SGU Episode 293

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SGU Episode 293
February 23rd 2011
SGU 292 SGU 294
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
JB: Joshie Berger
Quote of the Week
Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.
Carl Sagan
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, February 23rd 2011, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey, guys.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Hello, everyone.

S: And, we have a guest Rogue this week: Joshie Berger. Joshie, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

JB: Wow, what an honor to be here, sincerely.

S: (chuckles) Thanks.

J: Joshie!

S: Joshie is a active member of the New York City Skeptics, a comedian very active in the skeptical community, and is the recent winner of The Worst Cooks in America on the Food Channel, which is... quite something.

JB: It is quite something. Jay, first of all, thank you very much. Thank you, Steve. Uh, Bob. You know what? With my luck, I find out there's a hot funny girl on the show, and there I go. I end up with three brothers and a Jew. Yeah. My luck.


JB: Excellent.

S: Rebecca is having some back problems tonight and can't be on the show.

B: Feel better, Rebecca.

S: No relation to Joshie's appearance on the show.

J: (laughs)

JB: Riiight.

S/J: As far as you know.

E: As far as we know; right.

Guest Rogue: Joshie Berger (1:18)[edit]

S: So tell us, how did you end up winning this reality TV show? Tell us about that.

JB: Well, I ended up winning by cooking a fabulous dish. But, the real question, I assume, is how did I persevere over the other 15 contestants? And I guess, being in Yeshiva—for those that don't know, that's an Orthodox Jewish school for kids—for 18 years sort of prepares you for life better than other people, I mean... I guess it would be similar to having a Palestinan on the Fear Factor, right? I think they would win every time.


JB: Was that inappropriate? I'm sorry; I love my Palestinans—

B: No, it's a great analogy. No, but the truth be told, I grew up in a Kosher household; I grew up thinking that everything is disgusting that we don't eat. I would not kiss girlfriends that ate shrimp, and I was literally repulsed by it to the point that I couldn't look at it. I mean, I had one line that's being repeated online where I referred to shrimp as "cockroach on steroids". And I really think it is that; they're just... I mean, crustaceans, they're an abomination. I was taught that they were—

S: They're arthropods; they're in the same phylum as cockroaches.

E: They feed other fish that we do love, though.

JB: Yes. And a bunch of other words we didn't learn in Yeshiva. But... when I went into boot camp, which is what we did; we woke up early in the morning and we cooked a lot, and I had so many issues that other people didn't have. They merely didn't know how to cook. I didn't know how to cook, plus I was repulsed by so many things, and I wasn't allowed to mix meat with cheese and other things. I think me overcoming those things that for 27 years of my life, I was repulsed by, made the cooking part really easy. So once I overcame those things, I think I had extreme confidence that I would win the show, and, um... I did.

S: So you're currently a non-believing heathen, right? But you were raised a Orthodox Jew?

JB: Yes, I was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and I never know how much of Orthodox Judaism I have to explain to people, because where I grew up, all my friends were Orthodox Jewish; I had no... forget about no non-Jewish friends; I had no friends that weren't Orthodox, because I mean, the type of yarmulke or skullcap that you wore determined how religious you were. So, I mean, we had a cloth yarmulke that had to have two parts to it, meaning a top and a bottom, and if I had friends that had a leather yarmulke or a knitted yarmulke, they weren't welcome in my ho—I mean, I wouldn't say that, but... you know, we wouldn't be able to be really friendly; they were more modern, and they probably had TVs at home, which we didn't.

E: Boo.

JB: Yeah, that's terrible. So... but the really difficult thing for me to deal with is the fact that I was a skeptic my entire life. I was the kid that when my mom came home from Israel and she said that she had a séance with some lady that was able to get spirits in the room from her and then stuff moved and stuff... I was the first kid that said, "ah, come on, Mom. It's bullshit; you know that didn't happen". And she's like, "how can you say that? I saw cups moving" and the skeptic inside me immediately was able to find the logical fallacies she was making. The things that she perhaps thought that she was remembering that she wasn't. Everything across the board. I mean, my parents were huge fans of Uri Gellar. And it's "Uri", by the way, not "Yuri"; it's infuriating when people call him "Yuri". When my parents would talk about Uri Gellar and say how he drove around Tel Aviv with a blindfold, I was like, "it wasn't a blindfold! How many times did you see people have something around their head when there really wasn't a blindfold?" Like, for all you sports fans, Cedric Ceballos won the Slam Dunk Contest by having a blindfold when he admitted afterwards, and it was obvious to skeptics that he was able to see through it. But... the most obvious things that I should have been aware of, I wasn't. And I'm so ashamed now. I mean, I'm a grown adult now that has to come to grips with the fact that I at one point believed that a 90-year-old man with his three kids took all the animals in the world on a boat ride. I believed that, and not only did I believe that, I was the person that everyone called to argue against people that didn't believe in it. And you know what? Kudos to religion for doing such an awesome job on being able to convince people that are smart, intelligent and skeptical that the stuff that they're doing that's ridiculous is not something to be analyzed too carefully.

J: Joshie, when did you realize that your religion really wasn't working for you any more?

JB: You know, people ask me that, and it really wasn't one of those straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back type of moments. It really was... I have to give all the credit to the Internet, to be honest. And religion has been doing—especially Orthodox Judaism; I can't really speak for other religions—has been doing an incredible job of really protecting information. I mean, I give the analogy of when a kid wants candy and he's short, you can put it on a higher shelf and then on a higher shelf. But eventually the kid's going to be tall enough to reach all the shelves and you can't hide the candy from him any more. And now with the Internet out there, I think information is literally impossible to keep away from people. And that's what happened to me, and I think, thankfully, that's what's happening to many, many communities around the world where there was a stranglehold on people; information was kept from them, but now the Internet is really, really destroying these communities. And I'm happy. There are cracks in communities that I thought were destined to suffer like—you know, like I did; like my friends did—that are really coming apart. And you know, the Internet is really the answer of what allowed me to access all this information.

S: So, just crept up on you, just information over time began to ring true?

JB: It was more about... we've always been taught from a young age that "Jews are the smartest, Jews are the best; why do you think Jews win all the Nobel prizes? It must be; we're the chosen people" and all that stuff. Where, in reality, Orthodox Jews really, I believe, ride the coattails of secular Jews. I mean, when you look at Albert Einstein, he was a Deist at best. When you look at Spinoza, when you look at great Jewish minds, even today, like Steven Pinker and other people, these guys are all Jewish. They're culturally Jewish; they're not ashamed of their Judaism. Even someone like Christopher Hitchens, when he finds out about it, is proud of the traditions. But, it's unfair for Jews to latch on to the coattails of successful Jews, that are preaching the exact opposite of what they're preaching and use that as weapons for... "Look, we must be right because Jews are so great" and so forth. And when I found that out, when I saw that some of the greatest Jewish thinkers throughout history have not really believed in stuff that I was being force-fed, that really made me re-examine everything. And once I pulled the thread, everything came apart really quickly.

J: That's a pretty powerful story. What you described has, I'm sure, happened to many people that listen to the show; it's part of a typical or common journey a lot of us go through. But I think that the thing your story tells that a lot of people haven't experienced is... there's not that many people that have that incredible intensity and total immersion in their religion. I mean, we've had a few people tell us about being a fundamental Christian and things like that, and I would probably make those things kind of even in my head, but even still, I think the level of immersion you're describing is even deeper than what a lot of people think is deep.

JB: Yeah, I'll give you one example, and I think it's comedic to a point. There is... I mean, I think Jews do a great job, like I was saying—you know, you put on a yarmulke at a young age so you look different and you don't challenge how people look, but one of the commandments in the Bible is that if you have any article of clothing that has four edges on it, that you have to put, like, strings on it. It's called tzitzis. Most of us don't have articles of clothing that are four-cornered these days, except for scarves, and there's rabbinical discussions whether a scarf is considered an article of clothing or an accessory. But, you know, again, those were people that didn't have real jobs. They had to come up with arguments a long time ago. But what the Orthodox community has adopted, that if God made the determination that this would make him happy, that perhaps we should all intentionally wear clothes that have four edges on it, just so that we can get the commandment of putting strings on them. So all Orthodox Jews—you don't see this because most of them tuck them into their pants, but between their undershirt and their shirt, they wear an additional article of clothing called tzitzis, which is just pretty much... it's like a scarf with a hole in it that you could put your head through and it has strings on it.

J: Oh, I thought that was for...

JB: No, no, no, no.

B: (laughs)

JB: Jay, we'll get to that and the whole myth of Orthodox people having sex with sheets, which all just started with a bad Halloween party.

J: (laughs)

JB: The funny thing about this is that one of the most renowned rabbis in Israel, his name is Rabbi Scheinberg. He is literally one of the people that people go to with important questions; we're not talking about simple questions. He decides really important issues in Orthodoxy. He made the determination that if God wants you to wear this one article of clothing as an accessory and he's happy with it, imagine if I wore more than one. This is not a joke, what I'm about to tell you. This rabbi wears over a hundred tzitzis on him. Nobody knows the exact number, but he looks like he weighs four, five hundred pounds but he's really a 95-pound little guy that's a great mind, a genius amongst Jews, that has hundreds of tzitzis on his body. Now, like Christopher Hitchens says, this is a guy that should be selling pens and screaming on the corner of Times Square. But religion somehow—when I even make fun of him, my brothers say, "how can you make fun of Rabbi Scheinberg? He's such a genius; he's such a holy man". But if the tables were turned, and if some imam would be wearing a hundred pairs of shoes and would be parading around, my brother would not stop laughing at him. So, I mean, there is something that religion does really well in taking intelligent skeptical people and totally making them not realize how absurd their behavior is.

J: Joshie, what if, like, some guy just rolled into that rabbi's church and he's like, "I'm wearing 101."

E: "Church"?

JB: Synagogue.

J: Synagogue. He's like, "I've got 101."

E: He's holier than thou!

J: (laughs)

JB: You know what? Actually, before I was doing this I was talking to B.J. and I said, "how many does he wear?" And B.J. that studied in his Yeshiva—B.J., one of my great friends—said, "you know what? It's actually not known how many he wears." And now I understand why. Maybe he doesn't want anyone to know so nobody can upstage him. So now he can say, "I wear 103! Screw you; I win." So we don't know.

E: Jeez.

B: It's a mystery.

J: Joshie, I just wanted to tell my co-hosts here how great it's been to get to know you over the past year and just watch you evolve.

JB: Thank you so much, and I remember I used to listen to talk radio a lot, and... actually, English is my third language. I spoke Hebrew and then and then I spoke Yiddish, and many people ask me, "what's your accent?" and it's not an accent. It's just I don't speak properly because I started speaking English much later in life. I guess it's Yiddish and it's like Jackie Mason meets Joe Pesci or something.

E: That's awesome.

B: (laughs)

JB: I'm just so glad that I found a movement that I'm passionate about because this really filed a void that I had. To me, skepticism and having people realize how beautiful life is when you don't hinge yourself onto things that are ridiculous is the motivating force to my life. So, thank you guys. Forget me. Thank you guys.

This Day in Skepticism (13:22)[edit]

  • Feb 26 1616: Cardinal Bellarmine warned Galileo not to hold, teach, or defend the theory, that the Earth revolved around the Sun. A transcript filed by the 1633 Inquisition indicates he was also enjoined from either speaking or writing about his theory. Yet Galileo remained in conflict with the Church. He was eventually interrogated by the Inquisition in Apr 1633. On 22 Jun 1633, Galileo was sentenced to prison indefinitely, with seven of ten cardinals presiding at his trial affirming the sentencing order. Upon signing a formal recantation, the Pope allowed him to live instead under house-arrest. From Dec 1633 to the end of his life on 8 Jan 1641, he remained in his villa at Florence. To this day, 32% of Russians still believe the Sun goes around the earth

News Items[edit]

Internet Kill Switch (16:05)[edit]

Japan to Trawl for Space Junk (26:14)[edit]

Watson vs Jeopardy! Champions (37:32)[edit]

Lie to Me (46:24)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (54:26)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Bernie Madoff

Questions and E-mails (56:24)[edit]

Question #1 - Lost Information[edit]

Hi guys been thinking about this question for a while, was wondering if you could help. As I understand it is said that matter cannot be destroyed only changed from one type of energy to another. My question is your brain holds lots of information such as skills, names and other day to day experiences. So when a person dies what happens to the information stored within the brain. I know you might not be able to answer the question but would like to know your response. P.S please rephrase the question if needed hope you get what I mean. Neil Pimlott Blackpool UK

Science or Fiction (1:00:07)[edit]

Item #1: Dark Matter vs MOND: A new study of gas-rich galaxies precisely matches the predictions of modified Newtonian Dynamics, lending support to this competing theory to Dark Matter. Item #2: Apex Predator vs Scavenger: A thorough survey of dinosaur fossils suggests that T. Rex was too numerous to be a top predator, and likely scavenged as well as hunted various game. Item #3: Impact vs Climate Change: Discovery by ground-penetrating radar of a clear impact crater in northern Canada dating to about 12 thousand years ago supports the hypothetical comet impact triggering the Younger Dryas extinction event.

Quote of the Week (1:17:09)[edit]

Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.

Carl Sagan

Voiceover: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can also check out our other podcast the SGU 5x5 as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions and other feedback please use the contact us form on the website or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune or your portal of choice.'Theorem' is performed by Kineto, and used with permission.


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