SGU Episode 19

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SGU Episode 19
16th Nov 2005

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SGU 18 SGU 20
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis


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Show Notes


Introduction[edit]

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is November 16, 2005. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. With me today are Bob Novella ...

B: Hello, everyone.

S: And Perry DeAngelis.

P: Good evening.

S: Evan Bernstein, who normally joins us, is not able to make it tonight.

News Items[edit]

James Doohan (0:27)[edit]

S: So let's start by going over some skeptical news items. A few items caught my attention this week. The first is about James Doohan, who many of you may know as Star Trek's Scotty. He died recently, and you may have heard that, according to his wishes, his ashes were to be blasted into outer space.

B: Cool!

S: Sort of a final tribute to Scotty. Scotty—his character—he was the Engineer of the Enterprise. Sort of a running bit in the show was the conflict between Captain Kirk and Scotty. Kirk was always demanding that he fix the ship and the engines in half the time than was feasible, and Scotty would always do it.

P: Only because he said that he would double his time.

S: True; he doubled his estimate so that he could half it.

B: (laughs)

S: So he was to be launched recently in a Falcon 1 rocket. However, ironically, the launch was delayed due to engine trouble.

B: Haa.

P: (chuckles)

B: If Scotty was on the job that wouldn't have happened.

S: That's right. So the rocket launch is now delayed. They say it's not going to fly—

P: Is there a problem with the dilithium chamber?

S: I think the dilithium crystals are cracked and the phase reversal was all out of whack.

P: Damn harmonics!

S: So it's not going to fly any sooner than February of 2006. We will keep you updated about Scotty's final trip into space.

Celestial Drops (1:59)[edit]

S: Another item that was sent to me by a colleague this week is about ...

B: You have colleagues?

S: I do. They're out there somewhere. The State of Florida has recently launched a study into the benefits of magical or supernatural water as a cure for citrus canker. Now, canker is basically—

P: I assume that's a disease on a fruit.

S: Yes, it's a disease of citrus fruit trees. It is a bacteria.

B: Pretty nasty!

S: It is.

B: Apparently the only thing you can do is destroy the tree—

S: That's right.

B: —and dispose of it properly.

S: That's right. There's no cure for the bacteria.

B: There's no salve for the canker or anything like that, I guess.

S: But because, like anything incurable, it attracts the quacks and the charlatans, and people are always offering up their miracle cures. But, of course, the scientists who are in charge of such things don't pay any attention, but now they decided to do a study of what is called "celestial drops", which is this supernatural water. I love this. This is classic pseudo-science technobabble. Celestial drops are promoted as a canker inhibiter because of its—this is in quotes—"improved fractal design, infinite levels of order, and high energy and low entropy."

P: Improved fractal design.

S: Improved fractal design.

B: That's a new one, I must admit, using a little chaos theory to promote your wacky claims.

S: Right. I mean, it's basically just a non-sensical incoherent mish-mash of scientific-sounding terminology, which is typical of pseudo-science. But what's amazing is that they actually got the state of Florida to study this stuff, which apparently is prayed—this is a Jewish—like a Kabbalistic ritual, they sort of pray over it and turn it into this supernatural water.

P: Don't the Catholics have blessed water, too?

S: They have their holy water.

P: Holy water.

S: But not celestial drops.

P: So, the difference between celestial and holy, it's...

S: Holy is good against demons and devils—

B: And vampires.

S: —and celestial drops is good against canker, apparently.

P: OK. It's a level thing. It's a hierarchy.

S: I guess so.

P: OK.

S: But you know the concern, of course, is that the company that sells these celestial drops will use the fact that it's being studied by the state of Florida as a promotional marketing tool.

B: Yeah.

S: So you can't even just study it—forget what the results of the study are, just the study itself gets used as a marketing tool. So, we'll keep an eye on that and see how that goes, I wonder.

P: Any price tag on that study? Was there any information with regards to that?

S: The article that I have did not... let's see. I don't see it.

B: Wasn't there some sort of resolution that they actually did some studies—found no evidence of any efficacy at all and kind of abandoned it? I thought I read something about some sort of resolution to the whole thing.

S: It just says they spent six months developing a protocol and that they finally started studying it. I don't see any results.

P: How recent is the piece?

S: This month.

P: OK. I would assume not, then, Bob.

S: But we'll see if we can dig up anything else on it for the next show. We'll give you an update.

P: OK.

S: But it looks like it's just they're beginning the study. There's no price tag on it listed in the ...

P: We'll keep an eye out.

S: Yeah.

Million Dollar Bigfoot Challenge (5:30)[edit]

S: And finally on the news segment. Perry, I think you sent me this one. A professor Loren Coleman at the University of Southern Maine, said that he was going to formally announce a million-dollar prize for any evidence which leads to the capture of a live Bigfoot. So this is not just for the evidence itself, but only evidence that results in the capture of a live specimen.

P: The million dollars was for an actual specimen. That's correct.

S: Yes, that's right.

P: A living specimen.

S: But apparently you didn't have to produce the specimen, just the evidence that led to the capture of the specimen. Dr. Coleman is a cryptozoologist, so she [sic] studies mythological or mysterious animals.

B: That's a coincidence, because I just put out an offer of a trillion dollars for anyone that gives me evidence that leads to Bigfoot.

P: Is that true?

B: So, cool! Yeah. A trillion dollars.

S: Well, I think what we could do—the New England Skeptical Society—the NESS—can formally offer, whatever, any sum that we wish: million, billion, trillion, whatever for evidence leading to the capture of a live Bigfoot. I'd be willing to take that chance.

B: Absolutely.

P: Of course, James Randi has had his own million dollars up for some number of years now.

S: Right. The Million Dollar Psychic Challenge, which we do occasional screening for. Randi's purpose is to basically force those with paranormal or supernatural claims—

B: To put up or shut up.

S: —to put up or shut up. He said, listen, I'm going to put up a million dollars. I want to put my money where my mouth is. I don't believe you can prove that you have supernatural or magical powers. If you can prove it in reasonable scientific controlled observation setting, I'll give you a million dollars. And that money is sitting in escrow. He can't chintz out on it. If somebody fulfills the criteria, they get the money. My sense is, from reading the articles, about Dr. Coleman, however, is that she is sincere. She's not doing this to prove that Bigfoot doesn't exist by forcing the Bigfoot community to put or shut up. She's doing this because she wants to find Bigfoot. Is that your sense, too, Perry?

P: Absolutely. In fact, I think the whole thing is that my sense of this is that Coleman was able to convince a toy company, which with further investigation, I discovered was in fact Hasbro, to put up this money—

S: Mm-hm.

P: —to generate interest. I'm sure that they would then use whatever was brought in to their own marketing benefits and sell more toys and figures, trading cards and everything else that they make.

B: Of Bigfoot?

P: The piece goes on. A subsequent piece stated that the offer was, in fact, withdrawn—

S: Mm-hm.

P: —prior to it even being formally announced, because the lawyers got wind of it and they're worried about people hurting themselves.

S: Right. Not that they're worried they're going to give the million dollars away. They're worried that somebody will hurt themselves questing for the picture of Bigfoot and then sue Hasbro.

P: Exactly.

S: Which is ridiculous, in my opinion.

P: They're afraid—in fact, the way Coleman says it, they were afraid someone's going to get hurt in the "frenzy" to find—

S: "Frenzy". Right.

P: —and photograph one of these creatures to find them.

B: I don't understand the connection between Hasbro and Bigfoot.

P: Well, it's not specific, Bob, but I assume that he was able to convince them to put the money up, though it's not stated, because in some way they were going to use it to market toys; maybe action figures of Sasquatch.

B: Do you think that a huge Bigfoot line of toys ready to launch as soon as somebody brings evidence...

P: You know, Bob. The Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness Monster; anything.

S: The whole collection, right?

P: The whole collection.

S: Cryptozoological collection.

P: That's right.

S: Well actually, they replaced the million-dollar offer for a live Bigfoot with a five-thousand dollar offer for just the best photo.

P: That's correct.

S: There's now a photo contest. Maybe we can send in some blurry photo of Perry in a gorilla costume.

P: Could, could.

S: Make a quick five-G.

P: I wear a size twelve. Probably wear a thirteen for the photo.

B: Or send a picture of Larry with no shirt on; that ought to work.

S: Our hairy friend, Larry.

P: OK.

S: So, that was what was skeptically in the news this week.

Science or Fiction (10:04)[edit]

S: So let's move on to Science or Fiction.

S: (recording) "It's time to play (echoing) Science or Fiction".

S: Are you all ready? There is a theme this week, inspired by the Bigfoot piece. Again, Science or Fiction is a game that we play on the Skeptics' Guide. I come up with three news items, either science facts or science news items. Two are real; two are science, and one is fiction—one I made up. My panel of skeptics, tonight Bob and Perry, have to figure out which one is the fake. The theme tonight is mythical creatures. Now, they are all involve paleontologists discovering fossil evidence that has been likened to some mythical creature. I'll tell you the three creatures and then I'll read the full headlines. Number one is Godzilla; number two is leprechauns, and number three is King Kong. Now keep in mind two of these are real. So did paleontologists find fossil evidence of Godzilla off the southern tip of South America? That's one of the headlines. Researchers discover fossil evidence of a short-statured race of humans dubbed, in quotes, "leprechauns", in the British Isles. Or, researchers have discovered the remains of King Kong, a giant gorilla that lived alongside early humans.

P: OK.

S: So what do you think, Perry? Godzilla, leprechauns, or King Kong?

P: Tell me the Godzilla one again.

S: "Paleontologists find fossil evidence of, in quotes, 'Godzilla' off the southern tip of South America."

P: I'd have to say that one is... the other ones... a big monkey, sure. Short people would probably get the nickname "leprechaun" in Britannia. I'll say the first one.

S: All righty. Bob?

B: Well. Let's see. Godzilla—you know, I saw—I didn't actually read it, but I came across articles recently about some nasty predator that was recently discovered, and unfortunately I am very upset with myself now, but I never got a chance to read it, and I think that's what Godzilla's probably. King Kong; that could be the discovery of gigantopithicus, which is basically a ten-foot tall, very early human found in South America. So that's my guess for King Kong, a giant ape-like creature. Leprechauns, now that... little people; I mean, there's the famous discovery in the past couple of years of four- and five-foot tall people, or maybe even smaller. But they were referred to as Hobbits. Everybody's referring to them as hobbits, not leprechauns. So I might have to go with that one, because I have never heard them referred to as leprechauns. I would think that in England they would stick with the hobbit appellation that people have been using and not leprechauns. So, I think I'll go with leprechauns.

S: All righty. Well, I'm just going to say, rather than going one-by-one: Bob, you nailed it on the head. You got every one exactly right.

B: OK.

S: So I'll start with Godzilla. I thought that was the easiest one, because I figured you guys would just figure it was a dinosaur, and you'd be close; it wasn't an actual dinosaur. It was actually a crocodile ancestor. It's being dubbed Godzilla, but this is a crocodile bigger than Tyrannosaurus rex. It was fully aquatic, so it was not amphibious, so it didn't come out of the water like modern-day crocodiles. It was fully aquatic—

B: Bigger than T. rex!

S: —but was carnivorous, had huge jaw full of teeth. So the dakosaurus andigensis [sic]—that is the Latin name being dubbed by the scientist who discovered it as Godzilla. The giant ape is gigantopithecus, so you were right there again, Bob. There have been species of gigantopithecus discovered in the past. This is a new species: gigantopithecus blacki. Now it's a primate, although it's not a hominid, Bob, so was not human. It is the largest primate that has ever lived, so far discovered.

B: How big?

S: It's over ten feet. Over ten feet. So that's huge. I mean, it's not really King Kong size, but imagine a gorilla over ten feet tall. That's a monster.

B: Imagine how strong he was.

S: This fossil was found in Southeast Asia.

B: OK.

S: In China, specifically, but they roamed Southeast Asia. The leprechauns I made up. It was based upon the discovery of three-foot-tall humans in an Indonesian island that have been dubbed, as Bob said, hobbits. The discovery coming on the heels of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I just changed that into the British Isles and leprechauns.

B: OK.

S: That one was made up. So, Bob, you totally nailed it this time.

B: This time! I pretty much nailed it all the way around, yeah.

S: Yeah, you did. You guys all tend to do pretty well. Perry, a good guess, but Bob had the advantage of actually reading some of these articles.

P: That is helpful.

(laughter)

More News Items[edit]

Celestial Drops Update (16:12)[edit]

P: And in a quickie update on our celestial drops piece: in fact, that testing was already concluded. What's interesting about it is it was ordered down there in Florida by Katherine Harris. You remember that name?

B: Yeah.

P: Either of you two?

B: Yeah, the post-election snafu.

P: That's right, the 2000 post-election, she was Secretary of State at that time. She's the one that ordered the study, and it was in fact completed.

S: Ah.

P: It took six months, like you said, to actually do the protocols and the test. The whole process took six months.

S: I see.

P: And in a report submitted by Wayne Dixon, the head of Florida's Bureau of Entomology, Nematology, and Plant Pathology, he reported that "the product is a hoax and not based on any credible known science."

B: Bravo!

P: He added "I wish to maintain our standing in the scientific community and not allow the developers of celestial drops to use our hard-earned credibility to promote their product."

S: Shocker. So it's a hoax.

P: That what's their study actually did find. I don't know why Mrs. Harris decided that celestial drops needed testing. I can't imagine.

B: So how much money was spent to determine the obvious.

P: There is still—there is no figure. Figure the State's spending six months on it.

S: A cool million at least.

P: Just as a side note, does either one of you know what nematology is? N-E-M-A-T-O-L-O-G-Y.

S: The study of nematodes?

B: Yeah, that's my thought.

S: That's what I would guess.

P: (chuckles) It's word I am not familiar with. I'll have to look that up. All right. That's all. It was a quickie update from the hard-working folks at your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

Intelligent Design (18:10)[edit]

S: Speaking of idiocy, let's move on to our favorite topic: Intelligent Design. ID (Intelligent Design) remains in the news. This is definitely a hot-button topic this year. So the update I'd like to talk about is last Tuesday's voting. One of the smaller items that came out of Tuesday's election was that the Dover, Pennsylvania school board members, eight of them, who supported an initiative to introduce intelligent design into the Dover public schools, were voted out, voted off of the school board. So this is similar to what happened in Kansas. If you remember a few years ago when the Kansas—this is the State School Board—removed evolution and the big bang and some other things from the state science standards, and there was a big to-do about that.

P: Right.

S: Kansas basically was embarrassed. The Board members who supported that initiative were voted out. However, two years later, which is I believe, last year, the conservatives were voted back on to the board, and now they are at it again, reintroducing creationist agenda into the Kansas science standards. Now, rather than removing evolution or introducing intelligent design, they are simply introducing mandated criticism of evolution, like including the notion that evolution is not proven, that it's controversial...

B: That there's gaps in the theory...

S: Right, right. Actually, I remember when we had Chris Mooney on[1], he predicted that that was the next step. That might be a harder legal battle to fight because it's not introducing any notion which could be claimed to be religious, such as intelligent design. It's just being critical of evolution.

B: But didn't he also want to just have a quick mention of a recommendation of a book to describe the leading competitive theory—

S: Was that Kansas or Dover? Was that Kansas?

B: Yeah, you're right. I'm not sure. I'm not sure. It might have been Dover. OK.

S: There was a reference to The Panda's Thumb, which is an intelligent design propaganda book, basically. Right, saying students may want to look at this reference for further information about skepticism about evolution.

P: Right.

S: So we'll see what happens in Dover. I think it's good that when attention is paid to these issues, that the public acts sensibly and votes out the radicals who are basically—

B: Right.

S: —trying to institute—to impose their narrow agenda on the public schools. But I don't know if history will repeat itself just like in Kansas after attention wanes. Will the creationists still be there, basically waiting in the wings and then pounce again once public attention is on the wane.

B: Especially, though—I think I read somewhere the margin, the voting margin wasn't a landslide victory. It was relatively close, I think.

S: Uh-huh.

P: That's what I read, too, Bob. I was actually trying to find the exact vote, and I couldn't find it. I looked for quite awhile, and I couldn't get the exact numbers. There's actually one member of the board who's protesting the election and wants a recount, because he says it was—felt the machines are not accurate, or some such. He wants a recount, but I would have liked to have seen the raw data, because I heard it was closer than one might have imagined.

S: Now—

B: That's too bad

S: —televangelist Pat Robertson—he's the host of the 700 Club—

B: Founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and Christian Coalition.

S: —had this to say about the vote: He said that if the citizens of Dover find themselves the victim of some natural catastrophe or disaster, that they shouldn't go praying to God or looking to God for help because they've already kicked God out of Pennsylvania.

B: I think the exact quote ...

S: He stopped short of saying that a disaster will happen, but if one happens to strike the good citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania, they only have themselves to blame, and they shouldn't go praying to God for help.

B: Is that unbelievable? Just this past summer he made some provocative statements. Do you remember this summer—I think it was July, he called for the assassination of Venezuelan—

S: Yes.

S: —was it President Hugo Chávez?

S: Right. He called for his assassination.

B: One of his critics, but ...

S: He's a wacko.

B: He's funny, though. It's funny, I thought ID was a scientific theory. It doesn't have anything to do with religion, and so why is he invoking God so much? Why is he so upset? Right?

S: That's a good point. The movement loses credibility. Again, they're trying to be coy with ID saying that—

B: Right.

S: "—we're not talking about God, just some abstract intelligent designer, not the Christian God." But the reactions of people like Pat Robertson are very telling. It's...

B: Oh, absolutely.

S: It's that the Christian community, fundamentalist Christian community who are behind intelligent design. And they know very well who the intelligent designer is.

B: And also, Robertson in 1998, he issued a warning to Orlando, Florida, that they risked natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, and not-so-natural ones like terrorists bombs because they allowed homosexual organizations to put up these rainbow flags in support of sexual diversity and stuff.

S: Right.

B: This is his M.O.

S: He's a fire and brimstone—

B: Things don't go his way and he makes these dire predictions and forecasts, I mean, come on!

P: He's getting kind of old and cranky, you know. His presidential run didn't go quite the way he wanted it. He's getting a little cranky in his old age. That's my opinion. You know, also I've always found intriguing is that the most powerful evidence I've ever personally encountered for evolution is the few humans around who are in fact more primate than human. Interestingly enough, most of which have been elected to the Kansas Board of Education.

B: Ah-ha.

S: You mean more ape than human. Humans are primates.

P: More ape than human. Yes.

B: Pat Robertson's ministry. He's got 41 million members, making him the third largest Christian ministry in the world, after who? Two people.

S: The Pope.

B: Yeah.

P: (laughs) Moral Majority. What's the ... Farwell.

S: Jerry Falwell?

B: No. I have here Oral Roberts. He's number three. 41 million. A million people listening to his broadcasts.

P: Is Oral Roberts still around? I don't ever hear from him anymore.

B: That's what my source says.

P: Isn't he the one that confessed his sins with the young girl. Whatever.

B: Can you be more specific?

S: No.

B: Can you be more specific, Perry?

S: That was Jimmy Swaggart.

P: Oh, that was Swaggart. Thank you.

S: Which one confessed his sins?

P: I couldn't keep my—

S: That was Jimmy Bakker.

P: —my evangelicals straight. Bakker went to jail.

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah.

S: And his wife Tammy Faye went to reality television.

P: She did. She did.

B: You know, I—For some reason, I watched that season of ...

S: The Real Life?

B: I watched that season of Surreal Life. For some reason I watched the first episode and ...

S: I sorry, Bob, you're fired from the Skeptics' Guide.

P: (laughs)

B: Well, come on! I was just watching. You know why? You know the only reason I watched it? I remember now. I read a review on Reality News Online. Some guy reviewed it, and he said "Wow! This was an interesting episode." And he said all these stars like the [[wikipedia:CHiPs|]] guy—what's his name; dark hair—and Tammy Faye and the guy from CHiPs and a couple of other people, and he said ...

P: The guy from CHiPs?

S: Wasn't Vanilla Ice on there, too?

P: The one who's selling real estate in Florida?

B: Vanilla Ice. This guy gave such a glowing review of the episode, I'm like, you've got to be kidding me. Surreal Life? Tammy Faye and all these guys? And he said this was such an entertaining episode, needless to say it piqued my interest. I watched the first episode and I enjoyed it, surprisingly. I watched the season. I got my brother Jay into it, and we liked it. There something about it you didn't expect from these people. Even Tammy Faye; it took me a while, but I actually kind of warmed up to her, because she didn't spout any... nothing religious came out of her mouth. I mean she was very "religious lite"

S: She toned down her image?

B: She toned it down.

S: She had nowhere else to go, though; let's face it.

B: She was very pleasant; she was nice; just not really what I expected, this woman that was always preaching to people. None of that happened. And even the porn actor—Ron Jeremy, who was—he seemed skeptical to me. He was the only skeptic in the whole group, because Vanilla Ice was spouting this stuff about how we descended from aliens and aliens came from this planet. He just coolly talking to him, trying to throw evidence at him, just some good questions; some critical thinking.

S: Right.

B: And he actually seemed like a skeptic to me. And the guy was just so funny, and actually Ron Jeremy and Tammy Faye hit it off and became buddies.

S: Once again—

B: They got close!

S: Once again, we see the correlation between skepticism and pornography.

(laughter)

B: Right. Over and over. It's just a pattern.

P: I've always knows it was there.

B: It was ...

S: Interesting. That's interesting. I couldn't watch that show. Just a final word on this intelligent design update. It's nice that the intelligent design board members were voted out. That's very...

P: Very laudable.

S: Very laudable, but it's not lasting. As we saw in Kansas, those victories are not lasting. The only lasting victories are in the Supreme Court. We're still waiting for the decision about the Constitutionality of forcing the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools based upon the parents who brought suits against the Dover school system for doing that. We have yet to see the final resolution of that. I believe it's at the state level now. If it doesn't get struck down at that level, then perhaps it will go to the Supreme Court level, but when those court decisions get handed down, they produce enduring victories for our side. Of course, the Supreme Court is undergoing a radical change this year, and it remains to be seen how these issues are going to play out in the Supreme Court. So we will have to wait and see.

P: And for those of you who were wondering out there, nematology is in fact the study of nematodes.

S: Thank you.

B: Yeah.

P: And nematodes are any of several worms in the phylum nematoda, having unsegmented cylindrical bodies, often narrowing at each end, and including parasitic forms such as the hookworm and pinworm, also called "roundworm".

B: Interesting.

S: Parasitic worms, there you go.

P: For the edification of our millions of listeners.

S: We're almost up there with Pat Robertson.

Putting the 'Psi' Into Science (30:19)[edit]

S: So Bob, you sent me this piece on... the article is called "Putting the Psi into Science" about ESP experiments. Why don't you tell us about that?

B: It's an interesting article from the Guardian from September. They talk about this... what they describe as "Britain's oddest lab," called the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh. They do a lot of the usual stuff. They study. They do experiments involving ESP, psychokinesis, clairvoyance, hauntings, out-of-body experiences, but they really make an effort. They really put a lot of stock into the respectability of their experiments and how rigorous their science is. The acting head of the unit, Carolyn Watt, says that parapsychologists make extraordinary claims, so they most take extraordinary care in their experiments.

S: Right.

B: Now, interesting comment from someone doing experiments with ESP and stuff, but she's right. Extraordinary care, yes, but you also need extraordinary evidence, and that's something that still, even after all—

S: Right.

B: —these experiments, even this institute lacks.

S: So they—

B: (unintelligible) ... a little beyond the care. So after a while, once you spend enough time with your extraordinarily careful experiments, you got to conclude, "well, there's really nothing here; let's go on to something else." One of their big experiments that they do very often are the Ganzfeld experiments

S: Yes.

B: —to test telepathic communication. And the setup is basically: they got a sender in front of a video monitor, and there's a receiver who sees four videos; one of them was the one that the sender saw. The other ones, the other four, or three are decoys, and you would think twenty-five percent should be correct. Now, some of the largest studies that they did show a small bias of up to five percent towards them choosing correctly. Now the reporter says: "impressive if it's true." I mean, does that seem impressive to you guys? Of up to five percent? I'm not impressed by that at all. I mean—

S: Yeah, it's a residue. The Ganzfeld experiments were used for a number of years by the CIA.

B: Right.

S: They, in fact, invested twenty million taxpayer dollars in the Ganzfeld experiments. They eventually abandoned it, saying, "this is worthless." They were hoping to develop psychic spies. But... and again, there was like a two or three percent—two or three percent is what they came up with in terms of an excess correct—

B: Right.

S: —selections. But there were outstanding criticisms of those protocols that were never resolved. For example, there was the position of the four choices; the position of the correct choice was not entirely random, and it occurred in the first position more often than the other three, so if there was any bias of the receiver towards choosing the first image, that could account for part of this effect.

B: But even that was a couple of percentage points.

S: Right. Hardly worthy of rewriting the physics books.

B: Right.

S: Or the neuro-anatomy books.

B: And this institute is claiming up to five percent, which isn't very impressive to me at all. Maybe statistically it's minimally significant, but ...

S: Right.

B: I don't know. One of the workers, one of the physicists, was asked "How does this work?", which I think is an interesting question, because after a while it gets kind of boring to go over the experiments and stuff over and over and try to show all these different ways and see how it manifests itself.

S: Right.

B: Eventually I would like to think: "all right, let's assume that there is something here. What would be required for it to work?" And this is what this guy is asked, and he said "We still don't know."

S: Right.

B: He says—his name is Paul Stevens—he says "There must a physical basis. If there isn't, then we're moving into the realm of the supernatural." But he admits the research has so far been fruitless.

S: Yes.

B: I enjoy those kind of questions and if you... hopefully, if he studied and tried to determine how it might be, hopefully he would have looked at some of the fundamental forces of nature to try—I mean, that's how I would try to explain it. OK, if there's this force or this power or this energy, then you'd have to look at the fundamental forces, and I wrote an article[2] on that a few years ago.

S: Mmm-hm.

B: Looking at all the forces, and it was interesting, but of course, all of them easily preclude an explanation for this. I mean, gravity is too weak for the masses involved. Also, if your brain was somehow using gravity, which kind of sounds bizarre. I mean, how would it even modulate a gravity wave in order to send this type of information? So gravity is definitely out. The weak force works over nuclear distances and that drops off very quickly, so that can't be it. The same for the strong force. The one that seemed most likely at first blush would be the electromagnetic spectrum. But the brain is simply not a transmitter or receiver for electromagnetic waves.

S: Right.

B: I mean, the shape of the head and the way the brain works and everything; it's just not designed to receive or transmit any electromagnetic radiation. And then, of course, it would be so easy to detect. We've got detectors that can detect anything from gamma waves to radio waves. You'd think somebody would have said, "Oh, what's this spurious signal?"

S: Well, I mean, just to be clear... to be clear, though, the brain does produce magnetic and electrical waves, and that we can record.

B: Right.

S: There's an electroencephalogram, which is a measurement of the electrical fields produced by the electrical currents of the neurons, which you can measure at the scalp's surface.

B: Right.

S: And there's also MEG—magnetic encephalogram—magnetoencephalogram, which uses a very large device that detects the much, much weaker magnetic fields produced by, again, the electrical current traveling through the pathways in the brain. But these are not signals.

B: Right. It's internal.

S: This is just the fields generated by the moving current in the brain, and they are incredibly attenuated by the skull, and they also drop off very quickly with distance. So not really a candidate for ESP. You raise some interesting issues I just want to highlight and talk about a little bit. One is the difference between—when you are talking about a paranormal claim like ESP. Now we talked about this a little bit on the last show about astrology[3]. There's research which is designed to answer the question: "Does this phenomenon exist?" and then another type of research, which is designed to ask the question of "How could it work? What would the mechanism be?" And it is true that these are separate questions. Now the true believers will often—whenever any question about mechanism comes up the hide behind the notion that "Well, that's unimportant. The only thing that matters is does it work?" That's true to a degree, to the degree that the absence of a known or provable mechanism doesn't mean a phenomenon isn't real. But it does speak to the prior plausibility of that phenomenon existing. We are at a stage in our development of scientific knowledge where we know something significantly more than nothing about the way the universe works. We have accumulated enough knowledge at this point where we can make some educated guess about the plausibility of whether or not something is possible. But having said that, if a truly anomalous phenomenon could be adequately proven and reproducible, even though we had no way of explaining how it could possibly work, I would still accept that that's a real phenomenon. But the burden of proof is certainly pretty high. With ESP, the fact there's no plausible explanation doesn't tell you it's not real, but it tells you something about how much evidence would be required for us to accept that this phenomenon is real. So far, all we get are these few percentage points, anomalous percentage points in well-designed, rigorous studies, which could easily be due to just minor fluctuations or flaws in the methodology. Nothing, nothing concrete.

B: Yeah. You would think that there'd be at least one experimenter or one person that could unequivocally prove to you that there's some phenomenon there and not some subtle little anomaly.

S: There's no smoking gun. There's nothing that really is generally accepted as clear-cut evidence that there is a real phenomenon going on. So absent that, the fact that there's no plausible mechanism—the combination of those two things leads a reasonable scientific person to the conclusion that this is probably not a real phenomenon. And that's where we are right now. You can also, I think, look over time and say, "has the probability of this phenomenon existing changed as we learn more about nature and as more and more efforts to document its existence are carried out, are we getting at all closer to evidence for it?" And with ESP, the answer's clearly no. A hundred years ago ...

B: It's the opposite.

S: ... it was the same situation as basically where we are right now. Basically, over the last hundred years of parapsychological research there have been—there's no more evidence for its existence than there was, and there's—nothing has emerged that is even a candidate plausible mechanism. So you have the dimension of time to add to that. Whereas, take for example, evolution. A hundred and fifty years ago, nobody knew what the mechanism of evolution was. What we thought we knew about inheritance was really incompatible with evolutionary theory. There was scant fossil evidence, and we didn't really understand a lot about the mechanisms of evolution, and over the last 150 years—if we were in the same place today where we were 150 years ago, that would be reason for skepticism about evolution.

B: Absolutely.

S: But instead, we discovered genetics and DNA, population genetics, and there's been a host of new discoveries, which have all dramatically supported and reinforced the theory of evolution. The same is not true for ESP.

B: Right. I mean, it's transformed biology. It's the one, single unifying concept in biology.

S: Right. And ESP has achieved no tangible effects or outcome. It leaves a reasonable person skeptical of its existence.

Intervention Theory and the Starchild Project (41:46)[edit]

S: Well, we have a pleasant surprise. Evan Bernstein has decided to join us for the last segment of our show. Evan, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide tonight.

E: Thank you, very much. I'd have been here earlier had I not been abducted by aliens on the way home from work tonight.

S: We're glad you managed to effect an escape.

P: You were able to wiggle off the probe.

E: It was more of a release than an escape. And, yes, the probing was actually... tolerable, I would say.

S: He would have been here earlier, but he didn't want to cut the probing short.

E: (laughs) Right. Thank you.

S: Well, Evan, since you're just joining us, why don't we do a topic that you sent in this week. You have been reading a bit about a man by the name of Lloyd Pye, who is featured in an article[4] I wrote a few years ago. Why don't you tell us what you came up with.

E: I came across Lloyd Pye when I was just searching through some links today on the web, of course, and the folks at yesweekly.com—I guess I have to credit them—was posting in an article about UFOlogists and how they're weighing in on the human origin debate. The human origin debate is the hot topic in the skeptical realms and popular news articles, these days, of course. And you know, of course, we've been talking a lot about evolution and talking a lot about creationism, but there's a whole other aspect of the origin of man that I don't know that we've touched on thoroughly. And that is the intervention theory.

S: That we are planted here by aliens.

E: Yes, which this gentlemen Lloyd Pye, along with another cohort of his, whose name escapes me at the moment.

B: Is that P-I-E or P-I?

E: P-Y-E.

B: Ha-ha!

E: Lloyd Pye. And he appeared at a MUFON convention, and that's what this article is about.

S: That's the Mutual UFO Network, MUFON.

E: Right. And he was one of the key speakers, and of course, gave his presentation again in regards to his intervention theory.

S: Lloyd Pye, by the way, is what we technically refer to as a "loony tune".

E: Ha-ha.

B: I love those technical words.

E: Well that's for the lack of a better term, because he really—I don't know what terminology he fits or not.

S: He's the author of the book, by the way, Everything You Know Is Wrong. Isn't that him?

E: That's right. And speaking of which, Steve, if you were to go to this person's website, and you would click on the Everything You Know Is Wrong, the little link they have there, some questions come up that he poses. "Have you ever wondered why humans only use about ten percent of our massively supercharged brains?"

S: (laughs)

E: Why savants can somehow access parts of the remaining ninety percent. Why humans have a gene pool with over 4,000 genetic defects. Why our closest genetic relatives, chimps and gorillas, have very few.

S: That's just wrong. That's actually incorrect.

E: And it goes on. This list is two pages long.

S: Right.

E: Of this and other similar interesting stuff. Questions he poses—

S: I think the book should have been titled Everything I Know Is Wrong.

E: (laughs)

S: "I" meaning "Lloyd Pye." The ten percent of the brain; that's a total myth. There's an article on the NESS website about that. I think it's called "90% Percent Of A Brain Is A Terrible Thing To Waste." The reason why there is so much junk in our DNA, it is speculated, is that it is fertile ground for evolutionary change, for adaptation.

E: Steve, I haven't read his book, but I'm going to almost guarantee that your conclusions are totally a hundred percent different from his.

S: Different, yes, different.

E: Of course, you are speaking about the featured speaker at the MUFON convention. So I think we should show it its proper respect. Steve, you had written previously about this gentleman. He came up—if you do a Google search for this person's name and you type in the word "skeptic" right after it and do a Google search, the first link that comes up, Steve, is an article[4][5] that you wrote for the New England Journal of Skepticism back in the year 2000.

S: Right.

E: Relating to the Starchild ...

S: The Starchild Project.

E: ... media phenomenon that I guess it was at the time.

S: By the way, I recently updated that article and it's now a featured article on our home page because it was updated.

E: And it looks good. It looks good up there, I must say. And I do recall reading this a few years ago, but it was nice to go over and read it again, because not only do you give a very good explanation about how science versus pseudo-science, what the differences are and how to tell the differences between the two. You do an excellent job of that. You use the Starchild case as really a ...

S: As an example of pseudo-science.

E: ... a good example of pseudo-science in which you are able to really point out with ease all the hundreds of flaws it would seem that Mr. Pye constantly is making when making his arguments about ...

S: Right.

E: ... about these ... skull that they found ...

S: Allegedly.

E: ... allegedly, right.

S: So just, quickly, to encapsulate the Starchild Project: A number of years ago, an individual—I can't remember the name—had in his possession this skull apparently of a child with a large, malformed head. Now, he had a story about where the skull came from, but there was no documentation of the provenance, the prior history of this skull. It just comes out of nowhere, which is always a red flag for a hoax. But even if you take it at face value, it was discovered in a cave in Mexico along with an adult female skeleton. Now because of the large, sort of bulbous skull on this child's skull, it can sort of be reminiscent of the big-headed gray alien. So it was dubbed the "Starchild", and this guy Lloyd Pye believes that it is the product of a human-alien breeding program, which, again, is his intervention theory, right?

E: That's correct.

S: What's interesting is how he has managed to convince himself to argue that this skull is anomalous, not only anomalous or unexplainable but therefore an alien-human hybrid. He dismisses a couple of kind-of-silly explanations out-of-hand, and that's the extent of his attempts to scientifically explain the skull. I took one glance at it, and again, I'm a neurologist for those who don't know—I took one glance and "My God, it's hydrocephalus!", which is a pretty common, well-known entity. On my article, I included a picture out of a textbook of a child with hydrocephalus, and it looks pretty similar to the skull. He doesn't even address that as a possibility. So, one of the features of pseudo-science is the preference for the supernatural explanation.

P: Ah, Steve, couldn't you in fact say that all hydrocephalic children are in fact alien-human half-breeds?

S: Well, hydrocephalics—basically that means is there is a blockage in the flow of the water inside the brain, the cerebrospinal fluid, and the large bulbous head develops over time if it's not surgically corrected. So, it's a strictly anatomical phenomenon that's well understood and curable. There's nothing—even if you put a drainage tube in these kids' heads, they're perfectly normal, human children. So it's not compatible with a genetically alien hybrid half-breed.

P: Wouldn't a DNA test just put the whole question to bed?

S: You would think so. Pye did have some samples of the skull DNA tested. If you were a sincere intellectually honest scientist, the DNA test would have put any notion of a hybrid to rest. So, there are two levels, basically, to the DNA testing. One is just a chromosomal analysis, looking at—the chromosomes are the individual clumps of DNA that make up our DNA. We have twenty-two pairs of chromosomes in humans. The bone from the alleged Starchild had a chromosomal analysis, and what it showed was that he had an X chromosome and a Y chromosome. The X is female and the Y is male. Women are XX and men are XY. So women can only give an X to their children. A male can either give an X or a Y. If they give an X, the child is female; if they give a Y, the child is male. Pye concluded that even though it was not what he predicted what would be seen, he reinterpreted after the fact as being consistent with a hybrid. However, he doesn't answer the question—it's actually incompatible with a hybrid for the following reason: If his mother was human, and the father was alien, where did the human Y chromosome come from? Because the human mother could only give the X. The alien apparently has no human chromosomes and has something else entirely.

E: Where did it get the Y?

S: Where did it get the human Y chromosome from?

P: That question shows a complete lack of understanding ...

E: Of alien ...

P: ... of alien birth technology ...

E: Of course.

P: ... and their various test-tube methodology.

S: Right.

E: A close-minded skeptic like yourself, I expect nothing less.

S: Right. You could obviously concoct, as you were parodying, a hypothesis that is not falsifiable by the DNA evidence. In other words, whatever you find in the DNA evidence is compatible with your magical aliens who could do whatever you want.

P: You call it special pleading. I call it alien breeding.

S: Right.

E: Steve, I liked in your article here—you wrote "As Carl Sagan once pointed out, alien genetic instructions—the product of a completely different evolutionary past, would be incompatible with human DNA. We would have more luck breeding a human with a petunia than an alien."

S: Right. That's right. We have more in common genetically with a petunia than with an alien.

E: Ha, ha, ha.

S: That's correct. It's absurd, actually.

E: It really is.

S: They wouldn't have the same genetic code. They wouldn't necessarily have the same amino acids. There'd be no basis for commonality between the two. But anyway, so the second level would be sequencing the DNA itself. Now they were able to sequence the DNA of the female adult skeleton that was found with the child, and they were able to tell that she was not his mother. So it was a female caretaker, but not the child's biological mother, which I don't see as being relevant one way or the other to the alien hypothesis. But they were not able to sequence the DNA from the child because the amplification techniques are not yet powerful enough to do that. But they're hoping that within a few years they'll be able to do that. That has not been done yet as far as I was able to tell as of a week ago.

E: They're always on the edge.

S: Right. But Pye is ever confident that the analysis will show something anomalous.

E: I wouldn't be surprised if he's asking people for donations so that he can further his research and get those next couple of years of research under his belt so he can prove to the entire scientific community that his findings and his hypothesis is totally correct.

S: Right.

E: I guess we'll see. Yawn. (laughs)

S: At the same time he evinces utter disdain for the scientific community.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: Again, another sort of pseudo-scientific characteristic.

E: Here, you want a couple of gems from the article?

S: Let's have 'em.

E: Here's just a couple things that this article from yesweekly.com. Couple of quotes: Here Pye says "Science would have you believe that mother nature created us. It isn't natural. It happened in a genetics lab." "Cheetahs are weird," he says. "The tan portion of their coat is composed of dog fur, while black spots are cat hair. Scientists have ignored this obvious evidence of prehistoric cloning because they cannot explain it."

B: Wow.

S: Right. Scientists always ignore evidence they can't explain.

E: That's right.

S: Rather than the reality, which is evidence that can't be explained is the basis of grants and careers, because that's where the research is.

E: Well he claims he's never going to be treated with the same kind of respect of those in the scientific community because this is something no one really wants to answer—wants the answer to. That is—

S: That is so lame.

E: That is the answer of where we have come from and where we are all about.

S: Everyone wants to know the answer to that! Everyone. And any scientist who could prove something fantastical like we were planted here by aliens or true genetic anomalies would get the Nobel prize; would be world famous; would be able to build a career out of that, and there would be thousands of spin-off careers on there if that were, in fact, the truth and where the research led. It's just absurd nonsense to claim that scientists are running away from the evidence. That is utter naiveté. It's also—I'm also always amazed at the absolute hubris of people like Pye, who think that they know better than the entire scientific community. They know better than the thousands of scientists who are working throughout the world. In their own minds, they must think of themselves as Einstein and Galileo and Darwin all rolled into one.

E: And they're put on little pedestals by the UFO community and the Yeti community and the Bigfoot community and other people who would believe in such nonsense.

S: Right.

E: And certainly further his own ideas in his own mind feeling that he is doing something right.

S: Right.

E: Because he's backed up by a bunch of folks who—let's face it, could use some serious attention in my opinion. By professionals.

S: So his talk was well received at MUFON, I take it.

E: Very well received. Well enough for at least half of this article that I came across, but, you know, and I didn't finish my research on this. Maybe I'll conclude this another night with you guys.

Angel Hair (57:33)[edit]

E: Also in the article, came another reference to a whole 'nother line of UFO nonsense.

B: Whole 'nother.

E: A gentleman by the name of David Boldman—did you ever hear of this guy?

S: No.

E: All right. His area of expertise is UFO trace evidence, and he points to the phenomenon known as "angel hair", which ...

S: Mmm-hm. I've heard of that.

E: ... as a substance often left when UFOs pass over any particular given site. So I've begun to look into that a little, and I've not fully concluded my findings of what's going on, but it seems to take on certainly a religious connotation, at least at first, prior to the 1947 Roswell phenomenon. For instance, when this... it was attributed to angels, and that's why it was originally dubbed "angel hair." Whenever there were angel sightings, the faithful would come out and see the remnants left behind by the angel's visitations, which was this spider-web sort of material that was very, very thin, and upon—and it would be left all over the ground. It would literarily rain from the sky on people, and you'd go to touch it, and it would sort of disappear to the touch.

S: Mmm-hm.

E: And people, of course, in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century... the writings... is attributed to religious phenomenon such as the sighting of angels.

S: Mmm-hm.

E: Hence the term "angel hair." And then, starting around 1948, it began to be attributed to be a coincidence—or coincided with UFO sightings.

S: Right.

E: ... that apparently for a couple of years there, about half the UFO sightings on record said that this angel hair or this spider web substance was left behind from where the alien craft was flying. And, well—

S: But no one has specimens of this angel hair.

E: No one has specimens. Someone claims to—this fellow from the conference claims that he does have a specimen, which is currently going under testing of some sort. Let's see what it says here.

P: Well, I know that they did discover that angel hair can only be cleaned with celestial water.

S: Right. Celestial drops.

(laughter)

P: I did read that.

E: Now, I did find... what I have found so far... just started to uncover. It's didn't come up in my first set of Google searches, and it's not even really mentioned on any of the more popular skeptical websites. I don't think it's even in our skeptical dictionary. But I did find something here on ontarioprofessionals.com under their weird section: "Angel hair is said to be an ..."

P: Ephemeral?

E: "... ephemeral silky substance that falls from the sky."

S: Just out of touch.

E: Just out of touch, but apparently what it is is that spiders actually do produce this material.

S: Sure.

E: And they actually literally fly in the air upon this material, and they fly great distances and in great clusters and great enough numbers that the remnants of the spider webs that they are creating fall eventually to earth, and in such quantities that it does collect and is really somewhat of a spectacular presentation. And for those people who certainly don't have any idea what it is, they're likely to insert their closest held beliefs: angels, or UFOs, or what have you.

S: Mmm-hm.

B: I read about that. I believe it's called "mass", M-A-S-S, the quantity of spider silk that you see just kind of floating in the wind. Spiders use them; it's called "ballooning". They shoot out a bunch of their webbing until the wind can pick them up. Spiders have been found near mountaintops and in the middle of the ocean, because this is such an effective way of travelling. When they land, they just kind of release it, and it continues flying along.

S: I first learned about that from Charlotte's Web, that children's story.

E: That's right. I remember that scene. The baby spiders hatch.

S: All the little baby spiders.

E: They secrete their web material, and they float away on the wind.

S: It's too bad Lloyd Pye and his friends didn't read Charlotte's Web.

(laughter)

S: They would have been able to have a more prosaic explanation for this angel hair.

E: So this David Boldman at this conference says: "Physically, it's superficially similar to spider web, but it has the unusual property of dissolving or disappearing."

S: Hmm. Except when it doesn't.

E: He does not dismiss the idea of extra-terrestrials, because he thinks it would be more ridiculous if there weren't extra-terrestrials secreting this material from their UFO flights. How exactly he ties into that, this article doesn't really explain that. I'm having a hard time trying to figure that one out myself by the research I'm doing, but as I find some more on this, I'll bring it up again another time and let you know what else I find. It's just interesting because I had never heard about this phenomenon at all.

S: Angel hair; yeah, I've heard about it before.

E: Never heard of it. Never heard of it, and it didn't come up on Randi's site or CSICOP's site. They have no references to it in their literature. I found that kind of surprising.

S: Well, maybe we should add a reference to it on our skeptics' encyclopedia.

E: We'll become the official skeptic angel hair site.

S: Absolutely, with full references to Charlotte's Web.

E: Oh, sure. And color pictures.

S: Well, that is all the time we have for this week. It always goes by quickly. Thanks again for listening. Bob, Perry, Evan, thanks for joining us.

E: Thank you.

S: Even though you were late, Evan. Try to be on time next week.

E: (laughs) OK.

S: To all of you out there, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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


Today I Learned[edit]

  • The ashes of the actor who played Scotty on Star Trek were sent into space [6]
  • A giant gorilla lived at the same time as early humans[7]
  • There was once a crocodile that was larger than T-Rex[8]

References[edit]

  1. SGU Episode 15: Interview with Chris Mooney
  2. The NESS: The Physics of ESP, Oct. 1998
  3. SGU Episode 18: Astrology vs. Astronomy
  4. 4.0 4.1 The NESS: The Starchild Project, Feb. 2006
  5. The NESS: Anatomy of Pseudoscience, Dec. 2000
  6. James Doohan
  7. Gigantopiticus
  8. Crocodile bigger than T-Tex
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