SGU Episode 27

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SGU Episode 27
25th January 2006

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 26 SGU 28
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis


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Show Notes


Introduction[edit]

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, January 25, 2006. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me today are: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Hello, everybody.

S: Bob Novella...

B: Good evening.

S: And making a special reappearance, Jay Novella.

J: It's good to be back.

S: Yeah, welcome back, Jay. It's good to have you again.

J: Yaaay.

P: (chuckles) Welcome, Jay. There's a rumor that Evan Bernstein will be joining us little later.

S: He may join us a little bit later. He's not available at the moment.

News Items[edit]

Most Earth-like Planet To Date Around Another Star (0:40)[edit]

S: So there were a few news items to get things started. Evan sent me this one: The most Earth-like planet discovered to date around another star. So...

B: That's pretty cool.

S: It is very cool. Um. The reason why this is interesting because, a few months ago, this was one of the Science or Fictions that we did where the fake one was where astronomers found an Earth-like planet around a nearby star[1].

P: Once again, Dr. Novella ahead of the curve.

S: And...

P: On these matters.

S: (chuckles) But this was one that we knew was coming because they're finding more and more Earth-like planets. When I say, "Earth-like", I mean... the size of Earth—

P: Class M planets.

S: No. (laughs) Umm.

B: M-class planets?

P: M-class, sorry.

S: Not yet that close. Just, you know, smaller and at a distance from the sun that is, you know, that resembles the Earth. Most of the planets that scientists and astronomers have discovered so far are Jovian-like planets; they're gas giants and they're also very close. Like within, oh, what would be the orbit of Mercury. So very close to their to their stars. They're easier to see. The bigger and closer they are, the easier it is for astronomers to see. But as they're refining their techniques, specifically, they're using a technique called "microlensing" to detect planets around stars. They're finding smaller and smaller planets farther and farther from their sun. The new record now... um... and this was just announced in the last day or so, is a planet that is about about 7... I'm sorry—

B: 5.5

S: 5.5 Earth masses. So 5.5 times the mass of Earth. Mass of Earth and—

P: Does that mean five—five and a half times the gravity?

S: Yes, and 2.5 astronomical units from the sun—from its star. An astronomical unit being the distance from the Earth to the Sun. So, 2.5 times as far away as the Earth.

P: Why... Excuse me; I didn't mean to—

S: Go ahead.

P: Why, basically, are there are so many more gas-giant-type planets than planets like the Earth?

B: Well, Perry, it's a situation where you're looking where the light's the best. That's really the only method we had when we were using the previosu method in determining the wobble that the planet exerted. The gravitational pull on the star making it wobble; only a big planet close to the sun can produce that kind of effect; small planets can't. Now with this gravitational microlensing technique, now they are going to start seeing a lot more Earth-sized planets. So basically, the answer to your question is that that's the only ones they really could detect using the old technique.

S: So we don't know. We don't really know, because we haven't really been able to look for the smaller planets. We're hoping, of course, that we're gonna find a lot of Earth-like planets around other stars. But it's also worth noting that this particular star is a red giant. It's a lot cooler and dimmer than our sun. So the—although, this planet is only about two and half times the distance from its star as the Earth is from the Sun, it's very very cold. It's about as cold as Pluto.

P: That's cold.

S: Yeah. -364 degrees Fahrenheit. So... Too cold to support liquid water and probably, therefore, life that we would recognize. So...

J: What's the name of the planet?

S: The article does not have a name. It has a designation: "OGLE 2005 BLG 39 LB".

P: Right.

B: There could—there could be life on that planet, though, I mean... There is... You don't need photosynthesis for life; it could be chemosynthetic life. Look at Europa. You've got tidal forces. Well, it depends. If there's a lot of tidal forces being acted on the planet, you would generate a lot of heat which then could melt ice and create a liquid environment (S: Hmmhmm) and minerals to produce life that may exist in Europa. I agree that could—

S: Right. Or geothermal energy.

B: Right.

P: So Bob, you think that shorty, we could be talking with "OGLE 2005 BLG 39 OLB-ians"?

(laughter)

P: Is that what you're saying?

B: Nope. And no. Too far and it's—

J: I'll tell you what; one of my ex-girlfriends is so cold, she could have come from that planet, so—

B: Ooooh.

(laughter)

B: But I really think—I can't wait until we get to Europa, 'cause I think there's a decent chance of finding something, microbial or maybe even more complex—

S: That would be incredible. Even single cells would be incredible.

J: I don't know. I don't have—I don't hold any idea that we're going to find things like that. I think it's definitely possible, but so unlikely that you shouldn't even joke around about it.

B: Yeah, but Jay, all the elements are there. All the elements are there. You got a liquid environment and you've got minerals... You put those two together—

J: I know, but after the thing that happened with Mars—after that big thing came out and I remember we were having a discussion about how profound it is that because of the methane gas released that there could be microbial activity on Mars and it didn't come to pass. And now my guard is up.

S: Well, there's obviously reason for skepticism. But Mars is basically a dry, arid, dead planet. We're hoping that there may have been life on Mars in the past, maybe something, just maybe, barely clinging to life. Europa's a different story; Europa has liquid water ocean underneath its ice crust and a source of energy. It's more plausible that there could be life surviving within, again, the under-ice-cap oceans of Europa.

J: So temperature really doesn't play that much into it, then?

S: Well, sure, I mean... as you get closer and closer to the core of Europa, the temperature goes up. And there's a zone where you have liquid water.

J: But what I mean is, does temperature play a significant role in whether or not the scientists involved expect to find anything?

B: Well, sure, if it's too hot—I mean, if it's too hot, proteins could never form and at least that type of life could never exist. So, if it's too hot, then chances decrease, but—

S: And if it's too cold, then reactions are either too slow or they can't occur. So—

P: Nothing at the extremes.

S: Right.

J: OK.

S: And if you're talking about organic life—something that we would recognize—nothing exotic like, you know, Star Trek silicon-based life, then you're talking... there probably has to be liquid... temperatures where water is at a liquid.

B: Right.

S: At some point in time. So—

P: There's actually a pretty small window.

S: Yeah. Yep.

B: Look at the life at the—what do they call it, the black smokers at the bottom of the ocean? I mean, does not depend on photosynthesis at all. All it is is these super-heated vents spewing gas and minerals out and you got a thriving ecosystem around this thing. It's incredible.

J: And what is that? Isn't that at a few hundred degrees?

B: Yeah, it's hundreds of degrees. And they've adapted to it and they get energy and everything they need, even though sunlight has nothing to do with it. So you don't need the sun.

S: They eat sulfur, don't they? They largely—it's a sulfur cycle that they're using.

B: I believe. Or other chemicals, I mean; it doesn't have to be sulfur.

Stolen Memories (8:20)[edit]

S: Well, the other news item that caught my eye this week was a report about stolen memories. Now, of course as skeptics we're always interested in the fallacies of human memory. Often true believers use anecdotal experiences or reports to justify their claims and beliefs, and it's very critical to recognize the fact that human memories are incredibly unreliable and malleable. Well, here's a report coming out of a psychologist from Duke University and also the University of Canterbury in New Zealand that memories can be quote-unquote "stolen". What they were studying are siblings—mainly twins but also people who are siblings but not twins—who both claim that a memory that they share happened to them, when clearly the nature of the memory is such that it could have only happened to one or the other. So one of the siblings or twins quote-unquote "stole" the memory from the other one. The one example that they give is twins that... one of them, after they were given roller skates as a birthday present, one of them fell off their roller skates and injured their knee, but they both remember that incident and they both remember it happening to them.

P: I never heard of such a thing.

S: Right.

B: I mean, is that so new and surprising? I mean, I've recently experienced that phenomenon myself. It's pretty interesting, but it's nothing outlandish to me. Jay, do you remember going skiing years ago, and... in a van, and hitting a patch of ice, and our driver, our old friend Larry, turned around and just said something like "Iccce" and the car spun or something?

J: Yup.

B: I mean, when I recently kind of thought about that memory, just like a week ago, I thought I was in the car. Just hearing you tell me that story years ago and thinking about it, it kind of like morphed into a memory of me actually being there, and I thought I was actually in there, but I wasn't, apparently.

P: Now, Steve, are you sure this just isn't stupidity?

(laughter)

P: I mean, it sounds... (mumbles)

B: Are you calling me stupid?

P: I just—I'm interpreting.

S: Twenty-year-old memories... the key is—this isn't anything dramatically new. Bob is right. It's kind of just a new take on concepts that have been well established. The fact is that if you imagine a memory, because someone shares the story with you, or, for example, like the example Bob gave, or maybe the memory is genuine, but it may morph in such a way that you become more central to the memory or you become an object of the memory. So you're the person who fell and hurt your knee or kissed the boy at camp, or whatever, not your sister.

P: I've certainly had arguments about who had an original idea.

S: Right.

P: You know, "that was my idea"; "no, that was my idea." I mean, I've been in those discussion before.

S: Sure, and the key is that your imagination can become a memory. And that false memory is indistinguishable from a real memory.

J: Actually, I have the same problem with dreams. The dreams that I have tend to get confused with my reality from time to time. Like I can't keep track a hundred percent of conversations that I've had, and even though a lot of times dreams are outlandish; I think a lot of dreams that we don't remember were very mundane.

S: Jay, was this before or after the drug use?

P: During.

J: I can't—Steve, I can't give you a good answer. I'm not clear about all those years.

B: Jay, that's pretty common. That's happened to me, many times.

J: Well, I think it's common, and I just think that it's part of the experience. You know, you don't analyze every dream that you have. You can't because you don't even remember all of them, so—

S: Right.

J: —confusing things. And Bob, I've had that experience many times where I've heard you, Joe or Steve—my three brothers—recount something, and I've confused myself with whether I was there, and I've had a few times where you guys have corrected me and said, "no, you were like two, three years old when that happened".

B: That's funny. It just goes to show, memory is so malleable and not trustworthy.

S: Right. And you can't know. Your confidence in a memory, or how real a memory feels to you, says nothing about how accurate it is.

B: Absolutely. And even flashbulb memories—so-called flashbulb memories—memories that occur when something really dramatic happens. Like, where were you when Kennedy was shot; when the shuttle exploded; even those memories are entirely... not any more reliable than any other memory. In fact, they might be worse because your confidence level is so high for these flashbulb memories—

P: Yeah.

B: —that you can more easily dupe yourself with the thinking that it's incontrovertible fact.

P: It's true. It would be hard to convince me that I don't remember where I was when the Challenger blew up.

S: Um hmm. Me too.

P: It would be hard to convince me.

J: But now you make me think. I have a very vivid memory of where I was. I remember exactly where I was. And Steve, are you saying that I should actually question that memory. Like, to me that memory is a hundred percent vivid.

B: Yeah, but Jay, I'm not... nothing so basic as where you were. I mean, that's hard to really mess that up. I'm talking more subtle details about the memory. Maybe what you were wearing, who you were with, maybe how you heard it. You know, those kind of things are the ones that are more suspect than something as big as where you were. You know, that's—

S: Although that might morph too, Bob. You may confuse it with some—

B: It can.

S: You may be merging two memories. You have one memory of where you were when something else happened. Maybe it was when you were telling somebody about the shuttle rather than when you heard it. And those memories get confused—

B: Possible. But I'm less skeptical about that type of memory.

S: Yeah.

P: It's interesting. When I think back on my memory of the shuttle, I can remember where I was: an apartment in New York; I can remember where in the apartment I was, and how I was looking at the TV screen. I was not in front of it. I was off to the side looking at it diagonally, by our very tiny kitchen. I can't remember what I was wearing, but I remember that much.

S: Right.

P: Or so I think I do.

S: And it seems very compelling and very specific, but we just don't know.

P: It does.

S: You just don't know. But whenever the studies have been done where people recount what they were doing after a major historical event, and then they were asked four years later, what were you doing, you know, at this event, and they gave completely different accounts. And their confidence level in the accuracy of their memory did not have anything to—did not predict how accurate their memory was.

P: Huh. But not everyone got it wrong, right?

S: No. No; some people got it right. And some memories can be locked in and can be more stable. Trauma tends to be a good mnemonic, tends to make your memories more vivid and more enduring. It seems that we pay attention more whenever—when we're—our minds are very alerted by emotionally traumatic experiences.

P: I can remember one memory I had when I was sick in the hospital and I got very afraid. And when I thought back on that specific memory several months later, I was hit with the fear again. And I pushed it out of my mind. That's the only time I can ever recall that happening in my life, you know? So I imagine someone who, oh, I don't know, is shot or something, you know, and they block it out completely. I can more understand that now.

S: You have a little post-traumatic stress going on there?

P: (laughing) I guess, I mean it wasn't so harsh. And I wonder if I were to hearken back to it now that I would still feel, you know, this six years later.

S: Well, you know, the limbic system, the part of our brain that remembers stuff, is intimately connected to the part of our brain that feels emotions. So that makes sense that there's that intimate connection between memories and emotions.

P: What about déjà vu?

S: Ah, that's interesting. Déjà vu could just be a memory that's sort of replaying through your short-term memory loop that you have. And again, the sort of hippocampus and limbic system. It also—déjà vu occurs sometimes when people are having seizures. It can also occur at times when people are having a panic attack. Again, that connection between emotion and memory. It's not totally understood, neurologically, what it is, but it's definitely just a neurological phenomenon in that part of the brain.

B: Right. Yeah, one thing we can positively say about it is there's nothing paranormal about it.

S: Right.

J: I don't know, Bob; I really think that déjà vu has to do with aliens time-traveling too near us.

B: Get off this podcast.

(laughter)

S: It distorts our time stream. No, Jay, that's not aliens. That's the Matrix. Come on. Get it straight.

J: Actually, that was the coolest explanation ever of déjà vu.

S: (laughs) In a science fiction way, yeah.

Ask the Skeptic[edit]

Evolution and the Origin of Life (17:50)[edit]

S: So, we have an "Ask the Skeptic" this week. Occasionally we get questions to us at our website. This one is just signed "R.C." Didn't give a full name. So R.C. asks the following. He says

I'm a Christian, but I don't believe intelligent design and creationism are science, nor can scientists deal meaningfully with metaphysics or the supernatural. Although I agree with your comments on ID and creationism, you are ignoring the real problem: evolution. I'm all for acknowledging scientific evidence. I believe that natural selection is fact and that DNA mutates at some statistical frequency, but I also see major gaps in evolution theory. Let's start with the most basic: the theory is based on the postulate that life originated spontaneously on Earth unassisted by God, by some fortuitous mixing of some materials of the universe. A happy accident. What proof do we have of this? Can you recreate this event? No, you can't. You believe that it happened as an act of faith. Is that any different than believing in God or a similar act of faith? Can you really be so certain about evolution when it's based on something that can't be proved or demonstrated?

B: Straw man!

S: Yeah, so that paragraph is riddled with logical fallacies, but we'll start first with his false premise in that the theory of evolution is based on the postulate that life originated spontaneously on Earth. That is actually not evolution. Evolution has absolutely nothing to say about the origin of life from non-life. Evolution deals exclusively with what happens to life after it has arisen. It is the change in life, in genetic information over time brought about largely by variation and natural selection. That's evolution, not the origin of life in the first place.

P: Such a basic misconception at the outset is very telling.

B: But, Perry, it's very common. Pat Buchanan made that error in his articles recently.

S: That's right.

P: As I said, it's very telling.

S: Yes, it is. It is, it is. So, there's a separate science that deals with the origin of life from non-life. And it is highly speculative. We don't have a lot of fossil and material evidence to tell us about that process. We know, chemically, what was going on at that time. There was lots of organic molecules available, you know, the so-called organic or primordial soup in the oceans. We know that—we find amino acids on meteors. I mean, amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of proteins and therefore life are pretty much found everywhere. So, it's not too much of a leap to say that all the materials were there, and really all you need to have happen is for a molecule to arise that can make a crude copy of itself. Once you have that, then you have the pieces that you need for evolution. You have a reproductive system with variation and then selective pressures can act upon that.

And it's also, I think, a big misconception that a lot of evolution deniers have, is that—they are constantly trying to debunk this notion that a modern cell arose spontaneously. And they talk about how complex a single cell is and how ridiculous it is to think that it arose spontaneously. But, that is a straw man. No scientist believes that a modern cell, not even a bacteria, let alone a eukaryotic cell, arose spontaneously. Cells took billions of years to evolve. All of the basic biochemistry and organelles and stuff inside a single cell took three billion years to evolve. It took much longer to evolve a single cell than it did to evolve us from that single cell. The evolution of multi-cellular life only took about 600 million years. So... The other thing that he—the other major, I think, logical fallacy in this question is the good old God-of-the-gaps argument from ignorance claim. The idea that there are gaps in evolutionary theory and that scientists have to fill those gaps with faith, and therefore why not just fill those gaps with faith in God? In fact, that's not how science operates. Science operates by postulating testable hypotheses and then trying to figure out some way to test them. And when gaps in our knowledge are not filled in by leaps of faith, they're just currently unknown. And that's all science has to say about them until somebody can come up with a way of gathering further information or come up with new hypotheses or new ways of testing old ideas.

J: What I find very interesting is how—maybe this has been going on for a while, since the beginning, when Darwin proposed evolution—but I find it very interesting—lately I seem to be reading a lot more about how threatened religion is—certain religions, particularly—with modern science. And, to be honest with you, Steve emailed all of us this letter before the podcast, and I read it, and I was... actually, first off, my first impression was I was pretty happy that this guy decided to write you and open up a dialog. At one point in the email, didn't he say that he was interested in having a debate with you about it?

S: Yeah, he said, "I'll explain my views and gladly challenge you to a discussion on this question" is how he closed his email.

J: I thought that was a very good sign of intelligence, first of all. But I also, while reading the letter, felt like, wow, I'm just hearing a lot of this, the turmoil between religion and evolution, in particular now, more than I have, you know, if you go back five years, I don't remember it being this hot.

S: Yeah.

B: Oh, yeah. It's been—

P: Rise of ID.

S: It's because of intelligent design—

P: Yeah, it's the rise of ID.

S: 2005 was certainly—it was a hot-button issue. But it's never gone away, certainly.

P: Well, Scopes Monkey Trial.

S: Right.

P: '25, it was?

S: 1925, that's right.

B: In the 1980s, the Supreme Court, it was pretty hot.

S: It waxes and wanes.

J: Yeah, I guess that's—maybe what you said, Steve, that 2005 was hot. There was a lot of activity with it then. You know, Pat Buchanan really just knocked my head off my shoulders the past six months with the things that he's saying too, and I'm paying a lot of attention to him lately.

S: It's just incredible. We do have a news item in the—on the ID front. Now, in California, a school system proposed an intelligent design course called "Philosophy of Design." The difference here is that this course was being taught not in the science classroom, but in the philosophy classroom. It was being taught as a philosophy class. And I guess that the IDers were thinking that this would be some other way to get around the separation of church and state issue because they weren't teaching it as science. It was being taught by a minister's wife, basically trying to advance, again, the basic intelligent design notion that life's too complex to have evolved. But under pressure, the school system withdrew the course. So they have scrapped their intelligent design course. Basically, that plan was not gonna work, and again, it's good that yet another avenue is being closed off. It doesn't matter if you're teaching it in a philosophy class; you're still teaching it as a science. I mean, the concept was still basically to replace conventional accepted scientific views with religious views. And what they were teaching was not so much philosophy as it was just blatant Christian religion. I mean, it was—

J: The thing that colored very poorly was that the teacher actually said something along the lines of, "this is what God wants me to teach."

S: Um hmm. Um humm.

J: That right?

S: Right. I mean, they often can't help tipping their hand like that. They try sometimes to be coy and say, "oh, we're not teaching religion" or—

P: We're not saying who the designer is; all that nonsense.

S: Right. And then she comes out and says, "Oh God wanted me to teach this course." All righty.

P: Why can't they just be satisfied with teaching it in Sunday school?

S: Right! I don't know.

P: Teach it in whatever religious institution you have.

J: Perry, I went to a Catholic high school, and I'm telling you that in science class, religion never came up.

P: No. The Jesuits are not gonna teach this nonsense.

S: Yeah, that was a Jesuit school, yeah.

P: Of course not.

J: It's interesting. I had multiple Bible classes and religious history classes. But that school never blurred the lines between science and religion.

P: Jesuits are intellectually rigorous.

S: It's definitely possible to keep them absolutely separate, even in a very religious setting. So, if we have any further responses from R.C., we'll certainly let you all know. And if anyone out there has any other questions, just send us an email. You can send it to us through www.theness.com. And better yet, send us your recorded questions on voice mail or MP3, any format. We'll include you in the podcast.

Science or Fiction (27:05)[edit]

S: Well, we have a special treat this week, guys. Perry is going to debut his first Science or Fiction.

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

P: Yay!

J: Oh, my God; that's fantastic.

E: Hope it's not his last.

P: OK, so for Science or Fiction this week I've made a slight change. We're going to give out 3 facts. And in this case, 2 are false and 1 is true. Slightly different from normal.

B: Did you get authorization to make that change?

P: I am the executive director; I need none. 2 are false, and 1 is therefore, by definition, true.

B: So which 2 are false?

P: All right; here it goes. You'll tell me. OK. A: Light travels at approximately 10 miles per hour. B: The Sun is approximately 10 miles from the Earth. C: Perry DeAngelis is demonstrably more intelligent than his colleagues on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. 2 are false 1 is true. We'll start with our president, Steven Novella MD.

S: This is a tough one. None of them sound true. I'm going to have to say the 10 miles per hour. (laughing) That's just the most plausible of the three.

P: That was a bit of levity here on Science and Fiction here tonight.

B: Actually, light can be made to travel very slowly, depending on what medium it's going through.

S: That's true.

E: Very true, very true.

S: Molasses it should travel very slowly.

P: And this levity is still carrying on. Very well. Now, moving on to the real Science or Fiction.

S: Oh, that wasn't real? (laughs)

P: No, that wasn't real. I said a bit of levity here on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

J: Perry, take this gun out and shoot—

P: Excuse me. So we're back to our standard format. I'll give you three items, one of which is false and two are accurate. OK? Everybody with me?

S: Gotcha. Yes.

B: Gotcha.

S: Shoot.

P: OK, just because I've always been interested in it, the sort of subject for my Science or Fiction is atomic time.

S: Atomic time. That's the theme for tonight.

P: Yes, that's the theme.

B: Interesting.

P: OK, so A) The atomic clock kept at the US Naval Observatory is in fact 556 atomic clocks. B) Recently the first atomic clock wrist watch has been invented. And C) A cesium fountain atomic clock will neither gain nor lose a second in more than 60 million years. That's A, B and C. And Steve, we will start with you.

S: OK, well the... 56 atomic clocks, huh? That's certainly plausible.

P: 556.

S: 556 separate atomic clocks. I guess, um, I don't see why not. I guess they could do that to calibrate each other. So that's plausible; I've just never heard about that. The atomic clock wrist watch. Now, I've seen advertisements for wrist watches which synchronize with atomic clocks.

P: Yes, you have.

S: I assume that's not what you're referring to. You're referring to where the watch itself is an atomic clock.

P: Should I give you this hint?

S: I'm going to assume that's what you meant, and not that it synchronizes with an atomic clock. That I know exists. Just basically uses radio signals, whatever, to locate the nearest atomic clock and synchronizes with it. And then the third one—well, that's about right. That's about what I recall, that it gains and loses a second in millions of years. That is the right order of magnitude, so I'm going to say that one is correct.

P 60 million years. Six-Oh million years.

S: That's about right. So, I'm going to say that number 2 is fake.

P: OK.

S: The wrist watch; the atomic wrist watch.

P: All right. Evan?

E: It's a good one, Perry. It's a good one.

P: Thank you.

E: However, I, I don't want to sound like a copycat, but my first thing I did in my mind was that number 2 was also the fake one. A wrist watch? Just don't know; don't know. Whereas the other two do seem like they have much more plausibility to them. I just don't know if you can get something as small as a wrist watch to be atomic-clock capable. So, um, yeah, at the risk of being a copycat here—

P: So you say number 2?

E: I'll go with Steve as well. Number 2's not right.

P: And, uh, Jay our guest. What do you have to say about this?

J: Well, first of all, I'm not a guest.

S: He's a semi-regular panel member. He's an irregular panel member.

E: Semi-annual.

J: I'm trying to get back into the podcast. All right, I'll tell you quickly what I think. First of all, I have absolutely no information on how many clocks they'd string together, so that one does sounds plausible to me. The second one, the atomic wrist watch. Yet again I'm going to have to say that I don't know how big an atomic clock has to be in order for it to be an atomic clock, and I wouldn't doubt that someone would try to come up with that. I really don't know. So that one seems plausible to me. The third one is the one that I thought was a little far-fetched, that 60 million years wouldn't lose or gain one second, so I'm going to go with three.

P: OK. So, so far we have two Bs and a C. And finally, Bob.

B: The first option, 556 atomic clocks to come up with the time. I can pretty much verify that that's right. I've read about stuff like that, where they take lots of atomic clocks from all over the place and they synchronize them. I think I've read that in a book called Faster by James Gleek.

P: OK.

B: The atomic clock wrist watch, that's going to get my vote. That's just too small. I don't think—everyone I've seen or read about was a pretty hefty affair.

P: OK.

B: Nothing tiny. It's a lot of technology involved to do that, unless like Steve said, you use radio technology to synchronize. And the 60 million years sounds right to me, so I'm gonna go with B, the wrist watch.

P: OK. So in the end we have three Bs and the only dissenter being Jay with his notable C.

S: His minority report.

P: Very good.

J: You could call me vanguard though too; you could say that.

P: We will start by saying that C, a cesium fountain atomic clock will neither gain nor lose a second in 60 million years is in fact true. So Jay I'm afraid you were incorrect.

E: The question is who will be around 60 million years from now to tell us if that holds true.

P: That's true, that's true. We're accepting this on the evidence given.

S: Well, Bob will be, of course.

E: Oh that's right.

S: When he has his head frozen.

E: I thought it was frozen.

J: Come on guys, let's face it; I'm the only one here that buys into cryonics.

P: That's true.

E: We'll have to deal with that in another episode.

S: That's another episode, yes.

P: Moving right along. I will now tell you that A, "the atomic clock at the US Naval Observatory is in fact 556 atomic clocks", is... inaccurate.

E: It's 555 clocks.

S: (laughs)

P: It is 56 clocks.

S: 56.

P: Not 556 clocks. There are 44 cesium and 12 hydrogen maser clocks. They are, in fact, strung together. The average of those clocks is used to come up with the official time, which the US Naval Observatory disseminates. The second one is the one—B, the one that three of you chose is the one I thought would catch you, and I will admit that I took a little bit of leeway with this. I am now—and I want this link—everyone will be able to get to this on our web page. If you gentlemen would look, I just sent you the link[2] to the atomic wrist watch.

E: There it is.

P: You will please click on it.

B: Holy...

E: (laughs)

P: And there it is.

E: Oh.

P: As you can see it is in fact a little bit silly, as it is, in fact, a... but it's a Hewlett Packard atomic clock. This guy is wearing it on his wrist. So it's about the size of a VCR.

J: Actually, it's more of a forearm watch.

(laughter)

P: Nonetheless, it fits all the definitions of an atomic clock wrist watch, and so I in fact included it.

J: To describe it to the people who can't see the picture—

S: It looks like a large PC; a desktop PC.

P: Yeah, yeah.

S: Strapped to this guy's forearm, basically.

J: And it's got a plug!

P: It has a battery, I checked. It has a battery that lasts for 45 minutes. And then you have to recharge it. So it's a stretch.

S: You didn't say it was practical. (laughs)

P: I didn't say it was practical, but it does fit the definition. And it thought it would catch you and, in fact, it did. It caught most of you. And the one that was false—I mean it was 56; I made it 556; I made it a lot more.

S: It was conceptually right, it was just an order of magnitude more. Good job, Perry.

P: I stumped you all.

E: Well done, well done.

P: Thank you very much.

J: I feel hoodwinked, so I'm not going to—

E: I'll be a little more wary of your Science or Fictions in the future, Perry.

P: As well you should. As well you should.

S: It was Perry's first time, so we'll give him a little bit of leeway on that.

P: It was. Don't forget my first question in that one C, in fact, was true, and I've just proven that with my Science or Fiction.

E: Now... did they drop one of these on Hiroshima or Nagasaki?

J: That was a hydrogen watch.

E: Oh of course. I'm sorry. My mistake.

P: It's actually highly interesting to read about the atomic clocks. You should go there. The US Naval Observatory site; it's actually "tycho.usno.navy.mil", but like I said, we'll get this link to the wrist watch so you can see it—I think it's quite comical—on our web page associated with this podcast. All right. That's it for (dramatically) Science or Fiction. Moving right along.

Two Views of American Education (37:57)[edit]

S: Let's move on to our next topic up for discussion. I wanted to talk about science education in America, a topic that we frequently deal with as skeptics. Our actual mission, if you read our mission statement, we are an educational organization. And the reason why we do the podcast and write articles is to promote science education. So it's something that we're very interested in. And there's a lot of American science education bashing that goes on, but there's a few different ways to look at our educational system. I think in general—and I think most scientists and educators agree with this—America is not doing a great job at science education. And if you look at standardized tests, we often rank near the bottom of industrialized nations in standardized science knowledge test scores. Now, there's a few caveats to that. In a lot of the foreign countries that we're comparing ourselves to, the students who take that test are more of a selective elite, not every student. So that skews the scores a little bit. And also, some other countries teach more towards that kind of standardized test than we do in this country. But even allowing for those kinds of quibbles, the bottom line is your average American coming out of high school with a high school science education has an abysmal knowledge of science. Absolutely abysmal. By any reasonable measure, about 95% of the American public is scientifically illiterate. And does not understand even basic concepts, like that the Earth takes a year to go around the sun, that atoms are smaller than molecules. You guys remember, by the way, when we gave that seminar to the science school teachers and we gave them a questionnaire covering a lot of just basic science facts, and they scored—now these are grade school science teachers, and their score on questions that, again, were designed to be very basic concepts in science, was just awful. They were like, most of them were less than 50%.

E: Well below average.

P: Didn't some of them get wrong that the Earth revolves around the sun?

S: In a year, yes. Or that atoms are smaller than molecules.

P: Yes, right, right.

B: But Steve, were they all science teachers?

S: Yes, they were all science teachers.

E: The full moon question, I remember, stood out. There was only—most, just like about 75 or 80% of them believed that the full moon had some kind of effect on—hospitals are busier during full moons, or something to that effect.

S: Yeah. We tested not only their knowledge of basic science facts, but their beliefs about certain paranormal claims. And often, more people believe in ESP than evolution, for example. So belief in paranormal topics tend to rank even higher than some basic knowledge facts. So that's what we're dealing with in this country. And, of course, it's easy to blame public school science education, and they do take a certain measure of the blame. I think it's also cultural and the mass media play a role. But, interestingly, there were two articles published in the last few weeks in Newsweek about education, so I thought we could talk about these two articles in this context. One was by Fareed Zakaria, who wrote about the comparison between the American educational system to other countries[3]. And although through basically the high school level, we rank very close to the bottom, especially in science and math, that the undergraduate and graduate education in this country is better than anywhere else in the world. That America still puts out the greatest number of top-notch scientists; we're still earning more Nobel Prizes in the sciences than any other country. Still on the cutting edge of research, et cetera, et cetera. Although there may be some trends... that may be trending down. We still have the best science education in the world. So why the disparity? Why is there such disparity? And what Fareed was talking about, if you really compare our educational system to Asian countries and some European countries, they really focus on a very rigorous program, where memorizing a great deal of facts is the approach that they take. Whereas the American system encourages more freedom of expression and teaching philosophies, et cetera. The Asian schools, in particular, actively discourage any creative thinking. They actively discourage questioning authority. So that means that they're good at memorizing facts that will serve them well on standardized tests, but they're not good when they get into the higher levels, at thinking creatively, which, of course, is critical to being a good scientist.

B: Steve, there's an expression. I'm not sure if it's a common expression—it might be Japan. The expression's interesting: "The nail that stands out gets hammered down."

S: That's the expression in China or Japan? Yeah.

B: Right. "The nail that stands out gets hammered down." Whereas in the United States, the somewhat equivalent expression would be "the leaky wheel gets the grease"—or the oil.

S: "The squeaky wheel gets the grease", right.

B: So it shows you the attitude—the cultural attitude towards that kind of thing.

P: We're said to be built on rugged individualism.

S: We certainly celebrate individualism and freedom of expression. And then it clearly has its value in—especially at the cutting edge of scientific thinking. And it's interesting, because I think that science incorporates both rigor and creativity. I think the best scientists certainly did their homework, have a vast body of knowledge, but also are not just slaves to rote memorization. They are able to challenge what they were taught, to look at things from a different point of view, to basically consider the possibility that what we think we know may be wrong in some way and to challenge it. So I think that as we examine our educational system and then sort of think of ways to improve it, we may want to learn a little bit from the rigor of other countries, but without sacrificing the freedom of expression that we celebrate in this part of the world. Although, again, most Americans who graduate from high school don't go into science careers. So the other thing that this leads to is the five percent or so of people who go into careers that deal with science are world class, but the other 95% are scientifically illiterate. And that's a big—almost exactly what you find when you survey scientific knowledge in this country, that the scientific literacy rate is about the same as the number of people who have some—who have careers that are somehow scientific. And that gap is increasing. It's just expanding over time.

P: Is five percent enough?

S: It's not. I don't think it is, because we're kind of losing our competitive edge in the globalization of the world market. Countries like China and India, first of all, who have huge populations, are investing incredibly in science education and technology and mathematics, et cetera, et cetera. Basically the same way that we did after Sputnik, you know, in the 1950s. There was a great emphasis in science education in this country and that led to, I think, a lot of the tech boom in the 90s and our current position competitively in the world. But now we're on the wane, and China and India are on the ascendancy, mainly because of this tremendous focus on science and technology education. So I think we really have to wake up in this country, and put more emphasis on it. I think not only do we need to continue to be able to train the best scientists in the world, I think we need a population that has a higher baseline of scientific literacy. And it's just not happening. I think a big part of the problem is the textbook industry. The textbook industry is just—the quality is just awful. Science textbooks are just terrible, all things considered.

B : Didn't they do a survey of science textbooks and found an abysmal number of errors?

S: Errors and plagiarism and just copying from older sources without doing original primary reference checking. They don't involve working scientists enough. There was a... about five years ago, there was a group of California scientists who basically volunteered to write the science standards and the textbook curriculum for the California science, you know, public schools. And they refused. They said, "no thanks; we don't need your help; we know what we're doing". You know, "we're educators; you're not". And that's just ridiculous. Just ridiculous.

E: Wow.

S: So, we're also dealing here with, I think, a separation between the education culture and the science culture. And that brings me to the second article[4] in Newsweek, which was written by George Will, another Newsweek columnist. And he was decrying the lack of value placed upon rigor and accuracy of content in favor of basically New Age-y concepts of diversity. And within the educational culture, which is definitely overrun with post-modernist philosophy, the idea is to focus on diversity and basically anything that people want to believe is just as good as anything else. And they really are focused almost entirely on just freedom of expression. And actually devalue facts or truth, as if there is no truth. Your truth is just as good as my truth; it's all subjective. And that's basically the core of post-modernist philosophy.

E: It's relativism, yeah.

S: Yeah. It's sort of extreme relativism applied to science. Which is, philosophically, completely illegitimate. But that's it, it's kind of embedded in the educational system in this country.

J: So, Steve, are you proposing anything? 'Cause I see two problems here. I see more money needed for schools and however that trickles down from the government and how it actually gets to the individual student, depending, you know—that's a huge topic. The other thing, though, is, you use the word "rigorous" and our teachers, I think—they definitely today are different than the way people were taught thirty years ago. And I think, what do you do about that? How do you inspire a nation of teachers to become more concerned... if anything, the parents, today's parents are moving the schools away from giving teachers any authority whatsoever; that's a huge problem. I think that the environment that kids are in while in school is very important to how well they learn, and today you have students beating up teachers.

S: There's lots of endemic problems in the educational system, but, just to sort of focus on science education, I don't think there's any simple solution. 'Cause again, part of the problem is embedded in the education infrastructure, in the education community. I think what we need is almost a complete rethinking and redesign of how science is taught in public schools in this country. A rewriting of the textbooks from the ground up that incorporate critical thinking from the get-go. Not just "this is what we believe" or "this is what we know". But teaching students—

B: How we know it.

S: Yeah, woven in from day one. This is how science works; this is how we know what we think we know, and this is how you test hypotheses to—basically, to try to make people skeptical, critical thinkers and how that applies to science. That's what's not being done. People are not being taught how to think scientifically.

P: Right. You have to teach people how to think critically so that they can filter out the endless information that they're bombarded with in this information age. If they don't have it, they won't have the proper filters and anything will get in.

S: That's right.

P: And there'll be a jumble. An absolute jumble.

S: And there's so much pseudoscience out there and it's indistinguishable to the layperson from real science. You know, people in white coats with letters after their names making scientific sounding claims, and you know, they're licensed by the government; they have all the trappings of science. The History Channel, the educational channels, the Discovery Channel, these sort of science-oriented educational television is—are putting together very slick documentaries, but the content is pure nonsense. Again, how is the public supposed to know that or filter that out? If they were never taught how science works, or even the nuts and bolts of critical thinking.

P: We emphasize the wrong things. I mean, there's so much emphasis on diversity. If you want people to embrace diversity, in my opinion, teach them about biology. And then they'll learn there's no difference between peoples all over the world. You know, how similar we are to chimpanzees and compared to each other, we're indistinguishable, practically. Biologically.

J: I think it's easier to direct this concern actually at parents than it is at the schools, because I honestly—if you asked me do you think it's even possible that the kind of government that we have now and the kind of atmosphere we have in this country is gonna make a dramatic change towards science and towards critical thinking... I honestly would think it's never gonna happen.

S: I don't know. I wouldn't be that pessimistic. Again, it happened after Sputnik. I think if our world dominance in science and technology starts to slip to India and China, there might be enough of a scare into saying "oh my god, we really have to reinforce our science education in this country." And then it would just take some sort of organization of scientists, skeptics, et cetera, saying, "well, this is what you need to do". I think most of the problem could actually be fixed. Most of it, if there was just a good, cohesive, well-written series of science textbooks that bring—that brought kids from grade school through high school. That really taught the major sciences: biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy; again, woven together with critical thinking and the process of science. That's really all it would take is just good first-class textbooks. Something we just don't have. And again, I think that would solve 90% of the problem. We also—I think that the teachers—part of the problem is that there's a lot of teachers who are not scientists; who don't have any real science background, teaching science classes. And this is something else that George Will descries, is the idea that teachers think that if they have an education degree, that qualifies them to teach anything, even subjects that they don't really understand well. And that's a big problem. I think we need to have—there should be a special certification in science before you can teach science, not just a generic education degree. You know, and if the science teachers were taught critical thinking—were taught what—more about the scientific method and how to teach science, that would be, I think—take us the rest of the way to basically fixing this problem. It's not impossible. It's not impossible.

J: I guess you're right. Maybe I shouldn't say it that way. I'm thinking of it on a national level, but you know what? It would be really interesting, Steve, if you went to the government of Connecticut, found the right person to speak to, and really tried to start a program like this. I wonder if you had the right person that had authority in that office, could you actually get something done? Would they be open to the ideas?

S: I don't know. I honestly don't know. But I think it would take—up front, you would need to have the raw material. You would need to have the textbooks, you know?

P: Yeah, exactly. You're not just talking about teaching a critical thinking class. It has to be in the books.

S: Yeah.

J: Someone's gotta write the book, though. And that costs money, and that's the problem; there's the rub.

S: Right. That's the major hurdle to get over first. And I think that working scientists who have a proven track record as educators and as people who can distill science information to the public should be the ones to write those textbooks. You know, the people who are really good at science writing.

P: Textbook industry's a huge lucrative industry.

S: It is. And it totally stinks when it comes to science. I mean, the quality is just really low.

B: Asimov wrote a physics textbook.

S: Yeah, I read it. It's awesome. He was an excellent science... in fact, he took a 20-year break from writing fiction just to write science. And he did a great job. Gould, obviously, did a great job in the biological end of the spectrum. What's his name—Steven Krauss, is an excellent writer. There are plenty. There are plenty of people out there who can distill this information, who can write textbooks. That is something that I think it would be really great for someone to spearhead. Just an effort to create high-quality science textbooks. But the textbook industry does not appear to be terribly interested in it at the moment.

Government and Wacky Science (55:40)[edit]

S: Well, failing at science education is not the only thing our government is good for. Bob, you have been looking into other government excesses in the areas of science and pseudoscience. Why don't you tell us about that?

B: Yeah, I'm really getting tired of reading these articles about these hot new ideas that the government's pouring tons of money into. A recent one came up—but I also went back into my notes for some of the ones that have popped up in the past few years. In the mid '90s, remember that remote viewing was a big topic. There was a declassified document that revealed that the government had spent millions of dollars—

S: Twenty million.

B: Twenty million dollars.

S: Twenty million.

B: Over twenty years, was it?

S: Yup.

B: It was a number of years—to see if psychics could use their powers to spy on the Soviet Union.

S: Yeah, this is the CIA. The CIA did this.

B: At one point they had as many as sixteen psychics employed by the government in the Stargate program.

J: Now that's a gig. What a job.

B: Right. Is that—

P: Why couldn't the NESS run that for them? In a year.

E: As Randi says, "Gee, I could have told them that that wouldn't work for a dollar seventy-five."

(laughter)

B: Exactly. I'll do it for a buck-fifty.

S: We'll do it for half that amount, right?

E: Exactly.

B: And then last year—I don't know if you guys remember last year—teleportation, or maybe closer towards the end of 2004, teleportation was a big topic. Various scientists around the world replicated experiments where certain properties of systems, like, say, photons or sub-atomic particles, were reproduced in one spot; the characteristics of the sub-atomic particle were reproduced instantaneously from one spot to the other. So they can, in a sense, teleport these characteristics from one place to another, and of course, people extrapolated that into things like, "Well, how soon before we can teleport people? And things like that.

S: Like Star Trek.

B: Like Star Trek.

P: Tighten up the screws on the Heisenberg compensators?

B: Yeah, right? So the government spent $25,000 on a report written by theoretical physicist Dr. Eric—Eric—oh I have a typo here, Dr. Eric Davis. And he evaluated different ways that teleporting objects can work. And, luckily, I mean, at first I was like, "oh my god, we got a physicist who's saying that this teleportation is real?" And he was reasonable when it came to the physics. And he mentions things like Lawrence Krauss pointed out in one of his Star Trek books, that to teleport a person like the transporter in Star Trek is just—is really just totally nuts. You gotta consider the amount of information in a human person—in a human body, is like 1028 kilobytes, is what Krauss estimates. 1028, that's a lot of kilobytes. To try to put that in context, he said imagine—I'm modernizing it a little bit, he said ten-gigabyte hard drives. Nowadays it's more 100 gigabyte hard drives. So picture a hundred-gigabyte hard drive ten centimeters tall, and you're stacking 'em up to store all the information needed to recreate with good fidelity a human being. You'd have to stack these hard drives for a thousand light years.

J: (laughs)

B: A thousand light years! OK? So it's a lot of information.

E: Better start now.

B: And there's other facts, you know. You'd have to heat the body to an incredible temperature, turn it to like a quark soup, I mean. So he kind of says, "well, that's kinda far in the future, if even feasible at all". So I was kinda happy when I heard that he said that. But then he goes into—now, the one thing I'm really interested in is psychic teleportation.

J: Oh, man.

P: What???

B: Which I didn't even—I didn't even hear about this. I didn't know about this. Apparently there's some experiment in China—they did some research, and they got these kids, these crazy kids. And it says, he claims their research shows that "gifted children", in quotes, "gifted children" were able to cause the apparent teleportation of small objects: radio microtransmitters, photosensitive paper, mechanical watches, horseflies, other insects, like through solid objects. Psychically!

J: And these kids were able to make hamburgers disappear into their mouths.

B: So this is what this guy believes in and the government's paying him $25,000.

J: Bob, at least it was only 25 grand.

B: Yeah, right?

P: I've heard of psychic Bigfeet, OK. But psychic kids? That's ridiculous!

B: OK, so then, most recently, to get a little more up to date, the government—let's see, what does it say here? "The U.S. military is considering testing the principle behind a new type of space drive." It's called a hyper-drive that they're looking into and it sounds interesting. I'm like, "oh! OK. Cool. Maybe a new type of rocket technology that—so we can get to Mars in less than six months, something more reasonable". And this all came about because the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics—they have an annual conference. And at this conference every year they have prizes for the best papers. One of the categories is "Nuclear and Future Flight Category". There was a paper that somebody submitted called "Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device Based on Heim's Quantum Theory". So it turns out that this theory is kinda out there. The paper was written by two guys, a physicist and a retired Austrian patent officer, Jochem Häuser, and the other guy was Walter Dröscher, and they based their paper on this guy, this German scientist from the '50s, who kind of was trying to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics. Not an easy thing to do. Something that we can't even do yet. But he's trying to reconcile it and he came up with an idea of a theoretical six-dimensional universe, tacking on two sub-dimensions to our dimensions. Now, of course, what are people gonna call this? Sub-space, right?

S: Sub-space. Right.

B: Right, he comes up with these sub-dimensions. So, essentially, I mean I'll try to give you the gist of this. These two new sub-dimensions essentially fuse gravitation and electro-magnetism. And then these two other guys, these two other physicists kinda added—they felt like, you know, two more dimensions isn't enough. Let's add a couple more dimensions on here.

P: Sub-space is my favorite fictional space.

S: (chuckles)

B: So these guys added two more dimensions, and they kinda figured out—I'm not sure how—that when you add these two more dimensions you get some wacky new forces. And these forces let you do things like—let's see, I'm trying to give an accurate description. The article I read said that he's hazy about the details, of course. I'm not surprised there. But he suggests that if you fit a spacecraft with a coil and a ring—a magnetic coil and a rotating ring around the coil, I believe, that you could propel the ship into multi-dimensional hyperspace.

S: There you go.

B: And here the constants of nature would be different. Obviously, right? The constants would have to be different in this multi-dimensional hyperspace. And he said that maybe the speed of light could be even several times faster than we experience, and based on that, he thinks that you could do things like: reach Mars in less than three hours, and a star eleven light years away in only 80 days. Now I did some calculations. If you're gonna reach a star that's eleven light years away in 80 days, that's 66 trillion miles. You'd have to travel 34.4 billion miles an hour, or 9.5 million miles a second.

E: Now that's a speeding ticket.

B: Which is approximately 51 times the speed of light. So here he's saying "maybe you can go three times the speed of light", but then he's throwing out these destinations that you can hit in 80 days, but you'd have to go 51 times the speed of light. And that's assuming instantaneous acceleration.

S: That's warp 51!

E: Is there any other science fiction show terminology he'd like to throw in here? Hyperspace?

J: Did he also end this article by saying you can get a great pastrami sandwich in this subspace?

(laughter)

P: Thank God that's solved.

E: How much of my taxes paid for this?

B: There is some sanity in here. Some skeptics looked at this and they looked at Heim's theory and they said they could not make any sense of what these two guys were talking about.

J: I barely could make sense of what you were saying, let alone—

E: (chuckles) Exactly.

P: Grade schoolers could have looked at that and told them there was...

B: Another theoretical physicist, Marcus Pössel, I believe it's pronounced—he looked at their work and he said that it's largely incomprehensible and difficult to tie in with today's physics.

S: That's because it's so far advanced beyond what anyone else knows.

E: Oh, those wacky Austrians.

B: I mean, so the government's actually considering this? Can't they just talk to a physicist and say, "what do you think about this?" and he'd say this is complete nonsense. And you have this—you have the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics giving a prize to these guys. I mean, shouldn't there be papers on something that's somewhat reasonable, like say a nuclear engine? Something that shows real promise.

S: It should be getting the Hugo Award for best science fiction.

B: Yeah, right?

P: The government will fund anything if you have the guts to ask for it.

J: I have an interesting thing that I just want to throw out there real quick.

E: Sure, Jay.

E: Isn't it disturbing to you to think that the government just doesn't have a roomful of highly specialized, very, very, very educated and intelligent, respected scientists at their beck and call to answer questions like this? There should be a door in the White House that you open up and you walk into a room filled with the fifty most intelligent scientists on the planet. But no... literally, who is giving our government advice?

S: Well you know George Bush disbanded the Office of Science and Technology. There was, in fact, an organization to do just that, to advise the Federal government, the Executive branch specifically, on matters of science and technology and he—

E: What, it was getting in the way of his religious beliefs and that's why he got rid of it?

(laughter)

S: They were talking about things like global warming and stuff that he thought was inconvenient, so

J: What, did he, like, pop his head into the room and go, "who the hell are these guys? Get rid of 'em."

S: (laughter) Congress had also a science and technology sort of advisory group or whatever. I don't know if they've been doing anything. Or if they're still active. So, basically there isn't anyone right now who's advising the government on matters of science and technology.

E: Dr. Strangelove.

S: (chuckles) Dr. Strangelove. There's a bit of human psychology at work here that I think sheds some light on it. There is good psychological literature, mainly dealing with the psychology of gambling, that suggests that the way we're hard-wired, human beings more greatly fear missing out on some boon, on some benefit, than they do—than they fear either losing or wasting money or resources on something. In other words, we'd rather—that's why we buy lotto tickets, right? 'Cause we're more worried about not winning the lotto than we are worried about wasting money on losing tickets. So—then you apply that same psychology to this kind of thing: well, why would the government spend $25,000 on some totally wacky far-fetched technology? Well, 'cause they're more worried about it not working. Missing out on—we're missing out on real technology, than they are worried about wasting the $25,000. That's, I think, also why—that's part of the appeal of alternative medicine. The fact that it sounds wacky and may be extremely low plausibility, people don't want to miss out on the miracle cure. They're more worried about missing out on the miracle cure than they are worried about wasting time, resources and effort on something that may not work. So, I think, of course, being aware of that psychology is the first step to transcending it. To sort of not falling into that trap of, again, wasting resources on things that either can't possibly work or probably won't work, just because we're hard-wired to fear missing out on the great possibilities.

P: Yes. I mean, you know, you don't want to be an a priori skeptic, but some things are just nonsense on their face.

S: Well, you know, it's not being an a priori skeptic to assess the prior possibility or the plausibility of a claim, and to say, "well, my threshold for belief in this is extremely high, because it's so inherently implausible". 'Cause we do know stuff. You know, we're not starting from ground zero in terms of our scientific knowledge. We can thoughtfully, intelligently and based upon prior evidence and knowledge make an assessment about how likely it is for something to be true or not true.

So that brings us to the end of our show. We are out of time. Guys, thanks again for joining me.

P: Thank you.

J: Good to be back.

B: Welcome back, Jay.

S: Jay, welcome back. Perry, good job on Science or Fiction. We enjoyed it.

P: Thank you.

S: 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 www.theness.com. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


References[edit]

  1. SGU Episode 3: Science or Fiction
  2. LeapSecond.com: First Atomic Clock Wristwatch
  3. The Daily Beast: We All Have a Lot to Learn, Jan 8, 2006
  4. Found at FrontPageMag.com: Educators vs. Education, Jan. 16, 2006
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