SGU Episode 31

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SGU Episode 31
22nd February 2006
SGU 30 SGU 32
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
P: Perry DeAngelis
TH: Terence Hines
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Show Notes


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 22nd, 2006. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me tonight are Perry DeAngelis, ...

P: Yello.

S: ... and Bob Novella.

B: Hey, Everyone!

S: We have a special guest tonight: Terence Hines - author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. He'll be joining us in just a few minutes.

News Items[edit]

WiFi networks and leukemia, brain tumours (0:40)[edit]

S: But first, let's start with some skeptical news items this past week. A report published in The Register, which is a British newspaper, discusses the possibility that WiFi area networks — basically using radio signals to wirelessly connect computers together — that there is concerns among some people that this may be a risk factor for either leukemia or brain tumors.

P: This is like the cell phone nonsense.

S: Exactly.

B: And the power lines.

P: And the power lines, yeah.

S: Right. It's basically all part of the same basic health scare. Now there is actually — what the article is about is a university in Canada that decided to limit their WiFi network on campus so that they wouldn't be exposing their students to excessive radiation. The name of the university is Lakehead University. He is saying: "All I'm saying is while the jury is out on this one," this is the president of the university, Fred Gilbert, "I'm not going to put in place what is potential chronic exposure for our students." So, again this as you guys pointed out, this sort of radiation — it's not really radiation, just electromagnetic fields — concerns have been around I think since the early 80s. There were some early reports, some European studies suggesting that chronic exposure to power lines may be associated with leukemia. But the bottom line is after 20 years plus of epidemiological studies, all of the concerns have been invalidated. In essence there is is no credible evidence that there is any health risk to chronic exposure to either high power lines or radio waves or in the case wireless computer networks. Sometimes it's just really hard to convince people about the lack of a health risk, you know what I mean?

P: Who was it? The president of a university?

S: Yeah, the president of Canada's Lakehead University, Fred Gilbert.

P: I mean, what, you know, I mean this guy's the president of a university, you know?. You've got to be held accountable a little bit for heaven's sake.

S: Doesn't make him a scientist.

P: I know, I know. Believe me, I know.

S: The issues that you always run into, the logical issues you run into with these questions. How much evidence for a lack of a health risk is enough to reassure people? Obviously, it's never 100%. You can never, ever prove zero risk. All you could do theoretically is set statistical limits on how big the risk could be. But it's zero. That would require an infinite amount of evidence to say that it was zero. The other sort of logical point is that a lot of people assume that if something is potentially risky in very, very large doses or exposures then it's necessarily a little risky in little doses — and that's not necessarily true. For most things, there's some threshold. Now that's true for some things, but for most things that are harmful to the body, there's some threshold of exposure where there's some biological effect, and below that threshold there's really no measurable biological effect. But still, people are left with this sort of idea that a little bit of exposure whether again it's a toxin or electromagnetic waves or whatever, if a lot is bad for you, then a little is a little bit bad for you, and they'd rather avoid it completely. Part of it stems from an inherent emotional reaction that humans have. Basically, we're hard-wired to avoid anything which seems tainted or noxious, and it's an evolved emotion to protect us from getting poisoned with rotten or tainted food, etc. But just the idea of being exposed to things which are either unnatural or toxic or whatever makes us feel uncomfortable.

P: You've got to have the proper filters and critical thinking skills to go beyond these (unintelligible) emotions.

S: Right, but that requires an understanding of statistics and science, and how to evaluate evidence.

P: This is what the president of a university should have. I'm not a doctor, and I don't play one on TV, but you've got to have common sense.

S: I don't know who this guy is, maybe he rose up through the humanitarian ranks, not the science end of academia. He wouldn't necessarily know the first thing about how to evaluate scientific evidence.

B: But it's his responsibility before making a decision like that, look at — consult some scientists or just peruse the literature and see what it's all about. I don't think he did that if he came to that conclusion.

P: I wonder if somebody sold him on this, or if he just did this of his own volition.

S: It doesn't say.

P: I'd be curious to find out.

AAAS stands behind evolution (5:58)[edit]

S: The other item of interest this week: The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is a huge scientific organisation in this country, had a meeting last week, and during the meeting, which included a lot of teachers as well as scientists, they had essentially a rally in favor of evolution, supporting evolution and the teaching of evolution, and against attacks by creationist or intelligent design proponents on evolution. So basically, they took the opportunity at their annual meeting, to stand united behind evolutionary theory as legitimate science and take a stand against the evolution deniers in whatever guise they took. Which was very good, I think that was a good thing to do to show support.

B: About time! I mean, I wish they did this a few years ago.

S: It's not the first time scientists have come out and said evolution is legitimate and creationism is nonsense.

B: Well yeah, but this is different. They really took steps. They were running classes: how to teach it, and how to deal with certain questions, and things like that. This is really much more extensive than anything I've heard about in the past and it's great.

S: Absolutely. They've definitely stepped it up. This is a good thing. In the past, the difference between so-called skeptical organisations like ourselves and more mainstream just purely scientific organisations is that scientists and scientific professional organisations have tended to ignore either controversial, fringe, or paranormal, or pseudoscientific claims. Their thinking is that if it's not scientifically valid, it's not worth their time, and they don't want to legitimize it by paying any attention to it. And do you know what? There is a lot of legitimacy to that point of view. Because when scientists and scientific organisations spend the time to debunk these things they could inadvertently help them, help pseudo-scientists by paying attention to them. Sometimes you're better off just letting them wallow in their anonymity. But when something like intelligent design or creationism rises to the level that it has at the grass-roots level, and really is sort of threatening the teaching of evolution, which it historically definitely has hurt the teaching of evolution in this country, then scientists have to take a stand against it. They have to get involved.

B: Absolutely. And also, don't forget though it's not really just evolution or intelligent design anymore. They're really starting to focus on things like the Big Bang, astronomy, and certain areas of physics. It's incredible what they're setting their sights on. That's really scary. That scares me more than any of that.

S: Absolutely. As we've covered many times on the shows, their agenda is nothing short of changing the definition of science itself. They want science to include supernatural explanations, which it fundamentally cannot by its very nature. So I don't think it's overstating it to say that they want to destroy science as we know it. And I think the scientific community is starting to see this and take notice.

P: Good. About time they got off their duffs.

B: Doesn't that make your blood boil?

S: Yeah, a little bit.

B: I just get so disgusted I feel just like moving away.

S: Interestingly, the more outrageous pseudoscience and anti-science gets the more angry it makes anybody with a brain, basically anybody who understands science, anybody who loves science as we do. The more angry it makes us. The problem with that is that when we get angry, it makes us sound a little shrill and fanatical. Then the true believers turn around and say "These guys are biased. Look how emotional they are." So it really works against us. No matter how angry it makes us, we have to take a deep breath and just remain as professional as possible.

B: I know. It's tough. It's like talking to someone who believes the Earth is flat. After a while, you're like "Just get a life! Read a real book! C'mon!"

S: We know that we're outraged because of how ridiculous they are, but they make it seem like we're outraged because of how biased we are. It's really a catch-22 that we've got to watch out for. Let me give you a quote from John West, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. He says "I don't understand how you can have a discussion of intelligent design if you only invite critics. That sounds like a monologue, not a discussion. I thought this was supposed to be science, not a pep rally." So again, he's trying to do this same thing. "Oh look at these guys, they're having a pep rally. They're not allowing us into the dialogue. That shows us just how biased they are." Well, the fact is they don't deserve to be part of the dialogue because they're not scientists.

B: Exactly.

S: They're attacking science from outside, with logical fallacies, with distortions of evidence, etc., etc. So they really only deserved to be ridiculed by scientists, not made part of the dialogue. That's one of their core strategies, to say "Teach the controversy; just let us into the discussion." But you know what, you don't deserve a place at the table. That's the bottom line. In fact, letting you at the table, in and of itself, would hurt the discussion of science, because it's not a science.

B: They don't even belong at the kids' table.

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

P: Well stated, Bob.

S: Another quote by the same guy that is the President of the Missouri-based Creation Science Association, Tom Willis called the scientists "desperate". Right. So that's typical political nonsense, where if the scientists unite behind evolution they call them desperate, and if they don't do it then they say "Ah see, support for evolution is eroding." So no matter what happens, they have something critical to say about it.

P: Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

S: Right. So that's just typical political nonsense.

Holocaust denier pleads guilty (12:17)[edit]

S: A couple more news items I want to hit before we invite our guest on the show. Now we mentioned this before on the topic of holocaust denial. A British historical revisionist by the name of David Irving has recently plead guilty to claiming that the holocaust never occurred — the Jewish holocaust of World War II. Now in Austria, which happens to be the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, denying the holocaust is a crime. So he plead guilty to a crime, he was sentenced to three years in an Austrian prison. Irving is a pseudo-scientist, a pseudo-historian. His denial of the holocaust is pure nonsense. And he ...

P: There was a specific thing in this case where he said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. He actually did, in the end he retracted that statement.

S: Right.

P: He said it was a mistake. He shouldn't have said it.

S: As idiotic as he is, I don't believe anyone deserves to be in prison for being an idiot. Freedom of expression or freedom of speech gives you the freedom to be wrong. And he deserves to be ridiculed is what he deserves, not be sitting in an Austrian prison. But the Austrians have a different idea about that than we do, and he ran afoul of that.

The Man Who Never Sleeps (13:36)[edit]

S: Now I think Perry, you sent me this news item. This is an interesting one: A man who never sleeps. Did you read that?

P: That's the claim in the piece, that he hasn't slept for many, many years.

B: I'm skeptical. Can't be!

P: That's the claim. Cannot sleep and has not slept, and yet he continues to function.

S: For 33 years.

B: He's not human.

P: For 33 years. There you go.

B: I don't think you could be human and not sleep for 30 years.

S: He is a Vietnam man who apparently was normal for a time, and then he had a fever, and after this bout of fever he's had chronic insomnia and hasn't slept for about 33 years. He's now in his sixties. He says he can function, and he's otherwise healthy, but he just doesn't sleep.

P: Is insomnia something you treat, Steve?

S: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean the Template:Neurology and pulmonologists and there are sleep specialists who treat it, but I do occasionally treat insomnia if it's part of a neurological disorder.

B: The way I see this is that, you've got two options here. Either it's a total hoax and this guy is just totally like "Hey, I think I'll tell a cool story or whatever." So it's either that, or this guy really, maybe he really thinks that he's not sleeping but maybe he has lots of episodes of what's called Template:Microsleep.

S: Right.

B: If you force yourself to stay awake for extended periods of time you'll experience bouts of microsleep where you actually are asleep for moments or seconds and that kind of gets you through it. It's not a deep sustaining sleep, but it kind of helps a little bit. So this guy, maybe he's having all these episodes of microsleep but he's really kind of not aware that he's having them.

S: Right.

B: That's how he has remained alive. I think you will literally go insane if you don't get REM sleep, or any type of sleep.

P: His wife says that even liquor can't put him down, according to the piece.

S: People with "insomnia" do sleep. They have trouble falling asleep, they have disturbed sleep, they may wake early, they may only sleep for an hour or two or three in snatches. They are usually sleepy during the day and they will have brief naps during the day. So even people with severe insomnia do sleep. Insomnia doesn't mean you go completely and utterly without sleep. But that is the claim here. I guess it's possible this news account is very inaccurate, and maybe this guy has insomnia for 33 years, but he's not completely sleepless. What they're suggesting in the article, Bob, which I guess you have to list as a third possibility, as remote as it is, is that this guy's brain has been altered in some way ...

B: Oh, no.

S: ... and he actually can't sleep. He actually doesn't need sleep the way that normal people do. That is a rather extraordinary claim. I absolutely would be very, very skeptical of that.

B: I don't even consider that an option. You'd have to reorganize your brain to get by without sleep. It's not like a simple little chemical change or simple little thing. I think it'd be a significant update to your brain.

S: Right. It wouldn't be difficult to damage a part of the brain that then would make it difficult or impossible for you to enter your sleep cycle. It might make it difficult to go through normal sleep.

B: I agree.

S: But it wouldn't make you impervious to the effects of not sleeping.

B: Yes, exactly.

S: That's much more of an inherent process, it's more of a biochemical process of the brain. What happens when we don't sleep is that while we're awake, certain chemicals build up in our brain and we can only get rid of them during sleep. There's also a host of neurological processes that are necessary during sleep, and if we don't get them all kinds of bad stuff happens to our brain. We do eventually become psychotic, which is what you meant by going crazy, and start to hallucinate, etc. etc. So the brain just cannot function without sleep. So the story can't be accurate. We will look further into it if we can drag anything up. I couldn't find anything else on it to find more detail on this article.

P: Neither could I.

S: There's nothing published in the scientific literature on this. So far, it's more of a superficial sort of lay news report.

B: Right. I have thought about what it would be like if when we eventually do — I believe eventually we'll do away with sleep in one way or the other. Who knows how long it's going to take. But I mean as much as I love sleep and love sleeping, it's such a colossal waste of time. Imagine what you would be able to get done.

S: A third of your life. A third of life is wasted to sleep.

B: A third of your life. If you make it to 100, you've spent 25 to 30 years in bed. To me, it's such a huge waste of time. Look at what this guy has done, he dug two ponds or something in his spare time at night when everyone's asleep? Imagine, you could get the equivalent of university degrees.

S: Right.

B: You could read. Think of all the reading you could do if you didn't have to sleep at night.

S: I don't know if that one is solvable, extrapolating from current technology. It would take some fundamental new technologies before we could achieve that.

B: The article that I read said you would have to, in one sense, reorganize the brain in order to allow that to happen. It would be a colossal, unbelievable thing. I mean, eventually we'll be able to do something like that.

S: It's hard to argue with eventually. It's pretty open ended.

B: Steve, I'm not proposing breaking any laws of physics here.

S: I know. I know.

B: Eventually our brains — we're going to just completely computerize our brains into really fast and hardy software and hardware.

S: As long as you're not violating laws of nature, it's hard to make the argument that something will never happen. Never's a long time.

P: Bob is a firm believer in the coming of the superhuman. He is.

B: It's coming. It's inevitable.

P: Alright!

The boy that never eats or drinks (19:38)[edit]

S: Well, one last quick item. I thought we would go from the man who never sleeps to the boy that never eats or drinks. You guys remember Buddha boy?

B: That's what it reminded me of.

S: Buddha Boy we talked about I think in the November or December episode. He is a fifteen-year old who apparently has been meditating under a tree for six months. Has not eaten or drinken, by local accounts, for six months.

B: Or drinken? (B&P laugh)

S: Or drinken. He has no water.

P: Or 'drank', but, are they still closing the curtain every night?

S: Apparently. Now, several months ago, scientists promised that they would examine these claims. And I searched and searched to see if there was any concrete results from such examinations, and there is nothing. But there is a new news report. I did find an update from just a few days ago, that the Buddha boy is still at it. Although, locals claim that he is starting to look a bit weary and tired, but he's still alive, apparently.

B: Plus, he upped the ante here, it looks like.

S: Apparently, he had an episode of spontaneous combustion, where ...

P: Oh, good heavens.

S: ... the clothes burned off his body, without leaving any scars, and we are promised a video of this, although it has not yet been released. But, famous last words.

P: Doesn't spontaneous combustion usually involve the body?

S: Yeah. Yes.

P: I never recall a story of clothes combustion.

S: That's spontaneous "human" combustion.

P: Oh, I'm sorry. This is spontaneous clothing combustion.

S: Yes, apparently.

P: My God, I was not aware of this.

B: Perry, it's called "sartorial combustion".

S: "Spontaneous sartorial combustion". There we go.

P: Ah, thank you.

B: I just coined that.

P: It's wonderful.

S: We'll make sure you get credit for that, Bob.

B: What's that?

S: We'll make sure you get full credit for coining that term.

B: OK.

S: So there you go. He's burning his clothes off his body. I wonder ...

P: We'll keep an eye out for the video, if it materializes.

S: The alleged video. The alleged scientific investigation. If anything actually concrete comes to us. Now the report did make me wonder if all of the actual amount of attention that this kid is getting is starting to work against him a little bit. Maybe it's getting harder for him to sneak food and water, and he actually is starting to feel it. By eyewitness reports, he looks weakened.

P: How hard could it be to close the curtain?

S: I don't know.

B: But, Steve. After nine months does he still have crowds? How big are the crowds now?

S: Apparently, many people stay with him.

P: Yeah.

B: Wow.

P: And if there's somebody out there who wants to make a hefty donation to the NESS we'll be glad to take a trip out there.

B: Absolutely.

S: If anyone wants to fund a trip to Nepal.

P: We'll take it there. We'll go.

B: We could record the podcast at the tree with the kid.

S: Live from Nepal.

B: Live.

P: Absolutely.

Science or Fiction (22:50)[edit]

S: Well, let's go to our guest. Joining us now is Terence Hines. Terry, welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

TH: I'm glad to be here.

B: Hey, Terry.

TH: Hi, how are you doing.

B: Good, thanks.

S: Dr. Hines is a PhD in experimental psychology at Pace University. He is the author of the book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal: a Critical Examination of the Evidence, which is now in its second edition. And he is the author of many articles. He has been published frequently in the Skeptical Inquirer. He also lectures extensively on the paranormal and has in fact given a couple of lectures for our own group, the New England Skeptical Society. So again, Terry, thank you for joining us, it's always a pleasure to have fellow skeptics on the show.

TH: I'm glad to be here.

S: Now, I cleared this with you before we started recording, but I told you about our segment Science or Fiction.

TH: Mm, hm.

S: And for the audience: every week, I come up with three science news items. Two are real; one I made up. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to figure out which one is fake, and Terry graciously agreed to play along this week.

(musical intro)

S: So, I'm going to read the three items. We occasionally have a theme to the items. The theme, this is a loose theme, but the theme this week is primate psychology, which I thought would be down your alley.


S: Terry, I'm gonna ask you to go last. I want Bob and Perry to give their answers first. And then...


S: ... and I'll let you go last, because I think — I'm not sure this is going to be challenging for you as it is for them. OK, so here are the three items. Don't say anything until I read all three items one by one.

TH: I won't.

S: Item number 1: Recent psychology experiments show that people make better decisions with their subconscious mind than their conscious mind. Item number 2: Recent discoveries of Neanderthal man cave paintings finally established that these primitive "cave men" had a culture of art. And item number 3: A host of recent research indicates that the great apes have complex culture, including fads and fashions. Bob, why don't you go first.

B: First? OK. Let's see. People make better decisions subconsciously than consciously.

S: That's number one, yes.

B: Well that seems terribly vague. I mean, there are certain things that you can do better subconsciously because you're not — because if you try to think how you do it, you're just kind of like paralysis by analysis. You can't really think about it, you just gotta kinda just do it. So that makes sense to me, but it's so ambiguous, it's hard to make a good decision. The second one, cave paintings, a culture of art. I mean, that seems totally plausible to me. There's been so many paintings found, so many cave paintings, and how many were never found, or were destroyed, or just deteriorated. There could have been hundreds of thousands of them. I could see how that could be defined as a culture of art in a sense. Maybe back then people walked from cave to cave and checked out art, I don't know. Let's see.

S: Just to be specific about it, that means that there was an identifiable style. That you could see that two different works of cave paintings actually had similar technique and style.

B: So that's what you mean by culture of art.

S: Yes.

B: OK, that sounds plausible as well. Umm... Hmm. Sure, that sounds — I can't think of anything to make that seem implausible.

S: OK, and item number three.

B: OK, fads and fashions in...

S: In the great apes.

B: In the great apes. Fads and fashions. That seems the least plausible to me. There's no fads in clothing, because they don't have ...

S: Yeah, definitely not referring to clothing but behavior. (laughter) Obviously referring to behavior.

B: All right. Fads or fashions. I mean that's not completely out there, either, but I'll go with that.

S: OK, so Bob's going number 3 is fake. Perry, what do you think?

P: Well, Bob's spewed out everything I was thinking.

S: I meant Perry.

P: Perry, with a P like Paul. I think Bob spewed out everything. I'll just go along with him. I think it's number 3.

S: OK. Terry, are you gonna straighten these guys out?

TH: Well, actually I read the article with number one today.

S: I figured you would have read some of these ...


S: ... because they were plastered all over some of the science websites, but ...

TH: Yeah, so, number 2 certainly sounds plausible when you redefined it as a sort of identifiable style, so I'll go with number 3 being the fake.

S: OK, so you all say number 3 is the fake.

P: Right.

S: Well, let's start with number 1. Terry you let the cat out of the bag. So yes, there is a series of experiments which demonstrate — basically what they did is they... they always use college students as the guinea pigs in these studies. They gave them a choice they had to make between items. And then, in one group they forced them to decide what they wanted while they were being actively presented with that choice. And the second group, they had them do a distracting task for 15 or 20 minutes, and then quickly decide, without further deliberation. The group that had the 20 minutes of distraction were more happy with their decision in the long term than the people who had to make their choice while they were actively thinking about it.

TH: Yeah. But there was an interaction between the amount of information they had to base the decision on.

S: Yes, that's true.

TH: If there were just a few bits of information then conscious was better than unconscious. When they were overwhelmed, then unconscious was better than conscious.

S: Yes, exactly. The thinking is that there was time to subconsciously process this information and look for patterns or things that might actually lead you to a better decision, and that when people get overwhelmed with a lot of details they may react to one or two details and not really make a better overall decision. So interesting — you know, obviously very narrow in how this study was actually done. But that is sort of the implication that we may actually do some useful processing of information on a subconscious level. Number 2 is actually incorrect.

TH: Oh, man!

S: I always try to make them sound plausible, but there's a couple of details in this that make it wrong. First of all, I said Neanderthal man.

TH: Ah, right! Oh!

S: Cro-Magnon man had cave paintings and definitely had a tradition, a style.

B: Did you say Neanderthal? Play back...

P: He did.

S: I did, I said Neanderthal. I always read it. I read it from right in front of me so I don't make mistakes. So... but the thinking was, I thought you guys would err the other way, because Neanderthal man... the common belief is that Neanderthal man had no art. And in fact that's not true. They've discovered many pieces of, clear pieces of art that were found with Neanderthal remains. But here's the difference. First of all, no cave paintings. They're all stone sculptures. The second thing is that they all appear to be one-offs. In other words, an isolated, single piece of art. There's no — there's never any style or tradition or culture of art. So the idea is that sure, over the thousands of years there may have been the occasional Da Vinci among Neanderthal man who saw a stone and vaguely recognized a human face in there and then modified it to look more human, but there was no tradition or culture of art, where a style or techniques were passed down.

B: Really?

S: ...or were done in a repetitive way. So there is no repetition of artistic style or pieces among Neanderthal men. Only among Cro-Magnon man. But they did have art.

TH: That's interesting. I wonder if that's because cave paintings are just more long lasting than pottery. And so there's less of a database of Neanderthal pottery than there is.

S: Well, this is not pottery among Neanderthal men, these are stones.

TH: I mean carvings or whatever.

S: But actually, the stones I think are more durable than cave paintings. These are rocks.

TH: OK. I see.

S: One piece of art, for example, it was basically a rock that was — I think it was about 14 or 15 inches across — that looked like a stylized face. In fact it could have been human or it could have been meant to be feline. And a tooth had been inserted through the rock. It's very interesting. So the two halves — so if you put the tooth through the bridge of the nose, so that the two halves of the tooth looked like eyes. And they were able to show through analysis that the stone was worked. It was not just natural, and that the tooth was deliberately inserted where it was, so it couldn't have been an accident. So it's an interesting looking piece of art, but again, it's an isolated thing. That technique has never been seen anywhere else... again, no culture of art. Number 3 is absolutely true. There have been numerous now researchers who are documenting that all of the great ape species can pass on culture. And troops of — whether gorillas or chimpanzees or... whatever — will in fact use the same techniques, have the same behavior. And that behavior will be unique to that troop. And they pass it down from parents to children, so that's culture. It's knowledge that they pass down.

TH: Hm, hm.

S: They've even observed — only among chimpanzees, which are our closest relatives, so it makes sense — they've actually observed very peculiar behavior that seems to last for a short period of time and then goes away. So-called fads.

B: Right.

S: In other words, young chimpanzees, interestingly only among the children, were for a while doing this hand-flapping behavior which they found humorous. And they were doing that behavior, and passing it around for a while and then it just sort of faded out and they stopped doing it.

B: Wow.

S: So, interesting.

B: Yeah, what threw me off... fads and fashions.

S: I took that term from the article that I referenced.

B: If you just said behaviors.

S: I thought I clarified that, but you are right, I mean it does...

B: No, but just does two words really kinda put you in a mindset that's... that... I don't know.

S: Because it's anthropomorphising, you know.

B: Right.

S: You think of them in terms of human behavior. Maybe there is no fundamental difference between the behavior that they are observing among chimpanzees and why people will start to use certain phrases or do certain behaviors. I it will become popular for a while and everyone will do it and then it will fade away.

B: Oh, sure.

S: It's basically the same pattern of behavior that they are observing.

B: Oh, yeah.

P: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

S: Absolutely... Great book by the way by Carl Sagan. Trying to learn about human behavior by observing our closest primate ancestors. Anyway, you guys, your analysis was all correct. This was a tough one.

P: Stumped us.

S: I think I got all of you.

P: You got as all. It's good.

S: Terry, thanks for playing.

TH: Oh, you're welcome. Do I win somebody's voice... If I'd got it right would I have won somebody's voice on my answering machine?

S: You win my voice on your answering machine, for whatever that's worth.

P: Yeah.

Interview with Terence Hines (34:53)[edit]

S: So I was looking through a lot of the articles and stuff that you've written just to come up with some ideas to what to talk about tonight. So actually one thing caught my attention. In your book, you write about lie detector tests and basically arguing that it's no better than a coin flip and research has shown that if you even subtly bias the examiner, the person performing the lie detector test, by suggesting this is the guy we're interested in, for example, that that utterly biases the outcome of the lie detector test. But have you seen however, the recent fRMI studies ...

B: Yeah.

S: ... which purport to be very accurate lie detector tests basically looking at ...

TH: Yeah there's several ...

S: Go ahead.

TH: There's not only fMRI's but there's some evoked potential studies. I think it's a P400 study. I've seen some of those. They seem promising.

S: Yeah.

TH: They seem promising.

S: So yeah, there's nothing wrong in principal with the idea that when we lie something different is happening in our brain than when we tell the truth.

TH: Mm, hm.

S: The classic lie detector uses physiological measurements, sweating and what not, which people can learn to fake or fool. But this is looking directly at brain function. It's very hard to influence how your brain works. In fact it's probably impossible, so.

B: I mean isn't it conceivable that they might eventually come out with a like a really portable device that you could even use at a distance?

S: I don't. MRI scan?

TH: Probably not at a distance, I can't imagine at a distance.

B: Even you know, maybe ten or twenty feet? I mean kinda like you're not, really where you're not aware that you're being tested in such a way? Is that possible?

S: Not with current technology.

TH: No because you mean you really, to measure either electro-physiological signals from the brain or blood flow you've got to have a device attached to the head.

S: Right.

B: OK.

TH: And those signals drop off, obviously, with the inverse square law.

S: They drop off very quickly.

TH: Very quickly.

B: OK.

S: The same reason why ESP doesn't work basically.

TH: That's right.

P: (Laughs)

B: Well, yeah.

S: And the skull attenuates those signals tremendously so you'd have to be pretty close to the head to get a good recording.

P: Right.

B: Oh god what do you think will happen if they can actually show that this thing is a really reliable lie detector? Say, you know, say ninety five, ninety nine percent, which is conceivable from what I've read about it.

S: Sure.

B: It seems conceivable that this could be extremely accurate. I mean, could you imagine the effect it might have on ...

P: On jurisprudence?

B: ... law? Can you imagine that? And they allow it in courts?

S: Criminals, spies.

TH: Yeah, yeah.

S: Yeah think about it. The implications are huge.

P: They sure are.

B: Wow.

S: It reminds me of a lecture you gave to us, I think it was last year, about — I can't remember what the name of this effect is but the idea that if you understand how to read a language, you can't ...

TH: Oh the Stroop effect

S: The Stroop effect, right, you can't suppress it, and that that was used to sniff out spies who were pretending not to speak Russian.

TH: That's right. That was a legend. I've never been able to get anybody at CIA to confirm that, but that's a legend.

S: Oh is that right? Any update on that? You had talked to us about the fact that a new — for the first time you apparently had discovered that people were able to suppress the Stroop effect through Hypnosis, and that they might have actual different hardwiring in their brain where they can suppress reality.

TH: I hadn't discovered that. Amir Raz, at Columbia had discovered that.

S: I see.

TH: And he also showed, and I'm working with Amir on some related projects, but he also has shown that when they're hypnotized, the brain area, certain brain areas are in the hypnotized, the highly hypnotically people, are in fact turned off. Reduced activity I should say, turned off is too grandiose.

S: So these people may have — just because they're, mutants or whatever — they have an altered brain biology — they're able to actually suppress certain parts of their brain that most people cannot suppress.

TH: Mmm hmm, mmm hmm.

S: And that this may actually alter their perception of reality.

TH: Yeah only when they're highly hypnotized. Apparently only when they're hypnotized. Although I've heard that Amir has just published a paper I haven't seen that suggests that for highly hypnotizable people even when they're just given suggestion but not hypnotized per se, they show some reduction in the Stroop effect. I'd have to dig that paper out.

S: Right. Of course, what is hypnotism? Right? I mean that's, it's not really an ...

TH: Yeah.

S: There's no real operational definition of what hypnotism is, is there? I mean it's basically just a highly suggestible state?

B: Suggestible state. Right.

S: So it's probably just a spectrum of suggestibility, not ...

TH: Well, certainly that's right all the scales of hypnotizability show that ability to be hypnotized is normally distributed just like height, and weight and those other things.

S: And at the extreme end people can actually suppress parts of their brain that are ...

TH: Yeah.

S: And what do the parts of the brain that they're suppressing usually do?

TH: Well, in the Stroop study, they're suppressing a part of the brain called the word form area which if you take --, if you look at word, just printed on a page, this word form area becomes active. If you look at a nonsense string of letters, the word form area becomes active. If you look at a string of letter-like but not letter symbols the word form area becomes active. And that's the area that's being — that's not as active in these folks when they're hypnotized. Somebody else's study, and I've forgotten who's it is, showed a similar phenomena for placebo effects. People who are highly suggestible etc., etc., show a heightened placebo effect for pain, and when they're scanned, the somatosensor areas that respond to pain show reduced activity, but that reduced activity correlates with an area in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain we think of as involved in decision-making and conscious processing, that area shows a heightened activity.

S: I see. So basically like the more evolutionarily higher levels of the frontal cortex are more active, and they are either suppressing or taking over for some more primitive areas that experience pain, basically.

TH: Yeah that, or that respond to letters and such.

S: Right.

TH: It would be, it's interesting to, it would be interesting to know if there are different sets of connections between the highly hypnotizable people, and the non-hypnotizable, less hypnotizable people, and there's a technique out there that now can do that without having to, you know, wait for the hypnotize, wait for folks to die and cut up their brain.

S: Yeah.

TH: It's called Diffusion Tensor Imaging, which allows you to look at white matter tracts in the brain in a living person.

S: Right.

P: Do you think being highly hypnotizable would make you more fantasy-prone?

TH: Absolutely it does. That's absolutely true.

P: Yeah, it does seem like it to me.

S: Yeah, that's the big interest for us as skeptics, is that a lot of these — these are the people who are generating many of the ghost witnesses phenomenon.

TH: Yep-

S: A lot of the paranormal phenomenon when you really, when you start to look at the people who, who see ghosts and have these experiences they tend to be highly fantasy-prone, highly hypnotizable, highly suggestible. And maybe they actually have a different — we're looking at a subset of humanity that has a different, you know, brain organisation that enables them to consciously suppress more automatic parts of their brain.

TH: Mmm hmm. And I also think that they are better, not better but they, they see patterns, they're more likely to see patterns where there are none.

P: Right.

B: Wow. Perfect.

S: Interesting.

TH: And if, if you, yeah if you see patterns where there are none then you have to explain, at least to yourself, why the patterns are there, but if the patterns aren't really there any explanation you come up with is going to be bogus by definition.

S: Right.

B: Right. Kind of like a hyper-Pareidolia

P: Right.

TH: Yes exactly.

S: Pareidolia being seeing, um, objects in random stimuli like a face in the clouds, is Pareidolia.

TH: Right, and there's a researcher in Switzerland whose name I'm embarrassed to say I have forgotten at the moment, who's been doing some very interesting work showing that basically this pattern, as you'd expect, this pattern recognition stuff kinda comes out of the right hemisphere.

S: Yes.

TH: And, he's done some work, and again I haven't read this recently so I'm kind of pulling it out of what passes for my own true memory, but my impression of my memory is that, excuse me, ...

B: Ha ha ha.

TH: ... is that — he's shown if you give normal people, uh, drugs with enhanced dopamine function, give them a little bit of L-DOPA, basically, there're, people who are initially "normal" now start to see more patterns. And if you give, if you let the L-DOPA wear off, they see less patterns.

S: Right

TH: They go back to normal.

S: Right.

B: Whoa.

TH: And he suggested that these people who're, he, he, I think he's at least hypothesized, that people who're highly likely to see patterns where there aren't any have a mildly hyperactive dopamine system and we know that schizophrenics at least in part of their pathologies is a way over-active dopamine system and they tend to hallucinate. It's a very interesting series of studies he's done ...

S: Right

TH: ... that are I think quite profound.

S: Yeah I, you know I think obviously I'm a neurologist for those in the audience who may not have heard that before, and I am fascinated with the way our brains construct reality for us and what role that plays in belief in the paranormal basically and also our beliefs in anything. How we know what's real and what's not real. It's very interesting to think that there's specific parts of the brain that allow us to distinguish reality from unreality, to test reality, to gauge the probability of our own experiences. There are also parts of our brain that allow us to see patterns, and that's a very adaptive, necessary function, but anything that's adaptive and necessary if it over-functions could start to become a detriment. Whether it's... the ability to think creatively is good but when that's over-active maybe that unhinges us from reality.

TH: Yeah, yeah.

S: The ability to see patterns is critical but if that becomes over-active then we start to see patterns that don't exist, and again I think we're just dealing with the people at one end of the bell curve of the variations in these neurological abilities that tend to see things and believe things that aren't real.

P: I think many people yet do not quite grasp just how immensely important the biology of the brain is in to how you perceive the world around you.

S: Right.

P: It's so critical that things are working properly up top.

S: I know... and when you talk to true believers they are definitely coming from this premise, this assumption that our brains function perfectly, that there are no gives-and-takes in how our brain works, and that if they experience something it was real, and if people believe something, if they say something "Well, why would they possibly lie and they had that experience and we have to believe that". Wrong! Our brains our completely messy, unreliable sacks of meat and we have to have a very nuanced understanding of how they work. In fact, ninety percent of science is just correcting the imperfections of our brain.

B: Right.

S: It's basically trying to eliminate deception, whether it's self-deception or other deception. Understanding of this part of the brain, this aspect of our own brains, is definitely something that separates skeptics from the true believers. I think it's very, very important.

TH: An interesting point on that regard is the wonderful new book by Susan Clancy: Abducted ...

S: Mm, hm.

TH: ... and how people come to believe they were kidnapped by aliens. It was published by Harvard University Press. It's not a technical book, and I actually just reviewed it in the current Skeptical Inquirer. It's really a masterpiece, and she makes this point so eloquently that these people who have been... who really believe, and really remember in some sense that they've been kidnapped by aliens. They're not crazy, they're not stupid, they're not on drugs, but they have had these experiences and been reinforced by ...

S: Right.

TH: ... alien cult, and so forth. But she goes through the processes to create one of these false memories with such grace, and it's interesting to go on-line to and look at the on-line reviews. Seventy-five percent are very complementary, and twenty-five percent of them are from the true believers who say "she just doesn't understand that belief determines reality, and if she doesn't believe then it won't happen to her."

B: Ugh!

P: Right.

TH: "My cousin Bernie believes, and so it really happened to him."

S: Right.

TH: And so forth and so on.

S: Which, by the way, is exactly what you find if you go onto and read the reviews of your book ...

B: Your book!

S: ... which I did today. Most of them — seventy-five percent are very complementary.

B: More than that! Even more than that.

S: More. There's a couple ...

B: Fourteen or fifteen. Out of the fourteen or fifteen that are on there I think twelve or thirteen are five-stars — five out of five. There's one four-star. And there's two one-stars.

S: Both true believers. Both obviously true believers. Yeah.

B: Right. One-stars, and I've got some quotes here for you, Terry. So let's see... this one guy says "Turning to parapsychology Hines gives a partial, selective and biased review of the voluminous research on this topic." Let's see, I've got a little more here. Let's see. "He selects one of the arch-critics Hyman, who's notorious for giving erroneous critiques, as his spokesperson. It would not be so bad if there was also a balanced presentation of the research, but there is not. Virtually none of the many meta-analyses that have found such surprisingly positive results for both clairvoyance and psychokinesis are mentioned." So he goes on there. Then he says something funny — struck me as funny: "Hines gives some appropriately devastating critiques of some of the pseudo-sciences. Unfortunately, the book cannot be counted as trustworthy." Of course, pseudo-sciences, to this guy!

S: Yeah. Except for what he believes! Right.

B: Except for his pet little beliefs.

S: Right.

B: Then you're like "devastating". Like "Oh, my God! How dare you not include these analyses." Oh, man. It's pretty funny.

S: It's funny you mention that about the book, because that's what you'll find: any skeptical book is going to have that.

TH: Yes, yes.

P: Terry, how would you — I know it's difficult to do — but how would you define pseudo-science.

TH: You're right. It's difficult.


S: Demarcation problem, but go ahead, give it a shot.

TH: When I was doing my defense of my doctoral dissertation — my doctoral dissertation was on nothing related to pseudo-science, it was on how bilingual memory is organized — and one of my committee members was from ...

B: Bilingual memory. Cool!

TH: Yeah. Well, it was from the linguistics department, and she asked me — she was a young professor at the time — and she asked me "How do you define bilingualism?" And I looked at her, and Mike Coates my advisor kind of gave her a glare, and Mike just cut in and he said "Definitional questions are almost impossible to answer." You have a set of criteria, which is different than a definition.

P: Right.

TH: You apply a set of criteria, and you come up from that set of criteria with some measure or some metric of how likely this belief is to be a pseudo-science.

S: Right.

TH: A definition you think of as one or two sentences — bang! — and it just can't be done.

P: I bet Webster did it.

TH: Yeah, but he didn't do it very well.

P: Right. That's right. That's right.

S: Right. I mean you have to write... I wrote an entire article on what's the difference between science and pseudo-science. You can, and people have, written books about it. I mean that's really ...

P: Sure.

S: ... what it takes. You can't boil it down.

TH: Right.

S: It's not black and white. It's not like things are completely science or completely pseudo-science.

B: Spectrum.

S: It's a spectrum. And you can be anywhere along that spectrum. Somewhere in the middle — basically science, or basically pseudo-science, and it just depends upon how many of these twenty or thirty or however many you can come up with criteria you have that either put you in one category or the other. But I do think, having thought about this a lot, I do think that yes, there's this spectrum and you can be anywhere along the spectrum theoretically, but in our experience, things tend to lump towards one end or the other. I do think there's a...

TH: That's true, that's true.

S: ... what we call a bimodal distribution. If you basically are a scientist you're going to try to do everything correctly. And if you have some other agenda other than following the truth wherever it leads you, you're going to commit a host of fallacies in order to maintain your belief. So in our experience most things clump toward one end or the other of the spectrum. You seem to agree with that.

TH: I do. Yeah, I do agree completely.

S: And then occasionally you have the true controversial thing that sort of falls somewhere in the middle. We've been talking about the brain. I wanted to move towards — to the other end of the body and follow up on an very interesting article you wrote — you probably know what I'm going to talk about — about the G spot.

TH: Oh!

S: You wrote an article called The G-spot: A Modern Gynecological Myth where you basically, through your pathological evidence and other lines of evidence, say that there really is nothing to support the existence of a special location within the female genitals that have any more neurological innervation or more response than any place else, that this is basically a myth. Now a lot of the stuff that's written about your article on the web is very critical of it. I went to a web ...

TH: Oh, isn't it? I've been called "gay" and "impotent". I'm neither, by the way.


S: There's a web site that's actually called who had a very critical review of your article. But this is a few years ago that you published this. Is there any update on that?

TH: Yeah.

S: Was this a one-shot deal for you?

TH: Well, it was a one shot deal. I was hoping it would turn into something more. I'd started the article just because a student of mine in a neuro-physiology class I was teaching one semester here at Pace. She had also been taking the sex course that we teach in the psych department. And her sex textbook talked about the G-spot as if it was real. She asked me one day "Dr. Hines, is the G-spot real?" And thought and I said "it must be", everybody talks about it, and I figured I'd do a little on-line research, because obviously if everybody talks about it there must be — if the claim is that there is this particular anatomical location on the anterior vaginal wall that's really more sensitive and somehow directly tuned into higher spinal and brain centers that induce orgasm, then by any reasonable anatomical definition, there must be lots and lots and lots of nerve endings there, and fewer elsewhere.

S: Right.

TH: And nerve-endings are real easy to see under the microscope. Any first-year biology student can do it. So I figured there must be lots of studies out there where they've looked at autopsy tissue, surgical specimens and found lots of Meissner's corpuscles or nerve endings or whatever the hell they're going to be. And there was nothing! There's nothing out there. There were a number of people who in fact done histological analyses of the vaginal wall and found that they're nerve endings there as you would expect and there may be a difference between the anterior to the superior third and the inferior two thirds, because they come different embryological sources, but I couldn't find any specific finding that there was this clump of neurons. And granted nobody had specifically looked for them, but it's kind of like saying somebody claiming there's an island in New York harbor that's not on any of the maps. And then you go and look at all the maps and in fact it's not there. But if it's an island somebody would have run into it.

S: Right.

TH: So I wrote this article just basically saying that there's no histological evidence. There's behavioral evidence, but when you look at that, it's all highly subjective, basically surveys asking women if they have a G-spot ...

S: Right.

TH: ... and some percentage say yes. The only experimental evidence came from I think a study of a total of twelve women who enrolled in the study to find the G-spot, and they had an experimenter who basically manually — this is a family show, I gather ...

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


TH: ... manually stimulated the anterior vaginal wall, and some percentage of these women, like eighty percent, had an orgasm. Well, this is not exactly a double-blind study here.

S: Right.

TH: They knew why they were there. They were probably self-selected to be responsive.

S: Right.

TH: And I'm sure the orgasm were very real, hard to say this is a family way, but stimulation in that area is bound to be pleasurable.

S: Right.

TH: And you don't need a specific — somebody once said the most erogenous organ is the one between the ears.

S: Mm, hm.

B: Right.

TH: And if a pervasive sociological belief was that stroking the earlobes, that the earlobes were an erogenous zone, there would be some significant number of people who would respond sexually to stroking the earlobes. And we actually have a name for those people. They're called "Ferengi".

P: That's right.


TH: A really obscure Star Trek joke, there. You can edit it out if you want. But what happened is I got vilified, I mean really the messenger bringing the bad news. As I said there's a website out there. I don't know if it's still there. It says I'm impotent and I don't know how to please women, and I'm gay, which I don't know how ...

P: You are sick, Terry.

TH: Well that's true, but I have a kid.

S: And for the record, you are willing to prove to any young, attractive women that you are not gay or impotent. Just for the record.

TH: Absolutely. And in fact after the paper came out — the paper was published August 28th 2001, and think there would have been a lot more — I think it would have been a cause celeb nationwide if September 11th hadn't tragically happened. After that obviously people had a whole lot of more important things to worry about.

S: Right. Absolutely.

TH: But I did get letters, and I have my nut file, as most skeptics have. Women saying "I've got one and I'll prove it to you."

S: Mm, hm.

TH: And had it not been for September 11th, I would have written back and said "Show me, send me a picture, first."

S: Right.

TH: Then there's this guy who wrote, maybe it's Doctor G-spot guy, who — I've forgotten the details of his study — I don't think he ever published it. One of the other issues was this female ejaculation issue.

S: Mm, hm.

TH: And I kind of took no position on exactly what that was about, but since I mentioned the article people criticized me for denying it, and I think what it is is urine with a lot of various exudates in it. But anyway this guy had done a study where he claimed that he could show that during orgasm, females in fact ejaculated a substance, a fluid that was released from the urethra, a fluid that was different from urine, and the way he did this, he catheterized them and then somehow brought them to orgasm. I have never been, and I hope never to be, catheterized, but I have seen it done, I know what it's about, I can think, unless I was really into S & M, which I'm not either that, I can think of no, almost no situation that would be less sexually attractive than having a Foley put up there.

S: Right.

TH: Male or female.

S: Right.

P: I've been catheterized. It was not stimulating in any way, shape or form.

S: It's a very artificial experimental situation that doesn't reflect reality, probably. But there is a couple of followup questions that occurred to me.


S: Is the belief in the G-spot cultural? Do we know that?

TH: We don't know that, but I think it is. I think it is interesting that the G-spot emerges in the American sexology literature in 1950 or '49, I forget, one or the other.

S: Right. Right.

TH: The Indians, the East Asians who had the Kama Sutra, to my knowledge it's never mentioned in any of those ancient texts, which are pretty right on about everything else.

S: Yeah.

TH: They got that right. I mean, did they miss it? I think the answer is no, in fact it was created by this guy named Gräfting, ...

S: Mm, hm.

TH: ... Gräfenberg, whatever, and if you actually go back and read his original paper he doesn't really talk about the G-spot. He just tells these weird stories about women who basically masturbated by inserting things into their urethra.

S: Mm, hm.

TH: Which is anatomically way different if you know the anatomy.

S: Mm, hm.

TH: And then it got picked up in the sixties by — I forgot who wrote the book — again I'm showing my anominal aphasia or anomia — and who kind of touted the G-spot and cited Gräfenberg as a source, but if they had gone back and read his paper they would have seen he didn't talk about a G-spot.

S: Right. Right.

TH: And he was dead at the time, so he couldn't respond.

S: The other thing that occurred to me was the people who believe in a G-spot, not only could it be suggestibility but don't you think there is a certain amount of conditioning that goes along with that, too.

TH: Absolutely. Absolutely.

S: If every time you have a sexual encounter somebody touches your left elbow, eventually touching your left elbow would become very erotic. Right?

TH: Absolutely. Absolutely.

S: So could it be explained on that basis?

TH: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. You're absolutely right. What has puzzled me is nobody — I wrote the paper and kind of figured after I wrote the paper there'd be a lot of people who had access to that kind of tissue who would just go and do the analysis, 'cause it's really a trivial pathological analysis to do. But no paper has come out that I've known, and I think I would know, just really carefully looking at the anterior vaginal wall to see if you find clumps of nerve endings.

S: Mm, hm.

TH: And nobody's done that.

S: Yeah. Interesting. It's fascinating how you can do a very dry anatomical paper, and people respond to it so emotionally, just because of the implications.

TH: Yeah, yeah.

S: Like "How dare you tell me something I think is real is not real." That's basically ...

TH: Yeah.

S: Doesn't matter what you are talking about if that's what you're saying. You could just be dryly presenting evidence, they get very emotionally upset at being told that the emperor has no clothes.

TH: Yeah. The editor of the journal, at the end of the article in the original version, it was submitted after revisions, I said something like "so the G-spot remains kind of a gynecological Loch Ness Monster: much reported, much discussed, but never verified."

S: Right.

TH: And the editor wrote back he said "You can't say Loch Ness Monster. That's going to insult women. So change it to something less offensive," and I think I said "UFO".

S: Right. Yes you did. A gynecological UFO. That's ...

TH: Yeah.

P: UFOs are less offensive than the Loch Ness Monter?

TH: Well, you know the term "Monster".

S: But I think that would have invited a lot of alternate definitions of what UFO stands for, but I won't go there.

TH: Yes, I've been there, but let's not.

S: Were actually running almost out of time.

B: Whoa!

S: But there's one thing I wanted to talk to you about. It goes by very quickly. We'll definitely have to have you back on our show in the future.

TH: Oh I'd love to.

S: I noticed that you wrote a review of Steve Milloy's book Junk Science Judo. Now Steve Milloy was on our show a few months ago, and it was pleasant, but there were some disagreements about some specific topics that we talked about, which was not typical for this show. And subsequent to his being on this show, there's been a lot of accusations about the credibility of his so-called skepticism. I actually emailed Steve to get some comments on some of the things we've been reading, and he basically said "I can't discuss any of this because there is pending litigation," or he's dealing with his lawyer. So I'm not asking you to make any specific statements that you would feel uncomfortable about him, but you did write a review of his book Junk Science Judo, which is published in the Skeptical Inquirer.

TH: Skeptical Inquirer, yeah.

S: You were very critical of the quality of his skepticism. I'm interested in getting your thoughts on that.

TH: I was mostly critical of the quality of his statistical arguments.

S: Right.

TH: If you're going to write a book about — I mean statistics is pretty tedious, but if you're going to write a book for the lay public, it's best to get the statistical facts right. I didn't really have much to criticize about the skeptical issues he took on. I think I probably agreed with almost all of them.

S: Right.

TH: But, when he just made some just basic errors in describing what statistics are, how they're done, that were I thought inexcusable.

S: Mm, hm. Mm, hm. He was pretty dismissive of statistics in general, and I think you correctly pointed out it's just a tool. It's how you use them. It's not ...

TH: Yeah. When he uses the term "statistics" in that book, and maybe on the show, but I didn't hear him, he really means correlations.

S: Right.

TH: If he had used his word processor and just substituted "correlational analysis" or "correlation" for "statistics," there'd have been criticism, but there'd be less to criticize. So either he doesn't understand or he doesn't care about the fact if there's a correlation you can't draw a casual inference, but when you do experiments, you can. And he lumps everything together and statistics as just correlations, ...

S: Yeah.

TH: ... and that was wrong.

S: Yeah. Right.

TH: And boy was he PO'd by my review.

S: Was he?

TH: Yeah. Yeah. He actually wrote a response.

S: Go ahead. What was his response?

TH: Well the publisher wrote a response in the Skeptical Inquirer, like the next issue or so, and the response is basically, "Well, this is a book for the lay person so it doesn't really matter."

S: I see.

TH: He wasn't trying to teach statistics.

S: OK. Yeah. We'll be discussing him again in the future. Again, I couldn't get a comment from him about that, but he's a very controversial figure, very controversial.

TH: Yeah, but I can't imagine what kind of litigation he's involved in. Nothing in the book, at least in that book was ...

S: He is, I think, he is taking litigation against people who have slandered him, basically. So he's going after some of his critics for slander is the impression that I got, and he didn't want to discuss that. Because there have been people who have been accusing him of essentially — I'm not making these accusations, I'm just reporting what other people are saying, accusing him of basically of being a shill for the tobacco industry, for the oil industry, in that he's using skepticism as a way of pushing a right-wing agenda. Those are the accusations that are being made against him, and he ...

TH: Well I certainly got the impression that he's fairly right-wing. But sometimes the right-wing is right and sometimes, it's mostly, well ...

S: Right.

TH: ... sometimes it's not. I certainly agree with him and Penn and Teller that there is very little evidence second-hand smoke is harmful. I mean I think cigarette smoking ought to be banned in public places just because it's really unpleasant.

S: Right. I agree. I agree.

TH: And just like you ban people, if you're in a bar and spits wine on you, it's not really harmful, but I don't want people doing that to me.

S: Right.

TH: So, stop it, and make it illegal, ...

S: Right.

TH: ... and go away. So I do think he comes from a pretty right-wing perspective, but I think the things that he said in the book were correct about the skeptical issue: does second-hand smoke cause harm, etc., etc. But his description of statistics was just way off.

S: Right. Right. Well, again, the topics are interesting, and, again, where a specific claim falls on the political spectrum is irrelevant to whether or not it's true or not. The facts and evidence make it true or not true, and the quality of the arguments that are raised.

TH: Right. Right.

S: So, Terry, thank you so much for being on our show. It was a pleasure.

TH: Oh, you're more than welcome. It was fun!

S: Again, I hope to have you on again in the future.

TH: Love to.

S: Bob, Perry, thanks for joining me.

P: Sure.

S: Good to have you on. Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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.

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