SGU Episode 30

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SGU Episode 30
February 15th 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 29                      SGU 31

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


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 15th, 2006. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me tonight are Perry Deangelis, ...

P: Hello, everybody.

S: ... Bob Novella ...

B: Here.

S: ... and Jay Novella ...

J: Hey, guys.

S: Evan Bernstein is unavailable at the moment, but might be joining us later in the show. This is episode number 30, guys. Do you realize that?

J: Whoo, hoo!

B: Wow!

P: Three - oh.

S: Three zero.

P: The big three oh!

J: That's amazing.

S: A real milestone.

P: Wow! Don't they say it's all downhill from here?

S: After thirty

P: Forty, I don't know.

B: It seems like last week it was twenty-nine.

P: Ha, ha. It's just zipping by. Like the millennium.

News [edit]

James Randi (1:00)[edit]

S: Some items in the news to get us started. So our friend James Randi is in the hospital recovering from bypass surgery. Randi was a guest on our show a couple of months ago, and his name seems to crop up frequently on our show. He is a celebrity skeptic. He did have some cardiac issues a number of years ago. I believe he had a mild heart attack and then recovered well from that. I don't have any details on what led to the bypass surgery this time around, but it did seem sudden and an unexpected thing. But apparently by all reports he is recovering well, but will be taking a break from his usual activities probably for a couple of months while he recuperates.

B: I heard he used acupuncture?

S: Ha, ha.

J: Ha, ha.

B: Oh no, it wasn't him.

S: During the surgery? That was somebody else.

B: Steve, I like your description of him as "celebrity skeptic". I've just been thinking about that, and I can only think of three on the entire planet.

P: And they would be?

S: Who would you name? Who would the other two be?

B: Penn and Teller.

S: Penn and Teller?

J: What about the guy from whatchamacallit? The magazine.

P: I think Joe Nickell is a celebrity skeptic.

J: Yeah, Joe Nickell. And Michael Shermer. Yeah.

P: I think Michael Shermer is a celebrity skeptic.

S: Well Shermer and Nickell are B level celebrities, though.

J: Oh, come on! No they're not.

S: They're not at the level of Randi and Penn and Teller.

J: I wouldn't call them B level, Steve.

S: Jay, they do not have the recognition that Penn and Teller have.

P: No, of course not! Of course. Who does?

J: Well, if they're B level, what are you?

S: Ha, D, E.

B: Which makes you J, Jay.

J: Yeah.


S: I've been on television.

P: That's why we're on a podcast and not on fifty-thousand watts out of New York city. That's why, Jay.

S: So anyway we — all the guys at the Skeptics' Guide — send a big "get well" out to James Randi. Hope he does well.

J: Yeah. Get well soon, Randi, 'cause we need you.

Intelligent Design Watch (3:01)[edit]

S: Another item in the news: this is our intelligent design watch. There have been a lot of political and legal developments on this front over the last year, and they're continuing. Yesterday, the Ohio Board of Education voted to remove language from its science curriculum that was specifically critical of evolution. So this again is part of the evolution, if you will, of the intelligent design attempt to have that version of creationism taught in public schools. As you know, last fall the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board was overruled in a court — I think that was the Pennsylvania state — it was the regional federal court. Essentially, they attempted to insert into the public school science standards teaching of intelligent design. The Ohio Board of Education took it one step more subtly. They did not require the teaching of intelligent design, they just required the insertion of specific language that was critical of evolution, essentially encouraging students to think critically about evolution and to teach the weaknesses of evolutionary theory, now, without specifically mentioning intelligent design or requiring the teaching of a specific theory. Yesterday the school board apparently under pressure from the Ohio governor, voted to remove that language. So that was again another victory for evolution and defeat ...

B: Bravo!

S: ... for intelligent design and creationism. Although they still have to decide what their evolution science standards are going to be, so they haven't replaced it, yet. They just sort of removed what was there. A spokesman for the Discovery Institute — the Discovery Institute is basically the home of Intelligent Design — described the boards' action as "a sad day for students of Ohio."

J: Ohhhh.

B: Steve, if anyone is interested in a lot of ID news — latest news about intelligent design, I recommend They've got lots of lengthy articles on the latest stuff coming out with intelligent design. So I recommend that if you're interested.

S: Yup. That's a good site. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has a running commentary on ID. The National Science Teachers Association ( has basically a timeline of ID news. We'll have these links, of course, on our notes page. Of course, the thing that was interesting about this particular approach, is that again they're trying the softest sell that they can, just saying "we encourage students to think critically about evolution." Now, again it's hard to say "well that's wrong". Obviously, we advocate critical thinking of all scientific theories, but what is wrong about that is first of all, it's unnecessary. It implies that mainstream scientists are not being critical of evolution like they are of all scientific theories. They're probing it for weaknesses and strengths and weaknesses in the evidence and logic, etc. It is getting all the critical thinking that all scientific theories get. So it kind of misrepresents science to suggest that we need a law to tell scientists to behave scientifically.

J: Well what about them applying that to their own religion, then.

S: Well, you know. The other thing is it kind of brings up the other point is that there's no justification for singling out evolution for critical analysis. What about all the other hundreds of theories that are taught in science classrooms throughout the curriculum? So it's the singling out of evolution and the suggestion that mainstream scientists are not being appropriately critical or skeptical that is unfair, essentially. And I think that what really nailed them in this case was that a lot of the language in the school board's standards were very reminiscent of language that could be found in intelligent design literature. So, clearly, they were using that as a resource.

B: What a fall for them, you know? They're trying to get it so that evolution is not taught, and then they're trying to get equal time for intelligent design, and now they're just trying to throw in a few words criticizing evolution, and still they fail. How much more of a soft sell can they make it?

S: Yeah. Where do they go from here?

B: I mean, what else? They hit bottom, I think.

S: I'm not sure. That's a good question. Where would they possibly go from here? I mean I think they'll just have to reformulate themselves somehow. They're definitely not going to go away. We'll see how clever they're going to get. But the bottom line is they can't hide. They can run but they can't hide. Any attempt at evolution denial, whatever guise they try to put it in, is pseudo-science.

B: Right.

S: We'll see it coming. It's not like they're going to slip one past the goal posts.

J: Steve, how long has intelligent design been on the radar?

S: Intelligent design ...

B: Nineties.

S: Mid-nineties

B: Mid-nineties.

J: Who is behind it?

B: Behe's book. Well, Behe started it with his ...

P: Creationists, that's who's behind it.

B: What was the book, Steve? Darwins Black Box?

S: Darwin's Black Box.

B: Yeah.

S: Yeah.

B: I think I know what their new tactic is. I think they're going to start a campaign to try to find every evolution book out there and just write on it "Oh, yeah!?"

S: Oh, yeah!?


P: That'd be good. Be just as effective as what they're doing now.

S: But I bet you, Bob, that will get struck down, too.

B: Yeah. Ha, ha, ha.

S: They essentially tried to do that. Their "oh, yeah" strategy was to have a insert put into the front of biology textbooks saying "Evolution is just a theory, and it hasn't been proven, and blah, blah, blah," and that was stricken down. That was basically the equivalent of them saying "Oh, yeah!", you know.

J: To be honest, I'm very shocked that things are going so well for evolution right now. I mean a year ago things were looking pretty grim.

S: They never were looking grim. I think the intelligent design folks and the creationists have had intermittent success at the grass roots level, because you can always pack a school board when no one's looking with a few creationists.

P: And there's no way to immediately stop a school board. It takes time.

B: But, Jay...

S: It always gets worked out. And the thing is whenever the fight goes before a judge in a court of law where there are rules of logic and evidence, the creationists don't have a leg to stand on, and they always lose.

B: And Jay, you want grim? Just look around, how many states in this country are looking at legislation for this stuff. It's not over by a long shot.

S: No. But I think we will consistently see victories in the legal system.

P: Amen!

Italian Atheist Sues Priest (10:26)[edit]

S: Speaking of legal cases, this is kind of a quirky item. In Italy, an atheist sued a local priest for claiming — essentially for fraud.

P: Yeah. This guy's 72-years old.

S: Yeah.

P: He's a retired agronomist. Luigi Cascioli. He claims that a parish priest in his small town in Italy violated two laws. One of them is a law barring abuse of popular belief or fraudulently deceiving people. The other one barring "impersonation" or personal gain for attributing a false name to someone. Of course, he's talking about the life of Jesus. This priest back in 2002, a guy named Reverend Reghi, put out a news bulletin, a parish bulletin, that said Jesus existed, that he was born of a couple named Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, and that he lived in Nazareth.

S: Mm, hm.

P: He thought that the guy violated the laws by doing that, so he brought the case, made a complaint, and the case ran all the way up until just this month when it was dismissed. And don't forget, this is in Italy, which is an extremely Roman Catholic country, overwhelmingly. But he saw it through to this point. The judge, Gaetano Mautone, I believed it's pronounced, he dismissed the case. I guess he found that it really didn't have any standing. He also said that the prosecutor should investigate this Cascioli for possible slander.

S: For slander, right.

P: So he dismissed it pretty aggressively. The guy says he's going to appeal it. He's going to take it up to the European Court of Human Rights and try and keep going with it.

S: Right. I don't think — he's not going to get anywhere with it in my opinion. Really nor should he. I mean I think trying to use the courts in order to go after essentially faith certainly wouldn't work in this country. I'm not an expert on Italian laws, the relevant Italian laws.

P: Well playing devil's advocate — not pun intended — I think he would say they crossed the line, Steven, making actual claims.

S: But the claims — they're not factual claims; they're faith-based claims, right? I mean he's not ...

P: Uh, guy named Jesus born of two people Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem lived in Nazareth. Giving approximate years.

J: Yeah, but Perry every myth and every religion has an origin that people, a lot of people believe are true. Hey Perry, a lot of people out there believe in Adam and Eve, too.

P: Of course. Of course.

J: There's people that would contest that. But then there's people that would also say "No, they exist". So who's right and who's wrong? You can't really go head-to-head with faith. I agree with Steve.

S: Obviously, this guys trying to undermine the entire basis of religion ...

P: Of course.

S: ... by saying that you can't make claims that are not proven factually, otherwise you are guilty of fraud. I think where people cross the line is when they make here-and-now claims of like faith healing.

P: Right.

S: That I think you'd have a case if somebody got people to throw their medication away on the basis that they were going to heal them. That's almost practicing medicine without a license. But just tenets of faith — that's not going to go anywhere.

P: Certainly didn't for this guy.

S: No. No. Not in deeply catholic Italy, anyway.

P: Ha, ha, ha, ha,


Phillippine Crackpot Followup (14:10)[edit]

S: We had a few emails this week. Now I'd like to talk about the first one is from a listener in the Philippines who signs off as Edwardson. He says "Hello, I just finished listening to your February 8th podcast. Been tuning into your show for about two months now. In your latest podcast you featured an article from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. What can I say? When I found out that the author was none other than Jaime himself, I couldn't help but snicker." So the guys name is Licauco. He's a ...

P: He's a whack job.

S: He's a whack job. The emailer writes "He's an old-timer in the woo-woo department in this country." So he basically gives media attention to any paranormal or pseudo-scientific or fantastical notion. So he goes on to write "Unfortunately, Licauco is assuming that non-physical reality exists. But apart from the discredited Targ et al examples, he doesn't give us any good substantiation that evinces its reality. Nor does he offer, since he says science won't do, means and methods by which we can reliably investigate and understand non-physical phenomenon. As you mentioned, Licauco seems to have missed the glaring contradiction in his own article. At the one hand claiming that the non-physical is outside the competence of science to investigate. On the other hand, throwing at the reader's supposed scientific evidence for it."

P: Which we [SGU_Episode_29#Problems_With_the_Scientific_Method_.2846:00.29 pointed out at the time].

S: We made that point last week, and that is so common among purveyors of this nonsense. They always try to have it both ways, saying that their beliefs are "beyond science," but then, whenever they can, throwing apparent scientific evidence for their beliefs.

P: It's nice that since the internet and hence our podcast has global reach, we're getting to learn a little more about the noted crackpots in other countries.

S: That's right. That's right.

P: We know something about the ones here in the US, but it's nice to hear about the ones in the Philippines, etc.

S: It's good to know that the Philippines have their crackpots.

J: How about that special that Randi did, what — it must have been ten years ago — with the whole ...

P: In Russia, yeah.

S: In Russia, yeah, behind the Iron Curtain. Was that after the Iron Curtain?

P: After it, yeah. it was an excellent show.

J: That still freaks me out with those people that were doing that bit with their hand — waving their hand over the water and all that crap.

S: The magic water.

J: Yeah.

P: That's good. So it's good to know that we have — like I said we have this global reach and that people are giving us feedback from ...

S: Right.

P: ... these further away places.

S: Yeah. So thanks for writing in and giving us some further background.

Cholesterol (16:55)[edit]

S: The second email comes from Scott Palmer in Markham, Ontario, in Canada, and he writes "I've been downloading your podcast for a few months now. I enjoyed the recent episode that discussed HIV denial, and it brought to mind another health issue that I'm trying to get some informed opinions on. Like many people I've been told by my doctor recently that my cholesterol is a bit high. No big surprise, really. It runs in the family. But then I read an article in Discover Magazine about a Dr. Nortin Hadler. In this article, the doctor made the point that in one large study lowering cholesterol basically has no effect on reducing the number of cardiovascular deaths. He believes that bypass surgery offers more risks than not having the surgery done at all. He stated that he would be infuriated if any doctor checked his cholesterol without asking and told him if it were up or down." So he basically wants to know: is there any legitimacy to Dr. Hadler's point of view, to his criticism of cholesterol-lowering drugs and bypass surgery and angioplasty. This is a very complicated issue. What I will say is that Dr. Hadler — his point of view is certainly towards one end of the spectrum. But he does support his position with logic and evidence. He is not trumping some anti-scientific or some pseudo-scientific or super-natural position. He is basically just saying we need to think very carefully before we do a medical intervention on a broad scale and present it to the public as if it is a significant reduction in risk. However, I think that he is making a judgement call about where to set the threshold for benefit, and I think in his writings and the way, for example, he was quoted in that Discover Magazine article, he comes off as saying there is no benefit to lowering cholesterol. Well, if you look at all the evidence, there is a very clear benefit to lowering cholesterol in both reducing heart attacks and death. But the reduction in the risk is small, and it's just below what he would consider to be a worthwhile threshold, but I'm not sure that I agree with his threshold. Again, he's definitely towards one end of the spectrum.

P: But what's he advocating, Steve?

S: Well nothing, really, just that we do less medicine. He is very anti-medicalization.

P: OK.

S: He thinks that we should be doing less. That's what I'm saying. He's not saying "And therefore buy my vitamins." He's not doing that. He's just saying we need to be prescribing fewer medications, doing fewer procedures. People need to just live with their headaches and back pain and not seek medical attention for every ache and pain that they have.

J: What do you think about that, Steve.

P: Because it's costly?

S: Because it's costly. Because we're maybe underestimating the side-effects and the risks of the things that we're doing.

J: What's your impression of that?

B: Steve, let me interject a little.

S: Go ahead.

B: I agree partly. I think — I believe that doctors don't pay enough attention to — I think they are more apt to prescribe medication and not push maybe quite as hard as they should things like low-fat diet, exercise, getting fit, ...

S: Yeah.

B: ... that could also take care of a lot of that stuff without or at the very least ...

S: Honestly, Bob, that is the common mythology, but it is just not true. Physicians in fact are in the forefront of advising that patients exercise and have a good diet. I can't tell you of course that every physician does that, but that is certainly the standard of care.

P: Mine certainly does.

S: That is absolutely in the recommendations. Primary care doctors spend a lot of their time and attention on risk factor modification, prescribing nutrition when appropriate, exercise when appropriate, smoking cessation when appropriate, etc., etc. It's really ...

B: But will they try it first? Will they try that first and then, or will they try to both at the same time?

S: That's where you get a little bit into the art of medicine is what's your threshold for prescribing a cholesterol-lowering drug, for example? Most physicians will try diet and exercise first, and if that doesn't work, the drugs are a backup. There are also a subset of people who have such a strong genetic ...

B: Right. Predisposition.

S: ... cause of, yeah, predisposition or cause of hyperlipidemia, an increased cholesterol, that they need drugs. That diet is not going to do it.

B: Yeah. I've got a friend that is over 300.

S: Right. That's genetic. You're over 300 that's genetic; you need drugs. I think the evidence clearly supports that. Let me throw some numbers at you, just to see what we're talking about. If you treat patients with a cholesterol-lowering drug, there's different ways of looking at the statistics. For example, how many patients would you need to treat so that after three years of treatment, you will have prevented one heart attack? What's your guys' guess? How many patients do you think? How many prescriptions for Lipitor do I have to write over three years in order to prevent one heart attack from happening?

P: Thousand.

S: No, seventy five.

P: OK.

S: Which is not bad. It's not a lot.

P: No.

S: That correlates to about a three or four percent reduction of relative risk and a one percent or 1.2 or 3 percent reduction in absolute risk. So, in other words, your risk of having a heart attack over the next few years is going to go down from 3 percent to 2 percent. That's the effect of the drug.

B: That doesn't sound very good to me.

S: Yeah. It's a modest reduction in your risk, and it's very statistical. We can't predict who that one person is in the seventy-five whose heart attack we're going to prevent. So Hadler's point is it's not worth it. It's not worth all of those medications just to prevent that one heart attack, but that's a judgement call. I don't think he fairly presents it as a judgement call. I think he gets a little dogmatic about that position by saying it "doesn't work." I don't think that's a fair assessment. The same thing is true with — it's actually a much more complicated story when you start talking about surgical procedures. Part of the problem is that angioplasty, which is basically using balloons to open up arteries and maybe stenting them open. And now they have sort of drug-treated stents that help them stay open — that you need to compare them to the best non-surgical management, which is life-style and maybe medication, whatever again the best sort of judgement is - doing everything other than surgery. But they're both moving targets, and by the time three or four or five year study's completed, the surgical technology is obsolete, and the medication therapies have changed. So I think where Hadler is correct is in this instance, when we're talking about bypass and angioplasty, is that although if you look at all the evidence, I think there's a reasonable justification for these procedures. They really haven't been demonstrated beyond doubt, and I do think that we need some large medication versus surgery trials to really answer these questions more definitively, and these trials are underway. So I think that eventually these controversies: how do you interpret the evidence, where's the risk and benefit really fall out? When there's a real controversy that can't be resolved by existing evidence, and it's an important question, what tends to happen is large, consensus trials get done, they get reproduced, and then the practice of medicine changes. So I think five years from now we'll have a lot better evidence on this very question. So I do think this stuff does work itself out over time, but these epidemiological studies take years and years and years to do.

B: Steve.

S: Yeah.

B: Another point: is it correct to focus on just one number — cholesterol? Would it be better to say instead of lowering your cholesterol by ten — ten points or twenty points — wouldn't it be better to say raise your HDL by this amount, lower your LDL by this amount, and wouldn't that be a better effect?

S: Absolutely. And lowering LDL is the goal, really, not just the total cholesterol, and raising your HDL. And, again, that is the standard: to check the HDL and the LDL to in fact try to intervene at both raise the HDL and lower the LDL.

P: Can you have too much good cholesterol?

B: God, I ...

S: I don't think so.

P: That number can literally go as high as it can go ...

S: That is like having too much money, Perry. Yeah.

P: Is it? OK.

S: No, although there is so many different sub-questions you can ask. Can your LDL be too low?

P: Right.

S: Can your HDL be too high? Is the ratio important or the absolute number's important? If you lower by drugs is that as good as lowering it by exercise and diet? Etc. etc. You can break out so many different questions, and, of course, every one is a ten-year trial. Do you know what I mean?

P: This is a personal anecdote. I was told once that my cholesterols they were both too low.

S: Mm, hm.

P: But the doctor was concerned that the good one — what is that?


P: HDL was way too low, and that was a serious problem.

S: Yeah. That's more of a problem, in fact, probably, than LDL being too high.

B: The HDL, doesn't that just mop up all the nasty stuff, all the nasty fat in your arteries?

S: To put it simplistically, LDL transports cholesterol to the walls of your blood vessels, and HDL takes it from your blood vessels and brings it back to the liver.

B: Didn't I say that?

S: Yeah. It doesn't mop it up. That's really a transport, it's a carrier.

B: That's funny. Steve made it very simple, but it was still more complex than what I said.

P: Ha, ha, ha!

J: Steve. To answer the person who wrote in, to give him a direct answer, sum it up. How would you put it?

S: The way I would summarize it: I think that Dr. Hadler is a very important voice in the medical community in that he's basically raising skepticism about the evidence for a lot of these large-scale interventions: bypass, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and angioplasty, and that is a very, very important discussion and debate for us to have within the medical community. But I do think that he is far out to one end of the spectrum, and I think that he's maybe a little bit too ideological. He's very anti-intervention, anti-medicalization.

J: Our listener should just quadruple his exercise and eat a healthier diet, and that will probably give him more benefit than medication.

S: I don't know how you derive that from what I said.

J: I'm trying to help the guy out. He's reaching out, Steve. He wants help.

S: That's an individualized medical decision that has to be made. Certainly, for most people, unless there's some specific problems that you have, exercise and a good diet are probably the most healthy things — and not smoking — those three things are the most healthy things you can do for yourself.

J: Yeah, and he can go whack back a few drinks every once in awhile, right? Go out for a party with the friends. He's good.

S: Everything in moderation is good. The evidence on alcohol and atherosclerotic disease is still out, but there's some evidence that a glass of wine a day may actually be protective, may actually help prevent heart attacks. But that's still some soft evidence. There's good evidence that aspirin — drugs that make the platelets a little bit less sticky, basically thin your blood a little bit — reduce the risks of heart attacks and strokes. But that's, again, the same kind of evidence, where you have to treat lots of people over years to prevent one heart attack or one stroke. But I would say yes, exercise and good diet for everyone, stop smoking for everyone, and then when you need anti-platelet therapy, cholesterol-lowering therapy, that's a specific medical decision you need to make with a competent physician that you feel comfortable with.

S: Well, joining us is Evan Bernstein, Evan, thanks for joining us tonight.

E: Good evening, good evening. Sorry I'm a little late.

S: That's OK. So now we have a full boat, our usual skeptical rogues.

Colon Cleansing (29:31)[edit]

S: We've a third email, which is also a medical question. This one comes from Michael Ordacelli, who is our biggest fan in Arizona.

E: Hi, Michael.

B: And one of my best friends, I will add.

S: Thanks for sending us another email. He writes "Hey, thanks for the shout-out, and love what you guys are doing with the show recently: sound clips, running over time, keeping Perry in line, etc. Anyway, I have been running into a lot of people lately doing this colon cleanse thing, and it ranges from a liquid diet all the way out to a diet strictly consisting of lemon juice, maple syrup, and corn fritters, or something like that."

B: Ooooooo.

S: "Could you please clear up some rumors about the medical truth with regard to colon cleansing."

P: Yes, I can. I think that eating just maple syrup and corn fritters is probably unhealthy. Steve?

S: Yeah. What I was going to say — I couldn't resist the pun — that colon cleansing is full of crap.

B: Ha, ha, ha.

S: He didn't say the most extreme thing people actually do like coffee enemas or really severe bowel regimens where they completely clean out their bowels. Not just dietary changes.

P: You mean enemas are not good for you?

S: They're not. No, they're not if done frequently, no. If you're impacted or you have constipation, sure, but frequently doing enemas to somebody whose bowel function is normal is not a healthy thing.

B: Why do people think that our body needs help getting rid of toxins?

J: Because, Bob, people tell them it does, and they believe it.

S: We have a few hundred million years of evolution to help us deal with toxins in the environment, you know. But anyway, the whole concept behind colon cleansing is that we are being assaulted with toxins from everywhere, and these toxins build up in our body, and you could sort of leach them out of the body by cleaning out your colon. A variant of this is the idea that food gets stuck in our colon, and the food essentially rots there, and as it rots it leaches toxins into our body.

E: It sounds like people are equating it to the drain pipes in their house.

S: Kind of, yeah.

E: When there's like build of the gunk over the years that goes down there. It's stuck in the pipes.

S: The two causes of disease according to most alternative practitioners are malnutrition and toxins. Those are the two big ones. They always come back to one or the other.

B: Well, Steve, just go into any emergency room or hospital and you'll see loads of people with malnutrition and toxins.

S: Right.

B: I mean, God!

S: It's silly. Sometimes they say grudgingly "Oh, yeah, yeah. Doctors are good at dealing with trauma." Well, thanks, for giving us the trauma. But other than that, disease is caused by either toxins or malnutrition. And, yeah, those are two causes of disease, but there is also genetic causes and environmental causes and degenerative causes. There's lots of causes of disease. It's not just toxins or malnutrition. But those are the ones they legally can treat with supplements, etc. And those are sort of these ideas that are very, very appealing. People basically are arguing that if our bodies were properly nourished and free from external assault by toxins, that we would live a hundred years perfectly healthy. That's basically the premise, that our bodies are perfect machines as long as we feed them, and we don't kill them with toxins.

B: Well you could see the appeal.

S: That's just not true! Of course, you see the appeal is obvious. But we're not that perfect. I wish we were. I wish that were true. It would make our job a lot easier. Our bodies wear out.

J: Well there is a benefit. There's definitely a benefit to eating healthy, and to not being assaulted by chemicals all the time.

S: Sure. Of course, but to trump into "that's the cause of all disease." And the other thing is like with the colon cleansing people is that there's no specific toxins that they can point to. They refer to toxins just abstractly, non-specifically, just "toxins". What toxins? They don't know. They have no way of identifying or measuring specific toxins. They don't know what they are talking about.

J: It's obvious crap because subluxations cause all disease. We all know that.

S: Well now you're getting into the "energy medicine," which is the other sort of field of alternative medicine, where diseases caused by blockage or an imbalance of life energy, whether it's flowing through our nerves and blocked by subluxations. Traditional Chinese medicine uses acupuncture to rebalance the yin and yang of our chi. That's basically all under the conceptual banner of energy medicine, which is pure pseudo-science. Now you're going back three thousand years.

P: I don't even want to start talking about toxic energy. That stuff is ...

S: Toxic energy! Forget about it.

P: That's bad stuff.

S: Negative energy — you've got to have your aura fluffed up.

P: It's terrible, terrible.

J: Hey do you guys remember — I think we talked about this a few years back. I remember reading an article where Janet Jackson was getting coffee enemas, and she said that she was flushing out the sad cells.

S: Mm, hm.

J: Do you remember that?

B: I remember that.

S: No. The "sad cells", huh?

J: That was actually the first time I read about people who do this. Who go to — it's like going to a beauty salon, but they go to someone that gives them an enema. I wonder was one of those goes for? What does a celebrity pay to get their (beeped) washed out with coffee?

S: I have no idea.

P: Good question.

B: Do they use decaf?

S: That's a good question. Or can you get like a mocha latte enema?

P: That's right, can you get flavors? That's a good question.

J: Steve, I have a great idea. Let's send Michael Ortacelli out on an information gathering mission where he has to go get an enema, report back to us, tell us all the pseudo-science they tried to sell him, and we'll report back to our listeners.

S: If he volunteers. I would never subject anyone to a procedure at my request.

P: Exactly.

J: Knowing him, he'd like it, so...

S: Well I'll leave that to you, Jay. You can talk to him.

J: All right. I'll make it happen.

P: We'll have a report on a future podcast.

Science or Fiction (35:55)[edit]

Theme: Humans & Love

Item #1: A recent study refutes the earlier claim of a difference in finger length between heterosexual and homosexual men.[1]
Item #2: Three-month-old infants prefer faces of people from their own race.[2]
Item #3: People in love have chemical changes in the brain that resemble certain types of mental illness.[3]

Answer Item
Host Result
Rogue Guess

Voice-over: It's time for "Science or Fiction."

S: So let's move on to Science or Fiction. I have another theme-based "Science or Fiction" this week in honor of Valentine's Day, which was yesterday. This is a psychology kind of love-themed Science or Fiction this week. Again, I should explain how Science or Fiction works.

P: What are the rules?

S: Yes, I should explain the rules. So every week one of us, usually me, will come up with three science news items or facts. Two are real — two are science, and one is fiction, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to sniff out the fake, and you can play at home. The answers and references will be of course on our website on the notes page for this podcast. So, item number one: A recent study refutes the earlier claim of a difference in finger length between heterosexual and homosexual men. Number two: Three-month old infants prefer faces of people from their own race. And item number three: People in love have chemical changes in the brain that resemble certain types of mental illness. Jay, why don't you get started for us.

J: I'll start with number three. I think number three is absolutely true, 'cause I've completely lost my mind and ruined huge segments of my life over women. Anybody that knows me knows this to be true, and I'm going to move on from there. The three-month old infants wanting to see people of their own race sounds to me to be complete bull. In my opinion children are completely oblivious to things like that. So, I have no opinion on the first one, so I'm going to say that number two is fake.

S: OK. Evan?

E: Steve, repeat number one for me, please.

S: A recent study refutes the earlier claim of a difference in finger length between heterosexual and homosexual men. So basically what that is saying is that previously it was claimed that there is a finger length difference, but a recent study says there is no difference.

E: And number three again?

S: Number three is: people in love have chemical changes in the brain that resemble certain types of mental illness.

E: Hm, hm. I'll tell you what: I'm going to agree with Jay on this one, and I'm going to say that number two is the incorrect one.

S: OK. Similar reasons?

E: Yes, similar reasons. Number one: I'm not at all surprised. It does sound like it was a myth to begin with, and they've come out and corrected that. So that sounds plausible. Chemical imbalances or whatever in the brain. Just seems a lot more plausible. And infants as far as race goes. I know that infants generally, at least from what I understand is that they're very good with making out faces, pattern recognition. It's one of the first early development things that they do. But I don't think race specifically has anything to do with it. So that's why I'm going to say number two is I think false.

S: OK. Perry?

P: Well I'll just agree with the other two. It's very PC, so I'm going to go with it for that reason.

S: All right. Bob?

B: Um, hmm. This is actually a tough one. All three seem plausible to me. The three-month old infants being more attuned — how did you phrase it, Steve — they're more ...

S: Three-month old infants prefer faces of people from their own race.

B: That kind of makes sense to me. Now you notice that you used three-month old babies and not ...

S: Mm, hm.

B: To me that seems significant, because you would think by three months infants would be very attuned say to their mother's face, and anything significantly different from their mother's face, say someone from another race, I think they wouldn't be as attuned to it as they would be their mother's face. So that makes sense to me. Let's see. Number one sounds very plausible as well. I can't imagine what the correlation would be. It makes sense that a study would come out refuting the different finger lengths. The chemical one, too, I mean I know Jay man, and what he went through. It makes sense that it makes you a little wacky and not as objective as you would normally be, so I don't know what the hell to say with this one.

P: It depends upon your basic strength of character, Bob, you know. If you are person of limited character, it could throw you for a loop.

J: I don't know about that, Perry. Maybe it's my capacity for love that makes me insane, and you're just cold as a fish and everybody knows it.

P: It could be capacity for love; could be a weak character. We'll let the audience decide. Bob?

B: Steve, I'll say ...

P: You're stalling.

B: I'll say three.

S: OK. Well ...

J: Wait, Steve, before you give us the answer.

S: Yes?

J: To clarify number one, are you saying that the study shows that homosexual men have longer fingers or shorter fingers?

B: Makes no difference.

S: It's the ratio of the second to the fourth finger ...

J: Oh, OK.

S: ... that's in question.

J: So it's not like the whole Carny bit with small hands and small (unintelligible), you know?

S: No, no, no.

E: That only counts for people who have five fingers on a hand, by the way.

J: OK.

S: All right. We'll start with number three. Bob, you thought that three was the fake one, and everyone else thought that that was real. Is that correct?

B: Yeah.

S: Number three is correct, I mean is real. Number three is science. There have been a number of studies over the last decade or so showing differences in [[wikipedia:Functional_magnetic_resonance_imaging|]] scans and in certain biochemical activity in the brain in people who are actively, romantically in love versus people who are not. And in fact their response to the object of their love, the response of their brain to an image of the person they're in love with is different than to other people, even to other attractive people.

B: Yeah.

S: This recent study, it found that there are patterns in the brain of people who are in love which are very similar to people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

P: Yeah, you would say that people with compulsive-obsessive disorder are basically weak characters, wouldn't you, Steve?

S: We all have a little bit of obsessive-compulsiveness, but some people who have that part of their brain excessively active, and people who are in love show a lot of similar characteristics to people who are obsessive-compulsive.

B: But, Steve, if they have medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder, would that work for someone in love?

S: That's a reasonable hypothesis, it hasn't been tested as far as I know, but it certainly could. Certainly there are medications that we use to treat either depression or anxiety or whatever, and they always have side effects, because it's hard to affect just one part of the brain pristinely and not affect any other part of the brain. Because the different parts of the brain use similar signals, the neurotransmitters, and have similar receptors.

P: Well if they happen to be in the same ten percent of their brain that's being used.

S: That's right.

J: On the super-quick sideline.

S: Yeah.

J: The whole thing about eating chocolate and having it change — or there's a chemical in chocolate that makes people feel like they're in ...

S: It activates some of the dopamine reward centers in the same way that being in love does. That's actually true. And in fact the whole being in love bit — both mammals and birds have preferences in choosing a mate. Mammals and birds evolved mechanisms that affect their choice of mates, and what the thinking is is that being in love is just a really exaggerated phenomenon of mate choice that with the reward centers become very activated by the presence the person that we're in love with. So it's like an attraction system on steroids, basically. And it's so extreme that, again, it actually both produces behavior and now biochemical activity, again, that is similar to, reminiscent of, people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder. So that is true, so Bob got that one incorrect. Let's go to number two: three-month old infants prefer faces of people from their own race. The other three of you chose that one as being fiction, but that too is science. Bob keyed in on one detail that is helpful in assessing that and it's three-month old infants. In fact, at one month infants display no race preference in their face choice. We appear not to be born with any preference for one race or another, but by three months, infants start to show a preference for race, for the race of what they're used to seeing. It's not just their mother because if the infant was raised in a multi-racial environment, they don't show these preferences. The thinking is is that we imprint on people who look like not just our mother or our family but our tribe. People who are genetically closest to us.

P: It takes a tribe.

S: It takes a village, right. But this may have been an evolutionary mechanism whereby even young children would know to seek safety among their own tribe and be fearful of another tribe, which could certainly be hostile. So, again, that's speculation, but that's one possible evolutionary advantage to imprinting, as it were, at an early age on people who look like us, basically. And this is part of a broader research program to try to find the roots of racism.

B: Racism, yep.

S: And maybe also how to mitigate them. The question then is: do infants who imprint on their own race have different racial attitudes when they grow up? We don't know that, but that's the question that stems from that research. Number one: this is an interesting one. So there have been a number of studies which show that homosexual males have a different ratio of their second finger, which is your index finger, to the fourth finger, which is the ring finger. Normally, men have a slightly longer ring finger than index finger, and women have those two fingers more equal in length. And it turns out the homosexual men have more of a female ratio in their finger length than heterosexual men do. That was a controversial finding when it first came out. I don't know if you guys remember hearing about that. I remember on the show "The L Word", that sort of brief — I don't know if it's still on.

P: It is.

S: In one scene, they were checking out each others' finger lengths. This bit of research made its way into popular culture, at least to that extent. At any rate, there was a recent study published that was a meta-analysis of the five big studies that looked at finger length and sexual orientation. And the meta-analysis confirmed, to whatever extent such studies can, that there was a consistent pattern, and it was consistent between the different studies and, if you look at all the data taken as a whole the pattern still held up. The thinking is that the finger length differences, the ratio between the second and the fourth finger, is affected by the level of testosterone in the womb at the time the limbs are developing, and that that may also develop sexual orientation in the developing brain at the same time. That they're linked in the effect that intra-uterine levels of testosterone and estrogen have, mainly testosterone actually, during development. So there is a very plausible mechanism for that. It may seem like just a quirky, silly thing, but actually there is a developmental biological explanation for it.

B: But, Steve, would that remove the genetic component, the possible genetic component for homosexuality?

S: The thinking is that it's congenital, which just means it's something that is present at birth, but it's not necessarily genetic. It could still be genetic, because a gene could determine the level of testosterone, but if testosterone levels were elevated for some other reason, that could also have an affect, even if it's not in the genes of the baby itself.

B: OK.

S: Do you know what I mean? It could be just a maternal effect that's just passed down, even though it's not passed down in the genes. So it's more precise to say that it's congenital, but it may or may not be genetic.

B: But then wouldn't more siblings in a family be homosexual? Wouldn't you see a correlation in a family?

S: If it were a Mendelian genetic trait, then yes.

J: What does that mean?

S: Mendelian genetics are like blue and brown eye color. There's specific genes, and you can calculate the odds of getting brown eyes versus blue eyes based upon which versions of those genes that you get. Homosexuality, if it is genetic, and the evidence I think is pretty strong that there is a genetic influence, plus again there may be congenital intra-uterine but not specifically genetic influences, it's certainly not a simple one gene system. There's no homosexual gene, if you will. It's a more complicated genetic phenomenon.

J: And this is just with men. This isn't with women?

S: This data set is with men. I think they also looked at women. I don't recall exactly what the phenomenon was with women, although it makes sense that it wouldn't be present because women already have that ratio. I don't think that women revert to a male ratio. In other words, women who are homosexual. This recent study was confined to the data on men. So I don't know the answer to that in terms of does a finger difference length hold up with women. But interesting. The bottom line is that this is one piece of evidence that strongly favors that homosexuality is biological. Whatever the cause or causes, it's not environmental, it's not a choice.

P: The Reverend Falwell is not going to be happy with that.

S: It's biologically predetermined. You're born with your sexual orientation. Which makes sense. If you talk to not only homosexuals but also heterosexuals from a very young age we had gender identification. And homosexuals knew their sexual orientation from a very young age, from as long as they could remember. It was just the way they were. It wasn't a lifestyle choice they made later on in life. Do you know what I mean?

J: It's interesting.

B: It always annoys me when people assume that it's a conscious choice and they could just flip their switch and be "normal". Come on!

S: It's childish, just childish.

P: You three fathers, would it affect you if any of your daughters came to you and said they were gay?

B: I might prefer it.


E: Yeah, right?

P: Would it cause you to think any differently about your daughter?

B: Not in the slightest. Not at all.

E: Not a flinch. Not a flinch.

S: It would certainly not affect how much I would love my daughters.

B: Oh, my God.

S: That's overwhelming.

P: So no impact? Absolutely invisible.

S: How can you say until it happens, right?

P: Because you know yourself. Come on!

S: I don't think — certainly intellectually I have no problem with it. I can't imagine that it would affect how much I love my daughters. It might bring up concerns of family dynamics, etc., that we would have to deal with. Who knows? It's so far beyond my experience at this point it's hard to speculate as to what would happen.

J: How about you, Perry?

P: I don't have any kids.

J: Well I don't either, but ...

P: I could speculate all the way from someone without kids.

J: Go ahead.

P: If you'd like me to.

J: Yeah, and I'll tell you what I think, too.

P: It would have absolutely no impact on how a felt about my kids. And the only way I can arrive at that being childless is because whether or not a person is gay or straight in my regular life has no impact on what I think about the person.

J: I think if it were my children I'd probably be uncomfortable and unhappy in the beginning and then as I got used to it — I would probably be upset in the beginning just because I think it would make their life harder. It's an obstacle for them to deal with. But I don't know. I don't think I'd ever not love my child for anything like that.

E: I think parents might fall into a trap that they trap themselves in that they fell it's some kind of failing on their part that their child perhaps turned out that way. Whereas that's not really the way people should be looking at it.

S: No. The facts don't support that position. This is one situation where science would liberate you from ideas which could be very malicious in your personal life.

P: Right.

J: Now if my kids were going to Star Trek conventions too much, then I'm really upset. That will have an effect.

S: How do you define "too much?"

P: Ha, ha, ha.

J: You've got to go to one just to check it out. The freak show is great.

E: No you don't.

P: Excuse me?

J: You know, they're going to one a month or dressing up like Spock, then we got problems.

P: Different set of issues, I'll admit. Different set of issues.

E: Yeah. That's a whole 'nother topic.

UFO Government Cover-up (54:49)[edit]

S: We're almost out of time, but we have time for one more quick issue in the UFO end of the pseudo-science spectrum. This is an article, I think Perry, you sent me this one.

P: I did, I did Steve.

S: "Marshall Blamed For UFO Cover-up".

P: I tried to do a little more research on this topic from when I picked out that article. Basically what all this stems from is way back in February 25th of 1942 — so this is not... a short time after December 7th, '41, Pearl Harbor, there was a ...

E: And pre-Roswell.

P: Correct. There was an air raid over Los Angeles on the west coast, and about two-thirty in the morning a blackout was called. At about three-fifteen it's claimed that a wave of planes came over, anti-aircraft guns open fired, and then around four-sixteen the same thing happened, sort of a second wave. And again guns blazed and opened fire. According to official reports they couldn't identify the aircraft, and no aircraft were brought down.

S: Right. It was mass-hysteria brought on by jittery wartime nerves.

P: Exactly, and the west coast was very jittery at that time.

E: Oh, sure.

P: But then they claim — this is the ufologists, basically — they claimed that General George C. Marshall, he of the Marshall Plan, a very famed, decorated general ...

S: Secretary of Defense in World War II.

P: ... Secretary of Defense, Nobel Peace Prize and on and on. They claimed that he wrote a memo to the White House. And they claimed that he said regarding the air raid over Los Angeles "It was learned by Army G-2" — this is a quote from him allegedly — "that Rear Admiral Anderson recovered an unidentified airplane off the coast of California. With no bearing on conventional explanation this headquarters has come to the determination that the mystery airplanes are in fact not Earthly and according to secret intelligence sources they are in all probability of interplanetary origin." And then it says he went on to sort of cause the Army G2 to create a unit called the Interplanetary Phenomenon Unit to investigate these things.

S: The IPU.

P: The IPU. There's a fellow named Bland who works at the George C. Marshall Library who has discussed this in the past, and he thinks it's all nonsense.

S: Right.

P: He thinks the thing was forged. He said, in fact, it would be easy to do with a pair of scissors and a copying machine, you know, ...

S: Right.

P: ... to put the General's signature on the bottom of any memo you want, and so forth. The only thing I found somewhat interesting about this whole play here is that there was a fellow who tried to get some information in 1984 under the Freedom of Information Act. He just sort of wrote to the Army and said "Look, I want any information you have on the IPU." OK. He was written back by a Lieutenant Colonel Lance R. Cornine, and the guy says in his letter, it's not too long, he says basically "in your response" — I'm sorry — "in your request regarding your request about the Interplanetary Phenomenon Unit, it was disestablished and as far as we are aware," he says, "all records if any were transferred to the Air Force in the late fifties." The Unit "was formed as an in-house project purely as an interest item from the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence. It was never an actual unit," he says. "It had no investigative function."

S: Mm, hm.

P: "It was not formally organized. It had no mission nor authority. It was not reportable." And he said "It's only through institutional memory that any recollection exists of the Unit at all." And then he just goes on to say "We're therefore unable to ..."

S: Right.

P: ... "to meet your request." There's nothing to give you. There's nothing here, is basically what the guy said. And that's about it, you know. People point to this and say even the renowned George C. Marshall was part of a UFO cover-up because of this.

S: Yeah, it's nonsense.

P: It's nonsense.

S: This is very reminiscent of the MJ-12 documents, the so-called Majestic 12 documents, which were, again, allegedly signed by Harry Truman, although the signature was found to have been a copy of a signature on record, which will probably be the same case with the Marshall document. And these documents come out of nowhere. They have no history. Someone just has them and produces them. They cannot be authenticated in any way. They are obvious frauds. These are just fraudulent documents, and they don't prove a thing, and just consistent with the narrative of the UFO mythology, but don't represent evidence in and of themselves in any way. So this is a replay it sounds like of the MJ-12 documents, and the reading I've done on the specific thing they did in fact the ufologists themselves made that link, and it was probably Majestic 12 that was in charge of this whole thing.

P: Right.

S: It's just a part of the same government conspiracy cover-up phenomenon.

P: And this guy in charge of Marshall's documents at this library says he thinks it's nonsense.

S: Of course.

P: He's very, very familiar with the General's writings and feelings. It's so easy to make frauds in this day and age, it's nonsense.

S: And still, you know, they always have to justify "well why would there be a sixty-year government cover-up, sixty, seventy year government cover-up of UFOs? And they have the same lame excuses: "Oh, because the government knows that there would be public panic if they ever acknowledged that flying saucers had crashed on the Earth." There would? Public panic? That's total nonsense.

P: That's nonsense. It is. It's ridiculous.

J: If these UFOs came out of the clouds like what's that movie, "Independence Day" or whatever.

S: That would panic.

P: That's different. That's different.

S: That's different than saying sixty years ago, by the way, we found a crash.

P: That's different than a busted-up crash, you know.

S: Right.

P: Look at these fierce guys!

B: I would panic. If a ship like Independence Day slowly came through the clouds bigger than the city, just hovering up there, I would panic, because they'd be breaking the laws of physics.

S: Right. Right.

E: That's true. Well Carl Sagan wrote that if and when we get visited by aliens, we're going to know about it, no doubt about it.

S: Right.

E: There will be no secret element to it. The world will absolutely know.

S: World-wide news event, absolutely no way to hide that. Our government can't hide a BJ in the Oval Office.

P: That's right. It can't.

S: It can't hide anything of any significance for any amount of time. You can't even get through a single administration keeping these secrets under tap.

P: That's true.

S: There's no — how can you possibly keep a world-wide conspiracy over generations and multiple different administrations this secret? Again, this is where conspiracy theories become absurd, because they have to just keep expanding the conspiracy to answer the concerns. "Because it's a world-wide conspiracy, involving thousands of people with unbelievable power and manipulative ... " oh whatever.

E: Talk about widening the gaps, I mean ...

P: It's ridiculous.

E: They're chasms.

P: They say that whatever was shot down that night in '42 is in Hanger 18.

S: Right. Of course.

P: Is that in Area 51, or is that a different hanger?

J: Hanger 18!

E: It's about 38 hangers, 35 hangers down the way, down the road.

S: Hanger 18 is in Area 51, that's right.

P: It is. OK. It's in there. Well that's where it is.

S: Along with the other UFOs.

J: I don't want to burst your bubble, but Hanger 18 is a strip club now.


P: People have been losing interest in aliens.

E: I hear it's a bar for people with second and fourth fingers that don't quite match up.

Jay's Valentine's Day Blues (63:46)[edit]

J: Steve, could I bring up one more Valentine's Day related issue or topic.

S: Absolutely.

J: This will be very brief. I used 1-800-flowers, and the service was so bad. First off, my girl didn't even get her flowers, at all!

S: Oh.

J: Did not receive her flowers. I could not call up their support line because it was too busy, ...

S: That's your story and you're sticking with it.

J: It's the truth! God damn it! She's got to listen to this and know it's the truth. No, the bottom line is I just want to tell everyone: don't even waste your time with that horrible company. They suck.

P: Actually used 1-800-flowers about a month-and-a-half ago, sent my wife some flowers down in New Orleans, and they were able to deliver on-time in a hurricane ravaged area the flowers I'd ordered.

S: There we go.

P: It was a pleasant experience with them.

S: Competing anecdotes.


P: Just telling it like it is.

J: Steve, it's not an anecdote, it's my story.

E: Find a way to use that.

S: All right, we're out of time, guys. Thanks again for joining me.

J: Good night, everybody.

S: Evan, Perry, Bob, Jay.

J: Thank you.

E: Yes, thank you.

S: Always a pleasure.

P: See you next round.

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 on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can send us questions, comments, and suggestions to 'Theorem' is performed by Kineto and is used with permission.


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