SGU Episode 22

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SGU Episode 22
14th December 2005
SGU 21 SGU 23
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis

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Show Notes


S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, December 14th, 2005. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me this week as always are the Skeptical Rogues: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Hello.

S: Bob Novella...

B: Good evening.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello, everyone.

News Items[edit]

Holiday Scams (0:27)[edit]

S: So we are full on into the holiday season.

E: Yup.

S: And along with all of the Santa Clauses and holiday trees and decorations are the scammers. The Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, and other state consumer protection agencies are putting out warnings about the most common scams which are out there. My favorite of the ones that I read is the jury duty scam. I hadn't heard about that one before. Have any of you heard of that one?

B: No, what's that about?

E: Nope.

S: A caller calls up people on the phone and angrily tells them they missed their jury duty assignment. And then, in order to straighten out this logistical mess, that involves the person giving the caller their Social Security number and bank account numbers. Why they would want their bank account numbers I can't imagine.

P: (chuckles)

S: So they use this to put people off their guard by accusing them of missing their jury duty.

P: Right.

S: It's actually clever, because that's something that people can be a little anxious about it. It's possible—

P: That everyone has to do.

S: Yeah. Everyone has to do. You get this letter; maybe you forgot the letter or missed it in the mail or something, and suddenly you're in trouble; getting hollered at because you didn't do your jury duty. So while they're on the defensive, they're not thinking that they're being scammed, and they give up their Social Security number. That's a pretty good one.

P: An angry call, I mean.

S: An angry call. Chutzpah.

P: Really.

E: Yeah.

S: The bottom line is: never, ever, ever give out any identifying information over the phone. Never your Social—

E: Right.

S: Never any piece of your Social Security number. Remember, most of the Social Security number can be derived by the date and time of your birth, and location. The time and location of your birth. So...

P: Particularly when you are called.

S: When somebody calls you, it doesn't matter what they say. It doesn't matter who they claim to be, what story they give you; you never give them any information over the phone. And of course now the same applies by email. If you get an unsolicited email, it doesn't matter what it says or even how legitimate it works, you never respond, especially with any identifying information. No legitimate organization is going to ask you for your bank account number over a phone or email. It's just not going to happen.

P: If you think there's any possibility that there's some legitimacy to it, hang up; get the number yourself, and call back.

S: And independently get the number.

P: Right. Call the jury administration yourself.

B: Right.

S: Exactly. Exactly.

P: Get the number independently and then call them back. If you're still unsure. But at the very least take that precaution.

S: There's a lot of scams this season involving the Medicare prescription drug plan. Seniors are apparently a little overwhelmed and confused about all the multitude of choices. There are scammers making, again, unsolicited phone calls or sending spam emails selling bogus prescription plans. They basically warn that legitimate companies cannot spam, and they have to obey the do-not-call lists. And again, as you say, you should independently verify that. You can call 1-800-MEDICARE to verify any plan before you sign up for it, certainly before you give anybody money or give anybody any kind of identifying information.

P: Just the other day, my wife and I got an email that said it was from FEMA, actually from a third-party working in FEMA's name, about some issues concerning her family in New Orleans.

B: Wow.

P: We read the email, and I was suspicious. So, rather than just reply to the email or call the number in the email, we went to the FEMA website; were able to verify some things that were in the email, and then we called ourselves a separate FEMA number, and we verified in fact it was a true email. But, we certainly didn't take it for granted.

B: Right.

S: Hm, hm.

B: And here's another tip with your email program: look for a setting such that you don't automatically download the pictures that might be part of an email. Just the fact that your email is downloading the images lets them know what your IP address is and that your email address is a valid one.

S: Right.

B: Have it set so you have to specifically right-click the email and download the images yourself. That's a very good precaution, because you don't want to let them know that it's a valid email address.

S: A lot of spam emails also include at the bottom "If you want to be removed from this list click here."

B: Oh, God!

S: Never click "here" because that's just a way of verifying that your email address is active and legitimate. That just gets you on more lists, in fact, so never... basically, never click a link in spam email that you get—

B: Right.

S: —because all sorts of nefarious things can happen.

B: Here's another good one that I do. We might have mentioned this earlier, but if they give you a link in the email, put your mouse pointer over the link, and the bottom of your screen in the status bar on the bottom, the information bar, should list for you where that link is going to take you. A lot of times it's completely different from the link that they're advertising in the email. It's usually something like an IP address—slash—

S: It may just be numbers. Yeah.

B: Yeah. Slash like or amazon, so they just created that directory on their website. So if they don't match, definitely don't click that link.

P: Right.

S: Here's one that's kind of scary, because this would seem very benign. You get a coupon for a trial offer or for a discount on some product. That seems innocuous enough. We use coupons all the time.

B: In the mail.

S: Right. In the mail; maybe an electronic coupon over email. What some scammers are doing is that they are setting up an account with a legitimate retailer, and then issuing these bogus coupons. When you activate the coupon, all that does is it triggers the release of consumer financial information to the scammer.

E: Hm.

S: So the retailer's legitimate—

B: Wow.

S: They're just a dupe middleman in this scam. It's just another type of what we call a "phishing" scam, which is just a way of the scammers to get your financial information. And then the worst-case scenario is that leads to identity theft. Basically, somebody has enough identifying information about you that they can take out credit cards in your name; they can open up bank accounts in your name; they can absolutely destroy your credit history, even force people into bankruptcy. It takes years, apparently, to undo all of the damage that's done and go through the red tape of completely getting back all of your identifying information. For the computer savvy person, just keep somewhat abreast of these scams. Don't click links you're not supposed to click. You could protect yourself, but the thing that really scares me are a lot of the not-so-savvy users that are out there, like all of our parents, for example, who are barely able to really use their email and use the internet. They're really a set up for a lot of these scams. Of course, always heartening to know that the holiday season and the holiday spirit just produces an increase in this fraud and theft.

P: People are inured with a sense of giving and a sense of generosity. The benevolence of the season, and it just...

S: Yes.

B: Enamored? Enamored?

P: ...puts them in a bad way.

S: They also may be rushed. We're all in a shopping frenzy. You may have your guard down. So, happy holidays everyone.

E: (laughs) There's your little gift from the Skeptical Society.

P: Right. Don't you believe it.

E: Ever.

Science or Fiction (8:52)[edit]

S: We have a Science or Fiction this week. For the second time, Bob is going to be doing the Science or Fiction, and I'll be part of the panel guessing the correct answer. So, Bob, take it away.

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

B: OK. There is no theme. The first one is: "German shoppers kill Santa Claus."

S: Now, before we go on, let me just say: Science or Fiction... we come up with three science news items or facts. Two are real; one is fake. So Bob made up a fake one. He's going to present us two real ones and one fake one, and Evan, Perry, and I will try to guess which of the three is the fake one.

P: Right.

S: OK, so the first one is: German shoppers kill Santa Claus?

P: It's about a Santacide.

B: In Germany, two men who had a long day of Christmas shopping, ran into a Santa Claus that was kind of off-duty but still in character and wearing his clothing, and there were some words between them and something happened, and these German shoppers killed him. The second one is that for some species of bats, bigger brains means smaller testes and vice-versa.

S: There's an inverse ratio between—

B: There's an inverse relationship, in certain species of bats, between...

S: ...brains and testicles.

B: ...brains and testicles.

P: OK.

B: Some of them, if they have a huge package, their brains are small, and vice-versa. And the third one is: women's menstrual cycle actually changes the wiring of women's brains, new research suggests.

P: The wiring! OK.

S: All right.

B: So, Evan, you go first.

E: That first one is interesting, yet sadly believable. I don't think there's much there that sends up a red flag in my mind saying that's certainly possible that they could have killed Santa. Who knows what other mitigating circumstances were involved. I'll tend to believe that one. It's the second one that is ringing a bell in my head, because the ratio of the brains to the size of the testicles, there's an inverse relationship, but that only accounts for male bats. What sort of accountability is there on female bats, right? So, that one sounds a little incomplete to me. I think I'm going to guess that B) is false. The third one sounds plausible, so I'll say B) is false.

B: Perry.

P: The third one. What do you mean by "wiring"?

B: I shall not elaborate.

P: Ha, ha, ha. OK.

B: You know what the wiring of the brain is.

P: Oh, sure.

B: It's the menstrual cycle they claim actually changes the wiring of women's brains.

P: I guess I'll guess that that one's false; number three.

B: OK.

P: Seems a little too extreme.

B: Steve.

S: Um. Yeah, the first one—I'll guess I'll just say that's OK. There's not really any way to judge the plausibility of that. Some guys killed Santa.

P: Certainly costumes never stopped anyone from killing.

S: Nah. The second one is, again, certainly interesting. I have not heard anything about that. I can't think of any reason off the top of my head why there would be such a relationship, but it's nothing implausible about it. The third one about the women's menstrual cycle and the hard-wiring of the brain. Certainly, I'm sure there are known hormonal effects on brain function, and if you did PET scans or functional MRI scans of women at different times of their menstrual cycle, I'm sure there are differences. Whether or not that counts as "wiring"...

P: Right.

S: another story. It really depends on how loosely that concept is being used. Does that mean new patterns of neuronal connections or just different levels of activity in different parts of the brain—different neurotransmitter function. So I think if you interpret that loosely, I'm pretty sure that is in fact correct. So... with that caveat, I'll say that the third one is correct, and I'll go along with Evan and say that number two is fiction.

B: OK. Interesting. OK, let's start with... how do you usually do it, Steve? You just go—

P: Number one, because everyone (unintelligible).

S: Well, everyone agrees that number one is real. Is that real?

B: No. It is not. German shoppers did not kill Santa. It's Santa Claus! Who would kill Santa Claus?

P: (laughs) So we all got it wrong.

E: (laughs) That was an old song: "I saw Germans Killing Santa Claus".

B: Oh, no.

E: Wait, sorry, wrong song.

S: But they're European, Bob; I mean, come on!

B: There is that, but they beat him up, but they didn't kill him.

S: Oh, I see, they beat him up.

B: It's interesting. The story's funny. This guy's still in character. He's chatting with other passengers on the train, and two guys there, allegedly stressed out after a full day of Christmas shopping.

S: Yeah.

B: They lost their patience when Santa Claus asked them: "Tell Santa Claus what you want for Christmas." They lost it.

E: Ho, ho.

B: They took his sack of... whatever was—

S: Props.

B: —in his sack, props, booze; I don't know what was in there. They beat him over the head with it. They broke his fingers as he tried to protect himself.

S: Defensive wounds, huh?

B: Yeah. The guy said, "Around this time of year shoppers seem to get this glint in their eyes, and you can just see that they're going to go off any minute." Then he said, "I should have known better, but, come on, who beats up Santa Claus?" They can't find the guys. The have no clue as to their identities. So they didn't kill Santa; they just beat the crap out of Santa. That means the other ones were true.

S: The other two are true. Yeah.

B: The other two were true. The bats and balls one, number two, the second one was: a new study from Syracuse University[1] found an inverse relationship between the two.

S: Any speculation as to why that is?

B: Yeah. There's some. Let's see... They used comparative analysis to show that male bat species that roost in larger social groups, and those with promiscuous females, have relatively smaller brains than species with females that are faithful to their mates. A likely explanation, I believe, biologist Scott Pitnick suggests for this relationship relates to the energetic demands of producing and maintaining both brain and sperm cells, if competition for resources and food is tough—

S: Hm, hm.

B: —then males can't afford to do both.

S: Right.

B: So they've got to pretty much pick one or the other. An interesting ratio, here. Some of these male bats have 8.5 percent of their body mass is taken up in their testicles, which I roughly equated to a hundred-and-eighty-pound man having fifteen pounds between his legs.

P: That's about right.

B: So that's big. Inordinately big.

P: Speak for yourself, son.

B: Hah! Yeah. I find that interesting. The wiring one—you're right, Steve; that was ambiguous. I carefully read the article trying to find out exactly what they meant, and here's an excerpt: "The findings presented at the 2005 Society for Neuroscience meeting, show that the 'wiring' in the brains of female rats expands and contracts in relation to the amount of estrogen present during the menstrual cycle."[2] Expands and contracts—that itself is ambiguous. What exactly are they—

S: Right.

B: That's the level of detail they gave. I couldn't find anything else on that. Interpret that as you will.

S: I'm somewhat familiar with that type of research. And again, there are numerous studies showing both sexual differences, individual differences, and cycle differences in terms of the various sexual hormones, especially estrogen seems to be a very critical one.

B: Right.

S: And functions of different parts of the brain.

B: Yeah. That I can see. Functions in different parts of the brain make sense, but just they way they worded it: "the wiring expands and contracts"?

S: Yeah. I know there are differences in development, which can in fact affect—

B: Oh, yeah.

S: —the wiring.

B: Right.

S: And wiring is somewhat plastic. I'm not sure what they mean by expanding and contracting—

B: Yeah.

S: —unless they're talking just about the amount of function that they're seeing; the amount of activity.

B: Yeah. I guess that's what they mean, but it's just their word choice.

P: If your brain expands in your skull it kills you.

S: I'm sure they're not talking about volume expansion.

P: Isn't that a serious condition?

B: Their word choice was poor, but still... still, I got you guys.

P: You certainly did.

E: Yeah, you did, Bob.

P: Nice.

S: I didn't think you'd bother making up a fake one about killing Santa, to be honest with you.

B: Ha, ha, ha.

P: You can get any number of stories about Disney characters getting killed.

S: Yeah. It's a high-risk profession, being a character actor in a cartoon costume.

P: Absolutely. You kidding me? Brings up all sorts of childhood horror memories.

E: Ranks right up there with being a sports team mascot.

S: That would be worse.

E: And the horrors involved in that.

P: I remember I read recently that in England they were trying to come up with an anti-drinking ads for the holidays and stuff, and they actually had considered having Santa run over by a drunk driver to get their message across, but they didn't actually end up doing it. I think they went with, "Cats have nine lives; you only have one."

S: Hm, hm.

P: But they thought about killing Santa.

S: Right.

P: They didn't actually do it.

S: Then they realized that young children might be watching that on television.


P: And that was the end of that.

S: 'Til someone came to their senses.

P: So more holiday cheer from the Skeptical Society. Keeping up with the theme of this week's show.

News Items[edit]

Video Games and Seizures (19:35)[edit]

S: Now Perry, you sent me this news article from this week from Des Moines, Iowa: "Girl suffers seizure after prolonged video game play".

P: Right.

S: Apparently, a young girl, after playing a video game for five hours straight was found by mother in her bedroom having a seizure. The mother's description of what she found is a pretty good description of a seizure. She was unresponsive; she was convulsing, breathing heavily, frothing at the mouth. That's a pretty good description of a seizure, so that was probably an actual seizure.

P: And the doctors didn't disagree when they checked her out.

S: No. You go by somebody else's history; you never know for sure if you didn't see it happening by itself. You have to sort of make your diagnosis based upon the details that the person spontaneously gives, but those details are highly suspicious for a seizure. It says the doctors at the hospital concluded that long-term use of video game induced the seizure. This is interesting, because... do you remember a number of years ago—it's probably now five or six years ago, maybe a little bit more—there was a rash of apparent seizures of children—

B: Right, yeah.

S: —playing Nintendo.

P: I remember. Yeah—

B: I remember that.

P: —it was parodied on South Park and so forth.

S: Parodied—The Simpsons, I think, had a parody of it.

E: The Simpsons parodied it, too.

S: The Simpsons were visiting Japan. They were watching the fast action flashing light Japan-imation, and they all had seizures.

P: There you go, yup.

S: It's interesting because I actually peer-reviewed an article about that original episode a number of years ago, mainly in Japan. The fact is that flashing lights can, in fact, induce seizures. That is a known phenomenon, a phenomenon called "photic driving", that the visual stimulation can cause certain groups of neurons in the brain to synchronize, and that can trigger a seizure. In fact, when we do electroencephalograms—measure the brain waves of people who are suspected of having seizures—one thing we do is subject them to strobe lights at different frequencies. It's a standard part of an EEG to see if that induces any epileptic form of activity in their brain.

So that's certainly very plausible; sort of a known phenomenon. Some epileptics will get seizures if they're driving and the sunlight is flickering through the trees, for example. That kind of strobe effect may trigger a seizure. The paper that I reviewed looked at the thirty or forty reported cases following a news report of one child that had, again, probably a real seizure playing a Nintendo game. But all of the subsequent cases, the conclusion of the article was, which I agreed with, were probably not seizures. They were probably anxiety or panic attacks. Again, based upon the constellation of symptoms that were being reported. So there you had a real plausible case of a seizure following a video game, but it caused a bit of a community panic—the idea that a lot of people are at risk of getting seizures playing these video games and induced a rash of essentially fake seizures following that.

P: OK.

S: This case... it probably was a real seizure. Of course, maybe the girl has epilepsy. Maybe she would have had a seizure in any case. The playing of the video game may not have had anything to do with it. Maybe she allowed herself to get dehydrated or sleep-deprived or low blood sugar, all things that can lower the threshold for having a seizure. The article does comment that this particular game, True Crimes: Streets of New York, involves driving through the snow, and that the snowflakes can have like a strobe-light effect. That does lend a bit of plausibility to it.

P: Huh. I had that test done to me when I was in high school. When they thought I was hyperactive, I guess, they sent me up to Yale and did a bunch of suspicious tests on me. One of them was they put that strobe light in front of me, and I remember the young physician told me at the time, or technician, he said, "OK, you're going to see patterns of colors", and he was exactly right. He put that strobe light and I remember seeing these squares of colors moving in unison in front of my eyes. You're telling me they were trying to cause me to have a seizure?

S: No, that's a different test. That sounds like a visual evoked response.

P: OK.

S: You use a pattern just like you described, a checkered pattern of colors in order to stimulate the visual cortex and then record the delay from the stimulus to the electrical activity in the back of the brain. It's just a way of measuring the conduction through your visual system into your brain. That's what that sounds like, what you just described. When they are trying to induce seizures, there's no pattern; it's just a flat like a white strobe.

P: I think you misunderstand me. It was just a white strobe. The guy said when I looked at it, I was going to see patterns of colors, and I did.

E: Hm, hm.

P: My recollection, and it's many years ago...

S: Uh-huh.

P: My recollection is of a quickly flashing white strobe, but I saw patterns of colors.

S: You're sure the patterns weren't in the strobe itself?

P: You know, I can't be sure.

S: It probably was. Most people do not see checkered patterns of colors in response to a strobe light.

P: OK.

S: We all know how malleable and unreliable—

P: Right.

S: —memories are, so you are digging down way deep.

P: I am.

S: I'm just trying to match as closely as possible with the way these tests are done today. The white strobe light is part of a routine EEG. A checkered pattern visual stimulus is used for what's called the visual evoked response.

P: OK.

S: So. Not clear.

B: Yeah, Perry. I agree with Steve. I think the only thing we can conclude is that you're a freak.

S: Right. And your memory's totally flawed.

E: Right.

S: But we knew that.

P: No doubt why I was subjected to this battery of tests.

S: They thought you were hyperactive?

P: Yeah. I believe that's why the school sent me there. They thought I was...

S: Were you torturing cats, or something?

P: ...hyperactive. No, no. I was the class clown. They felt that needed doctor intervention.

E: I see.

B: Well, Perry. Was that in your demolition derby days or before that?

P: No, pre. That was pre.

S: Pre-doctor demo.

P: Yeah. Pre-doctor demo. They did all kinds of tests. They read a bunch of numbers to me, and I'd have to say them forward, and then she read more, and I'd have to say them backwards. I did really good on that one, and stuff like that. Made me lick my lips. I remember when she went out of the room I looked at the thing, and she wrote down "mouth awkward." (laughs)

S: Hmm.

P: That's nice. I have an awkward mouth.

S: I have no idea what that is. Did they make you hyperventilate?

P: I don't recall having to hyperventilate. I don't recall.

S: That's another one that can induce seizures.

P: I do not recall that particular test; no. I don't know what it was. They were probably doing a program at the time.

S: Hm, hm.

P: Somebody knew somebody at the school. Who knows? I don't know.

S: You were just a non-conformist, even back then. They had to single you out.

P: (laughs) One of these days I want to look up those tests and see what they were all about. One of these days.

S: I wonder if they still have the records. I think they are only required to keep medical records seven years, or something.

P: You know, so.

B: But didn't that go on your permanent record?

P: I doubt it.

E: Yeah, it's right here.

P: How about my school record? How long do you think my high school is going to keep my records?

S: I have no idea.

P: It might be there?

S: Depends if they have a system for warehousing them or not.

P: 1980; twenty-five years ago.

E: Hmm.

P: That's a long time.

E: Huh, huh.

P: We'll see. We'll see.

Venus the UFO (28:00)[edit]

S: The other day, to change topics, the other day my six-year-old daughter was looking up at the sky and noting the first star of the evening, and I explained to her that that star was actually a planet.

B: Planet, yeah.

S: She was looking at Venus.

E: Rachael's being saying the same thing lately.

S: Yeah. Venus is very bright in the western sky at this time shortly after sunset. Obviously, Venus is closer to the Sun than the Earth, so from our perspective, Venus tends to hug the Sun in the sky, which means it's usually either visible after sunset for a few hours, or maybe visible just before sunrise in the morning, depending upon what side of the Sun it's on. So right now, Venus is bright after sunset in the western sky. It is, in fact, the third brightest object in the sky, after the Sun and the Moon. And because it's not always there, it can be an unexpected object in the evening sky. So my daughter now takes great pleasure in pointing Venus out to me every time she sees it in the evening. It reminds me of the fact that Venus is, in fact, perhaps the single most often...

B: Right.

S: ...object that is mistaken for a UFO, for an unidentified flying object. I found an article about just such a case recently, just a few days ago. This was reported in Orlando; the Martinez family spent the better part of four hours trying to identify the object hovering in the western sky Saturday night—

B: No way.

S: —alternately displaying red, green, blue, and yellow lights.

B: Oh, wow!

S: They're seeing a point of light in the sky. It was visible in the evening.

P: I didn't know Venus changed to all those colors.

B: It doesn't; that's an over-active imagination.

S: That's true. It could just be that if you stare at something long enough there could be certain visual effects, but an astronomer quoted in the same article commented that—

B: Pollution in the sky.

S: —light refracting off the atmosphere can alter the color of Venus. So it can appear more red-shifted or more blue-shifted in terms of the way the light's reflecting off the atmosphere. That is, in fact, not an uncommon phenomenon.

B: Four hours?

P: But, Steve, is it true that staring at Venus can cause seizures? Is that accurate?


S: Planets do not twinkle. Stars do twinkle. Maybe if you stared at a twinkling star long enough you might have a seizure. Bob, you were saying?

B: Venus mystified them for four hours?

S: Apparently.

B: Wow!

P: There wasn't a lot going on that night.

S: No. It was a slow night.

B: Nothing on the tube.

S: But of course, they were convinced that it was a "UFO", meaning some kind of alien phenomenon. They were calling UFO groups, calling the police, trying to figure out what it was. They said it wasn't an aircraft, wasn't an airplane.

E: If they had called an astronomer, they could have stopped right there.

S: That's right.

E: They called everyone but.

B: I can kind of see, if you're in a car, and you're looking at it, it appears—like the Moon, it appears to be moving with you because it's so big and so far away, because the relative positions don't change enough for you to see. So it seems like it's following you.

S: Right.

B: I could kind of see that. The moment you stop and look at it, it's like, "wait, it's not moving now and it's not doing anything", and four hours later it's still not doing anything. So, I think you'd kind of figure, oh, maybe it's a star or a planet.

S: Right. The Moon is actually frequently confused for a UFO, but you'd think, "the Moon? Don't people recognize the Moon?" But often—

B: If it's overcast enough.

S: If it's even a little bit overcast—

E: Hazy night.

S: —it could distort the way the Moon appears. If it's late at night, the shape of the Moon may be unusual; the horns may be pointing in a way that you're not used to seeing. And, again, it also—if you're driving in the car, maybe you're seeing the Moon through the trees, or again, through the haze, it can appear to be oddly-shaped, glowing object that's following you, that appears to be following you. So it's, again, very commonly reported as or mistaken for a UFO.

E: It looks a little different during a lunar eclipse, as well.

S: Yeah.

E: Sort of takes on a new texture.

S: A ruddy or red color.

P: This is, of course, when it's helpful to have a well-defined skeptical toolkit with you, and you'll be able to perhaps use one of the items therein to...

S: Right; like, Occam's razor's a good tool to pull out.

P: There you go.

E: Love it.

S: That point of light in the sky I can't identify.

P: Exactly.

S: So we'll be getting these Venus UFO reports for the next couple of months until it dips back again below the horizon. Then it will make an appearance in the morning sky, where it even looks more unusual. I think it it's probably more likely to be reported as a UFO when it appears in the morning sky just before sunrise, because it's more of an unlikely...

B: Right.

S: ...object at that time. Just a bright star.

E: But don't worry, when it is out of our horizon in our range again, Jupiter will take over as the point of light that people will mistake for a UFO at that point.

P: Right.

S: That's another common one. Not as common as Venus, I think, probably because it's not as bright as Venus is. Jupiter is—now there are countless man-made satellites. Occasionally, if you have a really clear night—

B: Right.

S: —and you look up at the sky—

B: Shuttle or satellite.

S: —look for small, relatively dim points of light in the sky. Just scan for various different star-like objects, and fairly quickly you'll find one that is actually moving across the sky fairly quickly.

E: At a pretty good clip. I love finding satellites.

S: Yeah. Though they're satellites. They're obviously way too high to be a plane or anything else. They're just a point of light. Really, it is interesting how quickly they're moving across the sky.

B: I've never seen one.

E: Especially when you compare it to an airplane, which is what most people see moving across the sky. Those things are going at a nice clip. It's pretty fascinating.

S: Bob, you've never seen one?

B: No, I've never really spent time looking for satellites or the Shuttle.

P: On a clear night, lay in the grass and look up.

E: It doesn't take long before you'll find one.

P: It doesn't.

S: You do have to look, though, because they're not really bright. They're fairly dim, and you have to be looking at them for a few seconds to notice the movement against the background of the stars. So if don't really look for them you won't see them.

E: I find that you find they are a little bit more visible directly overhead as opposed to looking for them on the horizon.

S: Yes, that's correct.

E: Over your head they appear to get a little brighter, and as they head towards the horizon, they'll fade out.

S: Right. Exactly. They're easier to see directly overhead.

Alien Abductees (35:18)[edit]

S: Since we're on the topic of UFOs, I came across another article, this one about alien abductees. This was a study performed recently at Harvard University by Richard McNally. Harvard has a special relationship now with the alien abductee phenomenon. Do you guys remember why?

P: John Mack

E: John Mack!

S: John Mack. Right. John Mack, who is a psychiatrist at Harvard who had a number of patients who claimed to have been abducted by aliens, and he came to believe their stories. He thought that that was the most likely explanation, that they actually were abducted.

P: So his Occam's razor was dull.

S: Right. (chuckles) For a psychiatrist to fall into that is really unprofessional and surprising in a way. He basically fell into the delusion of his own patients. Psychiatrists are supposed to learn to avoid doing that in medical school or in subsequent training.

P: This puts the patina of Harvard on his head.

S: Right. Harvard was clearly embarrassed by this, but he had tenure, so they just had to put up with him. If you recall, he was killed recently. I believe he was hit by a car in England, right? Not uncommon. A lot of Americans actually get into pedestrian accidents because—

P: Because of the traffic differences (unintelligible).

S: Yeah. They're driving on the wrong side of the road, so you look right instead of left, or left instead of right.

P: That is, of course, the cover story.

S: That's the cover story; right, the men in black got him. We know the whole thing. The cover story was very plausible. So now this is another Harvard scientist, a psychologist, it says, not a psychiatrist, who—one of the assumptions in his research—this is, again, Professor Richard McNally—is that people who claim to have been abducted by aliens have a false memory syndrome. He's basically assuming that, so he's not endorsing the reality of their accounts. What he wanted to know is: do people, due to a false memory syndrome for whatever reason, who are reporting a trauma that did not really happen to them, do they have the same kind of emotional and physiological response to remembering their false trauma as people do who are recounting an actual trauma that actually occurred.

P: That's interesting.

S: What do you think he found?

B: I'd say yeah.

P: That they were the same?

B: (unintelligible).

S: Yeah. Absolutely. Exactly. He found no difference. So, in having people who were abducted by aliens recount their abduction, they showed the same physiological signs of stress: rapid heartbeat, dilated pupils, sweating, etc. as did people who were reporting more prosaic or established traumas.

P: So, would you not, if you were an alienist, as someone who believed in abductions, wouldn't you say that this is evidence supporting your conviction?

S: That fact alone you could interpret either way. There's two possible interpretations. One is: those were real traumas. The reason why they're the same is because they really happened to these people. The other interpretation is that the belief in the trauma is the only thing that matters in determining the physiological reaction—

B: Right.

S: —not the reality of the trauma. That was Dr. McNally's interpretation. Some facts that argue against the reality of the abductions: One is there was one significant difference between the reporters of alien abduction and the reporters of more prosaic traumas, and that is: when asked, "would you want to go through that experience again?"—

B: They said "yes".

S: They said "yes".

B: Yeah.

S: And people with more prosaic traumas all say "no".

B: No.

S: That's a pretty significant difference.

B: Yup.

S: He also, interestingly, gathered data on the personality profile of these people, and he said in his research, Professor McNally identified the recipe for an alien abductee. As he reports it, most of the subjects were interested in astral projection, Tarot cards, telling the future, bio-energetic therapies, and of course, aliens. And this is in quotes: "So they had a whole set of New-Age beliefs to begin with." Going into—prior to their experience, they had a background of a variety of New-Age beliefs. So this alleged abduction is not happening to people at random. It's happening to people who are already prepared to believe in this type of thing.

E: Hm.

P: There seems to be some correlation to the fantasy-prone personality.

S: Exactly! And in fact, the next paragraph is: "They're also prone to fantasies or vivid images, so-called fantasy-prone personality." The third thing that highly correlated—the two things—one is a history of New-Age beliefs; two is a fantasy-prone personality profile, and what was the third thing that highly correlated with it? They had episodes of sleep paralysis.

B: Oh, jeez. Of course.

S: Hypnagogic hallucinations.

B: Absolutely.

E: That old chestnut.

S: Which we've talked about before. People who either upon falling asleep or upon awakening will have episodes of paralysis—

P: Ghostly, demonic, alien.

S: —right. Fear, sense of a stranger, malevolent presence in the room.

B: Pressure on the chest.

S: So, that is the recipe; those three things. That, to me, is very compelling evidence that these are psychological episodes. These people are having not actual physical reality episodes.

P: Good experiment.

Eye Evolution (41:21)[edit]

S: Now, Bob, you sent me an article[3] this week about a new discovery involving the evolution of the eye. Can you give us a brief summary of that?

B: Current Biology, I believe it's a periodical. Steve, have you ever heard of Current Biology?

S: I don't get it. It sounds like a basic science journal.

B: OK, well they reported this week that there's a link—they found a link between vertebrate eyes and invertebrate eyes. They go into detail talking about how vertebrates, mammals, have lenses that contain—the lens of our eyes contains a special class of proteins called "crystallins," and the high concentration of this protein in the cells of the lens is what refracts the light and focuses an image onto our retina.

S: Mm-hm.

B: Less complex organisms like sea squirts don't have a lens. They're invertebrates that don't have a lens, and all they really can do is just detect light. This led to the question of how something like a lens could possibly evolve, something that all vertebrates have. A lens is a kind of a bizarre thing. All it does is refract light and focus it onto a retina, which is kind of a pretty unusual thing, and biologists have been wondering for years how does something like that evolve. Well, they did research on sea squirts, and they identified a gene called crystallin, a crystallin gene that all vertebrates have as well as invertebrates, and these proteins is what refracts the light. They did research on the sea squirt crystallin gene, and looked into how this crystallin protein is expressed in its vision system, and they found that this gene is very similar to the one that controls our... that we express in the lens of our eye. There is an obvious relationship, and apparently previously unknown relationship between—

S: Mm-hm.

B: —this specific type of gene in the sea squirt and for vertebrates like us.

S: Right. So basically, again from my reading of the article, the sea squirt has one copy or one version of this crystallin gene—

B: Right.

S: —that makes proteins which are involved with the development of their eye patch; their very simple eye, light-sensing organ. Vertebrates have multiple copies of this gene.

B: Yeah. It seems like we've got multiple versions of it. The article was saying that even more interesting was the fact that the genes that control the crystallin gene in the sea squirt can also control our crystallin gene—

S: Right.

B: —which really made it obvious that there's definitely a link; a deep evolutionary link between—

S: Right. Strongly suggested evolutionary connection.

B: —the genes. I mean, they even somehow—they even took these controller genes, the ones that control the crystallin gene, and they put it into a frog embryo, and those genes directed the frog visual system just normally.

S: Just fine.

B: They obviously there's a shared history there. This all is related to intelligent design, in that the article described it as a serious blow to intelligent design, which has long held that the lack of an evolutionary pathway for complex eyes shows that there must be an intelligent designer, and this is just here's another—

S: Right.

B: —another little tidbit of information, evolutionary information that just whittles away intelligent design and the plausibility of intelligent design. And this was just a very long-standing argument that intelligent designers have been positing about the human eye and how could it possibly evolve. "Show me an evolutionary pathway for a complex eye", and here's some great information—

S: And here you go.

B: —that shows just that.

S: Yeah. The eye is one of their favorite examples of an irreducibly complex organ. Their basic premise is, "we can't prove a specific evolutionary path every step of the way for the evolution of the vertebrate eye".

B: We'll never be able to.

S: And until you can do that, there are gaps. And we need to hypothesize an intelligent designer to fill those gaps. But of course there's a continuous research filling in those gaps. I remember I argued to that one creationist, Nelson, when we were at that conference, that the problem with the gap approach that ID'ers take is that it's a snapshot. You take a snapshot of any science at any time, especially dealing with complex, historical topic like evolution, and sure, there's always going to be gaps in our knowledge. But the presence of those gaps in not an indictment of the legitimacy of the discipline, in this case evolution. That a much more telling picture will not be a snapshot, but a look at, over time, are those gaps static and intransigent?

B: Right.

S: Or are those gaps constantly shrinking? This is just another example of another shrinking gap in the details of evolutionary history that are being fleshed out. In this particular case, an ID'ers favorite example for the irreducibly complex organ. So, yep, we have continually shrinking gaps, but of course, no matter how much they shrink, they'll always be there. When you fill in a gap, you're really just make two smaller gaps.

B: Right, and how small are these gaps now? They're talking about molecular mechanisms and things.

S: Right.

B: They're not even hitting the big stuff anymore, because there's no gaps that big.

S: Right. Right. They've had to abandon the big stuff. They're literally microscopic, and they've retreated to structures which don't fossilize; makes it all the harder to have actual evidence for the stages they went through. But the eye is such an awful example for them because—

B: It is!

S: —there are creatures with every stage of more simplistic designs of eyes. They don't necessarily make an actual evolutionary chain, but it doesn't matter.

B: It just shows you that—

S: There are eyes without lenses. Of eyes—

B: —they're workable. They're advantageous for the organisms—

S: Yes.

B: —even if it's just a simple light patch; a cell that can detect light or dark.

S: Right. They function at every simple stage of complexity.

B: Right.

S: So there's nothing irreducible about it at all. The eye does not have to be this intricate, complex—

B: Right.

S: —organ in order to serve an adaptive function for the creature.

B: It's not like half a tractor. What use is half a tractor?

S: Right.

B: Well, once it was never half a tractor. First it was a cart pulled by an ox, and then it was this, and then it was that.

S: Exactly.

B: It has utility at every stage.

S: Exactly. Yeah. I've used that example. One creationist quipped to me once, "What use is half an eye? Were there guys walking around a thousand years ago with half an eye hanging out their head". Not exactly. That's not the straw man that evolutionists are claiming. That is like claiming that in the middle ages, peasants were dragging half of a John Deere tractor behind their ox.

B: Right.

S: There were parts of it laying out. As you said, no, it's simpler but functional designs. A plow, and then a better plow, and then plows that can plow multiple rows at a time, and then...

B: Yeah, but humans combined those plows.

S: A simple combustion engine, and then more and more complicated.

B: Steve, those plows had intelligent designers.

S: They did!

B: (laughs)

E: Everything did.

S: The analogy there is the fact that there was an evolution from simple but functional designs to more and more complex ones.

B: Right.

S: That is a man-made example, and the evolution was cultural, and therefore Lamarkian, as opposed to biological evolution, which is Darwinian. Still the analogy is legitimate that—

B: Absolutely.

S: —when you go from a simpler to more complex designs, you still pass through functional stages everywhere along the way. What you don't have is the path that is followed is not from nothing directly to a complex design, passing through worthless stages of a partially formed complex design.

E: Bird's wings.

S: Right. So bird's wings. You don't go from nothing to bird's wings. You go from something that serves some other function, where some sort of halfway wing could function.

B: Right. Gliding, thermal regulation, all sorts of...

E: Catching insects.

S: ...trapping prey. There's lots of speculations about what function the proto-wings could have served for the feathered dinosaurs that we now know existed in many different species in many different forms in great numbers.

Psychic Detectives (50:43)[edit]

S: The last piece for this evening is, I think, a topic that we have not touched on specifically before, that of psychic detectives. Perry, you sent me this piece. Why don't you tell me about the new psychic witness that is being touted in the media.

P: The main thing I want to say about this topic is simply that the psychic witness, the psychic who is said to have helped solve a murder from back in 1993 is a woman by the name of Jan Helen McGee. I've spoken with Mrs. McGee briefly, and she's going to be a guest on our show next week. I want everyone to certainly tune into that, and she's going to be our first guest representing the other side of many of our beliefs.

S: Right.

P: So I'm looking forward to it.

S: If she indeed keeps her agreement and comes on our show next week, she will be the first non-skeptical guest that we've had on.

P: That's right. That's exactly correct. I urge you all in the meantime to look her up. It's Jan Helen McGee. The case was the Wise case. W-I-S-E was the gentleman that she basically told the police department where to find this guy. She said that he was at a beach, probably Ocean City, Maryland, and the police up there were contacted. They looked around, and, indeed, they found this suspect sleeping in the car of the murder victim. He was arrested and convicted. She's also being portrayed on a Learning Channel special—a Learning Channel program; I'm sorry—called "Psychic Witness". Apparently, she was supposed to be on tomorrow night, but she tells me that—

S: Tomorrow being Thursday the 15th.

P: But apparently it's been moved to Wednesday the 29th.

S: Wednesday, December 29th.

P: You can see that piece. Our broadcast will be prior to that. We won't have the benefit of it. But, we will have the benefit of Mrs. McGee, and she seems like a fairly lively individual, and I am looking forward to interviewing her with my fellow skeptics. It should be quite an interesting interview.

S: By way of background, the issue of psychic detectives is one that comes up quite a bit. The public is largely being told, usually by gullible and gushing reporters, like the reporter that wrote this article: Monica Von Dobeneck, for a local Pennsylvania paper—absolutely uncritical, gushing article, just ridiculous—that psychics frequently provide significant legitimate aid to detectives in locating missing persons, locating bodies, finding criminals, etc., when in fact, if you actually investigate the background of these cases or delve behind the headlines, no such thing is the case. I think this is a pretty... this one case that we'll go into more detail with Ms. McGee next week, hopefully, the Robert Wise case, I think is a good example. She again claims that she told Detective Paul Zechman where to find this guy, but what she says is he was near a beach, probably Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach. By mentioning those two, you are covering basically sixty miles of beach, which are local to the area in which they were looking for the person. In this case, they knew who the killer was; they just didn't know where he was. He was found, in fact, in the car of the victim that he killed. So, all they had to do was be looking for the car, the missing car of the murder victim, to find the guy. That's a pretty high-probability hit. To say he's somewhere along the sixty miles of beach that are right near where you think he would be. And in fact, the murderer was known to be a beach-roamer or a beachcomber. So, again, that's probably just a high-probability hit. The other thing is that... in fact, I think that Randi already has an entry on his website about this and about this article in particular—that we don't know that the rest of the interview held. She was interviewed for hours, apparently, by the detective. Who knows how many details she gave out?

E: Right.

S: We're only being told years later about the one that was an apparent hit, this one high-probability hit. Who knows how many negative or false details she gave that we're not being told about? The only way to really know about that would be to actually get the tape of the interview and go through in some sort of systematic or quantitative manner and count the hits and misses. Without that, this anecdotal report is all but worthless as evidence that she provided any actual useful information. Now, we'll try to dig up whatever we can before we interview Ms. McGee. It would be nice to talk to Detective Zechman, to talk to the prosecutor in the case, District Attorney Dierdre Eshleman. She has some great quotes in this article. She says, "To my mind any help we can get is good no matter how bizarre. A lead is a lead." Which is, again, just absurd. These cases I find very frustrating just because the distortion of the details and the absolute misreporting and gullible reporting by reporters is often frustrating. They're just so far off from the reality that is uncovered by even a slightly probing and skeptical investigator.

E: Yeah, and I'm sure these reporters went out of their way to go get the skeptics' opinion to incorporate that into their piece.

S: This one doesn't even have token skepticism. Often there's a little token, "Oh, yeah, and Joe Skeptic says he doesn't believe it" sort of token skepticism, but this—

E: Not even a tip of the hat to the skeptics.

S: Nothing. Nothing.

B: She's probably a true believer herself.

E: Well, that is the point.

S: I don't know.

P: When I contacted Monica to see if I could get contact information for Ms. McGee, she said, "I'm not sure she's going to want to talk to a skeptic." But then she said Ms. McGee did say she could give her phone number out. I know Ms. McGee is going to be putting up a website soon, and I think she's glad for interest in herself and her website.

S: Sure. This is her fifteen minutes of fame, you know.

P: Definitely.

S: Maybe a new career for her.

P: It's possible, but we'll learn a lot more about her next week.

S: I guess anything to interrupt the monotonous drudgery of life is welcome.

E: We all need a little fantasy in our lives, I guess. Some more than others.

S: Randi was ruthless about this reporter and about The Learning Channel. He calls the Learning Channel the "Dumbing Down Channel".

E: Ha.

S: It is horrible that the cable science programs: Discovery Magazine...

E: They fall down.

S: They just when it comes to the paranormal they absolutely fall down.

E: Often. Occasionally, very occasionally, they will do a good... they'll cover a topic correctly. Some producer out there will have done a good show, and really given you—

S: They're out there. PBS has Scientific American Frontiers, which is a science show. They did a very skeptical show about the paranormal. Bill Nye the Science Guy, of course, is a great skeptic.

P: PBS is, of course, an exception, because they're government-funded. Every other television station has to make a profit, and that profit margin will always come first. They've got to draw an audience.

S: Now CSICOP has a show on called the Skeptical Eye; is that their show?

B: Yeah, that's it.

S: What channel's it on? Is that Discovery? Science Discovery?

B: I think so. I haven't seen that in awhile.

S: They're these short, five-, ten-minute pieces on some specific skeptical topic.

P: That's good to know. There's not many of them out there. Of course, Penn and Teller's Bullshit!.

S: Yeah, that's on Showtime.

P: That's on Showtime.

S: That's an unashamedly skeptical show.

P: That show—it's a great show, but it's certainly very different than what we do.

S: Right.

E: They're few and far between. It's pretty much in the same proportion to which most people hold pseudoscience compared to their knowledge of science. It's probably in the same ratio. Ninety-nine percent to one percent.

S: Not good.

E: No. No, it's disturbing.

P: Yeah.

S: I blame the media, by and large.

E: (laughs)

P: I told you, they are going to be subordinate to getting ratings. They have to. They have to keep their profits up. They have to get people to stay on their channel. That's why all the Learning Channels and Science, they all have shows about crashes and shark bites; anything that's spectacular.

E: Ghosts.

S: But I think they're missing the boat. I think that people are hungry for real, quality science shows, too. As long as they're not dry. You don't have to—I don't think we need to have this false dichotomy between legitimately scientific shows which are dry and exciting, interesting shows which are either gullible, paranormal, or pseudoscientific. I think that—

E: I'll tell you what. You watch The Eyes Of Nye; that is a well-produced show. It's very entertaining.

S: Those shows do well. Again, the number one fiction show—the number one drama on television is CSI.

B: Yeah.

S: Crime Scene Investigation. That is a very—

B: That says something.

S: —scientific show. Now, of course, it's also a police drama, but still, it's the science on that show is good, and they even occasionally the main character has some skeptical moments. I remember the episode where they found a victim who was burned to death, and somebody raised the idea of spontaneous human combustion, and the main character was, of course, totally skeptical of this idea, and he suggested an experiment they could do involving burning a pig, which replicated a real-life experiment—

E: That's right.

S: —that actually had been done, to show how a slow-burning, simmering fire could reduce a large mammal to ash, basically, and look like the cases that are typically put forward as spontaneous human combustion. Anyway, number one show on television, not pseudoscientific at all; in fact, a very pro-science, even skeptical show. I think it's just easy; it's very easy to put out mindless paranormal pap. It really does not take—

B: It's lowest common denominator stuff.

S: It's not only that. It's not only appealing to the masses. I think the real science could appeal to the masses, too. It just takes a lot of work to get the science right, and to make it interesting. It doesn't take a lot of work to uncritically present the ravings of paranormal believers without any skepticism. It takes no work whatsoever. This reporter did not have to do any fact-checking for this article; did not really have to try to analyze what was being said; do any background checks. All she had to do was just completely uncritically quote these people, and she has a sensational piece, but has absolutely no, I think, journalistic quality to it whatsoever. It's just all too easy. And it's unfortunate. We live in a society that's increasingly driven by media, where people increasingly get a larger and larger portion of their information from mass media. Again, I think we've talked about this before on this show. The internet is a double-edged sword that may be more of a blessing than a curse in that it does take a lot of the information power away from the mass media, which has degraded to a large degree to the lowest common denominator. Our show is an example, now. People can listen to podcasts. They're tens of thousands of podcasts out there from every different perspective, every topic you can think of. People can consume hard scientific or hard skeptical facts and programing. We don't have the audience that a mass media outlet would have, but people who are interested find us.

That is all the time we have for the show this week. Bob, Perry, Evan... thanks again for joining me.

B: Our pleasure.

P: OK, everybody, we'll see you next week. Come and listen to our interview; should be interesting.

S: Bob, good job on Science or Fiction.

B: Thank you.

S: Managed to work in Santa Claus.

B: Yeah.

E: Ho, ho, ho.

S: Of course, we should have been skeptical about Santa Claus.

E: Right off the bat.

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

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


  1. Pitnick, Scott, et al. Mating system and brain size in bats
  2. Northwestern University: Estrogen Alters Brain 'Wiring'
  3. Urochordate βγ-Crystallin and the Evolutionary Origin of the Vertebrate Eye Lens', Sebastian M. Shimeld, Andrew G. Purkiss, Ron P.H. Dirks, Orval A. Bateman, Christine Slingsby, Nicolette H. Lubsen. Current Biology, Volume 15, Issue 18, 20 September 2005, Pages 1684-1689
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