SGU Episode 185

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SGU Episode 185
4th February 2009
SGU 184 SGU 186
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
M: Massimo Pigliucci
Quote of the Week
I am not ashamed to confess that I am ignorant of what I do not know.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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 is Wed. Feb. 4th 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: Hey guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

This Day in Skepticism (0:30)[edit]

E: And a very happy Across the Universe day to everyone today.

S: Across the Universe day …

R: Is it National Beatles' Day?

E: Not quite, not quite …

J: It's a good guess.

E: so on this day last year, just last year, NASA transmitted Across the Universe, the Beatles song, as you alluded to, Rebecca, in the direction of the star Polaris, which is 431 light years from Earth.

R: Hah!

S: Cool!

R: I would have gone with the Rolling Stones.

E: It was done to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the song's recording and the 45th anniversary of the deep space network, and, of course, the 50th anniversary of NASA, which was last year. So it marks several occasions all in one. Across the universe.

J: That's a very cool way to celebrate it.

E: I think so and the people in Polaris will appreciate it 430 years from now.

News Items[edit]

Singularity University (1:16)[edit]

S: So Bob, you're going to tell us about some interesting news from Google and NASA called the Singularity University. Tell us about that.

B: Yeah, that got my attention, NASA and Google, Inc. teaming up with scientists, especially futurist Ray Kurzweil, to create something called the Singularity University. This official announcement was made recently at the annual TED or Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference in Long Beach, California. Now the term singularity in this context does not refer to a black hole but the increasingly popular idea that technological change feeds on itself, accelerating beyond what intuition might tell us. This could create game changing technologies in industries, not in many generations but maybe in less than one generation and it is this idea advocated by Ray Kurzweil in his book "The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology." That book is what gave Dr. Peter Diamandis the idea for this university. He is the founder and chairman of the X-Prize Foundation and also co-founded the International Space University. So what is this university going to do and why do I want to go there so bad? If you go to their website:, their mission statement says that the Singularity University aims to assemble, educate, and inspire a cadre of leaders who will strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply focus and guide these tools to address humanity's grand challenges. Executive Director Salim Ismail describes it this way. He says what we are trying to do is create a group of young leaders that can understand the implications of the rapid acceleration that's happening in a lot of technologies today and manage that technology. It's not going to be cheap. It's $25,000 for one of their summer 9-week courses.

S: Why so expensive? I mean, did they justify that?

B: It's quite a unique experiment. I'm not sure why it's quite that much.

S: Is it the prestige or is it really some high tech stuff going?

B: Oh yeah, it is. Well, by definition, it's about as high tech as it gets. The first ... it's split into three 3-week sessions. The first one, the students will be diving into things like biotechnology, computing, artificial intelligence, energy, even law and finance. Then for the next 3 weeks, I think the students will pick one of those, for a really deep exploration. One of those key fields it will take ... so maybe if you already are an artificial intelligence guy, maybe you may want to look deep into, say, biotechnology or energy or something else. And then the last 3 weeks ... now that's the special part of it. This is where the students work on a special project. This is the part that was strongly advocated by Google co-founder Larry Page and in this ... for the special project, the students take a cross disciplinary approach and apply what they've learned to things like energy shortages, famine, global warming, climate change, poverty. One person describes this thing as imagine looking at hunger from an AI robotics stand point. So the idea is to foster this cross disciplinary approach and network with other people and other fields throughout the world and it's not just grads and post-grads that can go to this thing. They are also going to offer 10-day and 3-day seminars that's held throughout the year for top executives and things like that. I'm excited about this. I see these technologies coming down the pipe that people aren't even aware of.

S: Yeah, it's an interesting idea. I mean, the press release says they are going to focus on nanotechnology, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. And those are the 3 technologies that Kurzweil argues in his book, The Singularity is Near, that are going to really cause the singularity because those are the ones that will essentially make all technologies information based and when a technology's information based, he argues, that's when we see this exponential increase in advancement.

B: Yeah, those and other ones. It's not just going to be them but they're definitely going to be a huge part of it.

S: Yeah, an interesting thing about information is that ... information and ideas is not a zero sum game, it's a win-win and this kind of cross fertilization leads to unforeseeable consequences. You know, meaning unforeseeable benefits. The kind of new ideas that gets spun out of this kind of think tanks have tremendous potential. It's also interesting that Kurzweil remains such a controversial figure. He is kind of like the Nikola Tesla of our age in that he is undeniably brilliant in some ways and has achieved some real ...

B: Oh inventions, the guy's an amazing inventor. I mean, some of the things he's come out with ... he was the first to come out with a book that you just ... you put the book on this optical reader and it turns the pages and reads the book. I think that Stevie Wonder was like the first one years ago to buy this device and now this device is like ... you can like almost fit in your pocket, it's so tiny. It's just one of the predictions he's made that's come true and, yeah, it is controversial and I think he's primarily controversial because the whole accelerating changes idea and how fast he thinks it's gonna come upon us ...

S: He is at the optimistic end of the spectrum in terms of projecting forward but I don't ... that's not the most controversial thing about him in my opinion. I think it's the fact that he's been ... he takes something like 230 different supplements that he believes is going to make him live a lot longer, long enough so that ... you live long enough to become immortal. Right? That's his goal and that's ... you know, it's interesting, because that's pure pseudoscience. That is ... there's no evidence behind those supplements. He's probably doing himself more harm than good by taking so much crap and he also sells it. It's not like he's just doing it personally. You can actually go to ... he's teamed up with someone else to actually ... he's selling the supplement regimen ... that's extremely dubious. You have this combination of brilliant inventor, really provocative thinker, and yet a total charlatan, sort of wrapped up into one figure and again that's why I'm thinking he has the sort of same feel to me as Nikola Tesla.

B: Yeah, I have not looked into that whole aspect of it and you're right it is very disconcerting and maybe I've purposely haven't looked into it because it's a very disappointing aspect of what, ah, but, ah, I don't think it necessarily detract ...

R: Oh yeah, that's why we value the ideas and not the person. I mean people are fallible. We see it again and again and again. You know and often times people will ask us like "What do you think of Bill Maher and don't you think he's a terrible skeptic" and that's like, well, that's not really the point. The point is, sure he says some crazy things, he says some rational things and the idea is to just keep focusing on the rational and promoting that while correcting the irrational.

S: Yeah, just like Linus Pauling. Brilliant scientist, spent the end of his life promoting utter quackery. You know, how do you reconcile those 2 things? Well, people are people. They were flawed.

J: Yeah, we've talked about people like this on the show before. I would look at Ray Kurzweil as a visionary and I think people that have that kind of personality, it's, you know, it's not unlikely for them to also have … they're thinking radically about a lot of different things.

S: Yeah, you're thinking outside the box, you know, not to overuse that cliché but it's true. You're thinking in very highly speculative provocative way and you're gonna be wrong a lot. You're gonna take a lot of chances, you're gonna be wrong a lot and that's okay. If you're right occasionally, that's probably more valuable than being wrong a lot because we can just … we can get past the errors. So, it's good to have people stirring up the pot like that … like Kurzweil.

J: You know, but keep in mind too, he's taking a lot of supplements, right, that's what Steve says?

S: Yeah.

J: Now that is not the craziest thing I've ever heard, you know.

S: No, it's just the, ah, the contrast with his … the fact that he's actually … has a lot of legitimate, ah, ideas as well.

J: Yeah but we're not saying that he's like thinking about things that are … even though that taking a lot of vitamins like you said, you know, there's a lot of controversy about that as well. You know it's not like an insane thing that he's doing. It's just, you know, to me it's more wishful thinking …

R: Well, no, it's a potentially harmful thing, though. Especially since, you know, he lends his name to give them credibility. I mean …

S: It's a bit kooky. The bottom line it's all a bit kooky …

J: And I've gotta tell you one more thing, this is yet again another example of me not like … I don't want to know that much about him like I've read his books, I'm fascinated by this guy's mind and I don't want to spoil, you know, it's like … it's like …

S: Well, you know, it doesn't spoil it to me because I'm interested in human nature, in human psychology and to me it's fascinating that he would combine these attributes and I wanna know why. What is it that … what is it about him that makes him both a kook when it comes to these supplements and a really provocative thinker when it comes to artificial intelligence and then futurist technology. That's what interests me. I don't wanna hide from that at all. I think this, ah … we have something that we can learn about the nature of people, of science, of ourselves, of skepticism, by thinking about people like Ray Kurzweil, people who are not typical, you know, the typical true believer, you know, who's gullible over just about everything and the typical skeptic who's largely skeptical about most things. Yeah, we sort of got those characters down pretty well but then you have somebody who breaks the mold like Kurzweil and it's fascinating.

J: Yeah, I guess you're right. This is actually very different than say, ah, Christian Bale, like totally loosing his stuff on the set.

S: Haa :-)

E: No.

R: 'Cause you expect that of him.

J: You're right Steve. This is ...

S: Yeah.

J: it's more of like … ah … analyzing his character and seeing like where his mind takes him.

B: Well, I think we should ask him when we finally get him on this damn show. So, let's ah …

S: We do need to get him on the show. We'll make that our project.

R: Get on that will you.

Archaeology of the New World (11:20)[edit]

S: Let's go on to the next news item. This is a follow up story. We have spoken a few times in the past about the archaeology of the New World of the Americas and, if you remember, the Clovis people who are the remains of the first human settlements in the Americas and they disappeared around 13,000 years ago around the same time that a lot of the megafauna of the New World also disappeared. I think the last news item we discussed about this was evidence for a large comet explosion over Canada and the thinking at the time was that this may have been responsible for the extinction of a lot of the megafauna of the New World as well as perhaps even the Clovis people. Well, now there's some follow up on that. This is a genuine controversy within the archaeological community and they're fighting it out as they should be with the evidence and now there was a new survey done of past fires. When there's a large forest fire, that leaves behind a telltale sign in the geological record. For example, there are bogs where the layers are preserved through time so you can go back and it's actually like a record of whenever fires occurred in the past and they can be dated pretty well. So, an extensive survey has just been published looking at this. If it is true, if it were true that a large comet exploding over Canada wiped out the mammoths, for example, this is a representative species of megafauna at the time then we would have expected there to be wildfires throughout the Americas at around the same time. That's a prediction of the comet theory of mammoth extinction, if you will. Well, this paper did not show that. It showed that there were scattered fires but there … at different times in different places but not this one continent wide fire that you would expect to see from a coment big and devastating enough to have created so many extinctions. So now this is sort of pushing back from the other side the other school of thought which does not believe in the comet theory and they are saying that the lines of evidence that the comet promoters are … have been putting forward are going to fall one by one and this is just the first one to go. So, I always find it fascinating to watch these genuine scientific controversies play out. They are trading punches with the evidence and it looks like they … this one is a definitely a notch against the comet theory but something that is certainly not settled and will have to wait for further evidence before, I think, a consensus emerges.

B: Wouldn't there have been world wide fires not just isolated to the Americas?

S: I don't think so. I mean, it's not … it wasn't a world wide extinction and it really was continent wide. So I think they're just looking for continent wide effects.

E: Yeah, the 1908 comet over in Siberia …

S: Yeah.

E: was more … I don't think that had a world wide impact.

S: Something between Tunguska and the whatever wiped out the dinosaurs, you know. So, still a very interesting mystery and there's definitely, there's some specific pieces of evidence that were looking for that we haven't found yet. You know, for example, we have sites with the technological remains with stone tools but no human feces or anything with DNA in it that we can type and we have other sites that have DNA but no tools. So, we're still waiting for that one site that has a Clovis tool and something that we can get DNA from and so that's … I'm waiting for the day when that get's announced, when that finding is made 'cause that will end a lot of the debate about what happened to the Clovis people. Did they completely go extinct or did they merge with a later immigration of people that then became the modern American Indians. So, very interesting.

The Smallest Exoplanet (15:17)[edit]

S: Another really interesting news item just from a couple of days ago and this one's on the exoplanet front. We have found yet …

R: It's the littlelest exoplanet.

S: That's right. Yet again the smallest …

E: and the cutest

S: exoplanet …

R: I think so.

S: It seems every week there's a new coolest exoplanet but, ah …

E: My prediction of 100 new exoplanets this year is probably on pace.

S: Do you know how many we've discovered so far?

J: 3

E: Let's see, ah, it's the 4th of Feb. … the first week of Feb. … ah … eight.

R: 40

E: Ha :-) I don't know for sure.

S: Do you know how many total exoplanets?

E: Oh, ah, that we've ever discovered?

S: Yeah.

B: It's over 300.

E: It's gotta be in the hundred … yes, it's in the hundreds, 300 about …

R: 400

S: 339

R: Ow

E: Yeah

R: I was close.

S: First one was discovered in 1995 - 51 Pegasi B, which is about 50 light years away.

E: A lovely place.

S: Yup, this new one is about 450 light years away and it is only twice as large as the Earth. The previous record holder for the smallest exoplanet was about 5 times the size of the Earth. This one is only twice. That means that it is probably a rocky world and not a gaseous world like Jupiter, just because of its size. It would be really difficult. There's also another reason why it's probably not gaseous because it's very very close to its sun. Do you guys know how long it takes for this planet to go around its star?

B: 20 hours?

S: Yeah, not 20 years, not 20 days, 20 hours …

B: Wow

E: That thing must be whipping around …

B: fast …

J: Steve, how big is that … the mass of that sun compared to our own?

S: It's a little smaller and cooler than our sun but 20 hours, that thing is like whippin' around the atmosphere of that star.

B: So, if we lived in that … if we lived in that planet, we could live for a thousand years.

S: Yeah :-)

E: … the gravity on that planet, suckin' you down …

S: Well, the tidal forces would be amazing.

E: Oh, forget about it.

S: Yeah, so the surface temperature is estimated at between 1,000 & 1,500 degrees …

B: Yeah, it's hot …

E: a little toasty

S: could be molten, yeah …

R: But it's a dry heat.

S: but it's a dry heat :-) … it's not … not a candidate for life but it's just … it's showing that we are … the techniques we're using now, the telescopes that we're using are capable of finding such a tiny little planet, only twice the size of Earth. Phil Plait thinks we're within a year or two of finding a truly earth sized planet.

E: That's great.

B: Wow

R: That's crazy talk.

E: There would be smaller ones even to find beyond that.

S: Right, but of course, you know, just for psychological reasons we want to find an earth sized planet that's about the Earth's distance from its star so that it would be at a distance where water would be in a liquid form and …

E: the nitrogen, oxygen, in the atmosphere

S: Yeah, well :-)

R: and populated with hot dudes

S: oxygen in the atmosphere would mean that there is most certainly life

J: Woo hoo

S: cool

E: very cool … exoplanets are cool

J: Yes, sir.

Blood Types (18:22)[edit]

S: Evan, you are going to give us an updated report on the Japanese craze over blood type.

E: Well, there was a report in the Associated Press this week, which states, in the year just ended 2008, 4 of Japan's top ten best selling books were about how blood type determines personality. Yes, you heard it right.

S: They were named A, B, AB, & O. There was a series of books. One book per blood type.

E: And they sold over 5 million copies.

R: of each?

E: combined in 2008 … if you can believe that. Now, what this amounts to frankly is nothing more than you get out of astrology, really.

S: It's astrology.

R: but bloodier … it's like zombie astrology

E: It sure is but it's very ingrained in the culture … very ingrained in the culture. For example, the prime minister, he considered it important enough to reveal his blood type profile on the web. He's an A and his rival opposition leader is a B and he was, you know, comparing the traits, I guess, between, well, what they claim the traits of people who have A blood type versus B blood type are.

S: Oh my god, it's just so absurd.

E: and, you know, it's crazy

B: It's annoying.

E: it's a wild concept. Yeah, you know and this … actually, what's even, I felt more annoying is, looking into this a little bit, is, in the history of it, is that, ah, you know, this was first, the idea of typing people based on blood type was really used in Nazi Germany to further their ideas of supremacy over different races and during the 1920s and the 1930s, this was also adopted by some people in Japan and there was a paper in 1927 that was published in Japan called The Study of Temperament Through Blood Type by Takeji Furukawa. It took off. It just became … it became a fad, really. That's what it was and … but the government took it seriously and they did some studies, some pretty bad studies in regards to breeding programs in how to, you know, maximize the potential for, you know, breeding people with more desirable blood types than others and, you know, total bonk, total nonsense and although it went away soon afterwards, it was revised again or revived again, I should say, in the 1970s. A fellow by the name of Masahiko Nomi, who was a lawyer, basically, decided to write books on the blood types. Just bring it back into the culture and thanks to him, ever since the 1970s, this craze has seeped into the Japanese culture and a lot, millions of people in Japan take it true to heart. They really really believe that personalities are determined by blood type.

S: Yeah, it's easy … it's no different than just the commonality of astrology in Western culture …

R: but it seems like they've taken it a bit more seriously because, you know, you wouldn't have Barak Obama accusing Hilary Clinton of being a Virgo or something and that's why she shouldn't lead, you know …

S: Yes.

R: It seems like it's much more serious if they're actually pulling it into politics and legitimizing it that way.

S: That's right and it also is striking, you know, to us, of course, it seems ridiculous … what, proteins in the blood are somehow gonna affect your personality? I mean that seems absurd and yet how many people believe that the position of the planets around the time of your birth has some magical effect on your personality …

J: You know there are people that believe that you should eat a particular diet depending on your blood type …

B: Oh yeah

J: Have you ever heard of that?

S: Yeah, we've talked about that …

R: Have we talked about that?

S: That's what we did talk about before was the sort of the blood type diet and things like that's utter nonsense but this is more sort of the astrological angle to it …

R: It's things like that that make me think that this isn't driven so much by a desire to discriminate against others but more along the lines of, ah, it's like this individual need people have to learn more about themselves some how and it kind of fulfills that need.

S: Yeah, I agree. I think we are ultimately egocentric and people like to hear things about themselves and confirmation bias kicks in.

E: Yeah

S: You know, you think, oh yeah, that does sound like me, you know. I am sometimes outgoing and at other times not so outgoing.

R: and there have been a few studies that have shown that when people are raised … I shouldn't say that have shown … that have suggested that people who are raised to understand what traits are associated with their, say, sun sign or their blood type or whatever, they actually do end up taking on those traits so it's kind of a self fulfilling prophecy.

E: You know, a couple of other ways for the folks in Japan that they take this very seriously is that, ah, match making. Match making agencies provide blood type compatibility tests, companies make decisions about assignments based on employees' blood type, children in kindergarten are divided up by blood type …

B: Wow

S: Can you imagine?

E: and the women's … talk about confirmation bias … and … women … the woman's soft ball team that won gold at the Beijing Olympics used the theory to customize each player's training …

S: Hmmm mmm

E: so, of course, it had to have worked otherwise they wouldn't have won the gold so therefore the blood typing and the routine … and the regimen must have worked …

R: We have a lot of expats listening to the show and I'm wondering if anybody living in Japan can report back to us and let us know whether or not that's all true because I always wonder when news reports come out of, ah, especially non-english speaking countries, whether or not things are a bit exagerated or anything.

S: That's a excellent point. Yeah, it's hard to get … you never really get a good insider's view of what's really going on from some, you know, mainstream press just reporting about it 'cause there's a lot of opportunity to distort what the real picture is.

E: We should note though that this writer from the Associated Press, ah, their name is Mar Yamaguchi. I would assume by the name that this is a Japanese person in Tokyo that is doing the report so that should be noted.

J: But could you imagine though … okay, going under the idea that what Evan said was accurate, could you imagine somebody sitting there and, by just somebody's blood type, coming up with an exercise program for an athlete. I wonder what parameters are altering to suit the athlete?

S: But that's like using hand writing analysis, which is very common in corporate culture in the United States.

E: Hmmm mmm

S: A lot of companies will do hand writing analysis on employee applications.

R: Yeah and of course there are personality tests that most of which are just rife with pseudoscience and a lot of companies use them, you know, as part of the interviewing process.

S: Right and it is an attempt at getting just cheap sense of control. It's like I want to apply this cheap and easy algorithm or system that will give me some sense that I have some control or knowledge over the situation. That's the appeal of it but, of course, it just gives you the illusion of control, which actually takes away your control because you're surrendering it to this pseudoscience and you're maybe allowing it to influence you rather than a more detailed or complete analysis of the person or rational analysis so it's ironic, you know, that the attempt to grab a sense of control actually causes you to surrender a little bit of it.

B: I hate it when that happens.

E: Haaa :-). That's such a type A thing to say Bob.

B: Ah, yeah.

E: I'm O negative. I'm the universal donor and I can only take …

S: You're a very giving person.

J: Well how about that rock band ABBA, you know, A B B A, I mean they are obviously following that.

S: Haa :-)

E: Was that their blood types? Collective blood types?

J: You can't prove it isn't.

E: Oh that's sweet.

(all laughing)

Questions and Emails (26:23)[edit]

S: Well let's go on to your email. The first email comes from Jason Smith in Bangkok, Thailand and Jason writes, "Hi guys, I've been concerned about a clever argument about how science makes valid testable predictions whereas non-science merely postdicts from time to time. Consider the assertion that recent scientific discoveries are conveniently postdicting old theories, which are preferred by the scientific establishment. For example, to be accepted, string theory must predict, in quotes, ordinary quantum mechanics and the standard model, however, Michio Kaku stated in your show that string theory has infinite solutions. Kaku can't loose. He can postdict whichever solution he needs or so called transitional fossils once discovered are conveniently placed where ever in the tree of life they are needed to support the theory of evolution. Of course, in practice some discoveries are made chronologically after all the evidence they predict has been collected. To accuse these scientists of foul play may sound quite reasonable although it is an argument from final consequences but the distinction can be quite subtle. I do not think this topic warrants a dedicated discussion but the next time the panel discusses a discovery which predicts already observed evidence perhaps it is worth identifying this distinction.

R: There was an astonishing number of dirty words hidden inside that email.

S: You think so?

R: I don't know if you noticed … Hmmm mmm. I don't want to say them because …

S: You're just retrofitting. But actually I do think this is worth a dedicated ... because this is a … this comes up quite a bit and this is a really important insight into the difference between science and pseudoscience. Science really does require the ability to make predictions about information that does not already exist. That doesn't mean, however, that that's all that science does. You know, in trying to understand nature and to create theories, which describe nature in a reliable and accurate way, the ability to predict future information is just one attribute. It also does have to be consistent with existing knowledge. In some of these examples, like with string theory being compatible with what we already know from quantum mechanics and the standard model of particle physics, that's just not about prediction. That statement's a non sequitur. It has to be compatible with it … in that … if it … if string theory requires that the standard model be something other than what we know it to be well it has to be wrong. That is confusing 2 different criteria of what makes a scientific theory legitimate.

B: Yeah, I would think if it predicted everything we know then it would surely raise my confidence for any predictions of stuff that we don't know yet.

S: Right but you still need that last bit. That, if this theory is true, it also would predict something we do not yet know and then if that prediction comes true then that goes much farther in confirming a theory than just being compatible with existing evidence. The reason for that is that humans are very good at pattern recognition. We're very good at retrofitting ideas to existing facts. I remember I had a discussion with an astrologist once and they were very impressed with their ability to explain why some … you know, there was a case of a girl who killed herself and this was a case that was, you know, in the newspapers and it was known in that area and he did, you know, in retrospected, an astrological chart and he was able to explain why she did what she did based upon her astrological chart. Well, of course, he was just retrofitting what he already knew happened and interpreting, you know, her astrological reading in order to fit what had been established already. What astrology doesn't do however is predict what's going to happen in the future. Now he brings up evolution as an example and evolution is actually an excellent example because evolutionary theory made tons of predictions. It predicted that there would be a mode of inheritance that would allow for the perpetuation of inherited characteristics without infinite dilution. Right? This was before genetics was discovered and evolution required something like genes to exist. A gene does not get infinitely diluted in the population. It actually can propagate through the population undiluted. Right? A single gene can be copied without change from parent to child and can spread throughout the population. So, that was actually a prediction of evolution. Evolution required that and it was later discovered. In terms of fossils, yeah, we're trying to piece these things together but there's lots of fossils that fit into what we, what evolution predicts must exist, at least in the broad brushstrokes. We knew that birds exist. That birds are most, you know, morphologically related to reptiles therefore evolutionary theory predicts that we're going to find fossil evidence of some animals that are somewhere in between birds and reptiles. That was a prediction of evolution. Evolution requires that we would find such fossils and then we did. We found Archaeopteryx and then a whole hosts of feathered dinosaurs. That was a confirmation of a prediction made by evolutionary theory.

B: Yeah, Steve, you're saying how … that the, you know … the fossils, the transitional fossils were conveniently placed where ever in the tree of life they are needed to support the theory of evolution but, I mean, going along with what you are saying, it's not where it was needed like, oh, here is a hole, let's throw it in here but it's where it was predicted to fit. So it's a little more than just like, oh, here is a hole, let's put it in here.

S: Yeah. Exactly.

R: It's more like here's a puzzle piece hole that perfectly fits this puzzle piece I just found.

S: That's right, although, and this is where I think that the creationists exploit, ah, what is, can be a subtle, misunderstanding here, is that evolution predicts the broad brushstrokes. Like I said, it predicts that there will be something between reptiles and birds to connect these major groups but it doesn't predict the fine detail. It doesn't predict exactly what species evolved when and to which other species so we didn't know, for example, evolution doesn't require that birds evolve from dinosaurs. They could have evolved from some other reptile. So when we find fossils, not only are we fitting the puzzle pieces into a hole but remember, we don't know what the picture is ahead of time. We're also figuring out what the picture is as we go along and, therefore, that changes how we think about where the holes are and where the puzzle pieces should go if that makes sense. So …

R: You extended that metaphor beautifully.

S: Yeah, it's easy to exploit confusion about the broad brushstrokes of what evolution predicts or requires versus the fine details about what evolved into what, when, which … that, we can only retrofit after we find the fossil and then, you know, it's basically, ah, again like we're getting a new puzzle piece with a little bit of the picture together and that changes how we think about how to draw the tree of evolutionary life.

Interview with Massimo Pigliucci (33:39)[edit]

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

S: Joining us now is Professor Massimo Pigliucci. Massimo, welcome back to the skeptics guide.

M: It's a pleasure to be here.

S: And Massimo is a professor of ecology and evolution at the Stony Brook University. He is the author of several books including a 2006 "Making Sense of Evolution," in 2002 "Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science." He's also the author of a column for the Skeptical Inquirer and I know, recently you started a blog called "Rationally Speaking" or not so recently but, of course, the most important thing to say is that you were the very first person to be interviewed on the now famous Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

B: Ha ha :-).

M: Is that right? Wow.

S: That's right.

M: I should mention that on my CV.

S: And it's only taken us 4 years to have you back.

M: That's right.

B: Ha ha :-).

S: I see you've been busy since we interviewed you last time. Of course, you have another, a new book out and you are also working on another book as well.

M: Yeah, this one should be out by the end of the year or early 2010. It is called, the provisional title is "Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk" and it's for general public. It's going to be published by University of Chicago Press. The idea is, of the book, is to explore the difference between science, non-science, and pseudoscience. What philosophers often refer to as the demarcation problem.

S: Hmmm mmm.

M: Where does science start and non-science or pseudoscience begin and, in doing so, however, it's not just a discussion of the usual suspects such as creationism, intelligent design, astrology, parapsychology, UFOlogy, and all the other 'ologies that one can think of but it also wanders into territory that is a little bit more complicated and probably more relevant to people's lives such as how science are present… is presented or misrepresented in the media. What is the role of science in politics and even in the court room?

S: Hmmm mmm.

M: So it's been a lot of fun to write and we're now in the final editing stages and it should be coming out later this year.

S: Great and also, you know, you talk about the demarcation problem between science and pseudoscience and, sure, as skeptics, we deal with a lot of this stuff way over to one end of that spectrum but there's a lot of things that are kind of in the middle, that are not really easy to say on what side of the fence they fall on and so are there any topics, in particular, you cover in the book where you said, "gee this is kind of, you know, not really pure science or pseudoscience but somewhat right in the middle there?"

M: That's right. The so called demarcation problem, when one phrases it that way, the image that comes to mind is that of a line sort of dividing, sharply dividing science from non-science but, as you said, that's not actually the case. There's a lot of gray areas in there and gray areas are actually interesting because those are fields of inquiry that may stay there and sort of limbo forever, you know, epistemological limbo forever, or may become actually mainstream science or they may turn definitely into the pseudoscience and the central part of the book deals exactly with those areas, some examples of those areas, and some of the things that I put there may surprise your listeners. For instance, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the SETI program. You know I'm a fan of the SETI program. I have their, you know, I've downloaded their screensaver that works …

S: SETI at home. Yeah.

M: That's right, SETI at home that does data analysis for them. So it's fun and it's interesting and, of course, I wish them all the best, ah, luck in finding something out there but on the other hand, if one analyzes, the SETI research program as science, it's a little bit wanting. You know, there's no theoretical structure or the only theoretical structure I could find there was the famous Drake equation that goes back into the, to the late 50s or early 60s, and which really doesn't tell us much in the way of, you know, how do we look for extraterrestrial intelligence. It makes a lot of assumptions that are questionable such as that extraterrestrial intelligent beings are somehow interested in communicating, which is, you know, a simple projection of human psychology and it may sound natural to somebody who is a Star Trek fan, like I am, but it's not necessarily indicative of a good scientific guess about what an extraterrestrial intelligence could be. So I consider SETI sort of a borderline. Obviously, should they succeed, which may happen, you know, tomorrow, then that would change dramatically the way in which we see ourselves in the universe and we definitely put them squarely into the realm of science but there is a very good chance that they will never succeed and there is also a very good argument that can be made that their hypothesis simply cannot really be tested in the long run.

S: Yeah, that is a great example because that is one that I often hear skeptics arguing about. So, among scientists and skeptics, we can have disagreements about whether or not SETI qualifies as, quote, unquote, real science. Although, I tend to be on the side that thinks that it is. Although, you just have to take it for what it is. You can't impose upon it criteria that are not appropriate to what it is trying to do. For example, you said, "if it succeeds tomorrow." Well, the very fact that it can succeed, doesn't that make it legitimate? I mean, doesn't that ??? of legitimacy doing something whether it can be an objective outcome?

M: Well, yes and no. So, let me play Devil's advocate. As I said, I am also very sympathetic to the SETI search in general but one can make the same argument about, you know, or could have made, I suppose, thousands of years ago, the same argument about astrology. Well, you know, it could have succeeded. There was no logical reason, a priori, why astrology had to be bunk. It just happened to be that way.

S: Hmmm mmm

M: It just turned out that it was that way. So, in that sense, then astrology is, one can consider, it is in fact a scientific endeavor. It's just that it is a failed scientific endeavor. Well, some people, some philosophers of science might actually make that argument but I'll be very uncomfortable, actually, considering astrology a science at any stage of its development but the very fact that we're having this discussion is, in fact, the point that I'm trying to make in the book, which is, there is very reasonable disagreement among intelligent people and knowledgeable people about the status of certain fields of inquiry that tells you that demarcation is not a sharp one.

S: This is a debate that a neurologist and an evolutionary biologist are not gonna settle tonight.

M: Probably. That's right. Probably shouldn't have but let me give you one example, on the other hand, that is a debate that we might have that is, it's also covered in my book and that is evolutionary psychology. Now, I'm an evolutionary biologist and so, I have absolutely no problem, obviously, with Darwin's theory or the application of Darwin's theory, including to humans, and I have no problem with the basic assumption of evolutionary psychology, which is that, in principle, at least, it's possible that some human cognitive abilities evolved by natural selection in the recent, ah, you know, in the not too recent past of human evolution. All this is perfectly fine. The problem that I point out in the book with evolutionary psychology comes when one starts making specific claims about specific human behaviours and how they evolve by natural selection and the reason there is a problem there is not because there is something unsound about the general idea but because human beings happen to be, especially in terms of human behaviour, they happen to be a horrible system where to test hypothesis about evolutionary history. So, it turns out that, by and large, there are 3 ways in which evolutionary biologists can possibly test hypothesis about natural selection. One is if you measure natural selection happening right now, which you can do in most organisms but you can't do it in human beings or, at least, you can do it in human beings in their current environment but that's irrelevant to the claims of evolutionary psychologists because they say that most human behaviours evolved, actually, you know, around the pleistocene. So, in a situation where the environment, social and physical, was very different.

S: Are there any sufficiently isolated hunter-gatherer tribes still in existence that we can use as a reasonable model of pleistocene man?

M: That is hard to say because we don't really have much information about how pleistocene man actually lived. But, yes, it is certainly possible to do that. It's still very difficult to actually measure natural selection on human beings for the simple reason that we have a long life span and, especially in small populations, the numbers are simply going to be very small.

S: Yeah.

M: So, it's either not possible at all if we're talking about pleistocene or very very difficult to do. That's one possibility and it's either entirely out or almost. The second way in which evolutionary biologists test hypothesis about the evolution of some traits or others is, of course, through the fossil record. Now, the human fossil record is getting better and better but, of course, unfortunately, most human behaviours don't leave any fossil trace, certainly not the kind of human behaviours that evolutionary psychologists are interested in so that's out as well. And then the third big one is by doing what is called comparative analysis, comparative philogenetic analysis, that is, you pick a group of close related species and if you have enough of them and if they show enough variation in the characters, the traits that you're interested in, you may be able to tell with a certain amount of rigor which way the evolution, the direction of evolution went. The problem with human beings, of course, as we know, is that we don't have any close relatives. We only have 3 or 4 species of primates, you know, 2 are chimpanzees and 1 or 2 are gorillas. They're really not that close related to us. They diverged too far back into our evolutionary ancestry for really them being useful and, at any rate, there is only 3 or 4 of them, which simply does not constitute a good statistical sample. Had more pre-human or proto-human species survive to modern times, the situation would be different. So, what I'm saying, it's not the evolutionary psychologists' fault that we are in that situation but, unfortunately, that's the way it is and so I take most of what evolutionary psychologists says not really as science per se but as reasonable narratives about how things might have gone. So that's a much lower standard than classic science. I don't think it qualifies as classic science but it is interesting and they may be even right on some of the things that they are saying.

S: Right. Yeah, I basically agree. I think that, although, what I was saying with SETI and also theoretical physics, that there are some endeavors that have some subset of science and that are important and even necessary components of science but they don't have the whole package. So they don't really … they're not closing the loop on having a falsifiable testable hypothesis. As you say, it may just be for practical reasons. Just, you know, behaviours don't fossilize and we have very few examples so it's just very very difficult, although, I'm not giving up on evolutionary psychology. I think that, although difficult, somebody may be clever enough to figure out a way to test it in a meaningful way. You wrote recently on your blog, "Rationally Speaking", about strong inference and how that is a legitimate scientific endeavor. So is it possible that that kind of strong inference can apply to evolutionary psychology in a clever way at some point where we might be able to test some of those ideas?

M: No, I think evolutionary psychology, if it is going to be rescued, is going to be rescued by other means but not by strong inference and so let's summarize briefly what strong inference is.

S: Sure.

M: The term was … I'm not sure whether it was introduced by Platt in 1964 but it's not much older than that and it refers to a particular way of doing science. Think about it this way. If you can ask very clear cut questions that admit only either a yes or no or no answer or there is only a very small number of possible answers you can come up with that are amenable and if you can imagine doing experiments that one by one eliminates all the answers but one then you're doing strong inference. I claim actually in the blog entry that you've seen, which incidentally is in fact an excerpt from the book, I claim in there that a lot of sciences cannot actually do that, especially organismal biology, especially college evolutionary biology, and, of course, even more so, the social sciences cannot do that but it cannot apply strong inference, not because, you know, people are lazy or stupid or they don't know what they are doing. It's because of the way of the subject matter that they are interested in. A lot of questions in ecology, evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology do not admit of simple yes or no answers or of answers defined to a small number of discrete categories. Very often the answers are quantitative. They are highly dependent on the context and that's just the nature of the beast. So my point there is that actually just because, say evolutionary psychology, doesn't fit the criterion of strong inference that actually is not a good argument to dismiss evolutionary psychology because if we were that strict then, pretty much, only physics and chemistry would be left standing at the end of the day.

S: So, there are weaker forms of inference or just different methods that are used for the social sciences?

M: Yes, so the major alternative form of inference, it's called sometimes consilience and now you may remember that there was a famous book by E. O. Wilson with that title that came out back in '98 but he was talking about, actually he was using the term in ??? and not exactly in terms of inference but in philosophy, a consilience is essentially the situation where several lines of inquiry tend to point to the same conclusion so that although none of the lines of inquiry is definitive, the fact that a lot of them point in the same sort of direction, philosophers sometimes refer to this as a triangulation in logical space, now imagine all of these lines of inquiry and they tend to point toward the same culprit so to speak, then you're justified in, at least, provisionally and probabilistically conclude that that is, in fact, the right answer. This is, in fact, the way in which, famously, Darwin proceeded. He was very conscious that that's what he was doing. That consilience, which is a type of induction, was what he was doing. He dedicated the Origin of Species to Whewell who was one of the most famous philosophers of the time and the guy who actually came up with the term consilience. So it's an interesting example, historically, of a scientist who was very much aware of what he was doing from an epistemological perspective.

S: Hmmm mmm. And, of course, this is the episode that will be out during Darwin Day, Feb. 12, which is Darwin's hundred and … Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species so I do wanna, I think, spend the rest of our interview talking about that. There's so much I want to talk to you about but let's focus a little bit on Darwin and evolution and, of course, creationism. Now, as you say, the consilience is a huge part of a lot of sciences, certainly in medicine, for example, my own field. A lot of our conclusions are based upon this kind of consilience or multiple lines of evidence but each one of which can be picked apart if you really want, if you're dedicated to denying the conclusion and you go out of your way to miss the big picture and that's what I see creationists doing. They sort of pick on one little thread at a time and they're deliberately not seeing the big picture so, first of all, do you agree that for evolution that's how we know it is true? Although there is some lines of evidence that are pretty damn strong but it is an established fact because there are so many different lines of evidence that establish it.

M: Yes, that's correct. When people say that evolution is both a fact and a theory what they mean is that the fact of evolution is evident from evidence such as the fossil record but, of course, the fossil record itself is not seeing evolution happening. It's infering that evolution happened by the fact that you see a series of changes. You've heard the creationist counter argument that well, no, that really didn't happen. It's just God put things in that way to test your faith. Well, there is no logical contradiction in that. It could be that God, in fact, is that malicious and that he gives us, you know, misleading information so that many of us can go to hell just for using our brain in the way that it's supposed to be used. It's certainly possible. It doesn't contradict any laws of logic but, boy, it's a bad bet because it denies a lot of convergent evidence toward the conclusion that evolution actually did happen the way in which it looks like in the fossil record. So, yes, evolution as a fact is, in fact, a result of a consilience of evidence and, therefore, it is deniable in principle. Pretty much almost everything in science, actually, is deniable in principle because you can always come up with alternative scenarios that are more and more convoluted and that account for the same facts but the question there becomes, at that point, there is a different mechanism that comes in and that is that usually you evaluate one hypothesis against one or more alternatives. So now the question is no longer, well, is the Darwinian view of evolution correct or not but rather is the Darwinian view of evolution better and, in fact, perhaps significantly better, much better than any alternative view of evolution and, it turns out, that, historically, there had been alternative views of evolution that were non-Darwinian. I'm not talking about creationism, which I don't consider a science so I don't think creationist was ever in the ball park there in competition with Darwinian evolution. But, for instance, the basic idea of natural selection, which, of course, was the major idea proposed by Darwin was very much in doubt by the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century. There were alternative theories. There was a resurgence of Lamarckism, of inheritance of acquired characteristics. It was called neo-Lamarckism. There were biologists, professional biologists, serious scientists who, mostly paleontologists, who thought, who defended an idea called orthogenesis that basically claimed that evolution happens because of an internal drive that organisms have and has nothing to do with natural selection or natural selection is a minor mechanism. Then people at the beginning of the 20th century discovered, rediscovered Mendel's laws and genetics was born and the very first thing that people started thinking was wait this is a problem for Darwin because Darwin was talking about continuous variation of small gradual changes in evolution and the first data that came out of genetics were traits that were inherited discretely. Mendelian traits are yes or no. You have either the green peas or the yellow peas. So it looked like genetics was posing a challenge to Darwinism because it was denying the possibility of having inheritance of continuous characters. It took about 30 years from the 1918 to the end of the 1940s to actually figure out why the new genetics did not, in fact, pose a problem to Darwin but through the theory of population genetics people were actually able to reconcile the 2 beautifully and come up with what today we call the modern synthesis, which is essentially the standard model in evolutionary biology. So my point is there were alternatives at several different times during the history of biology. There were serious alternatives that were considered, an alternative to the Darwinian theory. So it's simply not the case that Darwinism has been an orthodoxy from the beginning and has never been challenged and so on and so forth. It's just that when the challenges happened eventually, in the long run, Darwinism did win and, currently, it is the only theory standing.

S: In your opinion, what is the biggest deficit in science education that we're facing and that's, you know, in part, contributing to things like creationism?

M: Well, I can … there are actually studies ??? coming out in the last few years that address that on a systematic basis, that question, in a systematic basis. But I can tell from my own anecdotal experience, which essentially confirms these broader studies. So I typically teach 2 undergraduate courses here at Stony Brook and one of them is a course on, basically, the nature of science. It's a small class. It's based mostly on discussions with the students and the whole idea of the class is to explore different aspects of how people do science and where science fails and when it fails, why does it fail, and how does it work when it works. Then I switch literally, usually in the same day, about 20 minutes later, I switch classroom and I go into a large classroom with 500 plus people. Where I teach an introductory biology class. The introductory biology class is based on a much thicker book. It's about a thousand pages. It's almost entirely facts. There is no conceptual presentation whatsoever, you know. It's just as much fun as reading the yellow pages from A to Z. Now, in your opinion, which one of my students are more excited about science at the end of the semester?

S: Well, of course, the theoretical, the small theoretical class.

M: Right. The theoretical and as well as the small class.

S: Yeah.

M: Because they enjoy the discussion. So I mean that is the problem or it's part of the problem, you know. The creationism doesn't reduce only to a matter of science education, of course. It's a complex cultural and historical phenomenon. But, as far as science education is concerned, the main problem that we have is that we teach science too much especially at the pre-college level but even at the college level until you get to advance courses. We teach too much science in terms of just presentation of information. Because there is so much information, in fact, that it's a field that has been exploding in the last several decades. And we do not allow the students to think about the nature of what they're doing. The nature of biological discovery. How do we know things about biological organisms? How do we discover these things? How does the science work? We don't teach much in the way of critical thinking. I know that critical thinking has become a buzz word that is now used even, it appears, even in high school level text but one thing is to use the buzz word and another thing to actually teach critical thinking. It's not actually a simple thing at all because it requires quite a bit of background knowledge on the part of the teacher, which most teachers don't have. They're not trained to do that sort of thing and it also requires small classrooms and the one on one attention by the teacher, which is something that more and more we cannot afford either at the pre-college level or the college level until you get to advanced classes when the students get the benefits of these approaches when they get to advance classes but by the time you get to advance classes in biology in college, you know, you lost most of your audience. Very few people get to that point. Other people loose interest in science much earlier on and simply do not pursue it.

S: That's interesting because there are studies which show that belief in the paranormal, for example, actually increases with overall education until you get to advance science classes then it decreases.

M: That's right.

S: That goes along with what you're saying.

J: Earlier, right in the beginning of the interview we were talking about how SETI is considered to be on the fringe. Going with that logic, would you say that anything that current science can't prove would be considered on the fringe until we … the science progresses enough where we could prove or disprove it?

M: Yeah, let me put it this way. I think that if one has to give a definition of science, which, of course, is very … it's always dangerous because precise definitions of complex concepts are very difficult to, if not impossible to give. But if one were to give a definition, I would say that science at the bottom is an activity … is a quest about understanding the natural world which is based on empirical information and statements about that world in the form of hypothesis, theories, or what you want that are empirically testable. So the empirical testability of scientific statements is what makes them scientific. So if there is, in fact, no way to seriously or reasonably or test empirically a particular statement then, in my opinion, that makes that statement either non-scientific or, you know, borderline in the case of situations like SETI or string theory because there may be a way to do it but we're not actually know how to go about it or we don't have much of a chance to actually be able to do it.

S: As opposed to say intelligent design, which by its very formulation is impossible to disprove.

M: That's right. There is no set of facts, no set of data or observation that can possibly contradict the intelligent design assumption because, you know, by definition, we don't know who the intelligent designer is although, wink wink, of course, creationists will tell you that they do know but they don't … they know better than actually make predictions about who the designer is, what he's doing, and how he's doing it. So the major difference … in that case, SETI is an interesting example because there is a huge difference between SETI, of course, and intelligent design although apparently, you know, superficially they may seem actually similar but the major difference is that SETI researchers actually do make specific hypothesis about who the designers are and what they are doing and how they're gonna go about doing it. They're making, you know, they're projecting essentially human psychology and technology and they're making predictions. Now whether those predictions are gonna turn out to be true or not, it remains to be seen but they are sticking their neck out. Intelligent design proponents, on the other hand, don't do that because they don't tell you who the designer is, what he's up to, and how he's gonna do it and unless they tell us that there is no way to test any hypothesis because any data whatsoever, any situation that we might encounter out there in the world is perfectly compatible with whatever the anonymous and unknown designer wanted to do for whatever unknown reasons.

S: Well, thank you Massimo. This has been a great interview.

M: It was a pleasure.

S: And we'll talk to you soon.

M: Thank you.

Science or Fiction (1:01:10)[edit]

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with 3 science news items or facts, 2 genuine and 1 fictitious then I challenge my expert skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week and the theme is evolution. So 3 evolutionary items.

(skeptics grunting)

S: Ready?

(skeptics grunting agreement)

S: Item no. 1, paleontologists have published a description of a new transitional whale ancestor 82.5 million years old suggesting that whales branched off from terrestrial mammals prior to the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Item no. 2, researchers have found evidence of multicellular animal life 100 million years older than the Cambrian explosion. And item no. 3, paleontologists have discovered fossil evidence of the largest known snake named titanoboa, which would have weighed 2500 pounds and spanned greater than 42 feet in length.


J: That's the worst name I've ever heard.


E: Titanoboa! Gargantu slither!

R: It is a pretty terrible name.

J: Steve, I'm gonna say right now if you did not make up the word, titanoboa, I'm gonna be very disappointed at the end of this segment.

E: Does that mean you're guessing first Jay?

S: Do you want to go first Jay then?

J: I'm going first.

S: Go.

E: Woa, alright, step aside.

J: Titanoboa is the fake.

E: (laughing)

S: Just based purely on the name.

J: Yup, that's it.

S: Okay (laughing). Alright, Rebecca?

E: Oh my gosh.

R: Seriously, just because of the name titanoboa.

J: That's it.

E: Wow.

R: Alright, I think titanoboa is a fact and I look forward to seeing Anaconda 3. Titanoboa!

E: Starring titanoboa!

R: (laughing) So that leaves us with a transitional whale ancestor 82.5 million years old, which seems pretty old. I can buy the whale fossil thing but I'm not so sure about the age? So let's see and then the other thing is, ya, multicellular animal life 100 million years older than the Cambrian explosion. Again, I have serious timeline issues here. So frankly, I'm not really sure which to go with but I'm going to lean towards the multicellular animal life. That 100 million years older than the Cambrian explosion. That … what are you whispering Evan?

J: (laughing)

R: Are you whispering titanoboa to try to throw me? I think that …

E: titanoboa

R: (laughing) No, you know, I was gonna go with the multicellular animal life one but now I'm just gonna flip it. I'm gonna go with the whale.

J: Ah, why don't you pick the one with me? Come on.

R: Because that's the only one I'm positive is true. Because titanoboa is obviously an awesome name.

S: Okay.

R: The other 2 I'm not so sure about.

S: Okay, Bob.

B: Titanoboa, yeah, I mean, what else would you call a really really really big snake? Forty two feet in length and 2500 pounds. That's not crazy. I'm mean it's not like it's a 200-foot snake. Forty two, I mean, sounds reasonable. I think, if Steve was going to lie about that he would have exaggerated that a little bit more. The multicellular life 100 million years older than the Cambrian explosion, yeah, that's a long time before the Cambrian explosion. I'm not so sure about that one. But no. 1, the whale splitting off 82.5 million years off of terrestrial mammals. That's not sitting right with me. Something about that, I mean, mammals were pretty tiny back then. I'm gonna go with that one, the whale one is fiction.

S: Okay, Evan?

E: Okay, so I'll take them in reverse. Ah, titanoboa, I think that one is science. I think it's too cool not to be science and I could see Godzilla versus Titanoboa. So that's very cool. Alright, so that one's science and then I was gonna say, you know, this Cambrian explosion and 100 million years older than that. I mean, that is so far even in a relative sense. I think it's very far prior to this mass explosion of simple life on the planet that to go back 100 million years prior to that and find multicellular animal life, yeah, so I think the only thing that is sitting less right with me is the whale. I don't see it. I always thought that there were no large mammals that survived prior to 65 million years ago. I think rats and stuff were pretty much the largest things I think to remain so I'm gonna have to say that the whale's … that one is fiction.

S: Ah, well, let's take this in reverse order.

J: Okay.

S: Like Evan did. Let's start with paleontologists have discovered fossil evidence of the largest known snake name titanoboa, which would have weighed 2500 pounds and span greater than 42 ft. in length and that one is science.

J: Okay.

S: Jay, you did fall for my trap. I did make it a point to include the name titanoboa just to see if it would strike somebody as silly ...

J: It sure did.

S: … and get them to say it for that reason.


S: But titanoboa was a perfectly cromulent name. I mean there are titano??? and other titano animals, I mean, that prefix is commonly used for large species and, you know, I didn't think it was gonna be that far out because, yeah, it's only a little bit bigger than say the boa living today. So this is a … this creature, the titanoboa cerrejonensis, was a discovered 60 million year old South American snake. It is about 42.7 feet in length, which is about 13 meters. Now the current biggest or longest, I should say, species of snake today is the reticulated python of Southeast Asia, which is 10 meters. So, you know, it's bigger, 13 meters versus 10 meters but it's not twice as big or, you know, that much bigger.

E: 2500 pounds

S: So that's plausible. It also occurs at a time when there were many very large species. So there was actually an age of gigantism, you know, back then.

B: greater oxygen

S: Probably because there was greater oxygen in the atmosphere and it was just physiologically able to maintain larger species. So it was not a surprise that there were big everything back then. There were giant baboons. There were giant insects. There were giant everything. So no biggy there. It also may have to do with the fact that it was warmer back then and higher temperatures would allow for larger cold blooded species.

B: The problem though is that when, in a few years, when they find one even bigger. What are they, you know, how do you get bigger than titan? You know, ginormous?

(everyone suggests their superlatives)

S: So let's go to no. 2. Researchers have found evidence of multicellular animal life, 100 million years older than the Cambrian explosion.

E: That's old.

S: That's old.

E: That's old folks.

J: That's cool.

S: And that one is also science.

(everyone exclaims their joy)

S: Yeah, so that's certainly a little surprising from one perspective but not surprising from another perspective. So the Cambrian explosion is when we first find fossil evidence of multicellular life in the fossil record and the date for this has been pushed back slowly over the years. Now it's around 580 million years ago. But it was always believed that that was when animals developed the first hard bits that fossilized but there had to be some preexisting multicellular life that just wasn't … didn't have hard bits that fossilize yet. They had to evolve through some period but it wasn't known, of course, how long that period would be. Was it 10 million years, you know, 50 million years? It's not clear. And this evidence is not fossils. Right? So it still is not … we still … this is not fossils from before the Cambrian explosion. This is just evidence that there was animal life before the Cambrian explosion. What scientists found was a modified form of cholesterol produced by sponges and that's the only known way for this chemical to exist.

E: Good cholesterol or bad cholesterol?

S: Yeah, right … sponge cholesterol. This suggests that these creatures existed around 630 million years ago or earlier.

B: So, are you saying that we basically know this because Sponge Bob had too many crabby patties back then?

S: That's right.

(skeptics laughing)

E: I knew there was science somewhere in that show.

S: This is very very interesting. It also takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of the creationists who like to exploit the misunderstanding about the Cambrian explosion. They say, "Oh scientists say life suddenly appears in the fossil record. Well, what could cause something to suddenly appear? Creation perhaps?" But it's such simple minded nonsense. Of course, suddenly appear means over 5 to 10 million years. That's a long time and again that's only once things started to fossilize. We knew there was a preexisting period where there were evolving complexity leading up to the threshold of fossilization and now there's evidence for it going back even further.

J: Hmmm mmmm

E: and therefore

S: And therefore, paleontologists have published a description of a new transitional whale ancestor 82.5 million years old suggesting that whales branched off from terrestrial mammals prior to the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago is complete and utter fiction.

E: Woo hoo

S: Yeah, that is a little early. I mean, there were more than tiny … there were larger mammals. You know, at that time. Dog sized or even a little bit larger. They weren't all just, you know, rat sized. That's a bit of a myth. The terrestrial ancestors of whales were about that size. They were like … they were not huge, you know. The whales didn't become huge until after they took to the water. So that one isn't quite as far fetched as it may seem. However, it is not true. What is true is that a new species of whale ancestor was recently described. Although this one dates to 47.5 million years ago. The first whale ancestor dates back to about 52 million year ago. So after the dinosaurs went extinct. And they did evolve from a group of mammals, of terrestrial mammals. They evolved from wolf sized carnivores named creodonts and the first whales are called archaeocetes. Ancient whales. That's what that means. The first of these are all coming out of Pakistan in that area. The first whale ancestor was called Pakicetus. After Pakistan. A slightly more recent whale, Ambulocetus, the walking whale and essentially over the last 20 or so years we've discovered different whale ancestors showing a gradual adaptation from land to sea. Again, this is a slam dunk, homerun, touch down, every sports metaphor that you can think of, win for evolution. We knew that these animals had to exist. They had to exist roughly in this time frame and we found them and we found them showing the nose moving back from the front to the top of the forehead. The legs and arms shrinking. The tail fluke expanding. The size growing. I mean, it doesn't get better. This is such a beautiful evolutionary sequence and now we have one more. Now we have another whale ancestor. This one described by Philip Gingerich who was actually the guy who found the first one, Pakicetus. And this one is called Maiacetus inuus and this is cool. So in this fossil bed in Pakistan, they found …

B: It gave birth on land? This one, it gave birth on land?

S: Yes, exactly with a fetus inside of it and at a later time but in the same fossil bed they found the male of the same species. So now we have a mommy, a daddy, and an unborn fetus. And the fetus was heading head out. Land mammals tend to give birth head first whereas whales give birth tail first. So they think this may mean that this whale ancestor was still giving birth on land. Had not yet adopted to giving birth in the ocean. It had legs that it used to swim so it had, you know, flippers but could still probably walk clumsily on land. You know, you can think of something like a seal, you know, that is adapted to swimming but still has limbs and can flap around on land if it has to. It was returning to land to breed and to give birth probably but was then taken to the sea for food, for hunting.

B: Wow, I'd love to see that.

S: So all cool evolutionary related news items this week.

E: You're right Steve, there was a theme.

S: There was a theme and it was all to celebrate, of course, Darwin Day.

R: That was a good theme.

J: Yeah.

E: All right, Darwin.

J: Thank you Steve.

E: Next week will be Lincoln.

S: Ha ha. I have to do Lincoln related news items?

E: We'll talk about that next week.

S: Ah, I can think about that doing or maybe expand it to early American or something, I don't know.

Who's That Noisy? (1:15:14)[edit]

S: Well, Evan.

E: Oh yeah.

S: We are all ...

J: Who's that noisy?

S: restlessly waiting to hear the results of last week's "Who's That Noisy?".

E: For those of you who missed it. For both of you who missed it. Here was last week's "Who's That Noisy?".

I was interested in theoretical physics, explaining atom's vibrations

E: Okay, so that was Edward Teller.

S: Edward Teller

E: Nuclear physicist, father of the hydrogen bomb.

J: Woah.

E: Oh yeah, powerful man.

S: And quite a magician although it doesn't say much.

E: That's true. Yes, so, ah, and what I did is I just took a clip of him from a rare interview that I found on YouTube about him and I chopped it up a little so it couldn't exactly be googled for those of you who try to, you know, do a little google cheating out there. But we do have a winner and someone did guess correctly and that person replied on the boards. They are SkeptemberMorn.


J: Oh god.

E: That's what it says. SkeptemberMorn.

R: It's terrible.

S: Oh my goodness.

E: And, ah, congratulations to him or her.

S: Congratulations.

E: Well done.

R: You win nothing.

J: Yeah, you win nothing.

S: Evan, what do you got for this week?

E: Alright, listen closely and tell me "Who's That Noisy?". Here it comes.

(some strange gibberish is played)

J: What?


E: Did you get that? That is it. That's all you get.

S: That was the whole thing?

E: You want to hear it one more time?

(everyone says yes)

E: Here it comes one more time.

(the strange gibberish is played again)

J: That's Elmo.

E: That's it.

R: Actually, I know exactly what that is.


E: So, give it your best shot folks. Identify that noisy and I wish you all the best luck.

S: You are diabolical Mr. Bernstein.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:07)[edit]

S: So Jay, the quote.

J: Yes, the quote tonight. Marcus Tullius Cicero.

I am not ashamed to confess that I am ignorant of what I do not know.

J: Marcus Tullius Cicero!

E: Marcus Aurelius.

J: Sent in by Chris Everan.

S: That's almost by definition. Right?

J: Yeah.

S: But, I guess, the point is if you're ignorant of something you may not know even that you're ignorant of it.

J: And he is not ashamed to admit it.

S: Ha ha. We're not ashamed to admit it.

J: Cicero was a Roman philosopher, statesman, a lawyer, a political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. And why do all these historical figures have like dozens of titles? I have another announcement. We launched the website.


J: And it's buggy as hell.

S: That's a little anticlimactic, Jay. Can you like build it up a little bit more, maybe?

J: After a year!

S: A year in the making and we have a gorgeous but buggy website.

J: We were very excited. We kept putting it off. We were waiting, waiting for things and people and everything but finally everything kind of gelled and Geremy and I, last week, just were like, "Okay, that's it. We're launching it." As is, right now, we're gonna launch it. We had to draw a line in the sand and just say, you know, there are still some work left to be done but we launched it. Of course it launched with some bugs. It's still buggy. Hopefully by the time you guys hear this, we'll have fixed most of the bugs. We're listening to feedback on the forum and if you want to email us any feedback that you have I'd appreciate it.

S: Well, thank you all for joining me again this week.

E: You too, Steve.

S: And happy Darwin Day everyone.

J: You too, Steve.

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at For questions, suggestions and other feedback, please use the 'contact us' form on the website, or send an email to 'info @'. If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us to spread the word by voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.

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