SGU Episode 12

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SGU Episode 12
7th September 2005

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SGU 11 SGU 13
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
SM: Steve Milloy
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Show Notes


S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Steven Novella. Today is Wednesday, September 7th 2005. With me tonight are Evan Bernstein...

E: Good evening all.

S: Bob Novella...

B: Hello.

S: And Perry DeAngelis.

P: Hello.

S: Our guest for tonight is Steven Milloy, who is the publisher of He'll be joining us in just a few minutes, but first a couple of quick segments.

News Items[edit]

Haunted Phone on eBay (0:34)[edit]

S: Some follow up on some previous items that we discussed. You guys all remember the haunted dolls for sale on eBay[1].

B: Yes.

S: Well, a listener—

E: I did, yes.

S: —a listener sent me a link for a haunted phone for sale on eBay.

B: Cool.

S: The link will be on our website but it's a... essentially a red rotary phone, like a 1950's/60's model telephone...

E: Mm-hmm.

S: And a long, long story to go along with the item. Apparently, it's very sinister looking cause it's red and it has the number on it is number 666 and it was inspected by inspector number 666.

E: (chuckles)

B: Well, there ya go.

S: And the usual stories. "I left it on the table and the next thing I know it was somewhere else," or "the statue of the virgin Mary I had next to it was found broken on the floor."

E: Isn't this a Twilight Zone episode?

S: Right.

E: It was haunted phone or something.

S: The worst though was—the worst was the seller claimed that at one point in time there was a burn mark all around the phone as if something had—like there was a radiation of heat. The phone itself was pristine; it was unharmed, but the table all around the phone had a burn mark on it.

E: So it's kind of like a spontaneous telephonic combustion type of thing.

S: Telephonic combustion. Although the phone itself didn't combust. It kind of reminded me of that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Where there—they—the Nazi symbol on the crate just sort of burned, but the—if you look at the picture, the burn outline of the phone is not quite perfect. You know what I mean? It doesn't exactly follow the edge of the phone on the table.

P: Are you questioning this evidence, Steve?

E: Like it was man made.

S: Right. Like, so like it was created around the phone, rather than—cause if you—any kind of radiation that's blocked by an object should produce a pretty perfect silhouette on the item behind it, and this was—I'll just say it was less than perfect. But it was going; the bid was going for, I think, eighty dollars or something.

B: Is it still up for auction, Steve?

S: No, the auction had completed. So, yeah, interesting that there—there—haunted items are branching out eBay. This one was, I thought, particularly humorous. It was kinda cheesy. A red phone with the number 666 on it. A demon phone.

B: Wow.

Volcanoes in the Solar System (2:58)[edit]

S: Also, a bit of follow-up from—before we go—before we proceed with Science or Fiction, I have a follow-up from the last Science or Fiction from two weeks ago[2]. If you recall this was—the theme was the solar system and the item which was made up was the discovery of an active volcano on Saturn's moon, Titan.

E: (laughs) I know where you're going with this.

S: So, I did some more research just to see if there's anything else out there that I may have missed, and it turns out—a couple—a few things came up. So I had claimed that the only active volcanoes in the solar system are on Earth and on Jupiter's moon, Io, because Jupiter's moon, Io, is close—is close enough to the planet that the tidal forces of Jupiter actually push and pull and stretch Io so that it's constantly molten and there's active volcanoes and the planet's basically turning itself inside out. Well, Saturn's smallest moon, En-cel-a-dus, also has active volcanoes on it. And—or En-cel-a-dus, I think it might be En-cel-a-dus. Although, these volcano—it also is close to the Saturn and it's tidal forces that it's thought to be the driving force behind the volcanoes. However the volcan—quote-unquote "volcanoes" are spewing ice...

E: Wow.

S: 'Cause Enceladus is an icy world. So, not exactly lava, but spewing essentially ice and there is a wispy sort of atmosphere around Enceladus which is I guess—

B: Well, that's bizarre.

S: Yeah.

B: I mean, if you've got the tidal forces you'd think it would—it would liquify—it would create molten—molten rock or ore and it would just spew that. So how could you—how could you...

S: That moon is probably mostly water and ice like Europa or Ganymede. At least, towards the surface.

B: That just seems pretty bizarre.

S: There was another report of Neptune's largest moon, Triton, was found to have what one astronomer called a volcano but the other references I said referred to them as "nitrogen geysers". So, not volcanic, again not lava, not mountainous volcanos but geysers of nitrogen. And then finally, now this is just from a few—a couple of months ago, and the report that I read is from July, so this is very recent. The Cassini Probe has indeed found pictures of what looks like a volcano on Titan.

E: Mm-hmm.

S: Which was the specific example that I had used in the Science or Fiction. However, there's no direct evidence of an eruption. That is—so there's no picture of it erupting.

P: So what's the bottom line, here, Steve?

S: But there's indirect evidence that it may be spewing forth ice and ammonia. So you may have ice and ammonia volcanoes on Titan.

B: So this invalidates your whole Science or Fiction from...

S: Well...

E: Is that what you're saying?

P: The bottom line is...

S: The bottom line is it's ambiguous at this point. There are volcanic structures on Titan that may be—there's indirect evidence that may be spewing ice and ammonia. Not lava volcanoes. Nothing like that.

B: Right.

P: All right. So we can just go back and say that we were all correct.

E: (laughs)

S: If you wish. (laughs) If that makes you feel better.

P: (inaudible)

S: This story was just more complicated. I just—I found some additional information.

P: And feeble. Very good.

E: It looks like they need new ways to classify volcanic phenomena.

B: Mm-hmm.

S: Right.

E: I mean, is it a—lava's one kind, ice is another...

S: Ammonia, nitrogen...

E: Right.

S: Sulfur. All kinds of things. And what's—When's a geyser a volcano?

B: Right.

E: We need some volcanologists. Maybe we can call one on the show and have them clarify for us.

B: I wonder if you need the strong tidal forces to create a nitrogen volcano or a nitrogen geyser. Do you need tidal stresses to do that or can some other mechanism produce that?

S: That was the only one that I heard. I mean, so you either have heat left over from your formation, some internal heat, or there's gotta be something that's producing heat and other than tidal forces, I'm not sure what else would do that.

B: Well, don't forget radioactive decay. I mean that's...

S: Yeah, that's—

B: That's the main reason our core is molten.

S: We haven't cooled off yet.

B: Right.

S: Right.

Science or Fiction (7:17)[edit]

VO: It's time to play Science OR Fiction.

S: So, this week's Science or Fiction is going to be a little different than previous ones. It's still three items. One item is the correct answer, but it's more a multiple-choice question than two legitimate, one being fiction. What I'm going to give you is three classic pseudosciences. The question is—this is a historical question about these pseudosciences—which one had proponents that were actually on the correct side of a major scientific debate. So this—my theme for the week is, "Right for the Wrong Reason".

E: Hmm.

S: Which pseudoscientists, if you will, historically were on the correct side of a major scientific debate, even though, of course, their underlying belief system is still false and pseudoscientific. You ready? Do you understand the question?

E: Yes.

P: So some guy believes that the earth is round cause a big monkey bent it around.

S: Right. Correct.

P: Okay. I got it.

B: Well, I assume it's not going to be obvious. If you tell us something that he believed the we know is true...

S: I'm not telling you what the belief was, cause that would be too obvious. I'm just telling you...

B: Okay.

S: One word. I'm going to give you three pseudosciences. You tell me, historically, which one of those three was actually on the correct side of a major scientific debate and then I'll tell you at the end what the major scientific debate was.

E: Okay.

S: Okay. Ready?

E: Ready.

S: The first one is astrology. The second one is phrenology. And the third one is homeopathy. All three pseudosciences with which we are very familiar.

B: Right, but they—these are definite pseudosciences, but you're saying someone in the past supported this—supported one of these phenomena?

S: Some major proponents of either astrology, phrenology, or homeopathy were actually on the correct side of a scientific debate. They were proven correct over time on one point that was integral to their belief system.

B: Okay.

E: But it didn't validate any of the pseudosciences in the process, right?

S: No. Everything else was still turned out to be wrong. Didn't validate the under—the bottom-line pseudoscience.

B: Right. Just some subtle point...

S: No, it wasn't so subtle. It was a major component of their belief system.

E: Boy, I'm tending towards the astrology one.

P: I say phrenology. Bumps on the head. I think... (inaudible)

E: Go on, Bob, take homeopathy.

B: No. No. I'm taking phrenology as well.

S: Okay.

P: Yeah. I think it's phrenology.

S: Two phrenology and Evan for astrology. Evan, what do you think—what's your thinking there?

E: Eh, because it—respectively, I believe, where the roots of astronomy did derive from, if I'm not mistaken, was something closer to astrology, as we recognize it today, it just has a deeper history than, I think, either phrenology or homeopathy have, which are, by comparison, more—much more recent phenomenon. So, perhaps there was a lot more time there for the astrologers to have stumbled across something correct in regards to astronomy and so, that's why I'm going to guess that.

S: Okay. Perry, what's your thinking with phrenology?

P: Oh, just that since it involves the head and bumps on the head, it's probably not too far of leap to think that they came up with something regarding brain—the nervous system. Something medical. That was reasonable in a dark age. That's what I believe.

S: Bob, similar? Do you have anything more specific?

B: Yeah. This week's is a little different in that you can't—you can't use general critical thinking and scientific knowledge to divine an answer. You kind of—it looks like you're asking for a specific knowledge of something—

S: Yeah.

B: —that you really need to make an answer. More so than usual. But for—I'm going for...

S: This is more of a fund of knowledge question than a logic question.

B: Right. Well, I'm going with phrenology because I know that phrenology, when it was first developed—when it was first being looked into and believed, it—there was a happy side effect. Because people were so into phrenology and examined bumps in the head it actually created much more interest in the brain and the structure of the brain and different parts of neuroscience than was warranted at the time. So they actually had a nice increase in scientific knowledge that they wouldn't necessarily have had until maybe many decades later, all caused by phrenology which, of course, is ridiculous.

P: Right. Then—different bumps meant different things, like different parts of the brain affect different things. Stuff like that.

S: Right. Right.

P: I mean that sort of a connection.

S: Well phrenology is the correct answer. And, Perry, you're very, very—you're very—basically on target with your analysis. The major scientific debate was whether or not the different functions of the brain were diffuse or compartmentalized. In other words, does everything that the brain does—you know, memory, motor function, vision, calculation, remembering music, identifying objects—are those functions distributed throughout the brain, sort of, evenly, or is there one piece of the brain that has a specific function. Is this piece of the brain the motor function, this piece of the brain vision? The phrenologists were—supported the side of that debate that said that the brain was compartmentalized and specialized. However, there was a major part of the medical scientific neurological community that said that neurological brain function was diffuse. It turns out that the phrenologists were right. They were on the correct side of that debate. Of course, all of the other components of their claim, that if you use a certain part of the brain, like if you use the music part of your brain, that that part of the brain would grow bigger and would push the skull out therefore creating a bump over the music part of the brain, that part is all incorrect. The brain does not actually change its size based upon usage, like a muscle does. That was their analogy. It was sort of a false analogy to a muscle. Neither does the skull move out of the way of the brain. The brain's like Jell-o. The skull pushes the brain into its shape. The brain does not push the skull into the brain's shape.

P: Doesn't it get more crinkly, though, Steve?

S: No. I mean, the brain's as crinkly as it is. That's a matter of...

B: Because of the skull.

S: No. That's not really true. I mean the brain just develops that way and all the folds—the gyri and sulci in the brain are formed that way because it's genetically programmed to form that way.

B: Well, look at the strapping the certain cultures do of the head. The skull is so malleable at an early age. You could shape your head into pretty much anything you want it to look like. And, of course, the brain just blindly takes it in stride with no apparent deficits.

S: The brain happily conforms to whatever shape your skull is in.

B: Yeah, whatever the container is. It's just—the brain just kind of, changes shape.

E: I'm informed...

B: Steve, I thought I was somewhat on track with the fact that phrenology caused more—

S: I'm not sure that's even true, Bob. I've never read that in all of my reading about the history of neurology or phrenology that—

B: Do you want me to get a source?

S: Yeah, sure. I mean, it may be true I just—I never have encountered that claim so I don't know if it's true or not. There was quite an interest in neurology without phrenology and that debate was raging without the phrenologists, as well. The phrenologists were major players in that debate, two hundred and fifty, three hundred years ago.

E: Well, my astrologer is advising me to not engage into this debate. So, I'll remain silent.

S: Evan, your reasoning was sound. I mean, astrology certainly is much, much older than either phrenology, which is about—or homeopathy, both of which are two to three hundred years old. But astrology didn't—astrologer—ancient astrologers, they had a very prescientific view of the universe, of the stars and the planets and they did not—they were not on the correct side of...

E: Ah, it seemed likely that they made a guess about something that was going on in the cosmos that they happened to stumble upon. It just seemed—seemed like a reasonable guess.

S: Reasonable logic, but I think historically just not correct.

P: Homeopathy was easy to get rid of because—

E: Oh yeah.

P: —anyone who believes in homeopathy couldn't possibly be correct about anything.

S: Right. There's nothing.

E: (laughs)

S: There's no component of their—homeopathy is using substances diluted to the point of literally non-existence and—

P: The law of infinitesimals is so juvenile—

S: It's prescientific.

P: —as to not to be believed.

B: Right. Suprisingly, though, there was—there was a happy side effect with homeopathy, way back, in that you were much better off drinking pure water than—

E: That's right.

B: —blood letting.

P: (laughs)

S: Yeah.

E: Or some other medicine they tried to shove into you, at the time, which would definitely kill you.

S: At the time there were experimenting with a lot of toxic minerals as—for drugs and they were all more harmful than good, so again, going from the medicine of the time to nothing, to basically water, was actually an advantage.

P: I understand leeches are making a comeback.

S: Leeches. (laughs)

P: They are.

E: Where?

S: No, I understand that's true.

E: Where?

P: They are. They apparently are.

S: For certain things. For certain things.

E: In Yale, Steve? Are they using them in Yale?

S: Not that I've ever encountered.

P: Draining...

B: Don't they feed on necrotic tissues and things like that? Bacteria—

P: Yeah. They really are. That's a—

S: Well, those are maggots, Bob. They're—sometimes they will—I've never seen this done, but allegedly you can use maggots to essentially eat up all the dead tissue out of a wound.

E: Right.

S: To debride a wound.

E: But in a pinch, right. Are—We're saying you use these alternatives in lieu of some—of another option that doesn't exist at the time or place, right? I mean, aren't there better ways to deal with these things that leeches and maggots do in a modern scientific medical center.

S: Depends on what you mean by better.

P: (laughs)

E: Umm... Well, that's for—I guess that's for doctors and the scientific community—

S: Apparently—I wouldn't want to have maggots crawling inside my wound so—I'd be happy with just a surgeon with a scalpel debriding it if there were dead tissue there.

P: (laughs)

E: Right.

S: But the maggots do a fine job of eating up all the dead skin and they don't eat any of the live skin, so—it works.

E: What's the negative part of a maggot chewing on your—

S: You've got maggots crawling on your—


B: It's the idea.

S: That's what they—

E: You're saying it's not a chick magnet.


E: You're saying it doesn't attract the chicks.

S: They turn into flies.

E: "Hey, baby, if you're into maggots..."

B: I saw—I saw a little spot—I saw a show that had a little five-minute blurb on that, many moons ago and—my memory is telling me that it was—there was some application that was—it was very efficient for that wasn't—there was really almost—I don't want to say no alternative but it was—it worked so well for certain applications...

S: The maggots you mean?

B: The maggots. The guy or the doctor was saying that, "I mean, this is such an excellent treatment for this." That it's much easier and much more specific than even he could be with his scalpel. Something like that.

E: Does it have to be prescribed? Do you need a prescription?

S: Not technically. No. I don't think so. It's not a FDA-controlled drug, so, no.

E: Interesting.

S: It's a procedure, I guess.

E: What does the FDA have to say about these kinds of things?

S: I don't know. I don't know. Not—Nothing that I know of.

E: Interesting

S: Well, let's bring on our guest at this time.

Interview With Steven Milloy: Public Health, Libertarianism, Global Warming, Public Health Recommendations (18:44)[edit]

S: So with us this week is Steve Milloy. Steve is the publisher of, a website dedicated to exposing bad science of all stripes. He's also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute and author of Junk Science Judo: Self Defense Against Health Scares and Scams as well as several other books on junk science. Steve, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

SM: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

S: We've talked about your website previously on our show[3]. We go there frequently to look at the items. How long have you been doing this?

SM: We started on—fittingly on April 1st, 1996, so we're actually on our tenth year now.

S: Great. Great. And what got you interested—

B: Wow.

S: —in this topic?

SM: I used to work for a guy who was a consultant to businesses on regulatory issues and I started out working on health risk issues—

S: Mm-hmm.

SM: —and I had—I had a unique background for my boss. I have a background in public health as well as a law degree. So, I was working with regulatory agencies, and I was working on a number of different health risk issues and it struck me that no matter what statistical analysis or scientific fact I took to the agency they'd often already made up their minds.

S: Mm-hmm.

SM: And they just weren't open to better science or better analysis—

S: Right.

SM: —or facts or anything like that. And, so then I went and started my own business. I got a contract from the Department of Energy to do a study for them on the role of science in environmental policy and it started to slowly dawn on me that in most policies, especially in environmental areas, it's not really based on science. It's just based on politics.

S: Mm-hmm.

SM: And from there one thing lead to another. I did my—a little book called, Science About Sense: The Risky Business of Public Health Research, which is a short, sort of tongue and cheek, manual on how to do a health scare. And the publication of that was received pretty well in the public health community and that sort of coincided with the rise of the internet, so was born.

S: It was a natural extension of what you were doing.

SM: Yeah.

S: Similar with us, I think. We got into skepticism in—pretty much—in the mid 90's right as the internet was becoming what it is and it was natural for us to move more and more of our activities onto the internet. It's a great way to reach people.

SM: Oh, yeah, I mean, ten years ago, someone like me had great difficulty trying to get a message out. But with the internet I don't need a printing press—

S: Right.

SM: —all I need is a computer and—

S: And people will find you. What I find is people who are interested in the topic that you're writing about will find you because they'll search for it.

SM: Oh, absolutely.

S: So you don't have to go out and get your message out, you just have to have it there and people will find it when they're interested in it.

SM: Right. In the old days, I would try to—I would have to try to have a, maybe, an op-ed or an opinion piece published in a newspaper, which now is no problem, but ten years ago, when I was kind of unknown and had no track record or reasons for anyone to publish anything I wrote—

S: Right.

SM: —it was difficult. So, the internet sort of helped—helped me get to where I am today.

S: Mm-hmm. So you are also—it says an adjunct scholar and at the Cato Institute.

SM: Right. Right.

S: The Cato Institute is a libertarian advocacy group.

SM: Right.

S: So it's hard not to notice the intimate relationship between—

SM: (laughs)

S: —your— and the Cato Institute. In fact, you have—I've read your articles on both websites, often on the same topics.

SM: Yeah.

S: So, how much of this is intertwined—defense of good science or, I guess your attack of junk science or bad science, particularly how it relates to public policy, how much of that is tied to your political views?

SM: Well, I tell you, when I first got into this business I was completely apolitical. I wasn't a Democrat, wasn't Republican, didn't even know how to spell "libertarian". And I really started going at this from just looking at the science.

S: Mm-hmm.

SM: Of course, once you get into junk science, it's more than—you start out with the science but then you have to look at... "Okay, this bad science. It's obviously bad science. Why would anyone advocate this or try to promote an agenda with this?" So, you have to look at what's behind the bad science, and more often than not, I find that the bad science is a government agency—

S: Right.

SM: Some sort of social activist, a trial lawyer, something of that ilk. I don't often find libertarians trying to impose their—use bad science to impose their views on people. That's not to say that on the right side of the political spectrum there aren't people that try to use bad science. There certainly are, but, in my view, I don't see good science with—as being inconsistent with individual liberty and limited government.

S: Right. Right. Your views remind me a lot of John Stossel.

SM: Yeah. Stossel's a good friend of mine and he'll tell you that—

S: Is that right?

SM: Right. He started out as a consumer reporter always, sort of, bashing industry thinking that the Ralph Nader viewpoint was correct as he became more sophisticated and learned a few things, he—he flip-flopped. And, now he's one of me.

S: Right. He realized that the government, despite the best intentions, just by the nature of the beast, usually makes things worse than better.

SM: Well, you know, people that have an agenda, activists, I mean, they—a lot of times they're just say and do anything to have their agenda implemented and if it involves science well, then there ya go. That's where junk science come from.

S: Right. Now, of course, just as we're skeptics—skeptical activists, if you will. We defend quality science, logic and reason from people who have an agenda whether it's political or social or religious, so I definitely see this as part of the same skeptical philosophy that we endorse. But there are some issues where, I think, that are still pretty thorny. There are not that many issues about which educated, I think, bright skeptics and scientists will disagree. I think the one that comes up a lot, especially recently, and is featured on your website is global warming. This is a subject about which, I think, informed, well-meaning people can disagree. You have on your website the Kyoto Count Up, where you're counting up how much money—it's now up to eighty-three, almost eighty-four—

SM: Billion dollars.

S: —billion dollars, is costing us—I assume that's the world that's—

SM: Yes.

S: That's the world-wide cost.

SM: Global. Right.

S: Globally. And it's potential savings. Now I've—reading your various articles on global warming, it certainly seems like you're attacking a lot of the environmentalism that is based upon claims of global warming, but— and maybe I just haven't dug down deep enough yet, I haven't really heard you attack the concept of global warming itself. So I'm just wondering where you stand on just the science of global warming.

SM: Well, I guess—I think I've written about global warming so many times that—that I'm sure that my editors at get tired of me writing about global warming so I don't always go over all the science all the time.

S: Right.

SM: But we can certainly talk about it if you want.

S: Well, what's the bottom line. What do you think?

SM: Well, I don't think that there's anything close to being credible science showing that humans are adversely impacting global climate. I mean, can humans affect local climate? Sure. All you got to do is look at—if you live in an urban area—your evening weather map, you'll see that the urban area is warmer than the area surrounding that and that's because of the urban heat island effect.

S: Right.

SM: Does that local change—can that—can it become global climate change? Well, I don't really think that there's any evidence of that. I mean, ninety-nine—more than ninety-nine percent of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere are natural, not man-made. There's lots of—

B: Like bovine flatulence.

SM: Yeah.

E: That's part of it.

SM: There's lots of—climate is extremely complex. We can—we still can't even—

S: Sure.

SM: —model clouds. The notion that we're going to—that somehow by reducing greenhouse gas emissions we can adjust our thermostat, like you can in your house, is crazy. And then when you look at the potential costs of doing this, we live in a very—an energy-hungry society, and our economy depends on energy. And the notion that we're going to somehow interfere with that process in some more than likely vain hope of controlling climate just seems ludicrous to me.

S: Well, the—of course the standard response is that...

SM: Oh, don't be shy. (laughs)

S: Well, I'm—this is an issue about which I am on the fence, although I will say that I think there is sufficient evidence, I think, for concern. I—with—the difficulty is with knowing exactly what policies to make because the implications are huge. The implications to our economy, to the world economy, to any control over the flow of energy is just enormous and unless we proceed from the best science possible, we're likely to, again, cause more harm than good. But I do that there is a scientific consensus that there—global warming is a real man-made effect.

SM: I would take issue with that. With just that very point.

S: With just that there is a consensus.

SM: With that very point. Right. I would challenge the nature of the consensus.

S: Do you agree—do you agree that—with their conclusion? Are you saying that there is no consensus? That there's disagreement?

SM: I think there is disagreement and then I—I realize that, you know, there are a lot of climatologists, a lot of people who are—lot of scientists who are, you know, even tangentially involved with global warming who say that it's happening but I think you have to look at—the federal government puts—spends about two billion dollars a year on climate research and all that money goes to scientists who say that, "Yes, climate change is happening," 'cause once they start—once they stop saying that climate change is not happening they're not going to be getting the two billion dollars anymore. So there's a sort of institutional bias in promoting the hysteria.

E: Are there any independant one that are more reliable? Say in—or non-politically based.

SM: I don't—I don't really put too much stock in the independance of scientists necessarily. I mean I'd rather look at their scientific data first, but...

S: Right.

SM: I just—there is this situation where skeptical climatologists—they are not funded to do research. There's no research money going to them, so you don't hear from them as much. I mean, they can't afford the media releases; they can't afford—they're not supported by environmental groups. They don't have the power of federal agencies, so you don't get to hear from them as much. I mean, it's a real—I mean there's a little cadre of people that I work with on this issue and it's been quite a struggle to get the skeptical voice on climate change heard. Because we're just so—so underfunded.

S: Well, one of the arguments that's put forward is that we—man-made activity is increasing the CO2 that is being dumped into the atmosphere, and we have a pretty good idea about how much CO2 is going into the atmosphere. Saying that a lot of it is natural is, I think, is misleading if you're counting cow flatulence, because having vast herds of domestic animals is actually a man-made situation. So that—you have—I don't think you can dismiss that as quote unquote "natural". But also—we also know—the greenhouse effect is well-understood phenomenon. There's not a lot of mystery as to what's going on there. So it stands to reason that if we know the greenhouse effect, we know how it works, we're increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, why wouldn't that increase temperature over time?

SM: I—whether or not you consider cow flatulence man-made or not, I still that maintain that well over ninety-nine percent of greenhouse gasses going into the atmosphere are natural. If you look at—let's just take the twentieth century, for example; most—half the warming in the twentieth century occurred before 1940 but the vast majority of the greenhouse gas emissions occurred after 1940. And if you look the period 1940 to 1970, when greenhouse gas emissions were actually taking off, there was actually global cooling, which in 1975 the alarmists like Steve Schneider were worried about, you know, looming ice age. If you look at a thousand years ago, the Vikings were cultivating Greenland. Since—starting in the fourteenth century the advent of little ice age, it became a frozen wasteland. Little ice age lasted until about the nineteenth century, which happens to coincide with the industrial revolution. It's quite possible that the warming we've witnessed over the last two hundred years is simply just our rebound from the little ice age.

S: Of course. That is the standard sort of anti-globey-warming—anti-global-warming argument. That the warming that we are recording is just a natural fluctuation in world-wide temperatures.

SM: Well, I have to give the standard argument.

S: We know that this occurs. No, I mean, I agree. That is the argument to make. And it's legitimate because we don't know. The bottom line is we don't know if the warming that we're recording is man-made or if is what would happen anyway. The—I think the big problem is that because we're trying to predict long-term global climate effects, there's going to be reas—huge room for skepticism in the kind of data that we can get, until it's largely occurred. And one argument is that, "Well, by the time we know for sure and we've basically convinced all the skeptics that global warming is real, it's too late to do anything about it." So, we do have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty and make basically the best judgement we can based upon the data that we do have and perhaps that could be used to justify some reasonable environmental measures to limit greenhouse gasses.

SM: Well, I guess I would say in response to that, and you're forgetting about arguing about the science anymore, you know, even if the Kyoto Protocol were fully implemented, I think by 2050, it would reduce or avoid a potential seven hundredths of a degree of warming.

S: That's right.

SM: At an astronomical cost. And...

B: How is that determined?

S: By the amount of CO2 that the protocols would prevent.

B: And they can tie that directly to a drop in temperature or a change in temperature.

SM: Yeah, I think that—the general—the general circulation models they have can tell you based on how much carbon dioxide is emitted—they'll give you an answer. Now, you've got to keep in mind that those models have never been validated against historical temperatures, so for whatever—who knows what they're worth.

E: Mm.

S: Right.

SM: And I also—there's also this assumption, and I think that this is very important. We talked earlier about how climate changes naturally. Climate—whether we're releasing CO2 or not, climate is going to change. The question is it going to get warmer or is it going to get cooler? If it gets cooler that could be a bad thing for agriculture, and we depend on agriculture. If it gets warmer it's not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, just because it gets warmer—there may be benefits. So we don't know what climate change holds for us. Obviously an extreme change would not be good, but even a mild cooler change would not be good. We're not going to be able to keep the temperature the same. That's just impossible. So who's to say that a slight increase is going to be bad?

S: Yeah. We obviously don't know. There are there are concerns about, for example, decreasing the salinity in the north Atlantic and shutting down the oceanic currents, even with a slight dec—increase in temperature but again these are theoretical.

SM: Right.

S: Obviously...

B: What about hurricanes? What about hurricane strengths. A lot more F5's [sic][4], potentially, with a warmer Earth.

SM: You know, I'm glad you brought that up, because the guy who, I think, first advanced the idea that global warming was going to intensify hurricanes, Kerry Emanuel from MIT, he's got this great posting on his website. There's been a lot of attempts to link Katrina with global warming.

B: Right. Right.

SM: He says that is absurd. I mean, using that word. He says that even if there is more more intense hurricanes, it's not clear that these hurricanes are really hitting—making landfall in the U.S.

E: Mm-hmm.

SM: So, I guess, my question is, "Okay, let's say we have more intense hurricanes in the Atlantic. A tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, who cares?"

Atkins Diet and Nutrition (37:50)[edit]

S: So let's change gears a little bit. I also noticed on your website an arti—one thing that caught my attention was an article you had written about the government's attack on the Atkins diet. Basically, this is a University of Arkansas researchers claiming that high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets actually promote weight loss above and beyond a reduction in calories and you did what any good science journalist should do: you actually read the original study which showed that they were decreasing—the people who had the high carbohydrate diet—

SM: They were losing weight were actually eating less. (laughs)

S: Right. They were consuming four hundred, six hundred fewer calories a day, or they were working out. And/or they were exercising.

SM: Right. Or something.

S: Which is exact—I've actually written quite a bit about this topic myself, although I've looked at the Atkins—the pro-Atkins research and found the same thing. That the studies which show weight loss actually—it's all correlates with fewer caloric intake. So, again, I couldn't find any of your writings except criticizing the anti-Atkins people who you said were defending the government—the nanny government, basically. So what is—I guess my question is what's your take on the Atkins diet itself?

SM: Well, I don't really know. I don't—I would never profess to say that one diet is superior to another. I think that for individuals and their lifestyles everyone is going to have something different. What I objected to about that study is that I—I think that the federal government has a lot invested in certain myths and the myths are that saturated fat is bad for you; salt is bad for you; cholesterol, all these things are bad for you and anything that runs into their dogma is bad, and Atkins did that in spades, because Atkins said you could eat larger amounts of fat, cholesterol, and as long as you limited your carbs you'd be okay. So that—it was a politically incorrect diet and I think they went after it for political reasons and I objected to that. I'm not defending the Atkins diet 'cause I think it works. I mean, who knows? Whether you lose weight or not depends on how much you eat, how active you are, your genetics, lots of reasons. Not necessarily specific diet.

S: Well, I think—well, I agree with your assessment of diet. My bottom line point from reading all of the studies is that—and just from what we know about basic physiology is the only thing that really matters is calories in, calories out and in terms of weight loss, just specifically weight loss, it doesn't matter what form those calories take. So, I would say the exact same criticism applies to the pro-Atkins diet research as well. But, you kind of lose me a little bit when you sort of premise your—you premise your opinion on the fact that the government is defending their dogma and I'm not really sure that's what it's all about, because independant of the food pyramid and the government programs, there is—there is a—academic nutrition scientists who have been happily doing research over the thirty or forty years who—I think I objected to the claims of the low—the extreme low-carbohydrate diet claims based upon the science, not on some government agenda. The fact is that the claims they were making were—did not size up well with the evidence. Did not correlate with what we know about human physiology. And—they also exceeded the evidence. It's true; we don't know the implications of a lot of this and there were a lot of interesting studies done which were curious, like the fact that on a high-fat low-carbohydrate diet for six months or so people's cholesterols actually went down. That was—that was surprising. But it was also—it wasn't—certainly was not covered up or denied by the government. It was just—that doesn't mean that a lifetime of a high-fat diet is a good thing for you.

SM: I'm not defending the Atkins diet. I don't—I have no dog in that race.

S: Right. Right.

SM: So... but I do know—I do have experience with government agencies who will hold on to a position, however ridiculous it is. A good one on dietary—a good example of this on a dietary issue is the NIDDK, National Institute for Digestive and Kidney Disease [sic], and their restrict—and their recommendations on salt. I mean—there's absolutely not a single scientific study that shows that reducing salt consumption in healthy people reduces blood pressure—

S: Right.

SM: —and improves their health. There's not a single—

S: I totally agree with you there.

SM: And yet they maintain and—last year they came out with a recommendation that Americans should cut their dietary salt in half. It's just crazy.

E: What's the motivation? Why? I don't—why would they do that?

SM: I can say is that they have maintained—in the 70's, when all of this sort of health and dietary science became very much in vogue they just latched onto it and they think that if they have to go back and say, "Well, salt is really okay," then they think they lose some credibility. And I think there's a lot of examples of—

P: As well they should.

SM: You know, dietary fiber is a great example.

S: Actually, I disagree with you, Perry. I think that if they change their position, that would actually gain them credibility. You lose—

E: Scientifically, yes.

S: You lose credibility when you maintain a wrong position in spite of evolving scientific evidence.

P: I agree. I agree with that, but I meant that if they change their position after the—the lack of evidence has been around for so long, I think that that's demonstrative of their actual position.

S: I would argue that they lose more credibility, though, by resisting the evidence.

P: But it's—that's probably true.

SM: Somehow they're able to keep resisting. I mean, Gary Taubes wrote a great article in Science magazine a few years ago about NIH and salt[5] and they unabashedly... (laughs) They're lower their salt—lowering their salt recommendations even more. So—

E: Interesting. I can't believe—

SM: Gotta hand it to them for bureaucratic stubbornness.

E: Is there an anti-salt lobby out there that we're not aware of?

SM: Yeah. There's lots of these crazy notions out there. Dietary fiber. That was very popular. Dietary fiber reduces risk of colon cancer and—do you know where that came from? Some British missionary in the late 1960's, early 1970's sort of casually observed that people in Africa had reduced rates of colon cancer and he kind of casually related—

S: Right.

SM: —to high-fiber diets and that became all the rage.

S: Right.

B: That's the extent of the evidence?

SM: But there's not a single study that's ever shown that a high-fiber diet reduces—

S: There were some recent studies which actually show a lack of a benefit from high fiber diets.

B: Wow.

S: So, I mean I agree with you. I think that the phenomenon that are at work here— one is the media will latch on to very preliminary findings and make a very bottom-line recommendation. Like, oat bran lowers—prevents heart attacks, when in fact the evidence is very preliminary and then five, ten years later the research sorts itself out and maybe the effect is either real or it's not real and if not—you don't really hear much about it. It just becomes sort of fixed in the minds of the public. I also think there's a lot of bureaucratic inertia at work. I'm not sure that I agree with the assessment that there's a resistance to—or a dogmatic resistance to adjusting the recommendations based upon the scientific evidence, especially in the scientific institutions. I mean, obviously that occurs to some degree but that all usually works itself out. For example, with the food pyramid. The old—the old food pyramid—the one that was out through the 90's was old only by—I think really just because of bureaucratic, sort of, inertia and laziness. It was just outdated and they didn't bother to update it.

SM: Yeah.

S: And a lot of their bottom-line recommendations were wrong because the science was just a little bit outdated. Their—but they've revised their food pyramid based upon, I think, a pretty reasonable assessment of our current evidence, which is inline with what independant academicians are saying. So I do think there's the potential to—for the government to revise their recommendations based upon new evidence. I think—the sense that I get and this is—I guess sort of a soft criticism—I agree with—I've read a lot of what you wrote on the websites and obviously you're—I agree with most of the stances that you take, although it just seemed to me that you almost started from the position that the government was wrong because it's the government. And sometimes—

SM: (laughs)

S: is that—maybe maybe I'm exaggerating—

SM: Is that my libertarian bias?

S: —but it made me—I had to think to myself—

SM: Maybe—I'll tell you what; give me an example where the government's right and we'll talk.

S: It's just that—the latest food pyramid got it right—


S: They fixed it based upon the evidence. Now, 5 years from now, it will probably be wrong again.

SM: Yeah. But—I don't even really know what that means. It's not like there's a right answer for any one person. People can survive on a variety of diets. It really depends on a number of factors: your lifestyle, your genetics. A food pyramid... I'm not even quite sure what the value of that is.

S: Well, I think it's basic bottom-line recommendations about what a healthy diet would be like. Not to give very specific recommendations but just to say, "You're probably better off if you eat more fruits and vegetables and..."

SM: But it's kinda like it's designed for this theoretical average person which doesn't exist. All the nutrition labels that we see in—the RDAs and the recommended calories—2,000 calories per day, that's all—

S: Right.

SM: —designed for menopausal women. It's got nothing to do with—I mean, 2,000 calories a day for me I would be dead. I'm 6 foot, about 200 pounds. I wouldn't be able to—


S: No, you're definitely right...

E: 2,000 calories goes quick, that's for sure.

SM: The labels are ridiculous.

S: The—I do not think that the fact that—the types of foods that are more healthy or less healthy has to do too much with the individual. The amount of calories that you eat, absolutely, that's based upon your metabolism, your size, your body weight, whether you're male or female, absolutely. Just having one—2,000 calories per day for everyone obviously is ludicrous. But, I don't know. I don't think that saying that people's genetics and other metabolic factors differ invalidates the basic concepts that—you need to have a varied diet that has a minimal amounts of vitamins and minerals and you're probably better off eating food that was not too calorie dense and you're probably better off not eating a diet that was filled too much—now, previously you said that the saturated fat thing was a myth. I'm not sure I agree with that specific claim, either.

SM: Well, you can—I'll—if you look at the Harvard Nurses's study, for example. Study of 90,000 women for 25 years, you'll find that there's no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease. And I doubt that it's just a figment of that study. The reason I—I got into this because I started looking into the whole trans fat thing—remember, saturated fat was bad; no butter.

S: Right.

SM: And in the 70's and 80's—

S: It's even worse.

SM: —we switched to margarine and now margarine's trans fats and they're horrible so we've got to go to something else. And I looked into that and I—I learned that it's basically this guy at Harvard University, Walter Willett, who—he's behind virtually every trans fat study and he has succeeded in railroading trans fats even though there's not a single study of humans that shows trans fat is associated with heart disease risk. When the National Acad—The National Research Council came out with their report a couple years ago, they didn't cite any epidemiological studies—

S: Right.

SM: —about trans fats. They just cited animal studies that reported—

S: Right.

SM: —increases in LDL. And, to me, that is just not—

S: Yeah. There's definitely a lot of weaknesses in that research. I mean, you can't do the kind of class 1 studies that you would like to do where you force-feed people trans fat and other people so-called "good fat" and then see who does better over time. You can't—just can't do those studies, for ethical reasons.

E: Right.

S: So we're left with sorta the secondary evidence, which is inferential, epidemiological, or animal data, and it's—again, there's always going to be room for skepticism with that kind of evidence.

SM: Yeah. I mean, these are all fine debates to have and I don't—I don't begrudge Walter Willett or anybody else who reins in these issues and debating them. Where I begrudge them, and where we go into the junk science, is when they come up with these, at best, preliminary studies and then—

S: Right.

SM: —immediately jump to the policy conclusion. We must do—

E: Becomes gospel.

SM: It becomes gospel, right. And I really have a problem with that and there is just way, way, way too much of that going on.

S: I agree with you there. I do think that the majority of government policy—

E: Yeah. Definitely.

S: —is based upon either too preliminary evidence or hysterically hyped evidence or claims.

SM: And worse, you can't even really check. For—I hate to keep picking on Willet but you really can't even check his work because he maintains some sort of—even though his data is financed by taxpayers, he maintains some proprietary control over it, so that no one can get it and do independant research to verify his results.

S: Right.

SM: And that's just not the scientific method.

Public Health and Policy (52:22)[edit]

S: Are you familiar with Dr. Elizabeth Whelan?

SM: Yes I am. I know her very well.

S: Yeah. I imagine you would. So, she's the president of the American Council on Science and Health, of which I am a member, by the way. And she—she again, there's a very, very similar approach. The American Council on Science and Health is dedicated to exposing, basically, bad science in public health policy.

SM: Right. Right.

S: I just received one of their latest pamphlets called, Good Stories. Bad Science. A Guide for Journalists to the Health Claims of Consumer Activist Groups. Again, very reminiscent of what you're doing. So, I was just curious; do you have any direct involvement with the Council on Science and Health or you just know her from your overlapping agenda?

SM: I've done things with them. I've done things with them in the past. I know Beth very well. I know many of her members and board members very well and I support what she does and I would say 99% of the time we agree on things.

S: Right. If there weren't 1% of the time you'd have to wonder, right?

SM: (laughs) Yeah. (laughs)

E: Plus or minus 1%.


SM: We've had some disagreements on some tobacco issues, but...

S: Right. Well, you—okay, you bring that up. So, Elizabeth Whelan has been very vocal—although she—sort of takes two positions with tobacco that—the two sort of bottom-line positions on tobacco are, "Yes. It causes cancer and is a bad thing," but the secondhand smoke evidence is total bunk. And that's basic—I'm not sure if you agree with my assessment of that's her sort of bottom-line take on the tobacco evidence. But you said you disagree with her at—on what point specifically?

SM: Well, I agree with you that her position on sec—I think where we've always had our differences is on secondhand smoke. And, I think that if she—if she is now saying that secondhand smoke doesn't appear to be the risk that the EPA and the anti-tobacco groups say—are saying that it is, that's somewhat of a switch from her older position.

S: Mm-hmm.

SM: So...

E: You're saying in effect—

SM: I don't think secondhand smoke is a health risk. Direct smoking certainly is a health risk.

S: Right.

SM: Especially if you smoke too much.

S: Right.

E: She did not always hold—I'm sorry.

SM: We are going to go for that 100%.

S: Okay. You thought that she was against—she endorsed the claim that secondhand smoke causes—is a significant risk factor for lung cancer.

SM: Yes.

S: Which you took exception to. Well the most recent interview I saw with her, which, in fact was on Penn & Teller's show, Bullshit, where they covered this topic and they interviewed her for it. And she was endorsing their position, which was that the evidence basically does not support that conclusion.

SM: Then we have no issues.

S: So, okay.

SM: (laughs)

S: That was the 1%, huh? So—which is interesting because the—I'm a physician and an academic, so—this is an old issue for scientists sort of confusing absolute risk and relative risk, which is basically what they did with the secondhand smoke data. They gave figures, which were basically comparing relative risk between people who were exposed to secondhand smoke and who weren't and then—the numbers can sound huge. For example, you can say there's a three-fold relative risk of lung cancer, but if it goes from 1 to 3 out of a million people, it's really only 2 people out of a million so—which is the absolute risk. So it turns out if you really look at the—the studies that were done the absolute risk was very, very low. I mean, just a very few extra cases of lung cancer.

SM: If there was a risk at all.

S: Right. You can challenge the statistic significance of the studies, but even if you just take their own data at face value, it doesn't really support a huge risk.

SM: Absolutely.

S: But the press latched onto the relative risk, which was I b—something like a 60 or a 70% increase, which sounds huge.

E: Right.

SM: I think the press latched on to "this is the way that we're going to beat up the tobacco industry, which we hate", and they did.

S: Right.

SM: To great effect.

S: Right. Absolute—it certainly was the tipping point. That data—not only are you harming yourself you're harming other innocent people, innocent bystanders. That, from my recollection, was the tipping point of public opinion and policy opinion against smokers in general and the tobacco industry, et cetera.

SM: It was a strategy that the anti-tobacco industry started working on in the 70's—

S: And it worked.

SM: —until it paid off in 1993.

E: '93 right?

P: Now you can't smoke in a bar in New York City anymore.

E: Or a lot of places.

P: Right? I mean, insane.

SM: I'm—I'm not a smoker myself and I can't tell you how many girlfriends when I was younger who smoked I stopped going out with. And I find it odd having to defend the tobacco industry on this issue.

P: I feel exactly the same way. Exactly the same way. Smoking is repugnant, but so is this.

E: I don't like secondhand smoke, but hey, if it's not going to cause me cancer then that's the fact. And you gotta live up to the facts. Steve...

SM: (laughs)

E: I was just going through your website here, and back in late August you had written an article for called "Another Stem Cell Fast One." Maybe you can give us a little quick summary as to what your position on this is.

SM: I guess—well, my overall position is that I'm skeptical of embryonic stem cell research. My skepticism stems from the notable lack of success the federal government has had on the war on cancer, where we spend about upwards of $50 billion and have actually produced extremely little. And cancer conceptually is a much—should be an easier riddle than making embryonic stem cells work. And I just—I have little confidence, and I think private investors would back me up on this, that anyone will have any success with embryonic stem cells in any reasonable time frame to justify public expenditures.

E: You're saying it should be private. Private expenditures.

SM: Yeah.

E: That's where it should be limited to.

SM: I don't think it should be illegal. But I think that a much better case needs to be made to get public funding for embryonic stem cell research.

S: Definitely. Embryonic stem cell research is one of those topics where it's—any, I think, meaningful application of it is far enough in the future that nobody knows how it's going to pan out. It could be a total dead end. We have not established it, yet, to enough of a degree that we can meaningfully extrapolate where the research is going to go. I think that thing that has got people—

B: It's got potential, though.

S: Yeah. That's exactly what has people starry-eyed. I was just about to say that. The theoretical potential is so huge that—that has generating all the interest. But, you're right. The fact is—it is kind of a scientific long shot. Although, that's—that brings up a very good question about how do we decide what to fund. Do we want to only fund research projects which are just taking one baby step beyond where we are right now and we sort of have a very good idea of what we're going to get out of it, or should we do some pie-in-the-sky basic research and just hope that it leads to something?

SM: My basic view is that little good comes from the federal government mucking around in scientific research.

S: Mm-hmm.

SM: My position is that if there's something worth pursuing that private investors—maybe this is the libertarian in me...

S: Right.

SM: Private investors will chase that down. I—we've spent 30 years on cancer. Countless numbers of people have walked, run, rode countless miles. Billions of billions of dollars—

S: We're making steady progress. We're making steady progress with treating cancer. Cancer's not anything that's going to be cured by a single treatment or a single advance. It's not even a single disease. It's a thousand different diseases.

B: Until nanotech comes in...

SM: Oh, absolutely, but, I mean, what—when are we going to have some—what people are looking for tangible results. And...

S: The tangible results are there but they're just in a thousand baby steps. The survival curves for most cancers are improving every decade.

SM: Well, yeah, but a lot of that could be early detection.

S: Some of it. Some of it's early detection, but some of it's improved chemotherapy and improved therapeutic modalities.

SM: Yeah. Yeah. I mean I can go to the NIH website and look at their achievements over the last three decades and they really only have two achievements for cancer. One is childhood leukemia, which they can do a pretty good job of now.

S: Yeah.

SM: And testicular cancer, which—what Lance Armstrong survived.

S: Right.

SM: After that, I mean, it's tough. They really don't know. We're getting so desperate now that we've got these drugs like Herbatox—

S: Mm-hmm.

SM: —which seemed to help 10% of the people in a study, and I'm like—and it helped them live an extra two months. I'm not quite sure that's really a result. And that... it's just there's lots of questions that I have with that.

S: Definitely—cancer—I think if you asked anybody 50 years ago, they would have said that, "By the turn of the century will we have cured cancer?" and most of people would have thought, "Sure. Of course we will. I mean that's 50 years from now. I can't imagine they won't have cured it." But it's really proven to be a very, very, very tough nut to crack.

SM: Right. And—

S: No question.

SM: —the government's solution is just throw money at it.

S: Mm-hmm.

SM: If we spend the money we'll get the results. And that is just not true.

S: Yeah. I agree with you. And I do clinical research in ALS, which is another area where we have made negligible progress and there—a lot of people definitely—there's a lot of public interest in driving money for research, and they want money to find a cure, and they think that that's going to do it. And I agree that you can't predict if it's going to produce anything tangible or not. Of course, I'm a huge supporter of biomedical research. I think that even though the pace may be modest it—we're still making steady advance. The hype definitely does overplay the potential benefits of research and that is definitely driven by the need to get research dollars. Hype brings in the dollars. And I've seen even very well-respected scientists sell their own research—oversell it to the activist groups or the funding groups or whatever, because that's how you get the money. You're not going to get money by saying, "Well, after about 10 or 20 years maybe we'll make some modest improvement but we're nowhere near a cure so just forget about that in your lifetime."

(talking over each other)

S: That's the brutal truth but no—people who are beating the bushes for funding don't tell the brutal truth. They paint a rosy picture.

SM: Right, so...

B: Well, what's the alternative?

SM: What the embryonic stem cell researchers want to do is sell this hope to Congress—

S: Yeah.

SM: —and then Congress will open up the federal coffers and the money will just start flowing. And it's not going to be a lot of money.

S: Yeah.

SM: I mean, it's not the kind of money that's going to bankrupt the country. It's not like Medicare or Social Security or anything like that. (laughs)

E: Boy.

S: Yeah.

SM: But, I mean, from my—from the science perspective, giving people false hope is worse than giving them no hope at all.

S: Well, I agree that the government should not be in the business of deciding what to fund. I think that—but I also don't think that it should just be totally left to private industry. I believe in the NIH and government public funding for research projects. I think it should be—as you say, it shouldn't be outlawed or banned. I think federal—if you're going to fund biomedical research, fund whatever the scientists want to study. And—the review process that exists now, it's—of course, it's imperfect; there's some political aspects to it, the basic concept is a good one. You basically have research scientists review applications and decide, hopefully on the merits of the application, which project should get funded. I think that's the system that we should have. And if somebody wants to do stem-cell research and they can make a good case for it, then they can vie with all the other ideas that are out there for the funding. I don't—

SM: I've been told that now there are some adult stem-cell researchers who are getting support from the various disease group, diabetes, what have you—

S: Yeah.

SM: —because, while they'd be happy to get some progress with adult stem-cell research, they don't want to waste their political capital on that.

S: Right.

SM: They'd rather spend it on embryonic stem-cell research, which is—like it or not a lot of people find it controversial.

S: Yeah.

SM: You have the oddball like me. I have no confidence that it's ever going to produce anything and...

S: I think there's—it can. I think there's, again, the science is sound. The potential there is actually quite enormous. It's just—I think the only—the barriers are technological and we just can't predict whether or not we'll be able to overcome them or not.

SM: I hope they learn how to turn those little suckers off.

S: Right. Right. That's a big problem is—

SM: Little cancers.

S: I know. Exactly. That is probably going to be one of the biggest hurdles is controlling the stem cells.

SM: Right.

E: Wow.

SM: And then you go back to the war on cancer, which they haven't solved. It's really a daunting problem.

S: But, it is interesting that fund raising for biomedical research can actually hurt research. That—which would sound a little counterintuitive, but I'll give you my own personal experience with ALS research is that in the last 10, 20 years there's been a lot of patient groups and other grassroots ALS research groups that have been raising a lot of money for clinical ALS research. But the problem is, they've really been pushing for a cure. They want a study that can potentially find a cure. And that's—because they bring in money; researchers follow the money. You have no choice but to follow the money, because without money you're not doing anything. So, a lot of researchers and a lot of the research has shifted towards clinical ALS research, which I do. It's not—I'm not bashing clinical ALS research, but I think the problem is that there's been a—and now there's an imbalance between clinical research and basic science research. And I just don't think we understand enough about the disease to do a high-probability clinical research. So I think we're wasting a lot of money doing low-probability clinical research and we're not doing enough basic science research. I think we really just have to go back to the drawing board. But—there you have well-meaning groups raising money for biomedical research, and in effect, they may be slowing down the progress in the field that they're interested in, ironically.

SM: Yeah, I know. It's got to be the scientists that—if we're going to have public dollars spent—

S: Yeah.

SM: —it ought to be the scientists chasing...

S: Whatever they think is interesting...

SM: —the most likely prospects with the resources they have rather than these pipe dreams driven by Christopher Reeve and Hollywood celebrities.

S: Right. Right.

SM: It's driving me crazy.

S: Yeah. Absolutely. The other thing is if you just look historically at scientific progress, the things that people thought were going to be the big science advances of the future really never pan out. Like, weren't we all supposed to be in flying cars by this year? And the things that—the real advances come out of the blue. Nobody anticipated them but they sort of were by-products of scientists doing research projects because they were interesting. Not because they had any apparent application. Again, I just think we need to let good scientists do what they want—follow what's interesting.

SM: Yeah. And you have—also the scientific—the medical advances that are just accidental, like penicillin.

S: Right. Right. Exactly.

SM: You know there was no one—no bench scientist sitting down figuring out how can we break down the cell walls of bacteria.

S: Right. Well, it was just a lucky observation that was capitalized— Fleming made the observation and capitalized on it. Coined the phrase, "Fortune favors the prepared mind," and that's a lot of science, as well. So, we're—I think we're almost out of time, so just—

B: I got something quick, Steve.

S: Go ahead. Go ahead, Bob.

B: Steve, have you ever heard of—I'm sure you've probably heard of nanotechnology.

SM: Yes.

B: So you've probably heard it in reference to things like the gray goo problem and out of control—

SM: No. To be honest with you, I don't really know that much about it other than—

P: Bob's a big nano proponent here, Steve. Be careful.


SM: Well, I don't know anything bad other than environmentalists hate it.

S: Right.

P: Yeah, right.

B: One big—

SM: So, therefore, I must be for it.


E: Right.

B: Yeah. I mean, the big issue—the big thing that's got people going crazy is the whole, so called, gray goo problem, where you've got these little nano-replicators that all they do is replicate themself until there's nothing left to change into themselves, so you turn the biosphere to dust in a week. And that's like the extreme situation.

S: Let's not do that.

B: Yeah, let's not do that. But that's just things that people talk about.

SM: You can't just step on them and end it?


B: Yeah, but it's like stepping on dust. But it's—those kind of fears are unfounded. I thought you might have been—you might have heard of something like that.

Conclusion (1:10:18)[edit]

S: So, Steve, just one final thought to close on. So what are your plans for the future? Do you have any big dreams or goals in terms of junk science or any projects or publications?

SM: I got a—right now we're kind of overwhelmed with the whole global warming thing. It just seems to be the most—

P: Because of Katrina?

SM: No...

E: Even prior to that.

SM: It's just the hottest topic out there.

P: Okay.

SM: It's swallowing up everything. Junk science is kind of in a down swing right—the 90's was like the heyday of junk science. I mean, you couldn't—every week between the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal Medical Association, American Medical Association, and the Lancet, British Medical—there was always a new study coming out with a health scare or a scam, so there was a lot to do. Since the Bush Administration came into power, for some reason there's been a lot less of that, but global warming has just been a hot issue. It's the only one that people really care about. When I write a Fox column, the number of comments I get back from people is incredible. So, we're kind of stuck on that for a while.

S: All right. Well, stay tuned. Definitely something that we're following with interest. Again, still a little bit on the fence about—

SM: (laughs)

S: Although I'm leaning towards the fact that there's a least enough there to be concerned about.

P: Executive director's with you, Steve Milloy. Keep up the good work.


SM: (inaudible) any time you want.

S: We'll have to agree to disagree a little bit about that.

SM: This was a lot of fun.

S: Thanks so much for being on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

SM: Thank you.

S: We enjoyed having you.

E: Thank you, Steve.

S: For our audience out there, thanks for joining us on the Skeptics' Guide. 'Til next week, this is your host, Steven Novella.

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]


  1. SGU Episode 8: Haunted Dolls
  2. SGU Episode 10: Science or Fiction
  3. SGU Episode 4: Skeptical Website of the Week
  4. The Enhanced Fujita Scale measures tornadoes, not hurricanes.
  5. Science of Salt
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