SGU Episode 105

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SGU Episode 105
25th July 2007
SGU 104 SGU 106
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
PJC: President Jimmy Carter
Quote of the Week
Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, July 25th, 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, world.

S: Perry DeAngelis

P: Hello.

S: Jay Novella

J: Good evening, guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Hi, everyone.

S: How is everyone this evening?

x: I'm good, Steve.

x: Very good!

x: Awesome.

x: Very, very good.

R: Couldn't be better.

P: We all went on honeymoon with Jay.

x: That's right.

x: We did.

P: All there in the hotel room. It's a little...

R: I thought, I thought it would be awkward, but you know...

x: It's kinda cool, right?


R: It's kinda cozy.

P: No, his, his new bride is very cooperative.

R: Um-hm.

x: She snores.

P: And, I'd like to thank you, Jay.

S: 'S right. Jay was married five days ago. How's married life treating you, Jay?

J: I'm totally excited. I love it. Very, very happy. It's exactly what she told me to say, too, so.

S: Good. You're learning already.


x: Is there any difference now that you're no longer really living in sin?

J: I did feel that the air conditioning worked better. That's kinda strange, but...


x: That's happened before. That's common.

x: You know, as you guys...

S: If you want, if you want to meet Jay's wife, Cheryl, she's gonna be at the August 11th event that we're having in Brooklyn, New York.

R: Is she?

x: Yes, she is.

R: That, that gets me very excited because I met Cheryl at the wedding for the first time, and I found that I actually like her better than Jay.


x: Yeah.

S: Well, we all do.

R: Well, I'm really looking forward to that.

x: That's why they call it the "better half".

R: Yeah.

J: I don't know how to take that, Rebecca. Thanks.

R: Ma...marrying up. (laughter)

J: Oh, I'm defininely punching above my weight with this girl. Absolutely.


R: Jay, you know I love you.

J: Thank you. I love you too.

x: For ten dollars a minute, she'll talk in that English accent for you.

x: Oh, go.... (laughter)

x: She only charged us five.

S: In fact, Cheryl does do the sexy British voice that introduces our podcast.

J: And in other places, too.


R: We don't wanna hear about that, Jay.

x: I do.

S: Now we have a very special interview coming up later in the show.

x: Jimmy "Peanut Lovin'" Carter.


S: Yes, this is our, probably our highest profile interview to date - President Jimmy Carter. We interviewed him about his UFO sighting and other th...interesting things. So that's coming up in just a moment. But first, we'll start with some skeptical news.

News Items[edit]

Ward Churchill Fired (2:26)[edit]

9news, NBC : 'I'm going nowhere' says Churchill after firing
Neurologica: Ward Churchill, 9/11, Tenure, and Academic Freedom vs Standards

S: First news item is a little bit of follow-up from a previous story that we talked about. Ward Churchill, who is the professor of ethnic studies at Colorado University, was officially fired yesterday, on July, July 24th.

R: Though he claims he's not going anywhere, so I'm not really sure what that did.


S: Yeah. He, well, he's saying that he's gonna sue the university for violation of his freedom of speech.

R: He's a tenured professor, though, so he gets a full year's pay.

S: Mm-hm

R: I'm wondering what he's complaining about. Just go.

S: Right. Yeah, right.

R: Go work on your wacky 9/11 theories.

x: They found him guilty of academic misconduct, including plagiarism.

R: Yeah, so it's not just that he has wacky theories about 9/11, which is why we're talking about him right now, in case anyone...

P: Actually, it specifically says he was not fired for that, Rebecca.

R: Ah.

S: Yeah, in fact, that wasn't considered at all. There, the quick backstory is that a couple years ago, Ward Churchill, in an essay, compared the World Trade Center 9/11 victims to little Eichmanns.

P: That's correct.

S: Who, comparing them to Adolf Eichmann, who was complicit in the Nazi Holocaust.

P: For some reason, some people took exception to that.

S: Yeah, for some unknown reason.

P: Couldn't figure it out.

S: That sparked a controversy and also triggered the University of Colorado to investigate his academic career and what they found, they found that he was guilty of academic misconduct and plagiarism. That led to a review of his tenure, disciplinary review, and that was just concluded and they found that he was guilty of academic misconduct and that was sufficient to fire him, despite the fact that he had tenure. He's saying that it's all about his political opinions, not about the academic misconduct. I don't know if he's denying that, if he's denying the specifics of the accusation. He's just saying this was a witch hunt, basically over his unpopular political views.

R: I think it's less, I don't think it's quite his unpopular political views and more his unpopular conspiracy theories that are crazy and untrue.

S: Right.

R: I mean, at some point, it stops being a political opinion and starts just being nonsense - and that's where he is.

P: My recollection is...

x: I agree.

P ...That when he first came out with the statements, the university backed him a hundred percent.

S: Well, universities will typically defend the, the rights and the freedoms of their professors to, to express their opinions. And, you know, the, the purpose of tenure is to protect academics from outside pressure, you know, from having to comport to the politics of the day, so they could be, you know, free to pursue the truth wherever it leads them. Although, initially, it was actually intended to protect professors from, like, donors and trustee members who would try to use their influence and their money to get rid of people they didn't like or to influence the politics of the university. It was meant to empower the university itself, and in practice, the colleagues, the academic colleagues of professors to, to police themselves. It didn't mean that tenured professors can't be policed. It just meant they were policed from the inside, not from the outside. And then over the last hundred years, the concept of tenure and the rights and privileges of it have evolved, you know, partly through legal precedent, sometimes through tradition. At this point, in order to remove somebody, discipline somebody from, with tenure, fire them, there's a process that's pretty similar to the legal process. You have to have due process, representation, the, you know, the tenured professor has the right to confront the evidence against them, and you, and Colorado, the University of Colorado went through that due process.

P: So it's possible, but laborious.

S: Yeah. So Churchill and his lawyer are accusing them of, of the, Churchill said specifically that the, "the process was a farce. They, the results were predetermined. It was orchestrated. And they were doing it to get rid of me". So, he said they were, quote unquote, "creating the illusion of scholarly review". And he's going to now go on the offensive, going to, he says, quote, "We will be into cour...into court to expose the nature of that fraud". So he's accusing Colo...the University of Colorado of fraud now.

P: Well, I hope the charges, I mean, I hope they stick. I hope his, he remains, his ass remains fired. But, he deserves his day in court.

S: Yeah.

P: I, I have no objection to that.

S: Now he, now he's know, he's challenging the, the scholarly review, now he's taking it into the courts. You know, it's a civil case, basically.

P: Let him, let him use the courts, I don't care.

S: It, it does bring up the question, you know, with which we touched upon before. You know, what is the role of the university? Do they have the right to police, you know, the content of their professors, their academics, or should they basically just give them the freedom to do what they want?

x: Not to plagiarize though.

S: Well, clearly, not to commit fraud, not to plagiarize. That's, that's, that's out of bounds. But, like, let's take the example of a history professor or a professor who teaches that 9/11 was an inside job, for example. Should the university say, "Well, that's his opinion. You know, we respect him as a scholar and we don't necessarily have to police the details of his opinions, and we're not going to presume that we're right about everything and this is, we, you know, the purpose of universities are to, are to inspire vigorous debate and that includes allowing people to voice very unpopular opinions". I, I, I buy all of that, as far as it goes. Except, I think that the university also has both a duty and, and the right to establish some sort of academic standards, and some things are below the standard of academics. It's not just that it's unpopular - it's also that, I mean, the, the 9/11, the claims about 9/11 are, are demonstrably wrong, and they employ poor logic, misrepresentation of the facts, etcetera, poor method. And, and, and there are actually standards for disciplining somebody with tenure that include scholarly incompetence, and you could argue that, that's, it's imcompetent to make such a ridiculous argument. Not because it's unpopular, just 'cause the method is so poor. The same exact issue, by the way, crops up all the time. It crops up with the Intelligent Design proponents, who say that they're being academically persecuted and that they should be free to promote Intelligent Design, whereas universities are like "No. That's nonsense. It's not science, it's below the standard, it's imcompetent, and we have the right to police it", which I totally agree with. The same thing comes up with paranormal researchers. Now glo...the global warming skeptics are saying that they're being persecuted academically in the same way, that there are not, their careers are being, you know, are being inhibited because their opinions are going against the prevailing, you know, political opinions. So this is an issue that keeps cropping up over and over again, and, and, you know, and often surrounds issues that we deal with typically as, as skeptics. The core conflict is freedom versus standards.

P: So Steven, how, if, if you were the dean, say, of that particular university, and Ward taught that it was a inside job - 9/11 - what would you do? You'd summon him to your office and say what to him?

S: I, I, I would follow a procedure, you know, I think universities do have procedures for things like that, but it would ultimately amount to, you know, a review of appropriate academics and experts to establish, just, is this academically legitimate, it, or is it academically incompetent? And if it follo...falls below the standards of the university, then I think that action can be taken. You know, starting with censorship, ending with being fired.

x: Do you guys think the tenure system is broken as well?

P: No, it has its place.

S: It's a double-edged sword.

P: Yeah. I mean, it's, it's, it's, it's very much like why Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.

S: It's exactly that way, yeah.

P: You know, it's that kind of protection. So, it has its place, but, like, like Steve said, you have to what? Police it for abuse.

x: Yeah. Supreme Court justices can be brought up on charges and...

P: They can be impeached.

x: ...Kicked off the Court. You bet they can.

P: They can be impeached.

S: Mm-hmm.

P: Again, it's laborious.

S: It should, it should be a high standard. It should be a high threshold, but it's, there's gotta be some mechanism, otherwise, you know, once somebody gets in, then they could be teaching students nonsense and the university would be implicitly endorsing that if they didn't have a mechanism of dealing ____

x: How'd they deal with John Mack?

S: Yale, Harvard,, again for background, John Mack was a Harvard psychiatrist who, who believed that some of his patients were, were truly being abducted by aliens, and Harvard publicly disagreed with him, but said he, but respected his tenure and didn't take action against him. He was, he was...

x: Wimps.

S: ...Killed in a car accident, so it eventually, obviously the issue ended.

x: So the aliens finally got him at the end.

S: Yeah, I mean they were clearly embarrassed by the episode, but they hid behind the notion of academic freedom. But yeah, and, and some people have, this also came up with a very similar situation with Courtney Brown, you guys remember this? The Emory professor who believed he was communicating with UFOs, but he did that all in his spare time. So sometimes you think, this is stuff he's doing outside the context of his academic job, so that's okay. Or they say, it's covered by academic freedom and it's not below the standard of imcompetence. So, we don't like it, but it's okay. And also, they say, he's free to teach that and we're free to criticize him, and that's how we deal with it. We just deal with it in the open through criticism.

P: That's an important note, you know.

S: Yeah.

P: Also, you're dealing with collegians here, you know. It's not like you're indoctrinating five-year-olds. I mean, there's a big difference...between...

S: It absolutely depends upon the level of education. Absolutely.

P: Right.

S: The higher up you go, the more, the more open we should be to cutting edge or, or, you know, differing ideas.

E: Like Holocaust deniers too.

S: That, it's another good example. Well, let's move on to the next news item.

Homeopathic Surgeon (12:18)[edit]

S: This one is about a homeopathic doctor in Arizona who is being disciplined for killing this, his third patient who died on the table for doing li...during liposuction.

P: Who keeps track?

J: couldn't come up with this if you threw it together. It's like, he's a homeopathic doctor doing liposuction. Where did, where do these two crisscross? How does a homeopath...

S: Arizona is, which is probably the center of, you know, "woo" and spiritual nonsense...


P: Yeah, they crisscross in the marketing department, Jay.

x: Yeah.

x: Yeah.

S: It has very, sort of permissive laws, and they license homeopaths, and in there, and, in the United States, the, the regulation of health care is state by state. States license all practitioners and determine their scope of practice. In Arizona, homeopaths are licensed by the state and their scope of practice includes minor, quote unquote, "minor surgical procedures".

R: And obviously knowing anything about the human body is not really a part of the licensing procedure.

S: Yeah, obviously know...understanding the science or the scientific method or, oh you know, reality...

P: Med-i-cine.

S: ...Is not a prerequisite.

x: Reality.

S: But apparently, the, the definition of "minor surgical procedure" in Arizona is ambiguous, so he was performing liposuction, you know, basically just "de facto", claiming that it was within the scope of practice of a homeopathic physician. And, and ad...and administering conscious sedation, so, using, you know, pharmaceuticals which (laugh) is, is kind of ironic for a homeopath. And, you know, a few people died under his care.

x: A few people.

E: Eh, what's a few people?

S: Right.

P: Unbelievable.

x: Steve, I thought that when somebody died under a doctor's care, under this auspice, they got their license taken away from them, whatever licensing they had. I mean, did he...

S: Yeah, well, the state, the state suspended his license. That's correct.

x: And then, was he doing the other two on the sly?

S: Well, no. What he, he, I think two patients died...well, when one patient dies, a patient dies, and that usually doesn't trigger an investigation, but two patients of his died within a couple of months. That triggered an investigation. They suspended, restricted his practice, said you can no longer do, perform conscious sedation. But he cont...he continued to perform liposuction, just not with the sedation, and then he lost another, another patient that way.

P: And, you know, liposuction is no joke.

S: No, it isn't.

P: And then it's an invasive...

x: Aw, it's...

P: ...Bru...violent procedure.

J: Yeah, you're asking for a bacterial infection when you do that.

P: I..exactly right, Jay. I saw a documentary and the guy went in there for a woman. She wanted to lose ten pounds. Popped her bowel. She got so infected, she lost both her legs!

S: Yeah. You know, it's no joke. It's serious surgery.


E: She lost more than ten pounds.

P: She lost more than ten pounds.

x: Yeah, reminds me, I saw on TV, I saw this show about the schlock doctors. You know, it's like, literally like an alleyway door and they go in and this doctor was performing pectoral implants on this guy - and he was using a wooden spatula as the operating tool.

R: Ohmygod.

x: Wow.

P: I don't know.

x: Like he's cooking sauce, he's doing surgery, you know...


x: What the hell?

S: Well, now I do think that, you know, the point of this piece is that, you know, homeopathic...homeopaths are not really adequately trained as medical physicians and the entire basis of homeopathy is pseudoscientific. Of, of course, you know, patients have complications and patients die under the care of MDs as well, but I think having really permissive rules, permissive scopes of practice for people who are operating without adequate training and under a pseudoscientific philosophy of medicine is a grave mistake. I think it does not serve the public well. This is just an anecdote that demonstrates that.

x: There's no Federal oversight or...

S: No, just the, just the...

x: ...Department or influence that they can...

S: No.

x: ...They can help Arizona take steps to correct these...

S: Nope. Drawn by the states.

x: ...These loose rules?

P: State medical.

S: Run by the state. Yep. The, the...

x: Wow.

S: ...The Federal government regulates through the FDA, you know they regulate drugs and, and devices and things like that, but they don't, do not regulate the, the practice of, of medicine.

UK UFO (16:32)[edit]

The Daily Mail: UFO sightings bring town to a standstill

S: Next news item comes from the UK. This is another UFO sighting. A crowd of a hundred, quote unquote, "stunned stargazers" brought a t...a town center to a standstill when five mysterious UFOs were spotted hovering over the sky. The, the sighting took place over Stratford, which happens to be Shakespeare's birthplace. And this is your typical "points of light in the sky" type of UFO sighting. This is, of course, this was five points of light. Couple funny bits - one is they say that it was in a formation. Well, you know, any...


S: ...Clustering of lights is going to be in some kind of formation, you know. It makes the, three of them make a triangle. Well, you know, pretty much any three points make a triangle. Yeah. So it's could be random, it's not particularly or necessarily in a formation. You know, those observers who are trying to argue that this was, you know, an alien spacecraft encounter cite the usual things. They were silent...

P: But deadly.


S: So they, they were not making, the lights were not making any noise...and that they, they moved in a, in a bizarre fashion.

P: Ah.

S: The movement.

x: I love how, I love how the, the reporters said, you know, to create the scene of people being all shook up and everything, is like, "Drinkers spilled out of pubs." Well, that makes me really wanna believe them now.


P: Come on. He's...

x: Mm-hmm.

P: ...He's trying to paint with dramatic license. He's using...

x: How 'bout that one line, one line that bugged me the most was, "Skeptics dismissed the UFOs as nothing more than hot-air balloons, fireworks, or even lanterns which had broken loose from a local rugby club." What kind of skeptics...

x: Well.

x: ...Are in that town?

x: Yeah, right?

x: Hot-air balloons? Fireworks? I mean, what's the first thing you think when you, when you see something like that? What's, what's the first thing you, what's the first thing you think?

x: It could be potential beings.

x: What?

x: Bob, it must be lanterns that broke off from something at the rugby club and floated up there, and they're spinnin' around. It's like, yeah.


S: Well, I mean it could be ultralight aircraft, I mean that's...

x: That, that's my first thought. If it, if it's...

S: ...That's certainly one possibility.

x: ...Something that persists for an extended period of time and they're moving and they could be, you know, they can be very silent and they can be very, very low, very low altitude and still be relatively silent. That's the first thing I think. Nobody...

S: Yeah.

x: ...Nobody's tossing that around?

S: That's an omission, but the, the floating lanterns, although it sounds bizarre, is not an impossible thing. You have those paper lanterns with the little flame in there. They could float, just from the hot air from the flame, and they would be a, a glowing, silent floating object.

x: Yeah, but they, it wouldn't match the pattern that, that they described. It wouldn't...

S: Yeah, I don't know if that fits this particular case...

x: Right.

S: ...But, I mean, that, that kind of phenomenon, some burning, floating...

P: The bizarre movement claim is a, is a favorite one, you know. "Impossible for a plane to have moved like that!"

x: I don't think they were the lanterns, Steve, 'cause...


P: All the time.

x: ...They were up in the air for over thi...a half an hour, so I don't think...

S: Yeah, I'm not saying that that was the case in this case. I'm just saying that, that's that, that's in, that's, so that's a possible cause that is often neglected. And also, bizarre things are gonna happen, and when they do and produce an unusual and unidentified floating object, or flying object, it, people will have a hard time explaining them because it's not one of the usual things. It's something unusual, or something bizarre - just not an alien spacecraft.

x: Here's the line that floored me. "A few minutes later, a fifth light came into view, travelling towards the others at breakneck speeds before slowing down and stopping a short distance away."

S: Right.

x: Breakneck speed? Are they kidding? How the heck are they gonna judge that?

x: That's the problem, you know. You have no idea how big these things are and how far away they are, so breakneck speed would only apply if it was big and far away, but who knows? It might have been relatively small and cl...much closer than you think. Then it wouldn't be breakneck speed.

S: Yeah. That's right. And you could look at the picture, you could see that's lights, it's against the black sky, there's no...nothing for reference. So all statements about movement and speed are really unrel...completely unreliable. But again, that's what people cling to, to argue that these had to be something fantastical or extraterrestrial.

x: This is a typical UFO sighting.

S: Yeah, it was typical.

P: This is another bunch of lights up in the sky. BO-RING!

Asian Parasite Killing Bees (20:32)[edit] Asian parasite killing western bees - Scientist

S: One last news item. Quick follow-up from our, the disappearing bee piece that we discussed a couple of months ago with Bug Girl, if you recall. There's a new hypothesis out there that seems to have some support. They're saying now that the culprit is a microscopic parasite called Nosema ceranae that basically is a, an infection that could be spreading through the, the honeybee hives, resulting in these "colony collapses", as they call them.

x: So Steve, I, I could start using my cellphone again.

S: Yes. Yeah, the cellphones are not killing off the honeybees.

x: Oh, well, some guy at work told me I can't use cellphones. That's, that's interesting.

x: Now, there's a cure for this, right?

S: There's a treatment, there's a treatment, and it's pretty cheap and effective, so that, that'll be the ultimate test. If they, they treat this parasite and the bees bounce back...I mean, from a single event, you can never be sure, but that would lend some support to this then...

x: Yeah, but Steve...

S: ...The latest hypothesis.

x: ...How'd they get all those bees to go to the doctor? I mean, come on, it's ridiculous.

S: Yeah, it's tough. That's the tough part.

x: Yeah.


x: Unfortunately, it, it requires three shots a day for every bee...


x: And it depends what state you're in, Bob.

S: So this is an Asian variant and the Asian honeybees are less vulnerable to it, but apparently the European and North American bees are much more susceptible to it.

x: Town is all abuzz about a bee problem.


S: Yeah, you just know that, that the stupid puns are gonna be flying.

x: Flying. I got it.

Your Questions and E-mails[edit]

Electric Car, Brain Evolution (0:21:56)[edit]

S: Let's move on to your...

x: Please.

S: ...Questions and e-mails. First e-mail comes from David, who writes: "Hi. I'll shorten the kudos for the show. Suffice it to say, it keeps me thinking on my long commute. Like none other. A recent show had a 175-mile-per-gallon car in the "Science or Fiction" segment. I was surprised by the talk on the topic, especially the flippant remark about the electric cars in California in the late Eighties and Nineties. Have none of you seen the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" It seems compelling to me, and batteries were not the issue. Many people wanted to take over the leases on these vehicles, that could be charged at home and go 125 miles on a charge with the batteries of the day. They even had charging stations in the last century. In big cities, this would eliminate a lot of smog and many have commutes of way under half that. But something else extinguished them. The inventor of nickel-metal hydride batteries is interviewed and his solar cell roofing tiles seem like a no-brainer. But, please discuss this issue in-depth. Thanks. - David
So this is reference to the documentary movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

x: You know I, I had not seen or, nor heard of "Who Killed the Electric Car?" It was interesting, in a 2006 documentary written and directed by Chris Paine about the rise and fall of the battery electric vehicle, specifically General Motors EV1 in the 1990s - you might have heard of that one. This, this, well, this battery electric vehicle, the EV1, was offered purely as a leased vehicle in southern California , and much of the film recounts GM's effort to show that there was no demand for the car and how they took back every car for disposal and pretty much, like, crushed every one of them. Now, the impetus for the EV1 was the California Air Resources Board's ZEV mandate - ZEV is "Zero Emission Vehicle" - and that was back in 1990. The film claims that this board reversed its mandate after suits were filed from auto manufacturers, the oil industry and the Bush administration. The film also interviews celebrities who, who apparently drove the car and engineers and technicians who had a hand in its development. Now the verdict, the verdict of this film, on who killed the electric car, follows: "Consumers: Guilty." Primarily of ambivalence, but ironically, the movie itself shows that they were primarily unaware of the vehicle or they were dismayed that it's, that it was no longer un...unavailable. "Batteries: Not guilty." When the EV1 was released, it was getting 60 to 70 miles per charge, and then, I think, round number two of the release of the cars, I'm not sure how long it took for that to come out, but that was 110 to 160 miles per charge, which isn't too shabby. And what they're saying is that with today's batteries, today's laptop batteries, this car could, could've been getting 300 miles per charge, which is impressive, which, I think that's pretty much the gold standard, isn't it, for an electric car? (inaudible) ...around 300 miles?

S: 300. Well, for any car, yeah, yeah. But, you know, but hang on. That's in a very light car. Right, which only has a certain niche in the market. Not saying that there's no market for it, but this is in a small, very light, very aerodynamic car.

x: Yeah, you like...

S: You...and...

x: ...To roll large, Steve, so this wouldn't work for you.

S: And the, the other aspect of batteries is the time it takes to recharge them.

x: Right, which...

S: So... (inaudible)

x: ...Which had a big range for the EV1, right. There was a big range. But let me continue with the verdicts here. "The oil companies: Guilty." They didn't wanna lose business. They bought patents to prevent modern batteries from being used in US electric cars...interesting. "Car companies: Guilty." They used negative marketing, which sabotaged their own production program, and that there was a failure to meet demand. Now the reason offered in the movie was that perhaps, the, these electric cars had much less expensive repairs and that was one of the prime motivators, apparently, for these car companies to not really push it, because once you bought it, not much more money was gonna be coming in with all these repairs. "The government: Guilty." The federal government joined the automakers' suits against California. See...the couple more...Cal...the California Air Resources Board is pronounced guilty in this, in this film. Its head, Alan Lloyd, apparently caved to pressure and was given directorship of the new fue cell...fuel cell institute, which is clearly a conflict of interest. And then, finally, the hydrogen fuel cell itself is said to be guilty in that it's a distraction from the real and immediate potential of electric vehicles. Now the, the, the research I did on this did mention some criticisms. GM, some communication officer from GM apparently issued a statement on the web at some point, and he mentioned that GM had invested big in this technology before and after the EV1 came out, but the, the market was limited and they, they had made great progress in fuel cell technology and claims that by 2010, they could have a design that's comparable to a combustion engine in terms of durability and performance. Good luck with that. So that's what I have. It was interesting and it, it really, it really seems like, you know, external agencies totally killed this thing and it could have been, you know, it could have been something pretty interesting if, if it was allowed to, to actually continue.

S: Yeah, I mean I agree. I think, I think it, there was potential there, but I think it still would've been probably a niche market at the time. You know...

x: Right.

S: ...In the 1990s. The thing now, with rising oil prices and just, and more awareness of global warming, etcetera, I think there's more of a, of a demand for these types of vehicles. I, they didn't, I'm interested they did...there was no mention of hybrid technology, just hydrogen fuel cell technology. And the hybrids seem to me, was like the answer to, you know, why the electric car was unpopular. It basically got you a lot of the benefits of the electric car but had the power and range of a gasoline engine. The other thing...

x: It's a hybrid.

S: ...That wasn't mentioned was the performance of the pure...

x: Right.

S: ...Electric cars is not that great. You know...

x: That's true.

S: ...How they power, under the accelerator. So, my bottom line take on this is that it was primarily a marketing decision, which you could disagree with, the marketing decision of the car companies, but it was mainly a marketing decision, but a lot of times it's portrayed as if it's a big oil company conspiracy, that they, that it was crushed by that and not more complex, you know, set of, of circumstances.

x: Yeah, but...

S: (inaudible)

x: ...Didn't you find it interesting that it's claimed in this movie that oil companies actually bought patents to prevent modern batteries from being used in our electric cars? That's, that was interesting.

S: Yeah, I've been reading about the, the battery, the electric, the electric battery issue. It's actually very complex. Here are the two sides of the story. One is that Chevron came into possession of, of a controlling share of a company called Cobasys that makes the nickel-metal hydride batteries and that they used their influence to restrict the sale, in the United States, of batteries that were large enough to power electronic vehicles and that they were restricting the sale to those batteries that could be used in hybrid electric vehicles, so that at least part of the car would be using gasoline. The other side of the story says that there's no direct evidence for that, these are people who are reading between the lines. There's no smoking gun, to say that that's the intention of Chevron, and that Chevon is just diversifying into other energy technologies, just like other oil companies investing in solar or other types of energy. They're hedging their, their energy bets, they're not planning on surviving forever on oil - and that, in fact, it's possible to sell these batteries. They're, they're, they're not really being restricted. You know, wading through all of this, I honestly couldn't tell which side was more compelling, which, which means to me that there's probably a little truth on both sides. I also think that the, you know, like, in the Nineties, the technology just wasn't quite there, but we are getting there, you know, rapidly now, and that this is gonna, this is coming, you know, better batteries. Now they're even talking about carbon-nano, you know, fiber batteries that are gonna be even better, lighter, so I think this technology's coming, and I don't think any conspiracy of Big Oil is gonna be able to stop it.

x: Yeah, I, I think the technology, from all the things I've read, was somewhat marginal at that point. I mean, when, when it, you know, if it, if it takes you ten hours to recharge your car, that's, that's not gonna do it. And like you said, I haven't, I haven't really read any specs on the performance, but I suspect the performance wasn't that great.

x: The market studies probably showed that there was no, no profits to be made.

x: Yeah, a lot of people will, would disagree with that. I mean, a many people said to them, when GM said, "Give me my car back. I wanna, I wanna get rid of it," people said, "Hey, I'll pay it off. I'll give you the money for the whole thing." Apparently, lots of people were saying that, and they said, and they just took every car that they could possibly get their hands on, and since it was a lease, they wou...of course, could legally just take the car, I think. There's probably s...

S: Yeah. Right.

x: ...Some clause in there that said they can, they could relieve you of their car at any time.

E: Well, Bob, I mean, but if it, but if it was a profitable idea, don't you think that, don't you think that the manufacturers would've found a way to get this, to, to get this car up, running, take care of these technical problems, stick with it, especially if there was money to be made. I mean that's, that's kind of how they've operated in history, in the past, they've (inaudible)...

x: Well, I mean, there's no guarantee that money was, would be made from this. There, there's no guarantee with that. And then, with all these external agencies inhibiting the whole enterprise, it just totally collapsed.

S: Evan's point is, and I agree with it, that if there was money to be made off an electric vehicle, they would've found a way. And that these, these hur...none of these hurdles were absolute.

x: Well, you're, you're assuming that, that, that you could absolutely determine if this could be profitable. I, I'm saying, I think that I don't think you can determine that.

S: You're right, and, and historically, the auto industry has made bad decisions about, you know, what, what is marketable, like the Edsel, for example, is always the one that comes up. And, I also think that, you know, GM apparently at one point decided to, to skip the hybrid phase and go right on to hydrogen fuel cell cars - and that was probably a huge mistake as well.

x: Absolutely.

S: So again, as I said, you can disagree with the marketing decision and maybe it was a huge mistake, but I don't think it was this big conspiracy.

P: What's fascinating from our point of view is the endless need for conspiracies.

x: They're fun, Perry.

P: That, that's what I think.

x: That's the thing. They're fun. For some reason, there is an entertainment value to a conspiracy.

P: I gue...I mean, I was writing the other day, and I needed some information on the Flight 800 explosion.

x: Mm-hmm.

P: And I, it was so hard to find the actual report, you know, from the government. And there, everything I looked up was a different society saying it was a missile!

x: Yeah, I think, I think it's very possible that the oil companies...

P: Possible is not evidence!

x: I know it is...I know that, Perry, I'm not saying that there, I think that there is a lot here, there's a lot here. It's not just, you know, cut-and-dry, that it, it's...

P: No comment.


S: The bottom line is, I don't think that the performance, even today, is that great. Even the hybrid cars don't have great performance right now.

x: They're pretty good cars, Steve. Those hybrids, I mean, you know what the thing that sucks about them is that they're, they're not really cost-effective yet. But they actually work really well, they do work well.

S: The, the technology had a lot of promise and in, in certain areas, it can be advantageous under certain driving conditions. In New England, where we live, it's actually very disadvantageous because that the colder the weather gets, the less efficient the regenerative breaking technology is, so the less of, of a benefit you get from the hybrid technology. And also, the more highway driving you do, the less of a benefit it is, and in fact, it becomes a detriment because you're dragging around all the heavy batteries and, and unl...unless you're doing a lot of city driving, in, in a warm climate, you're not really getting much benefit from it. So, for many drivers, it really isn't an advantage.

x: Well, if you wanna get technical, sure, you know.

S: So, but it, I know again, we, there are some times where there's a, there's bridging technology, there's a time when you, when you go over to a new technology, the advantages are not immediately there, but...

x: Right.

S: ...It puts you on a track where eventually you will get the advantages. And I think that's where we are with hybrid technology. I think it's interesting to speculate about what's gonna happen. Is the hybrid technology going to mature to the point where that really becomes the mainstay of our fleet for (inaudible)...

x: The dominant. Right. (inaudible) something else.

S: ...For decades? Will the hydrogen fuel cells ever come online? Will they ever solve the problems? Will...

x: Or will it be something completely unique, like, say, solar, or well, yeah...

x: Right. Nanotechnology.

x: ...Of course.


Evolution of the Brain (34:37)[edit]

S: The, we'll do, we'll do one more e-mail before we go on to our interview.
This one comes from Christian in central PA, and he writes: How do biologists refute the following argument by evolution deniers? "The brain has the capacity for storing information far greater than can be filled in many human lifetimes. If the brain is developed by the natural selection of desirable traits, how would this incremental process develop such storage capability far beyond any useful purpose?" I have a good idea of how I would refute this, but perhaps your answer would be more thorough and precise. Thanks for setting the record straight.
Well, that's an interesting question and in fact, the co-discoverer of evolution through natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, thought that that was an insolvable problem, and he believed that, unlike Darwin, he thought that evolution could not explain the human brain and the, that you had to invoke God and creation in order to explain the human brain. Because of this very reason. That the brain had capabilities that could not be specifically selected for. However, it's, first of all, it's a bit of a false premise...

x: Hmm. Right.

S: ...The, the brain does not have a tremendous amount of biologically untapped potential. You know, if you utilize your brain and you, you lead an intellectually active life, you use quite a bit of it, you know. It's not, there's not this vast, you know, reservoir of untapped neurons in the brain.

P: So maybe Jay uses ten percent.

S: Right.

x: It's very peaceful, though, to only use ten percent of your brain, Perry.

S: Yeah, it's kinda similar to the ten percent thing.

x: Loose, loosely, I mean, he's talking really capacity. How big your hard drive is.

x: Yeah, no, I, I understand, but it, it comes off as (inaudible)

P: And an ultimate storage capacity of 800 quadrillion bits. Who said that?

x: Data.

x: Data.

P: Yeah... (laughter)

x: Steve...

x: Data.

x: ...Steve, I have a question for you.


S: Yeah, go ahead.

x: Let's say that, in the future, people live two, three hundred years, and, you know, just, just to make a, to build a case here, let's say that, you know, nanotechnology doesn't swoop in and do anything miraculous or, and all that.

S: Yeah.

x: Just the way that...


x: ...A human being is today. What happens when someone's brain does get filled? Would, would it overwrite? What would the brain do in that circumstance?

S: Well, that's what happens all the time, Jay.

x: Yeah.

S: You're, you're overwriting. You know, you're, you're forming memory pathways on top of memory pathways on top of memory pathways, and memories fade over time.

P: Get mixed together.

S: Yeah, they mix together. It's a very dynamic process. It's not like there are specific addresses where you're putting information and it's getting used up in that way. There's just have a specific number of neurons, you know - about a hundred billion - and they, they could store so much information. And, and, and th...

x: I'm sorry. My brain just wrote over everything you just said. Could you please repeat that?


S: But the, the other, the evolutionary point that I wanted to make here is that we evolve structures for a specific function, and they, because they provide a specific advantage, right. So that a bigger brain gives a certain advantage and that, and therefore gets selected for. That doesn't mean that everything that you could possibly do with this new structure that evolved had to have been specifically selected for. So, we, we, I, I don't think that anyone argues that we evolved in order to be really good at playing the piano, you know. That, that is just an epiphenomenon.

x: Right. Epiphenomenon, yep.

P: (inaudible)

S: Yeah. It's just something that emerges out of, as a consequence of the fact that we just are raw brain power increased, so that we could be smarter and, and function better in our environment, be better adapted to our local environment.

P: What's an epiphenomenon?

x: It's, it's kind of a side phenomenon. It just kinda happened, for no real reason. It's just a, a nice happy coincidence that it happened.

S: Yeah. Just emerges spontaneously out of, out of the process. In the same token, you know, we, we may have a lot of, you know, we do certainly have a, do have some reserve, and that, along with all the other sort of things that we can do - you know, write poetry and, and play the piano and, and whatnot - that did not provide an advantage for our ancestors, you know, in, on the plains of Africa, doesn't mean that, that they were, that they brain was not evolved. So Alfred Russel Wallace was wrong, in that argument. It is not an argument against evolution; it's a misunderstanding of evolution. In fact, that's, a lot of evolution takes place that way, you know. Structures evolve for one reason, and they could be co-opted for lots of other things. We evolved hands with opposable thumbs and dexterity so that we could manipulate tools, but we could then use that to do a lot of other things that we did not specifically evolve hands for, for example.

Interview with President Jimmy Carter (39:22)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on to our interview.


S: Joining us now is the 39th President of the United States, President Jimmy Carter. Mr. President, welcome to the Skeptic's Guide.

PJC: It's a pleasure.

S: So, we were actually putting, this interview was set up by your grandson, Josh Carter, who is a, a fine young man. He wanted us to give you the opportunity to sec...set the record straight regarding your eyewitness encounter with a UFO back in 1969. Can you first just start by telling us about what you saw?

PJC: Well, back in those days, I was the district governor of 56 Lions Clubs, and I had to visit each one of those Clubs during my year of service. And I was in a small south Georgia town one night, outside the schoolhouse waiting to eat supper and to talk to them, and all of us - there were 26 men, I believe, if I remember right - all of us saw a very bright light in the western sky and it was bright enough to attract our attention, much brighter than a star. And it got closer and closer and then it seemed to stop in its proximity to us, and then the color of it changed from white to blue to red, and it stayed there for a while. All of us were aghast at, at what we were seeing, couldn't figure it out. And then the light, that's all we could see, not a solid object, the light then slowly disappeared back into the direction from which it came. So, I'm a, a scientist by training...

S: Mm-hmm.

PJC: And, and I have never thought there were extraterrestrial beings on a, on a know, ship from outer space or anything, but it was an unidentified flying object. It was obviously unidentified, it was flying and it was an object.

S: Mm-hmm.

PJC: And so, that's the limit of my experience with so-called UFOs.

S: And even in retrospect now, do you have any ideas of, of what you think that was? What do you think you saw?

PJC: I don't really know. A very large military base - Fort Benning Army Base, where they plain...train paratroopers and do various kinds of, of military experiments - are in the general direction from which the light came, and most of us men, most of those were farmers or small businessmen who ordinarily are members of the Lions Club, just surmised that it might be a, some kind of a device that was being tested or something like that. It, we, we never heard anything.

S: Yeah.

PJC: Like a helicopter motor. If we had heard the engine, we would just have surmised it was a helicopter or something, but we never heard anything. It was a silence, there. So I never have been able to assess, even all the years that have passed, exactly what it might have been.

S: And have you ever heard the speculation, and, and what do you think about the idea that perhaps it was the planet Venus - which, you know, at some times may have a halo around it?

PJC: No, it was, no. No, we were, all of us outdoorsmen who were there, we, we know what Venus looks like, we know what Mars looks like, we can distinguish between Saturn and so forth. Some of us even have, have a, like I do, have amateur telescopes, small telescopes. So we were thoroughly familiar with Venus as it changes from a morning to the evening star. It was, it was not Venus.

S: Okay. You're, you're confident about that.

PJC: Oh yes.

S: Evan, you had a question?

E: Yes, I do. President Carter, in 1973, by request, you filled out an eyewitness report for a UFO group called the International UFO Bureau Incorporated?

PJC: Yes.

E: Can you, can you tell us why you did that, or felt need to do that?

PJC: Why I did it. I was, let's see, it's 1973, I was governor then.

E: Mm-hmm.

PJC: Of Georgia. And maybe they requested it or maybe one, one of my innocent sons might have asked that I do it for them. I don't know. I don't remember that.

S: Right. So it was just that request and you didn't really think much about it at the time.

PJC: No, and I don't remember why I did it, but I, I would presume it was one of my descendants...

S: Mm-hmm.

PJC: ...If not a grandson. I didn't have a grandson (inaudible), but I have, I had three sons who were teenagers.

S: And, what, part of the reason why we were interested in this interview is because, because of all of these events, you occupy now a place in UFO folklore. And, and...

PJC: (laughter)

S: ...One of the aspects of this...

PJC: It's... It's not a place that I, it's not a place that I have sought.

S: Right. Right.

E: Right. Of course.

PJC: (inaudible)

S: It's thrust upon you, like many things. And this, part of, part of the, the folklore now is that prior to becoming President, you promised to get to the bottom of the government's involvement with UFOs and aliens and spacecraft. So, this is another thing where I think there, there's still a tremendous number of rumors about this, there's a lot of conspiracy theories about there. When you were President, did you pursue the government's knowledge of UFOs, and if so, how far did you get with that?

PJC: Well I can't really respond to that, there were a lot of things going on within the federal government. Not that there was a direct order from me. The only strange and inexplicable event that I have, that has been discussed publicly was at one time we had a small plane going down somewhere in Africa and we needed very much to find out where that plane had crashed. And we were not able to find it by surveillance from our satellites. So the director of the CIA, who was also the director of all of the intelligence agencies, heard about a woman in California that was a medium or something, I don't know of the title for it. And he contacted her and she gave him the latitude and longitude of the plane's whereabouts and the next time one of our space satellites went over that area we located the plane where she said it was. And that's the only time I ever experienced something that was inexplicable while I was president. But I have never had any thought, knowing the vast distances involved in space, that the United States was visited by creatures, intelligent creatures, from other, I would say other bodies in space.

S: You don't think we're being visited by aliens right now?

PJC: No I don't.

S: And just to be clear, to your knowledge, the government is not hiding secret information about aliens or spacecraft or visitations?

PJC: So far as I know, they're not hiding information. There might be, there may be reports from different sources I would say, I have put in, heard of reports, unconfirmed reports from different sources who have claimed they have witnessed extraterritorial visits, and I presume that there is an agency in the Federal Government that would accept those reports and file them somewhere and it may be that there are some reports that haven't been made public, I would presume that there are, to prevent violation of confidences or to prevent embarrassment of people who may have made a ridiculous report. So I can't say that there are not reports that haven't been revealed but I think I can assure you, you are knowledgeable enough to know that there wouldn't be any substantiated reports of extra-territorial, extra-terrestrial visitors that haven't been reported.

B: President Carter, in my research I've come across rumors in the UFO community that you asked then CIA director George H. W. Bush for access to the CIA UFO files and he refused. Is there any truth to this?

PJC: No.

S: OK, so that's just a completely fabricated rumor in the UFO community.

PJC: That's correct. Well I don't know, I don't say that's a rumour from the UFO community, I've never heard it before, but it's not true.

S: Good, that's what we wanted to hear from the source itself, so those...

PJC: It's not true, but I don't claim that the UFO community is promulgating such a story because I've not heard it before.

S: Well we're verifying that. On the internet there's many websites where they make that specific claim, so we're just trying to get you...

PJC: That's not true.

S: Excellent. The other topic that I was hoping we could talk to you briefly about today is your stance on evolution and creationism. Particularly because of the state that you come from, over the last 20 years on several occasions the state of Georgia has made moves to either include teaching of creationism in public schools or recently remove the teaching of evolution or reference to the word "evolution" from the Georgia state science standards.

PJC: Well when that effort was being made by the state's (inaudible) I wrote a letter which I made public condemning the removal of the word "evolution" from the textbooks and also I've been a presistent critic of any effort to insert religious teachings into the science curriculum.

S: That's right, and in that letter you wrote, if I can quote you very briefly, "there can be no incompatibility between Christian faith and proven facts concerning geology, biology and astronomy." Can you tell us exactly what you meant by that?

PJC: I would rather refer you to a book that I've written.

S: Sure.

PJC: Called Our Endangered Values and I spent several pages in that book answering that question and I don't really care to get involved in it now.

S: OK.

PJC: But I gave my best approach with very careful composition in one of the chapters in the book and it's available in the library or probably online or something

S: Great, great.

PJC: It's Our Endangered Values.

S: But it's safe to say that you feel that matters of religious belief or religious teaching should not be taught in the science classroom as sciences.

PJC: That's correct. I don't have any objection in literature classes and religion and theology classes for any subject to be taught concerning the holy scriptures of Christianity and other religions but I don't think there's a place for it in the science classroom.

S: I've read much of what you've written that was available to me about your personal views on this matter, and could I just ask you to summarize quickly. You obviously are a man of very deep faith, of Christian faith, you've said multiple times that you believe in the divine creator and yet also you are a scientist who understands science and you support evolution. Can you tell us, do you believe that god played a role as creator, how would you characterize your belief, as a theistic evolutionist? How would you characterize them?

PJC: Well, to repeat myself, I would rather you... you are welcome to quote out of my book that I've written, but I don't really want to start analyzing that in any great detail just in a brief telephone conversation.

S: I understand. There's one other thing that I came across that I was hoping you could clarify for me though. I did read that you left the Southern Baptist Convention and I wanted to find out from you if that was true.

PJC: Yeah, it's true.

S: And is it true, as I've read, that that was over their stance on their teaching of evolution. Is that correct?

PJC: No it wasn't, it was on several other issues. Also if you get a copy of the book I've written, it is in the same book, describes my reasons for leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. It was their insistence that women be submissive to the husbands. That women would not be permitted to teach men. That women could not serve as pastors or chaplains or deakins. And they removed a certain, some certain phrases from their mandatory creed that I thought was very important concerning the Hebrew scriptures being interpreted by the Ministry of Jesus Christ. But that is covered much more thoroughly in my book and it's the same book, so you're spared the expense of buying more than one book.

S: That's great. You've been very generous with your time, we really appreciate it. If I could throw one more question at you, your grandson Josh informs me that you recently have become an active, an avid birder. Is that correct?

PJC: Yes. While I wouldn't say recently, I've been an active birder since 1988, and I remember that because we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. We got to the top on the 8th day of the 8th month of 1988 and when we came down from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro we went on some safaris, primarily in Tanzania, and our guide was an expert ornithologist and that's when my wife and I started birding.

S: That's great. He brings it up because he knows from the show that I'm an active birder as well, so it's something we have in common.

PJC: Well I didn't know that... we, my wife and I, have sighted a few more than 1200 species of birds.

E: Wow.

PJC: We do that when we have the time on some of our foreign trips.

S: You keep a life list of the birds you've seen?

PJC: Yes we do, I have a computer program that has all of the world's birds on it, so I kind of check them off when we see a new one.

S: Right. You haven't seen the ivory billed woodpecker though, have you?

PJC: No I haven't.


S: We'll hear about it.

PJC: Not yet. Not yet. If I see it, the world will know it.

S: Absolutely

PJC: I hope there are some still living but I have had my hopes up a couple of years ago but I don't know, I don't feel quite as sure now as I did then.

S: Right. Well President Carter, thank you very much for granting us this interview, we greatly appreciate it, it's been an honour.

B: Thank you.

PJC: I've enjoyed talking to you. Good talking to you.

E: Thank you very much.

S: Take care.

B: Thank you very much.

S: Well that was our first interview with a world leader.

P: First of many.

R: Yeah, not the last.

B: That was awesome.

P: That was very kind of President Carter to do that for us. And thank you so much to Josh.

S: Yes. So the way, it is interesting how the interview came aoubt. That's usually the first question people ask us when we say we interviewed Jimmy Carter, how did we make that happen? Well it turns out that his grandson Josh Carter apparently listens to our show.

R: Hi Josh.

S: After Evan did a puzzle, the answer of which was Jimmy Carter, I remember the puzzle, Evan, was what world leader after, was a non-believer in UFOs and then after a personal encounter became a believer? And the answer was Jimmy Carter. And Josh emailed us to say that the story is basically not true, that Jimmy Carter never believed that his sighting was an alien spacecraft of that we're being visited by aliens. So I emailed him back and after verifying his identity I asked him, I said well we would of course love the opportunity to interview your grandfather so that he could set the record straight once and for all. And I didn't know if anything would come of that or not, but a few weeks later Josh emailed me back and said that it was all set up, that all I had to do was call the Carter Library, Jimmy Carter's secretary and set up a time for the interview, and it happened. So thank you Josh, and of course thank you President Carter for giving us the time. He was a very nice guy. Very pleasant. Also, it was, you could tell from listening to the interview it was even more apparent as we were doing the interview, that he is an absolutely careful and polished, seasoned world politician.

E: Mm hmm.

B: Absolutely.

S: He was very careful about everything he said.

P: He may have been interviewed before, Steve.

S: It's possible, yeah it's possible that he's been interviewed before.

P: Has some experience with the interview process.

R: You know it's probably his podcast debeut, so there's that.

P: Could be.

E: It could be.

B: Yeah, could be.

J: I was very excited that you asked him kind of the question that I wanted to ask him if I was part of the people doing the interview. I wanted to know, I've always wanted to ask a president, when you became president, did you basically say, OK I want to know everything. Tell me all the secrets. I want to know if there's UFOs, I want to know all the conspiracy theories that were real and that are fake and everything. You kind of asked him that and he obviously couldn't give you a very direct answer but he did kind of answer you a little bit and I thought that was...

S: Well the sense I got was that the whole issue was just not on the radar for him.

P: Yeah. Right.

S: This was not a big deal, there was no big conspiracy, just that he had an unusual sighting, he couldn't explain it, he filled out the report, he doesn't remember why, maybe because one of his kids asked him to. And that was it. He seemed a little bit oblivious that there was a big mythology developed in the UFO community about his presidency and UFOs and whatnot. But I did get him to say that he does not believe that there is any US Government conspiracy to hide knowlege of aliens or spacecraft.

P: Right.

E: Right.

S: That, we got him...

R: Which of course is just what they want us to think.

S: Obviously it's not going to settle it for any of the conspiracy theorists, but he is on record as saying that.

P: The reason the UFO community makes such a big deal out of it is because they feel that Carter brings credibility to their nonsensical cause.

E: Oh absolutely. I mean you type in Jimmy Carter and UFO and look what comes up on Google. It's incredible, incredible.

P: And yet he clearly dismissed any thought that it was an extra-terrestrial craft in the interview.

E: At the same time, he was insistent, he was very insistent obviously that it was not Venus.

B: Yeah but Evan, listen to the interview again, and when Steve mentions that, he asks the question and at the end of the sentence, Steve had planned on going on to suggesting that it could be a corona a Venus corona or halo...

E: Yep, nope, he cut him off yeah.

B: He cut him off, I don't think he even heard that. All he heard was UFO, was it Venus? And the alarm bells went off, there's no way that that little pinpoint of light that he sees at night...

S: To explain what Bob is talking about, yeah to explain that, we did, obviously, as much research as we could about Jimmy Carter's encounter and what we found was that at the time and place of his sighting, the direction in which he was facing, the time, the altitude etc. That's approximately where Venus was in the sky. Robert Sheaffer who is a UFO skeptic who wrote about it said, if he were not looking at Venus then the "UFO" he was looking at was in front of Venus and obscuring it.

B: He would have clearly seen Venus with the UFO I think.

P: Guys, what am I missing? So it wasn't Venus. Let's just accept that. OK, let's use Occam's Razor.

B: We don't want to accept that.

P: The next thing on the list is not extra-terrestrial craft.

E: No.

B: Oh absolutely.

P: After Venus.

B: But there's no reason to slice out Venus.

S: No we think it is Venus. And with all due respect, I think that Jimmy Carter was looking at Venus. Now he didn't recognize it as Venus, he says he's an amateur astronomer, he's an outdoorsman he knows Venus, sure. But there is a rare atmospheric phenomenon known as a Venus halo or a Venus corona in which there is a globe of glowing translucent light around Venus. It's about the size of the Moon, it's pretty much exactly what President Carter described.

B: It's caused by water vapor in the atmosphere which just happens to be in front of Venus.

S: That's right.

E: No noise. President Carter specifically said that it did not make any noise so right there it's most likely not a craft of any kind.

B: Well no, I wouldn't say that either because it could have been a craft that was far away, that you just couldn't hear the engine.

E: In his report, in his report that he filled out, or one of his sons filled out or whatever, it has his signature on it so I'm willing to take it as his opinion, I think he said that it was as far away as 3000 yards away at its maximum.

B: Again though, I think that's extremely difficult to estimate at night.

S: Yeah Evan, as we've discussed before, you can't estimate distance.

E: No I understand that.

S: He did say that it came closer and receded and changed color, but again if the glowing were growing and shrinking, his eye and the brain could interpret that — again without reference without a background — as the object coming closer and going father away.

B: Right. And the colors. He mentioned colors, and I had a problem with that initially but I found a picture of Venus corona that actually had some color to it. So I think the colors are even, it's possible.

S: Yeah it's all compatible with the Venus corona. It's all compatible. I just want to emphasize the one point that what we see, the three-dimensionality of things, things that are moving that are closer that are further away etc. That's all due to the processing of visual information in the brain. There's no objectivity to that whatsoever. And if they brain is tricked into processing that information differently, we can't distinguish that from reality. That's what optical illusions are all about, it's creating a situation in which the brain is tricked into processing visual information incorrectly so that it interprets the stimuli as either having depth or not having depth etc.

B: It makes assumptions that aren't warranted.

S: Yes, right. It tries to make the best fit it can. Sometimes it makes, in it's algorithms it applies the wrong assumption, it interprets data as maybe as movement when in fact it was just brightening or grown and it would be absolutely compelling, absolutely indistinguishable to us, you can't tell the difference. So it was actually a fairly typical eye-witness account of a astronomical body being viewed in unusual conditions or with an unusual effect, in this case probably a halo or corona effect.

B: Right.

P: The president seemed to have a pretty good grasp of science, frankly.

B: Absolutely. He's a physicist.

P: He seemed a man of faith but nothing like our current president.

E: No.

P: Very different. Not fundamentalist at all.

S: Speaking of which, in the interview he mentioned a couple of times his new book Our Endangered Values and referred us to that when we asked him questions about evolution and creationism and his position on faith and science. I did read the relevant chapters in the book that he was referring to, and what he's essentially saying in the book is that although he is a person of faith, he keeps questions of faith separate from science. Science discovers how the world works and when it comes up with findings that are reliable we should accept them, we shouldn't be worried about the fact that it may conflict with what the authors of the bible wrote. So clearly he thinks that the people who wrote the bible were people who had the knowledge of the people of their time and they made sense of the scientific understanding that was contemporary to them, and now we understand science better so it shouldn't be a surprise that our model of the universe is different than the model that people had thousands of yeras ago.

P: I should hope so.

S: He explicitly endorsed Stephen Jay Gould's philosophy of Non-overlapping_magisteria, that science and religion or faith are two separate areas of knowledge that do not overlap therefore should not and do not interfere with each other. So that I think encapsulates his philosophy, and he certainly does not think that religious faith should intrude upon science or even politics as he describes in other chapters of the book.

P: He was very complimentary of the late Dr. Gould so that's a good starting point.

S: Right, right.

B: Yep.

J: How did you guys feel interviewing him? How did it feel?

S: It was a little surreal.

B: It was fun, the most fun besides actually talking to him, was the ten seconds when the secretary said "please hold for President Carter" and...

S: You know, his voice is so recognizable.

J: Oh god it's so him, I know, right?

S: Again, it's a little surreal hearing that at the other end of the headset and talking to him directly but it was a lot of fun.

P: Did Homeland Security check out you out or...?

S: Not as far as we know.

E: Not that I'm aware of.

B: I had a cavity search.

S: Oh, you lucky.

E: That was an alien probe, Bob.

J: You get those all the time Bob, stop bragging.

P: Well it was a great interview. An honor for our podcast.

E: Very generous of him to come on our show, absolutely no doubt about it. Very happy and privileged.

B: I don't know how we're going to top an ex-president, but we're going to try.

S: But but we'll work on it. Right.

E: Oh yeah.

S: Well let's move on to science or fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:05:47)[edit]

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 you at home to tell me which one is the fake. Is everyone ready for the three items this week? No theme, just three random news items.

B: Yay, no theme.

S: Ready? Item #1: Astronomers, using spectral analysis, have discovered organic molecules in interstellar space sufficiently complex that they might be considered life. Item #2: Researchers have found that using hand jestures in learning dramatically improves memory. And item #3: Researchers have discovered a fruit fly gene that was created de novo and is not the product of gene duplication.

P: You can't use French.

E: What? De novo? What, I've got to look that up now?

S: De novo means "out of nothing."

E: I think using hand gestures in learning improves memory, that's very plausible. It could be the ficiton though. A fruit fly gene that was created out of nothing is not the product of gene duplication. And the first one was have discovered organic molecules in interstellar space sufficiently complex that they might be considred life. You've got the caveat "might be" in there. I'll say that the hand gestures improving memory is fiction because it's the most simplistic one.

S: OK. Jay?

J: When you say organic molecules, what do you mean?

S: Molecules based on carbon.

J: It's interesting. And a quick question on the de novo fruit fly thing. What you specifically mean by that is that the genes that they found, they can't find how they evolved, they're just there as if they magically appeared?

S: That's correct, they can't find any ancestor genes that they might have evolved from.

J: I'm going to go with number 1 as the fake. The astronomers using the spectrographic analysis. I don't believe that they found organic molecules in outer space.

S: OK, Rebecca?

R: Me too. I think we would have heard more about it if that happened.

S: OK. Bob?

B: Yeah, I've fallen into that trap before. That's a little too easy.

S: (laughs)

B: Oh I would have heard of that! Damn! Hand gestures improve memory, I'm going to go with that.

E: Yeah Bob, high five.

B: That makes sense.

S: So which one do you think is fake, Bob?

B: Alright, so a fruit fly gene that seems to have been created de novo. I don't know what the huge problem is with that. Is gene duplication the only way? Hmmm... I mean perhaps the ancestor genes somehow just aren't there any more. Isn't that possible? But organic molecules that they're calling life would have bubbled up to the top of my science websites, so I think that would have appeared, I think you're subtly tweaking that. They found something unusual but not something that anyone would seriously think could be life. So I'm going to go with 1 is fake.

S: OK. Perry.

P: (snores) Huh? What? Oh. Yeah, sorry. Fallen... nodded off there. OK, let's see. Number two, dramatic hand gestures. Yes, of course, I remember every had gesture I've gotten on the highway from the moment it happened. Fruit flies and genes appearing out of nothing. Why not!? And I go with the, for the first one, I go with the media answer, I would have heard about light... they had a freaking conference about the possibility of water on Mars. I would have heard about it.

J: You're a true scientist, Perry.

P: Fiction!

S: Alright. You all agree that researchers have discovered a fruit fly gene that was created de novo and is not the product of gene duplication. And that one is science.

E: Yay.

P: Told you.

S: Although Bob, it is actually a little more amazing than you're giving it credit for, in fact it is a huge deal that they cannot find any antecedent to the gene, and that is the first time.

B: Really?

S: And not just in the fruit fly but in related species, other fruit flies, other flies, the gene does not have any antecedent in any species that they've looked at.

R: Did god make it?

B: Maybe it just hasn't changed in millions of years. What does this gene do? What does it code for? Maybe it's just so key that...

S: You're saying it's highly conserved?

B: Yeah, selection doesn't want to mess with it.

S: But that's not what they're saying, it's not that it's highly conserved and you can see the same gene in other species. The question is: where did it come from? The prevailing hypothesis is that it is the result of a transposon or a retrovirus inserting a piece of DNA into the genome and then it mutating in order to take on, to make a new protein that happened to serve some function.

B: Yeah but Steve, hasn't that happened a lot to our genome?

S: Yeah well we have our junk DNA, our dead genes, not functional ones.

B: Right.

S: By coincidence, this one actually started coding for something, a protein that was then co-opted to serve some function. Let's go to number 1. Astronomers, using spectrographic analysis, have discovered organic molecules in interstellar space sufficiently complex that they might be considered life. And that one is fiction.

E: Ooh.

S: Some of you guys got it right.

P: I got it right, yay!

J: Rebecca!

S: Everyone but Evan.

R: Aww.

S: This is based on a real article, however.

P: Of course it is.

S: Astronomers are finding chemicals in the interstellar space and a lot more different kinds of molecules and chemicals than they had previously seen and it certainly does increase the possible different pathways that molecules could form in order to form, the pathways to forming complex organic molecules. But they did not find anything that anyone is calling life. So that was indeed the new bit that I tweaked.

B: A big bit.

J: Not surprised.

S: Which means that researchers have found that using hand gestures in learning dramatically improves memory, and that is science. Which of course should be known by any Italian, so maybe we did have a little advantage over Evan on this one, some of us.

P: Ha!

E: I'm making a hand gesture right now.

R: You're not Italian.

S: What they did was they studied three groups of children stdying a mathematical formula. It was hand gestures only, verbal only, and both. The group that had the verbal instruction plus were allowed to use hand gestures to sort of indicate the structure of the equation remembered it significantly better three weeks later. The group that used both had a 90% retention after three weeks. The group with verbal only had a 33% retention.

B: Whoa.

S: Significant. That's huge, almost three times as much.

J: That is huge.

B: What the hell?

P: Well you've concocted a study.

B: Wow.

S: So it's not surprising that hand gestures are involved in memory and in laguage, but this is certainly a dramatic result. Of course it's one study and it needs replication and the implications need to be explored but it was a pretty solid result.

J: I think it makes a lot of intuitive sense it just feels to me talking with my hands comes very naturally, but you say that's cultural, Steve?

S: It's pretty universal but I think some cultures do it more than others. Doing it at all is universal though. So, congratulations, everyone but Evan.

E: Talk to the hand.

S: Evan, give us last week's puzzle.

E: No. We didn't have a puzzle last week.

S: Two weeks ago.

E: Two weeks ago we had a puzzle, and this was it. 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 pseudo-scientific pattern. And someone did. Jay Day guessed that... he said that all these animals are capable of assuming human form. Which is kind of right... lycanthropy is what I was going after.

P: It's actually lycanthropy.

E: Lycanthropy is what I was going after.

P: It's pronounced lycanthropy.

S: It's lycanthropy. When in doubt, here's the rule you should follow: when in doubt, put the accent on the semi-penultimate syllable. Lycanthropy.

R: Semi-penultimate? What is that the third-to-last?

S: Yep.

P: By all of that, did you mean that Perry was right, Steve?

E: Congratulations to Jay Day.

S: Evan, what's this week's puzzle?

E: This week's puzzle is as such: name the person who believed that it was his father's teachings accompanied by study and prayer that compelled him to dedicate his life to bring down Darwinism just as several of his fellows had dedicated their lives to bringing down Marxism. Good luck everyone.

S: Interesting. Perry do you have a quote to finish up the show for us?

P: Well I'll tell you. I actually do, of course. What, am I Bob? No, yes. I have a quote, but I, for the first time, I believe for the first time, I'm using a quote sent in by a listener. And we get many of these, I encourage you to please keep them coming. We read all of them, we all do. But this one struck me so I'll be using it. Came in from Richard Hereman of Botswana, our tentacles reach far. And the quote is as follows. "Nothing in all the owrld is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and concientious stupidity." That was Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968, a civil rights leader of some note. Thank you Richard.

S: Thank you Perry.

E: I think it's pronounced Botswanian. That's for another time.

Announcements (1:16:10)[edit]

S: Well thank you everyone for a great show. A quick reminder that we have the Skeptics' Guide, Skepchick event coming up August 11th, noon to four or whatever, on August 11th, Saturday in Brooklyn, New York a the Voorhees Auditorium, we'll have the full information, directions, etc. on the website, please do come, we're going to be recording a live show, you'll have an opportunity to ask us questions directly and we'll answer them live. As always we ask you, if you like our episodes, like our show, please vote for them on Digg, it helps us spread the word.

P: And leave a review on iTunes.

S: Leave us a kind review on iTunes if you want.

R: Send presents.

S: Send presents to Rebecca.

P: Rebecca, do you have any update on your radio show? Possibly?

R: Um yeah I recorded the third round today and voting will commence some time next week, I will let everyone know at that point.

J: I really think you're going to win, Rebecca.

S: Well things are moving forward, so things are going well.

R: Yes, yeah.

P: Keep up. One more thank you to President Jimmy Carter.

S: Yes, very exciting of course.

R: Yes, thank you President Carter.

J: Thank you very much and thank his grandson, what was his grandson's name again.

Everyone: Josh.

J: (laughs) Evan. Yeah, that was awesome that he hooked us up with that.

S: And until next week, this is your Sketpics' 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 'info @'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.

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