SGU Episode 18

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SGU Episode 18
2nd November 2005

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SGU 17 SGU 19
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis


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Show Notes


Introduction[edit]

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Today is November 2nd, 2005. With me this are week Bob Novella...

B: Good evening, everyone.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Righto

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Hi, everyone.

News Items[edit]

Ghost Article (0:38)[edit]

S: Ah, there's no guest this week. So you just have the four of us. We're just going to start with some follow-up from our last week. We were talking about ghost stories, this being right around the Halloween time, and newspaper articles. Of note, the New Haven Register on the Sunday before Halloween published an article about the New England Skeptical Society, called "Skeptical Society Wants Residents To Breathe Easy."[1] In other words, you don't need to be afraid of ghosts, and they interviewed both Evan Bernstein and myself for the article. It was a good article. Did you read it, Evan?

E: I did in fact, yes.

S: It was skeptical. There was no... Usually they follow the formula of like talking to some gullible people and telling quote-unquote "both sides", and then at the end concluding "well who knows if it's all real or not", but this guy really was just writing sort of an exposé of how stupid people who really believe in ghosts are.

P: Hmm. Good for him.

E: It was refreshing.

S: It was.

E: Because we've been part of those articles before, in which they have tried to present both sides of the argument. They take a couple of sentences that you or I or someone else has said and mix it in with what a bunch of true believers really think.

P: Right.

E: But this one was different, and it was refreshing.

P: Token skeptic syndrome.

S: Right.

E: Right.

S: The journalist was Jim Shelton, by the way, the New Haven Register. A good guy. And it was—when I get interviewed for these pieces, it's an annual Halloween fluff piece or whatever. I always try to find time to chat with the reporter or the journalist about how to cover skeptical topics, just to feel them out and see where they're coming from. Because they always pretend like they're on your side when they are interviewing you. I think that just the style; how to get people to talk by pretending like...

P: That's a general journalistic approach.

S: Yeah. So, you can't really draw any conclusions from the fact that they're being friendly with you, and they seem to be amenable to your side of things. They're really just trying to draw you out. But I can tell from talking to Jim that he understood, you know, why... like with this issue, like many issues, the scientific side of the story—that's where the story really is. What the true believers are claiming should not be given sort of equal status to science and reason, basically.

P: That basically puts him above 99% of the television producers out there.

S: Absolutely.

E: Well, at least

P: Bumbling baboons.

E: At least. It was nice. Well like I said, it was refreshing to see that. It just doesn't happen that often that way.

S: Right, right.

E: And I was very glad. I've gotten some feedback from some people, acquaintances mostly through work, who read the article and commented on it, and they liked it. They liked it!

S: A link to the article on-line can be found—you can get there through the New Haven Register—but you can also find the link on the Skeptics' Guide website on the Notes page for today's podcast. So it's a good read. We also came across another ghost article of interest. This one is about the "Green Lady", who is a ghost haunting a cemetery in Burlington.

P: I know the guy. I remember the guy who is making a documentary on it. His name is Jay Clayton.

S: Yeah, Clayton. We spoke to him. Maybe we'll have him on the show next week to talk about his movie, or sometime soon. Don't know what he really believes about all this. I think he's just doing it from the point of view of a documentarian.

P: Be interesting to find out.

S: Yeah, it would be interesting. Basically just doing a documentary on people who investigate.

P: I can tell you one thing on his website about this project. He has a little media company. I imagine he produces multiple projects, but on this one, on his "Green Lady" project, I went there because that's how you access him for email. And, as I was typing the email, all of a sudden, a ghostly image appeared, and it screamed at me.

S: Right.

P: It's fairly typical these days of haunt sites that try to startle you with a piercing scream.

S: Did you jump out of your chair?

P: No, being the steely skeptic that I am.

S: Right.

P: Merely glanced up from my typing and continued on with my letter.

S: A few years ago, the first time I encountered that, one of my friends sent that to me as a hoax. It was a picture of a house, and he said "Can you believe that people are claiming they can see a ghost in the window, and there clearly just making it up, but if you look really close at the window in the house, the picture—it was an email so it was a picture on the computer screen, then you can just make out the ghost. Lean close in and look up at the picture." And so of course, you do that—it's programmed with a 10-second delay, so you put your face up to your computer, and then the ghost pops out and screams, and it totally got me, because I wasn't expecting it; it just totally got me. Because you know, I thought was serious; I thought the guy—it's obviously not any more stupid than all the other things that we've heard, so I'm looking to see if I can see what they were making out to be a ghost.

P: Fool me once, you know.

S: Got me once. That was it.

P: It's over now.

E: That was funny. It was funny.

S: It was a good bit. It was a good gag.

P: It was a good bit, yeah. I remember that one.

B: By the way, that Green Lady's cemetery is in Burlington.

P: That's what I said.

S: That's what we said; Burlington, Connecticut.

P: Burlington, yeah.

E: Burlington, Connecticut.

S: Yeah. So maybe we'll take a look at that in the future.

P: Steve, didn't they photograph you in a cemetery recently?

S: Yeah, well for that article they photographed me at Union Cemetery. Of course it was raining like anything.

E: It was pouring! It was a deluge.

B: Nice.

S: The photographer was trying to get cute and artistic with the photograph, but in the end, they were lucky to get anything.

E: It was a bit of a blurry mess.

S: It was.

E: The photograph was a bit unfortunate.

S: But it looks spooky. It's kind of a fuzzy dimly-lit cemetery photo.

P: Perhaps we can put a copy of it on our web page.

S: Yeah, it'll be there. And then of course, the cops came and kicked us out before we were done.

P: Really?

S: Yeah. They kicked us out.

P: Did the guy wave his press credential around?

S: He tried, but the Easton police have nothing else to do except monitor the cemetery and make sure people aren't hanging out there after dark.

E: That's for sure. I'm a former resident of Easton for many years, and those policeman are just looking... you can't blame them. They don't know what's trouble. They don't know what's going on.

S: We weren't obviously making any trouble.

P: No. Several years ago, in fact, I knew the sextant of that cemetery—Union Cemetery. He was, in fact, a retired cop. It was Joseph Sulhavey, and he would tell me that the main problem over there was the place has such a reputation, that the high-school kids go over there and drink, and they leave bottles around or smash them against the tombstones, and, of course, the inevitable vandalism with that sort of a mix. It's a real problem. Try to be vigilant around there at night.

S: Well, they earned their pay for the day. They kicked us out. So, we had to take the picture that we could get.

Science or Fiction (8:31)[edit]

S: So this week we are going to do a Science or Fiction. We actually have taken a break from it for a few weeks because had so many guests recently, but we don't have a guest this week so we are going to do Science or Fiction, but we're going to do it with a little twist. This week, my brother Bob is doing the Science or Fiction, and I'm going to be with Perry and Evan guessing the correct answer. So a little bit of role reversal this week.

E: Hm-hm.

S: So Bob, are you ready to go?

B: Yes.

S: (Recording) "It's time to play Science or Fiction (echoes)"

S: All right

B: OK. Science or Fiction. There is no theme this weekend.

P: Good.

S: So again for the audience, just to give the rules. Bob is going to give us three either science news items or science facts, and two of them are real, one Bob made up – one is fake, and Evan, Perry, and I will have to decide which one is fake. Right?

P: And you can play along at home!

S: Let us have it.

B: OK. Number one: St John's Wort protein suppresses HIV. A protein extracted from St John's Wort has been found to suppress HIV 1 expression and inhibit its replication. OK. Number two: T-rays, the next wave in imaging technology, the potential to see biological agents through a sealed envelope and detect tumors without harmful radiation. And the final one is IBM's Blue Gene/L supercomputer has beaten its own record by more than tripling the number of calculations it can do per second. It has exceeded one-half of a petaflop, which is 500 teraflops or trillion floating-point operations per second.

P: That's a lot.

S: All righty.

P: That's a whole heap. Right. Well, you know. I'll start. I mean the obvious one would be the first one. That would be the actual first use for St John's Wort that anyone has found other than producing profits for the people that peddle it. The first one sounds ridiculous. That's the one I pick.

B: OK. Steve?

S: Want me to go next?

B: Well, Evan, you go.

E: You know, I was also thinking along the same lines as Perry that St John's Wort, you hear so much in the news about it; a lot of it frankly negative. So I thought of that, but then I heard the second one. T-rays, you know, and I start thinking about terms like E-rays and N-rays...

P: X-rays.

E: ...and other rays that have come, right, but these other rays claims that have come up through history that just have no basis in fact or science whatsoever, so I think maybe Bob could have possibly pulled T-rays from that sort of line of thinking. So. Although, I think it might be number one, I'll just guess number two, and because I think that possibly Bob might have pulled it from the E-rays or N-ray falsehoods that already exist out there.

P: You can call me Ray.

B: Steve.

S: Can you read number two again, Bob, about the T-rays?

B: No. Yes. "T-rays. The next wave in imaging technology with the potential to see biological agents through a sealed envelope and detect tumors without harmful radiation."

S: OK. That sounds the least plausible of the three. First of all, I have not heard of any of these three directly. Number three sounds the most plausible, exceeds 500 teraflops. I don't remember off the top of my head what the number is. I know they are headed for, what is it, a petaflop? Would that be twice as much as 500 teraflops?

B: Yes.

S: So it will be easy just to adjust the number to make it false, but I will say that that one's correct. That one's true because that one is so plausible; I know it's in the right ballpark where I thought that they were. Now St John's Wort. This is a putative treatment for depression, and there were some studies which showed that it may work in mild depression. It's utterly failed in moderate to severe depression. In fact, it interferes with HIV drugs, drugs that you use to treat HIV. That's been known for a few years. It's plausible that there would be a report that it surpresses HIV because there's so many chemicals in St John's Wort that you could pull out—I mean, there's like 50 to 100 chemicals in there. That fact that somebody pulled one of them out and in a petri dish it has some effect on something is not implausible. It doesn't mean there is a clinical effect. So it would not surprise me if there was a study which showed that. Yet it wouldn't mean again that there is actually clinical evidence that it's effective in the treatment of HIV.

P: Which is of course what I meant.

S: I'm careful to separate out what Bob said was St John's protein suppresses HIV and it sound like a pre-clinical sort of test-tube study. I mean, there's probably hundreds of similar things about St John's Wort out there. So again, that brings me back to T-rays. Just the fact of imaging biological tissue without X-rays is not implausible. That's what an MRI scan is, right? I mean, choosing a magnetic field in order to image soft tissue; it fact it does it much better than X-rays. Again, I never heard of quote-unquote "T-rays". So, if it's not just a new application or a new way of processing existing technologies like magnetic waves or whatever, I don't know what it would be. So, I'm going agree with Evan just on that basis and say that the T-rays one is the fake one.

B: OK. All right. The first true story is St John's Wort protein suppresses HIV. The protein p27SJ was reported in the journal Gene Therapy by researchers at Temple University School of Medicine. So, Steve, you're right. There's such a hodge-podge—

S: Right.

B: —of stuff in there that the fact that one of them might have some utility isn't surprising. But, I was hoping the fact that St John's Wort was in there would throw you off.

P: It's not clinical. It's just going to make more people buy that nonsense.

S: Right, right. In fact, the danger there is that people with AIDS will take it and it will actually interfere with their proven drugs.

B: Right. OK.

S: So it is kind of a potentially confusing and dangerous bit of information if it is misrepresented to the public.

P: Yeah.

B: The next true one, and this one just went swimmingly, was T-rays. I was hoping you would think of N-rays.

E: Hm-hm.

B: Now what T-rays are—I first read about this maybe a year or a year-and-a-half ago – and I thought I was familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum, but apparently there's a slice of it here between .1 and 10 terahertz, in between infrared and microwave, called "terahertz waves".

S: Oh, I've never heard of it.

B: Terahertz radiation, "T-rays." and it looks to have a wide variety of applications from like I said, biological agents and detecting tumors in the body and actually real-time full-body scans of anything that might be—anything you might have hidden in a secret compartment.

S: Does this have theoretical use or are these in use?

B: No, I mean this is being used. This is not a theoretical thing at all. I mean, these guys have—it's pretty well developed, and I predict some great things from T-rays.

P: So there's medical machines out there now that use T-rays?

B: I mean, you can't go to your doctor and say "throw some T-rays on me", but it's slowly coming into use and—

S: I've haven't heard of it yet. They're certainly not—and not in common use.

B: No, not at all, but I have heard about it.

P: I guess a radiologist would know.

S: Maybe.

B: They probably would have heard about it. I mean, this guy's got patents on it and it's definitely something that's going to have some pretty—

S: I mean, is it—You said "this guy." Is it really a guy out of his garage or is it a big company producing machines?

P: That's what I'm saying. Can you buy an imaging machine on the market?

S: Is GE making T-ray imaging machines?

P: Right.

B: Let's see. There's one main guy here. Z-H-A-N-G. Zhang? Apparently 20 years have seen a revolution in pulsed terahertz science and technology. It just amazes me that there is this region of the electromagnetic spectrum that is so obscure. Let's see. There's two guys. We've got Zhang and Schmuttenmaer. They ran some symposium.[2]

P: Didn't we beat those guys in World War Two?

B: They had a convention at the Washington Convention Center. This guy works with Rensselaer Research, which is a prestigious university. He's got, let's see, I think he owns thirteen patents with more pending.

P: All right, so its got potential.

S: Yeah, I'm reading it.

B: They've helped 25 countries learn to use the technology, so it's not just theoretical stuff. I mean, they have actually got some applications. So, let's go. Now, the false one was the Blue-Gene supercomputer. I hope I wasn't too subtle with this, but I mean, they're not at half a petaflop. They're not even at—I mean, they just recently reached 280 teraflops. Not 500. I mean, I'm kind of up on the latest supercomputers. The last I heard was that it was like a little over 100, 120, 140 trillion operations a second. Maybe I should have bumped that up to a petaflop...

S: Yeah.

B: ...to be a little more...

S: That's what I said, basically; that you could have manipulated the number to make it false.

B: Right. Yeah, which is what I did. I was afraid that if I said a petaflop—to me, a petaflop computer is a huge thing.

S: Yeah.

B: That's the next huge milestone in supercomputers, and that would—to me that would have been too big, I think, for a lot of people to miss, so I kind of scaled it down a little bit.

S: It was challenging.

B: It was challenging, and it kind of went as i hoped, that the St Johns Wort and the T-rays completely drew you to them, especially the T-rays, N-rays.

P: The T-rays are not clinical, just like I stated.

B: Right.

(multiple voices)

B: OK. Bravo, bravo!

P: So Bob, what is my Pentium 4? How many operations is that doing?

B: It's probably what, a 2GHz?

P: 3.2

B: 3.2, uh? Not too bad. That's roughly—it's hard these days with all the changes.

P: Right.

B: It's hard to say "this is specifically this," but you can compare to 3 billion operations a second.

E: Paltry!

B: Which would have been a supercomputer 20 years ago. That was a supercomputer. Now, instead of 3 billion, they're at 280 trillion. That's supercomputer class these days. Nothing's really coming close to that. I mean they really...

S: Yeah.

B: I mean, we lost the lead for a couple of years. The Japanese' Earth Simulator had us at like 30 trillion or 40 trillion—something around there. IBM's Blue Gene blew past that with a 100 something; now they're at 280, and they'll probably hit a petaflop, which is only 4 times faster than what they're doing, less than four times.

P: Look.

B: I'd say in a couple of years.

P: How big are these computers, Bob?

B: Um.

P: These high-end supercomputers, how big are they? Do they take up rooms?

B: You could fill a room, I would think, with some of these. I mean, they need vast cooling, I would think, and a lot of them are tons of these off-the-shelf chips that are just linked together. So you don't need specialty hardware—

P: Oh.

B: —for a lot of these, just a whole bunch of high-class Pentiums or something like that linked together produces these amazing machines.

P: Can one of these supercomputers run Windows?

(laughter)

E: No. God, no.

S: They are not powerful enough for Windows.

P: Can you run a piece of software like that on these things?

S: They have special software to... I think a lot of them probably use something close to either UNIX, right?, or Linux?

P: I don't know. I've no idea. I mean, would World of Warcraft run much better on one of these suckers?

S: (laughter)

P: Would it? I don't know.

E: Is it true that we have seen sort of a plateau of the home computer speeds—

S: No.

E: —for our towers? It has not plateaued? It's continuing to increase?

S: It's continu—Moore's law is still in full effect.

E: It is?

S: Yeah, the rough doubling of computer power every 18 months.

E: Still? OK.

S: Basically, the industry paces itself to Moore's Law.

P: Yeah.

S: And it's a marketing ploy; that's what's going to drive sales.

P: It's unfortunate. Can't they give us the best they got?

E: Although, over a year ago, I think that 3.0 was about the best you could get. Now, where are they at? 3.2, 3.4 at this point?

P: Oh, at least. I bought this 3.2 months ago.

E: I would think it would be somewhere closer to 4 by now.

S: But they are doing dual-core now, and they're going to go to ...

P: Quad-core. Right.

S: ... quad-core. You know, that's going to be fast. The more the better.

E: As soon as it's portable I'll get it.

P: I do a lot of on-line gaming, you know? But the limiting factor in that is, of course, the modem.

S: The graphics card, yeah.

P: The cable modem. It's not so much the processing power. We need something—We need broader bandwidth.

S: Right.

P: What we need. I guess—

S: Fiber optic into every home. Yeah, fiber optic into the home. That's what we need. So, Bob, that was a good first effort with Science or Fiction. We all enjoyed that.

E: Good job, Bob

B: Thank you. Thank you.

S: Although...

P: Fooled us; fooled us all.

S: If you're going to make a wrong answer wrong by adjusting the number, at least give us an order of magnitude. Come on! Two-eighty to five hundred?

P: He did.

B: I doubled it! A hundred percent!

E: That's an order of magnitude of what? Ninety percent.

P: Outrageous! That was outrageous.

E: It was fine.

P: I was outraged.

Astrology vs. Astronomy (23:31)[edit]

(Transcribers note: Bob Marks, on his website, misspells Dr. Fraknoi's name. As a result, all of the rogues mispronounced his name during this podcast. The correct spelling has been used here out of respect for Dr. Fraknoi.)

S: So Evan, you sent me this website, which I was having fun with here, called "Astrology For Skeptics".

E: I was looking up on the Internet earlier just... people who are on the other side of the fence, the pseudo-scientists out there that are try to bring down the skeptics.

S: Hm-hm.

E: And try to sort of nab us at our own game, as it were, and this is just one of a few that I came across. Bob Marks, an astrologer.

S: They try to out-skeptic the skeptics. Man, that is a dangerous game.

E: It is a dangerous game.

S: You better know what you are doing. This guy Bob Marks is an astrologer, and astrologers have a little bit of a chip on their shoulders these days. They are one of, I think, the few pseudo-sciences that has really fallen out of popular favor in the last 20 years or so, out of popular belief. Nobody, I mean—let's face it, nobody cares about astrology any more.

P: Horoscopes.

S: Yeah, but people read them because they are entertaining, but how many people really believe them?

B: Come on, Steve, I think you'd be surprised.

S: There still out there, but it's just not sexy anymore.

B: No.

E: That's true.

S: It's old school.

P: That it is.

S: I think they're feeling a little like second-class pseudo-scientists.

B: As they should; as they should.

E: What was interesting about this particular piece, though, is the logical fallacies that are occurring throughout the entire piece here, in which Bob Marks presents ten questions that a doctor, who is a skeptic, Dr Andrew—

S: Hang on. Dr. Andrew Fraknoi.

E: Yes.

S: He's a professor of astronomy. I do not know if this guy actually is a professional skeptic, which I think is the problem with his questions. You have a mainstream scientist, an astronomer, and you would think certainly astronomy is a relevant field to the evaluation of astrology, who tries to take on belief of astrology. But you can tell by his questions, and we'll read through some of them, that the guy is not a skeptic in that he is not experienced or practiced in dealing with true believers. He is very clumsy. Which is unfortunate, because he is made himself an easy mark.

P: It's unfortunate.

S: For a true believer to say "look, the skeptics are not really holding up to their own criteria, their own standards."

E: That's why this was such an interesting piece, because you can see how easily even real scientists can get it wrong, themselves, can fall into...

S: Right.

E: —can fall into the traps.

S: Right.

Q1: 1/12 of the population having the same kind of day?[edit]

E: Question #1, for instance. I should say this is—he came up with a list of ten embarrassing questions to ask astrologers. That's what this list is called. In question #1 he asks, "What is the likelihood that one-twelfth of a world's population is having the same kind of day?" That's his first question to the astrological community.

S: Right. Obviously, referring to the fact that all Leos have the same horoscope for the day.

P: There's twelve signs.

S: Twelve signs, right. Which is logically correct, but I knew what the answer's going to be before I read it. That applies to Sun sign astrology, which is your Sun sign (Leo, Cancer, Libra) determines everything about you from an astrological point of view. And what you have is infighting between the Sun sign astrologers and the sidereal or star astrologers, the ones that say "you need to know when you were born to within four minutes, because you need to know what star was on the horizon at the moment of your birth," and therefore the sidereal astrologers always criticize any skepticism aimed at Sun sign astrology saying "oh, those skeptics don't know what they are talking about," because Sun sign astrology is not "real astrology." Of course, the sun sign astrologers say that sidereal astrology: "that's not real astrology." So whenever you have a correct criticism of an astrologer, the other ones all say, "well, that's not real astrology."

E: Right.

S: But, of course, there is no gold standard as to what is real astrology. It's all—

E: It is unfortunate that question is so open in that regard, that, of course, the astrologer here, Bob Marks, like you said, Steve, fully takes advantage of that.

S: Right.

Q2: Birth vs. conception[edit]

E: But to question two: "Why is the moment of birth rather than conception crucial for astrology?" He goes on. He suspects that the reason astrologers still adhere to the moment of birth has little to do with astrological theory. Almost every client knows when he or she was born, but it is difficult to identify a person's moment of conception.

S: That's a perfectly legitimate question, too. Why choose? What's the theoretical basis for choosing the moment of birth? What is special? What's magical about the moment of birth? He says that probably for historical reasons—

B: Well, for practical reasons.

S: Practical and historical—they chose something they could measure. Something that people have—know when they were born. Now, he's shifting to more to something that would be closer to sidereal astrology in terms of the moment of birth, as opposed to just the month of your birth. But anyway, the astrologer responds with a comment that's true but irrelevant. What he's saying is that the more important question is "does astrology work?", and if it works then you figure out how it works. As opposed to questioning how it might work before you've determined whether or not it works. So that's true in so far as if there is good evidence that something is true, that something works, even though we don't understand the mechanism, not understanding the mechanism doesn't make it untrue.

P: Right.

S: So that is true as far as it goes, but he's making an assumption about what the good astronomer is saying. He's just saying there's a logical problem with the concept of astrology, and this doesn't necessarily—he's not saying this proves it's not true, he's just saying this is an embarrassing question because this is a logical problem. Of course, we know that the astrologer, Marks, believes that astrology has been proven true, but of course it hasn't, so he's in hot water either way. I agree you should start with the question "does it work?", and, of course, for astrology the answer is an emphatic "no, it doesn't".

E: I think what's surprising at this point was that Dr Fraknoi's questions become a little more sloppy from here on out, it would seem.

S: They do. But before we leave this question, I want to make one other point, because if I had my list of embarrassing questions to ask astrologers, I would ask a similar question but one slightly differently, especially for those—Sun sign astrology is easier to knock down because there's only twelve signs, and obviously not every Leo has the same personality.

B: And there's actually 13 signs now, with the movement of the stars, there's actually...

S: That's yet another problem with Sun sign astrology—

B: Right.

S: —is the precession of the equinoxes and the fact that the Sun is not in Leo in July anymore or whatever or not in August or not in Cancer in July.

B: And there's actually a thirteenth sign.

S: He's talking about the moment of birth. So when were all of the observations that led to the astrological readings. When were they developed? Where they all invented in the last hundred years? Or is a lot of this based upon astrology from hundreds or thousands of years ago.

B: Yeah!

E: I would guess it evolved from—

B: Ancient!

E: —its origins.

S: Right. So let me ask a question: If you were born in 1400, what's the likelihood that you had any idea what the moment of your birth was to within four minutes?

E: Oh, my god!

S: Let alone within four minutes.

E: Almost zero.

S: Almost zero. You may be within an hour. Maybe or two hours. Maybe.

E: Boy, if you knew what season you were born in you were doing all right back then, probably.

S: Right.

E: Let alone the hour.

S: If the kid's born in the middle of the night, is the father outside with a sextant deciding exactly what the time was? No. Nobody knew when they were born.

P: Right.

S: There were no watches or clocks in most of the world. They didn't exist anywhere until long after astrology was developed. So, even today, I've got news for you, folks, at some point after the birth someone goes "What time shall we write down as to when that kid was born?"

P: Right.

S: If you think you know when you were born to the minute, you're fooling yourself.

B: What, do they synchronize with an atomic clock?

E: Yeah.

S: Right. Like the clocks in the birthing rooms are synchronized. No way. There's probably five to twenty minutes of error built-in there.

E: Plus make sure they account for Daylight Savings if Daylight Savings is in effect.

(laughter)

S: Anyway, if their premise is that you've got to know the moment of birth to within four minutes, nobody knows it. Just by that fact alone, all of astrology is bunk.

P: Hear, hear.

E: Well done, doctor.

P: Good point. Good point.

S: I've never heard an astrologer have any answer to that question.

Q3: Mother's womb vs. steak cubicle[edit]

E: Listen to the next question. The astronomer asks—here's where it starts to get kind of sloppy. Here's the next question: "If the mother's womb can keep out astrological influences until birth, can we do the same with a cubicle of steak?" OK.

B: Wow!

S: In this question about the mother's womb, he's essentially making the same point as in question #2, and that is: "what is magical about the moment of birth?" The only thing that really happens is that physically the baby comes out of the mother, so are the stars and the heavens not influencing the child while they are in the womb and the moment they come out of the womb—that moment of transition fixes their personality and their fate in place based upon where the stars and planets were at that moment? He should just cut to the chase and focus on the real question rather than trying to be cutesy, because then he then just opens himself up to criticism. Marks calls this a strawman fallacy. I don't think it's really—I mean, he tries to get cute with the astrology here, tries to pull some logical fallacies out of his bag, but he's really misapplies them every step of the way.

E: When he starts getting cute like this, it sort of, I think, waters down his argument to a certain degree, and, again, opens himself up to some criticism by the astrologer.

P: It's clear that these questions should have been passed through the New England Skeptical Society.

S: Absolutely.

Q4: Why aren't astrologers richer?[edit]

E: Absolutely. Like this next one, question 4: "If the astrologers are as good as they claim, why aren't they richer?" Really, what does that have to do with things?

S: Yeah, you know.

E: That's not really a science question. I mean, come on.

P: I agree.

S: Right.

E: It's more of a common-sense, modern times question, but I really don't think it's...

B: That applies more to psychics. Not astrologers.

S: Yeah, right. That's probably where he was influenced by that kind of thing. If you can make any kind of prediction of the future, why haven't you won the lottery? The answer to that—the answers they give are "it's not that precise." OK, it's not precise enough to have any tangible effect. Right. Or they say "Well, it wouldn't be ethical of me to use my power to win millions of dollars".

P: (laughs)

S: Then do it and give it to charity, just to prove that you can do it. Give millions of dollars to charity.

E: It just so interesting, because it's important. The questions that the supposed skeptic—we don't know if this astronomer is really a skeptic or not.

S: Well he's a scientist.

E: Right.

S: He's skeptical in philosophy, but he's not a trained skeptic in that he knows how to—the ins and outs of dealing with pseudo-science.

E: It goes to show you that how you pose these questions. The questions you come up with to try to either prove or disprove or whatever you are trying to do here, are pretty critical and go along way to either serving your purpose or working directly against you. I happen to think some of these questions work directly against him.

S: They did. Well Marks writes in response as the astrologer: That's like saying, "if you're so smart why aren't you so rich".

P: Yeah.

S: It's an equivalent question.

P: Not every scientist is a skeptic, and not every skeptic is a scientist.

S: And not every skeptic is a scientist? Well, that's true. You can be skeptical in philosophy—

P: It is true. Steve, I am not a scientist.

S: —but not be trained as a scientist.

P: I am not a scientist. I am a skeptic. Randi, the Amazing Randi, comments all the time that he is not a scientist. Actually—he actually feels that it benefits him. I've heard him say that. So, yes.

S: I wouldn't go that far.

P: That's what he says.

S: I know he does.

E: We can get the point of what this is about, and I came across some other ones that maybe will come up—we'll discuss on another podcast, some having to do with UFOs and what the UFO—

S: Right.

E: —proponents say about the skeptics. You know—

S: Let's skip to question number six.

P: What question is this?

E: OK.

Q6: Is astrology bigotry?[edit]

S: Question number six.

E: Here's the question: "Shouldn't we condemn astrology as a form of bigotry. In a civilized society we deplore all systems that judge individuals by sex, skin color, national origin, or other accidents of birth. Yet astrologers boast that they can evaluate people based on another accident of birth: the positions of celestial objects. Isn't refusing to date a Leo or hire a Virgo as bad as refusing to date a Catholic or hire a black person?" Very interesting.

P: Yeah.

S: Now what's interesting is... I agree that that question is a logical fallacy, if we're talking about the scientific validity of astrology. The astrologer Marks says it a logical fallacy, too, but he labels with the wrong logical fallacy. He says that this is the argument ad hominum, because you're calling astrologers bigots. Not quite. It's actually the argument from final consequences. What the astronomer is doing is saying is that "well astrology is not correct because it means you can prejudge people based upon their time of their birth." Even if that were true, it doesn't mean that astrology is not correct. Just like—and the astrologer brings up—even though he is applying the wrong logical fallacy because he doesn't understand them either. He brings up genetics, and people have made the argument from final consequences logical fallacy. It's like, "if genetics controls our personality, doesn't that mean that people are condemned to have a certain personality based upon their genes or that parents can't influence how their children turn out. Therefore, it's not true." It's like, well, sometimes things that are true have consequences that we may not like. It doesn't make them not true.

P: Right.

S: Even if it made astrologers bigots, it doesn't make it not true. So it is a logical fallacy, but not the one the astrologer is claiming.

P: That's interesting.

E: Good point.

P: Good catch.

Q7: Disagreement amongst astrologers[edit]

S: Why don't you read number seven.

E: Okie doke. "Why do different schools of astrology disagree so strongly with each other? Astrologers seem to disagree on the most fundamental issues of their craft: whether to account for the precession of the Earth's axis, how many planets and other celestial objects should be included, and, most importantly, which personality traits go with cosmic phenomena. Read ten different astrology columns, or have a reading done by ten different astrologers, and you'll probably get ten different interpretations. If astrology is a science, as its proponents claim, why are its practitioners not converging on a consensus theory after thousands of years? Scientific ideas generally converge over time as they are tested against laboratory or other evidence. In contrast, systems based on superstition or personal belief tend to diverge as their practitioners carve out separate niches while jockeying for power, income, or prestige."

S: Now this one, I think, Dr Fraknoi gets it exactly right. I have no beef with that paragraph. I think he got it exactly right.

P: Right.

E: The astrologer says: "If that's the case, Dr. Fraknoi, when a doctor tells you that an operation is needed, why bother to get a second opinion? Medicine is a science, isn’t it?"

P: (inaudible)

S: So, he goes on again "there are disagreements in every field." Sure, nothing is an exact science, but there is a standard of care within medicine, and sometimes that standard of care is the product of a very broad and deep consensus of opinion, and it is a consensus that evolves over time as science is done and more evidence is brought to bear. But, yeah, there is always going to be the art of medicine because of the individuality of people. There's more to deciding whether or not to have surgery than just scientific evidence. It's also how an individual weighs certain risks and benefits to themselves in their own life. But anyway, Fraknoi gets it right in his characterization of astrology that there's no consensus at all, and there is disagreement on the most fundamental aspects of the different ways of putting together astrology. As you said, Sun sign versus sidereal; whether or not to account for the precession; are there twelve or thirteen signs, and, again, the most fundamental thing is what do the positions of the stars and planets mean about personality. Even that most basic thing, there's no agreement on that.

E: I don't know if you guys recall several months ago I had taken all your birthdays, your birth times and so forth...

B: Yeah.

S: Yeah.

E: —your astrological signs and I plugged them into three different astrological websites to see what sort of results we got, and, although there were a few common traits, most of the traits that came up for each of you were either unto themselves per website or totally contradicting one another.

S: Contradictory or unique.

E: That was the majority of them.

S: Thing is, there is a certain—we call that inter-rater reliability. Right? If you have two different raters, what's the likelihood that they'll agree, or to what degree will they agree? So if go to ten different doctors and get ten different opinions, there's going to be a lot of similarity and overlap between the opinions, their diagnosis; you would hope that their diagnoses should be similar, and that the options that they lay before you would be similar. In clinical trials we do this all the time where we'll have statistical inter-rater reliability just to see how reliable a certain test is. In astrology, if you do inter-rater reliability and go to different astrologers—this has been done multiple times, and we sort of did it ourselves on the internet—there's no inter-rater reliability. You get completely different results from every different astrologer, because it's all fuzz. There's no rock there whatsoever. So that's really what Fraknoi's talking about, and Marks doesn't get it at all.

P: Right.

S: I would score that one as a solid—

E: Definitely.

S: —victory for Fraknoi.

Q8: Emphasis on planets[edit]

S: Eight is interesting: "If the astrological influence is carried by a known force, why do the planets dominate?"

B: Right. You would think it would have to be the Sun or the Moon. Not even that. The doctor two feet from the baby would have more of an influence—

E: Right.

B: —than Jupiter. Assuming it's gravitational or something like that. I mean, it would have to be a force that as of yet is completely unknown and undetected, but can—

S: Right.

B: —can shape your destiny.

P: Do they have a theory? I'm ignorant of it. Do they have a theory of how these celestial objects affect people? Is there any theories?

B: I don't think so. I mean, I don't think they mention a specific force or anything known to science.

P: It's not T-rays, is it?

E: Of course...

S: Well again he makes—the astrologer makes the same point: "And once again, Dr. Fraknoi is putting the cart before the horse. Instead of investigating to see if there is in fact an astrological phenomenon, he says, in effect, that there cannot be because he can't think of a good reason why there should be". Well, no, a reasonable, objective scientist will assess the plausibility, the prior probability of a claim, and if it can't be even theoretically explained by any known force in existence in the universe, that just makes it highly implausible.

P: Right.

S: And, again, Fraknoi is not explicitly saying it's proven false or can't be true because of this, he's just saying that—

B: It just raises your skepticism much higher.

S: It certainly is an inconvenient problem for astrologers that there is no possible mechanism of known physics. The one thing I have heard—Marks doesn't say it here—I have heard astrologers invoke quantum mechanics.

P: Hm.

S: Everything in the universe is tied together into one quantum mechanical bundle. It doesn't matter how far away something is in the universe, it can still influence you. That just magic; that's just mysticism, really. That is not quantum mechanics. That is just quantum mysticism.

E: It's a nice story, though.

P: Yeah.

S: It certainly sounds good to the uninitiated lay public.

B: You know all these counter-intuitive effects of quantum mechanics—they're microscopic, not macroscopic effects. Once you scale up in size, all of these bizarre things—quantum tunneling and things like that, they go away. That's why we don't see them, because they don't really occur in any detectable way in a macroscopic world. But of course, they scale it up all the time. "Look at all the weird stuff happening way done here, that's whats happening way up here," and it's ridiculous.

Q9: Distance of planets[edit]

S: The next one's great. This is classic.

E: Question nine?

S: Yeah, go ahead.

E: "If the astrological influence is carried by an unknown force, why is it independent of distance? All the long-range forces we know in the universe get weaker as objects get farther apart. But, as you might expect in an Earth-centered system made thousands of years ago (astrology) astrological influences do not depend on distance at all. The importance of Mars in your horoscope is identical whether the planet is on the same side of the Sun as the Earth or seven times further away on the other side. A force not dependent on distance would be a revolutionary discovery for science, changing many of our fundamental notions."

P: How does he reply to that?

S: It would be what I call the Galileo response. "What is the point here Dr. Fraknoi? Are scientists supposed to be afraid of this? Quantum mechanics overthrew fundamental notions, too. Would you have advised Max Planck to back off publishing his results for this reason? Is the purpose of science to advance knowledge, or to defend 'fundamental notions'?" So, again, the point here is that this is an extraordinary claim. If your claim would require a rewriting of the physics text books, that makes it fundamentally improbable and should raise our level of skepticism and it also would raise proportionately the amount of evidence necessary to convincingly demonstrate that there is a phenomenon here.

P: An extraordinary claim...

S: ...requires extraordinary evidence. Right. So if you're going to rewrite the textbooks you got to have pretty convincing evidence that this phenomenon is real. That's the point. Again, Marks misses it. He responds like every pseudo-scientist I have ever read or spoken too or heard of does when you say "your claim is really unusual and extraordinary and contradicts what we have good reason to believe is probably true", and they say, "well of course it's completely revolutionary. You're just afraid at our revolutionary discoveries." No, we're not afraid. You're just an idiot.

(laughter)

E: The logical fallacy called "idiocy".

B: You don't realize that that puts an immense burden on them. That should concern them.

S: Right.

B: They shouldn't think "Wow! This is cool. Yeah, we're revolutionizing physics."

S: They're blissfully unconcerned.

B: They should be like "Oh, crap, this makes it so much harder for me to prove my case".

S: Yeah, but they're not real scientists. Real scientists would not— would think if they postulate a phenomenon and then somebody bothered to do calculations and say "gee, this phenomenon you're proposing can't be explained any known force in the universe." "Oh, well then my discovery's all the more revolutionary." No, it's all the more unlikely, is what it is.

P: "Just because your old-fashioned, feeble science can't prove it."

S: (chuckles) Right.

P: Doesn't mean it's not so.

E: Close-minded scientists.

P: Ridiculous.

Q10: Stars, galaxies and quasars[edit]

E: Here's how he wraps up question ten: "If astrological influences don’t depend on distance, why is there no astrology of stars, galaxies, and quasars?". And he almost yells the answer: "There is an astrology of stars, and there has been for thousands of years. Furthermore, there are books on the subject in print." Oh, it must be true. "The fact that you even ask this question shows a lack of familiarity with the subject that you are criticizing. Please study first and criticize later." So he doesn't want to really be bothered with having to answering this question, is what it sounds like.

S: Yeah, well he dodges it. It's true that Fraknoi—there is astrology of stars—that's sidereal astrology, so he missed that—Fraknoi. And again, it's an innocent enough error for him to make, but again, you can't give the pseudo-scientist anything legitimate to hand on to, because he hangs on to that and ignores the galaxies and quasars part of his question because there is no quasar astrology. And why wouldn't there be? These are huge, powerful, energetic and massive entities out there, and if distance is irrelevant, I would think that they would have the greatest influence on us, more so than—but they have no influence because we can't see them, which means that astrologers couldn't have incorporated them into their thinking.

P: Right. Yeah, these questions, they need a rewrite. Most of them.

S: They do. Let me give you an analogy to this, which just occurred to me. We knew about the existence of Neptune and Pluto because of their gravitational influence on the other planets.

B: Right.

S: So we hypothesized "Hey, there's some influence here. Maybe there's an eighth and then a ninth planet, and it should be roughly over there to account for the anomalies that we're seeing," and lo and behold, we found planets where we thought we would. So shouldn't astrologers have anomalous influences that they can't account for that would have led them to the predict the existence of maybe astronomical—at least something outside of the local stellar group. If a thousand years ago, astrologers were saying "Yeah, we got this pretty well figured out, but there's something going on here we can't figure out. Maybe there are objects that are really massive that are a lot farther away than the stars that we can see." Then, that would have been making a prediction that then was proven correct by later observation, something that science is really good at, but astrology never made any such predictions based upon that, because it's not based upon reality.

B: When they kept finding new planets in the past, whatever, a couple of centuries, they must have been freaking out every time. "Damn, now we got incorporate a Neptune into our mess, here."

S: Right.

B: They must have been like "Oh, no, we gotta change it again."

E: That came up recently with Sedna, I think...

P: Yeah.

E: ...with that body way out there, and they said "How is that going to influence the astrological charts?" That was just a couple of years ago.

B: By the way, I almost used this in Science or Fiction: they think Pluto might have three moons.

E: Oh, I read that today.

B: I'm glad I didn't use it, then. They found two objects that appear to be in orbit around Pluto. Apparently it's not—they haven't nailed it down completely yet to make it—to definitively say one way or the other, but it looks promising.

S: How come the moons of the other planets don't influence astrology?

B: Some moons of Jupiter and Saturn are as big as Mercury.

S: Right. Triton. Triton's bigger than Mercury. Why wouldn't Triton have as much an effect as—because ancient astrologists couldn't see it.

B: And they could easily say: "Oh, the mother planet just totally overwhelms any influence."

S: Whatever.

B: Blah, blah, blah.

S: They can make any hand-waving post-hoc rationalization that they need to, but the bottom line—again, it gets back to what I said: the astrologers are good at retrodicting, right? They are good at explaining what they already know, and they're very impressed with how they can... an acquaintance of mine believes in astrology and wrote an article explaining there was some teenage girl who killed herself, and he sort of did a psychological profile of her and explained what happened by giving her an astrological reading. It's really easy to explain what happened in the past. Because anybody can do that. You can always make things seem to fit when you already know what the answer is. But astrology has never been able to predict what's going to happen in the future. And that's the test.

P: Like somebody whose about to commit suicide, so you can intervene.

S: Right. Right. Or—

B: Or... somebody who committed suicide but you don't know they committed suicide.

S: Right. A blinded test. That's one way to do it is by doing tests that are blinded. Or they certainly contributed absolutely zero, nothing, nada, zilch, to our understanding of the super-structure of our universe. Something you would think would be important to astrology no matter what the mechanism turned out to be. If the heavens are influencing us, why would it be only the heavens as ancient astronomers saw it and not the heavens as it really exists. There wasn't a hint of that in any astrological thinking.

E: I can offer what Bob Marks says. I just found something here. What he says that is sort of related to that. Here's what he thinks: "No astrologer, to my knowledge, claims that the astrological effect is the be-all and end-all of everything. We do recognize that there are other influences on people, such as their genetic make-up." Oh, how nice. "If a kitten were born at the same time and place as a human baby and the astrological factors indicated great communication ability, the human would talk and write. The cat would just meow. Again, what we have here is an avoidance of the main questions: Does astrology work? How may it be tested?"

S: I don't think we're avoiding that at all.

E: Right.

S: It doesn't work. It's been tested, and it's never been shown to have any effect, not even the tiny, itsy-bitsy little effect. None.

P: In fact, it sucks.

(laughter)

P: I mean, that's the bottom line.

S: OK. Well, anyway, now that we've spent twenty minutes shooting fish in a barrel.

(laughter)

P: True.

S: That was interesting because of the logical fallacies. Because it's just a representation of the kinds of arguments that pseudo-scientists make. I think it was on last week's show[3] I made the point with Joe Nickell when we were talking to him that it doesn't matter what the substance of the pseudo-science is, it's the same illogic over and over and over and again. You can talk about homeopathy or crop circles or UFOs or Bigfoot. It doesn't matter. They would be saying the exact same things as this astrologer was saying. Well, that is all the time that we have for this week. It was fun talking with you guys again.

E: Always.

B: Absolutely.

E: It's a good time.

S: Bob, once again, good job on the Science or Fiction. I guess maybe we'll have to have you do it again in the future.

E: Or Perry or I can come up with one.

S: Or you could. All the better. You guys each come up with your own Science or Fiction. We'll just take turns.

P: Certainly.

E: I'll come up with something. I'll stump you guys.

S: So until next week, Evan, Bob, Perry, thanks.

P: Good night.

S: Thank you out there for listening to us once again. Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For information about this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theness.com. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


Today I Learned[edit]

  • This is the first episode to feature the song "Theorem" by San Francisco-based experimental band Kineto for the intro/outros.
  • T-rays are waves on the electromagnetic specturm between 0.3 and 3 terahertz

References[edit]

  1. The Register Citizen: Skeptical Society wants Residents to Breathe Easy
  2. Yale News: T-Rays: New Imaging Technology Spotlighted by American Chemical Society
  3. SGU Episode 17: Crop Circles, Logic, and Occam's Razor
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