SGU Episode 103
|This episode needs: 'Today I Learned' list, categories, segment redirects.||How to Contribute|
|SGU Episode 103|
|11th July 2007|
|SGU 102||SGU 104|
|S: Steven Novella|
|R: Rebecca Watson|
|B: Bob Novella|
|J: Jay Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
|SL: Scott Lilienfield|
|Quote of the Week|
|There is not sufficient love and goodness in the world to permit us to give some of it away to imaginary beings|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 This Day in Skepticism (0:33)
- 3 News Items
- 4 Questions and Emails (28:47)
- 5 Interview with Scott Lilienfield (34:33)
- 6 Science or Fiction (1:05:18)
- 7 Skeptical Puzzle (1:11:46)
- 8 Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:00)
- 9 References
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 Wednesday, July 11th, 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: Jay Novella...
J: Hey guys.
S: And Evan Bernstein.
This Day in Skepticism (0:33)
E: Hi everyone. Couple of things to note in history on this day, July 11th: in 1979, space station Skylab returns to earth. I'm sure we all remember that.
E: In 1991, a total solar eclipse occurred over Hawaii and Mexico.
R: And... come on... also 7-Eleven!
E: Yes, it's 7-11 day here in the wonderful United States and supposedly you can go into any 7-Eleven in the country and ask for a free slurpee.
S: Free slurpee. It doesn't get better than that.
R: No it doesn't.
E: Assuming they understand what you're saying, they should give it to you.
S: Also in 1937, 1937, you guys know what happened then? July 11th, 1937?
S: Our mother was born. It's our mother's birthday.
J: Oh that's right.
R: Oh my god, you guys are terrible.
R: I can't believe you didn't know that. I mean, I didn't know that because I'm not related to you.
S: Well, we did just come from her birthday party. We celebrated the whole day with her. So don't worry; we took care of it.
E: Steve, that's not in Wikipedia, so I'm not sure that that's really true.
R: You guys are sad.
S: Now, Perry's not with us this evening. He is feeling under the weather. He's not feeling well. But hopefully he'll be back with us next week.
R: Feel better, Perry.
S: Yep, so get better, Perry.
E: See you next week.
Most Distant Galaxy (1:47)
S: A few news items this week. The first one is an astronomy news item. "Scientists find the most distant galaxy yet observed."
R: Very cool.
B: This was kinda interesting. Astronomers using giant telescopes said they found a glimpse of the most distant and oldest galaxies ever seen. The light the researchers viewed originated when the universe was only 500 million years old. The implication, according to Richard Ellis, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, is these are the early generation of stars switched on when the universe was in its infancy. Previously the most distant galaxy known had been found at a red shift of 7, which apparently corresponds to a time when the universe was 750 million years old. This time they found galaxies at a red shift of about 9, which corresponds to a time 500 million years ago. What really fascinated me—I mean that was interesting, but what really fascinated me about this discovery is that they were able to look deep in space not because of any novel hardware or software, but because of the gravitational lensing effect first predicted by Einstein. Gravitational lensing occurs when light from a background object is bent by the gravitational field of a closer object. Ellis said that we found areas of space which act as powerful magnifying glasses. Some of these places magnified the skies as much as 20 times. I thought that was very interesting.
S: So this galaxy's about 13 billion light years away; the estimated age of the universe being 13.5 billion years. Right. So these are among the first stars to turn on in the universe, to come into existence as we're seeing them. Yeah.
B: It kinda reminded me of discovering when life originated on earth. It seems that it's getting discovered further and further back in time. It's very close to the time, say, when earth started cooling down, 'cause you're not going to have much life when the earth is a glowing cinder! So soon after that, it seems life just kinda arose very fast and this way they're finding stars older and older—stars that happened relatively soon after the Big Bang.
S: I remember about 10 years ago—do you remember this Bob? When there was a time when the oldest stars were older than the estimated age of the universe.
B: That was a period of extreme frustration for astronomers, because that does not make sense.
S: Yeah, but of course we knew that the error bars were overlapping, but it obviously couldn't be the case.
B: Right, right.
S: I also remember arguing with some creationist who was trying to use that to basically say that we didn't know anything, right? That we don't know what we're talking about because there's this conflict that can't be resolved. But they all resolve; the error bars will shrink, I'm sure the universe will be older than the oldest stars. That's, of course, what happened.
R: Sadly, I think that that's still something that some creationists try to claim as a fact.
S: They're not going to let go of a good argument just because the facts don't support it. Come on.
Steorn Perpetual Motion Device (4:50)
S: The next news item is a follow-up from a story that was going around earlier. A company based in Dublin, Ireland, called Steorn made some news several months ago when they had claims that they had developed a perpetual motion device, a device that could generate energy.
R: It's actually last year that they announced it.
S: That long ago?
R: Yeah, I think it was August 2006 when they placed an ad in the Economist asking for scientists to step forward to be on their panel of experts to examine the machine.
S: That's right; yeah, that was last summer. Their device is called "Orbo". Now, they were promising, basically, a demonstration of their promised Orbo perpetual motion device.
E: How'd it go?
S: Well, they were all set up to give a demonstration—I think initially on July 4th, in a museum and—
R: Live on webcam.
S: Live on webcam.
E: Very cool.
S: They told everyone to tune in, tuning in at a certain time on July 4th when they would demonstrate their machine, and then, you know, they ran into some technical difficulties. So they—
R: Not just technical difficulties.
S: Well they had to delay it.
R: The lights were too warm.
E: The delaying of a perpetual motion machine? That's never happened before.
R: Right, the perpetual motion machine, this thing that is supposed to generate the same amount of energy that it uses, was destroyed by heat.
S: Right, from the camera lights.
R: Yeah. Good design.
S: That was their excuse. At first they said it was just delayed until the 5th, and then basically said "uhhhh" they had to cancel the demonstration; it's just not going to work. Sean McCarthy, the CEO, stated "technical problems arose during the installation of the demonstration unit in the display case on Wednesday evening" and the problems were primarily due to "excessive heat from the lighting in the main display area." So that is a pretty delicate piece of technology they're dealing with.
E: Yeah. Funny all of their tests of testable pieces of technology seemed to work just fine.
R: Presumably they actually made this work before their big public demonstration.
E: Why else would you have a public demonstration, if you didn't have it working?
R: Exactly. They didn't think to maybe put a light on it before?
J: Yeah, I guess they were testing it in the dark before this?
R: That would actually make sense; that might be why they thought they'd discovered perpetual motion, because all the lights were turned off.
J: Yeah. "There's a perpetual motion machine in that pitch black room there, you see it?"
E: Next, the invisible dragon!
S: There's been a lot of speculation about what their game is. Of course, just for a little background, perpetual motion machines don't exist; they violate the laws of thermodynamics. There's actually different types of perpetual motion machines: those that violate the first law of thermodynamics and those that violate the second law of thermodynamics.
R: You can pick which you prefer.
S: You can pick and chose which fundamental law of physics you want to violate.
B: You might want to quickly state, Steve, the first law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The second law states that putting energy into a system will always result in a loss in potential output.
S: That's right. So you can't—machines can't make energy from nothing, nor can you get the same amount of energy out of—any time energy's transferred from one state to another or one thing to another, there's gotta be at least a little bit of a loss of energy. You can't maintain the exact same amount of energy.
E: That's a creationist argument.
B: And if those—if one or both of those are wrong, we have trouble.
S: Yes. It's not just a good idea: it is the law. It is one of the most, if not the most (collectively the laws of thermodynamics) validated laws in science. If anything deserves the title of a "law of nature," these do. To the point that anyone claiming to have evidence that violates either of these laws has an enormous burden of proof to meet before they should reasonably make such claims. Now sometimes, we always speculate what's the game; what's going on in these guys' minds. Sometimes they are self-deluded cranks. And it's actually quite easy to make the mistake of thinking you have a perpetual motion machine when you don't, because you have to be actually quite careful to make sure that you're excluding all potential sources of external energy. The one that I saw that was the most subtle, and I'm like, "gee I'm not sure I would have picked up on that" was a perpetual clock, a clock that never—didn't need any apparent energy source, didn't need to be wound or whatever, and actually it was being powered by—
R: A hamster running in a wheel.
S: Now, we missed the hamster.
J: Powered by stupidity.
S: It was temperature differences causing flexing of metal.
E: That's clever.
B: That's cool.
S: And that was it; that's pretty subtle.
J: Well, wait, was it clever, or did the guy build it and didn't even know what he built.
S: The one I was looking at was designed to function that way, but it was like—
S: I defy you to figure out where the energy's coming from in this device; it was that subtle. But people can make those kind of honest mistakes, they don't realize that external heat is playing a role or even humidity or light energy, whatever. The other thing is with—the other way you can make a "honest mistake" is if you have a process that requires some activation energy. And then you get energy at the back end. And it's a matter of adding up all the energy going in, adding up all the energy coming out, and making a comparison, and they basically just do the addition wrong. They're missing some sources of input, of energy or they're overestimating the output, and—
E: Forgot to carry the two.
S: —they get the mat wrong. Yeah.
R: And there are the con men.
S: Then there are con men, right; there are those who—they have no delusions about what's going on; they know it's a total farce, and they're doing it to lure investors, usually.
J: They lie about it?
R: And you got to wonder with a company like Steorn, because they did pursue investors before. Looking on their website's kinda difficult to piece together what they used to do before and what they do now. They had investors but then they stopped taking on new investors until they perfected their model, is that right?
B: Initially, Steve—correct me if I'm wrong. A lot of these people would initially they would try to sell the machine, "here's my perpetual motion machine" and try to make money off of it.
B: And of course they ran into lots of problems with that because it doesn't work. So now, as this guy was doing, they sell, you know, the potential, like "look it we're so close, help us go these last few yards. And we'll have it and you'll be piping energy back into the grid and they'll be paying you for it." And that's much harder to catch it with that.
S: Yeah, because not demonstrably fraud that your research program just didn't pan out as you expected. "Well, it's research; it never pans out exactly as you'd expect." So it's harder to demonstrate equivocally that it was fraudulent.
R: According to Steorn's website, they say, "due to the contentious nature of our technology claim, the company made a decision that during the process of validation, we would seek no further funding."
E: Did Ireland issue them a patent for this? Because that's a big part of the whole perpetual motion problem, is that it gets legitimized by governments because they, to some degree, because they issue patents for these things that blatantly don't work. Of course Randi has gone to great lengths in writing about it and talking about it.
R: Steorn had claimed that they were going to give away the instructions for making it. According to Steorn's website they say "our free energy technology will be made widely available to the development community immediately after the independent scientific validation process. Under the terms of a modified general public license and for a nominal fee, Steorn's intellectual property will be made available concurrently to all interested parties, from individual enthusiasts to larger research organizations."
J: So these are scam artists.
R: Well, that's what so difficult to determine is because if they aren't taking money from investors, and if they aren't claiming to have any interest in selling the machines, then are they scam artists? Or are they a company that actually thought that they had this great idea, which turned out not to work?
S: And here's the great idea, they say "Orbo is based upon the principle of time-variant magneto-mechanical interactions," which basically means it's magnets. It's frequently at the core of perpetual motion machines because the attractive energy or whatever of magnets can fool people into thinking that they're creating some kind of perpetual motion. But the bottom line is you can never use magnets to generate energy or to generate work.
R: And why is that?
S: The reason you can't extract energy from a magnet is because if you extract energy from it, the magnetic field must get weaker. So then it will, you know, go away eventually. You can't extract energy from it while maintaining the field at the exact same strength. That's the bottom line.
B: Yeah, so in other words you can think of the magnet as a battery.
S: Right, it has a little bit of energy stored in its magnetic field and if you really did extract that energy, the field would have to go away.
R: So there are actually other options. We've got the fact that—the possibility that they are scam artists, or the possibility that they were just mistaken. But I have seen some other theories floating around, like—
R: —maybe they are actually just trying to prove something about viral marketing, maybe they're a—
J: Yes, I heard that as well
R: —marketing company.
R: Though if they are, I don't think they're a very good one because... I think if you asked anyone in, like a random person on the street, they would have no idea who Steorn is.
S: We pay attention to this kind of thing but I don't know how much it's out there.
B: But not just from marketing. The take I heard was that one possibility is that they were trying to show just how gullible the media is and how easily they get sucked in—
B: —to nonsense like this.
S: We'll see eventually, you know; either they'll... if they are con artists, then they'll continue to try to extract investors' money and they'll just vanish somewhere. If they are deluded cranks, they'll never give up their claims but they'll sort of face into obscurity and they'll say "well we have to work on this." And if it's a hoax then that's only viable if they at some point reveal and go "aha, we were kidding all along."
R: And if they're legitimate company that made a mistake, they'll move on to other ventures. So time will tell.
E: They should go with option number three; that's their best bet at this point.
E: "We were just kidding. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. What a good joke."
B: And one option we're not considering...
S: What's that?
B: One option is that—
S: That it works!
B: —it really works. And they overturn all of physics.
R: That's true, let 's not be...
E: That's a good option.
S: We'll include that for thoroughness. We tell patients, you know, "I'll include that diagnosis for thoroughness but it's so unlikely, it's a distant last on the list."
E: All right Steve, I say that that one is the fiction. Oh wait, sorry, wrong—
S: (laughs) Oh, please.
J: If you think about it, any of the engineers and scientists that they have working on this... they have to know it's bullshit. You know what I mean? I mean come on.
S: You would think. It's so obvious. I mean, you really—it's hard to imagine if they've any sense, that they've any consultants that they don't know that it's just impossible what they're claiming.
B: I saw an exploded view of the device and it's fairly simple—
S: Just a bunch of magnets.
B: You don't need extreme engineering skills to put this together. I suspect they don't have any real engineers on their payroll, I don't think. I haven't specifically looked for it, but—
S: That's because all the engineers are paid off by the big oil companies, Bob. Come on.
B: Oh, I forgot about that.
E: No, big pharma, big pharma.
S: And all this—big pharma is like medicine and psychiatry; perpetual motion's big oil, Evan. Get it straight.
S: All right.
R: Go on their forums, you can see all the people whining about big oil.
J: Maybe they just paid these engineers and scientists a ton of money and they're like, "whatever. I'll do it."
E: Woo hoo!
S: They got some whores or shills or whatever you want to call them.
S: If you compromise your scientific integrity for money, we call those people whores.
R: Oh, I thought you meant you got the scientists whores so they did it.
B: That would have worked too.
S: I can see where your mind is, Rebecca. All right.
Salt Water as Fuel (17:30)
- World News Daily: Can Water Fuel World?
S: There's another news item, although this isn't that new but a lot of people—that's been in the news recently, and a lot of people did send this to us and also it plays off of the previous news item, so I thought I would include it here. There's been a lot going around about the claims of a Florida resident called John Kanzius who has promoting the notion that he has discovered how to use salt water as fuel.
B: Oh yeah.
S: This is again a free energy type of claim, with the same principles apply. This guy is an interesting character. This guy clearly has some engineering skills. He's able to build stuff that works; at least it does what it's built to do. The implications may not be what he seems. He set out initially to cure cancer. You know, it's kind a low goal for himself, and he came up with the idea—actually he didn't come up with this idea but he's been researching the technology of—and Bob, you actually mentioned this recently on one of our shows—
S: —of injecting nano-particles into people that are coated with gold and then using the radio-frequencies to heat the particles. You tag the particles in some way that they selectively go to cancer cells. Then you use radio-frequency heat-induction to heat the nano-particles and kill the cancer cells.
J: So he came up with this process as well?
S: He did not come up with it but—
B: He's trying to implement it.
S: He's trying to implement it but he kinda gives the impression that it was his idea. Some people have been critical of him for being an attention-hound. But he did build the device to do it; the radio-frequency device. He was experimenting on salt water to see if he could use this as a desalination technique—you know, turning salt water into fresh water—and he discovered by accident that the salt water under this radio-frequency induction, would in fact—you can ignite and burn it. You can have a little test tube of salt water with this yellow flame coming off the top of it. And the salt water—
E: Burning water.
S: —the salt water is burning. And then just to prove that this can be harnessed to generate energy, he puts a little engine on top of it, and uses the heat from the flame to run a little motor. This is the kind of problem that I spoke about before, where you're putting energy into this process; there's a certain amount of wattage associated with running the radio-frequency machine.
J: Well Steve, what's it burning? Hydrogen?
S: Yes. So what it's doing is separating the hydrogen and the oxygen and then burning it so that it goes back together as water and creates energy.
R: So why salt water?
S: Well, that's a very good question. And there's a few possibilities that I've read, and I'm not sure which is the correct one. The speculation has been that the salt is some way acting as a catalyst, because actually this does not work on fresh water. It only works on salt water, but you could just take fresh water and put salt in it. The speculations I've heard is that the so-called flame is really more of a spark and that the salt is necessary to make the water more conductive. Another one is that it weakens the bond between the hydrogen and the oxygen, so that it makes it split apart more. And also others have speculated that it's actually more the sodium that's actually burning, and the sodium definitely has to be involved with the flame because a hydrogen/oxygen flame should be basically colorless. This flame was clearly yellow, which is what the color of a sodium flame would be. So, the salt is definitely playing a role in this.
B: Plus it's pretty.
S: Plus it makes it pretty. It makes it so you can see it.
E: A pretty color.
B: Prettier than an invisible flame.
S: He thinks that this is going to be like—solve the world's energy problems and make us free of fossil fuels. And, well, you know, did you do a basic calculation to see how much energy's going in and how much energy's going out? Because I guarantee you that there's less energy coming out that going in. And again, ask the basic question: "where is the energy coming from?" You're putting energy in to separate hydrogen and oxygen, and then you're getting energy back as you burn it back together, and according to the second law of thermodynamics, that energy that comes out has to be less than the energy you put in. That's it.
B: That's the bottom line to this whole thing.
R: It's not even like he's close to perpetual energy here. This is an amazingly inefficient way to get energy.
J: He's like "this machine's plugged in; it's ripping the hydrogen and oxygen molecules apart"; he's burning it. And then he's not counting the electricity it takes to run the machine.
S: Yes. Right. Exactly. It's kind of basic.
J: So this guy needs a smack to the mouth.
R: Yeah, Jay, that's what he needs.
J: Send him home. Well come on, somebody's got to tell this guy, "hey Charlie, it's not working, jacko."
R: Smack the mouth with the physics.
S: That's Jay's approach: smack this guy in the mouth. But, we'll do that metaphorically.
R: Way to make up for Perry's absence.
S: So it brings up a couple of other points I want to point out. One is the notion that something that's burning is therefore fuel. And in fact, fuel implies that there is energy already stored in the medium, whatever it is, and that you're getting that energy out of it. And therefore it's a source of energy. Petroleum is a source of energy, because the energy's already in there, and it's in there in chemical bonds and then you're getting that chemical energy out by burning it. There are other quote-unquote "fuels" that are not sources of energy, but they are carriers, or storage devices for energy. There's been a lot of talk about the hydrogen economy and using hydrogen fuel cells. Well, because hydrogen does not exist in free form on the earth in any significant amounts, we have to make hydrogen. And again, you get less energy out burning the hydrogen than it puts in to make it, so it's not a source of energy, but it can be used as a pretty efficient, potentially, storage medium of energy. This method is really neither. You're not really storing the energy and it certainly isn't a source of energy, it's just really a conduit for energy. You're putting energy in and getting it right back out, and you're just changing the form of energy and losing a little bit along the way, and that's it, really. Although, this could turn out to be, through dumb luck—maybe this might be an efficient way of creating hydrogen from water.
J: So I don't slap him?
S: Well the guy's not claiming "isn't this an interesting phenomenon, maybe we can exploit this as an efficient way of making hydrogen." He's saying "this is going to replace gasoline," so he still needs the smack. The other thing that struck me was in watching multiple local news reports about this topic, is how terrible a job the mainstream media did reporting this story. They all basically followed the same exact formula. Here we have this lone genius, working away to cure cancer and while he's at it he finds out how to burn water for fuel and will save us from our energy crisis. They were absolutely credulous; none of them even mentioned the whole scientific theoretical problems with the process. None of them obviously spoke to a scientist or an engineer or a physicist about it.
B: What does he do in his spare time, save babies?
J: But Steve, Steve, that segment on their shows kept the viewers there long enough for the next round of commercials.
S: Yeah, right. It was clearly like a human-interest story, almost; they didn't feel that they needed to interject any actual science in their science reporting. It was terrible. Terrible.
J: Pesky science would kill the story. Come on.
E: Science is boring.
S: I also did a Google search just to see what the print media was saying about this and it was basically the same thing. It was just the same story. I found one mainstream print article that even mentioned the scientific criticism or the skepticism about these claims.
S: Print. And I think, Bob, you found the same one doing the same kind of search I did—
S: This was published by World News Daily and, by coincidence, was written by an old friend of ours, Joe Kovacs.
J: Hey Joe!
S: He included what we just said—this kinda violates the second law of thermodynamics; they're not counting the energy going into the process, et cetera. However, I also noticed that he included that at the end of his article, basically copying it from science bloggers. That's where he got his information from. So the one sort of side point that I want to make about this, and this is something that we talk about on this show occasionally: this case, in my opinion, the old-school traditional media utterly failed the public in dealing with this story. They were credulous; they didn't do the proper investigation; they did not give the public the information they need to actually judge the story or to understand it. The new Internet-based science blogging media did a wonderful job of dealing with this story; gave complete information; gave all the background scientific information. If you read a science blogger's take on this, you got the story; you read traditional print or TV media, you got a credulous childish story.
J: And there it lies. There's a microcosm of what's happening today.
S: Exactly. That's why that struck me. Right there, leads me to believe that the new media is going to kill to a large degree the old media, and good riddance because it's better.
J: A good question to be asked now would be—the people that they send to do these interviews with the number of people that are burning salt water; did they know the difference or did they buy it hook, line, and sinker, or was it a conscious decision? "We're going to show this in a particular way regardless of what I know better. I know that this is bullshit but we're going to do it because my manager needs me, my boss needs me"—
R: I'm sure they bought it.
B: Yeah, I don't think they had any clue what was really going on.
R: Yeah, the guy sounds like he knows what he's talking about and he demonstrates what he's done. When you know nothing about physics and energy loss you'll bite that and you're done for. So I don't think that there's some conspiracy where they're all... that the mainstream media knows that this guy's a quack, but still put him on. I think they've—
B: Their fault was that they don't go to some people with some serious credentials and discuss this with chemists and engineers and say "hey, what are some alternative explanations?" That's where they really fell down. They just bought it and reported it without digging any deeper.
S: This is my personal experience, not with this particular story but with stories like this: that the journalists have a pretty good sense that this is BS. They don't really buy it; they know that something is probably wrong with this; they have enough sense to know that but they don't care and they don't care to investigate that. So it's a combination.
R: And obviously it depends. It depends on the journalist, depends on the...
S: Yeah, right. But that's the mainstream model.
Questions and Emails (28:47)
S: Let's move on to your questions and emails. The first email comes from Rachael, from Australia; Sydney, Australia, and she writes:
FYI. You may have got this story in the States, but just in case it didn't reach you. Unfortunately these loonies exist in Australia too! Unbelievable.
And then she gives us a link to a story. This was sent to us by about five or six of our loyal listeners in Australia, so obviously this is big news in Australia. And this has to deal with a young woman who tragically murdered most of her entire family.
R: It was her parents and her sister, right?
S: Her father—killed her father and her sister and severely wounded her mother, but I think the mother survived the attack. What makes this not just a tragic story but something that we're talking about is the claim that the alleged murderer was under psychiatric care, had been previously diagnosed with a psychotic illness and had been treated, but prior to the attack had been encouraged by her parents, who were Scientologists to not take any treatment, not see psychiatrists, because of their Scientology beliefs. If that story is true, and this is based upon the testimony that was given at trial, then this story is someone who is very mentally ill, very sick, who needs treatment, refused that treatment for Scientology religious beliefs, and it led to a very tragic homicide that occurred, taking the story at face value, occurred in a clear psychotic state. She was not acting on any plan or anger or whatnot, just sort of delusional psychotic state at the time of the murders.
R: And in case you didn't know, this is a long-standing thing with Scientology. They have viciously fought against psychiatry as a whole. There's not a single aspect of psychiatry they agree with. And in fact, one of our listeners—and I don't want to say the name of the listener because Scientologists are crazy and will track people down and stalk them—but someone sent me a package of a magazine-style brochure and a DVD, both titled Psychiatry: An Industry of Death. And it is chock-full of just the stupidest lies and... it's really depressing how much work has gone into these. These are really nicely produced items that they're handing out for free to people on the street.
R: They're spreading these vicious lies and they're convincing people who need real help, like this woman in Australia, to try to go it alone with their crazy Scientology cures that don't work and have been proven again and again not to work. Look at Tom Cruise! Hello? Crazy.
S: It's terrible, and again, we don't care what people believe in terms of their faith, but here we have a belief system that's making a scientific claim, and is specifically really viciously attacking a perfectly legitimate system of healthcare. And traditionally, mental health has a lot of hurdles to get over; a lot of barriers to good mental health care. It carries a stigma that other medicine doesn't have, for example. So it's an easy target. It really is very painful to watch this kind of vicious attack for these kind of bizarre beliefs that they have. The other thing is that my sense is that what we're witnessing is the creation of a very sophisticated collection of nonsense, the anti-psychiatry propaganda that's being created by the scientologists. That could get to a very—as you say, people spend a lot of time on this. They can get to a very sophisticated detailed level. Kind of like creationism. It really is now just like creationism.
R: It is, yeah.
S: Creationists deny evolution and they have books written about it—very sophisticated, very developed body of nonsense and misdirection and distortion and lies. Scientology is doing the same thing now with mental health and it's painful to watch.
R: Right, imagine... I'm talking about a magazine that looks better than, say, Newsweek; it has these timelines of the cruel history of psychiatry, big long articles all about electro-shock, and... I mean, it's kind of depressing because it's so full of misinterpretations. You don't even know where to begin.
S: To be complete, the Church of Scientology denies that there's a connection, specifically the Australian Church of Scientology vice-president is quoted—this is Cyrus Brooks, quoted as saying that the "Scientology link is a bit of a red herring," so they're saying that they have no records that this family were members of the Church of Scientology.
R: Yeah, they don't have any records any more.
S: (chuckles) Yeah, right. This is what came out of testimony, so it's not just hearsay; it's what's actually on the record. So, tragic story but it does again highlight the dangers of believing in nonsense and pseudoscience.
J: I hate them so much I can't even comment on this.
R: You have been strangely quiet over there.
E: You're paralyzed with rage.
S: You're verklempt.
J: Because what can I say other than I'm just speechless. I'm literally speechless. I'm waiting for the fight; I want scientology to call me up and start messing with me and then I'll lose my mind on them.
S: Well, we do have an excellent interview coming up so let's go on to that interview now.
Interview with Scott Lilienfield (34:33)
S: Joining us now is Scott Lilienfield. Scott, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.
SL: Thanks very much, Steve. Good to be here.
S: Now Scott is a clinical psychologist and a professor at Emory University, and is also the editor-in-chief of the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Why don't you just start by telling us about that publication? What's the editorial policy there?
Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice
SL: Sure, I'd be delighted to. The main goal of this journal is to try to distinguish scientifically supported from unsupported mental health practices. By mental health practices, we mean things like psychotherapy, assessment devices, diagnostic techniques and so on. And our goal is not really to debunk any techniques or necessarily to show the techniques are wrong, but rather to help readers—and that includes clinicians, practicing psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, researchers, lay persons and so on—to better distinguish techniques that have some support in terms of scientific evidence from those that do not.
S: Right. And you cover the full spectrum from mainstream therapies all the way to the most fringe, bizarre therapies; is that right?
SL: That's right. I'm glad you pointed that out, because one thing we try to do, although we certainly do get a number of articles dealing with things that are outside of the mainstream, we also do try to highlight new and promising techniques that either are in the mainstream or may be entering the mainstream that actually do have some degree of scientific support. So we really try to highlight not only techniques that don't work, but either those that do seem to work or may be promising.
S: It is very challenging, especially for the public. In the medical field, it seems like mental health has the broadest range of therapies in terms of different modes of modalities, supported and unsupported by logic and evidence, and there's also lots of different professions, lots of different types of practitioners. It's kind of bewildering, I think, for the public.
SL: Yeah, absolutely, I think that we do often not a very good job as mental health professionals educating the public about different types of professionals, as you point out. There are lots of different types of mental health workers: psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, mental health counselors. A lot of people don't know the differences among those different types of professionals and most people, at least in my experience, when I teach undergraduates I find that most of them are unaware of the fact that the term "therapist" is not even protected in most states. Anybody can hang up a shingle and call themselves a "therapist", and that in no way ensures that they have any kind of mental health training, let alone any training in how to think scientifically.
S: What's your sense, in general, about the level of scientific legitimacy in just your basic clinical mental health field.
SL: You mean the legitimacy of the techniques themselves or the—
S: Exactly. So if somebody goes to a therapist, a counselor or whatever, what's the chance that they're going to encounter a basically scientifically legitimate practitioner or techniques versus pseudoscience?
SL: Right. The truthful answer to that is that we don't know, because there are really few, if any, good surveys of how often a therapist uses well-validated scientifically supported methods. I think the best we can say is that it is a very mixed bag. Even for, for example, anxiety disorders, where there are techniques, psychotherapies in particular, that have been shown to work fairly well, and those incidentally are what are called exposure-based techniques, that expose people to the things they're afraid of for a prolonged period of time. Those are pretty well validated techniques and one would think that, given the scientific evidence for those methods, that just about all practitioners would be using them now for conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, like phobias for which they've been shown to work quite well. Yet we do know from a few surveys that have been done that many clinicians are not using exposure-based techniques even though they're clearly the treatment of choice. So I think it really is a mixed bag; it's very variable, to the extent to which people go to individuals who do not come from, say, well-credentialed programs, programs that have been accredited by, for example, the American Psychological Association or other accrediting bodies, the greater the risk, I suspect, that people may encounter some techniques that are outside the scientific mainstream.
S: Sure. I agree with that. Definitely checking the credentials of your therapist is helpful. But even that's not a guarantee. I think even—
S: —the most mainstream in terms of training and credentialing still may just still decide to incorporate completely pseudoscientific—
SL: Yeah, I agree; I think it's by no means a guarantee. I think it's something one can do to increase the chances one will get a mainstream technique but I agree completely. There're studies showing—these are a bit old now, but even from the mid-1990s—there's studies showing that about 25% of therapists who are members of the division 12, Society for Clinical Psychology within APA, within the American Psychological Association, and these are people who have PhDs—about 25% of these individuals regularly make use of recovered memory techniques, highly suggestive procedures like hypnosis, guided imagery, asking people to keep journals, to try to recover supposed memories of early abuse, even though we know that those techniques carry a substantial risk of false memories in a lot of clients. I think you're exactly right. Even members of our professional societies have the highest of scholarly degrees, even a large percentage of them. Probably not a majority, but a large percentage of them practice techniques that we know to be dangerous.
S: Before we talk—there's just so many different mental health pseudosciences we can talk about—
S: We'll go there in just a minute, but I wanted to just get your sense of the legitimate end of the spectrum first, because interestingly, there's a lot of criticism even of what we would consider the most legitimate forms of psychotherapy or of therapy. Even to the extreme of those who deny that mental health—mental illness exists, and who deny that anything is legitimate. So what are some of the things towards the legitimate end of the spectrum that you think are legitimate and what do you think is the degree of scientific rigor at the "good end" of the spectrum.
SL: I think it's pretty good. I think it's getting better. I am not among those who would agree that all mental health practice is bunkum, or not valid. I think that the data really speak strongly for the fact that psychotherapies, some of them, actually are quite effective. There's a real push in our field toward what are called ESTs: empirically supported therapies, therapies that seem to have some sort of scientific basis, and...
S: Is that like the equivalent of evidence-based medicine?
SL: Yes. A lot of that's been very influenced by the movement towards evidence-based medicine and practice guidelines and so on. Our field, I think, has been much too slow to move on to that. But we are gradually—unfortunately some of the pressure is coming from outside the profession, in terms of managed care and so on—but we are gradually moving toward evidence-based practices and the push towards ESTs, empirically supported therapy is an example of that. The best evidence for ESTs, treatments that seem to have some support include things like behavioral and cognitive behavioral therapies for depression and anxiety disorders. These are techniques that rely on quite well-validated methods, often developed in the psychological laboratory based on conditioning principles like classical and operant conditioning that not only seemed to change behaviors based on well-established learning principles, but it also in many cases altered dysfunctional thinking patterns—again a lot of that, I think, comes from pretty good basic psychological research in the lab that has been applied to the consulting room. Some interpersonal therapies, particularly for depression, that seems to change, or at least focus on changing maladaptive interpersonal processes, relationship problems also seemed to have some efficacy for depression. These are not panaceas but if you look at how, for example, they match up against antidepressant medication, they do about as well in terms of their effects on depression and there's some suggestion they may actually have better effects in the long term because they may end up being somewhat better at preventing relapse. The effects are not huge but we do know from meta-analyses, which are big quantitative reviews of the psychological literature that the average therapy client will do better than about 8 of 10 people who do not receive therapy. I would say a lot of these therapies actually do quite well, and actually do quite favorably when compared against medication.
S: And since you bring it up, do you think that there's a scientifically-based legitimate role for medication, for psychopharmacology in the care of many of these mental health problems?
SL: Absolutely. I do. I think, again, they're not panaceas. Have the drug companies sometimes overstated the benefits of some of these medications? Sure; they have, but again if you look up the literature on depression, antidepressants do seem to help. It is true that a large percentage of the effects of antidepressants can be mimicked by placebo, but by no means all. When you compare antidepressants against a placebo or a dummy pill, the effects become smaller but the evidence also is pretty conclusive that antidepressants do better than placebo. And some recent evidence suggests that in depression, which is a life-threatening illness associated with a dramatically increased risk of suicide, there is pretty compelling evidence that antidepressants do reduce suicide risks, so I do think there's a role for medication in the treatment of depression, anxiety disorders and a number of other conditions. But of course, virtually all effective treatments do come with some risks—
SL: —so people have to be closely monitored as well, especially early in treatment.
S: Now, turning our attention to some more of the dubious types of therapies. First, I remember you gave a lecture that I attended where you gave an excellent summary of why almost any therapy, no matter how bogus or how worthless, could seem to work. Can you give us a synopsis of that?
SL: Sure. There's quite a bit of evidence of that. There are a lot of factors that can lead intelligent, well-educated people, and that includes both clients and therapists, into thinking that a totally bogus technique actually works. A number of people have done some excellent writing on that topic. I mentioned the placebo effect—the improvement resulting from the mere expectation of improvement. That's certainly one factor that can lead people to think a technique is helpful when, in fact, it has nothing to do with the technique itself; it really has to do with the fact that any therapy, particularly any new technique may install hope. In the psychotherapy outcome literature, for example, there's good evidence that a large percentage of improvement occurs between the very first phone call and the very first session, even before treatment begins. Some of that may be because people now have hope that they're going to improve. So the placebo effect is one powerful reason.
Another one that's a bit more technical but I think is worth keeping in mind is what's called "regression to the mean", and that sounds a bit mathematical but really all it means is that extreme scores are likely to become less extreme on retesting. It's a basic statistical fact of life. What that means is that if someone comes in with a disorder like depression, which tends to be a cyclical disorder over time, and we wait a period of time, say a few weeks or few months, the odds are often fairly high that the person will be better later, even without treatment. So, regression to the mean can fool us into thinking that a technique is effective when it's not.
One last one I'll mention is something called "effort justification"; it comes from the psychological literature; oftentimes when people go into therapy they exert a lot of time, effort and energy into the treatment. They may feel a psychological need to justify why they've undergone this procedure. That psychological need itself may be helpful and may persuade them they've gotten better even when they have not. There are actually a host of other reasons too, but the key point here is change can happen and we may misinterpret that change as due to the treatment, when in fact, it's due to something else.
S: Right. So like everything in medicine, anecdotal evidence is worthless and misleading and you just spelled out a lot of the specific reasons why. One that struck me is that it's just the introduction of something novel into the therapeutic relationship creates the expectation that things are going to get better, and that often is enough.
SL: That's right, and there is psychological literature on the so-called "novelty effect" and in a variety of disciplines; it's a well-known artifact; that's something we have to watch out for because oftentimes we have to remember is people with psychological disorders understandably are looking for hope.
SL: Maybe psychological disorders are, as the late Jerome Frank pointed out, are disorders of demoralization and the mere understanding that something new is happening or the person is trying something new can itself be very powerful and very very curative. And that's, by the way, not to demean it because that itself may be a powerful therapeutic agent, but the danger is we may mistakenly attribute that to something specific about the treatment, when in fact, it could apply to just about any treatment.
S: That's right, and then taking from that not only that this treatment works but that the underlying philosophy of the treatment therefore must be true—
S: —even if it's extremely bizarre.
SL: That's right. You make a great point. It may be totally orthogonal to the ostensible treatment rationale; it may have nothing to do with the expressed theory underlying the treatment. The way some people put it is that some psychotherapies may be therapeutically effective and yet theoretically inert. Meaning that they may actually work but they work for very different reasons than the people who propound them think they do.
S: Right, but it could lead people to have very bizarre notions about health and disease and mental health in particular.
SL: That's right, and bizarre notions that they have to seek a particular treatment or a person with a particular treatment philosophy, when in fact, that may not be the case.
J: Scott, is there a kind of policing that you do, or do you any correction to the doctors?
SL: Good question; do we do policing. We've tried; I think it's hard because there are very few sanctions one can apply to psychologists and psychiatrists who engage in techniques. I think the best we've been able to do is to try to better educate practitioners and better educate the general public about these techniques. In a recent paper that came out, I also came up with a proposed but admittedly, fairly tentative list of what I call "PHTs", potentially harmful treatments, that could be used, for example, to set up basic evidence-based practices about what not to do. I think it's important not only to have ESTs, empirically supported treatments, but I think it's also important to be able to police the field by outlining techniques that may actually be harmful and may make people worse. But unfortunately, our field has been very slow to police mental health practitioners who've engaged in techniques that are rather ineffective or even worse, harmful.
J: It sounds so difficult because it seems like everything is anecdotal.
SL: Right. Well luckily, some of it is, I think unfortunately anecdotal, but luckily in the psychotherapy field one can perform what are called "RCTs", randomized controlled trials, where one randomly assigns people to either get a treatment or some kind of control treatment. Oftentimes what may be called an "attention placebo", where the person just sits down and talks to a mental health professional for the same period of time, but without therapy. The best studies nowadays, and there are some very good ones out there, look not merely at self-reports of clients—whether they've gotten better, although those are important to look at and certainly one should always ask clients whether they think they've been helped—but also what Alan Kazdin at Yale has called "social validation"—do other people, significant others, friends, loved ones, also see the person getting better? People have also began to look at biological indices, neurotransmitter levels, brain imaging levels and so on. So there are a variety of different converging indices one can use. By using randomized controlled trials, where one randomly assigns some people to get treatment, some people not, which in the long run equalizes their initial levels, and then measuring their improvement along a variety of different dimensions—not just their own reports, but those of others and laboratory and biological indices—one gets a pretty rigorous picture actually if whether a therapy works.
S: You can get the evidence, but the question is—it sounds like it's very difficult to use that evidence to create a standard of care that can apply across the board. So people are just doing what they want to do despite what the evidence says. There's not the culture of science enough.
SL: Yeah, well... I think one can come up with those evidence-based guidelines, but there's a lot of resistance to them. So I don't think it's as difficult as some practitioners think to come up with basic guidelines for what works and what doesn't. They're not perfect, like any sort of guidelines, but I think they clearly reduce human error, which is really what science is all about. So I think coming up with the guidelines is not the big obstacle. The big obstacle is working with clinicians and persuading them that it's in their best interest and their clients' best interest to take a look at these guidelines and start using them. But "the times, they are a-changing" as Bob Dylan said.
S: That's good.
SL: I think it's a matter of time before these guidelines come into place even though there's going to be some continued resistance to them. I think clinicians would be better off working with us and working with the researchers to try and improve these guidelines; make them better, rather than fight against them tooth and nail.
S: So tell us, in your opinion, what's the most harmful or extreme pseudoscientific therapeutic modality that you've encountered.
SL: That's a tough one because there's so many of them out there. I can give you a couple.
SL: I mentioned recovered memory techniques, that's been one of the great mental health fiascos of the late 20th, early 21st century. There's a misperception out there that that set of practices has stopped but it has not, although we don't have a good handle on how prevalent it is. But just to review, there's no question that early child sexual abuse is a serious problem in our society. And when it happens, it may sometimes have long-term effects that are baleful and we have to deal with. But by the same token, we have to be very careful not to try to unearth memories of abuse when those memories are false, when the abuse did not happen. Many therapists—we don't know what percentage, but some estimates are about 25%—therapists use a variety of suggestive procedures in an effort to try to bring out these early memories, and the best evidence suggests it may be about 25% of clients are at risk for false recollections of abuse when they did not happen.
A related technique is a set of techniques designed to treat multiple personality disorder, what's now called dissociative identity disorder. Set of techniques designed to bring out ostensible alter-personalities in people who engage in inexplicable behavior like, perhaps, wrist cutting or acting explosively different on different occasions. It's tempting, I think, to think that when people act in strange and inexplicable ways that there must be some other part of them that they have not accessed, and some therapists similarly try to access these so-called "alter personalities" to try to get in touch with them, bring them out, call them out, and then integrate them. The problem is that there's increasing evidence, I would argue, that these well-meaning therapists are actually creating these alter personalities rather than discovering them.
SL: Another technique I'll mention briefly—there's a list of about 10 of them that I've mentioned in a recent article in the Journal of Perspectives On Psychological Science—another technique that's extremely popular that I'll mention is something called "crisis debriefing" or "critical incident stress debriefing", which is quite popular. A number of outfits have dispatched therapists to administer crisis debriefing to people in the wake of a traumatic event. There were thousands of people employing crisis debriefing and similar techniques following the 9-11 attacks in lower Manhattan. Crisis debriefing is typically a single session procedure, it is typically done in groups, maybe about 24-48 hours after the event, and the bottom line is that people are strongly encouraged to process the memories and emotions associated with the event, even if they don't feel ready to do so. "Get it out of your system—it's like a toxin, you have to think about it, you have to speak about it." And the best evidence suggests that crisis debriefing, although extremely popular and widely used in many settings, either does not work at all or (in two or three well-controlled studies) actually may increase the risk of posttraumatic stress disorder among trauma-exposed people. Probably because it interferes with—impedes people's natural coping mechanisms.
SL: And that brings up a final point I'll make here is that a lot of these techniques use a one-size-fits-all methodology, which I think is very dangerous. We have to, as mental health professionals, respect people's individual differences, respect people's individual coping styles and so on. Any approach that is cookie-cutter like that can be dangerous.
S: I agree with you, having read some of that literature myself, it seems that it was short circuiting the normal coping mechanism of staving off processing unpleasant experiences until you can absorb it over time. Ant they're saying "nope; let's do it all at once, right now, despite what your instincts are." It actually made people worse.
SL: It can make certain people worse; exactly.
S: One that always struck me as very bizarre—I always find fun to talk about—is the eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
SL: Right. We have a lot of writing on that.
S: EMDR. Tell us about that.
SL: EMDR is not, so far as I know or anything I've seen, a harmful technique, but it may be a faddish technique in many ways, and I think has been greatly overhyped. EMDR was initially marketed as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and related anxiety conditions, and since been extended to lots of other things. The bottom line, it's a complex multi-stage procedure, but the bottom line is that the person is asked to imagine the anxiety-provoking event while moving his or her eyes back and forth, typically following the therapist's finger movements. The rationale, somehow, which I've never understood although I've read a lot about it, is that somehow the eye movement facilitates processing of the traumatic memories or—
S: (drily) Mmmmm hmm
SL: —or synchronize the two hemispheres or simulate REM sleep; it depends who you listen to. But all of that seems to be what scientists sometimes call "an explanation in search of a phenomenon", because there's no evidence whatsoever the eye movements do much of anything. When studies have compared EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) against a fixed eye movement condition where people imagine the same events, but merely stare at a spot in front of them, for example, you typically get exactly the same results. I mentioned exposure-based treatments before, and EMDR does seem to work actually to some degree, but to the extent to which it works it probably works because it incorporates exposure, forces people to think about and imagine events that had previously troubled them. But there's no evidence that the eye movements are anything more than window dressing.
S: Right. I've always been particularly amused by that one because of the neuro-speak—they defend it, use to "explain it" is kind of cute and sometimes poetic, but really just absurd from a neurological point of view.
SL: Right. We have to be very careful about neuro-babble as well as psycho-babble.
S: Yeah, yeah.
SL: We have to be very careful about people who hijack the terminology of neuroscience without capturing any of the substance.
S: It also seems to me that EMDR is one of those techniques that is most incorporated by otherwise really mainstream practitioners, even like psychiatrists I know have used it and really otherwise well-trained in scientific... So this one really, I feel, has bamboozled even the otherwise scientific practitioners.
SL: I've seen that too. That does worry me to some degree. What worries me a little bit, as you point out, and it's not just EMDR, but even some of the more scientifically literate people in our field seem very prone to fad methods. People want to help.
SL: And that's well-intentioned and I don't think it's coincidental that a lot of these faddish techniques have popped up for disorders like PTSD, for example, like autism, that are often very treatment refractory, that are hard to deal with. So well-intentioned, well-meaning and smart practitioners are understandably looking for some new breakthroughs, but the problem is, as the late Carl Sagan pointed out, we have to be particularly careful about claims that accord with what we want, what we hope for.
SL: Yeah, that's a good question. I've done some writing on hypnosis. Hypnosis has been a technique that's been shrouded in obscurity for a long time, because it has always been regarded as an occult technique that's been on that strange boundary between fringe science and pseudoscience. A couple things I could say about hypnosis: First of all, I don't think there's particularly good evidence that it's unique or distinctive trance state, that's it's a unique state of consciousness. I do think that what we call hypnosis probably is one very helpful set of techniques for inducing certain expectancies for change in certain people. Though I think there are certain people who may be susceptible to not hypnosis, per se, but hypnotic kinds of interventions, merely because they are expecting certain things to be carried along with hypnosis. Most of the psychological research of which I'm familiar suggests that much more of the variance in hypnotic responding is due not to hypnosis, per se, but to hypnotizability; that is, certain people simply be more suggestible to a variety of different suggested methods, hypnosis being one of them. A lot of these people can reproduce the same effect, like pain-induced analgesia, for example, which is a well-known hypnotic technique where people can be told not to experience pain if they dunk their hands in ice-cold water. Hypnosis will produce pain-induced analgesia but if you look at highly motivated subjects who are highly hypnotizable, they will typically show very similar effects even without hypnosis.
S: Mmm hmm.
SL: Hypnotherapy I think is, in my view, quite problematic as a stand-alone technique. There are a variety of hypnotherapists one can see in the Yellow Pages who claim to be able to cure depression or cigarette smoking or help you lose a hundred pounds by hypnosis itself. That, I think, is not scientifically supported. There are some studies showing that hypnosis may be a helpful adjunct to standard behavioral and cognitive behavioral therapies. They may help along with other techniques and may actually be a little bit additive in terms of helping with depression, cigarette smoking and so on. Although it's not clear how much of that is due to hypnosis itself or due to the fact that hypnosis is particularly good at inducing expectancies for change or helps people to relax better or what have you. So I think there are a few scientifically supported uses for hypnosis, but I think they're fairly circumscribed and in particular I think the research shows that hypnosis is not a good technique for recovering or refreshing memories. I would be hard-pressed to think of a single good reason for using hypnosis therapeutically in that fashion.
S: Yeah, correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that the research shows it tends to create false memories, not reveal hidden memories. Is that right?
SL: Well, what it will do—actually, the best research tends to show that what hypnosis will do is it will lower the threshold for reporting just about anything. And very importantly there's research showing that hypnosis will often result in what's called "memory hardening"—memory hardening meaning that it will make people more confident about memories that did not happen. So hypnosis does not seem to improve memory. In fact, it probably makes memory worse in most cases. But it does increase the confidence that certain memories are true even when they're not.
S: That's great.
SL: Which can be quite dangerous in many settings.
S: Decreased accuracy, increased confidence. That's a bad thing. Right. Well, Scott, you have been incredibly informative. We appreciate your time.
SL: It's been my pleasure.
S&J: Thanks Scott.
S: Hopefully we'll have you on again in the future.
SL: Yeah, let me know. This is the kind of thing we could probably have ten different sessions on.
S: Yeah, we're just scratching the surface.
SL: If you want me to come back, let me know.
SL: It was a lot of fun.
S: All right. Take care.
[Scott Lilienfeld's Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology is available at Amazon]
Science or Fiction (1:05:18)
It's time for Science or Fiction
S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine and one is fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics and the listeners at home to tell me which one is the fake. We actually have quite a narrow theme this week. You guys ready for this theme?
E: I prefer broad themes but all right.
S: The theme is "weird delicacies."
B: Ah, you bastard.
S: I'm going to tell you three really weird bizarre delicacies. Two of these are things that people actually eat as delicacies and one I made up.
J: Well, this is a Science or Fiction I could really sink my teeth into.
R: Oh, God.
E: Perry, I mean Steve, just because you made it up doesn't mean that people don't eat it.
S: Yeah, right, but you've still got to tell me which one I made up. Ready? Here are the three items. Number 1: boiled hair taken from the mane of a lion.
S: Item number 2: coffee made from coffee beans taken from the feces of a civet, which is a small cat-like mammal. And item number 3: goat cheese deliberately infested with maggots. Rebecca, go first.
R: Aeerggh. Ew ew and ew. That's all I can say. I'm picking—
S: And two of these are real!
R: Two of them are real. OK. Um.. God, that's gross. I'm going to go with the lion hair because hair in the food—no. Especially if it's all hair. That's gross.
S: OK. Evan?
E: Yeah, I'll agree with Rebecca. Boiled lion hair is the one you made up.
R: I would rather eat weasel poop than hair. There, I said it.
S: You guys are good with the maggot cheese and the coffee—the poop coffee?
R: Yeah, and weasel poop.
E: Those are like over-the-top kind of disgusting, but boiled lion hair?
R: That's just unappetizing. Come on.
S: It makes a nice tea.
E: It's just something you really—I don't know, if you even tried to eat it, could you really digest that? I don't know.
S: All right. Bob?
B: (sighs) Boiled hair from a lion. I could kind of see a lion—you know, the whole mojo that lions have going for them, you've got to eat the bear heart type of thing where you can get some of their spirit stuff going on. I can kind of see that. Coffee from civet excrement?
S: Coffee beans extracted from the feces of a civet, yeah.
B: I think people will do anything for coffee. Goat cheese and maggots. I think people are pretty much... maggots just... I don't know. Maggots are doing it for me, I'm going to go with the goat cheese and maggots.
S: OK. Jay?
E: Jay, what are you ordering from the menu?
J: Can I speak openly here?
J: I saw people eat cheese with maggots on that TV show, Fear Factor.
B: Oh, that doesn't mean it is a delicacy.
S: Yeah, these are not Fear Factor foods.
J: I know they're not; I'm just saying I've seen it. It's possible that they got it from some people that do it, you know. I don't know. The boiled hair from a lion thing, that sounds like something that people in Asia would do to help them get boners or something, so. Now Steve, let me get this straight, the last one is people are actually pulling like corn out of poop type of idea here, they take the coffee kernels out of some animal's poop and they make coffee out of it?
J: That's is just... if people do that. Rebecca, if they do that...
J: I'm going to have to do something about it.
R: Eat weasel poop?
J: Oh no, I'm going to have to eat the goat cheese with maggots.
E: Still tastes better than Folgers.
J: In rebellion against... nooooooo.
S: All right. Make a choice, Jay.
J: I'll go with the coffee one.
S: The coffee, OK. You guys are all over the place.
B: I mean, why would they eat coffee beans? And why wouldn't it be digested?
S: All right. So let's take these in reverse order. I'll let you know first off that I got the two real ones from a new book by Massimo Marcone called In Bad Taste. Probably will be a really interesting read. Number 3, goat cheese deliberately infested with maggots: that one is science.
B: Crap. There goes my record.
S: So-called "maggot cheese".
S: And they leave the cheese out so the flies lay their eggs on it—
J: Steve, so it's called maggot cheese?
S: Maggot cheese. They let the maggots crawl through there for a day or so, and—
J: You know how they have like mountain oysters? They don't, you know, call it something cool?
R: Rocky Mountain oysters.
S: It's an Italian delicacy and there is an Italian name attached to it, but it's colloquially referred to as "maggot cheese." And the maggots digest the cheese and excrete it out the back end and that adds a nice aromatic tangy kinda sharp flavor to the cheese.
J: That's... cheese is already aromatic.
E: Don't sugar coat it, Steve.
R: Tangy. That's what I think of when I think maggot cheese.
J: It's got a tang to it. No, it tastes like vomit.
S: Item number 2, coffee made from coffee beans taken from the feces of a civet. That one is also science.
R: That's old news. I can't believe you didn't know about that, Jay.
S: Now, what the civets eat is they eat what's called the cherry, which is the coffee bean's—there are two beans inside of a fleshy coating. The civets eat it for the fleshy coating. The beans do not get fully digested; they get a little bit digested; the surface gets pitted and some of the proteins get broken down, and it gives it a chocolaty nutty flavor.
J: It usually tastes chocolaty and nutty after they pass through some animals ass.
E: (in English accent) A bit nutty.
J: Good to the last nugget.
R: (laughing) Oh God.
S: This stuff apparently is like really expensive; you can only buy it by the quarter pound and it costs hundreds of dollars and you have to be on a waiting list for a year to get it.
J: Can you imagine waiting a year to eat coffee that was shat out by some animal?
S: Which means the boiled lion hair is fiction. That one was a bit out there. I was hoping that people were going to go with the mojo, you know, from the lion, with that one.
B: Exactly what I said, Steve.
E: I thought the chance was that it was being used as a tea or something.
S: Right, exactly, that's why I said boiled.
Skeptical Puzzle (1:11:46)
S: Evan, tell us last week's puzzle.
E: 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. Name the building.
S: The building was?
E: The Pentagon.
S: The Pentagon, yes. So... A bunch of hippies were trying to take down the Pentagon?
E: They were. 1967, of course. Vietnam War was raging—
R: Stupid hippies.
E: A bunch of hippies marching on Washington made their way over the bridge into Virginia, to the Pentagon, and tried to surround it. I don't think they had enough people to actually do that but they got a part of it and they tried to turn it orange and levitate it off of the ground or off its foundation until the people inside agreed to stop the war in Vietnam.
S: Evan, when they did this did they make any sound effects, like "nananannana puff puff va va."
J: I bet you a lot of those hippies were shit coffee drinkers.
E: They are today.
S: And who was our lucky winner?
E: Our lucky winner was our good friend Fernanda from Brazil.
All: Yey Fernanda. Good work.
E: We love you. Congratulations.
J: I'd also like to say, she is a great skeptic.
J: Yes, she's got her chops down. She's good. If you read what she writes on the board, she usually does a very good job.
S: She has skeptical chops, eh?
E: And she's very good at the—in the chat room, too.
S: And she has a tremendous singing voice, I understand.
R: Does she?
B: And she's Brazilian?
E: I didn't know that.
J: Steve, that's my line.
R: We should have her sing a skeptical song.
J: Steve, you got me.
J: Every time I said that joke, I never thought it would ever get anyone.
S: It's the delivery, Jay; I'm telling you, it's the delivery. All right, Evan, what's this week's puzzle?
E: Here we go. A dog in Romania. A vulture in Chile. A fox in China. A bear in Iceland. A boar in Greece. A buffalo in America. Identify the pseudoscientific pattern. Good luck, everyone.
S: Interesting as always. Thank you, Evan.
J: That was interesting.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:00)
S: Rebecca, you have volunteered to replace Perry as our quote master for the week.
R: Did I?
E: She can never replace him; she can only succeed him.
R: That's true.
There is not sufficient love and goodness in the world to permit us to give some of it away to imaginary beings.
That was Nietsche, a philosopher of some note.
R: As Perry might say.
E: Way to channel Perry.
R: Thank you.
S: One quick announcement before we end: we have more information on the August 11th Skeptics' Guide summer meeting. This will take place at the New York City College of Technology in the Voorhees Auditorium. This is in downtown Brooklyn in New York City. The address is 300 Jay Street. We will have full information including directions on the website, of course. This will take place again on Saturday August 11th beginning at 12 noon. We will be recording a live show and there will be some lectures and, of course, a meet-and-greet with the Skeptics' Guide cast afterwards. So we hope to see a lot of you there.
Well, thank you again everyone. I had a good time.
All: Thank you Steve, good show, thank you.
B: (in bored voice) Yeah, yeah.
R: (laughs) Yeah, yeah.
S: 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 www.theskepticsguide.org. 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 'info @ theskepticsguide.org'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.
- The Skeptic's Dictionary: "Carlos" hoax
- Sydney Morning Herald: Scientologists Flat Earthers
- Urban Dictionary: Verklempt
- Urban Dictionary: he had a tremendous singing voice