SGU Episode 11

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SGU Episode 11
31st August 2005

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 10                      SGU 12

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis


RP: Robert Park

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, August 31st 2005. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. And with me today, as always, is Bob Novella

B: Hello.

S: Evan Berstein

E: Good evening everyone.

S: and Perry DeAngelis.

P: Hello.

Interview with Robert Park[edit]

Public Acceptance of Evolution (0:25)[edit]

S: We're going to dispense with Science or Fiction this week and get right to our special guest. This week we have with us Dr. Robert Park, who is a professor of physics and the former chair of the department of physics at the University of Maryland. He currently divides his time between teaching and– he informed me just recently that tomorrow, I guess, is the first day of the academic year for him, and he also mans the Washington D.C. office of the American Physical Society, which he himself opened in 1982. And the reason why he's on our program is because Bob Park is the author of the book, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud and is very well written in the areas of pseudoscience and is an advocate and very active in teaching science to the public. Bob, welcome to the show.

RP: Pleasure to be here.

S: So, just to get started I was– a new poll was out today. This is a Pew poll. This is nothing new. I'm sure everyone here has heard this before.

RP: I saw the results of that, yes.

S: Yeah, so it says, 64 percent of Americans, when asked, prefer that creationism be taught alongside evolution in public school systems.

B: 64 percent?

S: 64 percent. The poll also asked the questions of, "Do you endorse evolution? Do you endorse creationism?" and to what degree, and 42 percent of the respondents describe themselves as strict creationists. Basically, living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. 48 percent said that there was– believe in some type of evolution, although, typically half of those people believe that evolution was guided by a supreme being. Those numbers have been pretty steady for the last 20, 30 years, depending on exactly how you phrase the question but with this type of poll it's been about 48 percent believe in some type of evolution. Less than half, and of course two– almost two thirds believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution. So, this is a pretty good marker of what we perceive of as a failure of science education in America, or do you think this is more of just a cultural phenomenon? What do you think is the meaning of this, Bob?

RP: Well, it certainly is a little discouraging. However, on a question like that Americans are so concerned about fairness, always–

S: Mm hmm.

RP: –that when the question is asked that way, I'm sure their feeling is that, "Well, everybody should have a say in this country."

S: I agree. I do think that creationists, historically, have played upon people's democratic sensibilities, and very successfully. They just want fair play and you have to understand that intelligent design or creationism in any form is not science, and I think that is the point that most people miss. Do you agree with that?

RP: Well, yes. I think that's right and the trouble is it all depends on the way the question is asked.

S: Right.

RP: In that account I saw of that, I didn't see exactly what was asked to these people.

S: Mm hmm.

RP: But depending on the way the question is asked you can get a very different answer.

S: That's right. That's right.

RP: We did one with the Kansas City Star a few years ago in which they had done a poll on how long they– how old people thought the universe was and when they asked them, they asked them if they agreed with the Genesis account. And, of course, almost everybody said yes, they agree with the Genesis account. So we asked them to try the poll again, which they agreed to do, and they did, but instead of asking it that way they simply asked them, "Do you believe that there were dinosaurs on the earth millions of years before humans were on the earth?"

S: Mm hmm.

RP: And almost everybody thought there were.

S: Right. Right.

RP: So it was again just the way you asked the question that– people are very reluctant to identify themselves as being anti-religion in any way.

S: Mm hmm.

B: So, basically it's–essentially reveals the bias of the questioner, the pollster, at least to some degree. Because (inaudible)

RP: Well, to phrase the questions the right way is certainly an art that many, many polls don't have.

S: Mm hmm.

B: Steve, did you say that this was– what was that? A pee-you poll? What was it?

S: (laughter) Pew.

B: Oh, Pew. Okay.

S: P-E-W. Yeah.

B: Sorry.


S: But yeah, that's true. It does depend on how you ask the question. It might not– even if it doesn't reflect the bias of the surveyer, it could just represent an artifact of poor question-asking. Often, it's helpful, I would think, to ask the question multiple different ways. And when polls do that, it often becomes clear that numbers don't add up, that somebody– at least some of the people in the poll had to give contradictory answers, which always adds a certain uncertainty to the numbers. But I think you can compare a poll to itself over time and those numbers have been stable over 20, 30 years which I think is one interesting thing we can say about it. And consistently, less than half– rather than saying that they don't believe in religion, I think it's consistently less than half, around 48 percent of people endorse evolution in any form. So I still think it's discouraging, even if you shed some doubt on the numbers because of the way the questions were asked.

RP: Either way, we've got a lot to do.

S: It's an uphill battle. And it's incredible that Darwin first postulated this idea, you know, a hundred and fifty years ago and the majority of people have yet to accept it. Even though the vast majority of scientists, by the estimates that I've read – I don't know if you've read the same thing – about 98 percent of scientists with a relevant expertise in the natural sciences agree with evolutionary theory.

RP: Well, and in fact, my recollection is that at the time that Darwin came out with that, the leading biologist in the world was Thomas Huxley. And when Huxley was asked, you know, what he thought about that his was reply was simply, "Why didn't I think of that?"

E: (laughs)

RP: And I think most people have that sort of reaction. With something so powerful and yet so clear, how could it be that it took that long to be discovered?

S: And then T. H. Huxley became his most ardent advocate, so called Darwin's bulldog. And many credit him with the– basically the tipping point within the scientific community of evoluion becoming more broadly accepted. I believe it was his confrontation– his famous confrontation with a creationist of the time. What was it? Wilberforce?

RP: Yes.

S: (inaudible) Wilberforce, that guy– I've read accounts of that confrontation described as the tipping point for the acceptance of evolution and since then it's essentially been accepted by a majority of the scientific community. And, of course, that was in the 19th century. So there remains a huge gap between what scientists believe and what the public believes, and I think that that to a degree, I mean, you could say perhaps that's cultural but it seems to me that that's a failure of science popularists and science education. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in my opinion.

RP: You know what's troubling here is that if we take this historical view almost everything we know about the world, the universe, has been learned almost within a single human lifetime. I mean that's really astounding.

S: Mm hmm.

RP: So it's not surprising really, that the acceptance of this is far from complete. It might take a while.

E: But I think– I find it interesting that the public seems to have embraced a scientific figure like Albert Einstein with great fondness and affection and appreciation yet a scientist like Darwin, who arguably was of his equal in the 19th century is vilified largely by a lot of people. I just– I find that very interesting.

B: Well, cause Einstein didn't strike a nerve the way Darwin struck a nerve. Treating people as mere animals, and that's a very sensitive area in people's psychology and that's the reason, Evan, why I think that's so. I mean who cares about travelling close to the speed of light and gravitational effects? I mean it's interesting but...

S: It's a little abstract for the common man, yeah. Just on a related topic I just notice on your website which I'll mention is[1] It's an excellent website. You have a section there called, What's New?, which is a great place to go to get the latest dope on these types of topics. Number one on the list for August 26th, which is the date that comes up when I pull it up, is that Senate Leader Bill Frist has sided with President Bush on favoring the teaching of intelligent design in the science classroom.[2]

RP: It just got worse, in fact. Senator McCain has also chimed in.

B: Who?

S: That's unfortunate

E: Senator McCain.

B: Oh, that's right


S: That's the center of the Republican Party as opposed to the far right or religious right. McCain also, he disappointed on the Terri Schiavo case, as well. I think, when cases like this comes up he plays to the party's core.

RP: Well, we know who's running for President, now at any rate. I mean both these...

S: Absolutely. But I think what this underscores is that there's a huge political dimension to this topic as well, and politics and science never mix. It's always a disaster. You can't subjugate, in my opinion, science – which needs to be a free and open inquiry, basically, following logic and evidence wherever it leads – to a political agenda. I mean, the classic example of that is Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union where the genetics program was essentially handed over to a Lamarckian, and that became the state science. The politicians basically decided what was the official science.

RP: And they still haven't recovered from that. I mean, it set them back that far.

S: It put them back like 30 years and they're still behind the rest of the world –the Western world – in the fields of genetics. That's the fear, is that in areas like stem cell research, in natural sciences, that America may lose ground to England and European countries and now even countries in Asia, and we may never really regain the lead.

E: You don't think America has the capability to catch up if it does see the light, Steve, and eventually snap itself into place?

B: It depends.

S: It's hard to say. There's such a cultural dimension to science. For the– the Germans have been the best chemists in the world for 300 years. 400 years. They still are. Why is that? How could they maintain that kind of expertise in a narrow field like that for centuries.

B: It must be cultural.

S: I mean, maybe you could argue that, maybe the Germans are genetically predisposed to thinking about engineering and chemistry and things like that but there's also– once you're– developing a culture, a scientific culture within a discipline is a more delicate thing than I think we realize. That expertise really gets–

RP: Well, we also have to remember that the Germans accept homeopathy far more than Americans.

S: And that's another–

E: Yeah.

S: –cultural phenomenon, because homeopathy was very popular in Europe and the royal family in England they endorse homeopathy.

Studying Alternative Medicine (12:16)[edit]

S: Which of course segues into number four on your "What's New?" list which is a topic we discussed before. A recent article,[3] I'll just read the text here.

A study at the University of Berne, reported in Lancet, compared 110 trials each of homeopathy and conventional medicine and found benefits attributed to homeopathy were merely placebo effects.[4]

S: This is a great analysis. I really– this endorsed essentially what I've been saying, what other critics have been saying about the previous meta-analyses of homeopathic trials. Essentially, that the smaller, weaker, poorly designed studies were all over the map. Some showed benefits some didn't show benefit, but the better the study, the smaller the size of the effect that was measured, and the best studies, the ones that were really carefully controlled showed no effect.

B: Well that's true of a lot of paranormal studies.

S: Absolutely. The better the quality of the study the smaller the effect. And they– just as a control which is the new bit, I think, that they did that no one else has done before, is they– they did this– they applied their methods to more standard pharmaceuticals to see if the same pattern holds up, and itdidn't. In the definitive studies pharmaceuticals did better than placebo, but homeopathy did no better than placebo. So that again, this is reported on your site and I think that is a great study because it not only– it teaches us how to think about and look at the literature which I think is a big problem with alternative medicine. Have you dealt with topic much? Alternative medicine?

RP: Oh, yes. And in– I've got a chapter on it in my book. But, in fact, was busy writing a book on the subject when I got distracted–

S: Right. Right.

RP: –by writing on different subjects, so... But I'll go back to it. I will right that book yet.

S: Well, I look forward to seeing it. I mean, it's my specialty within the area of skepticism– I'm a physician as well as a skeptic and I've written most of my articles on that topic.

RP: Well, I serve on a– I actually serve on a steering committee for the NIH Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine and–

E: Good.

RP: –which most scientists, myself included, fought very bitterly when congress–

S: Right.

RP: –imposed that on NIH. But in recent years, I think people have got to look back and recognize what a change has taken place. The real change took place when they put a genuine scientist in as the director.

S: You're talking about Stephen Straus?

E: Mm hm.

RP: When it was just a– that's correct. Straus is a– he's a serious scientist. And he has approached this thing in a way is a little frustrating for some of us. That is, when anybody comes to him with a suggestion that would sound to us as just totally preposterous his reaction is "Well, that is certainly interesting. We should do a double blind study of that." And, though, that seems a little wasteful almost, these are not inexpensive studies, the fact is it had gone so far that I think this is about the only way to turn it around.

S: I agree.

RP: And so far, each of these double blind studies that's been initiated since he took over, many of these studies were already under way before he got there, but, all of them that have taken place since have found essentially no effect. I think that's a little in fact worrying to some people. I think they were really hoping to find at least one alternative therapy–

S: Right.

RP: –that would be helpful, and the place they would look, of course, is in herbal medicine.

E: Mm hmm.

RP: All of modern pharmacology is based on herbal medicine, and so they – even within herbal medicine – they looked around to find the most– the herbal treatment that most–

S: Mostly like to work, in their opinion.

RP: Most likely to work. And they latched on to echinacea, and, of course, they found no effect at all.

S: They took the most plausible end of the alternative medicine spectrum and decided to rack up an early victory by studying that, and that was dead negative.

E: So, Bob, does that mean they really should stop at that point and start working on other things or should the effort continue to really do– to really try to find some scientific evidence to these alternative claims?

RP: Well, I don't know. And I don't really know quite what the plan is at this point, but certainly the steering committee advised that this was one of the things they should be looking at. This steering committee, among the things that they said they should not waste any time on at all is homeopathy.

S: That's interesting, but the– this is a very interesting discussion among physicians who are in favor of scientific medicine or critical of anti-scientific or alternative medicine, although that's sort of a difficult category to sort of wrap your mind around because it doesn't really have an easy definition. But in any case, so the criticism of the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and putting millions of dollars into researching these things are a few. One is that this is diverting funds from other things that which have more plausibility and are more likely to help the public. The second is that even if you say– which– a point which I agree with, that treatments which are already broadly used and accepted, even if they don't have plausibility or even if they probably don't work, we need to study it so that the public has that information. But the criticism of that is the history has shown that scientific studies which prove that these modalities don't work doesn't really affect the sellers, the users, the practitioners of these studies. People are going to still sell echinacea, the study showed that saint john's wort didn't work, it's still on the market. There have been study after study showing that chiropractic manipulation doesn't work for ear infections, or for other things chiropractors continue to do what they do.

E: Asthma.

S: So if the practitioners are not basing their therapies on scientific evidence, what's the point in proving to them scientifically that what they're doing doesn't work? What would you say to that?

RP: Well, I– yeah. I understand the argument. However, where are you going to start? And I think these things simply have to be done. One thing that you worry about is that the public simply takes away the memory that the NIH worked on this.

E: Mm hmm.

S: Right

RP: It winds up adding a little plausibility to it.

S: That's in fact another criticism is that the practitioners are often– advertise the fact that this treatment that they're giving is under serious scientific study. That becomes a marketing point, a selling point. And then the results, no matter what they are, they sell them as either– a negative study is, "Well, this encouraging and requires further research." And anything that can possibly be interpreted as positive, of course, is total confirmation.

B: Well, it's like the evolution debate in Kansas. They didn't want to send any evolutionists over there to give it credence. Just by showing up and debating it you give the other side a certain amount of credibility. And you have to make that decision, do we want to give them that credibility? And I think the jury's still out–

S: Yeah.

B: –on whether that was a good move on–

RP: Yeah. I'm not that entirely comfortable with that–

S: I agree.

RP: –particular one.

Weather Control and Global Warming (20:09)[edit]

S: Let me change topic here. In light of the havoc that the hurricane Katrina has reaped on New Orleans and the Mississippi coast a lot people have been asking about the possibility of weather control. What do you think about the prospects of this even going into the distant future, one or two hundred years from now?

RP: Well that's interesting. Yeah, I think it's conceivable. There's been a lot of proposals in the past and– sodium iodide crystals, all of these things that never quite worked, and the cloud seeding of all sorts. Whether we can in fact actually manipulate weather– I don't see any reason why we can't, eventually. But that's one of the things that troubles me; is that we've got to start thinking more about what we do to take care of this planet.

P: Well, there certainly are people who are dedicated to weather modification. I mean, there's societies and they have conferences and everything.

RP: Oh, yeah, sure.

P: And they're trying to promote this, it's very underfunded right now. I've heard several reports – I have some family down in New Orleans so I've been watching this very closely and I've heard several people, over the last few days, begin to blame what happened and what is happening on global warming. Do you see any connection yourself?

RP: Oh, I think that's possible. And we may have been running a big experiment not knowing it.

P: Yeah.

RP: But, yeah, I certainly think it's possible. A hurricane draws it's energy from the water temperature and the water temperature in the gulf this year is the highest, I think, that it has been. And so there are questions of is this because of the human activity that's–

P: Do you think global warming in general– do you think that the theory is sound?

RP: Oh, I– yeah. I think we're to the point, right on the edge, at least, of a consensus that there is global warming and that it is anthropogenic.

S: Certainly seems where the evidence is building over time, and I think that the other side, those that are claiming that there is no global warming, are starting to lose traction to lose traction and starting to take on the role of deniers, rather than serious scientific discourse.

RP: Well, and this is kind of exciting. I mean, we don't come to a big consensus like that easily in science. And I try to use this in my class as a very positive example of the way things are supposed to work. That, when this began, the scientific community was split right down the middle on the issue of global warming. Both sides believed they were right, and determined that if we just do better research we'll prevail because we are on the side of truth. Both sides thought that, and both side knew that if they made a single mistake the other side was going to pounce on it. The result was that both sides worked as hard as they could and were as careful as they could be. The result was that we made more progress in a decade than– certainly in the–

S: Right.

RP: –in all of previous history. It's a field that just burgeoned as a result of that.

S: And that's a good representation of the community effort that is modern science, again, as opposed to the classic centuries ago view of a lone scientist laboring away in their basement. And that controversy and discussion and uncertainty et cetera drives better research, better information, and we lead to– again, more information, better answers, ultimately building toward, as you say, a consensus. And, again, I think that the idea of a consensus of scientific opinion is something that we take for granted and we certainly respect, whereas the media, and by extension the public at large, tends to think of scientific authority as residing in an individual scientist and not really recognizing the fact that individual scientists can be total wackos. They could be far off the mainstream and there's really no reason to put any faith or reliability into the opinions of an individual. But when you have hundreds of individuals hashing it out a consensus is likely, and a consensus emerges from that process, I think historically those consensuses have been pretty reliable.

RP: Well, they have, but on the other side of it, they will also at times argue that, "Well, what do you mean? That we're going to decide the truth by taking a vote?" And, of course, it's not a matter of taking a vote at all.

S: There's a reason for the consensus. The consensus evolves out of the evidence, and logic. It's not democracy–

RP: Exactly.

S: –it's not a popularity contest, and it's not an argument from authority. There's, again, there's a process, a method behind the consensus. That's something I really almost constantly struggle with when discussing these types of bigger issues with the public. The one that I'm taking on head on right now is the question of whether or not vaccines have caused an autism epidemic. And, there, the research is really thorny, but basically there's a– it's evolving towards a pretty firm consensus that at the present, you know, after a number of reasonably good studies, there's no evidence that there's any correlation between vaccines and autism. And, in fact, there might not even be an autism epidemic. But when you talk to these people about the consensus of scientific opinion they see conspiracies and arguments from authority and they think that because they can look at the literature on the internet that they have just as much of a right to a scientific opinion as anybody else, and it should carry as much weight and respect as the consensus of scientists who have dedicated their careers to thinking about these things.

RP: Well, they do have a right to their opinion, (laughter) but, that doesn't make their opinion right.

S: But which– we shouldn't base public policy on some guy's opinion but...

RP: We certainly shouldn't, but a consensus is – in a field like this – is a rare and wonderful thing, and I think it's terrific to watch. So I've enjoyed watching the arguments over climate science and I think we've made just enormous progress as a result of it.

NASA Space Program (27:07)[edit]

S: Evan, you were going to bring up a question?

E: Yeah, well, just as I was, of course, strolling around the internet I came across something attributed to you, Bob. That you're a leading critic of manned missions into space, which I was kind of, actually, a little bit surprised to see. Maybe you can elaborate on that for us.

RP: Well, I don't think it's unusual for physicists to be skeptical of manned space exploration and I've testified before congress on it several times and I've been on the Lehrer News Hour talking about it. I almost get concerned that I've become the token critic and don't enjoy that role particularly. But, look, if we go back to the beginning of the space age, which began with the Soviet Sputnik. At that time our reason for really going into it as fully as we did was the Cold War. It was Cold War competition. It was an attempt to prove that a free people can do anything that a dictatorship can do, and do it better.

E: Sure.

RP: And we had no thought about sending people into space, and in fact there was a long study done – oh, a president of MIT headed it – done for Eisenhour which said, "Look, there's no point in putting people in space. We can send instruments in space and instruments will send the information back at the speed of light and do it for a tiny fraction of the cost of sending humans. But when the Soviets put a human in space, Kennedy, whose real talent was to the deeper aspirations of the public, immediately recognized that this is where the contest is right now. And so we put human beings into space and went on to the moon as part of the Cold War competition. And we won hand's down. But the war is over.

E: Did you agree with that, Bob? Should we have done that? Should we have...

RP: In the context of the Cold War, yes. I think we should have done it. And we did it well. But the Cold War is over.

E: Yet you're saying there's no context to– no context today for the justification of sending one of our astronauts to Mars.

RP: Well, they've been trying to drum up a competition between the United States and China but that's almost humorous.

S: Well, there's also Carl Sagan's argument which he thinks that we sh– he thought, rather, that we should not do it purely out of competition, Cold War or otherwise, but that putting robots and machines into space is a great, efficient way to conduct exploration and to basically pave the way into space, but there's a certain romantic aspect to space exploration and it's that aspect which captures the human imagination which captures our spirit for exploration. And doing that is important to maintaining public, long term, sustained public support for a space program which is something that robots won't achieve no matter how nice the pictures they send back are. So, what would you say to that argument?

RP: Well, in fact, that is exactly the internal belief within NASA. They're absolutely convinced that no humans, no space program. And I kind of disagree with that. This is a– these are a new bunch of kids out there. These are cyberkids. They don't know the difference.

S: Right. It's a good point.

E: (laughs)

RP: They've been playing video games for so long that they understand sending a robot perfectly well. I– it's never been tested, and I'm not so sure that we really have to put humans out there to get public support. The number of hits on the NASA website when they– when little Sojourner was rambling around on the surface of Mars hit an all time record. Never hit anything like that for the manned programs.

E: I remember that.

S: Bob, you were saying?

B: Exactly what he just said. I was going to make that point.

S: Yeah, I mean, that's a good point. That your having a virtual presence in space maybe as natural to the next generation as the romantic idea of having astronauts or people up in space is to our generation. And so this–

RP: Let me try– let me try another one on you and that is where else are we going to go? I mean–

E: (laughs) Good point.

RP: –if we do all this just to go to Mars? You know if we had found life on Mars maybe that'd be worth it, and we certainly ought to keep looking.

S: What do you think about the idea that eventually colonizing other worlds would be a good thing for humanity and may actually even increase the longevity of our species by making us not dependant one world which could be wiped out by an asteroid impact or some disaster like that?

RP: Well, I don't understand this one at all. In the first place, the idea of colonizing Mars – let's colonize Antarctica first. It's a Garden of Eden compared to Mars. But, way beyond that, this is a huge endeavor if Mars is as far as we can go, and it pretty much is, at least for the foreseeable future. Any other destination for human beings in the solar system is going to take us too long to get there or the gravity is so great that it will crush a human or the radiation levels are so high that you couldn't possibly survive. So that's the end of the line. To put all of this effort into going to the planet that we're right now we've got two guys rambling around on the surface of Mars that never break for lunch. They don't complain about the cold nights. And they live on sunshine.

E: Well, that has been– it has been an incredible– it's been an incredible mission.

RP: It truly is.

E: It's lasted much longer than they even dreamed it would, to this point.

RP: It went way past the design lifetime of these robots, yes. I try to emphasize that these are not robots in the old sense of science fiction, these are not autonomous. They're really just extensions of somebody comfortably seated in Houston.

B: With a big time delay.

RP: With a big time delay. That's largely a software problem.

E: Right. Right.

RP: But it's certainly real. But they say– well, one of the arguments that's often given to me is, "Well, they can react– a human could react in an emergency." Well, what kind of an emergency? "Well, if a bolder comes rolling down at them." Well, my goodness, I don't see much happening on Mars. Things look like they're...

S: Most emergencies would involve the risk to the people themselves.

RP: Well, that's right.

S: They could save themselves if there's an emergency. They wouldn't be there in the first place.

RP: So I– and besides which, you know, one of the great arguments made for the space program is spin-offs. Now, it's mostly fabricated.

B: Really?

RP: There are three kinds of liars in the world. There are ordinary liars, damned liars, spin-off claimers.


RP: The spin-offs that were claimed for NASA, and most people are not aware of this, there was actually a study done of this for Dan Golden when he took over as administrator of NASA which has never been made public and was presented to him in the form of an oral presentation. What survived are the view graphs and a little bit of text that goes between them, and the conclusion was that none of the spin-offs were really spin-offs. That they were all things that industry did first but they found that there was huge advertising potential to claiming they did it as part of the space program.

S: As a space technology. As part of the space program, yeah. That was certainly the– that was the buzz phrase since the Apollo missions.

B: Wow.

RP: Exactly. And NASA went along with this because they could then sell it to congress as, "Look what we turned out with your dollars."

P: Duct tape didn't come from NASA? Didn't come from the space program? That's the one I always hear about.

B: Or Tang.

S: Duct tape.

RP: Which one are we talking about?

E: Duct tape.

RP: Oh, no. No. No. Duct– nor did Tang nor did Velcro nor did Teflon, nor any of these.

S: What about the pens that write upside down? I thought NASA spent millions of dollars developing those.

RP: Yes, and they– and the Russians solved it with a pencil.[5]

S: Yes.


E: That's wonderful.

P: (laughter)

B: Awesome.

Paranormal beliefs: ESP & UFOs (36:54)[edit]

S: So, Bob, you've been doing this for quite some time now, writing a column and investigating voodoo science as you call it. What do you think is the most outrageous, egregious unscientific claim or thing that you've ever heard.

RP: Geez. That's– Wow.


S: That's a tough one?

RP: Now that's a tough one.

P: Amongst the top three.

RP: Certainly, the one that I think has caused the greatest amount of grief in the world is is extrasensory perception.

B: Really? In what way?

RP: Once you believe that, you can believe anything.

S: Think that's a gateway belief to the paranormal?


RP: Exactly.

S: That's interesting. It is...

B: It is ubiquitous. I mean, I would guess 70 percent of people believe in some form of extrasensory perception. It's such a common belief that– and people don't realize– they don't really look into it and realize that there is– not only is there no evidence but the mechanism by which it would work doesn't have anything to it. On both counts it's dead.

RP: Well, and worse than that if it would work it would be total turmoil.

S: Right. It's a good thing that it doesn't work.

B: The evidence would be right in our faces.

RP: (inaudible)

S: I know. I always remind people that our federal government spent, I believe, twenty million dollars trying to get it to work and ultimately concluded that it was of absolutely no value.

B: Well, listen to this. I just recently read something very interesting about that. That the government sometimes will say that they've spent or maybe they will spend a few million dollars on something completely bogus, and part of the intention, apparently, is to have other governments say, "Oh. Look what they're doing. Let's– we gotta start spending millions of dollars on this, too." And so, it's an attempt by our government to actually make other governments waste their money–

S: On dead ends.

B: On dead ends. Things that we know as dead ends. So, I'd like to believe that that might be true. I'd like–

RP: I think it backfired.

S: Right. They wouldn't come out and say that it failed. And then they would try to string along the possibility that it was some value to it, but after twenty million dollars were flushed they said this is absolutely worthless and–

B: Right.

S: –specifically what they were studying was remote viewing. Essentially they wanted to have psychic spies able to peek in at the Kremlin or wherever they wanted to in the world psychically, but it didn't work out for them.

RP: Well, in fact, there's some evidence that they're still spending some money on that.

S: Yeah, I've heard that. I think the program was officially shut down, but I think individuals still might wheedle some money out the government here and there for individual projects.

P: The guys who used to work on project Blue Book maybe?

E: Right.

P: Something else to do.

S: Did you have– since Perry brings it up, have you ever had any involvement with the UFO culture?

RP: Well, a little bit. And I– in my book I wrote a chapter about that. And I had my own UFO experience.

S: Really? Let's hear it.

RP: Well, I was at the time stationed at Roswell, New Mexico.

S: The Mecca.

RP: And– exactly.

E: (laughs)

RP: This was after the famous Roswell episode, but not long after, just a few years and UFOs were a very big thing then.

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: And there were reports constantly of unidentified flying objects. And one weekend I drove home to visit my family and– in south Texas, and to get there I had to drive through a very desolate region of west Texas and I was returning from that trip and all of sudden, I had a white Oldsmobile back then, and that Oldsmobile just lit up with light–

S: Mm hmm.

RP: from the sky and it was a kind of a greenish light and I looked up in the sky and there was this brilliant blue-green light flashing across the sky and finally it passed behind a range of low hills off in the distance and would flash on and off as it passed behind those hills and then vanished with no sound whatever.

S: Interesting.

RP: And– Now I thought at the time that would have gone down as a UFO had I not known what it was and I was pretty sure I did know. That blue-green light is characteristic of the recombination of the hydroxyl radical...

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: and what I was seeing was an ice meteorite.

S: An ice meteorite?

RP: An ice meteorite. There are meteorites consisting largely of ice. When they warm up passing through our upper atmosphere they begin to– well, I should back up a little. These meteorites, of course, are being bombarded by cosmic rays all the time. But they're at such low temperature that when it breaks water molecules into its hydroxyl radical the radical doesn't recombine because it's simply too cold.

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: But at as it starts to warm up you start getting the recombination of all these hydroxyl radicals with the extra hydrogen and this gives off this blue-green glow and so the mechanism for this is is know,n and other people have seen it.

S: Right. So this is a known phenomenon.

RP: And so it's a known phenomenon. So I said, "Ah hah. It's a good thing I knew something about this or I would really have been disturbed." And about that time, again driving down this desolate stretch of highway, I saw a flying saucer. And it was flying parallel, just over the desert, travelling right beside my automobile, well, a ways off, I couldn't tell how far, and I was so startled that the first thing I did was accelerate and this thing speeded up too, and I thought it was following me.

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: And only seconds it passed here, and I slammed on the breaks and it stopped, and then I saw what it was.

S: Was it the moon?

RP: It was...

E: Venus?

RP: It was my headlights!

S: It was your headlights.

RP: Reflecting off of a single phone line strung parallel to the highway.

S: I see. Oh, okay.

B: Wow.

RP: And it looked like a disc from the edge...

S: Mm hmm.

RP: But my brain filled in all the rest.

S: Absolutely. Now, of course, if you were a drunken farmer from Nebraska and not a physics professor from Maryland, that story would have entered into the UFO lore as an unexplainable encounter with extraterrestrial phenomenon.

RP: Exactly.

S: Yeah.

RP: And I try to remember that whenever I get annoyed at UFO claims...

S: Right.

RP: and I often do.

S: They are annoying.

RP: That for a few seconds, I believed in UFOs.

S: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah, after doing this for the number of years that we have you become familiar with the personality of the different types of believers and I do think that UFO believers have a certain personality type, and not to put too fine a point on it, I think that they are the craziest bunch in the spectrum of paranormal believers. It attracts a certain personality, a certain kind of paranoid, conspiracy minded, really out there crazy personality. And the conversations I've had with believers of all stripes – they are an order of magnitude out there than anyone else I've spoken to. I don't know if you've had similar experience.

RP: I've argued that believers, in fact, are a sort of a fraternity,

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: and perhaps they have a secret handshake by which they recognize one another, but you would be amazed at how many cold fusion believers believe in UFOs.

S: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I agree that there's a certain– there's a lot of overlap there and I think there's a lot of overlap in personality as well.

P: If I'm not mistaken they– if I'm not mistaken, I believe they use ESP to communicate, Bob.

S: ESP– belief in ESP is common. Perry and I went to this New Haven UFO convention and made a similar observation that at this UFO convention there were also books on bigfoot and ESP and other phenomenon, as well, and one might ask, "Well, if aliens are visiting the earth why does that mean that bigfoot exists? or that we have the ability to have ESP? Why would these beliefs go together as a suite?" 'Cause it's the believer that's in common.

RP: I've argued that there is a belief gene...

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: and some of us has that gene and some of us don't.

S: You think it's that simple?

RP: And I'm only half joking.

S: Right.

RP: I suspect that our ancestors living in a wilderness when we were hunter gathers, there may well have been an advantage. The great advantage of human beings over other animals was the ability to speak.

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: And it would not be surprising if what along with that was a willingness to believe what you hear spoken.

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: So, if somebody warns you that there is a tiger hiding in the tall grass, you'd do well to avoid the tall grass–

S: Right.

RP: –whether there's a tiger there or not. S: Yeah, and some have argued that. That, in general, there probably was an evolutionary advantage to belief over skepticism, and that skepticism, in fact, may have been evolutionary disadvantageous, for example, the example that you just gave. Along with that is perhaps the idea that human beings, being essentially tribal, in our evolutionary milieu, as they call it, there may have been an advantage to believing in the group or believing in something greater than ourselves and that that may have conferred, also, an evolutionary advantage.

RP: I think that's probably so, yeah.

S: But, again, it's a very interesting question. Certainly something we wrestle with quite frequently: why are there people like us, basically, who are predisposed to skepticism, or like to analyze things in a very rational manner and then there are other people who, no matter– as hard as I try to explain why I believe the way I do and things like logic and evidence, et cetera, they're completely just on a different plane. I really find– I try to dig down as deep as I can to any common ground to hold on to and with some people, more to the spiritual end of the spectrum, new age, et cetera, I eventually discover that there's no– there's nothing left, there is no common ground. I can't– There's nothing upon– there's no fundamental principle of reality or thinking upon which that we can agree and then proceed from that point. That, really, they just have a different premise in terms of how they think about what's real and what's not real.

B: I don't know about you guys, I do it for the chicks.

E: Oh, yes.

S: Skeptics get all the chicks. That is the best kept secret.

E: Yeeeah. Must be. Only slightly more secretive is that they make the big money.

S: Right.


E: Big money and lots of women. Yeah.

Politics and Science (49:47)[edit]

S: So, what's next for Bob Park? What projects are you working on now?

RP: Well, as I say, I started out to write a book on alternative medicine.

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: My agent was not at all wild about this idea. She says, "Look. You're not going to change the mind of the believers and the rest of them won't be interested in your book. So the believers won't buy it because it will infuriate them." But I plan to go back to that one.

S: Yeah.

RP: I mean to do that. But right now we're in the midst of a real sort of change going on here. The war between science and religion just broke out in the open.

S: Mm-hmm.

E: Yes, it did.

RP: I mean, when the President made his announcement about intelligent design that changed everything.

S: Yeah.

RP: Now this is– the war is official.

B: Yeah. In a way I kind of liked that he finally let it all hang out and really announced what he believed publically. Because we all knew it, and he kind of alluded to it a lot– in a lot of different places and times, but here he just really just said it. "Yeah, let's teach it right along with evolution," and basically saying that it's– put it in science class.

RP: Well, yeah. That's right. But it's a dangerous time. I mean, it could...

B: Yeah.

RP: it could work out well, or it could work out very badly.

S: Right.

E: Well, what was good was that his science–

S: We could lose this war, basically.

E: Yeah. His science advisor, though, followed up shortly afterwards and said that he disagrees with the Presi– he respectfully disagrees with the President. His opinion–

RP: Well, he should advise the President then. He advised all the rest of us, but why in the hell didn't he advise the President?

E: Apparently he did and the President just decided not to follow that advice.

RP: Well, I think that's what the President has done with all the advice he's given him, if he's given him any.

S: Apparently.

RP: If I was the science advisor and nobody paid any attention to my advice I think I'd find something else to do.

E: Interesting.

P: You know, politically I support the President. Scientifically he is a dead head. It really is, it's very serious.

S: And the rest of it– he's basically

P: He's very bad.

S: –he's the symbol of America to the rest of the world.

E: Sure.

S: The rest of the world thinks that Americans are scientifically illiterate barbarians almost, and what better symbol for that caricature than George Bush?

E: Steve, what world leader is scientifically literate? I can't think of one.

S: Uh... living?


E: Yeah, sure. I mean, seriously. Even Tony Blair, his wife is very steeped into all the pseudosciences and, apparently, it's rubbed off on him, as well. Really, I can't think of a modern leader of a country that has a good understanding of science.

S: Kim Jong-Il?

E: Sure, yeah.

S: I don't know. I don't know.

P: There's no one.

E: Can't think of one.

P: They don't mix.

E: That's right. They don't.

S: Politics and science don't mix. You think that's it?

P: I mean Bill Frist is a scientist...

S: No no no no no no. He's a doctor.

E: He's an M.D.

P: (laughs) Okay.

RP: As a matter of fact, of course, when Bill Frist first got into the senate he looked like he was going to be a real champion of science...

S: Mm hmm.

RP: and there was a S&T, Science and Technology forum within the senate and he headed that and he pushed hard for increased funding for research. It was not until he began to get Presidential aspirations–

P: Exactly.

S: Mm-hmm.

P: Exactly.

RP: –that he found out that this isn't very useful.

S: Yeah.

E: That's a shame.

S: I think he's taking a lot of heat for it. I think, to some degree, it's all a bit transparent. For example, his reversal on the stem cell decision. He basically, initially supported the President in his stem cell position and recently came out, Bill Frist came out to say that he supports stem cell research, but most of the commentators I've read about that were pretty cynical and said, "Well, now he's just playing to the center a little bit to try and position himself for a Presidential run," and no one bought it, basically, that it was sincere. So, I don't know how well it's working for him.

RP: The analysts that I heard on that subject their explanation was, "Look, he's got to separate himself from the President...

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: and show that he's his own man and he thinks for himself."

S: Right.

RP: And so that was a very calculated move.

S: Yes.

RP: But then he, in addition to that calculated move, he can also count votes.

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: And there are a lot more born-again Christians out there than there are skeptics.

S: Right. And that's absolutely true. And stem cell research still is supported by a majority of Americans, so the President is actually in the minority in this one. So, so far Frist is coming down on the side of the popular side of all these decisions. He has yet to take a decidedly unpopular position because he believes in it. And, I think, that's, you know, we try not to get to overtly political on this show. We try to remain scientific but, I think, what these issues show is that Frist is a character who– a politician who bases his popularity on supporting his base, as it were, rather than on the courage of his convictions. And I think, again, that's what the analysts are saying. This is a calculating move to play to voters. Not to support what he really believes. Which, again, comes back to the point, I think we made earlier, that politics and science don't mix. That you're best off letting science do what it does. At best, science should inform the political process but politics should not inform the scientific process.

E: Wasn't there a time, two hundred years ago, when they sort of did mix? The Benjamin Frank–

S: Maybe.

E: Well, the Benjamin Franklins of the world, and so forth. There were the John Adams. These were people who really had a good understanding of science and managed to found a country in the process.

S: The founding fathers were children of the enlightenment. No question.

RP: Look, this was before the huge revolution in science really got underway.

S: Right. It wasn't institutionalized yet.

RP: It hadn't quite started yet.

S: Mm-hmm.

RP: In a way it almost started with Darwin.

S: Mm-hmm.

E: Right. Right. Well, certainly does seem to be a consensus.

S: I think the big difference is that science is not institutionalized. It's not longer the activity of just lone gentlemen researchers. It's a multi-billion dollar industry and institution and– which is a good thing because it enables the engine of scientific change to grind very, very quickly and to command a tremendous amount of resources. And that's where I think the politics comes in, because whenever you have huge amounts of resources involved, it's politicians who decide how those resources get spent. The best we can hope for is that our politicians are enlightened enough to at least listen to their science advisors. But, if that's not going to be the case, then we end up with things like the President endorsing public schools teaching pseudoscience as science.

E: Right.

RP: Well, I'm glad you said "enlightened" because that's– whatever happened to the enlightenment?

S: Right.

RP: I mean, why can't we have that again?

S: We need a new enlightenment. A second enlightenment. It does seem, you know, I try not to be a Cassandra or to be mired in a short term view of trends. Certainly being a skeptic right at the turn of the millenium it seems like we are mired in a resurgence of pseudoscience and superstition and spirituality. Although I know that if you look at the, sort of, long course of history science is still, pretty much relentlessly marching forward and increasing in public support and popularity, and religion– the role of religion and spirituality, in civilization, in society, is still pretty much on wane. I think that perhaps this may be just a short term fluctuation, but we'll see. It's hard to sort of lift yourself out of your time and see the big picture.

P: Give it time. I think, science will out, in the end. I think so.

E: I hope so.

S: I agree. I think the one thing that the science– that science as a process has on it's side is that it's the one thing that works and no other, sort of, human attempt at figuring things out, or having any kind of system of knowledge, has, in fact, worked. And, in the end, it can't help, I think, but to succeed, I think, against– as long as it's allowed in the game. Of course, historically, there have been times when free inquiry or scientific endeavors have been crushed. The dark ages, essentially, two thousand years of essentially absence of scientific thinking was ushered in by the destruction of, sort of, the birth of science in ancient Greece. I do wonder, and I don't know what you think about this, Bob, is, is it possible to extinguish the light of science in our culture? Or to knock it down so much that we may set back the cause of human exploration and advancement significantly by decades or centuries? Do you think that's even possible at this point?

RP: Not for that long a period, but certainly in the short term it can cause us an awful lot of grief.

S: Absolutely.

RP: And, I think, we're perilously close to that.

S: Mm-hmm. Yep. I agree. Which, in a way, kind of makes it exciting to be doing what we're doing. I think we're certainly fighting the good fight, and we try to get right down there in the trenches. And I certainly enjoy the company in these trenches better than the other ones. I think it's certainly been a privilege and a pleasure to talk with people like you, like Bob Park, like, Michael Shermer and Massimo Pigliucci and the other people we've had on this show. I think, the intellectuals, the enlightened ones of our age, are on this side of the coin. On this side of the equation.

Conclusion (1:00:22)[edit]

S: Well, any parting thoughts before we close the show?

RP: I thought that was a good last line.

S: That was a good last line? You like that?

B: (laughs)

P: I thought so, too.

S: Well, listen, Bob, we really appreciate you being on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

B: Thanks, Bob.

S: This has been a great show, we appreciate it.

RP: You're welcome.

S: We look forward to continuing to visit your website. Again that's and looking at your "In The News" section.

RP: Well, you know, that website is just not kept up.

S: Oh, it's not?

RP: I'm sorry. I've really not kept that website up.

S: Well, the "In The News" section looks pretty updated. Is that what you focus on?

RP: Yeah. They– It's all really pretty old and I just haven't the time to bother with it. My son actually put it together for me.

S: Oh, really?

RP: And he's now too busy as well. So, I need to get a student or somebody to spend some time on it. But I have another website which is

S: Okay.

RP: And that's where you really find my column.

S: That's where your column is? Great.

RP: Right. And which is now supported by the University of Maryland.

E: Right.

RP: It's sponsored by the University of Maryland and they keep it up for me. It has a good search engine with it and the search engine alone, I think, when you see an issue– and I try to urge people when they see an issue that interests them in "What's New" to immediately go to the search engine and type in the keywords and see what's been said about it before.

S: Well, it's a good resource. We'll keep it on our link list. Thanks again– thanks again, Bob.

B: Thanks, Bob.

RP: You're quite welcome.

E: Thank you, Bob.

S: And that's our show for this week. Thanks again for joining us on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information on this and other episodes see our website at

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Most Americans thought creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools[6]
  • Tang, Velcro, and Teflon were not spin-offs of the space program.[7]
  • Duct tape was not a spin-off either[8]


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