SGU Episode 203

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SGU Episode 203
June 9th 2009
SGU 202 SGU 204
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
BH: Bruce Hood
Quote of the Week
“If there is anything that can bind the heavenly mind of man to this dusty exile of our earthy home and can reconcile us with our fate so that we can enjoy living – then it is verily the enjoyment of … the mathematical sciences and astronomy.”
Johannes Kepler, in a letter to Jakob Bartsch
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Show Notes


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

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday, June 9th, 2009. And this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey, guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein...

E: Hi, everyone listening to this on June 13th.

S: I think so, yes.

R: Maybe.

This Day in Skepticism (00:33)[edit]

E: It was June 13th in 1983 when the space probe vehicle, Pioneer 10 crossed the orbit of Neptune, and became the first man-made object to leave our solar system.

R: Oh, really?

B: Depending on how you define “solar system”, but okay.

S: Yeah. That's what I was going to say.

J: How far out is it now? Does anybody know?

R: (stoned hippie voice) It's so far out!

S: Somebody knows.

E: Oh, it's so far.

B: I think it's past the heliopause.

E: In April, 2002 it was 7.57 billion miles from Earth. And a round-trip signal traveling at just about the speed of light took 22 hours and 35 minutes –

B: Wow.

E: – to get there and back.

J: So, Evan, how do we get it back?

E: Oh, we attached a string to it. So we're just going to pull it back like a kite.

R: (Laughs).

J: Oh. Excellent.

E: When we're all done for it.

S: We'll have to wait for am alien probe to absorb it, and then...

R: That's wrong, Evan. It's more like a yo-yo. So –

E: Oh!

R: It'll just spin it back on its own.

E: It's heading for the constellation Taurus. By the way.

News Items[edit]

Crop Circles 2009 (1:25)[edit]

S: Well, 2009 already has a fairly vibrant crop circle season. Have you guys seen the new crop circles for this year?

R: Is it crop circle season already?

B: They are gorgeous.

S: Yes! Yeah.

E: Did you get your latest edition of Crop Circle Weekly?

R: (Laughs)

J: This is such an old idea to me. Like, you know, this has been in my head for so many years now. Like, it doesn't even register to me that people still think that spaceships are making them.

B: Yeah, Jay.

J: Like, I just look at them as art, now. You know?

B: Jay, I felt the same, exact way. It just seems like I hadn't heard about them in quite a while. And I keep thinking, well, don't people realize by now that – first off, that it's been proved that people – actual people – human beings – can make super-complicated designs overnight. I mean, they filmed it.

S: Right.

B: They actually filmed – people have filmed themselves doing it. The original – the very, very original guys that actually kicked off the whole craze – they admitted it – that they started this whole thing.

S: Yeah, Doug and Dave.

B: And, I mean, all the evidence that people say, “Oh, the magnetic properties of the bent-over corn”, it's all baloney. It's just knocked-over corn or whatever, wheat, all these different grains. I don't – Ugh! Oh well.

S: So you ask, “are there people who still believe this?” Well, in the comments section to a news article on this year's crop circles here's one – one commenter writes:

Well, all you clever people who are certain that it is man-made: Tell us how. Don't give me the old “plank and string” nonsense, please. These circles are always completed. They never seem to have mistakes. They are complex and geometrically accurate. They have to be done in the dark and they have to be completed in one go before dawn.

R: Please, Steve. Don't give me the real answer. Don't confuse me with your facts, all right?

S & R: (Laughs)

E: The ol' plank 'n' string. Sounds like –

S: Oh, man. The ol' plank 'n' string.

J: Yeah don't give this, like, germ theory business, all right? Tell me –

R: (Laughs)

S: It's basically a giant argument from ignorance.

R: Uh, yeah. But, you know –

S: “You can't tell me how these are made”. But it's actually not even – it's manufactured ignorance! 'Cause the people can tell you how they do them!

E: (Laughs)

B: Tell you? How about watch the video?

R: In the most recent articles I've been reading, the farmers that it happens to are generally – none of them are screaming about aliens. It's usually just the nutcases in the comments on the articles.

S: Mm-hm. Yeah.

R: Or, you know. the journalist will try to liven up their story by saying, “some say that it couldn't be done by humans”, but they don't really have anyone saying that. It's just “some”.

S: Yeah. I think the crop circle that's getting the most play is the Jellyfish.

R: Yeah.

B: Oh!

J: How beautiful.

E: Awesome. Awesome.

S: 600-foot. It really is. I mean, it is art, Jay. It's a work of art. And there's the Circle Makers, which is, essentially, a group of artists who see this as an artistic medium. And, for a while, they wouldn't admit that they were making these things themselves. They said that “the mystery is part of the art form”. Fine, right? But you're making them, right? Yeah. They make the most beautiful, most intricate crop circles.

R: I think it's cool. It's kind of like – it's like rural graffiti.

B: Yeah, right?

S: Yeah.

R: It's kind of bad-ass, but beautiful.

S: Yeah. I've always thought they were really pretty. There's also one that's essentially – incorporates a couple of yin-yang symbols –

B: Mm-hm.

R: Yes.

E: Mm-hm.

S: – in there. The most recent, I think, that just cropped up was the dragonfly. Have you guys seen the dragonfly?

R: “Cropped up”. I see what you did there.

E: Well done, Steve. Way to sneak that one in.

S: And then they used the very typical sort-of geometric shapes that we've come to know and love.

B: Remember the Mandelbrot set they did a while back? That was cool too.

R: Oh yeah.

S: Yeah. Well, if you haven't taken a look, we'll have some links so you could peruse this season's crop circles. Again, as art, it's very interesting. And some of the comments are entertaining, as well.

CT and Chronic Lyme Disease (5:09)[edit]

S: The next news item has to do with a new bill that just passed the Connecticut House and Senate – the State House and Senate – that essentially protects practitioners who treat chronic Lyme disease with antibiotics. This is, actually, a huge topic, but it's worth going over a few of these points in some detail.

E: What is Lyme disease?

R: (Laughs) Good question, Evan!

S: It's a very interesting medical controversy that – I mean, Connecticut is probably the epicenter of this because, you know, Lyme disease was named after Lyme, Connecticut.

E: Woo-hoo!

R&E: (Laughs)

S: It is a tick-borne bacterial infection with the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi. So, there's actually three species of Borrelia, one in the United States and two in Europe. And it causes a chronic illness called Lyme disease. That much is not controversial. And, by the way, the spirochete class of bacteria is the same kind of bacteria that causes syphilis. And – that's also a spirochete – and it's interesting that Lyme has a very similar course as syphilis does. And that it has a early manifestation which is more acutely infectious, then you can have some late, or chronic, manifestations in the organs, including the brain. You can have neurosyphilis like you can have neuro Lyme. That much is not controversial.

What is controversial is that, there's a group of people who believe that they have “chronic Lyme disease”. And yet, the notion of chronic Lyme disease has not been validated scientifically. They think what they have is a chronic infection with live spirochetes – that there are spirochetes living in their body and forming a chronic infection, and that the infection actually survives the typical courses of antibiotics that we use to treat Lyme disease.

You could actually even break this down into a few groups. There are those who have had documented Lyme disease, were treated for their Lyme disease, but then have chronic symptoms afterwards. Then there are those who never had documented Lyme disease, but who have symptoms, typically fatigue, difficulty concentrating, aches and pains. So, like with many other things that we encounter in medicine, you have some non-specific chronic symptoms, a poorly-defined sort-of clinical entity, a belief in a chronic illness that can't be definitively disproven, and the evidence that we would expect to be there is not there, and what the believers engage in is a lot of special pleading as to why the evidence is all negative for the entity they believe in.

But there really has arisen a grassroots almost cult-like belief in this vague concept of chronic Lyme disease. And people believe they need to be treated chronically with antibiotics in order to keep their symptoms at bay. And when they undergo a course of antibiotics, many of them feel better, which, of course, could be attributed to the placebo effect. There's also physicians, though, that buy into this, and are willing to treat their patients who believe they have chronic Lyme disease with courses of antibiotics.

And that's where this new bill comes into play. What this bill does is essentially say that the State of Connecticut cannot, in any way, discipline or act against the license of a physician solely on the basis of them treating their patients with chronic Lyme disease with antibiotics. It also defines what chronic Lyme disease is, which basically includes in the definition, “the clinical judgment of the practitioner”. So that means the doctor can say, “I think you have Lyme disease”, and that's enough.

Now, that may seem like a small thing. But what – there are two big issues that are brought up by this. One is the reality of Lyme disease, which I kind of went over. The consensus of opinion is that chronic Lyme disease is not a chronic infection with the Lyme spirochete; that it's a collection of other things. It may be a post-Lyme syndrome. It may be some immune changes that were triggered by Lyme. It may be people with other illnesses entirely that are being misdiagnosed.

And there have been several large clinical trials looking at IV antibiotics for people who meet some kind of reasonable definition of chronic Lyme disease. And they've, essentially, been negative. Two were dead-negative. The third was sort of equivocal and soft, but mainly negative. So the only data we have shows that these people don't respond to antibiotics. The basic science says they don't have a chronic active Lyme infection. So that's one issue.

The other issue, though, is the intrusion by a state legislature – a legislative process – into the process of deciding what the medical scientific standard of care should be. And I find that more troubling, and more offensive, than the specific decision that they're making with respect to Lyme disease.

E: Definitely. Definitely. What do a bunch of bureaucrats know about the ins and outs of treating diseases and so forth? They're not equipped to make these kinds of decisions.

S: Yeah.

R: Well, they are blood-sucking ticks, though.

E: There you go!

J: Nice!

S: (unclear)

B: Oh, nice!

S: (Laughs)

R: Thank you, thank you. Tip your waitress!

J: Awesome.

B: Good one.

S: Yeah. So think about it. We have – the standard of care is a moving target, right? It's determined by the scientific evidence, obviously, and how it's interpreted by professional organizations, and researchers, and experts, and academics. You know, what's the consensus of opinion? And it constantly changes as new evidence comes into play. What the Legislature's doing is saying that – they're sort of locking in place this one very narrow decision that this particular practice is now immune from the standard of care. That means – that's sort of what I call the “legislative arrogance” of thinking that the political process, first of all, is designed to even make that kind of scientific determination. I don't think it is. And, also, it's locking in a very narrow decision in something that's very complicated and that's rapidly evolving as new research is done and new evidence comes in. So it completely short-circuits the process that's already in place for determining what the standard of care is and, essentially, to protect the public from practitioners who are practicing substantially below the standard of care, right? That they're –

J: That's a really slippery slope, though.

S: It's a legitimate one. I mean, it's a legitimate slippery slope. Not the logical fallacy of the slippery slope.

J: Yeah.

S: You're absolutely right.


E: Is that what you meant?

J: Yeah. I mean, it's obvious. I mean, it's easy for that to be abused. Like, you know, there's gonna be circumstances, I think, that come up that – where people legitimately need multiple courses of antibiotics, and there's gonna be circumstances where you have doctors throwing out antibiotics at people too often, and not following up with them and everything. I mean, how do you police that level of interaction?

S: That's a really good point, Jay. That it's not only – what you're essentially saying is, that they're also whitewashing a very broad spectrum of practice. So, now that takes away from the State Board of Health the ability to look at an individual physician and say, “is what they're doing – is it dangerous? Is it quackery? Is it malpractice? Should we protect the public from what this guy is doing?” Or is it, “Maybe it's not the majority opinion, but it's reasonable and we're not going to do anything about it.” Now, it basically creates this umbrella protection for anybody who wants to prescribe any antibiotics for anything that they clinically are willing to call chronic Lyme disease. It's – they're essentially putting up a sign and say “this is a quack-safe zone. Have at it. Do whatever you want. We can't touch you.”

R: I agree.

S: It's terrible!

R: Terrible.

S: It's absolutely terrible.

E: And this means that people who are under the care of these particular physicians who are making these quack remedies and so forth – these doctors are given protection that they can't go back and be sued by the people, in case whatever it is doesn't work.

S: That's actually not true. So, that's a separate standard. Individual patients can always complain to the State Licensing Board about their physician. Because if their physician has done harm to them, or has committed malpractice against them, that's a separate and higher standard that the state would have to meet in order to act against someone's license. And, by the way, this is also completely separate from a civil lawsuit for malpractice, which, of course, is still in play.

E: Right.

S: But I've been involved with all three types of cases. And, you know, losing the ability to restrict a physician for practicing substandard care is losing the game. Because the people who come to them for treatment – they're not going to sue them. And they're not going to complain about them. Patiently see these physicians as their savior, generally. Because, you know, because they're playing up to their desperation. A lot of these physicians may mean well. They're just deceived by their own shoddy science and thinking on the topic, in my opinion. But others, I think, are not. I think they just see this as a cash cow – are willing to be very effective salesmen to their patients. Which means that, if you look for patients who have been harmed in order to go after these doctors, you can't find them. I mean, anyone who's willing to say, “Yes, I was an idiot. And I listened to this guy and he hurt me.”

J: (feeble old man voice) “He hurt me with his antibiotics.”

S: Yeah. So it's bad. Very anti-consumer, anti-science, and a completely inappropriate use of the legislative process –

R: You fail, Connecticut!

S: – but it's happened. It's failed.

R: You fail hard.

J: So, what's you're solution, Steve?

E: Right here in our home state.

S: To drag this out into the public attention so that – these kind of things, I always seem to hear about them after they've already happened. (unclear)

R: Yeah, don't you guys live there? What's going on, huh?

E: I know.

S: Yeah, it's like, where was the big debate. It just sort of happened, and then you get – you hear about it.

Casino Feng Shui (15:36)[edit]

S: The next item is a real funny one. Have you guys heard about the casino –

B: Oh my God!

R: Uh, yeah!

S: – that's being sued –

S&R: (Laughs)

S: This is an incredible story.

J: Here we go.

S: A Taiwanese gambler lost two million dollars to the Venetian, in Las Vegas. I guess this is appropriate with TAM Las Vegas coming up. Apparently, the guy was winning $400,000, and then his luck changed. And eventually he lost two million dollars. And he left back to Taiwan still owing the Venetian, apparently, two million dollars.

J: Cool.

B: How does that happen?

R: It happens because of bad Feng Shui!

B: No, how do they let you leave without paying two million and not have two broken legs and two broken arms, is my question.

E: It's easy. They say, “You owe two million dollars, sir.” “Oh! It's in my car. Let me go get it.” (makes car speeding away noise).

J: “I'll just sign this on my dashboard...”

S: I mean, the guy's obviously a high roller. I'm sure they're always constantly kissing his butt. You know, these are the people that they cater to. But, in this case – as Rebecca alluded to – he wants the Venetian to cancel his two million dollar gambling debt, because he claims that the Venetian used Feng Shui to give him bad luck.

B: Is there a law against that?

S: No. Even if true, it's not illegal.

R: Oh.... Yeah, I don't know. It's tricky. Because, I mean, if the casino were doing something underhanded that would physically affect his game, and somehow turn the odds more in their favor than they've already admitted, I guess there might be something there. But – (unclear)

J: Oh my God. You can't really – let's face it: even if the casino hired, like, five people to stand behind the guy and scream the entire time he was gambling –


J: – it would have virtually no effect on anything. Like, what? He didn't like the positioning of what? The furniture, or the plants?

S: No. He had two very specific complaints.

J: Well, let's hear it.

S: He said that they left white towels outside of his hotel room.

J: Oh! 'Cause no hotel does that.

E: No!

R: And he said that they dug a 40-inch hole in the wall, and then covered it with a black cloth.

B: What the hell's that about? That's weird.

J: Ho - ly Jesus.

R: Well, that's a Feng Shui thing.

E: Say no more. It's obvious what's going on.

J: (Giggles) You said that with a whistle, Rebecca.

R: I did! Feng Shui!

J: (Laughs) Wow. This guy's like, “They had brand new soap in the bathroom.”


S: And they turned on fans facing his room without notifying him.

R: Right.

J: Yeah. And he suffocated!


B: The chocolate on the pillow wasn't pointing north-south.

J: No, but Bob, he said they left white towels outside of his hotel room!

R: (Laughs)

J: What?!

B: Yeah that's just bizarre. But this hole –

R: I love Steve's initial reaction to that. On his blog he said, “Who does that? You bastards!” or something along those lines.

S: “You bastards!”

R: “White towels!”

B: But you have to admit, though, the hole in the wall is kind of odd. I mean –

R: It is!

B: – not in a Feng Shui kind of way. But just kind of like in a hotel way. Was that somebody trying to break into the other room and they covered it up before this guy came?

J: Bob, you obviously never saw the movie Bachelor Party.

S: (Laughs) It was a square hole. A 40-inch square hole. Who knows? It's part of the architecture? Who knows? Who knows if it's even real.

B: Yeah.

S: He's saying that they did this.

E: It's all about chi flow. All about how the chi flows.

S: It's all about flowin' of the chi. That's right.

E: That's right!

R: His name is Yuan, which is – that's the mainland Chinese currency. Yuan means “dollar”. It seems fishy, that's all.

B: Hah.

S: Yeah.

J: So, wouldn't you love to be, like, someone that works at the casino, that can hear the responses of, like, the people that work there. I would love to know what they thought of that and what they said.

B: Behind the scenes they're just laughing.

E: “What's Feng Shui?”

R: Well, it's so funny, 'cause the casino said they'd refund him $100,000 in cash and $100,000 in chips, basically just to make him go away. Which – I mean, if it does it's a sweet deal for them, 'cause they still get $1.8 million.

E: He should.

S: Absolutely. He's a welsher. He should absolutely have to pay.

B: He should have to pay interest!

E: Thief!

J: I am so gonna do that. I am so gonna do that when I go to Vegas next month.

S: Listen. So, the thing that is interesting – so this guy was winning $400,000. And then his luck turns, And he starts losing. And he had to lose $2 million before he realized that his Feng Shui had gone bad?

R: Really, how bad was the Feng Shui in the rest of the casino?

J: It didn't hit him there. That guy did the classic pivot. He went home, he got pissed off, and he's like, “Oh, the –“

S: “It was those white towels!”

J: Yeah.

R: Yeah.

S: The other interesting angle to this is, was the Venetian actually using Feng Shui to give their gamblers bad luck?

B: Yeah.

J: Absolutely.

S: It's not like that's an outrageous (unclear) claim.

E: That's true.

R: I don't think they would do it to a high roller that they expected to get more money from, you know? I mean it's a little obvious.

S: Yeah.

E: And if that were true, and that sort of story would leak out, and I'm sure Las Vegas attracts a lot of Asian gamblers –

S: Yes.

E: – and high rollers, why would you want to scare people away with something like that, anyway? I think – I don't know that they would necessarily deliberately bring in a Feng Shui artist to Feng Shui up the place.

J: The casinos actually prove that there is nothing supernatural. Because, if there were, they would have – you know like in the last Ghostbusters movie – they would have, like, a river of negatively-charged sludge roiling underneath every one of their casinos to curse everyone that's in there so they lose.

R: And here's the other thing. It wouldn't really be worth their time to try to throw someone off their game. Because even someone who is 100% on their game is still going to lose enough money over the course of time to make it worth their while.

B: That's the bottom line.

E: The house wins.

B: They don't need to cheat. It's – why risk your license? Just play by the rules and they're gonna win.

J: Yeah, Rebecca's right. I mean, statistically, they're still gonna make the same exact amount of money that they're making.

R: Yeah.

J: Right? Like, they're not making any more or less than is to be expected from a statistical point of view.

S: Well, it's interesting. I mean, they have the science of gambling down.

R: Oh, yeah.

E: Science!

S: They know how much money they're making. But, they do encourage magical thinking among gamblers, because – I mean, sure, you could be a so-called entertainment-gambler, where you are willing to lose a certain amount of money for the entertainment value of the experience and the gambling, and that's fine. But the people who, like, are really hard-core gamblers – if you are thinking critically, you know the odds are against you and you're going to lose eventually. So, it is to their advantage for people to think that they could beat the odds by using a system, or by invoking good luck in some way. So they want people to think magically, but not in this way, right?

R: Right. It's – you know, what you're talking about is absolutely correct. But it's the opposite direction. They don't want people thinking that the odds are going against them. They want people to always think that the odds are going for them.

B: Right.

R: So, you know, I bet that if they knew this guy was superstitious, they would go out of their way to not put him on the fourth floor, or, you know, just do anything they can to make him feel more comfortable and luckier. So...

S: Yeah, they want their patrons to feel lucky. That's the juice. Commenter Max on my blog post on this pointed out that the Belagio, in Vegas, did hire Feng Shui experts. And he quotes an article saying, “During the Chinese New Year show, for instance, Feng Shui experts are brought in to make sure the energy in the room is just right. This includes analyzing the flow of the water and the direction the animal props are facing.

J: Wow.

E: To the benefit of who?

R: (Laughing) To the casino.

B: It makes sense though. You want it –

S: And other casinos have done that as well. So, casinos have used Feng Shui experts to, you know, give positive energy, I guess.

J: I admit I don't know, obviously, all the details about Feng Shui. But the more I do learn about it the more it seems to me like it's almost an individual's perception of what it is. Is there, like, a real thousand-point list of, like, what's good and what's bad?

S: It's so much art that you can't get three Feng Shui experts to agree on anything.

E: Yeah.

S: You know, like, the Penn & Teller show did. They had different Feng Shui experts come in and their recommendations were almost (unclear)

J: I thought there was an element to it that – some of the stuff I've read about Feng Shui said that there is some classic concepts about interior decorating/design or whatever. Just things that make sense to the eye and, you know, what's pleasing.

E: Right angles and shadows. Yeah.

R: Yeah.

B: Aesthetics.

S: Yeah, I mean, one aspect of it is, as you say, it's interior design and aesthetics, and it's – even the concepts are – you know – that you want to work with natural forms, and it's better – it's whatever – psychologically healthy to be surrounded by beauty than ugliness. Sure. But the part that we're making fun of is the magical thinking of affecting the flow of luck in health and fortune –

B: Chi

S: – through chi, yeah – you know – into your house. That's the pure magical thinking part. That's become very popular in the West, and what I think a lot of people now think of when they think of Feng Shui.

J: God, all that stuff is such Bullshit. But that voodoo...


UFO Follow Up (25:13)[edit]

S: Well, one quick follow-up from last week. Evan, we talked about the UFO hubbub in the UK.

E: Yeah. I got my UFO stories kind of mixed up there, a little bit.

S: Yeah, we crossed the streams a little bit on there. Why don't you straighten us out.

E: What we have here are two separate incidents. Not a single incident that was witnessed and later reported as being, you know, discovered, or the cause of the UFO was found. So, what we have are, again, two separate things. Cambridgeshire. Lights in the sky. About 20 UFOS buzzing over the night sky with pictures and, you know, eye witnesses, and accounts, and so forth.

S: Although, we've been informed, Evan, that it's pronounced, “Cambridge sure”.

E: Well, sure.

S: Even though I'm partial to the Shire, myself. But...

R: That's because you're a hobbit.

E: That's fine. They'll forgive my American accent, I'm sure.

(Sounds of incredulity)

E: Very, very forgiving audience. How's this: (weak British accent) “Cambridge sure”.

S: “Cambridge sure”!

R: (weak British accent) I say!

J: Now, Evan, you get more self-loathing. You gotta be like – you gotta really get up ahead of like “I hate everything about myself.” Something like, (Over-the-top British accent) “Cambridgeshire!”

R: (Laughs)

E: (weak British accent) I say! (Unclear)

E: “Cambridge sure”, okay...

S: Okay. Well, that was one. And then, actually, I couldn't find any followup. I don't think that those spots of light in the sky were positively identified yet.

E: Yeah, I couldn't find anything, or any followup in regards to that either. It was just a single UFO story. But apparently, again, there was this other quote/unquote “UFO sighting” about – well, it actually turned out to be about 190 miles away from the other sighting.

S: Right.

E: So very – highly, highly, highly unlikely that these two had anything to do with each other.

S: Right. This is on Merseyside, right?

E: That's right. And it was the HMS Daring, or is it “darring”.

R: Did you say “Mercy side”?

S: Yeah.

E: “Merzzy-side”.

S: “Merzzy-side”?

R: Did you know that there is now a Merseyside Skeptics Group?

S: Is that right?

R: Yeah!

E: Oh, that's awesome!

R: They wrote me a little while ago.

S: Awesome!

E: We should put them on the task of figuring out –

S: Well, that's the one that was explained as the flares from the air.

E: Yeah, that's the one that's explained.

R: Listeners should go and do a Google search for them, “Merseyside Skeptics”, you'll see all their links and their meet-ups.

E: Awesome.

S: Awesome.

E: Maybe they can take a train over to Cambridgeshire –

R&S: (Laughs)

E: – and figure out that mystery. So, just a clarification there that these are two separate incidents, two separate stories.

S: Right.

E: Unrelated. Whereas, I had tied them together.

R: You fool!

E: And I apologize for that.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Question # 1 - Apple Cider and Gallstones (27:48)[edit]

Through her friends, my mother has decided to drink apple cider to remove gallstones. According to her friends, after drinking only apple cider for two days, the gallstones will be flushed out from the body and observed in the feces. It will appear green and and feel soft to the touch. I have found conflicting reports online and I care about my mother's health very much. Your opinions would be much appreciated. SGU Listener, Ruanne Lai Toronto

J: Let's talk about emails.

R: Let's!

S: All right. Let's do – I think we have time for one quick email.

E: A quickie!

S: This one comes from Ruanne Lai, from Toronto. Hey, do you know Mike Lacelle?

E: (Laughs)

S: And, Ruanne writes:

Through her friends, my mother has decided to drink apple cider to remove gallstones. According to her friends, after drinking only apple cider for two days, the gallstones will be flushed out of the body and observed in the feces.

R: Ugh!

It will appear green

R: Ugh!

and feel soft to the touch.


E: How does it taste?

I have found conflicting reports online and I care about my mother's health very much. Your opinions would be much appreciated.

R: I'm grossed out!

E: Ugh!

S: Well...

R: Wait, did she mean –

E: We have Rebecca's opinion.

R: – did she mean that the feces or the gallstones would be soft to the touch and green?

S: I believe the gallstones.

R: Still gross.

J: That shows – I hate to say it this way – but that shows such a complete lack of understanding of what a gallstone is anyway. Like, there's nothing you could do, chemically, to a gallstone to turn it into, like, green sludge.

R: I would like to plead ignorance concerning gallstones and their chemical make-up. So, we're all in this one.

S: Well, I'll tell you.

R: Please!

S: Gallstones are, essentially, made of bile, which is made in the liver.

R: Ew.

S: The bile goes from the liver down the common bile duct and is released into the small intestine, where it helps digest fats. It's made, primarily, of bile salts and cholesterol. Now, the bile also collects in the gallbladder. And when you eat a fatty meal, that sends a chemical signal to the gallbladder to squeeze out an extra little shot of bile, in order to help digest that fat. The problem is that if you get the – if the bile sits too long in the gallbladder and doesn't completely empty, or if there are certain chemical changes in the bile, then it can form into stones. Those stones then will – they're very hard – they will, sort of – they'll rub up against each other and develop these sharp edges. And when the gallbladder squeezes to release bile it'll squeeze down onto these stones, giving you a nice shot of sharp pain in your right upper quadrant of your abdomen. They also could get lodged in the duct, and that could then block the bile, which becomes a very acute, severe problem. And they can cause other problems, as well. They could block the bowels if they get released, et cetera.

Jay is right. There is nothing you could take, orally, that's going to dissolve those gallstones.

R: What about up the pooper?

S: Also –

R: Up the pooper! If you can't take it orally, is there something you can –

J: (Singing) Poop!

S: No. Anything you take, either from the top or from the bottom, is not going to go back up the bile duct into the gallbladder.

R: Gotcha.

S: Right? So it's not going to get access to the stones.

B: Nanites could do it.

S: Things don't flow that way. And there's a sphincter. You know about sphincters?

R: Oh, yeah. I know all about sphincters.

E: Yes! Pyloric sphincter?

R: Don't we talk about sphincters every week?

E&S: (Laughs)

S: So, the concept of drinking something for a few days and having it get up into your gallbladder and dissolving the stones just – it defies physiology and anatomy – doesn't happen. There are a couple of things that we can give to patients to help slowly dissolve their stones, but it has to be absorbed into the blood and then get into the liver. And it takes months. Like, nine months. So it's not the kind of thing that would happen in a couple of days.

R: You could have a baby in that time.

J: (chuckling) Oh my God!

S: That's right! You could.

E: You could, Rebecca. You could.

S: What's happening here, and its interesting description that Ruanne is giving, falls right in line with what is known. This is a typical liver flush, or gallbladder flush. Naturopaths love this kind of thing. It's all crap, if you'll pardon the pun. What they're doing – and also, there's multiple different permutations of the formula, here. Some say apple juice. Some say apple cider. Some say apple cider vinegar.

E: Some say Apple Jacks.

S: With some you also have to take olive oil, and maybe olive oil combined with lemon juice.

J: Oh my God! I love how people literally just make this up! Totally!

S: Well, actually, Jay, I don't think that this is totally made up. I think this is the kind of thing that's evolved in cultures over time.

B: Yep.

E: Yeah!

S: And here's why: If you take something like olive oil, and you combine it with either a vinegar, or lemon juice, or something like that, the fats in the olive oil will form into these small, formed balls that will then absorb bile from the intestines. And it will look kind of like a gallbladder stone, a gallstone. So, probably, people observed this happen and said, “Oh, that might be a gallstone. Maybe this works”. But, in fact, they're just looking at the olive oil itself that formed into this ball, and is stained green like a gallstone. The fact that it was “soft to the touch”, as Ruanne reports, that's the key. These things are much softer than true gallstones, which are very hard.

E: Yeah.

S: So if you have some soft-appearing stone in your stool after drinking olive oil and apple cider, that's not a gallstone. It's what you were drinking to begin with. Also, the size of the stones, as some people have reported occurring in their stool, are bigger than what can pass through the bile duct. You know, so, it doesn't really make sense that way, either.

Interview with Bruce Hood (33:13)[edit]

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

Transition music

S: Joining us now is Bruce Hood. Bruce, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide

BH: Hi, there.

S: And, Bruce is the director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Center in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. And, he is the author of the new book, SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. So, Bruce, why don't you just start by telling us what you mean by “supersense”.

BH: Okay, so the term “supersense” is the idea that we have an inclination to think that there's a hidden dimension to reality. That there's stuff going on in the world that is categorically denied by scientific investigation, and yet the majority of people feel that there are forces, energies, phenomena, patterns which are happening – which are real – but are denied by science. So it's this basis for supernatural beliefs that I've been working on in the book. And trying to understand where those beliefs come from.

And I think the title, SuperSense, is really – originally it was going to be called The Supernatural Sense – and that was to capture this idea that it's almost like a sense which is – I would say – I'd hesitate to say – “wired in”. But what I mean is that we have a brain which has a way of interpreting the world by seeking out patterns and trying to infer the hidden causes. And so, in doing so we sometimes come up with ideas or beliefs which, if they were really true, would be supernatural.

So it's this sense that we have within us, this tendency, to assume that there are things operating in the world which are not really there.

R: Bruce, what fascinated me most about your book is that it seems as though you wrote it directly toward believers of the supernatural. Was that your primary audience?

BH: In retrospect, I think I made a big mistake there. In fact, I think I say at the end of one of the chapters that I didn't expect many skeptics to be reading the book.

R: Yeah.

BH: Yeah, and I think that was a real mistake on my part. Because, if anything, it's actually the skeptics who are actually interested in why people believe. I was really hoping to try and speak to what I perceive to be a large audience of believers almost – not as a direct challenge – but just trying to get them to reframe where they thought their beliefs were coming from. But, actually, now that the book has been out a couple of months, it's quite clear that it's the skeptical community who are the most enthusiastic about it. And, of course, I'm delighted by that. But I'd like to speak to both kind of camps, as it were, because I think there's something that, you know, we can both learn from it.

S: Yeah. I mean, we're always trying to simultaneously speak to both camps, right? Educate skeptics, but also get the wider audience to understand why we are skeptics. It seemed to me that in your book you were making the point that, in a way, we're all believers. Even skeptics, in a way, are believers. Because this “SuperSense” is hardwired in the brain, if you will. Do you agree with that?

BH: Yeah, absolutely. So, we all operate with belief systems. It's the extent to which those belief systems we hold them in the absence of direct evidence. Of course, you know, our daily lives we conduct with the notions that some things are true, and they may not necessarily be. But the supernatural beliefs, of course, are a special category of beliefs which appeal to all sorts of manner of phenomenon which, when they've been investigated by paranormal psychologists or scientists, the evidence simply doesn't support that there's anything there. So it's those – what I call “secular supernatural beliefs” – is what I really wanted to focus in on. So, I wanted to move the debate on from the discussion of religion per se, because all religions do have supernatural components to them, and open the whole argument to a variety of belief systems which, in fact, are extraordinarily common, and in many cases people don't even recognize that they're dealing with something which is supernatural.

So I was trying to show everyone that we all have strange notions – about contamination is one of the things I deal with – that if they were true, again, would be supernatural. So I think that was the purpose of trying to broaden the agenda, as it were.

S: You speak early on in the book about the sweater, right? The cardigan sweater of a serial killer. And in your lectures you, sort of, show the sweater and ask the audience if they'd be willing to wear it. And, tell us how they respond to that.

BH: Okay, so that was actually a stunt. It was done to make a dramatic point in a public lecture. And it's based on the work of Paul Rozin, who's a psychologist who works on disgust. And, very simply, I bring along a second-hand sweater and offer it to the audience, and ask who would wear it. And then I offer them an incentive. You know, $20, would you wear the cardigan? Most people put their hands up. But then I tell them the cardigan belongs to an infamous killer. It could be Jeffrey Dahmer, or, in our country we talk about Fred West. And most people immediately put their hands down, without even having to think about it. It's almost an instinct. And that's an interesting phenomenon to me. Why is it the case that when you learn about the history of a particular garment, you suddenly feel reluctant to come into physical proximity with it, or touch it? And I think, for many of us, it's because of an intuition that there's some sort of contamination there. Now, there are many levels at which you can explain that phenomenon, but the point is that operates so rapidly and so quickly, I think it's tapping into this sense that there is something to be feared from people who, ostensibly, are murderers, or evil. So I think this is a very dramatic demonstration about how we can quickly jump to conclusions, or jump to actions, or beliefs, when they're underpinned by something which I would call the “SuperSense”.

S: But, that gets really tricky, though. Because, on the one hand you're saying that we're rapidly arriving at some kind of a belief. However, on the other hand, you said this could be explained as the emotion of disgust. And emotions aren't necessarily about belief. They are evolved, instinctual responses that are almost subconscious, if you will. So, don't the two things get confused in that kind of explanation?

BH: Yes. I see that – I mean – and, indeed, some people say, “Oh, it's just associative learning. And, therefore, you're just triggering an emotion through association”. But that kind of explanation rings a little hollow to me. Because, why is it a cardigan or clothing? Why not the picture? We don't find the pictures of killers particularly disgusting. It's almost as if the simulation of actually having to physically come into their proximity to me is what I think is kind of interesting. So, I do agree, there are different levels at which you can explain the phenomenon.

And, actually, when people are making justifications for their actions, they will come up with all manner of notions. For example, another common one is that they don't want to do something which is seen by other members of the audience to be abhorrent because it suggests that they're willing to do something that the rest of us would find quite repulsive. But then that just resets the question: Why does the group, then, think that a cardigan, or touching a cardigan, is something to be appalled at. So, I wouldn't say you're instantly forming a belief. You're producing a behavior. And I would argue that for a substantial proportion of the people, they would justify that in terms of a belief: a belief in contamination.

And very often, people can't necessarily exactly say why they do the things they do. This is what the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls being “morally dumbfounded”. In other words, you have attitudes, and you make decisions, but very often you can't articulate exactly what it is that has been the basis for that choice. So those are the sorts of things I've been dealing with. And in those instances where this – the inference of some energy, or some contamination, or some force, which really couldn't possibly be there, that's when we're getting into the realms of the “SuperSense”.

R: And that also rings true with your discussion of free will in the book. That idea of rationalizing your actions after they've actually already occurred. I found it interesting that you took the time to delve into the idea of free will, which you don't usually find in paranormal books. It's kind of a heavy topic. How did you go about addressing that?

BH: Well, it is a heavy topic. And, quite interestingly, I was at a science conference last – a science festival last week. And we had Robert Winston, who's a very prominent science communicator. And he was discussing his – he was defending his religious position. And it basically came down to what he thought was an argument about free will, which I thought was quite ironic because if there'd been any philosophers or psychologists there, they would've immediately challenged him on this notion of “what is free will?” Because the truth of the matter is, is that the evidence for free will is, at best, very equivocal. It's a very complicated issue, free will. But most of us assume that we do have it. We assume that we are making decisions on the basis of some judgment process. But, actually, a lot of the evidence suggests that we're coming up with our decisions well after the decision has been made, in many ways. So, from very simple things like deciding when to move your finger muscle, for example, we know that the brain has already got premotor activity almost engaging in that. And that happens before you have this phenomological experience of deciding you want to do something. But even other things, such as more complicated choices that we make in life, you know, why we like somebody, or, you know, what we're going to have to eat, or what we're going to do the following day. Quite clearly, a lot of these decision processes are occurring at a level where you're not actually consciously aware of what you're doing. And that's the way it should be. Because that's, you know, how the mind sort of streamlines its processing to only attend to things at that point in time which need immediate control. But a lot of what we decide in our life, a lot of our beliefs, if you like, I think are operating at implicit levels.

S: So, the way I see it – and we'll get to your organ transplant paper in a minute – but, I blogged about that. And a lot of the people had a similar kind of thought process that I did when I was reading your book, in that it seems there might be two ways to make sense of how people react and how they rationalize it. One is that they have certain emotional reactions to contamination, for example. And then they have a post-hoc rationalization of their emotional decision. Which means they must invoke some kind of notion of spiritual contamination, or supernatural contamination. But that's really just an epiphenomenon of the emotion of disgust and attempts at rationalizing their reaction to not wanting to wear the sweater of a killer, for example. As opposed to the belief in the supernatural coming first and driving their reaction. So, in your research have you attempted, and is there a way that you think that we could separate out these two kinds of phenomena?

BH: Well, I think you've hit it exactly right, Steve. That's exactly the point, is that in many instances the post-hoc explanation, which generates what we recognize as a supernatural belief. So, yes. I mean, the response, the emotional response, is rapid and automatic. And it could reflect a very adaptive mechanism for avoiding potential toxins. But it's then what you then make of that, is what I'm referring to. And this is why it can form the foundation of a more elaborated belief system. But, in terms of teasing those two things apart, that's always a bit of a problem. At the moment we're doing some work on implicit responses to voodoo. So we have people destroying photographs of their sentimental objects. And what we know is that people will say at an explicit level, “I don't feel that that would cause any problem. I don't have any anxiety about doing that. I can do that perfectly well.” And yet, of course, is their autonomic arousal, which is being generated from their amygdala, is telling us that they're actually quite anxious at doing that. We get significant effect. Each time, we've replicated this. And so that would suggest that there are these physiological responses which are occurring. And whilst we can rationalize it, it might be the case that you will then get this experience of arousing your body. And then you have to reinterpret that. So I think you're right. I think there is this issue that these things are occurring at an implicit level, and then they have to be almost, kind of, interpreted by a rational system, if you like.

S: So, I agree. That's interesting. And what that brings up is – and my ears immediately perked up in reading the book – was when you say that even, you know, hard-core materialist atheist skeptics still possess a Supersense, in that we still have these emotional reactions which don't really make rational sense. Like, why would we feel disgust at the notion of wearing the cardigan of a killer? Even though we may then overcome it. We may then say, “Okay. I feel this way, but I know I shouldn't 'cause it makes no sense. So, yeah, I'll wear the sweater.” But you're saying, “But we still feel it!” and we still have the same hard-wiring that everyone else has. It's just that maybe we're exerting a learned, hierarchical, rational control of those emotions.

BH: Well, one thing I would say is that I think I regret using the word “irrational” so much in the book. Because, in many ways, it's not really being irrational because these are adaptive types of responses. It's irrational in the sense that if you really do think that there's something in the cardigan which is, you know, going to contaminate you, that would be. But the behavior, in terms of its outcome, is not entirely irrational because we know that people who are prepared to do this are somehow outsiders in the group. And you could argue, in fact, that people who kind of almost go against the grain, and do these sorts of things, are not acting in their best interest as far as the group is concerned. Because the group has an attitude towards what is a reasonable behavior. And wearing a killer's cardigan is generally regarded to be unreasonable. So, for whatever reason – you know, the fact that someone declines to do it doesn't mean it's necessarily irrational. It could actually be quite reasonable in the group consensus. So I think I've used the word “irrational” unfortunately, simply because I was trying to make out the point that the belief basis is not necessarily accurate, but the functional aspect, or outcome, of it could be.

R: And, you know, Bruce, what I took away from the book was, one: that, yes, we all have these – let's just use the word irrational – impulses. But also, too, that we can't – we wouldn't really want to get rid of all of our – all of those impulses, because they're an essential part of what we view as ourselves. The idea of having – valuing certain objects and giving them a, supposedly, supernatural kind of personality to them. Those things are essential to our lives, and the way we go about our everyday life, and the way we think about ourselves. Do you agree with that?

BH: Oh, absolutely. And I think that we need to have the sense of awe, we need to have the sense of – you know, and that can be in science. You can have the sense of awe when you look at the night sky, or the open expanse of space, or – you know, you look at the natural world around you. And that sense of awe is an emotional sense. And a lot of science is passionate and has emotion. I know that when Richard Dawkins did the recent documentary on Darwin, he was at the British Museum, and he picked up various of – various stuffed finches, I think they were, with handwritten labels – handwritten by Darwin himself. And it was very tangible that Richard Dawkins, indeed, feels that these are objects to be revered. So I think think that even – you see, atheists are really anti-religion, in many ways. They're not anti- the kind of thing that I'm talking about, which is this idea that there is almost some additional dimension. Of course, if they're going for a pure empiricist view of the world, then that's gonna be a problem. But, in my experience, atheism is really an issue to do with, in most instances, religion. And I suppose that was another reason to try and take the focus, or the spotlight, off religion and deal with the secular supernatural. But in that sense, then, yes. I think that most of us do have these assumptions that there's stuff out there, there are extra dimensions. And, certainly, we behave as if there were. And this is what generates the reverence towards sacred objects. And, no, sacred objects don't have to be religious. They can be sentimental things that have been passed on. They can be a work of art. You know, things which people pay good money for, or will travel great distances to view, because they hold some special import. They are important.

S: That's interesting to hear you say that you think, in retrospect, you may have overused the word “irrational”. Because I think that is exactly the reaction that I was having, in reading your book, was that – you know, I don't know that it's appropriate to say that someone's “irrational” for having a specific emotional response. I think, as Rebecca says, our makeup of emotions is part of the human condition. And I see no problem in embracing what we are. And experiencing life with all of its emotional color and texture. It kind of makes life a little bit more interesting, you know, and kind of fun. But I think where rationality comes in, I think that's how you make sense of your reactions in the world. And you can have, for example, a very sentimental attachment to a historical or personal object, as long as you don't think that it really contains some supernatural or magical power. Then you're not being irrational, you're just being human.

BH: Well, indeed. And it's actually the evaluation of the behaviors which are done on the basis of those beliefs which determine whether its rational or irrational. To give you an example, the idea that you can imbibe someone's psychological essence. A lot of the book, by the way, deals with essentialism. This is the common assumption that there is a hidden property inside living things. But that can lead to behaviors which are irrational. Or, at least, atrocities. You know, for example, in Africa, at the moment, we have a problem with the “virgin myth”. The idea that you can cure yourself with AIDS by sleeping with virgins, for example. Now, that's an example where a belief system leads to behaviors which, if not irrational, certainly are atrocities. Other aspects of these beliefs – it's when these beliefs become used to justify actions – that's when we're, you know, getting into difficult hot water. And this is where we have to be vigilant.

S: Yes. Although, I think – just to clarify – I think we were talking about two slightly different things, there. I was talking about translating emotions into beliefs. And you were talking about translating beliefs into actions. Now, I think those are two separate things. My point is that it's okay to have the emotion. But I think what's – like – as Steve Pinker says, if you understand why we have the emotions that we do, they won't automatically translate into irrational or supernatural beliefs. We can just understand them as human emotions.

BH: I would concur with that. I mean, you know, we have to have emotions. It's what motivates us to get up. We wouldn't be human without them. And, of course, it's absolutely a central component to the human condition to have emotions. And I think your point is saying “Well, it's not necessarily irrational to feel emotive about, for example, a sentimental object. And I would agree with that. But then, if you try to – what I'm trying to do is, I'm trying to dissect the basis of that emotional attitude towards an inanimate object. And with it comes a whole set of implicit notions, which I then – then I say could form the basis of an adult belief system –

S: Mm-hm.

BH: – or a supernatural belief system.

R: Yeah, I think that examining the basis of those emotions that can lead to beliefs that can lead to actions can possibly help people understand their own belief systems. So I can see why you might have thought that this book would be of more interest to believers. And, I'm wondering, have you received any feedback from believers who read this and re-evaluated their own beliefs?

BH: No, not in the slightest. It's actually all been skeptics. And it's generally been very positive. So I feel that the book has been probably pitched to the – originally conceived with the wrong audience in mind. The thing about believers is, as you're probably well aware, it's very difficult to dissuade them of their beliefs by presenting alternatives. Because that's the nature of belief. We tend to believe what we'd like to be true. So there are deeply held convictions that a book like mine is not really going to probably change their belief systems. But I think it would be at least helpful that people recognize that there's more to belief in the supernatural than ghosts and an afterlife. There's a whole lot of other dimensions that I've tried to deal with.

R: Right.

S: Let's talk, for a minute, about a recent study that was in the news that you had done. This has to do with the recipients of transplants – of organ transplants. Can you tell us about that?

BH: Well, this is following up on the “killer's cardigan”. What could be more intimate than having another person's body inside your own? And I'd looked into this. And there's not been a lot of research on it, but there are a couple of papers in the literature which have dealt with attitudes towards transplants. And in one study, in Israel, they'd found that one in three transplant patients believe they've taken on the psychological personality of the donor. There was also a famous case in the '70s, Kathy Sylvia , who'd had a heart/lung transplant, claimed that she developed a taste for beer and chicken nuggets, and found herself attracted to short, blonde women. And the donor had been a male, and had a short blonde girlfriend, and liked beer and chicken nuggets. And this became a whole kind of basis of an idea what's called cellular memory – The idea that you can take on psychological properties through organ transplants. The problem is, of course, is that, in fact, people do experience quite profound psychological changes following a transplant. But there's very good physiological reasons for why that might be the case. Never the less, people do interpret – well, you know, a proportion of people do interpret that because they've taken on the properties of the donor.

I interviewed a couple in England, a husband and wife. He had a kidney transplant and she was the donor 'cause there was a match. And I've spoken to them, now, several times. And he interprets his change in personality as taking on hers. And he now thinks he has a psychic connection with her. But there's no scientific model about how that could possibly happen. You'd have to do a brain transplant, actually, to take on the personality. But – so this is something which is a very common assumption.

Anyway, the study I did was really to not look at transplant patients because that's a very emotive situation. Ethically, there's a whole lot of issues. You don't want to alarm or raise the questions of taking on personalities 'cause, you know, that in itself could be seen to be ethically dubious. So we did a study just on normal adults just to see if they had any attitudes about taking organs or the idea of having an organ transplant. And we manipulated it. So what we did was, we showed adults pictures of faces, and we took baselines measures on their attitudes related to the face – you know, how happy would you be to have a heart transplant for this person? How good you think their memory is? How attractive do you – all sorts of questions.

And then we repeated the questionnaire – we repeated it again. But this time we mixed these faces with a face that they've never seen before, but then gave them additional information about the background of the prospective donor. Either they were a murderer or they were a voluntary worker. And we retook all the measurements again. And the long and the short of it is, you find – first of all, you find shifts in attitudes which go in the direction of the information. So when you hear positive information they score much more positively.

But the biggest effect is when they hear bad information. And, in particular, the question related to the organ transplant is the one which shows the biggest effect. So, of all the things, the last thing you want to do is to have an organ transplant from someone who is a murderer. Now, you might say, “Well, there are lots of reasons why that might be the case.” But we've used this essentialist framework to interpret this.

And I just want to add one last case which I came – discovered which – was a sixteen year old girl. I mean, these are not trivial issues, by the way. This sixteen-year-old had cardiac failure. And they actually had to forcibly give her a heart transplant. There was a court order. And the reason that she didn't want to have it was because she was so concerned that she would lose her identity and her personality by having someone else's heart inside her. I think this is an interesting issue. And I think one of the ways of interpreting it is this notion of psychological essentialism.

S: I think, for me personally, the example which seems the most benign, if you will, or the one I hold out for myself, is the notion of feeling connected to an historical object. Right? So, like, for example, you know, last year I was at the Mount Wilson Observatory and we were able to see the actual desk at which Edwin Hubble sat and worked. And, you know, you feel, “Okay, this is the actual place where he did, you know, amazing science.” And you feel a direct sort of connectedness to the history. And I don't feel that that's irrational as long as it's – again it's this feeling of emotional connectedness. And I obviously don't think a spirit inhabits the desk, or anything. How do you think about that in terms of your Supersense notion?

BH: Well, it is true. We've got another study in print – actually, no, it came out a month or two ago – showing exactly this idea. It's not just the evaluation of the object. There is this compulsion to actually physically touch the object. So when we put things in museums, we do see these things, and the we feel these emotions, and one of the things people want to do is they want to physically touch these objects. And that, to me, is extraordinarily interesting.

You might say, “Well, it's not irrational” because the emotions they're feeling are very real. And they obviously feel that this is something special. And if everyone in the room thinks like that, then it's not irrational because it's like a group consensus. Maybe the word “irrational” is unfortunate, because it does tend to suggest that it's – well, I'm not sure what the word is, but it does tend to suggest –

S: (Laughs)

BH: (Laughs) – you know, it's almost like we haven't got a language to describe the aesthetic.

S: Right. Right. Well, Bruce, this has been an absolutely fascinating discussion. I think the thing that I like about your research is, like all good scientific research, it raises as many questions as it answers. So I think that you have a lot of work still to do before you in exploring these really interesting ideas. I hope we can have you on again in the future to talk about your research as it develops and, perhaps now you've – especially now that you've realized that the skeptical community probably is your target audience.

BH: Yeah, well, thank you very much Steve. It's been great. And, as you say, I think that in writing the book and starting this program of work, it's quite clear there's a wide scope to be followed up. And I find it – I think for the first time in my research career, I've got very passionate, if you like, about the whole thing. So I'm not about to give up on it.

S&R: Great.

S: All right.

R: Thanks, Bruce.

S: Thank you.

BH: Okay. You're welcome.

Science or Fiction (1:01:17)[edit]

Item # 1: Scientists have successfully genetically engineered bacteria to mass-produce tarantula silk, which can be used in textiles. Item # 2: New research suggests that chimpanzees are able to memorize the precise location of individual fruit bearing trees out of more than 12,000 trees in their territory, in addition to remembering their seasonal productivity. Item # 3: Researchers find that bats are able to identify other individual bats from their echolocation calls, even from a single burst of sound.

It's time for “Science or Fiction”

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake, and then I challenge my panel of expert skeptics to sniff out the fake. This week we have a theme.

E: (Groans)

S: Two themes in a row!

R: Ugh.

S: We had a theme last week, and we have a theme this week. This week the theme is “animals”.

J: Animicules!

S: Animicules.

R: Animals, huh?

S: All right, here we go. Item number one: Scientists have successfully genetically engineered bacteria to mass-produce tarantula silk, which can be used in textiles.

J: Awesome.

S: Item number two: New research suggests that chimpanzees are able to memorize the precise location of individual fruit bearing trees out of more than 12,000 trees in their territory, in addition to remembering their seasonal productivity. And item number three: Researchers find that bats are able to identify other individual bats from their echolocation calls, even from a single burst of sound.

J: Wow!

S: Evan, go first.

E: Well, “genetically engineered bacteria to mass-produce tarantula silk, which may be used in textiles”. That sounds fascinating. Tarantula silk! And then, the next one is that chimpanzees – well research group – suggests that chimpanzees “are able to memorize the precise location of individual fruit bearing trees out of more than 12,000”. Wow! That's surprising, but I don't think that surprising. I think that's probably pretty good. I've never – chimpanzees just can do amazing things. So I'm really not all that shocked about that one. And then the last one regarding bats identifying “other individual bats from their echolocation calls, even from a single burst of sound.” So, which one is wrong?

S: That's the game.

E: I'm leaning towards spiders and bats. Those are the two I'm going to choose between. “Mass-produce tarantula silk”. Tarantula farms? Although that one might creep up on me and bite me later, I'm going to say the tarantula silk one is fiction.

S: (Laughs)

R: Ho-ho-ho

S: Okay. Jay?

J: Okay, so, “scientists have successfully genetically engineered bacteria to mass-produce tarantula silk, which can be used in textiles.” I – honestly, I thought we were already doing this a long time ago. I can remember reading about this, but... That would be awesome if we could do that. And you know how they say spider silk is stronger than steel cabling and stuff? I remember hearing that at some point. I don't know how true that is, but –

B: Oh, it's true. It's incredibly strong, pound for pound.

J: Yeah. I mean, that is completely believable so... I don't know about that one. And number two: “New research suggests that chimpanzees are able to memorize the precise location of individual fruit bearing trees out of more than 12,000 trees in their territory”. For some reason, that does make sense to me too. I can see them being able to do that. That would make a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective. And, uh, last one: “Researchers find that bats are able to identify other individual bats from echolocation calls”. Sure. I mean, if I was standing in a room full of a hundred people I know and one person yelled out? I'd know who it was. I'm going to say that the tarantula silk one is false because I think I remember hearing it a long time ago and Steve may have just changed the details on it a little bit.

S: Okay. Rebecca?

R: Uh... yeah, I won't go through the whole thing. But that tarantula thing, that sounds fishy to me because why would you genetically modify a bunch of bacteria to do something that you could just breed a bunch of tarantulas to do?

J: That sounds more spidery than fishy to me.

R: Yeah, you know, these puns are going to have to get better at some point, right?

J: (Laughs)

R: I say that that one's the phoney baloney. Tarantula.

R: Okay. Bob?

B: Three makes perfect sense to me. The echolocation. Their echolocation is so sophisticated. The fact that they could pick out their buddies from just one little burst of sound, it just seems pretty trivial to me. And the chimpanzees, that one does sound a little out there. 12,000 trees is a lot. But, remember, we covered that story a while back about chimpanzee memory, and how surprisingly accurate it was, and how fast they were. That might be playing into that. And maybe – I don't think they memorize 12,000 trees. Maybe they're triangulating or have some sort of – I don't know – mapping it somehow in their minds. But what jumped out to me, with the mass-producing the silk, was tarantula silk. Tarantulas are not orb weavers. They don't make webs. If you're going to mass-produce spider silk it's not going to be from a tarantula!

J: Oh! See, that sneaky bastard!

E: Oh.

B: So I'm saying that the tarantula one is fiction.

S: All right, Spiderman. We've got it.


S: So let's take these in reverse order. Let me start with number three: “Researchers find that bats are able to identify other individual bats from their echolocation calls, even from a single burst of sound.” And that one is – very cool –

S&J: Science!

B: Yeah.

E: Woo-hoo!

S: It is not that surprising. But it was never proven before. They didn't know how bats were able to stay with their group of bats, and to what extent they were able to identify individual other bats, and what they used. But they did a very clever experiment where they –

J: They tortured the friend's bat –

E: (Laughs)

S: They would have three bats and they would train one bat to get a reward when it went in the direction of the call of one of the two bats. Right? And then they said, “Okay, well” – then they would produce the call from one of the two bats and the bats were able to make the correct decision about 80% of the time, so better than random guessing.

J: That is so mean because after the experiment was done, like, that one bat will be flying to his friend that he got a reward from, and he's like, “Hey, dude! Where's my reward?” And the other guy's like, “What are you talking about? Leave me alone!”

S: (Laughs)

R: What are you talking about? You're making up conversations between bats.

S: (Laughs)

J: Of course! Think how bummed the bat would be when he didn't – you know – he didn't get the freakin' cookie!

S: They think that their brains are able to process the distribution of frequencies that are emitted by the individual bats. And that gives them a sort of signature. What we would recognize as what a voice sounds like. Right?

So let's go on to – we'll go to number two next. “New research suggests that chimpanzees are able to memorize the precise location of individual fruit bearing trees out of more than 12,000 trees in their territory, in addition to remembering their seasonal productivity.”

J: Mm-hm.

S: And that one... is... science!

(Sounds of relief from Rogues)

J: That's cool.

S: Good job, everyone.

J: That's cool.

S: Yeah, this is cool. They actually –

R: That's cool.

B: That's pretty awesome.

S: – used GPS to locate –

E: Chimpanzees are amazing! I told you!

B: Wow!

S: – to track these chimpanzees. And they mapped the location of 12,499 individual trees growing within the range of a group of chimpanzees, and then they followed them around. Now, the chimpanzees were able to identify 17 different species of fruit tree. So, one of the hypotheses was, so are they following the scent of the fruit?

B: Oh, yeah.

S: Or, are they following other sort of cues to sort of lead them? Or are they just sort of opportunistically coming upon...? So, clearly, their travel patterns were not random. They just weren't wandering around and looking for fruit trees. And they weren't zeroing in on trees, either. They would actually travel a fairly long distance, making a fairly direct path to a specific fruit tree that was within their range. They also discovered that they would travel farther in order to get to a fruit tree that was in season and had a lot of fruit on it. So they would bypass closer fruit trees that didn't have as much fruit –

J: For the good stuff.

S: – in order to get to a more distant tree that had more fruit. And, also, they had, as Jay said, the good stuff. The trees that they were particularly fond of, they would also preferentially go to. So it really seemed like they could say, “I want to go to this tree”, and then they would go to that tree. So what this all means that –

R: We won!

S: – “Scientists have successfully genetically engineered bacteria to mass-produce tarantula silk, which can be used in textiles” is, in fact, fiction.

E: Yeah, it didn't –

R: Ha!

S: However – however, Bob, I have to take exception with your reasoning.

E: Yeah, Bob!

R: Oh no!

E: You blew it.

B: Okay. What do you got?

S: It is true that tarantulas are not orb weavers.

B: Yeah?

S: But they do produce silk. And many of them produce quite a bit of silk and may even create fairly elaborate dens with their silk.

B: Or trap-door spiders. Are they considered tarantulas? They're pretty big. Trap-doors?

J: No, they're considered trap-doors.

S: No. They're in a different super-family. Tarantulas are Theraphosoidea, and trap-door spiders are Ctenizoidea.

B: 'Cause they build an elaborate hole lined with silk. And they actually build the hinge on the trap door made of silk. But I (unclear) tarantulas.

J: Steve, you see how he totally threw more spider trivia at us to (unclear).

B: Spiders are fascinating!

S: Right, right. All right, Bob. How many different species of tarantula are there?

R: Fail.

B: Oh. Oh, I don't know. Um –

E: Yeah, Spiderman!

S: There could be –

J: 1200!

B: 30? 40?

S: 900.

B: Holy crap!

S: 900 species of tarantula.

B: Damn!

R: (Unclear)

S: How long ago, evolutionarily, did tarantulas branch off from other spiders? This surprised me.

J: (Silly English accent) Four-foot-one!

E: Uh...

B: Five... Ten million.

S: Anyone could throw out a number.

E: 23 million years.

B: Ten million years.

J: 30 thousand years.

S: Several hundred million years.

B: Wow!

J: What?

E: Wow!

J: That is a long time.

B: See? Spiders are more wicked than I thought.

S: Yeah.

E: A little Cambrian Explosion?

J: Oh my God!

S: Well, that would be 550-something. So –

J: That's older than the Earth!

E: (Laughs)

S: – spiders have been around for a long time –

R: (Laughs)

S: Tarantulas branched off from other spiders a long time ago. But here's the thing –

E: Space spiders!

S: Bob, you're right in that we have been studying the silk production of orb weavers for a long time. We've identified a lot of their silk-producing genes. But we know very little about the genetics of tarantula silk. So we couldn't genetically engineer a bacteria because we don't have the genes yet, from tarantulas, to know which ones they use to make their silk.

B: All right. So it's not that they're poor candidates, but we just don't know enough about them.

S: We just don't know them yet. There's also another reason, which I was curious if anyone was going to hit upon. Now, when spiders make their silk, they secrete a protein. But the protein, if you just secreted it, it would be like a glop. They actually need spinerettes. And the spinerettes have to combine it in a very specific way. Without the spinerettes, again, it would just be like a glop of protein – of sticky protein. So that's, I think, the real reason why bacteria would not work. Because the bacteria would just be – you know – producing the proteins into a big gloppy mess –

B: No, you're wrong.

S: Without the spinerettes you wouldn't be able to make it into the strand.

B: No, you're wrong. I've seen machines extracting silk from vats of this glop. They – It's a special process of actually – it was surprising. It pulls – It just kind of pulls – it makes a thread pulling it out of this liquid, Steve. So they weren't using a specific spinerette. I would suspect the spinerettes are very efficient – more efficient at it than what we have. But there are ways to do it.

S: So you get something useful out of it.

B: Yes, there are ways to do it.

S: (unclear) the spinerettes.

B: Right.

S: Yeah.

R: Wait, so are we saying that the spinerettes were not a group that did R&B in the sixties?

E: Sorry.

S: That's what we're saying.

R: Oh.

B: (Chuckles)

J: In the latest Spiderman movies that they came up with, do you like the idea that Spiderman actually shot the webs out of his own body?

B: You know, I didn't have that much of a problem with that. It didn't bug me like some purists out there. It was a cool, quirky change that they made to the whole Spiderman story. And I thought it was – I had a good time with it. I enjoyed that aspect of it. And it was, you know, kind of weird, but –

S: But who would win in a fight, Spiderman or Batman?

(All Rogues): Batman.

B: Batman beats Superman. Of course Batman would win.

R: No question. That's not even a –

S: I don't know.

J: Well, wait a second!

E: He's got echolocation.

J: No, no, no.

S: I think Spiderman would.

B: Why?

R: No way!

J: Spiderman could be Batman in an impromptu fight. But if Batman has any time to prepare, at all, he will kick anybody's ass.

R: Batman doesn't need time!

J: Including Superman.

E: And Batman always has time to prepare.

R: Batman is all about quick thinking. Batman is very smart.

S: Batman is all about tactics and gadgetry.

E: Mm-hm.

S: But just in a – as you say – an impromptu mono a mono fight, you gotta give the edge to Spiderman. I mean, he's got spider senses, and he's –

R: Spiderman would run away as fast as he can in an impromptu fight.

S: He's fearless. Fearless.

R: He wouldn't stay and fight.

J: No, he would make one of those web shields. Remember that? He would spin his hand around, and make like a big thing. And freakin' Batman would run right into that and he's done.

B: No, he would make one of those web speedboats, Jay. Remember that one?

J: Oh, God.

J&B: Oh my God.

J: Remember that? (Laughs) I made a web speedboat!

E: Did he really?

R: (Laughs)

S: 'Cause Spiderman would encase Batman in web, game over!

J: Yeah but – yeah but –

R: Oh, no!

J: Batman, at the – you know – if Batman had any time to prepare, he would have, like, some type of freakin' acid, or something, that would just –

E: He wouldn't show up unprepared.

S: He would have the utility belt, and he would have the spider-silk-melting thing in the utility belt.

E: Right, right. Of course he would. Duh!

J: Just on a whim, I was watching a Batman episode when I was a kid, and he had freakin' Bat-Shark Repellant. So he would have –

R: Yeah, shark repellant. Yeah.

S: (Laughs)

E: Did he?

R: What?!

E: Now, is some arachnologist gonna call up, or write us, and correct us on a bunch of things that we just said?

B: Inevitably.

J: No. No, Evan. A lot of comic book readers are going to call up and comment on (Comic Book Guy voice) “Hello, I'd like to take umbrage with your use of Spiderman”. (Nerdy kid with retainer in mouth voice) “Guys! Batman would slay Spiderman!” I want someone – I want someone, please, somebody that really knows the Batman/Spiderman thing: email us and give us a very good, like, one paragraph reason.

S: Sounds like a poll. Sounds like a poll we gotta do on our forums

Who's That Noisy (1:15:18)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Auroral Emissions

(Elaborate musical intro plays)

R: Whoa!

E: Ho-ly crow! I can't believe that.

B: Jay, what was that guy's name?

J: Yeah, this is Nick Tipati.

B: Nick, that rocked. Great job!

E: Well done. Very impressive.

S: So, Evan, with that, play last week's Who's That Noisy.

E: Here we go.

(Evan plays the sound)

S: What was that annoying sound?

E: What the heck was that? Well, in fact, that was a recording of an auroral kilometric radiation. Or, I should say, of auroral kilometric radiation. Also known as AKR.

B: How cool is that?

E: So this – yeah, that's very cool. So the Earth can generate radio emissions in a natural way. And this is one of the more intense emissions –

R: (Giggles)

E: – that we've been able to detect. (Chuckles) Oh, Rebecca. Thank goodness you're here. Known as the AKR.

S: Do they happen at night, Evan?

E: Are you saying nocturnal auroral kilometric radiation emissions? Now, there were a lot of guesses about, you know, spaces noises and so forth, and – but nobody specifically got that correct, so... That was a very tough one. I must admit.

S: Yeah. What do you got for us this week?

E: Ooh! Something really good. I had to dust off something for – to obtain this one, so here you go:

Well, about 2:15 I took off from Chehalis, Washington en route to Yakima. And, of course, every time that any of us fly over the country near Mt. Rainier we spend an hour or two in search of the Marine plane that's never been found, that they believe is in the snow, someplace southwest of that particular area.

R: Hmm.

E: All right.

R: All right.

E: I'm sure there's some guesses amongst the Rogues, as to –

B: Oh, man.

E: – who that is, or who that was.

S: I have a guess as to placing that accent in time.

B: Yeah. Yeah.

R: The future!


S: Definitely an accent from the future! Well, thank you, Evan.

E: Thank you.

Quote of the Week (1:18:11)[edit]

“If there is anything that can bind the heavenly mind of man to this dusty exile of our earthy home and can reconcile us with our fate so that we can enjoy living – then it is verily the enjoyment of … the mathematical sciences and astronomy.” - Johannes Kepler, in a letter to Jakob Bartsch

S: Jay, give us a quote.

J: Okay. I have a quote, here, from Johannes Kepler. And he was a German mathematician and astronomer, also an astrologer, and a key figure in the 17th Century scientific revolution. That's pretty interesting. And Johannes wrote

“If there is anything that can bind the heavenly mind of man to this dusty exile of our earthly home, then it is verily the enjoyment of the mathematical sciences and astronomy.”

(shouts) Johannes Kepler!

R: (Laughs)

(Rogues chuckle)

S: Verily.

R: There's no glottal stop on the “H” there.

B: (Chuckling) Glottal stop.

J: Well, whatever. I did that 'cause I like to.

E: Kepler's great.

S: Okay, we've got some announcements this week. One: The SGU is finally on Twitter. Yeah we (unclear) one.

R: I've been on Twitter for ages!

J: Of course.

R: In fact, didn't we have this conversation about a year ago?

J: Yeah. You – Rebecca, you're a Twitter Bug.

R: Where you guys mocked me?

S: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

E: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

S: But, you can start following The Skeptics' Guide on Twitter. Just look us up. Also, we have changed the forum address.

R: Yes.

S: Just to keep you on your toes. It's now So change your bookmark.

R: And big thanks to Ducky for getting that done fast and smooth. Just how we likes it.

E: Well done.

S: Thank you. And the big news is that we finally have the information about the SGU dinner at TAM. Evan, take the wheel.

E: We are going to be hosting a dinner on Friday night, July 10th at TAM. And in the Sonoma Rooms. I mean, you'll be able to find it. It's the same rooms where they're having the lunches those days. So I'm sure you'll all find it just fine. We want folks to please preregister for it. There are instructions up on my latest blog posting. They're on the forums as well. You can check there.

S: But, basically, send us an email saying how many people you –

E: Yes. And then go to Paypal and plunk down your 55 bucks to join us. Reserve your spot. There is limited seating for this.

R: Last year we had so many people show up that we couldn't all fit and we overflowed the restaurant, and then another restaurant too. So, seriously peeps! Register now.

S: What we recommend that you do is send us the registration of your names of the people that you want to come, and then we'll confirm it to you right away. Once we confirm that there is actually room for you, then you could either pay us now on Paypal or let us know that – or send us a check, and we can send you how to do that – or let us know that you'll be paying onsite.

R: Yep.

E: Right. So registration is very important. We need a headcount ahead of time. And we do have to cap it, so send us your reservation as soon as you can.

J: Yeah, we promise that we'll be there on time this year and –

R: Yeah, seriously.

E: (Laughs) Oh, yeah.

R: I was there on time. Bastards.

S: We will all be there on time, barring some unforeseen distraction. And we are there to give our undivided attention to our faithful listeners.

R: Cash bar.

E: Yeah, cash bar, folks. So –

S: Cash bar.

E: – bring a few extra bucks to –

J: Two fingers, two fingers.

E: – to imbibe a little.

R: Or pack a flask, maybe.

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

J: Thank you, Steve.

B: Surely.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Pleasure. Pleasure.

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

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


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