SGU Episode 29

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SGU Episode 29
February 8th 2006
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SGU 28 SGU 30
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]

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, February 8th, 2006. This is your host Stephen Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me today are Bob Novella ...

B: Hello.

S: Evan Bernstein ...

E: Hello, everyone.

S: Perry DeAngelis ...

P: Righto!

S: And joining us again is Jay Novella.

J: I'm back, my brothers.

E: Hi, Jay.

S: Welcome everyone.

P: Welcome back.

S: Good evening.

E: Welcome.

News[edit]

Early T Rex Relative Discovered (0:47)[edit]

S: So a couple of interesting news items this week. Scientists have discovered the earliest ancestor of Tyrannosaurus Rex. T. Rex is obviously the most famous dinosaur. It's the one that kids love. So they found a T. Rex ancestor unearthed in China. The Chinese have dubbed this species guanlong[1], which means crowned dragon. So this is a smaller, obviously much smaller than the T. Rex.

P: That's right. T. Rex is cool because he's like a real dragon.

S: Yeah, he's huge.

P: A monster.

S: This is a smaller ancestor, with a crown crest on its head. They think that may have only belonged to the males and may have been a device for attracting females. A lot of theropod dinosaurs have been discovered in China.

B: China rocks!

S: Yeah.

E: I was just going to say there's been a lot of fossil discoveries, especially lately, coming out of China. Some pretty important stuff.

S: Right.

S: Yeah. That's where all the feathered dinosaurs are coming from, which of course are theropod dinosaurs. They're related to – in the same group as T. Rex. Those are the two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs.

J: Well, labor's cheap out there. They've probably got 20,000 guys digging, you know?

S: Well that's part of it, but with fossil finds it's all about finding a geological strata that is well-preserved and that dates to a specific period of time. And it has to be accessible. So either it's in a cavern, or it has eroded to the surface, whatever. So different locations are essentially different windows into a specific period in the past. Paleontologists are always hunting for new windows to periods of time – times and places that we haven't seen before. So they just found an excellent window into a period of time when theropod dinosaurs were abundant, and they've been just pulling tremendous numbers of fossils out of the ground. It's great.

E: It's also good that the government, which is not exactly the freest government on earth, allows this sort of scientific activity to happen.

S: Right.

E: And what is basically – sounds like pretty open means.

P: Well, there's no political content to it. That's why.

S: Right. Especially for an atheistic country.

E: Sure.

S: And also there's still a certain amount of international prestige associated with scientific discovery.

B: Unfortunately though, China's also probably one of the most notorious areas for forged fossils as well.

S: Yes. There has been at least one forged feathered dinosaur fossil, which was sniffed out by the paleontologists. They did not fool the experts, but because they essentially pay people when they find fossils, it's a good way to get people out there digging for fossils, but it also creates a market for fakes. So paleontologists have to be on the lookout.

J: How hard is it, Steve, to get a fake past a real scientist for a long amount of time?

Piltdown Man (3:55)[edit]

S: It will never hold up. It will never hold up for a significant amount of time, especially now. A hundred years ago, 120 years ago, when there were fewer gold standard specimens to compare it to, it was easier. There was the famous Piltdown Man, although that was – again, there were very few human fossils at the time – this was around 19- – I think it was 1911 when that was dug up, and so there was nothing really to compare it to, and it fit the preconceptions of what scientists at the time thought that an early human should look like, basically a primitive body and advanced cranial capacity. So, basically, the forger, whoever it was, took a human skull and an orang-utan jaw, and then filed away the parts where they connect together, so you couldn't test to see that they actually connected to each other.

B: And he stained it, I believe.

S: He acid stained it, aged it, and it got past the initial inspection. But the thing that most people don't realize is that those fossils as soon as they were discovered, casts were made of them. The original fossils were locked away, and that the scientific community really only had the opportunity to investigate the casts, the copies.

E: Oh, that makes sense.

S: They never really got their hands on the original fossils. And then, of course, what happened over the next 20 years or so – 20, 30 years – as more, slowly, more hominid fossils were dug up, they started to look more and more different from Piltdown Man. Piltdown Man became marginalized to the point where by 20 to 30 years after it was discovered, everyone was basically ignoring it. It was a total outlier. It had no relationship with all the real fossils that were being dug up, until someone finally said "This just isn't right. This can't be right." So they got the real fossils out of the vault, they drilled through the bone, and once you get down through the aged surface, it was not fossilized – actually bone, not fossilized bone beneath that. So the skull was maybe hundreds of years old.

J: There's that pesky scientific method again.

S: So that was that. Today of course there's many more fossils. People are much more on the lookout. There's much more technology to assess the actual, original bones, so it'd be much more difficult to get a fraud. With the feathered dinosaur fraud, they were real fossils, but they were combined from different specimens in order to make it appear as if the dinosaur had feathers.

J: So, Steve, what you're saying is they "Look at the bones!".

S: "Look at the bones."

(laughter)

S: You got to go to the original evidence.

B: Steve, didn't National Geographic showcase those forged fossils at one point?

S: Well they had one issue, which is a great issue, that showcased about a dozen species of feathered dinosaurs, and lots of specimens, but that was just one of them that was thrown in there that had to be later recanted.

B: But also the Piltdown man case also showcases how human psychology plays into science, because the forgery fit into the contemporary conception ...

S: Yes.

B: ... of what like this would look like to such a degree that people accepted it, probably in hindsight far too readily, especially when you consider that tests that were available at that time would have easily detected ...

S: Right. But they didn't look.

B: ... the methods. But they didn't look. Of course they were locked down, which would have made it harder, but it would have been very easy to ...

S: Yeah.

B: ... shut it down permanently.

S: There were two things about the Piltdown Man fossils that made them so emotionally acceptable to the scientific community at the time. The first is that they were discovered in England, and the English scientific committee – of course there was a certain amount of national pride to say that man evolved in England. And it also reinforced a lot of the racial prejudices at the time, that the more advanced human species evolved essentially in Western Europe. So it fit the prejudice of the time. The other thing was, again, people had the conception that the human ancestors that were sort of like halfway between ape and man would've had a human-like brain in an ape-like body. That was the conception, and that's what Piltdown Man was. If fact, what we discovered was very human-like bodies with very ape-like brains. The truth turned out to be the opposite of what the preconception was.

J: You know, also that guy when he created that fake, in order to really sell it, that it came from England, he gave it horrible teeth.

S: That's right.

B: Oh, Jesus. ... (laughs)

S: In the second find, there was an elephant bone that looked suspiciously like a cricket bat, to the point were people joked about it, and, in retrospect, they thought it was just a coincidence, and they sort of joked about it "Ah, look, Piltdown Man played cricket." But in retrospect, the people have speculated that maybe that was supposed to be a clue that it was a fake, that it actually was intentionally a real cricket bat in there.

Low-Fat Diet Study (9:04)[edit]

S: The next item that caught my interest this week is a study that was just published: a low-fat diet may not reduce cancer or heart attack risks. Now this was a huge epidemiological study involving nearly 50,000 post-menopausal women.

E: Wow!

P: I'd like to take this moment here to say for all fat people of the world: "We told you so."

S: Well not too quick. Not too quick.

P: Continue.

S: Basically what they did was they divided the women into two groups. They gave one group counseling specifically for a reduced fat diet, and then the other women went on eating whatever their usual diet was. They followed them for eight years, and they did not find any statistically significant difference between their incidence of heart disease or breast cancer or colon cancer. And the reason why they were following those specific things is because there were earlier, smaller studies, which suggested there may be a benefit to either colorectal or breast cancer with a low-fat diet. So, this is a larger, longer study, so the best data we have now indicates that there is no generic advantage to a low-fat diet for those specific diseases.

P: I believe this is often referred to as the Rolls-Royce of studies, is it not, Steven.

S: You mean ...

P: Because of the size and the $415 million budget.

S: This is a big study.

P: Three times today I heard it referred to as the Rolls-Royce of studies.

S: Now there are some details to the study that are worth noting in terms of interpreting the implications of the study. One is that the women were followed for eight years. Now that seems like a long time, and it certainly is a long study, but for diet/health risk factors, much longer period of times may be needed. This doesn't say what 20 years of a low-fat diet would do. The second thing is that although the women were given counseling on a low-fat diet, there really wasn't any way to validate that they were actually eating a low-fat diet.

J: Duh!

E: I'm sure they took that into account, though.

S: Well, how can you, except to say that you don't know what they were actually doing.

B: That's ridiculous!

S: The third thing, and this is the biggest thing for me, especially with the heart disease, is that the women, although they were counseled to have a low-fat diet, they were not counseled about good fat and bad fat. In other words ...

P: That's because the study was done in the eighties – was constructed in the eighties.

S: Right. Now since then, certainly is the last five to ten years, what has been discovered is that an overall lower fat diet actually, if anything, may increase your heart risk, your cardiovascular risk. That in fact it's much more important to have the good cholesterol, the HDL cholesterol, what you would find in nuts and vegetables, and a reduced amount of the LDL, or the animal fat cholesterol or fat in your diet. So therefore the study is basically obsolete because it took so long to design and carry out that they counseled women to do something that is not what the current recommendations are. So anyway ...

B: But Steve, there's another point.

S: Yeah.

B: They might have been counseled to have a low-fat diet, but what about – but that doesn't mean you are fit.

S: Right.

B: You can have a low-fat diet but still eat tons of other stuff and be overweight and unfit.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: Right.

B: I would say a low-fat diet is just a means, part of a program which also includes exercise to get fit, and being fit is what would prevent all those things.

S: Yeah.

E: Oh, right. There not saying anything about weight, here. There's no indication whatsoever in some of these women ...

S: Right.

E: ... are obviously going to be larger than the other.

S: Sometimes we do studies which are called an intention to treat study, and it's basically designed to see if health care providers do a certain intervention, what's the bottom line end result in the real world with real people and their compliance rates, etc. Not in the artificial world of a study where you're monitoring things very closely. Does that make sense? So for example, if I as a physician write 100 prescriptions for aspirin to prevent heart attacks, what's going to be the actual real-world result of that intervention, as opposed to verifying that I have a hundred study patients on a specific dose of aspirin and verifying their compliance, etc., etc.

E: Do they measure compliance rates of studies? I mean is there an average that you can kind of guess at?

S: There are ways to measure compliance. One is just to ask patients, "Were you compliant?". And there are more sophisticated methods. There are some studies that incorporated putting computer chips into the caps of the pills that you give patients, and it records every time you take the cap off and put it back on the bottle.

P: That's... yeah.

E: There are ways around that, too.

S: And then you could also... for drugs that can be measured in the blood, you could measure their blood levels of the drug to make sure they are taking it and how much. So anyway there's a lot of limitations of the implications of this study, and some of the articles I've read in the lay press cover that. This one is breaking news from the newscientist.com, so this is a good outlet, quotes people who know how to interpret the study, for example Judy O'Sullivan at the British heart foundation told the BBC that "The diet didn't reflect current advice for good heart health such as salt reduction, increasing intake of good fats such as those in oily fish, and increasing exercise." So it doesn't really mean that fat is okay or that the current advice is not working. It just means that just reducing total fat is not the shortcut to reduced risk in these areas: colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and heart disease. So it's unfortunate because it doesn't really add that much to what we already know because, again, the specific advice they were testing is already a little obsolete, but it's also likely to confuse the public by the way the lay press may boil it down to "Low-fat is not healthy, after all."

E: Right.

S: Sort of the incorrect bottom line to take away from this.

Website Reviews (15:36)[edit]

S: I thought we would review a couple of websites this week. Occasionally in the past we've drawn attention to some good science websites or skeptical websites. Evan, you sent me both of these. These are two excellent sites which focus on myths in science or myths taught as science or in science textbooks.

E: I was doing just a little research and I typed into Google basic science questions. I wanted to see just what was kind of being taught to elementary school kids, to middle school kids, and of course I came across a couple of these sites, and it just even took me by surprise. There's a couple of basic things here that I always thought or I was taught that were true. Boy did I find out I was wrong all these years.

S: Yeah.

E: Even us skeptics or people who understand science still have a lot to learn, even on some of the most basic principles of science.

B: Maybe you.

S: Heh, heh.

E: Maybe me. But I was surprised.

Modern Myths Taught As Science (16:42)[edit]

S: A lot of these are – basically the website, the first one we are looking at is Modern Myths Taught as Science by Kenneth Fuller[2]. He has about 20 or so common statements that are probably widely believed, but are subtly incorrect. For example, the notion that heat rises. If you ask people "Does heat rise?", most people would say yes, and there is, of course, a kernel of truth there, but it gets boiled down in the way that it's taught so that you've missed the real essence of the underlying scientific principles. In fact, heat has no tendency – heat itself does not rise or fall or anything. Heat simply spreads from hotter things to cooler things. That's just basic thermodynamics. Whatever direction that involves. It is true that warmer air will tend to rise above cooler air, relatively warmer versus relatively cooler, because it's lighter. The air with molecules with the greater energy will tend to be on average a little bit farther apart and therefore a little bit lighter. Lighter gases or fluids will tend to rise above heavier gases or fluids. So, again, there's some truth to it, but the real underlying scientific principles are distorted by this oversimplification. And he gives a lot of excellent examples of that. Actually if you guys recall just the other day we were chatting about this one: the Earth rotates exactly once in 24 hours.

E: Yup.

S: And in fact, that's not quite true, because the earth also travels around the sun in a day, and therefore has to rotate an extra degree to put the sun back into the same position. So a solar day, the time it takes for the the sun to go from noon to noon, is 24 hours, but the time it takes for the earth to rotate around once is slightly less than 24 hours.

J: But not the earth rotating around the sun as in regard to a year.

S: Yeah, but that's revolving around the sun. The word rotate refers to on its axis and revolving refers to the sun... going around the sun. So, that's the difference between a solar day and what we call a sidereal day. So the time it takes for a star to go from the same position back to the exact same position is like 23 hours and 56 minutes. It's an extra 4 minutes to get the sun back into position, because we've gone around the Sun a little bit during that day of our orbit.

E: Right.

S: So it's subtle things like that that are taught slightly incorrectly.

P: The taste map of the tongue was wrong? I didn't know that.

S: That's true.

B: I heard that.

S: That is incorrect. That is based, however, on – it's a misinterpretation of what's really going on. What the map of the tongue is based on is there are differences in the different parts of tongue, but it has to do with the innervation. Different nerves supply different parts of the tongue, but that doesn't mean that the taste is evenly segregated. Taste is not evenly distributed around the tongue, but there aren't these just discreet zones where you can only taste one like salt in one place or sour in another.

E: I recall learning that a real long time ago. It was either elementary school or middle school, and I never thought that that sounded – that never sounded right to me.

S: Yeah.

E: Right? That you couldn't taste something bitter in the back of the tongue or the side of the tongue. It just never sat right with me.

S: It's really easy to test it out yourself, because we all have tongues.

P: Right (laughs).

E: Most of us have tongues.

P: I remember seeing the diagrams in school.

S: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

E: Well, that must be true.

J: It's very important information. We all need to know exactly why and where the tongue tastes what.

P: The geography of my tongue is very important.

J: I've got to tell you: to this day, to this very second, I still kind of believed it.

S: Yeah, well, why not? You were taught in schools, you see the picture in a textbook, you never have an occasion to hear the real information, so why wouldn't you? The one caveat though to testing the taste yourself is that if you put a little bit of sugar in one part of your tongue, if it dissolves and spreads through your saliva to the rest of the tongue, then that's not a good test. That's something we have to be careful about. There are times when as part of the neurological exam I may need to be able see if somebody can taste on one side of their tongue versus the other. And you have to be careful not let them swish it around their mouth.

E: Hm.

S: But anyway ...

P: Are there neurological disorders that just relate to the tongue, Steve?

S: Oh, sure. The tongue has nerve supply. It's a muscle. You can have the inability to taste, or paralysis of the tongue, just like anything else.

P: Wow!

S: Usually those are in the nerves, just because the innervation of the brain is redundant bilaterally, so ...

E: My father suffered from diabetes, advanced diabetes later in his life, and started to lose his ability to taste.

S: Right.

E: And ...

P: Really?

E: Yeah. For the last few years of his life he had a hard time distinguishing taste that he used to, and he was a chef, so he had a very good palette for such things. He lost it as the years went on.

J: Oh, my God!

S: Although most of that was probably really his smell. Most of what we think of as taste is actually our olfactory sense, the first cranial nerve, not our taste buds. Taste buds are pretty dumb. They can taste salt, savory, sweet, sour, bitter, and all of the other richness of flavor and subtleties of flavor is really all smell.

B: If you hold your nose you cannot distinguish – and close your eyes, you cannot distinguish between an apple and onion.

S: Right.

P: Really?

S: Both are equally sweet.

J: As long as I never lose my taste for meat balls, I'll be fine.

E: A nice calamari.

B: I'm there with you, Jay.

E: How about this butterfly emerges from a cocoon myth. Apparently.

S: Yeah. Well, again, the butterfly has a chrysalis, which is an outer coating, but it does not weave a silk cocoon around itself. Only moths do that.

E: I saw that in a cartoon, once. What are you talking about?

(laughter)

S: Right after the tongue cartoon they had the ...

S: Right.

P: ... the butterfly cartoon in fifth grade.

Science Myths in K-6 Textbooks and Popular Culture (23:12)[edit]

S: Now the other website, which is closely related, is Science Myths in K-6 Textbooks and Popular Culture[3]. Again the URLs you'll find on our website on the notes page to this podcast. You can also just search on those titles and you'll find them. And this is the same thing, but basically looking at the quality of the content in text books, which is universally awful. Now one particular item caught my attention, and this was an article written by Dr. Richard Feynman. Now, Feynman was an excellent physicist and an excellent science teacher, a popularizer of understanding in physics. And this is an article he wrote in 1964, which was published by the Textbook League, which apparently is an independent group that is like a watchdog group on the quality of textbooks[4]. I actually e-mailed them to try to get somebody on our show, but they did not respond. But maybe we'll get them on a future show, because this is certainly a topic that we can come back to.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: But this article – I read the whole thing – it really caught my attention. Basically Feynman is describing his experience on a California committee to evaluate math and science textbooks for their quality control for their public school system. And to give you the highlights, he says that first of all the other people on the committee had no idea what they were doing. They were not scientists or mathematicians. They were just educators or administrators, but they didn't have any knowledge base from which to draw in order to assess the actual content of these books.

P: Like most school boards.

S: Right. Right. The other thing was that when he was added to the committee, he got sent all the textbooks to evaluate. The publishers called him to "help him evaluate their books." Basically they wanted to explain to him the content of the books, and he ...

B: To Feynman.

S: Right, to Feynman. He said "I'll judge the books by themselves. I'm sure they speak for themselves." And didn't speak with them. When he reviewed the books with the committee, his assessment was very different from a lot of the other people on the committee. There was one book in particular that he didn't even get and that other people had rated. It turns out that this one company which had three books, one of the books was not ready at the deadline for the review, so they sent the cover of the book with blank pages in between, and like eight out of the 12 committee members reviewed the book that had blank pages in it, which basically means that they submitted a review based entirely on what they were told by the publisher. And they were surprised in the meeting to find out that the book actually had blank pages in it. They obviously never cracked the book ...

P: Pathetic.

S: ... to actually take a look at it.

E: Horrible.

S: Feynman was very disgusted that that's what he was dealing with, and then the other thing that happened was just bureaucratically, once they did make their recommendations, and then it went to the next step where they decided to change the budget, so they had to go back and alter their recommendations based upon the changes in the budget. And the whole process was reversed, and in the end he ended up resigning in disgust. But he tells – his description of the textbooks still holds true today. And the criticisms basically are that the people writing these textbooks don't know what they're talking about, and they get everything wrong. Everything is just not quite right. All of the science is just either subtly or grossly incorrect, and this relates to, again, it reinforces what we had discussed in a previous episode was the idea that the education community thinks that they could teach science because they're educators, even though they don't understand the science itself. And basically what Feynman's impression of these textbooks were was exactly that: that you cannot teach a subject you don't understand. You'll always get it just a little bit wrong. So unfortunately that is still the state of things. Now what I'm interested in is what this group is up to, this Textbook League is doing. Are they an advocacy group, or do they just publish articles, or are they actually trying to lobby school boards, or textbook companies, or whatever? It would be interesting to see what they're up to. So hopefully we'll get a representative on our show in the future.

J: This topic is very disturbing.

S: Absolutely.

J: Actually, I think back to when I was in school, and my favorite books that I got were my science books. Those are the ones that I was interested in most, and I probably spent the most time actually reading things in those books that weren't assigned to me, and to think back on the fact that those books could have been riddled with misinformation actually really upsets me.

S: Right. Absolute misinformation. So how can you expect the public to learn the real science? Here's one example that he gives: there was a book on – a chapter on energy, and it showed a windup toy, a kid on a bike, and a plant growing, and said "What makes all these things go?" And he's like OK, I can see where they are going with this. This is a discussion that I have with my students, my father had with me: the idea that this spring makes a toy go, but somebody has to wind up the spring, and basically whoever winds up the spring has to get their energy from their food, the food gets its energy from the sun, and the basic scientific concept that is important in all this is that energy is never created or lost. Energy just transforms from one state to another, and in doing so, going from more concentrated to more diffuse energy, it can do work, but it also becomes more diffuse and gets used up in that process, but it doesn't go away, just turns into, ultimately, into just dissipated heat energy, which can't do any work. But those scientific concepts were completely missing from this chapter, and as he turned the page, the answer was "What makes the wind-up toy go? Energy makes it go." What made the boy on the bicycle? Energy makes it go. And that was it, just a word, "energy", with no understanding of exactly what was happening or thermodynamics or the concept of work or heat or anything. And it was just completely vacuous.

B: Steve, was it designed for kindergartners?

S: No, no. This was ...

E: No.

S: It was grade school. It was at an appropriate age when they should have been learning about things like the principles like we discussed: energy is not created or destroyed, but just transforms from one state to another. I think even very young children can understand basic concepts like that. There's no reason not to teach it to them correctly from the beginning. So that was one example, but everything was like that. The real scientific concepts were missing, and they were replaced by these watered-down, vacuous, nonsense, basically.

J: So where is the almighty United States government helping in this regard? You'd figure that they would want to be involved in things like this to guard against it.

S: Well, in the State of the Union address Bush talked the talk about supporting science education[5], but there's nothing concrete there. So it remains to be seen.

J: Of course, whatever he has to say about science we'd better listen.

S: Right.

E: He learned years ago that it was energy that made everything go.

S: This is our president who endorses intelligent design.

P: Now, now. He's a scientific boob, we know that.

S: He doesn't have a good track record. But anyway, the other thing is that the federal government has no control over what get taught in schools. That's controlled at the state level, so we have to fight the 50 battles in 50 states. That the states have the science standards. The science standards are were the big fight – that was the big battleground a few years ago over evolution, starting with Kansas State School Board removing both evolution and the Big Bang from their state science standards, which of course dictates what gets taught in class, which dictates what the textbook publishers put in their textbooks. But, of course, that was then reversed a couple of years – a year later, and then it was reinstated, I believe, when yet another school board was elected. So that is still an active battleground at the state level, not at the federal level.

Email[edit]

Novella Brothers (32:12)[edit]

S: Well, let's go on to – I have one e-mail this week. I like to read your e-mails on the podcast. This one is from an individual whose I think this is their first name A-U-K-E.

E: Auke!

S: Auke. I guess that's pronounced Auke.

E: Auke.

S: Auke writes: "Hi. I stumbled across your podcast web page a few weeks back, and I'm addicted. Congratulations to you and the podcast crew on a job well done. I come from a town called {{w|Stellenbosch} near Cape Town, South Africa." Then they write "Curious minds need to know these things. How are you related to the other Novellas? I guess calling you a trilogy wouldn't be a novel joke to you. Regards, Auke."

B: Actually, thank you Auke.

E: Thank you.

S: Actually, I did e-mail them back. Jay, Bob, and I are all brothers.

E: You are?

P: The truth is out. The secret's out.

S: The secret is out. We are all bros, which I think we've said briefly on the show before, but I don't think we spelled it out.

B: I haven't heard the term trilogy, but here's a quick little anecdote that was funny. Steve, do you remember in high school? We were in high school, and there was a girl in high school that actually thought that Steve and I were the same person, until she saw us together.

S: Right. Something like six months. Went through six months of the school year thinking we were the same person, until we were both in the same room together.

J: No, guys, think if you knew that she thought that, you could have messed with her so bad. There was so much potential fun there and you blew it.

P: If they were devious just like you, Jay.

S: She didn't know it until the gig was up, though.

J: Actually, there is yet another Novella brother that doesn't do the podcast.

S: That's right. There's a lot of us.

P: Sadly he was abducted by a UFO and cannot join us ...

B: That's our brother Joe!

P: ... on our weekly podcast.

Science Or Fiction (34:11)[edit]

S: Let's go on to a Science Or Fiction.

E: All right!

S: Each week, we come up with three science news items or facts. Two are science, one is fiction. I will challenge my panel of skeptics to see if they can figure out which one it is. This week there is a theme. The theme is animals. These are three facts about animals. Ready?

J: Go ahead.

E: Ready.

S: Number one: a recent study shows that large numbers of coyotes infest American cities, hunting at night, largely undetected.

Item number two: scientists have discovered that animals can infect other animals with cancer through their bite.

Item number three: a new species of lizard was discovered in the jungles of New Guinea that gives birth to live young.

Evan, why don't you go first?

E: I was reading some stuff about New Guinea earlier this week. I don't know specifically if that was one of the discoveries they made on the remote New Guinea island, on which they discovered quite a few new species of stuff, so I'll tend to think that one's true. Number two, a bite that causes cancer. Eeeee! I don't know. That one sounds really far-fetched. However Steve, knowing you, you found something to make the most crazy sounding one probably true, so therefore, based on that, I'm going to guess number one is in fact fiction.

S: Number one. OK, Jay, why don't you go next?

J: Well, I know for certain number one isn't fiction, because I know that there are coyotes everywhere across the United States, and they're one of the number one reasons why people lose their pets, which is interesting.

S: Right. Although this specifically says that they're infesting cities.

J: Then I take that back, I don't really go for that. I must have been sleeping when you said it.

S: Let me reread. A recent study shows that large numbers of coyotes infest American cities, hunting at night, largely undetected.

J: I took that kind of as cities – I live in the city of Danbury, Connecticut.

S: No, it's big cities, in the middle of urban areas, not ...

J: You didn't say that.

S: Yeah.

J: You weren't quite clear with that.

S: Let me clarify.

J: OK. So, I would go with the lizard one as being false.

S: Any particular reason?

J: I have absolutely no information on the cancer-causing bite. I couldn't even begin to comment on it. It sounds a little hokey to me, but for some reason I think that's the one that you're trying to stump us on, so I'm going to go with the lizard one as being fake.

S: All right, so we got one for the coyotes in American cities, and one for the new lizard giving birth to live young. Perry?

P: Well, the first one sounds perfectly reasonable. That sounds true. The New Guinea one, my first inclination would have been to think that is a trap, because there's all the New Guinea news out this week. They found the lost Garden of Eden or whatever. Hundreds of new species of plants and animals. But the second one – I didn't think cancer could be transmitted like that. I didn't think it could be infected. I thought it was a gift from God.

E: A gift?

P: So I think number two is false.

S: So we got one for one, one for two, one for three. So you guys are spreading yourselves out this week. Bob?

E: Come on, Bob.

S: You gotta break the tie, Bob.

B: I pick option four. Actually, congratulations, Steve, these are all... seem implausible.

J: Yeah, they're good.

S: Well I took it easy on you guys last week, so I wanted to come up with something a little bit harder this week.

B: That was a little lame. This is definitely harder. Coyotes in cities seems the most plausible, so maybe I should pick that one. But I'm not.

E: That's what I did, Bob. That's what I did.

B: An animal bite can cause cancer, now. Well, let me skip that for now. Lizards can give birth to live young. God, I can imagine a lizard species that somehow has an egg, a real conventional out-of-the-body egg but that somehow dissolves in the body, so it's not really laid, it just kind of dissolved, and then the baby lizard is born that way. I can imagine that more so than the second one. The second one – animals biting causing cancer. Now I know there are some theories of certain diseases like heart disease caused by different types of infections. It was recently proved in the past decade that ulcers are caused by some sort of infection, bacterial infection, I believe, in the stomach. So that kind of makes me think ...

S: But this is a direct transmission of cancer, not an infection.

B: Oh!

S: Not infection with a virus or bacteria that causes cancer. This is a direct transmission of cancer through a bite.

B: Oh! That's ... Let me reevaluate that, then.

J: If that's true, I really hope it isn't, God that's nasty.

B: It seems to me that that would've entered my radar, because that's pretty damn big. So I'm going to go with two and say that is false.

S: OK, so we got one for one, two for two, and one for three. Let's start with number one. That is true. A study, mainly in Chicago, showed that there were hundreds if not thousands of coyotes living in the city, in the urban areas, ...

B: Wow!

S: ... essentially hiding during the day. They're nocturnal; they hunt at night, mainly rats and small animals.

E: Good.

S: Certainly can snap up pets. They tend, when they're in the cities as opposed to when they are out in the wild, they tend to hunt alone, but they will occasionally, if they come across other coyotes, they will occasionally link up.

J: Now Steve, to bring up something interesting.

S: Yeah.

J: It's kind of the same. The area outside of cities is not too different than a populated town that's not near a city.

S: Right.

J: So I can definitely see that.

S: Yeah.

J: Because I know that they live around here, and I know we have a dense population here, so there's plenty of places for them to hide and plenty of animals for them to hunt.

S: Right.

J: So I totally agree.

S: The new thing here is that this is like in the middle of Chicago. Not on the outskirts. This is in the middle of the cities.

B: Why the apparent lack of sightings? Reported sightings.

S: Because they come out in the wee hours of the morning, basically. They're nocturnal.

E: Like the aliens.

S: They're stealth hunters. They're small.

P: They're very elusive, very elusive.

S: If you see them ...

E: They think they're dogs.

S: Yeah. Most people just assume it was a dog. You see something at night at two in the morning ...

B: Good point.

S: Most people probably see them and assume they're dogs.

J: They smell like cabbage.

P: Whey I used to hunt, we never saw coyotes. We always saw traces of them: their spoor, their footprints, everything. But, boy, you'd never see an actual coyote.

S: And no Bigfeet either, huh?

J: I think it would be – imagine how scary it would be. You're walking down the street, you've been out with your buddies having a couple of drinks, it's two in the morning, and you see ten dog-like animals come around the corner.

S: Yeah.

J: A pack? That's not good.

P: Jay, at two in the morning and drunk, you'd take them on.

S: Hey, maybe Bigfoot is nocturnal. That's it.

P: And drunk.

S: And drunk.

E: It was nocturnal when they shot the Patterson film, but that's another story.

B: Go to three, Steve. Go to three.

S: All right. Three: a new species of lizard was discovered in the jungles of New Guinea that gives birth to live young. Now Perry was right in as much as the New Guinea thing was my trap.

P: Right.

S: I know you guys saw that, and it was certainly plausible that some interesting fantastical new animal was discovered there. I almost went with a six-legged mammal ...

B: No way.

S: ... but I thought that would have been too much. But I got a couple of you with a lizard giving birth to live young. I think that would've been bigger news – a reptile giving birth to live young would have been huge news.

P: That's unpossible!

S: Well, it happened eventually. I mean they did evolve into mammals and did give birth to live animals.

P: That's true.

S: So it's not impossible, but that would've been huge if that were discovered. So that one is fiction. Number two, guys, is correct.

B: Wow!

S: This was specifically in Tasmanian devils, and there's a small population of Tasmanian Devils. They are, I believe, endangered, and they're being wiped out by a rapidly spreading skin cancer that is occurring mainly in the face and neck area. And what they discovered was that the animals were basically directly passing the cancer cells to each other through bites from either courting or competition for reproduction. Male-to-male competition.

J: Oh, crikey! I'm sorry.

S: So, again, it is a direct transmission of cancer cells, and not like an infection that causes cancer.

B: Not interspecies?

S: It's in the same species.

B: Oh.

S: Between Tasmanian devils.

B: Why was I thinking that it was biting a human.

S: No, no. Just animals.

P: Just Animals.

J: Because that scares you.

B: That's funny how I can almost convince myself that's what you said. OK.

S: No.

E: Are you saying the cancer cells are transmitted through the bite. They cling on to the cells of the other.

S: Yeah. They set up shop and start to proliferate.

E: Incredible.

S: They also think that because the population is rather small and inbred, that their immune systems may be weakened, and that the cancer cells are able to take a foothold because of their weakened immune systems.

B: And if they're inbred, they'd be more genetically similar ...

S: Right.

B: ... which would make them more of a target.

S: Right.

J: Steve, just out of curiosity, did you read that they are in danger because of this?

S: Yes. Oh, yeah. They're already a small population, and they are worried this could wipe them out. So they're actually starting to separate the animals, the healthy from the diseased. Now that they know they can actually catch it one from the other through the biting, they're separating the animals.

E: Well Bugs Bunny is very happy that the Tasmanian Devil is going down in population.

S: It's the largest, surviving carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian Devil. Very interesting animal.

E: They have a pouch.

P: Very interesting.

B: They are both marsupials.

P: I guess that's why the Warner Bros. chose them.

S: They don't spin around like crazy like that though.

E: Oh, sure they do. I saw it.

P: I better check that science myth page.

S: So a little bit of a tougher one this week, guys, to make up for the easy ...

E: Good job.

S: ... softball I fed you last week.

E: Good job, doc. That was good; very good.“

P: "Softball" because we got it right.

E: We rarely sweep. So that's true. Rarely.

P: That's true.

News Item[edit]

S: One more item this week before we close. Perry, you sent this to me. This is an article published in the Philippine Daily Enquirer.

P: It's the paper of record in the Philippines. I actually have no idea.

S: Do you want to read that one for us?

Problems With the Scientific Method (46:00)[edit]

P: Well I'm obviously not going to read the whole article. It's written by a person who was on a show with a scientist, and the person was basically defending that there are other ways of knowing beyond the scientific method, ...

S: Mm, hm.

P: ... basically saying at one point that the main problem with the scientific method is – one of the main problems is that it's fine if you want to prove something is physically true, then it's okay to follow strict scientific method, right, if it's physically true. The guys says he agrees completely with this. But what if you're dealing with non-physical realities, he say, for example ghosts, astral projection, paranormal phenomenon, things clearly outside the scope of science.

S: Right.

P: How can we rely on science to guide us, he says. We could not, not because science is wrong, but because it's not meant to tackle these areas.

S: Right.

P: That's kind of the thing he is saying in this piece.

J: But I kind of agree with that.

P: OK, Jay.

J: Meaning that science can't prove or disprove things that aren't based in reality.

S: That's right.

B: Then what could possibly do that?

J: Nothing.

S: That's right, Bob. That's the rub. So in a way he is correct in that science is limited. Science cannot answer any possible question that you could think to ask. It could only answer scientific questions, questions that can be tested, that can be investigated in some way.

P: He says the scientific method – my problem is not that it is wrong, it's that it's incomplete, he says because (unintelligible) .

S: Right. Where he goes wrong, he's making a huge logical fallacy called the argument from final consequences.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: He's basically saying that science has a limited realm, which is true, and therefore science cannot know about anything outside of the scientific arena, which is true, and then here's a logical fallacy: he says we need to know or we want to know about things outside the scientific arena, therefore we can know those things using other ways of knowing. But, it's actually the more logical conclusion is that we simply can't know about things that are outside the scientific realm. Again, we can't know about things in a factual sense. I'm not talking about subjective feelings or emotions or whatever. I'm talking about knowing things that are, say something about our position in the universe or whatever. You can only believe things. You can't know things outside science.

P: According to this guy, he says there are thousands of other ways of knowing. Thousands.

S: Yeah, but they are just ways of believing ...

P: Right.

S: ... not of knowing.

S: That's where he goes wrong.

E: Human beings have a very hard time understanding or grasping unknowable, right? And they're not very comfortable with that concept.

S: Mm, hm.

E: And they don't want to see anything fall in that category. Unfortunately, there's a lot of stuff that falls into that category.

S: Right. Here's two paragraphs I want to read though from this guy, too, another thing that he writes. He says "It was Dr. Rhine who coined the term extra-sensory perception, ESP ..."

P: I was just going point that out.

S: "... to refer to that ability that seemed to go beyond the five senses, a kind of sixth sense. Though the work of Dr. Rhine had many detractors in the scientific community, no one ever proved that his conclusions were not valid.

E: Eh-eh.

S: What a load of crap. First of all, they were proved not to be valid, because no one's ever been able to reproduce them. That the methods were refined, and when they were refined, the effect went away. That's how science works.

B: Right.

S: That's how science proves they're not valid.

P: Doh!

B: This person was probably trying to, when he said that – I think he meant that nobody proved that he was wrong in that those specific instances were wrong, which you can't really do. It's replication. It's replication that you want.

Targ-Puthoff Research (49:54)[edit]

S: In the next paragraph he says "More recently in the 70s Dr. Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff at the Stanford Research Institute proved human awareness could be projected to a specific location which a person had never visited before, allowing him or her to describe it accurately. Both scientists have PhDs in Physics.

E: That right there.

S: What logical fallacies is that last sentence?

E: Argument From Authority.

S: Argument From Authority. I think we in fact just touched upon this last week talking about James Randi. The Targ and Puthoff experiments are the classic example of how scientists, in this case physicists, were completely naive and ignorant about methods of deception. These two guys totally blew it. They had the wool pulled over their eyes.

P: Ugh, they're pathetic.

S: They were completely deceived.

P: Absolutely.

S: They're dumb. Now they are just idiots, but they were completely deceived by simple magical tricks. Do you guys know one of the people that they tested, that they "validated"?

J: Uri Geller.

S: Uri Geller!

P: It was in the seventies.

S: He hoodwinked them, and it was clearly demonstrated that he did so.

P: He wouldn't have hoodwinked Randi.

S: Randi wrote a whole book about it.

J: He is a very talented mentalist.

S: Yes.

J: The guy is very good at his craft. You have to be very much aware for him not to trick you.

P: Wait a minute. Randi made him look like a flaming boob on the Carson show.

J: I'm not disagreeing. All I'm saying is ...

P: He ain't that good.

J: ... that scientists don't necessarily think skeptically when it comes to things like this.

P: Of course not.

S: So that's why. He was able to come in there, he pulled his parlor tricks, and those two guys completely ate it up, that's it.

S: Perry, to be fair, Jay is talking just about his skill as a mentalist. No magician can perform when another magician is, basically, who knows how to do their tricks, makes it impossible for them to do their tricks. That's the whole point. Randi knew what he was doing and set up the situation in such a way that he couldn't do it, he couldn't whatever, blow the pencils.

P: Right.

S: He spread the excelsior around. So you pull the curtain back and you see the men behind the curtain – shows over!

P: Right. The difference is the claims, though.

S: Yes, the differences is – Randi hits it on the head. He says if Uri Geller is using mystical powers to bend those spoons, he's doing it the hard way.

E: That's right.

S: Randi said you can't prove that he's using sleight of hand to do what he does. All he's saying is that all of the tricks he can do by an amazing coincidence are ones that other magicians already know how to do with simple sleight-of-hand, and that he does them in such a way that it's perfectly compatible with the sleight-of-hand method. So there is no reason to think that he is doing it miraculously, and yet that's what Targ and Puthoff concluded. They've gone on to do other notable nonsensical work in the ESP area.

Zero-Point Energy (52:56)[edit]

P: Puthoff's a huge zero-point energy ...

S: He's a full-fledged pseudo-scientist now, that guy.

B: That sounds somewhat feasible, the whole zero-point energy idea. But I think that it's generally accepted that the whole zero point energy, extracting energy from space, is just not plausible or practical. Some estimates I've heard, you'd would need a parcel of space say a mile by mile, a square mile all around, and if you had that you could take out the zero point energy from that space, you could light a light bulb for a minute. Something like that. I mean it's just not ...

S: I heard you would need a space equal to the solar system to light a light bulb. Maybe that was not accurate.

B: Well, it's big. It's big.

S: The bottom line is this whole zero-point energy thing is very interesting. We could do a whole segment on this.

P: Right. Right.

S: There's a certain amount of energy in the quantum foam of the universe, but one: no one's been able to prove you can get access to it, that you could actually use it to do work. It may be there just like heat is there, but you can't use it for anything. And two: there's no reason to believe that it's a huge amount of energy. Now, granted, we don't really know how much energy is there, and we can only go on the current consensus of opinion. But in the absence of any evidence that we can access any a significant amount of energy with zero-point energy technology, right now it's pure speculation.

B: Yeah, but Steve ...

E: According this sixth-grade textbook it just says energy here, so I'm willing to take that at face value.

S: Energy is energy.

B: Steve, I think the idea is that if space was so dense with energy, that dense as they claim, you would have particles spontaneously appearing. I mean it would be noticeable.

S: Right.

B: The actual energy would have such a detectable presence that it would be obvious that there's a huge density of energy in the smallest ...

S: There would be virtual particles popping in and out all over the place?

B: Well they do. There are virtual particles popping out even in the vacuum of space, but it would be on such a huge scale.

S: Much more dense.

B: It would be such a huge scale. It's one of the things, Steve. Another misconception, the original writer of that article, about how science is inadequate, not up to the task, it's a common misconception. It's easy to say and to believe that science can't deal with things that are metaphysical, things that are outside.

S: Right.

B: But the problem is that in a sense, the human body is a scientific instrument of sorts. If you say you had a ghost sighting, if you say that you have ESP and that you can project your consciousness, the fact that your body can accomplish these things and sense these things means, by definition, that you can also create ...

S: Right.

B: ... or design a scientific instrument that can do a much better job of doing it. In effect do science to verify that claim. So that doesn't wash.

J: That's cool, Bob. You're right.

S: No, you're right. I was going to make that point.

B: Hah, beat'cha.

S: That why I brought up those two paragraphs you did. You honed in on the same things I was. The next thing to say about the Dr. Rhine and the Targ and Puthoff paragraphs is: if he's saying that these phenomenon are beyond science, then why quote scientists who have validated it scientifically? That is the inherent hypocrisy of this whole thing. They say "Oh, science can't deal with these topics. Science doesn't have the tools to deal with it. But we know that they exist because scientists have shown that they exist."

J: Not only that, Steve ...

S: And then they quote this crappy pseudo-science.

J: ... they drop names, too.

S: Yeah. That's what I said. They quote references which have been discredited in the scientific community.

P: Is this guy really – I mean, who knows what the original television show was like that this guy is referring to, but if this scientist who was with him really was this pathetic in his defense of the scientific method, then it seems to me that he is a scientist in name only.

S: Right.

P: We're getting one side of it after the fact. Who knows?

S: I think there were two guys there. There was the scientist and the astrologer.

P: Yeah. Right.

S: The scientist was saying reasonable things.

P: But not enough.

S: Yeah, I don't know. I didn't see the show. It's hard to know based upon... we are getting it filtered through whoever wrote this article.

P: He concludes his piece with this: "Many other scientific studies in this field were done in Russia and other Eastern European countries. To say there is no scientific proof of psychic phenomenon is to betray one's ignorance on this very important field of knowledge."

S: Right.

P: Uh, yeah.

E: Right.

J: Yup.

S: So he makes a vague reference to research without any specific references, ...

P: Russia and Eastern Europe.

S: Right.

J: So we can we say that the author is this week's jackass?

S: Pseudo-scientist of the week? I guess so.

P: Pseudo-scientist of the week.

S: The author of this article is a gullible fool, basically. It's typical: "You are not aware of this three-foot stack of evidence that we have." Well how about just showing me just one good study? We'll start there. Then we'll go from there. We'll go to the next good study.

E: He's a busy man. He's too busy to have to prove to any skeptics what's ...

P: He'll simple refer you to Dr Rhine's work in the forties, that's all.

S: Right, and the bottom line is we are not ignorant of the huge body of evidence. I've read reviews of most of it, although there is always new stuff. The bottom line is the scientific community has reviewed it, and it's all crap. It doesn't add up to anything when you shine the light of real science onto it. And typically what happens in the ESP community is they come up with some experimental design, and they get alleged positive results, they get peer-reviewed, they point out errors in the methodologies, the errors in the methodologies are corrected, the effect goes away. Then they go on to the next experimental design, and the process repeats itself. That's been happening for over 100 years, and they never make any forward progress.

E: Never.

S: They never get to the point where they can refine a research technique and reliably show an effect. That is the pattern you see when there's no there there. There is no effect or phenomenon there. It's all in the minds of the researchers.

P: Steve, what are you trying to say about this important field of knowledge?

S: That it doesn't exist.

P: For God's sake.

Randi's Million-Dollar Challenge (59:03)[edit]

J: I think that Randi's Million-Dollar Challenge basically trumps everyone at this point.

S: It does. It does. All they can do is make personal attacks against him. The bottom line is the challenge is there. It's fair. There's nothing they can say about it except that they cannot pass it.

E: You design it. You design the challenge. What could be more fair than that? Just claim what you can do. Design your test, and test it.

S: As long as it's verifiable. It just has to be verifiable.

P: As long as it's verifiable, yeah.

B: If I was convinced that I had some sort of paranormal ability? Think about it. You would win first off, just to cap it off, to start it, a million bucks. Here's a million dollars. Can you imagine the notoriety that you would get? It would be unbelievable, and nobody's tempted to do this? Nobody.

J: Steve, how many people have taken the test, do you know?

P: What do you mean nobodies tempted to take the test? Hundreds of people have taken the test.

E: Hundreds. Randi said hundreds of people have officially applied.

B: But, apparently, the true believers will say that or if you confront someone individually they will say, they'll give you a lame excuse.

S: Yeah, Bob that's the con artists, because they know that they can't pass the test.

B: Right.

P: Right.

S: What Randi said was – I've spoken to him about this – initially a lot of people of all kinds applied for the test. You had the con artists and the true believers. And then word got out that there's no fooling Randi. That Randi actually knows what he's doing. And if you try to pull the wool over his eyes, you'll fail. Then over the years, the people who have actually submitted themselves to testing, have become more and more and more deluded true believers and less and less and less con artists. So now he's getting just the real nut cases are applying for it.

B: Right.

P: Which is evident by the people we've screened out for him.

S: Right. The people we've screened ...

E: Oh, my God!

S: ... were definitely toward the nut case end of the spectrum.

B: My point is that if I'm a believer, if I just happen to believe paranormal and pseudo-science, don't these people think "Why hasn't anyone really won this?"

S: Because they think he cheats. "Oh, he must be cheating." Basically, that's it. They just dismiss him.

P: He's not fair. That he's cheating. His tests are one-sided.

E: The challenge really doesn't really exist.

J: Isn't it a little odd that more people actually haven't submitted? Hundreds doesn't seem like that many to me, and what that leads me to believe is that ...

B: Is a lot of charlatans.

J: Yeah. I think that a lot of these people steer away from it, because you'd figure they would just try it for the one in 10 million chance that they'd hit.

S: Again, there's a lot of hypocrisy there, and this article really shows it. This whole false duality of saying that "You can't be submitted to science", and yet whenever they want to, they'll grab onto scientific evidence. It's totally self-contradictory. But we'll have to end on that note, because we are out of time. Guys, it was enjoyable as always. It was a good show. Until next week, this is your Skeptic's 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. T. Rex's Oldest Ancestor Discovered in China James Owen, National Geographic News, February 8, 2006
  2. Modern Myths Taught As Science
  3. Science Myths in K-6 Textbooks and Popular Culture
  4. The Textbook League Closes its Books, Remains Online
  5. State of the Union, George W. Bush, January 31, 2006
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