all negative - all of the recent studies that have the best design were in fact negative. A couple years ago the New England Journal of Medicine published an excellent study looking at three different preparations of echinacea with an experimental form of rhinovirus (that's a common virus causing the cold) and showed absolutely no effect in any outcome measure of the echinacea.

B: To that point, Dr. Craig Coleman of the University of Connecticut, regarding that point he said that that study only looked at part of the picture.

S: Yeah, they always say that.

B: Well, yeah.

S: Reading some of the sites, what they say is "you can use extracts from different parts of the plant, different ways of preparing it." Any negative study you can always criticize by saying "well, they looked at the root and not the flower", whatever, "they looked at this kind of species" (there's actually three species) - "they looked at this species and not the other two species." So you're never going to be able to look at every possible preparation of echinacea, so any negative study you can always say it's only looking at part of the picture.

B: Yeah, what he, but what he's saying regarding this New England Journal of Medicine result was that this doctor was saying that there are more than two hundred kinds of viruses that cause colds and the team that did this particular study only looked at a rhinovirus. So that's what he says at this point.

S: Right. Again, you can't study absolutely every permutation of echinacea with every permutation of the common cold. So the best studies that were done in a very reasonable representation of the common cold, a common virus that causes it with various preparations of echinacea showed no effect. I don't think it's really a valid criticism. That actually comes around to bite them in the behind too because whenever they use that argument to say that the negative studies are not definitive, it also means that well, if you have a cold and you get some random echinacea product off the shelf, the probability that you're getting the right matchup of the right preparation with the right virus is also pretty minimal too.

And yet most of the evidence is anecdotal but by their same argument, that anecdotal evidence has to be unreliable. I think that a better way to analyze this data is with what is called a systematic review, because that takes into consideration things like the consistency of different studies, the way the research evolves over time, the quality of the studies and how that relates to the chance of it being positive or negative, and there has been a systematic review of the same data that they're now publishing in the meta-analysis on plus more studies, again that's so-called systematic by the so-called Cochrane Review which is linked to evidence-based standards. And they basically found that the evidence does not support the use of echinacea for the common cold.

R: Surprise!

S: The data is inconsistent and not sufficient to say that it works.

R: Once again we demonstrate that the word "meta-analysis" is just there to send big sirens off in your head every time you read it, that's like your little skeptic alarm.

J: Steve, I have a question for you.

S: Yeah.

J: A lot of times when you hear the drugs like this, where there's a very good indication that they don't work, like echinacea's a perfect example, if a real pharmaceutical company did real testing, as if they were going to create a brand-new drug out of it, wouldn't, you know, if you think of it that way, wouldn't it be blazingly obvious that it doesn't work? Instead of it being like always the "well, you know, we're not really sure and there's all this meta-analysis and they re-did this and that." If it was done the right way the first time the way that drug companies do it to get ready for FDA approval, it would be a hundred percent unequivocally it doesn't work.

S: Well nothing's a hundred percent unequivocal, but what you're saying is if they went through the FDA process where they had to have trials that were monitored, that had to have a rigorous design, that were multi-center, that were statistically large trials, then yes, you're going to get a much better result out of those and much more likely the results are going to reflect the underlying reality.

J: You see my point though?

S: Yeah, in this case the waters are muddied because there are a lot of crappy studies.

J: But all of these types of drugs are, it's always like the waters are muddy situation.

S: Yeah.

J: Why don't they just do one definitive study, spend the money and that's it, and be done with it.

E: Because you've got to find someone willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into something that probably isn't going to work.

J: The onus should be on the people who are selling it, that are making the hundreds of millions of dollars feeding the world this crap.

E: That's a fair point.

P: Wait a minute, you're saying we should have better supplemental laws?

J: That's a great idea, Perry, that's a good plan.

R: That's a new one.

P: Stick it in Congress and let it rot.

R: Somebody write that down.

E: Tell the FDA that. Make a note.

S: That's the whole point. The research is generally not going to get done if the industry's not required to do it. The NIH does fund some of this research, and the research that is being done that's of any quality is largely government-funded. So that's how we get what information we do have. It's enough that if you are an unbiased scientist you can look at the data and say "yeah, this is not supported by the evidence." But it's not enough to completely silence the proponents. I don't know that anything would be.

E: Nothing is; that's right.

Study: 1 in 6 Juries Get the Verdict Wrong (17:33)[edit]

S: The next news item also involves a similar kind of interpretation of similar types of study. This one however looking in the legal realm. "US Juries Get Verdict Wrong in 1 in 6 Cases" is the title of the study.[4] This study was done out of Northwestern University and they looked at a number of criminal trials, not capital cases, from four different major cities between the years 2000 and 2001, and they found that when judges handed down a verdict that they were mistaken in twelve percent of the cases and that jury verdicts were wrong in seventeen percent of the cases. So again, pretty similar numbers, a little bit higher in the jury, again, about one in six cases. Also very interestingly, they found that the mistake was more often in the direction of convicting an innocent person than setting the guilty free, which is contradictory to the philosophy of the American judicial system which is to basically favor the error the other way, to -

R: Yeah -

S: Rather setting guilty people free rather than imprisoning the innocent.

R: In the article that we'll probably link to from the notes page I thought it was really amusing that it actually says "the good news is that the guilty didn't have a great chance of getting off.


R: Are you actually reading what you're writing? That's not good news, this isn't good news at all.

S: Yeah, there are some systems where the error's supposed to be biased in one direction. In the judicial system it's supposed to be biased towards not convicting innocent people, so this is the opposite of what it's supposed to be. What I found really interesting about this whole approach is that, first of all it showed that it's plausible to look at outcome-measures of the system, of jury and judge decisions. And I do think that systems like this do need to have the same kind of quality control feedback that science in general has, so that we can see how well is it actually working and then take steps to improve it and then see how those steps work and then that way the system can evolve and become better and better, just like science does.

R: And just to clarify, Steve, so people know the way they figured out -

B: Right, what's right and wrong.

R: They did that by comparing the amount of times that judges and juries disagreed on a verdict. And I think that figure was something like seventy-seven percent.

S: The agreement rate was seventy-seven percent.

R: Yeah, they agreed, that's a huge amount of times that they're disagreeing, so figuring that one party must be wrong, that's how they came to their conclusions.

S: Yeah, although I couldn't figure out from the information that we have - because this is a yet-to-be-published study so we don't have the full details - is when they disagreed, they knew that one of them had to be wrong, but how did they figure out which one was wrong?

R: How did they know which one? I'm assuming that they went with the last one to-

S: The more recent one they assumed was the correct one?

R: Yeah.

P: Since we know there are errors because someone confesses later or there is DNA evidence.

S: Yeah, but did they use those criteria in this study, that's what I couldn't find -

B: No, I don't think so.

R: No, I don't think that they would have that as a tool to use every time.

B: Yeah, I think the only criterion was the fact that there was a discrepancy between what the judge said and what the jury said.

S: That's what it sounds like.

P: It's a tough thing to study. They did this with two hundred ninety cases and it's impressive that they even tried. 'Cause it is a tough thing to study and then really again at the end of just this piece they said "okay, assume this is all correct and it's happening, what's the fix?"

S: Mmm hmm.

P: And they said that's a lot tougher.

E: Oh yeah.

P: And they think it's mostly because if you have gone this far in a trial, people assume that you're probably guilty.

J: Yeah, you're right Perry, I mean just think about it. I would think I'd have to do something so heinous to get that far.

S: Well, the other factor is that it's probably true, and certainly I've heard this as the quote-unquote "conventional wisdom," that most people who get arrested and find themselves in front of a jury or a judge probably have committed other crimes, and their criminal behavior's probably not isolated to that incident that got them into the courtroom in the first place. And some juries or judges may convict people because they figure that they're probably guilty of something.

E: Pre-conceived notion.

S: Even though the evidence may not support their guilt on this particular crime, but, I'm not defending this, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that this is appropriate, but I'm saying this is probably one of the biases that is shifting the system in this direction. But how do you fix that? I don't know.

R: RoboCop.


S: RoboCop? Judge Dredd? I don't know.

R: Yeah, Robocop. I'm pretty sure he was never wrong.

B: (Chuckles) Judge Dredd! Judge, jury and executioner!

Floods Are Judgment on Society, Say Bishops (22:30)[edit]

S: One more news item. This one comes from the UK. This is funny.

P: (Sarcastic) Oh yeah, this is an important one.


S: This is funny. The Church of England bishops have been warning society that "immorality and greed of modern society is what has brought floods as a judgment of God down upon us."[5]

J: I love this article.

R: It's one hundred percent true. There's no other explanation.

S: Right, so they said "this is a strong and definite judgment because the world has been arrogant in going its own way. We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation as well as the environmental damage that we have caused." That's interesting. So God's mad at us for causing environmental damage so he sends floods?


P: I'll show you!

S: "I'll show you environmental damage!"

P: And then he compares society to ancient Rome! What are you talking about?

S: I found that funny because the Roman Empire actually survived much longer -

P: Right!

S: - than the average empire, so that means that God must have really liked Rome.

B: Right!

S: To let it survive as long as it did.

J: I never understand the whole "God will take his revenge, and God will show us" and he kills all of these innocent people and kids and old people. It's like, if God's going to do something like that, the innocent end up getting punished!

S: Yeah. And they say, they make some comment about that, he said that the problem with environmental judgment is that it is indiscriminate.

E: Aha.

R: Yeah, that is a problem. Maybe you should take that up with your god. Just a thought.

S: Yeah, how about some more precise bolts of lightning striking individuals or something or something like that?

R: Yeah, those were the good old days.

E: Or some really big solar flares would be cool.

R: Some singular smiting.

J: I noticed that God didn't get even with the church for having sex with all those little boys though. So he's inconsistent as well.

E: No.

S: Ah, the tolerance of homosexuality is high on their list of why God is pissed off at us.

P: That is in here. But Jay, that of course was the Roman Catholics, okay, this is the Anglicans, so let's not mix our people up.

J: But what are they -

E: Get your Roman popery out of this.

P: This is a quote from the Right Reverend Jim Jones, interesting name.


E: Jim Jones?

P: Yeah, that's the guy's name. "People no longer see natural disasters as an act of God." He says "But we are now reaping what we have sown. If we live in a profligate way, then we there are going to be consequences." It's good to know. That was from the Reverend – (cracks up) Jim Jones. (laughs)

J: St Peter's coming!

E: Before or after everyone drank the Kool-Aid?

B: I've got a couple good quotes here. The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association's chairman Jim Herrick came out with a couple good zingers. He said "the bishop's comments reveal a primitive superstitious mind that belongs in the Bronze Age." And he said "No wonder people are abandoning the Church of England in such huge numbers when it is led by silly people like him."

R: See that's how God is punishing the church for all that pedophilia, he's converting everybody to unbelievers. Take that!

P: That's right!

R: Makes about as much sense as anything else they claim he does.

S: Obviously the logic behind all of this is terrible. It's like "whatever happens, it was God's will, and God did it." If there's a flood, if there's no flood or whatever. Of course they can draw any correlation they want and rationalize it any way that they please, which is of course why it's utterly meaningless. But it is medieval superstition. Fire and brimstone kind of, beware of the wrath of God.

J: It's riddled with that fear thing. Fear of God.

E: God-fearing.

P: And the end of the piece they shove Katrina in here too, you know.

S: Yeah, yeah. Of course.

P: Of course!

R: Wasn't that what Jerry Falwell was all about?

E: Ubiquitous.

P: Billy Graham actually. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son: "there's been Satanic worship in New Orleans. There's been sexual perversion. God is going to use that storm to bring revival. God has a plan. God has a purpose."

S: It's a regular Sodom and Gomorrah down there.

R: Yeah.

Questions and Emails[edit]

HIV and Condoms (26:36)[edit]

S: Well let's move on to your emails. The first email comes from Christopher who insists that we do not shorten his name to Chris. And Christopher writes "Hello my skeptic warriors...

J: I like that!

S: I am Christopher from Chicago Illinois."

E: I do too.

S: Yeah, he gets points for that.

P: Like a comic book guy. All right, go ahead.

E: I have a +1 mace of reason!

R: Oh my God. I knew that was coming. (moaning)

J: Rebecca! You never play D&D?

R: No I've never played D&D.

J: Give me a break, of course you have.

P: She's a vegetarian hippie. She's not allowed to play D&D!

R: (Groaning) Oh my god.

S: "Anyways, I have been listening since this May and finally caught up with all your podcasts. I am sure you get enough thanks, but, thank you for your show." Actually we never get enough, so. "It really does bring hope into my life, as I am sure it brings hope to all your listeners." Here's the question. Actually it's a very long question in two parts, but I'm going to just read part of it.

(laughter, moans)

E: Condense it.

P: I have only one question in forty-seven parts.


S: I hear from my old friend that latex condoms has little tiny holes that the HIV virus can travel through. Therefore, he chooses not to ever have sex, ever! This frustrates me" - I'm sure it frustrates him too - "since I took the time to look up this information on the internet and pretty much found nothing. The only thing I found that said condoms do not protect was religious websites."

So that's his basic question: does a latest condom protect against the transmission of HIV. And he had trouble finding reliable data on the internet. All he found was religious websites saying that it doesn't work. Well, the CDC has information on this, with actual scientific information.

E: That's the Center for Disease Control.

S: Yeah, the CDC is the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. Actually I recently was reading an article where I discovered why the CDC was created in the first place and why it was located in Atlanta Georgia. Does anybody know?

All: Ah, um.

S: Science trivia question.

J: They like jambalaya?

E: To protect people against social diseases?

B: Was it the Spanish Flu, Steve?

E: Coca-Cola?

S: No, malaria. It was set as a part of the war on malaria in the southern United States, which actually worked quite well because we eradicated malaria from the southern USA. It is the study for all infectious and transmissible diseases, including HIV. On their website they have some pretty good information that shows that latex condoms are actually quite effective in preventing transmission of HIV. Of course, nothing is a hundred percent effective.

R: Yeah. The idea that latex condoms don't prevent HIV is extremist religious propaganda and it's one of those things that just does so much more harm than good, especially in places like Africa where they're telling people that not only does it not help but they're saying that it's actually causing the spread of HIV and AIDS.

S: Mmm hmm.

R: So people are not using condoms and it's just so stupidly misguided that it makes me want to just -

J: It's criminal

R: - throttle someone.

S: It's deliberate misinformation and it kills!

R: Condoms save lives.

S: The body count attached with this nonsense.

R: Right.

S: So It is true that nothing is one hundred percent except total abstinence but using latex condoms is a highly effective method for preventing the transmission of HIV so that is utter misinformation.

R: Yes, so give your friend those websites and if he still doesn't want to have sex, then you're just going to have to find someone else. Give it up.

J: I'll tell ya, I think that guy's using it as an excuse 'cos he can't get any ladies. “I'm afraid of AIDS so I won't have sex.”

S: I don't think that's it.

J: You just can't find a woman, Jack.

S: Does that excuse work for you Jay?

J: Anyone who knows me knows that that's not even funny.


R: He had no comeback. Burn.

Chiropractic and Colic (30:46)[edit]

S: The next email comes from Adam Finley in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And Adam writes,

My sister, after dealing with a crying and screaming baby for several long days and nights, decided to take the baby girl to a chiropractor. I'm not a medical expert, but I've read enough to be skeptical, so I questioned her about it. We had a long discussion, but here's the main point I don't entirely understand: My sister says all the nerves coming off the spine control different parts of the body, so if a nerve is pinched and causing pain somewhere, a chiro can “unpinch” that nerve and relieve the pain. I know some chiros claim that they can affect, say, things like asthma by manipulating the part of the spine connected to the lungs, which I'm fairly certain is nonsense.

I'm fairly certain about that too. (laughter)

However, if the baby does have a pinched nerve, can the chiro actually unpinch that nerve and kill the pain (which may or may not be causing the baby to cry)?

R: Without killing the baby.

S: Yeah without killing the baby.

My sister claims this is true because her husband suffered a brain injury a few years ago, and during his recovery they stimulated various parts of his spine to see if he could feel in other parts of his body.

P: A little lower baby.


I'm just trying to wrap my head around all of this, and I'd like to know what, if anything, a chiro can offer in this instance. Also, I was concerned about a chiro handling a two-month old, but my sister claims he's very gentle.

E: Oh God.

I'm still not convinced it's a good idea, though.

P: A two-month old!

S: Yeah.

E: I hate these stories.

S: There's a lot of safety data with manipulation on two-month olds. So obviously we've talked about chiropractic before. I think this is one of the worst aspects of unscientific chiropractors - the manipulation of infants and the treatment of colic. Colic is basically -

E: What is colic?

S: It's a very vague nonspecific syndrome. It's basically a fussy crying baby when you can't figure out what's causing it.

E: Right.

S: And it's lumped in, it's just called colic. It's not really a specific medical entity. It's thought that it's like abdominal discomfort.

E: It's just how the baby's behaving?

S: Yeah, it's basically a colicy baby is a fussy baby that cries all the time. And, again, the suspicion is that it's mainly gastrointestinal discomfort but that's not really proven. Babies obviously can't tell us what they're really feeling, they just experience discomfort and cry, so it can be a very frustrating situation for the parents and for the baby. And some parents may struggle for a very long time to get their baby to be happy and quiet. It can be a serious problem in some cases.

But there's no reason to assume that it's a pinched nerve. In fact it's very unlikely. Babies' spinal columns and their bones in general are very flexible. The haven't had enough time to form any degenerative changes or any boney kinds of changes. It would have to be some very specific pathology to be causing an actual pinched nerve in the spine. And there's no evidence that manipulating the spine can un-pinch a nerve. In fact, an actual pinched nerve is a contraindication to back manipulation.

R: Can you, what's a contraindication?

S: It means you shouldn't do it.

R: Okay.


S: You're likely to make it worse.

R: I just wanted to clarify. (Chuckles)

S: You'll cause more damage to the nerve by doing that. Before we give physical therapy or any kind of manipulation you always have to clear a patient to prove that they don't have nerve compression at the spine before you do that. To emphasize, there's no evidence that chiropractic manipulation can un-pinch nerves. And there's also no evidence that what they treat is due to pinched nerves.

J: Steve, can I read something for you from this website called

As your child is being born, the neck and back vertebrate can go out of alignment due to the stretching and compressing of the body as it emerges into the world. If your delivery included a prolonged pushing stage, forceps or vacuum extraction or other form of assisted delivery, the chances of a misalignment are great.

What do you think of that?

S: Yeah.

P: That's a chiro website obviously.

S: Yeah, they just make that up out of whole cloth. So because colic is a frustrating poorly understood entity, it becomes a lightning rod for quackery. Anybody with something to sell can sell can claim it treats colic, it's just like arthritis, asthma -

B: Fatigue

R: In this case even more so because you're combining something that's not well-known and not that well-studied, or maybe well-studied but not well-known, with the fact that it's parents who are freaking out about the baby.

S: Yeah, right.

R: That's what parents do, they're highly protective and they're going to do anything they can to treat the baby as well as they can.

P: But why take it to a freaking chiropractor? This woman's dragging her two-month-old to a chiropractor!

S: Desperation.

R: Because, Perry, they're going online and they're reading things like what Jay just read and they're saying "Oh, well, yeah, that kinda makes sense and that must be it."

J: You know, Adam's sister, she just doesn't have the information. She doesn't know. Most people out there don't know.

S: So there are a lot of desperate parents out there who are looking for alternatives and they find that kind of nonsense online and they'll try it out of desperation and eventually something's going to work because eventually it stops.

R: And when they see a chiropractor, they're not thinking quack, they're thinking it's a doctor -

J: They're thinking they're a medical doctor.

S: Yeah.

R: "This is somebody who is not going to do something dangerous to my child." So they're probably thinking that worst case scenario, they take it to the chiropractor and whatever is wrong with the baby is not fixed. That's worst case scenario. They don't really imagine the worst worst case scenario which is that the chiropractor could seriously mess up this baby.

S: Yeah, well fortunately babies are pretty flexible and they're not as easily injured as adults are, so they probably weather it okay. The other thing is if the chiropractors are gentle then they're also probably not doing anything. Not that if they do something it actually works, but at least, I'd rather have them do nothing than do something harmful.

E: But gee, to trust your two-month-old baby in the hands of a non-physician.

J: Well, you basically, Evan, say it like it is - in the hands of most-likely a person who believes in magic.

S: Who has a very bizarre belief system that is not based upon science or reason.

Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy and us (37:15)[edit]

S: The next email comes from Brazil, and he writes,

R: Wait, I know a Petrucio in Brazil.

S: You do? Maybe it's the same person.

This link tells us that the Solar System actually came from the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy, currently orbiting and being eaten by the Milky Way. I've searched on the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy and found out that it is true that the galaxy is currently interacting with the MilkyWay, and it is true that it is actually raining down stars in the area where Solar System is now, which I found surprising and very interesting: What I don't buy is the conclusion taken that the Solar System was actually a sun of this galaxy and not the Milky Way, apparently explaining why our System is not aligned with the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is seen sideways to us in the sky. I then reached a paragraph at the end that concludes that this interaction between the two galaxies is raising the "energy levels" of the Milky Way, causing the Sun to burn hotter.

Ahh, the Plot thickens. Perry is now probably liking this guy.

It seems to me that this is the result of one more attempt to explain away global warming as not caused by human action, now that the latest IPCC report has left less room for the global warming skeptics to maneuver. I definitely do not have enough astronomical knowledge to argue with most of the stuff these guys are saying, but it looks like crap to me. I would love to hear your take on this, maybe an astronomer guest could also shed more light on the subject and tell us more about the very interesting story about the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy and our other close neighbors. Late congratulations on the 100th episode, I'm holding my breath for the 1000th episode, 17.3 years from now.


Well, I'm not going to get into the global warming part of this, I haven't really heard that myself, I don't think anyone seriously is proposing that.

B: No, it's pathetic.

J: We don't need to talk about that anymore anyway. Come on, guys.

R: I just wanted to mention that just today there was a report released saying that there was no link between cosmic rays and global warming.

B: Really?

R: Yeah, in fact Fraser Cain, who does the Astronomy Cast wrote an article for Wired Science and we can have the link on the notes page.

S: But the core claim that the sun in our solar system came from the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy and is not native to the Milky Way has been thoroughly debunked. In fact, Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has done a very thorough job of analyzing and debunking this claim on his blog which we'll link to. So we don't have to have him on the show because I can just tell you what he wrote in his blog.

Basically there's a lot of problems with this hypothesis. The first is that the sun is in fact in the plane of the galaxy. The stars from the Dwarf Galaxy, which is oblique to the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, are not orbiting in the plane of the galaxy, they're orbiting at an angle. So right there that pretty much rules out that the sun is from the Dwarf Galaxy.

The second thing is that our sun has a ratio of heavy metals, like iron, that match the stars in the Milky Way and do not match the stars in the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. So just in composition it looks like a Milky Way star. Also the notion that the - so the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy is in fact being cannibalized by the Milky Way - it's a smaller galaxy, two galaxies collide, if one's a lot bigger than the other, the big galaxy just eats the little galaxy, so that's what's happening.

And these stars are just being incorporated into the Milky Way. And where the sun is right now is kind of close to where the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy is intersecting the Milky Way, but it's not right in the stream of stars. So it's actually far enough away that in fact that's an argument against us coming from the Sagittarius Galaxy. Also you have to note the fact that since we're revolving around the Milky Way galaxy, millions of years ago we would have been half-way around the galaxy from where the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy is.

So our position is not objectively near the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy, it's just kind of near now. But historically we would have been at every other point in the galactic disc away from the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy, so that's actually not a point in the favor of that position.

E: Are there any points in favor?

S: No! There's no line of argument that legitimately argues that our sun came from the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy.

E: Right. Then why argue it?

S: Well, it was just an observation that "Hey, we're kind of near where this galaxy is, maybe we came from that galaxy." But on closer inspection, the arguments don't pan out as I described.

B: Also Steve, the other point that he was saying is that if you look at the Milky Way from the Earth, if you have very little light pollution you'll see a huge, it's really fairly distinct and quite beautiful and that's basically just you looking towards the center of the Milky Way, where the stars are so much more dense, you can see so many more stars and dust and all sorts of stuff. So the plane of the Milky Way doesn't match the plane that the earth orbits our solar system or the way the earth orbits the sun, so this guy is trying to say that this has been a puzzle to astronomers for years, but really it's not a puzzle.

S: Yeah.

B: The orientation of the plane of a solar system can be pretty much in any direction depending on numerous factors. It doesn't have to be in the plane of the galaxy itself, so that was one of the main premises that he started his article with, and it's clearly wrong.

S: It's just a false premise.

B: Yeah.

Sickesz Followup (42:53)[edit]

S: We have one more email. This one is a follow-up to our piece from last week about the Belgium Skeptical Society being sued and on the brink of non-existence. This one comes from Anne Frid de Vries from the Netherlands and she writes:

Thank you for a good podcast and in the latest edition drawing my attention to a case that happened in my old country the Netherlands (I have been living in Israel for nearly ten years). The case of Sickesz vs. the Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij is indeed a terrible miscreant of Dutch justice. I very much hope the VtdK will appeal to the supreme court.

And then she gives links to their blogs about it. She has the links to the podcast and she graciously links to the Skeptics' Guide and talks about the fact that Perry was -

P: What's the name of this blog?

S: The blog was, I can't quite make it out. What does that say?

(laughter and muttering)

J: Perry DeAngelis is tight!

S: Perry DeAngelis is tight.

E: Perry DeAgeis is light.

S: Okay, that's it. Perry DeAngelis is right. Basically, just to quickly reiterate, Sickesz is a woman who is promoting some kind of manipulative alternative medicine and the skeptical organization listed her as one of the top twenty quacks in the Netherlands. And they were sued for slander and the lawsuit was successful and part of the judgment was that they have to take out advertising all over the country saying that she's not a quack. And Perry made the point that if he ran a skeptical organization, he absolutely wouldn't spend a dime to advertise that somebody like her was legitimate or was not a quack. So Anne is basically agreeing with Perry, which I think we all also agree with him on that.

P: It'd be a shame to lose the hundred and twenty-five year history, to have to come up with a new company but it's worth it.

S: We also had another email from somebody who's giving us some legal follow-up, who's saying that there is still an appeal left, they can appeal to the supreme court basically. He actually offered as a lawyer to give them any help but only if they're going to appeal the decision, and vowed not to give them any money if in fact they're going to use it on these advertisements, these court ordered advertisements.

P: I sure hope they appeal.

S: Yeah. We'll have to continue to follow this case up. Hopefully they will appeal, hopefully justice will be done in the end. So again we'll have to keep an eye on this case.

J: In her blog she writes in Dutch that Mrs Sickesz is a quack and it goes, I can't even pronounce this, it's funny, the quack in Dutch is "kwakzalver."

S: Kwakzalver. They actually coined the term - the term kwakzalver is taken from the Dutch, so that term is actually -

E: It was the original term.

S: - originally a Dutch term. Kwakzalver.

J: I like that!

E: Benjamin Franklin referred to it way back when in some of his writings.

S: Talking about mesmer?

P: No doubt.

S: Probably.

E: Way to allude to one of our first podcasts, Steve.

J: So Perry, how does it feel to be written about?

P: Well, I've been written about most of my life. Various medical institutions.


P: Psychiatric facilities.

R: Speeding tickets.

P: Nothing new.

J: It's old hat to you, Perry.

P: It is.

E: Are you tired of being right, Perry?

S: It is a burden to be right all the time, isn't it Perry?


P: Some of us are born to it.

Name That Logical Fallacy (46:26)[edit]

S: We do have one "Name that logical fallacy" this week. This is an email that was sent to us and we're going to use it as our "name that logical fallacy." This one comes from Athanasios Zacharakopoulos -

R: Well done!

S: - from Athens, Greece, and he writes

Hello guys! Thank you for a very entertaining podcast. I tune in every week only because of its entertainment value. And you are doing a great job.... To assume the role of arbiters as to whether it is science or pseudo-science, on almost everything under the sun... it is simply arrogance...

E: Ooooh.


You are using very simplistic arguments, which you call "logical reasoning," when in many cases things are much more complex... You are acting as if you know everything... every subject matter. Come on guys a little humility...The fact that you do not grasp certain concepts does not make them wrong and candidates to ridicule... Couldn't this be a measure of your own intrinsic limitations? Just a question... Best regards.

You have to be cautious before you send a really critical email to us because we just might use it in our "name that logical fallacy" section.

(laughter) (more laughter)

S: Not because it's critical, we're open to logically valid criticism of course. But there are a couple of points in this email that are fairly typical. First of all, the fact that we analyze scientific claims and we pick out those that are especially egregious or dubious in order to expose them, doesn't, I think, equate to arrogance. It's like accusing every single movie critic of being arrogant, every type of critic of every kind of being arrogant. It's scientific analysis - this is what scientists do, and we're just bringing scientific analysis to those people who are essentially lurking in the shadows of science and trying to evade the critical light of science.

The other point that he makes is, basically accusing our arguments, accusing us of using simplistic arguments and then just labeling it logical reasoning, when in many cases the topics are much more complex. And this is really just an unfounded accusation and it's a bit of a non-sequitur. It's also, in my opinion, an ad hominem attack, because.. Essentially what he's doing, and I pointed this out to him, and I responded to his email and I pointed this out to him, is that we're open to criticism. If we've made a misstatement of fact or if we have committed a logical fallacy in our arguments, point it out to us and if it's valid we'll make a correction, which we have done in the past.

So I challenged him to do that and he actually couldn't do that in response. So what he's doing in this email is trying to focus on us personally - calling us "arrogant", that we "lack humility", that we're "simplistic" in our approach.

R: All of which is true, don't get us wrong.


S: True or not, it's still an ad hominem logical fallacy,

R: Right.

S: rather than actually bringing up points that relate to any specific argument that we made. It's a very common tactic for dismissing criticism, just to attack the criticizer basically.

R: And there's just the basic straw man of saying that we act as if we know everything -

S: Yeah.

R: - on every subject matter. When we again and again and again say "all the evidence isn't in on this yet," or "this isn't my area of expertise but," you know, I think we're constantly trying to qualify ourselves.

S: Exactly.

R: And speaking personally, this entire podcast I've got like seven things wrong thus far.


R: So, we're definitely always admitting when we get things wrong. When people write in and clarify things for us, I think we're pretty open about all that. So i think that's definitely a straw man.

S: Yeah. And also, when we get out of our area of expertise we try to distill the consensus of scientific opinion, not interject our own opinion. So we are not, I don't think that we are inappropriately setting ourselves up as experts in areas that we do not have expertise.

What I did point out is that actually there is a certain type of expertise that we do bring to the entire endeavor at the Skeptics' Guide, in that we are, I believe, very experienced, even expert, skeptics. And skepticism is, in my opinion, a legitimate intellectual, even academic, area of interest, that brings together various disciplines that are I think very important.

One is knowledge of logical fallacies - of logic in general, of how to make a valid argument. Another is mechanisms of self deception - the psychology and neurology of memory and perception and delusion and even stage illusion and magic. The nature of scientific research - of peer review, and replication et cetera. These various fields that we have endeavored to study and to become knowledgeable about and to bring them all together to give us the tools - the skeptical tools - to analyze claims to truth, especially those that are unusual, bizarre, on the fringe, on the borderlands of science.

Sometimes we talk about things that are barely science but are legitimate even though they might at first seem unusual. And of course we spend a lot of time talking about interesting but bizarre or absurd claims. Part of it is to understand why people believe really absurd bizarre things. How is it that people can come to conclusions that are so demonstrably false? What is the malfunction in the human brain that allows that to happen? So I do claim collectively for the Skeptics' Guide that this is an area of legitimate expertise of ours, and that's something we always try to teach in these podcasts and to bring to bear in our analysis.

J: One of the lines that you read, Steve, you said "You are acting as if you know everything, every subject matter. Come on guys a little humility." Well, you know what? We read up on these topics before we discuss them. We try to get as educated as we can in the time allowed and if that's us acting as if we know everything, well we do know our subject matter.

S: There is a little bit of the Alex Trebeck syndrome in that we have the answers in front of us, which is why we can kind of look smart sometimes. We just read up on it to prepare for the podcast!

E: Yes, especially the neurological stuff!

P: This letter is juvenile, I mean it's really, it's pathetic. Come on.

S: But it's typical, but Perry it's very typical.

P: Okay.

S: I include it because I've heard all of these arguments a thousand times before in emails from other people.

P: Agreed, agreed.

S: Let's go on to "Science or Fiction."

Science or Fiction (53:13)[edit]

(Music) It's time for Science or Fiction!

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics and my listeners at home to tell me which one is the fake. There is a theme this week.

J: Yay theme!

S: It's a big theme, the theme is medicine. These are all medically related.

E: Oh god.

R: That's not a theme.

E: That's not a theme.

S: It's a theme.

R: It's not a theme!

S: Medicine is a theme!

R: A theme is cross-dressing dictators from the '20s.

S: That's true, that's a narrower theme, it's hard to find three items in such a narrow theme. Hey, if I can find any theme at all I am happy. Okay, the theme this week is science!


R: Or fiction!

S: Alright. Item number one: A new study finds that teens can become addicted after smoking just a single cigarette. Item number two: Researchers have found that stress can cause obesity. And item number three: Researchers have found that an extract of elderberries can successfully treat asthma. Jay, go first.

J: Well, these are interesting. Teens can become addicted after smoking one cigarette, they can become addicted to nicotine?

S: Yes.

J: What level of addiction are we talking about.

P: What are you f- what? Just answer the question! Jesus! You people always do this.

J: That's me stalling so I can think about it a little more, you jack-ass.

B: So addicted that they have to smoke a carton a day.


J: I don't think that after one cigarette, nah, I don't think that. Going on, stress can cause obesity, I definitely agree with that, and Perry I'm sure you agree with that as well. And an extract of elderberries can treat asthma - I have no clue. I'm going to go with the cigarettes as being the fake.

S: Okay. Evan?

E: I'm leaning towards what Jay is saying, that I don't think there's a study saying you can become addicted, or a teen can become addicted after smoking just a single cigarette.

S: Okay. Rebecca?

R: Ugh. I'm going to say, I can believe the single cigarette thing.

E: The single cigarette theory?


R: The single cigarette theory. Ah, so I think I'm going to go with stress causing obesity.

S: Okay.

R: That seems like it makes sense but I think you're zigging when we think you're zagging.

S: Okay. Bob?

B: Um. The single cigarette one sounds, doesn't sound very likely. I could see that maybe there's some people that one cigarette could kind of give them such a, do something that gives them some level of addiction, very very minor I would think after one, but that doesn't seem impossible.

J: But Bob. Full physical addiction?

R: He didn't say "physical."

B: Right, there's different, yeah, is it a chemical addiction or just a physical addicition,

J: That's why I asked that. Perry yelled at me.

B: He didn't specify, so I'm going to go with that, plausible, feasible. Stress can cause obesity, that sounds, that seems like a no-brainer to me, that sounds very likely. Extract of elderberries treating asthma. I'm going to say "no" on that one.

S: Okay.

B: That's fiction.

S: Okay. Perry.

P: I have to agree with Bob on number three. Aren't elderberries poisonous? What do they use in arsenic? They put it in elderberry wine.

J: Lots of things are poisonous that they use in medicine you idiot.

P: That's right, they put it in elderberry wine. Anyway, number three is false.

S: The extract of elderberries?

P: Yeah, right.

S: So you guys are all over the place this week.

J: (Silly voice): Of course I was drunk at the time. Sorry.

E: Your mother smelled of elderberries.

S: I'll just take them in order.

R: Your father smelled of elderberries.

E: Hey, don't talk about my father.

P: Yeah, really. Gosh sakes.

J: Did you say you're going to do them in order, Steve?

S: Yeah, I'll just do them in order.

J: Oh boy.

S: The title of the first news item I used is "Inhaling from just one cigarette can lead to nicotine addiction."[7] So that one is in fact science. What this shows, this is interesting because the neurological physiological mechanism of addiction to nicotine is different than the mechanism (on a reductionist neurological biochemical level) than the mechanism of addiction to most other things that we study such as barbiturates, narcotics, cocaine, heroin et cetera. And in many ways nicotine can be even more addictive.

What they found is that the amount of nicotine in even a single cigarette is enough to saturate all of the nicotine receptors and cause symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. What they also found is that for young and new smokers, that smoking a single cigarette can actually treat the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal for weeks. They may only have to smoke one cigarette every two or three weeks in order to treat those symptoms of addiction - the irritability, trouble concentrating, cravings, restlessness.

R: That's convenient.

S: And as you smoke, one of the things that happens over time is the duration of time that smoking will treat the withdrawal symptoms from nicotine addiction decreases. So the longer you smoke, the more frequently you have to smoke in order to keep the withdrawal symptoms at bay. Of course until you're smoking two packs a day, or whatever the advanced smokers get to. So that was a little surprising. Certainly I was surprised when I saw that headline so I thought that one would be challenging.

The second one - researchers have found that stress can cause obesity - who thought this one was fake?

R: I think that's me.

S: This one is also science.

R: Ah!

S: This one also is a little tricky. The connection between stress and obesity is in the stress hormones which are steroids and it's known that they do shift metabolism in the direction of fat storage. But this is the first time a study has specifically linked stress to obesity in this kind of research model. They actually looked at mice and they had several groups in this study, they had mice that were under stress and mice that were not under stress, and mice that were getting a diet that had a lot of fat and sugar in it and mice that were not getting a lot of fat and sugar.

And what they found that only the group that both was subjected to stress and also had the high-fat-sugar diet became obese. And they got abdominal obesity, the dangerous kind of obesity, and also had higher risk for insulin resistance and for fatty liver and a lot of the bad consequences of that kind of obesity. Interestingly, the high fat and sugar group without the stress didn't become obese. They in fact didn't gain any weight at all. The high stress alone group actually lost a little weight - they didn't become obese - and of course the group with neither didn't gain any weight, so you needed the combination of more fat and sugar with the stress in order to cause the obesity.

B: Wow.

S: The purpose of the research is to hopefully find out biochemically what is it about chronic stress that does lead or contribute to obesity, and to hopefully pharmacologically short-circuit that connection.

We've talked a lot about dieting and weight gain and weight loss before on the podcast, and how, although there are obviously physiological factors at play, that the dominant factor is calories in/calories out. And I still think that's true, but it is true that if you give people steroids, they'll gain a lot of weight and they'll redistribute their fat in a very abnormal pattern. So there is a real significant physiological forcing of fat storage when you chronically expose people to lots of steroids, and I guess this shows that stress by itself, chronic stress, can do that in addition to taking exogenous steroids. So that was a very interesting finding.

But all this means that "researchers have found that an extract of elderberries can successfully treat asthma" is in fact fiction - that one is fake.

B: You took a real story and twisted it.

S: I did. I saw there was a press release having to do with elderberries and I couldn't resist using a news item that had the word "elderberry" in it. I just knew it would prompt -

R: Because you're a nerd.

S: - because I'm a nerd and it would prompt a quote from, what's that movie?

R: Monty Python

S: Yeah, Monty Python and the Holy Grail quotes.

P: You got Arsenic and Old Lace out of me.


S: Elderberry is just a funny name, I had to use it. The study, it was actually about a study that's just beginning, so not a study that had results already, so I couldn't use it as a real item. Otherwise I would have. So I just used it as my fake item. They're planning a study looking at elderberry extract to see if it will be beneficial for skin, basically as a skincare product.

B: Yeah.

S: Although there's other studies going on and there's lots of interest in a specific chemical called anthocyanin – and it's actually a category of compounds that are found not just in elderberries but lots of different kinds of berries. And it's an antioxidant and antioxidants still garner a lot of interest as possible therapeutic agents, although they really had their heyday back in the '90s.

They didn't pan out as well as people were hoping. Some people were touting them as a panacea, reducing oxidative stress which is the cause of all aging and degenerative diseases. It turns out that we probably naturally evolved a pretty good balance between oxidant stress and anti-oxidant mechanisms. If you force it too much in one direction, if you take a lot of antioxidants, you may be causing more harm than good. The oxidative compounds may be necessary as part of our natural defense system, for example.

B: Oh wait, how could it be bad to sop up these free radicals careening around, damaging DNA, how could that be bad?

S: Because they may be serving a beneficial purpose in the body, and if they were all bad and we make natural antioxidants, why wouldn't we just make more antioxidants naturally and sop them all up?

B: Because it doesn't pay to do that later in life.

S: Yeah, that's all plausible but the thing is, plausibility only gets you so far. Eventually you have to show that it actually works. It's hard to figure out from basic science principles what is supposed to happen in the body because it's such a complex system. At some point you just have to see what actually does happen and again it just turns out that empirically the bottom line long-term clinical benefits of antioxidants really haven't materialized.

In fact there's a lot of studies that show that long-term high-dose antioxidant use may be associated with higher risks of things like heart disease. So we shouldn't assume that just because it seems to make sense that antioxidants are a good idea that they in fact are a good idea. But again, this is still an area that needs further study, legitimately needs further study. All the implications have not been worked out. There may be certain disease states where antioxidants are still useful but they certainly have not been established as beneficial in routine supplementation and in fact there's evidence to show that we should be cautious about using them, especially in high doses.

R: You just blew my mind.

S: Yeah.

R: Seriously - blueberries out. What's in? Cake? Is cake good for us now? Something else needs to take the place.

E: What kind of cake?

R: Um?

S: Elderberry.

E - Bundt cake.

R - Elderberry cake.

S: Elderberry pie.

R: Okay, let's say that's good for you.

E: Hold the whipped cream

S: Alright, good job Bob and Perry, right?

E: Yeah, that's right.

S: Good job guys.

E: Eh.

B: Thank you.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:06:01)[edit]

S: Alright. Evan, please tell us, read last week's puzzle and give us the answer.

E: Okay, last week's puzzle was in fact a logic puzzle. So, you had to identify the 6th number in this sequence. First five numbers were:
So what would the sixth number in that sequence be, everyone?

J: No idea.

E: No clue, huh. Won't take a guess. Well the answer is .408 and what this sequence represents is the highest batting averages in Major League baseball since the year 1900. In order.

R: You're kidding.

E: No, I kid you not. So the trick was to recognize that the sequence actually involved baseball and batting average.

P: A lot of Yankees on that list.

E: And we had several people on the message boards go along those lines and make their attempt at guessing, but in fact -

S: Who was the winner?

E: The winner was Kanuck from Vancouver Canada who came up with .408 first. So congratulations to Kanuck for being the first one to get it right.

S: So a Canadian got that right?

E: Yeah, isn't that interesting.

R: A Canuck if you will.

E: And then some people went on to moan a little bit when they realized "oh baseball."

P: Not bad for a filthy Canadian considering it's not even a hockey question.

S: Right. Although they have a baseball team, right, don't they have the Toronto Blue Jays or something?

E/P: They do.

R: They have a couple -

P: Montreal Expos too.

S: Well Evan, give us this week's puzzle.

E: Okay, this week's puzzle is a trivia question for everyone. I know how much we all like trivia questions. It is as follows: "In 1967, a famous building was attacked. The attackers attempted to use supernatural abilities to drive out its evil spirits, and to disfigure and displace the building with its occupants inside. The attack failed." So, gentle listeners, name the building that was under attack in 1967. Good luck everyone.

S: Thank you Evan, interesting as always.

E: Yeah, I found it interesting.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:08:16)[edit]

S: Perry do you have a quote to close out the show for us?

P: I do. It's as follows:

The primary tool of science is skepticism, whose light shrivels unquestioning faith.

That was by Mike Huben, currently alive, an American educator of some note.

S: Alright. Thank you Perry

R: Thank you Perry

P: You're welcome.

R: And can I get in a quick note before we close things out?

S: But of course.

R: Just a few days left to vote in the public radio talent quest[8] that I'm in. Yes, so there are a few days left to vote in the public radio talent quest, that is my American Idol-like bid to become the next host of a public radio show. So we'll have the link on the notes page. Go vote for me. Yay! That's all.

S: Good luck Rebecca.

R: Thank you.

E/J: (unexcitedly) Good luck Rebecca.


S: Thank you all for joining me once again.

R: So much feeling there. Thank you Steve, good times.

S: Have a wonderful Independence Day everybody.

J: See you tomorrow Steve.

P: Good night Mary Ellen.

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

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the "Contact Us" page on our website, or you can send us an email to'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.

Today I Learned:[edit]

One cigarette is all that is needed to cause addiction. At first only one smoke every three weeks is needed to satisfy the craving, but this time gets shorter


  1. Sent in by listeners Wink and Julie Grise (Gree-say) from Adelaide, South Australia
  2. BBC: Echinacea 'can prevent a cold'
  3. Bloomberg: Echinacea Halves Chances of Getting Cold, Review Finds
  4. The study by Jack Heinz and Bruce Spencer was supposed to be published in the July 2007 issue of Journal of Empirical Legal Studies but is not listed in online contents. All blog stories point to a now gone Breitbart story.
  5. Daily Telegraph: Floods are judgment on society, say bishops
  6. This is actually a realistic possibility
  7. Symptoms of Tobacco Dependence After Brief Intermittent Use (title Steve gives is probably for blog article, not research paper)
  8. Rebecca went on to become one of three winners of this contest. Wikipedia: Rebecca Watson and the Public Radio Quest
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