SGU Episode 211

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SGU Episode 211
August 4th 2009
SGU 210 SGU 212
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
CI: Carrie Iwan
Quote of the Week
“Your victim was smothered. That's not opinion. That's science and science is one cold-hearted bitch with a 14-inch strap-on”
Vincent Masuka from Dexter Season 3 Ep5
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

News Items ()[edit]

Teeth from Stem Cells ()[edit]

Stem Cell Clinic Raid ()[edit]

Laser Propulsion ()[edit]

Update on Simon Singh ()[edit]

Questions and E-mails ()[edit]

Question # 1 - Origin of Matter ()[edit]

Hi, My name is Aaron Kren. I'm a Christian and I've started to listen to some of your podcasts. I also lived in Grand Rapids for a while, so I found it interesting to hear you talk about about the area - such as churches like Mars Hill. I visited there a couple times, but became a member of a smaller independent church. I'm listening to discover more about what atheists and skeptics believe. I figure that if what I believe is true, then there ought to be proper responses to what you believe. I find your podcasts challenging, but good in giving me a greater desire to dive deeper into what I believe. I think it is true that many Christians don't have a deep understanding of their faith. I also think (because it has been true of me) that Christians are often segregated in their own communities and don't rub shoulders enough with people who aren't Christians. It really is amazing to see how wholeheartedly people believe in different things. I found it refreshing to hear you say (and correct me if I'm wrong) that you don't follow the postmodern perspective that there is no One Truth and that belief is subjective. It makes sense that if the whole Universe relies on laws and scientific facts, that the same should also be true for issues of spirituality. I know you don't believe in spiritual things, or God, but if God were real, would you say that not all belief systems would work equally in connecting with God and living the way He desires? I'm just curious as to what you would say. I have one other question. I don't necessarily mean it to be a 'got you!' question, but I am curious about what your view is. If evolution is true, where did the first particles of matter, from which all life evolved, come from? You've probably answered this many times and you've no doubt thought about it and researched it as best as you can. I admit, I haven't yet taken the time to research the common beliefs about the subject, but I thought this would be a good place to start. I just wonder (since your beliefs are based on logic) how you could logically believe that these particles always existed for zillions of years before they started evolving. Our experience of the earth and the universe tells us that things have a beginning and an end. Things are born and things die. Nothing randomly originates out of nothing. Where did these original 'things' come from? Logically, there should be just nothing - no matter, no universe, no existence, no life - then we wouldn't have to answer the question of how something came from nothing. Well, I'll stop babbling, and I'll continue to check in on your podcast. Thanks, Aaron

Question # 2 - Interval Training ()[edit]

Hey All, I subscribe to Popular Science, and perhaps my favorite thing about the magazine is the pseudoscientific advertising on the last few pages. This month I came across an exercise machine that looks more like a Rube Golgberg device than anything else. Anyway, the reason this particular ad caught my eye is that the major selling point of the thing is that it costs $14,615. (Apparently, it's worth it because you only need to exercise 4 mites a day.) I thought you might like to check out their site. It's good for a laugh, and I thought it might make for a fun item to discuss on the show. Keep up the good work, Justin Larcomb Columbus, OH

Interview with Skepchick Carrie Iwan (43:30)[edit]

  • The Rogues discuss sexism at TAM7 and the skeptical movement with Rebecca and fellow Skepchick, Carrie.

S: Well we're going to be joined now by Carrie, one of the Skepchicks to talk about sexism in the skeptical movement. So let's go to that now.

Joining us now is Skepchick Carrie. Carrie, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

CI: Hey guys! Thanks!

S: And Rebecca asked you to come on to talk a blog post that you wrote recently about your experiences and some thoughts from The Amaz!ng Meeting Seven that we just had in July in Las Vegas. So, tell us what you wrote about?

CI: Well, I wrote a little blog post that kind of ended up causing a little more of a stir than I thought about Bill Prady's talk, and just generally relating that to some attitudes I've noticed in the skeptical movement toward women, and sort of trying to get at maybe some of the underlying things that keep women out of the movement.

R: And Bill Prady, to let people know who weren't at TAM, Bill Prady was the keynote speaker, who is the producer of The Big Bang Theory, an American televsion show.

CI: Just to give you background, I had never seen the show before the talk. So I was kind of coming in to it cold. I didn't really have much context about the show. And they showed this series of clips that sort of set me up to have the reaction I did to his later comments. It just seemed to me that every clip that was shown in the presentation, in every single one of them, a woman was either the butt of the joke, or a beautiful woman that one of the characters is trying to impress, is just so far outside of the realm of intelligence that the character is, that she can't relate to him at all. So in other words, the sexy woman doesn't like the smart guy.

S: That definitely is one of the core themes of that show. Although she's almost the straight person on that show, at least in the later seasons, because the knowledge that the nerd characters come out with is ridiculously arcane. Even a science enthusiast would find it incomprehensible much of the time. And it's deliberately so.

CI: What I'm trying to get at is, yeah, I'm not gonna try and deconstruct a silly sitcom, and think that it should jibe with the real world; but I just think it's sort of helpful in understanding some of the dynamics that create problems for women existing in groups with guys that sort of fit that category. I think a lot of it comes from that idea they're playing with in The Big Bang Theory, that quote-unquote "geeky" guys feel like women are these alien beings that, in order to ever get laid, you have to learn the language to talk to them. And it's this one specific language that they think that if they can just crack the code and understand women, that they'll be good to go. I just think that causes a lot of the issues that we have.

S: Right, so it simultaneously stereotypes the geek and women.

CI: Absolutely.

R: And do you want to say exactly what Bill Prady said?

CI: Oh sure. Later on in his talk, he made this joke. His general theme was about being a skeptic without being an asshole. And he gave an example of, if you go into a bar as a guy, and you're chatting up a girl, and she asks you what your sign is, you should do a test, and half the time explain to her why astrology is bullshit, and the other half of the time, just tell her she has pretty eyes. And see how many times you get anywhere. (Snickers)

It was probably innocently meant. And he did respond to us with a note basically saying he could have reversed the genders. He didn't mean it as a sexist joke, which is fair enough, but to me it indicates a lack of understanding of his audience.

It felt to me and a lot of the women in the room that he didn't see us at all, like we weren't even there. It really felt excluding to a lot of us.

R: Yeah, the women in the audience definitely all seemed to exchange glances in that moment, and say, "Actually, if a guy came up to me and said I had pretty eyes, I would ignore him and his empty platitudes. But if a guy were to start up a conversation about interesting research, that would be much more interesting and attractive to me. So, what woman is this guy talking about?"

I think we all had this idea of the person that he might have in mind, and it was – you're right Carrie. When viewed in context with what we had just seen with the television clips and everything, that it definitely came across as, "I only understand women to be this type of woman," where she's not interested in science; she's only interested in looks and shallower things.

I think we all kind of shared that moment where suddenly we felt like something "other" than the men.

S: That's definitely the TV-land stereotype, right? That's what you get.

CI: And I don't want to get hung up on the particular politics of the show. I just think that some of the stereotypes in the show are indicative of what is happening in real life. In that sense, I think we can maybe learn from it and sort of use it as a mirror as an exaggerated mirror of what's really going on, and trying to use that knowledge to have a discussion about ...

R: And ...

B: I agree, absolutely.

R: Bill Prady has brought up the idea that it's not his job to present a fair view of scientists; and it's not his job to speak up for feminists and for female scientists. But I think that it's just taking the easy road out to ignore that segment of the population. And I think that so many other shows do a wonderful job of showing nerdy women like MythBusters.

Look at even though it's two guys that started out the whole thing, you've got Carrie, who steps up, and she's awesome! She's nerdy and fun and artsy. She's pretty much everything. And she's a real person!

S: Why don't we talk a little bit more about TAM itself though, because it's the biggest meeting of the skeptical movement. You basically have skeptical culture right there. What's it like from the female perspective? I would have thought that at this point in time with the skeptical movement that it would be a pretty egalitarian, pretty open environment for women; but of course I have the perspective of a guy. So what do you guys think about? How do you feel as a woman in the skeptical movement at a meeting like TAM?

CI: I feel generally with the community and the audience and everybody there, I feel pretty equal, and it seems like good things are happening, and we're moving in the right direction. It seems to me, and I've only been to two TAM's, so I'm kind of a new ... but it sort of seems like the programming is fairly entrenched. And it feels to me a little bit like a boy's club. Like I said, I'm noob, I don't know the whole process or anything like that, but it seems like it's more difficult for women to get into the programming than men.

That may just be a function of fewer women being in the movement, but I'd like to see instead of one of the same old, same old guys up there giving essentially the same talk year after year – which, to be fair, maybe some people come to see that. I'd much rather see some new faces. I'm not saying that I am advocating tokenism, but I would love to see some more women up there.

R: Yeah, I totally agree, and I think that it's interesting where I certainly never feel as though I am put down because of being a woman at TAM. I always have a great time; and I always get along very well with, as Carrie said, with the rest of the community that comes out.

But Steve, you mentioned that you go, and it seems all very egalitarian, and everything seems fair, but I do think that part of that comes from being a white male who can see an entire conference of white males, and not really notice that there's anything amiss.

Once you, as a woman, one of the first things I just happened to notice is that there's only one woman on the list of speakers, Jennifer Oulette. Then Harriett Hall was on a panel I think, and that was it. And we're talking about sexism here, not anything else. But every single speaker on every single panel included was white.[1]

And that's not actually representative of the scientific community, of the rationalist community. There are so many other people there who are female, who are black, or Hispanic, or Indian. I think that, of course it's not a focus of TAM to be diverse. I don't think that's anywhere near the top of their priorities. But I think that it should be in the coming years. I think that it would be fantastic if they would start focusing on, just being the largest conference out there for skeptics right now,

S: Yeah.

R: that there's this certain responsibility to do a good job of representing the community and presenting an interesting mix of backgrounds and viewpoints.

S: Well, in their defence though, I happen to know that when they were putting together the speaker list for TAM seven, they asked me directly, they said, "We want more women in the lineup for TAM seven." For whatever reason this year, it just worked out that a lot of the women they invited to speak couldn't make it. And they said, "Give us some names. Tell us some women so that we can have a little more balance in the speaker list."

So they were very conscious of that. They were going out of their way to do that. It just didn't work out that way this year.

CI: Well, that brings up a really good point too, just about what we as women can do. Like you said, just in recuiting and speaking up, and saying, "Hey, this woman would be a really great speaker at TAM." Also, within the community, and a big part of what happened on my blog post was basically a bickering match about how to be an appropriate woman in skepticism.

And I just think that that does nothing to help us because all we are doing is basically saying there's one way to be a woman in the movement, then automatically, you're excluding any other type of woman than the type of woman you are. And that is horrible and damaging. And we just can't do it.

I know it comes out of a place of insecurity and a place of just knowing how you have gotten where you are, and just assuming that everyone else should do the same. It just, in the big picture, it doesn't help.

R: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. And that was prompted by a blog post – and it wasn't the only one – I saw a few where people would talk about – usually the younger crowd that was starting to come out to TAM's, because I think that every year we're getting a little younger, and there's more – we are getting more diverse. The community is starting to attract more people from alternative sort of paths, lifestyles. And I think that sort of freaks some people out.

But I think it is something to be embraced, because if you look at it, Sue Blackmore, I think is a great example of somebody who does not across as anything approaching conservative. But she's an awesome skeptic with some interesting ideas that could contribute to the skeptical community. And I think it's important that we not reject people like that.

B: Rebecca, you mention the increasing diversity, and I have a lot of hope for that in the future; especially, I remember specifically this year they mentioned the percentage of women that signed up for TAM was up from, every other year was ... was it forty percent?

R: I don't think it's quite to forty yet.

B: But it was the biggest.

R: Yeah, definitely. I think every year, I think. And also, to me it's not just the fact that there are more women in the seats, but that you see so many more women who are excited to be there, and who are not say, just a spouse who's been dragged along.

B: Oh, absolutely.

R: And in fact there were a number of women who I met who came up and said, "Oh! I had to come! I drive along my husband!" That to me was really cool.

S: Do you think that there's any lingering sexism within skepticism itself?

CI: I think there definitely is. Like we were saying, I think it's kind of on the way out, but I really tend to think of the women in skepticism problem as a social problem more than an intellectual problem or a how do we communicate better problem. I think it has everything to do with how people have historically joined the movement. And as internet and podcasts and different things like that create these online communities, I just think we're gonna see more and more women come in and, I don't know.

R: I don't think it's ever a case of men that are trying to keep women out of the skeptical community, or anything like that.

S: Do you feel that you're held back in any way? Or you think it's more of those kind of sort of unconscious, just like sterotyping type sexism that you see?

R: That's an interesting way to put things, because, would you feel held back if some one just constantly told you that you needed to be both smart and pretty and nice all the time. It's not this thing where it's like, oh, we're not going to read your blog because you're a woman; or you're not allowed to do such and such because you're a woman.

It's a much quieter, slightly more insidious kind of sexism where you can respond to it by shrinking and going away, which I think a lot of people do; or you can respond to it by standing up and being a bitch. (Laughs) And I mean that in the nicest sense of the term. And I hope that that's what we're encouraging people to do, is to stand up, point it out when it happens, and, I don't know, maybe, I don't know if you feel the same Carrie, but I feel that the more we point it out, like, "No, that wasn't okay. You shouldn't say things like that. Now let's move forward." The better off we'll be.

CI: Yeah, and by no means should we label these people that may say silly, offensive things sometimes as "jerks," or, you know, it's happened. Maybe you weren't aware what you were really saying there, or how it would be interpreted. Let's move on. You learn from it, and let's all just try to ...

E: And don't do it again.

CI: Yeah, exactly.

S: Right, so there's, as you say, there's a softer kind of bigotry with that, but it still can have the impact of just making an unwelcoming environment for women at skeptical events like that.

R: Exactly, yeah.

CI: Yeah, and I think we just need to keep talking about it. I think that's really the key, just keep talking about it.

S: Well, it's been a very interesting discussion. Thanks for joining us Carrie.

CI: Thank you.

R: Yeah, thanks Carrie.

E: Thank you Carrie.

CI: Been fun guys.

S: Have a good night.

Science or Fiction (1:00:30)[edit]

Item # 1: New studies find that most people grossly overestimate their ability to resist temptation. Item # 2: A new study finds that daily use of kefir, a fermented milk drink rich in probiotics, is associated with a decreased risk of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Item # 3: A new study finds that 70% of US children are deficient in Vitamin D.

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week - Bottlenose Dolphin

Quote of the Week ()[edit]

“Your victim was smothered. That's not opinion. That's science and science is one cold-hearted bitch with a 14-inch strap-on”. From Dexter Season 3 Ep5 Character - Vincent Masuka sent in by Peter McCully

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.


  1. Speaker list for TAM 7
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