SGU Episode 202

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SGU Episode 202
June 3rd 2009
SGU 201 SGU 203
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
SS: Simon Singh
Quote of the Week
'Some people try to tell me that science will never answer the big questions we have in life. To them I say: baloney! The real problem is your questions aren’t big enough.'
Phil Plait
Download Podcast
Show Notes


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009. And this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week 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 (00:28)[edit]

E: Hey, everyone. And when you're listening to this on June 6th, keep in mind that it is National Huntington's Disease Awareness Day.

S: Awesome.

E: I didn't even know they had this.

S: There's gotta be a national awareness day for everything. Right?

E: You'd think so.

R: I think so

E: There's a lot of them.

J: What is Huntington's Awareness Disease Day?

E: Well, Huntington's Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder, and it was named after physician George Huntington, who first described it accurately in 1872. It has no current cure.

J: Oh.

S: That's correct.

R: Such a downer day to pick. It's important.

E: Well, it was either that or this is, you know, D-Day. June 6th.

R: That's also kind of a downer.

E: Yeah. So I figured between the two...

J: So nothing good happened on June 6th, ever? I mean, come on. Really?

R: Wait. It's 6-6, right?

E: It is.

R: A few years ago people were all up in arms about the “Mark of the Beast Day”, 6-6-6.

E: Oh, they're outraged.

S: I like Huntington's Disease better.

R: That's an awful thing to say, Steve. Why would you say that?

S: Than the Mark of the Beast?

B: (Laughs)

S: I should say, I like talking about Huntington's Disease better.

R: That's more like it.

S: 'Cause I know something about it. That's right.

J: It's because you're a neurologist. Well, Steve, then why aren't you saying anything?

S: I don't know. I wanted to see what Evan knew. I could tell you it's a genetic disorder. It's a trinucleotide repeat with amplification and anticipation.

E: Uh-huh.

R: No one knows what that means.

S: Yeah, I – It's a degeneration of the basal ganglia, as well as –

E: So far you're right. Keep going.

S: – morphocortical changes. So, it's a progressive dementia and movement disorder that causes people to move involuntarily. They get these writhing and kind of jerky movements.

B: Dementia as well, huh?

E: And why is there no cure for this?

S: 'Cause it's a neurodegenerative disorder. We haven't cured any of them yet.

E: None.

S: Yeah. ALS, Parkinson's Disease, Huntington's Disease. You know, Alzheimer's Disease. You name it. We haven't cured any of it.

E: Guillain–Barré. Hmm.

S: Not Guillain–Barré. Guillain–Barré is an auto-immune disease.

E: Well, there you go. (Laughs) See, I can't throw a curveball by you!

S: No.

News Items[edit]

Newsweek vs Oprah (2:32)[edit]

J: Now, I feel like it's my job, now, to say something that, like, 90 percent of our audience will know about and be interested in.


S: How about Oprah Winfrey?

J: Let's talk about Oprah, guys.

S: All right, let's talk about Oprah.

R: Man, I hate Oprah. Have I mentioned, yet, how much I hate Oprah?

S: Yeah. Yes, you have.

R: But, the nice thing is that other people are starting to realize it as well. Like mainstream media.

E: Finally.

S: Newsweek! Newsweek took on Oprah, full-frontal. It was awesome.

B: What a great article. Wow.

J: Steve, don't even bring that up like that

R: Steve, please don't say “Oprah” and “full-frontal” in the same sentence.


S: They really took her to task. I mean, I've never seen a mainstream article take her the way they did. They, you know, criticized –

R: Please don't say “take her”. (unclear)

E: or “task”, or...

S: They did criticize her style in a lot of ways. For example, like pretending to be just your everyday girlfriend. You know, although she's the one who happens to have billions of dollars. But, they mainly focused on the thing that gets us so upset about Oprah, and that is her promotion of nonsense and quackery. She, of course, has been promoting the anti-vaccination movement, like Jenny McCarthy. She promotes The Secret, just, you know, “wishing” your cancer away with magic. She promotes, you know, all kinds of quacks. She's –

R: Doctor Christiane Northrup, who teaches you that you can direct your “chi” to your vajay-jay. Their words, not mine.

J: Vajay-jay? Yo! What's up, baby?

R: I'm an adult, and can say a word like “vagina”. But apparently Oprah and Christiane Northrup cannot.

S: Oh, that's what they say? (Laughs)

E: Eh, the censors are listening. You know.

R: (Laughs) If you ever want to be just horribly disturbed, on Skepchick I did a post about a year or two ago showing this clip of Oprah and her gynecologist, Doctor Northrup, showing the women in the audience how to turn themselves on by directing their chi to their vajay-jays.

J: What?

E: Um...

R: It's haunted me. Haunted me for years.

E: I think they called that the “TMI Episode”.

(groans from the Rogues)

J: The brass tacks is, Oprah displays an enormous amount of BS on her show. Like, she'll bring on someone like Suzanne Somers who, sadly, is a complete kook –

S: Yeah.

J: – who is, you know, riddling her body, you know, pumping her body full of hormones, and vitamins, and all this crap. The bottom line is, is that it's very unlikely that anything that she's doing is causing a benefit. And the way that Oprah presents it, you know, by the end of the interviews that she does with these people, it just pretty much evolves into, she agrees with them, and what they're doing must work.

S: She does present them very positively. She basically agrees with them at the end. But, the key thing, and the thing that Newsweek really did a good job of calling her on, is that she takes no responsibility for promoting quackery and nonsense. Now, when she was called on that, she still is not taking any responsibility. She essentially said in response that she's just presenting information to her audience, and her audience can make up their own minds.

J: Oh, Okay.

S: Right. Which is always the response. Like, whenever we criticize producers, or anyone who's putting really harmful, gullible, incorrect misinformation onto their venue they always say, “Ah, we're just providing information and the audience can make up their own minds.” But that is a cheap cop-out. She is giving a platform to millions of people, to people who are spreading misinformation. She does not balance that information, you know, really, at all. Sometimes, like when Jenny McCarthy's on, she may read some really lame-o prefab statement from the CDC. But that is not providing balance to the impassioned plea that we're getting from her guest. And when Oprah, you know, essentially agrees with them, and is promoting them, that's what her audience is listening to. Not this little quickie disclaimer that she's reading from the CDC.

J: Yeah, it's one of those things where, you know, her not confronting the person she's interviewing, or having a discussion with, and even saying, “Hey, you know, how valid are these claims?” Her just sitting there, smiling and nodding, is enough to make people run out and buy these products or, you know, believe in the things that she's presenting on her show. Oprah is one of the biggest problems that we have to deal with.

S: If not the biggest.

J: Yeah, I mean, just her media presence alone, or the power of what she says and thinks is, you know, it changes what people think around the world on a weekly basis.

E: And, it's not just her TV show. It's her magazine as well. You know, which is part of the Harpo Conglomerate, or Harpo Enterprise, or however you want to describe that. She has a lot of different ways of reaching out to people. You know, she certainly makes the rounds on news and interviews, and so forth. So she's – it's even more than just her show. She really does stretch out in just about every kind of medium that she has a hand in.

B: And it's gonna be a lot more than just that hourly show. 'Cause, did you read the part where she's striking a deal now to launch her own cable TV channel? That's gonna reach 70 million homes? Called, of course, “The Oprah Winfrey Network”. And it's gonna include only Oprah-approved programming on health and “living well”. Oh, wow!

J: Oh-ho. Here we go! Right?

B: When Oprah announced the deal she said that, “I will now have the opportunity to do this 24 hours a day on a platform that goes on forever.”

E: (Groans)

R: Ahh!

B: You know that's one of the signs of the Armageddon?

R: I think so.

B: I want to say “bravo” to the two writers of this article, Weston Kosova and Pat Wingert. They did a great job with this article. I can't wait to see what's gonna happen now.

S: Yeah, my one nitpick about their article is that they gave Mehmet Oz a free pass.

E: Yes! Thank you, Steve. I was gonna say that.

S: That was my one nitpick. Mehmet Oz is, again, so this doctor that Oprah Winfrey essentially made this guy into his own media presence.

R: He's the new “Dr. Phil”.

S: Yeah, he's the new Dr. Phil. He's a cardiac surgeon from New York. He generally gives, you know, reasonable evidence-based advice on her show. But he also promotes a lot of alternative medicine nonsense.

R: Yeah.

B: Oh, they didn't make that clear. In the article.

S: Yeah. They did not. Not at all.

R: Well, because, he has actually been – for Oprah, he has been pretty much, like, not terrible. I mean, he does promote a lot of crap, you know, but I've read a lot of things from him where I'm suitably impressed that he's actually, at least, kind of presenting a skeptical viewpoint. And, I know there are plenty of examples to the contrary. But, for Oprah, he's not the worst possible thing. So I wasn't totally put off that they didn't really bash him, because I think that the main problem is Oprah herself.

S: Yeah, I agree. But she does, then, promote these proxies that I think do a lot of harm, but again my problem with Dr. Oz is that he mixes the two. He mixes scientific medicine and advice with nonsense. So, it becomes indistinguishable, which I think is really harmful. It's actually a little bit easier when somebody promotes nothing but nonsense. It's a little bit easier to pigeon-hole them. He blurs the lines in a very harmful way. And they did point out – the one criticism that Newsweek did point out is that Oz will –

B: Yes!

S: – sit by, you know, smiling and nodding while other people on Oprah promote abject nonsense. And he is sort of following the code, not wanting to ruffle any feathers. He will not object to abject quackery being said right in front of him on the show.

J: Yeah, well, I mean, he's making bank. I mean, let's cut to the chase, guys.

B: But, Steve. You kind of implied, though, that it's more than that, Jay. That there's some kind of unspoken, or maybe it is spoken –

S: Yeah.

B: – rule that you cannot bash – Oprah experts do not bash other Oprah experts. This doesn't happen, period. It just doesn't happen.

J: I feel a tightening in my chest when I think about what she's doing.

S: Well, let's go on to some other news items before Jay has a heart attack.


Volcanic Extinction (10:52)[edit]

S: Bob, tell us about the new information about one of the mass extinctions that's taken place.

B: Hey, guys. You know, second-place finishers are usually forgotten pretty quickly. Unless, of course, you're Adam Lambert or Susan Boyle. But, this also isn't true for the second-biggest extinction the Earth has ever seen, which has been in the news lately. Specifically, a volcanic eruption that, surprisingly, had previously been unknown. That kind of surprised me. This was apparently responsible for what may be the second biggest global mass extinction, which happened over 260 million years ago during the middle of the Permian Period. This story was recently published in the Journal of Science by scientists at the University of Leeds. Now, this wasn't the biggest, grandest volcanic eruption that's ever happened. There have been a handful that were nastier. But, this one was still pretty bad. It's called the “Guadalupian Mass Extinction”. It wiped out more than half of life on the Earth, and it spewed out about a half-million cubic kilometers over a half a million years.

J: That's one hell of a long vomix.

B: (Snorts)

R: (Laughs)

B: Guys, doesn't that sound like a flood basalt volcano to you? A volcano that is erupting for that length of time strikes me as – that it might have been a flood basalt. I didn't find any definitive pronouncements –

S: They didn't say that it was?

B: They didn't – no, they –

J: Bob, what's a “flood basalt”?

B: A flood basalt is a type of super volcano. When you think “super volcano”, you might think of the volcano that's underneath Yellowstone Park, that's just a gargantuan volcano. It's got an immense caldera that eventually will erupt, and it's pretty nasty.

J: Aw, man. I watched a TV show about that, and I was like –

R: It's scary.

J: – I was bent out of shape for like three days. I'm like, “It's going to blow!”

B: Yeah. It's – it's scary.

J: I was so worried.

B: Yeah, right? But, essentially it's relatively quick compared to a flood basalt, which, basically, is – hoo-ha! This is something that the Earth has seen a handful of times that would be – imagine the Earth's crust – a crack in the crust. And, horizon to horizon, a curtain of lava a mile high.

J: I often imagine that.

B: Now, alright, and Jay, you imagine that. Now imagine this: Imagine this happening for centuries. This doesn't happen for a week.

J: That can happen on Earth?

B: Yeah. It has happened on Earth.

J: What?

B: Something like that, for centuries. These flood basalt volcanoes will erupt for centuries. Then they take a little bit of a break. Then they start up again.

J: They might actually be worse than Oprah.

B: (Laughs). Half right.

E: Let's not get crazy.

B: It's funny. The article was referring to these as the “biggest mass murderers in history.” It was like, okay, well that's kind of taking a little bit of a liberty. Mass murderers? That's kind of weird. But – so this one, this Guadalupian mass extinction, this volcanic eruption – they said that it lasted for over half a million years. I found that on one or two websites. Now, it happened in China – in Southwest China. But, of course, China wasn't China back then. That long ago there was one supercontinent, called Pangaea. I'm sure you've heard of that. Like I said, this wasn't the biggest and worst volcanic eruption, but it actually had a huge negative impact on the Earth. Basically, the lava that was being spewed quickly hit the shallow seas that were in Pangaea at that time. When the lava hit these seas, apparently it was like putting Mentos candy into a soda bottle. It created this incredible reaction that pumped just immense amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. And, this formed clouds all over the Earth, which cooled the Earth, and then sent down acid rain all over the world. It was pretty nasty.

J: I mean, really, what else – what else could happen. I mean, this is like – this is a never-ending story of, like, walls of lava, acid rain.

B: And, it actually took – it took about a half a million years for life to recover – to get back to, kind of, where it was.

J: What life? What was left after cur– Bob, we're talking curtains of lava, here. What survived?

B: I guess it was somewhat isolated. You know, it only knocked out half of the life. Which is a lot of life, but still there was a lot of species still left over. The take-home, though – the take-home for all of this, though, isn't really any of that. The really interesting thing about this, is that these scientists are claiming that they're the first to find a direct link between a volcano and an extinction. Now, you might be surprised because you might think, “Oh, haven't we already done that?” But, actually, the links have been, kind of, a little bit tenuous. There haven't been as direct – not nearly as direct as what they're claiming that they found. And this is because the way the rock was laid down since the eruption took place – since it took place in shallow seas, it basically made a nice “lava sandwich”. Right? You've got this sedimentary rock –

R: Mmm, lava.

J: (Jewish accent) It makes a nice sandwich!

B: – You've got the sedimentary rock. Then you've got the lava, which becomes igneous rock. And then you've got sedimentary rock on top of that. And when you examine these layers, you know, you find this layer of sedimentary rock with these nice fossils that date really easily. Then you've got the lava, and then you've got sedimentary rock on top of that. And there's, like, almost no fossils in that sedimentary rock. And when they date the rock, it becomes clear that this happened very, very fast, which kind of gives you, like, a cause-and-effect. You know, the lava was laid down quickly, and it apparently caused a lot of these mass extinctions. So, according to paleontologist Professor Paul Wignal – he said that “this link between the extinction and the volcanoes are perfect.”

J: Well, Bob, I want you to know something.

B: (Funny accent) Yes?

J: Because of you, historically, in my life, I've done more googling because of you than any other single person.

B: (Laughing) Oh, yeah?

R: Even more than Jenna Jameson?

B: What, you're verifying all my shit, Jay?

J: No, I'm not verifying it. But, like, you know, I listen back to the show. But, I'm like, “Oh boy, gotta look that up, gotta look that up, gotta look that up”, You know.

B: Cool, Jay.

S: So, that pretty much paved the way for the dinosaurs, which appeared about 230 million years ago.

B: Yeah. The funny thing is, talk about a double-whammy. 10 million years later – I know, 10 million years is a lot, but in the scheme of things, it's really not. 10 million years later was “The Big Dying”. This was the –

J: (Laughing) What? Is that a technical term, Bob?

B: Yeah, it's called “The Big Dying”. It's the – well, Steve, was it the Permian-Cambrian extinction? This was the biggest

S: The single biggest mass extinction, yeah.

B: – Numero Uno. We're talking –

J: That sounds like you translated that from English, to Chinese, back to English.

B: (Laughs) Oh, yeah. One of those? This is so nasty. We're talking 90% of sea life and 70% of land life. So, within 10 million years you had these two huge extinctions, one of them being the absolute biggest the Earth has seen, as far as we can tell. Not a good time to be alive, a quarter-billion years ago.

E: (Laughs) That's for sure!

UFO News (17:50)[edit]

S: There have been a few UFO stories in the news over the last week.

E: Well, specifically, coming from Europe. And, in England, Cambridgeshire, the Telegraph paper reported that witnesses claim to have seen up to 50 mystery bright beams in the sky the other night. And there's a good picture of them. The picture has, you know, about two dozen of these dots in the sky. Typical picture. And, nobody knows what they are. The reporters ran out there and asked some people, asked some witnesses what they saw. And they share with them their pictures. And they noticed – one person said they noticed three lights floating past their house, only a couple of kilometers away. And, then they noticed big long strings of lights coming from the direction – a specific direction of a town. This was around almost midnight, the other night. They were pretty sure that they weren't aircraft, because they were saying there was no noise, no navigation lights. Their heading and height was relatively constant, and eventually disappeared out of sight.

R: Definitely aliens. We can all agree on that.

E: Definitely, could have, maybe been aliens. Well, what was it? Well, not a few hours later, the same Telegraph newspaper reports that the “mystery” of these lights is probably linked to a military exercise.

R: Hunting aliens?

E: No big surprise there, right?

S: You know, it's funny, because the headlines say that they were linked to a “daring military exercise”. So, like, ooh! A “daring” exercise. What were they doing? Well, it turns out it was an exercise involving the HMS Daring. That was the name of the ship.

B: Oh, man!


B: Oh, God. That's awesome.

E: That's, that's called –

R: Sneaky!

E: – squeezing everything you can out of a situation to yield the best possible headline.

S: Those headline writers!

E: So, these were countermeasure flares.

S: Flares!

E: Flares.

J: Hey, come on. I mean, really? I've never heard them do that before.

B: So that's a done deal, then? I mean, that's it?

E: It's the most likely candidate.

B: 'Cause, the one article I read, they mentioned – they actually contacted somebody from the military and they said, “Uh, nah. We didn't have anything going on, that I know of.” So, somebody denied it. Which is like, “Oh, great!”

S: Yeah, but who'd they call? They called some guy who didn't know about it. You know...

B: Yeah. But, you know, again – yet again, you have the military denying it initially, and then saying, “Oh, yeah. We had this going on.” Like, great. The conspiracy people are going to go nuts!

S: Yeah.

E: And there were also planes flying overhead, apparently, that night, that were kind of following the path of these flares, and countermeasures, and other things that were sent up in the air. They were tracking them with radar. There it is. There's your prosaic explanation. But, you know, this wasn't the most interesting UFO story this week.

B: Oh!

S: Not by a long-shot.

R: Really?

E: No, no. Here, this – this is the one that takes the cake. According to the Macedonian International News Agency – here's the headline: “Russian scientist: 'UFO collided with Tunguska meteorite to save Earth'”

B: Oh, yeah.

S: Mm-hm.

E: So, back in 1908, the Tunguska meteorite that fell over Siberia, you know, leveled all the trees in the area in about an 800-mile radius.

J: (Funny voice) Tunguska?

E: Did a lot of damage. Well, it wasn't just a natural impact, or a natural universal occurrence. No. This was a UFO that deliberately put itself in the path of the big meteorite or comet. Those aliens sacrificed their own lives and existence in order to help save the Earth because they felt – the Russian scientist, this fella's name is Yuriy Lavbin. According to his investigation – he believes that the UFO hit the meteorite, which would have weighed over a billion tons. And if something that big hit the Earth, that would have been the end of civilization, the end of the Earth as we know it. A cataclysmic event. But instead, the aliens moved their ship in line with the meteorite. That's where the impact took place, and spared the Earth a catastrophic disaster. Isn't that incredible?

S: Of course, that wouldn't have worked.

E: (Laughs)

S: That's really true, because –

E: Wait a minute! This is a Russian scientist, Steve. You're gonna –

J: Yeah, what are you saying, Steve? Come on!

E: Yeah!

R: Steve, a newspaper printed this!

B: (Laughs)

S: I understand that. But –

J: (Laughs)

S: – if you have a meteor that's already entering the Earth atmosphere and, rather than impacting, it blows up – all that kinetic energy is still there. It's still gonna hit the Earth. It's still gonna cause all that damage. So, you're not really gonna protect the Earth that much, if at all, by having it blow up before it actually impacts the ground. So –

J: Yeah, well, sometimes, that's actually worse.

B: Steve, real science has no place in this discussion.

S: You're right. You didn't talk about his line of evidence.

E: I was about to bring that up, actually.

S: How does he know this?

E: Because, on his expedition to the site of the explosion he discovered quartz crystals. He found about ten of them. And these quartz crystals had holes in-between them so that they could be united in a chain. So, here's the quote from the scientist –

R: A daisy chain?

E: – Yuriy Lavbin. He says: “What could this chain serve for? Besides, some crystals have strange drawings on them. We don't have any technologies that can print such kinds of drawings on crystals. We found ferrum silicate that cannot be produced anywhere except in space.”

S: And how could a rock from space ever get down to the Earth?

E: I don't – it had to be –

R: Aliens!

E: – only have been brought in by an intelligent alien vessel.

R: Rocks don't just get up and go to another planet, Steve.

S: They don't just “fall from the sky”!

E: All right...

S: It's funny. He said they found these rocks and said, “these rocks are not found on Earth.” But wait a minute. You just found that rock on Earth!

E: – found them (laughs).

S: How could you pick up a rock and say, “This rock does not exist on Earth”? It obviously does! Did you see the picture of the rocks? You have to dig through some other news stories to actually get the pictures.

B: They look like cookies.

S: They look like... you know, they look like natural crystal formation. You know, not like something that was etched, or drawn. They're not pictures! They're just lines. You know, the kind of lines you would expect to see in crystals. It's just completely natural. I love what – he claims that these lines are map drawings. And if you fit the rocks together, it makes like a stellar map. I guess a navigation map –

J: Oh! Of course!

E: No confirmation bias there!

S: There you go! So –

B: It's a sophisticated map.

S: Yeah, I was going to say, that's quite a sophisticated map. You think they might have something resembling... I don't know, digital technology or computers at that point in time, if they have the technology to get here. They're etching their maps onto rocks?

E: Skeptics have never been one to believe in the power of crystals. Whether it's etchings, or healing power, or crystal skulls, or anything like that. We're way too closed-minded.

S: Yes. We have an anti-crystal bias, clearly.

R: Well, and an anti-crystal vibe. I mean, it's our “skeptical aura” that actually causes the crystals to cease working.

J: I hate all you guys just for talking about this.

S&E: (Laughs)

R: Why are you so full of hate?

E: This is news! This is the Macedonian International News Agency!

R: Wow, good job, Macedonia!

Texas Evolution Update (25:12)[edit]

S: Just some quick followup to finish out the news segment. On the whole Texas Board of Education hubbub.

R: Texas! Not so bad at all!

S: Yeah, some good news. Don “Someone's got to stand up to those experts” McLeroy was not confirmed as the Chairman of the Board of Education for the State of Texas. So, he was essentially removed as the Chairman of the Board of Education. So, good move Texas. Although, they haven't –

R: That's not all!

S: – They haven't replaced him yet. I know, that's not all. Also, two anti-evolution bills – two separate ones – were both allowed to die because the legislature adjourned Right? So, they adjourned on June 1st and, by adjourning, the two bills that –

E: They expired.

S: The two bills expired, right. So, it's House Bill 2800 and House Bill 4224. So –

R: They died of natural causes.

S: They did. They did. They faded into the sunset.

R: Natural selection.

E: They evolved out of existence.

S: The first one was terrible. This one would have exempted the Institute for Creation Research from having to meet Texas's regulations governing degree-granting institutions. So, basically –

B: Nice.

S: – the ICR –

E: Basically giving them a pass.

S: Yeah, exactly. The ICR, the Institute for Creation Research, wants to grant master's degrees in science. Can you imagine?

R: Oh my God.

E: Man.

S: The ICR being able master's degrees in science? But they couldn't do it, because they didn't meet the criteria for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. So, the Legislature – some guys there – wanted to pass a bill that would exempt them from those requirements so that they could do it.

R: And now they're – because they didn't get their way – they're suing over it.

S: Oh, it's ridiculous.

J: And all they have to do is watch ten hours of Oprah's new cable TV access show and they will get their degree.

E: Get your master's degree.

S: The second one was to – it was an attempt to – this is 4224 – it was an attempt to restore the “strengths and weaknesses” language in the Texas state science standards. Again, making an end-run around the Board's decision. Although, as we discussed previously, the Board had ultimately decided to introduce other language that essentially does the same thing to – “Students must examine all sides of scientific evidence”, for example. But – this was just some, you know, creationist legislative mischief that they were trying, and it just couldn't – I guess it couldn't get anywhere, and both bills died. At least, for this legislative session. Texas is safe, for now.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Question # 1 - Evangelical Skeptics (27:48)[edit]

Greetings Skeptics! I have listened to and enjoyed every podcast you have put out (except for the infamous Neal Adams interview, which I just can't bring myself to cue up...I think being a huge fan of his comics work is preventing me, or the fact that I generally don't find such raw confrontations entertaining) My question stems from a recent conversation I had with my girlfriend who generally considers herself to be a critical thinker although she does have her 'sacred cow' like almost everyone her case she is a non-practicing pagan. We listen to several podcasts together, but when I ask her to listen to yours she refuses, her reason being that she feels 'you have a tendency to be just as 'evangelical' and at times 'close-minded' as the believers'. I can think of quite a few ways to defend you in response to that comment, but I think hearing from you directly might have a greater impact. Whether you respond via email or on the show I'll make sure she reads/hears your answer. Thanks for your time and keep up the quality work! Shane Nitzsche (pronounced NIT-chee)

S: Well, let's move on to a couple of your questions and emails. The first email comes from Shane Nitzsche. And, he writes:

Greetings Skeptics! I have listened to and enjoyed every podcast you have put out (except for the infamous Neal Adams interview, which I just can't bring myself to cue up. My question stems from a recent conversation I had with my girlfriend who generally considers herself to be a critical thinker although she does have her 'sacred cow' like almost everyone her case she is a non-practicing pagan. We listen to several podcasts together, but when I ask her to listen to yours she refuses, her reason being that she feels 'you have a tendency to be just as 'evangelical' and at times 'close-minded' as the believers'. I can think of quite a few ways to defend you in response to that comment, but I think hearing from you directly might have a greater impact. Whether you respond via email or on the show I'll make sure she reads/hears your answer. Thanks for your time and keep up the quality work!

J: Okay, let me take this one, all right?

S: All right, go ahead Jay.

B: (Impression of Jay) Oh yeah?

J: I can kind of understand what she's thinking, you know, because we come off like we know what we're talking about. Well, part of it is we do research and have a basic understanding of what we're talking about, if not a detailed understanding of what we talk about. But, the key thing that differs from what we think and believe versus from what a, you know, a believer of a religion or some type of mythology would believe, is that, with better information, that science brings, we change our opinion. Just like that.

S: Right. That's a critical difference. There's a ton of differences. I mean, I would say, first of all, the sense that we are quote/unquote “evangelical” – I think what she may be perceiving there is out passion.

B: Yeah. I agree.

S: I make no excuses for the fact that we're passionate about science, about reason and skepticism. But, that's not the same thing as being evangelical. And, Jay, you hit upon the key difference, is that what we're passionate about is a method of inquiry. Of asking questions. Of doubting everything. Of trying to think for yourself and reason your way through these things. Not a set of beliefs! We don't have a set of beliefs.

J: Yeah.

S: You know, that's a critical difference.

R: And, more so, the idea of being evangelical is to have a set of beliefs and then to constantly force them on other people. And, you know, we do have beliefs amongst ourselves, but the point of the show isn't to try to convert anyone away from any other beliefs. You know, like Steve says, it's just about asking questions. So, yeah, sometimes our beliefs creep in. We might comment on them. We all come from different biases, of course. But, what we attempt to do in every episode is to strip away bias and get down to the facts, and the science, and what we can know about the world. And that's what it's all about.

J: You know, I don't think it's wrong that we deliver science and skepticism in a passionate way. I mean, we're all human. It's not like the instant you become a scientist and/or a skeptic that you lose your passion.

S: Yeah, I mean, you know, clearly, we share a world-view. And, we are trying to promote our world-view. But, again, that world-view does not really contain a set of beliefs beyond just, you know, science works, and it's a pretty good thing, and we think that's the method that we should use to answer questions about how nature works. You know, empirical questions.

E: Yeah, I don't like when people mistake that with being closed-minded.

B: Yeah, that's an important point because I could see how somebody would think we're closed-minded. But, the thing is, we could tell you what it would take for us to change our beliefs, which is key.

E: Mm.

B: But, you know, how many times did we have to – you know, when we discuss a blurry ghost photo, a silly UFO picture – you know, I'm sorry if we sound a little bit closed-minded after talking about that for the hundredth time, and it's the same old stuff. Because it's the same old lousy evidence over, and over, and over, that people find so compelling, that we don't find compelling.

J: We also get tired of telling people that we're open-minded. (Laughs). Okay. Thank you.

(Chuckles from the Rogues)

R: It does get a little tiresome.

S: But get used to it. The closed-minded thing is something we're going to have to answer to, over and over again, forever.

E: Mm-hm.

J: Mm-hm. Yeah.

S: That's just part of explaining what skepticism is really all about. And, it's okay. I mean, it's just one of those things that we're going to have to continue to explain. The fact is that true believers are closed-minded, right? People who believe in things without evidence – that's closed-minded. We're maximally open-minded because we have a set of criteria that we use for what we think is compelling evidence, what kind of claims are adequately supported by logic and evidence in order to be accepted, and we apply those universally, across the board. Obviously, I'm not saying we're perfect. Of course, we have biases and errors in our thinking, and our information's imperfect. But, at least we try to be rigorous and consistent in our methods and valid in the logic that we use. And if you can put together a compelling evidence-based logical argument for something, we'll buy it!

E: Absolutely.

S: We'll change what – as Bob said, we have – there are ways to change what we think about things. That's open-minded.

Question # 2 - Begging the Question (33:10)[edit]

Okay. I give up. After all, with you guys as my role models (and in this case, Stephen) what choice do I have. I've been increasingly depressed at the way the term 'begging the question' has come, in mainstream media, to mean RAISING the question--and not what it always USED to mean. Now I have no problem with language evolving and meanings changing. However, 'begging the question' is such a valuable term for identifying a common logical fallacy--I seem always to be using it to harpoon some blubbering claim. And now? The term is becoming useless. And I know of no other to replace it. Circular argument is almost there, but, unless I'm mistaken, has a different emphasis. In fact, I was about to write to you lot looking for support, a crusade, a suggestion...something--when, what to my wondering ears should I hear.. but you, Stephen, using the term in the NEW, trendy, way, in the last podcast. Aaaarrrgh. I was hoping I could point out that, inconsistently, you have the term in your list of logical fallacies, but, alas, though it appears in virtually all such lists, it does not appear in yours. drat. So, I guess, I just give up. But that begs the question, 'What term do I use instead?' Theo Dombrowski Nanoose bay, British Columbia

S: All right, let's go on to another question. This one comes from Theo Dombrowski from Nanoose Bay, British Columbia. And Theo writes:

Okay. I give up. After all, with you guys as my role models, what choice do I have? I've been increasingly depressed at the way the term 'begging the question' has come, in mainstream media, to mean raising the question, and not what it always used to mean. Now I have no problem with language evolving and meanings changing. However, 'begging the question' is such a valuable term for identifying a common logical fallacy. I seem always to be using it to harpoon some blubbering claim. And now, the term is becoming useless. And I know of no other to replace it. Circular argument is almost there, but, unless I'm mistaken, has a different emphasis. In fact, I was about to write to you to look for support, a crusade, a suggestion...something – when, what to my wondering ears should I hear, but you, Stephen, using the term in the new, trendy, way, in the last podcast. I was hoping I could point out that, inconsistently, you have the term in your list of logical fallacies, but, alas, though it appears in virtually all such lists, it does not appear in yours. Drat. So, I guess I just give up. But that begs the question, “What term do I use instead?”

R: Circular reasoning

S: Right. It is circular reasoning.

R: It's the same thing.

S: Circular reasoning is not almost there, it is there.

R: Sorry, Theo.

S: So, Theo is correct. I did use the term “beg the question” to mean “raise the question” in the last episode. In fact, I caught it mentally when I said it, and I thought to myself, “should I bother going back and changing it or explain myself”? Eh, I just went past it.

B: (Laughs)

E: Because, no one will write in and complain about it.

S: No, I – whatever.

R: Oh, not on this show.

S: I figured I was taking a chance. But, you know, here's the thing: honestly, I've never, ever heard anyone, to me, use the term “begging the question” as the logical fallacy. I've only ever heard it used in the sense of “raising the question”. That is the – far and away, the common use for that term. So, essentially, I know it's the logical fallacy to begging the question, which is, again, circular reasoning. I gave up a long time ago. Because, language does change, it does evolve. The common usage of that term has so overwhelmed its original meaning as a logical fallacy that there's just no point in trying to fight against it anymore.

R: Yeah, that really used to drive me nuts. Even up to about a year ago, or so. But eventually I decided, you know what, there are better things to do than try to tell people what it is. So...

S: Yeah, I mean, usage changes.

R: That too.

S: You know, that's it. It's like, I don't get on Evan and Rebecca for saying “off-ten” instead of “off-en”.

R: What?!

E: Ooh.

S: Just to bring up a random example.

R: Wait, what?

S: (Laughs)

R: What? “off-ten”?

E: You're talking about pronunciation.

S: That's right.

E: That's a little different than –

R: You mean pronouncing my “T”s?

S: Yeah. When they're supposed to be silent. That's right.

R: When they're supposed to be silent?

E: You're not being a very good “Na-eeg-burr” there, Steve.

S&J: (Laughs).

R: That is completely ridiculous.

S: The word's “off-en”. The “T” is silent. But, I've given up years ago correcting people for saying “off-ten”.

R: What?

J: Steve, you know –

S: Because, with use, it's now become correct.

R: It's not – no. Wait, wait. Back up. That is not at all the same thing. You're talking about a difference between dialects.

J: Oh, here we go.

R: Your Connecticut accent doesn't emphasize “T”s in the middle of words.

S: Here we go: “100 most often mispronounced words and phrases in English”.

E: Mm-hm.

S: Guess what's on the list: Often.

R: According to whom?

S: We have mastered the spelling of this word so well its spelling influences the pronunciation. Don't pronounce the “T”. This is an exception to the rule that spelling helps pronunciation. It's not a regional accent. This is actually one of those things that's changed over time.

R: According to whom?


B: Good website.

S: Anyway, it was just an example. And as I said, It's changed with use. And I don't get picky about things like that. So, begging the question, people think it means “raising the question”. And that's how I think of it in my head, because that's how I've always heard it used. The logical fallacy is circular reasoning. It's to incorporate in the premise of an argument, the conclusion that you're trying to reach. Right? So the premises are the beginning of the argument, the conclusion is where you're trying to go. And if you say, for example, that “the Bible is 100% true” – literally true – how do you know that? “Because the Bible was written by God. And God's perfect.” Well, how do you know that? “Well, that's because the Bible says it was written by God”. You're including in your premises the conclusion that you're trying to prove. And it takes you, again, in this sort of circular reasoning.

J: Well, Steve, I have a quick comment here. This is directed at specifically Richard Saunders. It's “aluminum”. Not “aluminium”.

S: (Laughs)

E: Aluminium.

S: Aluminium?

E: “Vitt-amins”.

S: “Vitt-amins”?

R: (unclear)

B: Oh God.

S: Obviously, some things are regional accents, or not-so-regional accents. But, other things are just the change of usage over time. And this also gets to our love-hate relationship that we have on the SGU with being pedantic. Because, we do like to be detail-oriented. And, we do appreciate being corrected, and we do appreciate feedback. But there's this line that you cross where you're pointing out nitpicky little things just for the sake of correcting others, even when it doesn't matter. I'm not saying that's the instance in this case, but I'm saying that does happen a lot. To resist the lure of being pedantic myself, because I love being pedantic as much as the next guy –

E: Oh yeah. You're always correcting us.

B: More so.

E: Always.

S: Excuse me? (Laughs)

E: (Laughs) I'm sorry, go ahead. I interrupted.

S: – Is some rules for myself to say, “Is this worth correcting?” So one rule, for example, is “Does this quote/unquote “correction” actually reduce ambiguity, increase specificity.” In medicine, being very precise in your terminology's important.

E: Very important.

S: And almost a day doesn't go by where I'm not telling a medical student or a resident to be more specific in their terminology. Because it actually has importance to meaning. But if it doesn't have any importance to meaning, in my opinion, that's when you're just being pedantic.

J: Yeah.

E: Agreed.

R: Yeah.

B: Sounds reasonable.

R: Yeah, there are certainly – there are examples of people trying to control language. You know, the French, I think, have certainly made a good go at it. But you can't stop the evolution of language, I think. People are gonna do what they're gonna do.

S: It's a good thing.

R: Yeah. Definitely.

S: 'Cause you think about the term “begging the question”. You know why that is so often misused? Because the phrase is not intuitively obvious.

B: Yeah.

E: Right.

S: When you hear the term, “begging the question”, people – it sounds as if you're saying it “raises the question”. So that's how people use it. Okay, so let the usage follow what makes intuitive sense to most people most of the time. Right?

E: Absolutely.

R: Yeah.

S: And, you know what? “Circular reasoning” is a much more better description of that logical fallacy 'cause it's much more intuitive, in my opinion.

J: “Much more better”.

E: “Much more better”.

R: He just said “much more better”.

S: I said “much more better”, “much more better”. (Laughs)

B: Come on! Even though it's “better-er”

E: Better-er

S: Much more better-er?

R: It's not best-est.

S: It's the best-est! That's what I was going to say.

R: (Laughs)

Interview with Simon Singh (40:31)[edit]

S: Well, let's go on with our interview. Joining us now is Simon Singh. Simon, welcome back to the Skeptic's Guide.

SS: It's nice to be back.

S: Now, Simon is an author, journalist, TV producer, specializing in science and mathematics. And a year ago – just about a year a go – we interviewed you about your then-new book, Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial, which you co-authored with Edzard Ernst, who's also awesome. And, now we have you back on to talk about a new issue that's cropped up. You were recently sued by the British Chiropractic Association. Now, I know, probably a lot of our listeners have some information about this. But why don't you get everyone up to speed, and tell us about this lawsuit.

SS: Yes. I mean, it's still ongoing, so I'm limited to some extent as to what I can say. But, I can give you a (unclear) history of what's happened, and where we're at now, and how things might progress in the coming weeks.

So, the book was published April, 2008. In the book we talk about all sorts of therapies, and around that time we published a few articles to make people aware of what we were writing about, and so on. And I wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper, one of our national newspapers. And the article was about chiropractic. And it happened to be Chiropractic Awareness Week. And, so, it seemed like a good idea to – to a large extent I think it's a promotional campaign for chiropractors, but the idea of the article was to make people aware of some aspects of chiropractic that they may not be familiar with.

I laid out the groundwork, the history of chiropractic. Which is that some hundred or so years ago, Daniel Palmer invented this idea that there's something called an “innate energy”. The innate energy would flow through our nervous system and provide health to our bodies. And, therefore, a block in this innate energy would cause ill health. And the blockage, typically, would be associated with the spinal column. So, a disjointed, or misaligned spine blocks the innate energy, causes kidney problems, or all sorts of other things. Fix the spine by spinal manipulation, or chiropractic, and you can cure the patient.

The first two people that Palmer treated were, one person who was profoundly deaf, and one person who had a serious heart problem. And Palmer believed he cured those patients using spinal manipulation. And his philosophy was, “let's cure everything with spinal manipulation”. Now, today, most chiropractors have moved away from that rather odd model of medicine, and tend to focus on back problems. And you have a back problem, you manipulate the spine, you might feel better.

S: Although, most – meaning maybe more than half of chiropractors have significantly backed off of that – sort of, what we call “straight chiropractic” notion of “innate intelligence” and subluxations. At least in the United States, estimates are a full 30% or so of chiropractors still practice right in line with D. D. Palmer's original philosophy, there. So, it's still very prevalent among chiropractic.

SS: Yeah, there's very much a spectrum, and it varies across the globe. And then there's some in the middle, who tend to focus on back problems, but who also will treat conditions not necessarily associated with the back. Things like asthma, colic, ear infections, and so on. And that's where I focus my attention in the article. I was worried that these treatments were being promoted for childhood conditions where there wasn't really enough evidence to justify them. The British Chiropractic Association, who were mentioned in the article, obviously took offense to this, and went as fat as eventually suing me for libel. There were a few nasty letters to and fro to start with, but it ended up in a libel suit. And that's sort of been ongoing now, for most of the last year.

S: Right. And, their point is that you were defaming the British Chiropractic Association for saying that the treatments that they're recommending are not supported by the evidence. Which is absolutely true. I mean, the evidence is dead-against using chiropractic to treat asthma, for example. The only really well-designed trials we have show zero effect. So that's a completely fair statement. So, how did they get any headway suing you for libel for saying statements that are true?

SS: It's hard for me to talk about that at the moment. But, your view is certainly not out of line with other peoples' views. The idea was, how much evidence do you need to justify treatment? If you need just some case studies, so case series, is an unblinded trial adequate? Where is the balance of evidence sufficient to justify therapy. Now, maybe I set my bar higher than the chiropractors do. Maybe that's where the disagreement arose. I was more than willing to defend my article in court, and that's why I didn't back down. One of the problems was that the British Chiropractic Association sued me, personally, and not the Guardian newspaper, which is rather unusual. And so, personally, it's a lot of pressure. But, you know, I stand by the article and was willing to back it up.

A big problem emerged about a month ago. In fact, exactly four weeks ago today, I think. We had a preliminary hearing at the High Court, in which the judge was going to rule on the meaning of the article. The defamatory words. What exactly do they mean? So that, when we go to trial eventually, we know exactly what we're arguing about. I know what I have to defend. Unfortunately for me, the judge's ruling is that my article says that, not only are these therapies – treatments – not backed by evidence, but the chiropractors are deliberately and dishonestly using these treatments, even though they know they are not backed by evidence. I didn't mean to say that, and I don't think that's a reasonable interpretation of my article. But it's the judge's interpretation.

B: Isn't it the interpretation of just one word? Wasn't it the word “bogus” that the judge seems to have completely misinterpreted.

SS: “It sort of happily promotes bogus therapies.” And I think the judge has taken “happily” to mean “knowingly”. I would think “happily” means “naïvely”, or “innocently”, or all sorts of possibilities, there. And “bogus” – as you say – does “bogus” mean “deliberately fraudulent” or does it just mean “ineffective and based on shoddy science”? What really worries me is, if you look at the context of the whole article – elsewhere in the article, I talk about Fundamentalists. I talk about some chiropractors having ideas above their station, having wacky ideas. So, for me, the article paints a picture of people who are perhaps eccentric or deluded, not deliberately fraudulent. And it's going to be very, very (missing audio) defend the judge's interpretation at trial. And so, for the last two or three weeks, we've been figuring out what to do next. We can't really defend this at trial. We could try, but it would be very hard. I don't really want to back down and settle. And so the decision we announced just a day or two ago was that we would go to the Court of Appeal and appeal the judge's meaning to see whether we can get what we believe is a more reasonable understanding of the article, and one that I would be able, and willing, and would actually want to defend in court in due course.

S: Mm-hm.

B: Is the judge a chiropractor? I mean, it really seems odd that the judge would do this, putting you in a completely untenable position.

SS: I'm sure he's a very decent man, and a very honorable man. But, there are serious problems with the English libel system. And, one of the reasons for continuing is to perhaps highlight some of the problems with the libel system. So this isn't the judge that I'm talking about, but things like the fact that, at this stage, for example, it's very rare that libel cases get this far. Because, libel in England is incredibly expensive. If you look at countries in Europe, we're top of the tape in terms of the cost of a libel case. We're ten times more expensive than the next country, which is Ireland. And Ireland, in turn, is four times more expensive than the third country. And, in fact, if you compare England, 'cause it's the English libel system as opposed to the British one, the English libel system is 140 times more expensive than the European average. So typically, if a journalist is threatened with libel, the sensible thing to do is to back down early and get out, because it's just not worth the headache, the time, and the resources. It just bankrupts you. So, that's one of the problems with our libel laws. Too, I'm guilty, essentially, until proven innocent. The burden of proof is entirely on me. So, the chiropractors don't have to prove anything. I just have to prove, completely, the accuracy of my article. Which is an uphill struggle when the judge is saying that I'm calling them dishonest. How do I prove what's going on in the mind of an association. Not even an individual, but an association.

B: Right.

SS: So that's going to make it tough. And so, there are problems with English libel. And, by going to the Court of Appeal, one: I'm giving myself the only chance I've got left. And two: I'm hoping that we can highlight some of these issues surrounding libel. In fact, we've just started a campaign. We announced it the same day we announced that we were going to be going to the Court of Appeal. And the idea of the campaign is to encourage the government to re-examine our libel laws. They're a real embarrassment. They give science writers a tough time. You know, science writers have to be able to challenge and question ideas. In a fair way, but in a frank way. And journalists, you know, full-stop have to be able to do that. And the really, really shameful thing, the thing that really embarrasses me, as someone that grew up in England, is that our laws effect everybody else in the world. If you write an article in Boston, and somebody in England reads that article – or buys your book over the Internet – then you could be sued in an English court.

S: Mm-hm.

SS: So our laws of libel go far beyond these shores. And it – there's something called “libel tourism”, whereby if somebody is trying to sue somebody else, they'll typically try and bring it to an English court if they can because the laws are just so severe.

S: Yeah, absolutely. And, it seems that the intention of this lawsuit is to have a chilling effect on criticism and open and honest discussion of controversial pseudoscientific claims, such as those on the part of the British Chiropractic Association. It's directly anti-free speech, in my opinion.

SS: Yes. And when we launched the campaign, we really encouraged people to try and join it if they can and sign up. It's not just a British campaign, because our laws affect everybody. So if anybody can go to – there's a website called Great support from America. James Randi, your good self –

S: Yeah.

SS: – Phil Plait, and Penn & Teller, and Alan Sokal have all come on board. And, you know, there's a real chance here. There's a government select committee looking at these laws at the moment. And there's a real opportunity to try and apply some encouragement to re-examine these issues. So when we launched all of this, a chap called Nick Cohen, a very brilliant British journalist who writes for the Observer newspaper, and other magazines and newspapers – Nick said, in Europe, we still haven't come to terms with free speech. We don't have such a liberal policy, and it's time that we actually adopted something much more similar to the American model, whereby if you're a public board, or you're a public individual, it's possible to write about corporations and individuals without the threat of libel. As long as what you're writing is written without malice, or isn't completely reckless.

S: Yeah. In fact, in the US, we, in some states – this is state by state – there are so-called “SLAPP” laws, or a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”, which is designed specifically to counteract lawsuits which are intended to intimidate or silence critics. So, I think that's a good system. So, yeah, you can bring a libel suit. And if you can prove somebody said something that was wrong and harmful, you have a right to compensation. But if you're doing it frivolously, or with malice, in order to silence your critics, it could rebound back on you. There's got to be a threat both ways. It sounds like in the British system, or the English system, there is no threat to bringing a libel suit. It's like playing the lotto.

SS: That would be an improvement, certainly. But, the other way is to actually ramp down the stakes. At the moment it's like a high-stakes poker game. You go into this, if you win the case, I'm still going to lose money, because I'm never going to get all my costs back. So, if I win, I'd lose a few tens of thousands of dollars. If I lose, then I'd be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. And so, it's a high-stakes poker game, and if you ratchet up the costs, then that could make it even scarier for people to get involved. The other way to do it, is to start having things like a sort of a “small claims court” for libel. Something that's quick, and sharp, maybe involving enforced mediation. A lot of these claims don't involve large amounts of money. And therefore, it's wrong to have disproportionally expensive trials which block participation –

S: Mm-hm

SS: – When what's really being argued about is just a few thousand dollars here and there.

S: Yeah, so you could have a trial that costs you $30,000 to determine whether or not you owe somebody $3000 is what you're saying.

SS: Or a third of a million dollars, to deal with something that's just $10,000. And that's why the sensible thing to do is back off really early. I'm in an incredibly privileged position that – I've been writing books for 15 years, or getting on for that. And I've been involved in science journalism for a long time. And I care about this issue, I've got the time to dedicate to it. The support has been amazing. Bloggers have written about this extensively, there's a Facebook group. And it's because of that level of support that I'm keen to carry on the battle. Because the warmth, and encouragement, and enthusiasm has been really bolstering.

S: Well, you're really taking a hit for the team. I mean, you're really putting, you know, again, personal liability on the line, here, for an issue that can affect all of us. I mean, my God, I think about the articles that I've written online and, you know, 200-plus podcasts now. I'm sure I've said and written a thousand things that somebody could probably sue me over if they really wanted to. But, it's obviously – I think I stand behind everything that I've written or said, but, you know, that's the position you put yourself in, especially if you're skeptical, you know, and you're in the business of criticizing charlatans, you know, quacks, cranks, and the self-deluded. I mean, that is – and now with the Internet Age, the notion that I could be dragged into English court is a frightening proposition. So, I think you have all of our genuine support, but I think a lot of us recognize that this is an issue that deals – that affects all of us. And you are very graciously putting yourself in this position, or as I said, taking a hit for the team. So –

SS: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. I mean, it's much appreciated. And, the more support we can get from – it would be great if the Australians came on board, although I think their libel laws are not too clever. But, if people, globally, started to focus on what we're doing in England because, as you say, we drag in everybody else because of the wondrous Internet –

S: Yeah.

SS: – and the way information travels here and there. And the sort of classic sign of how bad things have got in England with libel tourism is that, my understanding is that, in America, states are beginning to bring in their own laws, one by one, so that if an American journalist is sued in an English court, new laws in America are saying that that judgment is not valid on that American citizen if that same decision wouldn't be upheld in an American court. So, our laws are so bad that you're having to create laws to make up for them.

S: Right.

SS: That shows how bad we've got it.

S: Yeah, I agree.

B: Wow.

S: Yeah, I mean, there almost has to be some kind of an international standard, you know. It – especially, again, now with the Internet, information is global.

SS: Well, one of our hopes is we're applying to the Court of Appeal. It's unusual for the Court of Appeal to overturn this sort of decision, so it's a long shot. But, we'll keep our fingers crossed that they will listen to our appeal, and they'll give us a meaning that we think is more reasonable. But if they don't, then the next stage would be to try and apply to the European Court of Human Rights and see whether they would listen to our case and give us a more reasonable meaning. And by drawing in that European angle, it begins to reflect the way that information is traveling now, via the Internet. It's a European – it's a global issue.

S: Yeah. I completely agree. This is something that we've marveled at for years. Every time it crops up, and it does crop up a lot, again, in the skeptical crowd. We always just have to shake our heads like, how could the laws be so backwards there. And I guess its all relative, but from our perspective it seems that way.

SS: Oh, I think from everybody's perspective. Our laws are pretty backward. You know, apart from, maybe, a few totalitarian regimes. It can't really hold its head up at all very high on this kind of issue. And at the moment, in Britain, there's almost a fashion for taking on science journalists. There's a wonderful professor at University College London called David Colquhoun –

S: Yes.

SS: – who writes a great blog, Improbable Science, and people may have visited it. Somebody complained to his university about his blog being hosted on a university website. Was that appropriate for an academic who was writing about subjects beyond his speciality? And the university caved in and took down his website until – actually, international campaigning, actually, really embarrassed the university into re-hosting it again properly, and standing up to those challenges. And then a few months later, David was threatened by chiropractors in New Zealand for an article he wrote in the New Zealand Journal of Medicine. In that case, the journal stood up to the chiropractors. I think Frank Frizelle said something along the lines of “show us your evidence, not your legal muscle”.

S: Right.

SS: And that's the really important thing. If somebody disagrees about something that's written, then let's discuss it in a proper, reasonable way.

S: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that we can't heap enough criticism and scorn onto the British Chiropractic Association, in my opinion, for doing this. You basically said, “You're promoting these therapies to children without adequate evidence to support them”, and they responded by suing you rather than, oh I don't know, publishing the evidence, or showing evidence to support their decision. It really is scandalous and they, in my opinion, really are scoundrels for doing that.

SS: I mean, I can't really judge them in any way. I mean, they were within their rights to do what they did, and they pursued that legal route. But, very early on, the Guardian did say, to the British Chiropractic Association, “if you want to write a reply, here's 500 words. Write down what you think your evidence is, and let the readers decide”. And, to me, that seems like a very reasonable option. If they wanted a clarification on what I'd written, if they wanted it expressed in more clear terms, I would have been happy to have done that as well. That was offered as well. But, unfortunately, the British Chiropractic Association did pursue the legal option.

S: Right. I know you can't say too much about it, but that's why I am. And I will extend this to the complimentary and alternative medicine culture in general. In my experience, they really don't like to be criticized. They do whatever they can to exempt themselves from that kind of criticism. One good thing: in the last four or five years, the skeptical movement has really become so plugged in because of the Internet and Web 2.0. You know, we really have – really, we do have almost this rapid response kind of network of skeptics. And when things like this happen – like, I know when David was asked to remove specific articles from his website – literally dozens, if not hundreds, of us fellow science bloggers immediately duplicated all of the material on our own websites. The lesson has to be, if you're going to try to silence your critics by suing them, or intimidating, or calling their boss, or whatever, that's only going to result in the magnification of the criticism two or three-fold, or a hundred-fold, or a thousand-fold. Whatever we can muster. And I think we have to keep doing that. That's one of the really solid things that we could do, as skeptical activists, is make sure that the skeptical point of view is not silenced by these kind of bullying intimidation tactics.

SS: (silence) Um... (silence)


SS: It's a very interesting point you make.


S: Thank you.

B: That's great.

S: I appreciate the position that you're in, Simon. Well, thank you, Simon, for having the personal fortitude to stick this out. You certainly have our support. And this does have implications for all of science, you know. Not just skepticism, but, you know, science requires transparent critique. And if people like the British Chiropractic Association are successful in silencing their critics, then we've really lost a very important war. So, thanks for fighting.

SS: It has been my pleasure. And thank you for your support. And thank you to everybody in North America that has been supporting the case already. and will continue to support in the future, I hope. Thanks a lot!

S: All right. Take care, Simon.

B: Thanks, Simon.

Science or Fiction (1:02:57)[edit]

Item # 1: Neil Armstrong recently confirmed that his famous “one small step for man” phrase was written for him by a NASA press secretary. Item # 2: Scientists have been able to track emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica from space by using satellites to spot their droppings. Item # 3: Researchers find that space headache is a real and distinct phenomenon and call for it to have its own classification.

It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts. Two genuine, and one fictitious. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake.

R: Yes!

S: We have a theme this week.

R: Oh, good.

B: Ooh!

S: Haven't had a theme in a while. I know how you love themes.

R: I do love themes.

S: The theme is “space”.

R: Space!

S: As in “outer space”. That's correct. Here we go: Item number one: Neil Armstrong recently confirmed that his famous “one small step for man” phrase was written for him by a NASA press secretary. Item number two: Scientists have been able to track emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica from space by using satellites to spot their droppings.

R: Hee-hee.

S: And, item number 3: Researchers find that space headache is a real and distinct phenomenon and call for it to have its own classification. Jay, please go first.

J: I'll start with the last one. It said, “Researchers find that space headache is a real and distinct phenomenon and call for it to have its own classification.” Clearly, what they're forgetting here is that astronauts get spaceman ice cream. Okay? And we all know that ice cream causes headaches. Therefore, that one is definitely true. “Scientists have been able to track emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica from space by using satellites to spot their droppings.” Totally, totally believe that. “Neil Armstrong recently confirmed that his famous 'one small step for man' phrase was written for him by a NASA press secretary.” Hmm. I thought he made that up on his own. What do you know, Steve?

S: I know the answer.

J: I'm going to say the first one is the fake. Neil Armstrong.

S: Neil Armstrong? Okay. Bob?

B: Lets see: the space headache being real and distinct. I could see that. With the microgravity affecting blood flow, perhaps, that doesn't sound out of the question to me. The satellites tracking penguin colonies by the droppings. Initially I thought, “Oh wait. How are they going to see something that small”. But I would think that the droppings kind of do add up after a little bit at a size that would be discernible by a satellite. So that's kind of – kind of makes sense to me, as well. The Neil Armstrong, “One small step for a man”: That one... I don't know. That just doesn't sound right to me. I don't think a secretary had any say in any of that. I'm going to say that that is fiction.

S: Okay. Rebecca?

R: Man! Um... Yeah, that one seems suspicious to me as well. Although, I do seem to remember, like, a long-standing understanding that, you know, this wasn't just something – it wasn't a line that he just made up on the spot. You know, he had, like, practiced it, and rehearsed it. But, I'm not sure I know who came up with it. I do think that – I agree with Bob that satellites could track emperor penguin poop I there's, you know, a lot of them in the colony. And, plus, I imagine their poop is dark-colored, and it's going on top of snow. So, that could be easy enough. And, space headache: I agree with Jay. Astronauts eat ice cream. Ice cream causes headaches. Therefore, space headaches. So, um, yeah. I think that I'm gonna have to go with the guys on this one. Neil Armstrong – his press secretary did not write “one small step for man”.

S: Okay. Evan?

E: I'm agreeing with the gaggle. I'm going with that, as well. You know, the space headache, real distinct phenomenon, have it's own classification – yeah. I don't see why not. And then the – the only thing about the – tracking the penguin colonies in Antarctica: spot their droppings. I mean, you know, I'm sure the wind's blowing down there, and the snow. I mean, how long can you see the droppings for? Or, does that matter? Probably only need for a matter of seconds, but that kind of, maybe, was going to throw me off. But I think the Neil Armstrong one is the fiction.

S: Okay. Well, let's take these in reverse order. You all agree that “Researchers find that space headache is a real and distinct phenomenon and call for it to have its own classification” is science. And that one is... science.

R: Yay!

S: But I must point out that the headache could not be an ice cream headache because then that would be an ice cream headache, not a distinct phenomenon.

J: Yeah.

R: Ohhh, darn.

J: Oh, wow.

R: You mean our logic was flawed?

S: Your logic was flawed.

R: Besides the fact that ice cream headaches are caused by the cold?

E: It was Tang.

J: And space ice cream is basically just a cream bar that's room temperature?

R: I love spaceman ice cream

E: And headaches. Tang headaches.

S: Right, the dehydrated ice cream?

R: Am I the only one that finds it completely delicious?

S: I've had the space ice cream when I was at NASA, but it kind of, like, just melts away in your mouth, you know?

R: Yeah! Like M&Ms.

E: Not in your hands.

S: So, this is a study looking at – they're basically surveying the astronauts. They surveyed 17 astronauts, and 12 of them reported having 21 headaches on different missions. But they were not associated with motion sickness. One of the thinking was, “Okay, they're getting headaches because they're getting motion sickness”. But the headaches occurred independent of symptoms of motion sickness. So that's why – that lead them to think that it's its own phenomenon, not a secondary headache to something else that's happening.

R: What if they're just stressed out? Like, you know, they get headaches 'cause, you know, they're in friggin' space, right? Scary.

S: Uh... yeah, so, I mean, you know, stress could cause like a tension headache. But these headaches were more disabling than you would expect from a tension headache. And they had an “exploding” quality to them, which is also not typical. Tension headaches feel more like a vice around your head, not that – they wouldn't explain that as exploding.

R: Ah.

S: So it doesn't fit, really, any known headache type. It's not an ice cream headache, it's not a motion sickness headache, it's probably not a tension headache. So they said, “Oh, hey, it's its own kind of headache. It's its own phenomenon”. Now, whether or not their recommendation will be picked up remains to be seen. But that's the recommendation that they're making. They do think, Bob, that the root cause is probably microgravity. Right?

B: Yeah. Yeah.

S: The pressures inside our blood vessels, inside our head, you know, is not adapted to microgravity. And in a lot of individuals, they get – gets thrown off and causes headaches.

E: We weren't created that way.

S: We have not been optimized by evolutionary processes to the conditions of microgravity. That's correct.

E: We were intelligently designed, but not that intelligently designed.

S: Let's go on to number two: Scientists have been able to track emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica from space by using satellites to spot their droppings. And that one… is... science.

J: Yay!

B: Science!

S: That one is science.

R: Yay! Poop!

(Rogues take turns saying “poop” like it is a sonar signal)

R: Do they use sonar to track...


R: Poop! Poop!

S: So, what they found is that after the penguins have been huddling in an area for a while, that their guano will stain the snow – the ice – a reddish brown. And that that stain remains long enough to be detected by satellites. You can see the pictures on the link that I'll provide. So, this is giving them a lot more information than they've previously had about the number and location of emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica. Because the penguins themselves are too small to be seen by the satellites. So, there you go.

R: Poop!

E: That's remarkable. And therefore...

S: And therefore...

R: We win!

E: A witch! A witch!

S: This means that “Neil Armstrong recently confirmed that his famous 'one small step for man' phrase was written for him by a NASA press secretary” is entirely fiction.

R: Fiction!

J: We knew it. That was too easy.

S: I know. Now, a press secretary's not like his secretary, right? It's somebody who does press releases and things like that.

R: Correct.

S: So –

E: (falsetto) Coming, Mr. Armstrong!

R: Not that a secretary wouldn't be smart enough to write a simple line.

S: Yeah, but just to clarify.

J: (Mr. Herbert voice) Popsicles?

R: But, yes, that is correct.

S: Anyway. But, a recent analysis of the audio tape of Neil Armstrong's famous phrase, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, did come to a couple of interesting conclusions. Now, there has been this ongoing controversy about whether or not Neil Armstrong actually did say, “one small step for a man”, but the “a” was either dropped from the transmission, or was lost because he didn't emphasize it enough. And a previous analysis suggested that maybe the “a” is in there if you listen closely enough. But a more recent analysis – this one done by Dr. Chris Riley – did a detailed analysis. And he says that the “a” is simply not there. It's not dropped, it's not rolled into the next word. That Neil Armstrong, basically, did not say it.

E: Flubbed it.

S: Yeah, he flubbed it.

R: Wait. But how does he know, like, if it was lost from the transmission from the Moon to the Earth.

B: Now, what they did was, they – when they examined it, the “r” and the “m” were right next to each other.

S: Yeah.

R: Ah.

B: “For man”. There was no space for the “a”.

S: No dropout. Right? Exactly. There was no space.

B: So imagine the –

E: The ran it through Audacity and looked at the waveform.

B: Yeah, right? Imagine the most important thing you will ever say in your life. And you flub it.

J: What?

E: But he's stepping on the moon at that moment! I mean, come on! I mean, he's probably – I'm sure – why – you know, he'd probably be pissing in his spacesuit. Or, most people would be.

S: Well, they actually had to piss in their spacesuits. But that's...

R & B: (Laughs)

E: I meant at that exact moment, thank you.

S: Yeah. They did piss in their spacesuits. They did other things there too.

E: At that moment.

S: He had other things on his mind. He was very distracted, yes.

R: So, actually, you wouldn't know. Maybe he was taking a pee at the time he said those immortal words.

S: He probably was. There is general agreement, though, that by dropping the “a”, it made the phrase much more poetic. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

B: I don't buy that.

S: I agree. I think that sounds a lot better than, “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It sounds better

R: Uh, yeah, except for “a man” makes sense, and “man” doesn't.

S: Yeah, but everyone knows what he means.

B: Correct.

S: Right? That's what – that's what you mean by poetic license.

R: Mm. We all know what it means 'cause we know what it was supposed to be.

B: I'm not buying it.

R: This isn't a case of language adapting. (Laughs).

S: No, no. It's not. You're right. It's a case of poetic – accidental poetic license, we'll call it. It makes for an interesting story. But he did just forget to say it.

R: I think that's very nice to say, but I think it's wrong.

S: The other question is, did he write that phrase? Or was it written for him?

J: He wrote it.

S: Now, Neil Armstrong claims he wrote it for himself.

J: He wrote it.

B: But didn't he – didn't he – not just that. Didn't he say he pretty much thought of it on the spot?

R: No.

B: Isn't that what he claimed?

R: No.

B: I think he claimed that he pretty much kind of thought of it –

E: I think he scribbled it on the back of his glove and he tried to read it.

S: Not that he hadn't thought of, before, about what he would say. But, the way in which he was saying it, the exact words that he was saying, were a bit impromptu. This analysis seems to support that interpretation. They are basing their judgment on his inflection, saying that the way he inflected the words and the way they flowed is more consistent with somebody speaking off the cuff than somebody speaking a memorized phrase, or somebody reading.

R: I'm skeptical of that.

S: Yeah. That seems a pretty thin line of evidence. But, for what it's worth, their linguistic analysis they say supports the conclusion that he was speaking off the cuff. I don't know how sensitive or specific that analysis is. You know. So, that's their story and they're sticking with it.

R: Meh.

S: An interesting historical, little aside to one of the greatest moments in humanity. Stepping onto the Moon. How awesome was that?

R: But, anyway, the point being, we won.

B: Yes, we beat the Ruskies.

S: (Laughs)

Who's That Noisy (1:15:31)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Brian Brushwood

R: Who's that noisy?

J: (High-pitched sing-song voice) Noisy?

E: (sing-song voice) Who's that noisy? Okay, let's play it back just in case you forgot. Here it is.

That might be a pretty effective demonstration of my supernatural abilities. But if there's one thing I want you guys to take away from this talk, it's that no matter whether you see it in print, whether you see it on TV, whether you hear about it from a fried, if it sounds supernatural – if it sounds beyond what's possible – you better believe that you are not getting the entire story.

E: Okay, so, that was the voice of one Brian Brushwood.

R: You all got it right.

S: (Laughs)

E: And everybody got it right.

R: Evan, read their names.

E: For some reason. I'll start with the As.

S: Aaron Aaronson.

R: (Laughs)

E: Actually, someone named Aaron was the first one to get it right.

R: Quadruple A Auto Repair.

E: Ironically. Aaron STL, which I can only imagine is an abbreviation for St. Louis.

R: Or Seattle.

E: St. Louis. He got it first. And so did about a hundred other people. But, I hadn't – you know, I guess shame on me, that I did not know who this person was –

J: Come on.

E: – before. No, I'm serious. I'd not seen any of his material.

S: Well, Evan, to redeem yourself, your task is to book this guy for an interview on the SGU.

E: And many of our listeners gave us that very same suggestion. So, yeah, I'm going to – I'll find Mr. Brushwood and invite him on. Hopefully he'll come on, and –

R: And come up with a more difficult one for this go-around.

E: Ooh. You want a difficult one?

R: Yeah.

E: Okay.

R: Give it to us.

E: Here it is.

(High-pitched scraping sound with strange sci-fi laser-like noises in the background)

E: That's a neti pot.

R: Uh... I think that's the langoliers. (Laughs)

B: Oh my God, the langoliers.

R: Did I get it? Am I right?

E: No.


E: But that's a – yeah, this one will prove challenging, I think. So give it your best guess, send in your answers.

S: Thank you, Evan.

E: You're welcome.

Quote of the Week (1:17:43)[edit]

'Some people try to tell me that science will never answer the big questions we have in life. To them I say: baloney! The real problem is your questions aren’t big enough.' - Phil Plait

S: Jay, now it's time for the skeptical quote.

J: This is a quote from none other than Phil Plait, sent in by a listener name Robert Fulmer. This is one of the reasons why I love Phil. Check out this quote:

Some people try to tell me that science will never answer the big questions we have in life. To them I say: baloney! The real problem is your questions aren’t big enough.

Phil Plait!

R: Good ol' Phil.

E: I've heard of him.

S: That's a good quote from Phil.

E: Yeah, Phil.

J: I am formally announcing the big secret project. There is a big secret project.

B: What?

J: Indeed. Been working on it too hard and too long. That's why I'm sick and tired right now. But it's coming. And it may very well be revealed at TAM. Nobody knows.

S: Could be. (Laughs)

E: (Laughs) Maybe. Maybe not.

S: It will be ready for TAM.

J: And it will change the way people move around cities. How about that?


S: Nice segue, Jay. Well, thank you for joining me again this week, everyone.

R: Thank you, Steve

J: Thank you, Steve.

E: It was fun being joined to you.

R: That was a treat.

E: Now let me go.

J: Yes.

S: And, until next week, this is your Skeptic's 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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