SGU Episode 183
|SGU Episode 183|
|21st January 2009|
|SGU 182||SGU 184|
|S: Steven Novella|
|R: Rebecca Watson|
|B: Bob Novella|
|J: Jay Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
|AT: Alice Tuff|
|Quote of the Week|
|The scientific tradition is distinguished from the pre-scientific tradition in having two layers. Like the latter, it passes on its theories; but it also passes on a critical attitude towards them. The theories are passed on, not as dogmas, but rather with the challenge to discuss them and improve upon them.|
You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.
S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today's Wednesday, Jan. 21th 2009, and this is your host Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella,
B: Hey everybody.
S: Rebecca Watson,
R: Hello everyone.
S: Jay Novella,
J: Hello gov'nor.
S: and Evan Bernstein.
E: And on this date, today, in 1677, the first medical book was published in the United States.
R: What medical book was that, Evan?
E: A pamphlet concerning the smallpox disease.
R: That's amazing.
E: I hope they get that cured sometime soon.
S: Oh yeah.
E: It's only been 330 years.
R: Now, we will be getting rid of that any moment now.
J: You know they didn't have autism back then.
S: Yeah, they didn't have any of the diseases they hadn't discovered and named yet.
E: Isn't that incredible?
J: So Rebecca is in London right now with Sid.
R: I'm in London. Yes.
J: That's why she said hello with an English accent and I had to respond because I'm like, you know, Pavlov's dog.
R: I was only like goading you.
J: I know. I can't help myself.
S: So how are our fellow skeptics from across the pond, Rebecca?
R: I think everyone on this side of the Atlantic is fantastic and it's been a really great week so far. I did London Skeptics in the Pub on Monday and that was fantastic. I saw a lot of Skeptics' Guide friends and guests you guys know like Simon Singh was there and John Ronson who we hadn't had on the show yet but we will. He's my super best friend and he's awesome. Tim mentioned King and he was a lot of fun. Great musician. And Ben Goldacre was there. You guys met him at TAM.
S: Oh yeah.
J: Oh cool.
R: Yeah, it's been a lot of fun. I miss you guys, though.
S: Yeah, we miss you last week.
R: I was really bummed to miss last week because I didn't think I was gonna be able to make it this week. I mean, it is 2am right now here in London.
R: Can we all just stop and think about the great sacrifice I'm making for you all by being on the show at 2 AM?
S: Alright that's long enough.
The Holographic Universe (2:33)
S: So Bob, you got the first news item this week. Tell us about the holographic universe.
J: Oh god.
B: Yeah, Jay, I did some preliminary talking about this. This one is really fascinating. I had a really good time researching this. But hold on to your beanie hats with the propellers on them. This one's pretty wicked.
R: I'm sorry, Bob, I don't have my beanie hat with a propeller on it so can I hold on to something else?
J: Yeah, just put your hand on Sid's face right now.
S: Rebecca, what does your beanie hat have on top of it?
R: I can't say on a family podcast.
S: Okay, use your imagination.
B: Well, scientists may have actually detected the grain of the universe. This may mean that our reality, everything we see and do, our entire universe, in fact, is like a 3 dimensional holographic image of sorts projected from somewhere else. Talk about a one two punch. This one was very very interesting. The whole story starts with a German British gravity wave detector called the GEO 600 in northern Germany. They have been trying to find, for 7 years, Einstein's theorized gravity waves and they haven't found them yet but they have run into a relatively big problem. Their detector keeps getting this background noise that will not go away. They've tried every way to rule it out. This is subtle background noise that's been plaguing them.
J: Bob, did they turn the fan off?
B: Yeah, right. At this point Craig Hogan enters the picture. He's a physicist at Fermilab, particle physics lab in Batavia, Illinois and he was recently appointed as the director of Fermilab's Center for Particle Astrophysics. He's been thinking about this really interesting principle called the holographic principle. It's a little complicated but the idea is that the total amount of information or entrophy that a space can contain depends on the surface or the boundary of that space and not the volume of that space. You see what I mean? So as an analogy, think of the plastic used in a beach ball being directly related to the amount of information inside the beach ball. So its not the volume of the beach that matters but there's a relationship between the surface on the outside and the inside. There's a direct almost a one to one correspondence.
S: That's a little counter intuitive. I'm sure that there's a mathematical reason for that.
B: Well, you nailed it exactly. The mathematical principle actually works extremely well with the entropy of black holes. In 1972, a physicist Jacob Bekenstein discovered that the black hole's entropy or information content is proportional to the surface area of the event horizon, which is essentially the holographic principle. The idea here is that the progenitor star, the star that exploded to become that black hole, all of the information about the 3 dimensional structure and everything about that star is encoded in the 2 dimensional event horizon. So that's basically the idea of this holographic principle.
B: In the 1990s, 2 other physicists, you've got Susskind and 't Hooft, they extrapolated this whole principle from the black hole's event horizon to the cosmological horizon of the universe. It's essentially the boundaries of our observable universe. So they kind of extrapolated it to the entire universe. So this would mean that the universe could essentially be described as a 2 dimensional construct embedded in the boundaries of the horizon of the universe.
J: I don't get this at all.
B: Okay, let me just continue this thought then. So then our visible universe could then be seen as a 3 dimensional representation of processes that are happening on this 2 dimensional surface.
J: Is the universe in 3 dimensions or not?
B: Well, some people would say that the 3 dimensions is an illusion and reality is you've got this 2 dimensional surface and we're just a projection but it's real enough. It's real enough to me and there's still way way too much that we don't know about this to really come to any firm conclusions. The hologram analogy, it's not perfect but it does help. Think of a hologram on your credit card. It's basically a piece of plastic with a 2 dimensional pattern etched onto it. When you shine light on it, a 3-d pattern emerges so that's kind of what's happening with this holographic principle. There's a few more steps here so bear with me. This one's a little more nasty than usual. So now we're back to Hogan. One of his keen insights here was that he realized that if this principle could be applied to the universe then each tiny bit of our horizon would be linked to somewhere inside. Right? Now the tiniest bit of anything anywhere allowed by quantum theory is called the Planck length. Have you heard of that? That's the smallest conceivalble thing that could exist. It's 1.6 x 10-36 meters. That's about as small as small can get. There's no conceivalble way to examine the universe at this scale. It's a hundred billion billion times smaller that a proton. Really really tiny. That's a fundamental unit of length, a grain, allowed in space-time. So you've got this Planck length or this grain. Now, since in general, surface area like I said is less than its volume. Right? If you think of a surface of a beach ball that surface area of the ball is much smaller than the interior volume. Right? But the thing is each grain on the surface corresponds to a point on the inside. So imagine you take this beach ball and put dots all around it. Each dot would map to a much bigger dot inside the ball. Right? If you fit a hundred dots on the outside, it would fit a trillion similarly sized dots on the inside. So, these dots have to be bigger on the inside. You see what I am saying? This is the key concept here. So, this is what Hogan realized. He figured that if we had a measuring instrument detailed enough, we can potentially see the pixels or grain or Planck length of space-time because the holographic version of them in the universe would be much bigger than they really are on the surface.
S: So, is the Planck length the bigger dot on the inside?
B: No, the Planck length …
J: It's both.
B: It's kind of both but the true Planck length is the figure that I said, 1.6 x 10-36 meters, impossibly small, but since we are potentially living in this holographic projection, it's kind of blurry. It's kind of a lower res version of what's real, of what's the 2 dimensional surface of the cosmological horizon. So that's the real size, which we can never see but because we might be this projection, it's kind of a blurry bigger image, because your corresponding a tiny Planck length on the surface to a bigger unit of volume in 3 dimensional space, much bigger as a matter of fact, maybe 10-16 meters is one measurement I saw being thrown around. So, a really cool thing is that Hogan, this guy is so sharp that he predicted, he was thinking, alright, what measuring instruments are sharp enough or detailed enough to see this and he realized that the GEO 600 gravity wave detector would be sensitive enough and he predicted, because they are so sensitive, they might be getting noise, these quantum convulsions from space-time, in their measurements and he got in touch with them and that's exactly what they had. They actually sent him a plot of the noise that they were seeing and it matched his predictions. So, there's one other bit of evidence that I thought was fairly compelling. It's not just the black hole evidence that seems to work with the event horizon. It's not just Hogan's predictions. There's another theorist named Juan Maldacena. He actually showed … somehow he created a hypothetical universe. I don't know what it consisted of, whether it was software or not, but he made a hypothetical universe of 5 dimensions and the physics inside it matched the physics on the 4 dimensional boundary. So, the fact that he was able to do that, gives a little credence to what we are saying here. So, in his model, the particles that interact on the surface corresponded exactly with the interacting strings on the interior. So, because he was able to do that hypothetically, it makes you think that well okay there might be something to this and I think it's worth pursuing. But remember, the bottom line is, no one knows if this is true yet. Most scientists consider this more of an idea or a hypothesis than a theory and, as a matter of fact, it is really a double edged sword. If it's true, we may never see gravity waves because the resolution of the universe is too low to detect them. But, on the other hand, of course, it could help with determining quantum gravity. One great quote I found here said that ultimately, we may have our first indication of how space-time emerges out of quantum theory. So, this could be really huge and if it starts panning out, we would definitely see some Nobel prizes being thrown around. So, check out my blog on Friday.
J: Okay, what the hell? Who comes up with this stuff? Who comes up with this stuff? Come on.
S: Joe Baker Donuts.
J: I mean, really, this …
E: Alright Joe!
J: It's mind numbing. It's mind numbing.
R: Bob, as soon as I figure out what you are talking about, it is going to blow my mind. I can't wait to hear this episode 3 times.
E: Michio Kaku is having a hard time with this one.
S: I wonder, does this tie in with string theory at all? Is this completely independent line of a …
B: Actually, there are some connections with string theory and M theory and the other good thing that may come of this is that if this is actually shown to be likely then it could actually be used to say, alright, these quantum gravity theories do not include the holographic principle so we can exclude them and these versions of string theory and M theory do include it so they are more likely. We will retain them. They are more likely to be true. So, yeah, there is a connection.
J: Steve, this isn't actually string theory. This is called dental floss theory.
B: Mental floss theory.
S: I guess the next thing to think about is why is the universe built this way?
J: Because some spaceship is projecting us in a holodeck right now.
E: Computer, end program.
B: Good one. Evan, that's a good one. Every now and then you got to say that just to check it out.
S: Does this support the matrix theory of reality?
R: Did you just say the matrix theory? Like, the theory that we are all just batteries?
S: Living in a matrix.
J: Yeah, of course. Where the hell have you been, Rebecca? Alright, so, but Bob, let me ask you a question. How does this advance the human race?
E: The projection of the human race, the hologram.
B: You never know what's gonna come of things. What's that quote when J. J. Thomson discovered the electron? There was some big …
J: Holy shit?
B: No …
B: There was some big science physics dinner. People were saying to J. J. Thomson's electron, may nothing come of it whatsoever. Of course, now, our entire world's economy is based on electrons. You never what's gonna come out of it and who cares? Just the thrill of discovery, the discovery of the fundamental aspects of the universe. If that doesn't get you off then I don't know.
S: Right. That story reminds me of the story of the cosmic background radiation where the radio astronomers couldn't get rid of this background noise and it turns out that was the left over noise from the big bang and the profile of that noise matched predictions of the big bang and that ties together in a similar way.
B: Yeah, that was really an interesting analogy. I kept thinking of that while I was researching this. It's very similar. You have this background noise. Don't know what it is. Remember, they went into their telescope and they were cleaning out the bird crap and trying to make it and it's still there and finally they realized … they got Nobels out of this and we learned so much. It really reinforced the big bang and all sorts of great stuff came out of it.
S: We're gonna have to revisit this whole concept of the holographic universe. Maybe if we could wrangle a physicist onto the show to talk to us about it, we might be able to delve into it a little bit deeper.
S: But there you got the basic idea.
J: You don't get it though, Steve? I totally get this. You don't understand this?
S: I understand what Bob said but it's hard to know how this plugs into the whole construct of quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. It's interesting about the Planck length 'cause that's again, when you understand the basics, like the college level of quantum mechanics, the Planck length is everywhere in quantum mechanics. Everything seems to always reduce down into the Planck length. This seems to be a fundamental building block of reality and yet there isn't really any theory as to why that would be. This seems like the first step towards figuring that out. Why there is that … that's where the word quantum comes from, that the universe is not analog, it's discreet. You can only get down to this minimum quantum of stuff of space-time. Why is that? I don't know. I think when we understand that we'll get a much better handle on the whole quantum mechanical thing.
B: Yeah, you mention the Planck length, Steve. The value of Planck length is derived from constants such as the speed of light, Planck's constant, and the gravitational constant. So, they are deriving it from that. So, if the foundation is strong and then so is that.
Intelligent Design and Academic Freedom (16:07)
S: Alright, let's bring this back down to earth a little bit. We're gonna talk about the intelligent design and academic freedom in Louisiana and Texas. As we've discussed previously, the latest strategy of the intelligent design movement after they failed to get intelligent design forced into public schools … they had an epic legal failure with the Dover trial a couple of years ago. Their next strategy was academic freedom. Trying to get freedom for teachers to teach controversial theories or to criticize evolution or to use material that is not the official recognized material for their school system and they have now been successful in getting just such a law passed in Louisiana. This was passed by the state's board of elementary and secondary education and this is the Louisiana Science Education Act. Casey Luskin who is one of the chief propagandist for the Discovery Institute, which is that intelligent design quote unquote think tank, characterized the bill as a victory for Louisiana students and teachers. So, if he likes it, it has to be bad. Essentially what the law says is again, as I said, teachers have the freedom to use other text. Now, if you didn't have the context and you just read this law, it seems fairly innocuous and, then again, that has been the arc of the intelligent design creationism strategy, is to make their efforts from a legal point of view more and more innocuous so that they can pass legal muster but the purpose is always the same. They are trying to crack open the door into science classrooms and then, once that door is cracked open, they will shove as much pseudoscience and anti-evolution propaganda and creationism through that crack as they can. That's the goal. In this particular case, what they are trying to do is open that door for their alternative science text. The Discovery Institute publishes a book called Explore Evolution, which is chock full of nonsense and anti-evolution pseudoscience, and that is the text that they want teachers to use and this law was crafted to give teachers cover for using these kinds of pseudoscientific text in their science classrooms. Interestingly, there was, in the wrangling and the fighting back and forth over this law, previously, in one version of it, there was language saying that the teaching of intelligent design was specifically prohibited but proponents of the law pressured the board to remove those caveats in early December and now the law has been passed without any caveats at all. So, this, unfortunately, is a legal victory for the intelligent design buffoons and we'll have to see how this plays out. Probably nothing can happen until the bill actually gets applied. Just the bill itself doesn't say anything that is probably illegal because it doesn't say you have to teach religious belief or anything that can be construed as religion. It's really just how it gets applied. So, this, unfortunately, is a loss for the good guys.
R: Well, yeah, what we need is for somebody to start teaching intelligent falling in school as opposed to gravity and then, you know, send it back so they can work out something that doesn't sound completely ridiculous. That doesn't allow these idiots to pass off their stupid religion as science.
S: Right. This is the next phase that we've been discussing and, again, the key intellectual malfunction here is that they are confusing academic freedom with academic standards. The whole purpose of having in the curriculum an approved text or what not is to maintain some kind of standards. Now, of course, that doesn't mean that teachers can't be free to explore within those boundaries and to try to use methods based upon their own experience in their profession, that's fine. They can't hijack the curriculum of the school in order to teach religious belief as science and that's what this law is … really, the purpose of this is to give teachers cover who want to do that. Similar kind of fighting going on in Texas although it seems that things are going better there for the good guys. Just today, there has been testimony before the school board in terms of approving the new science standards and they have been actually dramatically improved over the previous set of standards. Now the fight, in this case, is over whether or not to include in the standards the provision to allow for the teaching of the strength and weaknesses of scientific theory, specifically evolution. Here, this is again kind of under the academic freedom rubric but they are taking a slightly different linguistic tact here just trying to say that scientific standard should expressly include the teaching of the strengths and weaknesses of specific theories. Of course, this is just another way to crack open the door. What they are trying to do is then say that their text, their explore evolution, is specifically allowed because it's teaching the weaknesses of evolutionary theory and the law requires that the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories be taught. So, again, it's all deceptive. It's all completely deceptive. It's just these attempts to crack open the door so they can shove their bullshit through. But that text, the strengths and weaknesses provision, has been removed and now that's what they're debating about but, hopefully, if the current version goes through without the strengths and weaknesses text then that would be a victory for science in Texas but, again, we have to see how that plays out.
Questions and Emails
Sexual Pheromones (22:19)
S: Let's move on to some of your questions and emails. The first question was sent to us over Facebook and, actually, we don't have the name of the person who sent it at the moment. But this is a question about, just asking us what we thought about a specific news article on sexual pheromones, myth or reality, and, Jay, you read up on this one.
J: Yeah, I thought this was interesting. You might, gestalt reaction to pheromones was, I was pretty sure that humans had some type of communication happening with pheromones or like we could pick up those kind of signals just like other animals or whatever. It was one of those things that just kind of enters your head by osmosis from being alive. You just hear things about it, pheromones and all that. But it turns out that some scientists were doing research on it and they really can't find anything that concludes or proves that pheromones exist in humans. Pheromones definitely do exist in nature but it has not been proven in humans at all. Now there are some things that we know of like a really cool example would be like a nursing infant would turn towards their mother's lactating breasts without seeing it. Like they would probably be able to smell it somehow. I mean, I don't think they have any other theories on that but the scent molecules in some way or another would drive a response and, obviously, we have responses to smells. Smells are closely associated to our memory and pleasant and unpleasant smells can get a very strong reaction out of us but pheromones are kind of like the invisible things that people say we would respond to. There's always the mating type of thing that people are trying to sell on the Internet. Use this liquid, which is pheromones, and drive the women crazy and all that stuff. Well, these scientists say they can't find anything and one of the leading scientists, name was Wyatt, and he says as far as releasers go, it may be that we simply don't have them. And he explains that releaser pheromone triggers a behavioural response and the other kind of pheromone, called the primer pheromone, is supposed to cause a physiological change. So he says that as far as releaser pheromones go, they don't think that we have them. When they studied the historical evidence, they say that research shows that at the same time that our primate ancestors gained color vision that they also lost the genes for or the organ receptor, the organ that can pick up pheromones. So, it's pretty interesting. In my mind, I'm just looking at it as just something else that I believed that was actually untrue. So far, with the current research, there's just no proof that pheromones work in human beings.
S: Yeah, this is a genuine controversy and that has not yet been resolved. There are definitely still people on both sides. There is some tantalizing evidence. Probably the best case that can be made for pheromones having a physiological effect in humans is the synchronization of female menstrual cycles through some kind of remote hormonal effect. That's probably the best established one. There's certainly nothing established that would attract the opposite sex, which of course is what the market of pheromones is based upon. That's all BS. In fact one theory of, if there is a pheromone in humans, one theory is that the purpose of them is not to attract members of the opposite sex but in order to tighten the emotional bonds between an intimate couple. That you really only pick up the pheromones through intimacy. You already have to be intimate with somebody and it's more of a pair bonding reinforcing phenomenon than a let me attract everyone of the opposite sex who's out there, which makes sense if we shifted to a pair bonding basically type of lifestyle that we would loose any kind of advertising or signalling that would promote promiscuity or threaten the pair bonding relationships. So, another aspect of this I discovered as I was reading up on this too, Jay, was that as you say that we may not have the receptors and we don't have the nose anymore to pick up on the pheromones. Some research have found, for example, FMRI effects in the brain in response to certain pheromones but at subthreshold levels so the people couldn't consciously smell anything but there was still apparently some effect that was measurable in the brain. That's the kind of thing that definitely needs to be replicated. That's very tricky research to do but so far that's what the evidence is showing. So, there's probably something going on. It's definitely not as strong as in many other animals and it's probably not what the perfume manufacturers would want us to believe. That you can, as you say, put on something that smells good and it would drive the opposite sex wild.
S: Let's go on to one more email. This one comes from Chris Gerard in Cambridge, U.K. and he writes, "Hi, everyone. A jolly good morning to the skep-chaps and the skep-chick from chilly England. Every now and again there's a story about dyslexia, like this …" then he provides a link to a BBC article. "There are a few people who argue that it's a nonexistent condition and that it's just about how well children are taught in their early years. Does this occur in the U.S. too? What's the SGU skinny on this?" Well, this is yet another topic where there's a lot of controversy about whether or not the phenomenon really exists - dyslexia. But this one, the story's actually much more clear. Dyslexia, essentially is a recognized learning disorder or neurological development disorder that involves poor reading ability. Now, you guys have probably all heard, again, like through osmosis you pick up the common lay conception of what dyslexia is, which again is almost always wrong. That people reverse the letters and words or reverse words and that actually is a complete myth. That has nothing to do with reality.
J: What? Really?
S: Yeah. There's no reversing or anything.
E: What the hell?
S: But, that doesn't mean that dyslexia is not real. What dyslexia is, is a set of neurological disorders that result in impaired reading. In order to read, your brain needs to be able to do a couple of things. One is that it needs to be able to look at multiple letters at once. And at a glance, essentially, put together the details of multiple letters into words and even groups of words. And, it also needs to have the processing that essentially understands how to build words out of sounds. Those are 2, in addition to other things as well. Those are 2 things that have been identified that may not be functioning well in different children who have dyslexia. The classical, for the last 10 or 20 years or so concept, was that it was a problem with phonemes. With understanding that words are made up of sounds and those who had children who have learned to read … actually, it's interesting, especially as a neurologist, watching my children learn how to do various things such as reading because you actually can see them at the different stages of their neurological development and what they can do and then it's like flipping a switch when they can do a new bit. Right? They can do a new thing. So, initially, when children are reading words, they read the sounds but they don't know how to put the sounds together in a word. Like I would say "dah" "ah" "ga" but they can't go from "dah" "ah" "ga" to dog. That connection is just not being been made. And then they start to make that connection and their reading takes off and suddenly "d" "o" "g" is not "dah" "ah" "ga" it's dog. Right? Dyslexic children, some dyslexic children, never make that leap. They never make that connection. So they have a reading problem that persists. Now you can compensate for it. You can try to learn how to do it, essentially, the hard way. With a lot of things in neurology, there is dedicated cortex that is optimized for a specific task but you can sort of, kind of, do the task with other parts of your brain too, just not very well. So you can teach children with dyslexia to read and there are specific strategies that have evolved especially over like phonemic learning strategies that can get them literate, can get them reading but they are never gonna be great readers. There is always gonna be a little bit more of a struggle for them than it would be for somebody who doesn't have dyslexia. Also, it's important to recognize that dyslexics may also have other learning disabilities. It's not just about reading. There may be other learning disabilities that go along with it. So even if they do achieve literacy that doesn't mean that their learning ability is up to average or normal. Some people, however, cast doubt on the existence of dyslexia. Not really within the mainstream neurological community by my experience but more among politicians or what not or educators who say that, well, you know, if you take a bell curve of human variation in any trait, you can always call the bottom 5% or 10% of that bell curve as a disorder. So it's not really a disease or something different. It's just these are the bottom 10% of reading ability. It's not really fair to call that a disorder. Then you sort of get into semantics. Sure, even if it is just the bottom 10%, if they can't do something which is generally considered to be an ability that most people have and it's something that actually would impair their ability to function in modern society, you know, it's reasonable to say it's a disorder to the extent that they may need extra resources to try to get them to learn better to read, for example. Without getting into the semantic argument, it comes down to the argument: do these kids need special resources or not? And I think the answer to that is clearly yes. Now, for some reason, this becomes like a political hot button issue. From what I understand, it comes up more frequently in the U.K. than it does in the U.S. although I still even hear it over here. In this case, there was a BBC article quoting Graham Stringer, who is a Member of Parliament, and he described dyslexia as a quote unquote cruel fiction. And he said this was made up by educators to explain away their failure to teach students how to read; to teach some students how to read. But that is nonsense. That is a complete fiction. That's rewriting history. This is not something that was just made up by educators. There's actually a very mature neurological discipline around the concept of dyslexia. It fits with our understanding of how the brain works. How reading works as a neurological function and there's actually a vast literature exploring what's actually neurologically different about children who express dyslexia and we are finding there are different subsets depending on different parts of the brain that aren't functioning, as well. So, you have to be ignorant of all of that to just write this off as a fiction invented by educators. So that's just an ignorant statement, unfortunately.
Interview with Alice Tuff (33:59)
S: Well, let's go on with our interview. Joining us now is Alice Tuff. Alice, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.
AT: Thank you very much ??? to be here.
S: And Alice is the development officer for a British group called "Sense About Science" and they are a group of young scientists who try to teach good science to the public. So, Alice, why don't you first start by just telling us about your group, how it got formed, your involvement with it, what do you guys do?
AT: Sure, we're a U.K. based charity and our ??? is to promote good science and evidence to the public and what that means is that we work with scientists to try and respond to misleading claims about science. We also try and look at, try to explain, some of the scientific process and give people some tools to sort through some of the claims they come across and try to sort fact or fiction. We're basically setup about 5 years ago by Lord Taverne. It sort of came up after a debate in the House of Lords where, after all of the problems in the U.K. with MMR & BSE, it was felt that science wasn't really being communicated very well and it was also felt that scientists were often missing for the arguments. So he wanted to do something about it. So we were setup basically to respond directly to the public, work with the public, to work with scientists to do this.
S: So you were established by the British government.
AT: Not by the British government, by Lord Taverne. He's in the House of Lords.
S: Oh, okay.
AT: And he and a few other senior scientists at the time felt that this is an issue and they wanted to do something about it.
S: Okay and it says that you are a charitable trust. What exactly does that mean? Is that the equivalent like, in the United States, you would say a non-profit organization? Is that the same thing?
AT: Yes, so everybody says a charity, a non-profit.
S: So what are some of the major issues that you have dealt with recently?
AT: More recently we've been doing things on detox of celebrities. But we've covered a whole range of subjects. One of the first things we looked at was chemicals. There were quite a few scientists coming to us who were quite concerned about the kind of anti-chemical mentally there was at the time and there was a lot of misconceptions around this. So, there was an idea that you can lead a chemical free lifestyle. Man-made chemicals inherently dangerous, things like that and they want to respond to some of this and try and give people some understanding about what the distinction is between natural and man-made chemicals and why just because a chemical has been linked to something does not mean it necessarily causes it. We've done a lot of work in that area. We've also done work on weather and climate, radiation and more recently we're looking at patient groups and patients not getting access to information about different treatments.
S: You mean like dubious treatments or just standard medical treatments?
AT: Dubious treatments and what we found is that we have quite a few patients who were coming to us who were quite concerned because there's a lot of this stuff on the web and also on patient forums. They felt that some of these companies were posing as patients trying to sell some of their products and we were getting a lot of calls about this and patients who didn't really know what evidence behind these treatments was, whether to pursue these treatments and so we wanted to put together something to help people sort of work through some of the information they come across. So it's giving insight like what peer review is, what clinical trials are, and what to look for in a treatment to see whether it's evidence based or not.
S: Is most of the work that you do essentially writing for venues on the Internet? What other kind of things do you do?
AT: Most of our publications is disseminated to a mixture of people. So we basically work with anybody who is intermediary, which means it can ah, anyone who basically is in contact with the public, which ranges from MPs to patient groups to teachers. Specific intermediaries will arrange people and we basically disseminate information through them. So, for example, with the patient guide that went out to all the patient groups, medical research, charities, doctors, midwives, nurses, all the people who are going to be speaking to patients about these issues.
S: And that went out like in the form of a pamphlet?
AT: Yes, so it's a short thing. It's called "I've Got Nothing to Lose by Trying It" and it basically just works through some of the things. So, for example, it talks about why do unproven therapy seem to work? What's the role of clinical trials, medicine use? Is it real hope or hype? How to distinguish between different treatments, whether it's something that's just been linked. So, for example, you get headline that say this has been linked to Alzheimer's. So it's helping people to sort through. Is there actually an issue there? Should I be worried about this? Or is it just, at the moment, it's just been linked to it.
B: Alice, do you also release a "Science for Celebrities" pamphlet, which I recently found and I enjoyed that thoroughly? Basically it just had quotes about science from celebrities followed by quotes by scientists describing why they are wrong. I was really impressed that the pamphlet even had a number. You offer a number to call, to talk to a scientist. I thought that was a really good idea. Do you find a specific celebrity to be especially irritating?
AT: We always find there's a few that pop up quite regularly. So, for example, in the U.K., there's a nutritionist called Jean McKeith and she's popped up in the last couple of years. There's also a lady called Carol Cutler who's been giving sort of dodgy diet advice. ??? come up quite often. We're actually quite impressive here. It's been fantastic because it's actually getting better. What we've noticed, because it's our third year of doing it, in certain areas it seems to be improved. So, for example, celebrity chefs seems to have gotten the idea of it better and they're making less outrageous claims about nutrition. And generally on the whole it is getting better.
S: Have you taken on the MMR scare directly? I'm sure you have. That's probably a big issue for you.
AT: That was one thing I think we dealt with slightly when we were first setup. But we actually do refer to it in a recent celebrities document because there's been quite a lot. I know over in the U.S. there's been quite a few politicians speaking out about this and also a few celebrities. We actually touched upon some of these points in the document itself and just got scientists to respond to it.
S: Do you think that you're having an impact? Are you being well received and have you … do you do anything to try to measure that at all?
AT: In a ??? "Science for Celebrities," what we've noticed is ah … like I said, it tends to be getting better. There are a few examples now and we were getting more requests for help to consult scientists, which is fantastic. 'Cause that's really what we want to do. We really want to send a message just to check their facts before they speak out and that there are scientists out there who are quite happy to help them and give them advice on these things.
S: So a lot of what you do, it sounds like, is just a conduit between the mainstream scientific community and any kind of public media.
AT: It's partly working as a conduit and supporting scientists to get out there and speak about these issues and make sure the public has access to science. But it's also about explaining how science works. We've done a lot of work talking about peer review and when we set out to do this, everybody was quite shocked. Why peer review, you know? That's not very interesting. People won't find it helpful and, actually, we've produced a short guide "I Don't Know What to Believe. Making Sense of Science Stories" and just goes through sort of the basic principles of what peer review is. How you can use it to sort of weigh up whether something's published or unpublished research. What that means. It's one of our most popular publications today. It's had something like over 150,000 copies downloaded. And it really range from teachers, MPs. They're all using it. Finding a really useful tool.
S: Now, when you describe all of the things that you do, I'm struck by the similarity to what we do. 'Cause we have the same mission, essentially. Though you go about it slightly differently. But, we in the United States, we call what you do and what we do, skepticism or the skeptical movement. Is that a term that you've used to describe yourselves or do you see a similarity or differences to the skeptical movement?
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