SGU Episode 32

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SGU Episode 32
March 1st 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 31                      SGU 33

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob 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 Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is March 1st, 2006. This is your Host Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. With me tonight are Perry DeAngelis ...

P: Happy March, everybody.

S: ... Evan Bernstein ...

E: Happy Ash Wednesday, everybody.

S: ... and Bob Novella.

B: Hello.

S: How are you guys doing tonight?

E: Oh, great.

B: Pretty good.

P: Jim dandy.

E: Excellent.

B: How's the weather?

S: I'm actually recording tonight from sunny Jupiter, Florida.

E: Oh, so you've retired.

S: I wish.

P: That's right.

S: On vacation ...

P: It's not sunny up here. We're expecting snow in the North-east tomorrow, thank you. Terrible

S: It'll be sunny and in the eighties tomorrow down here.

P: Yeah. It's a tough life, isn't it?

S: It's beautiful, beautiful. It's a good week to be down south.

P: Tough life.

E: We're jealous.

S: Taking a little time out of my busy vacation to do the podcast. Always dedicated.

P: Of course.

E: We do it all for you, folks.

S: Now, we get a lot of feedback about the time of our podcasts. Almost everyone who writes us an e-mail says "Love the podcast. I even get anxious when you guys are late in posting your podcast." So it's kind of ...

B: Ha ha ha, ha ha.

S: It's nice that they say that, but they all notice when we're late in putting up the podcast. Well, I wish we could be more consistent in doing — we've actually been very good in the last six months of putting one up every week. We definitely record one every week, but the post-production takes a variable amount of time, basically because, unfortunately, we all have real lives or we have to like work and take care of families and stuff, so ...

P: Go on vacation. Yeah.

S: Go on vacation, stuff like that. Real life intervenes and it may take — sometimes I can get it done the next day, sometimes it takes four or five days. So there might be a little variability, but we have been very consistent. There will always will be one per week, and they'll be up on the web usually sometime between the Saturday to the Monday after we record. So that's sort of the window we are going for. So just be patient with us. Hopefully when we get a big production staff, we'll be able to be more consistent, but for now we'll have to muddle through with what we have.

P: As a side note, we are expecting to get new equipment relatively soon.

S: Yup.

P: So we're hoping the audio quality will increase.

S: We've been making steady, incremental technical improvements over the last few months, but now we're going to do an equipment upgrade and hope that takes it up another notch. Hope you've been noticing.


Utah Anti-Evolution Bill (2:54)[edit]

S: One quick news item tonight on the evolution versus intelligent design front. Since the Dover Pennsylvania decision there have been a number of legislatures or school boards who have either cancelled or scuttled or opposed either standards or bills or legislation to either anti-evolution or pro-intelligent design, and recently, just yesterday, this item was posted in Salt Lake City. Their house lawmakers scuttled a bill that would've required students to be told that evolution is not empirically proven.

P: Ah, hah...

S: The bill sponsor was a Republican State Sen. Chris Buttars, said it was time to reign in the teachers were teaching that man descended from apes.

P: Those goofy Republicans.

E: Oh.

S: But his bill failed to pass. I think what is happening is that the legislatures don't want to pass laws that are going to be overturned in the judiciary.

P: Yeah.

E: Right.

S: Which, you know, makes sense. So they're saving the court some time, which is good that these laws are being pushed back even further.

P: Good.

S: It very consistent. I haven't read or heard of anything going the other way really since the Dover decision. So I think we're in a good time in terms of rolling back and pushing back these anti-evolution laws.

P: Absolutely.

S: This guy says, Buttars says, "I don't believe that anybody in there really wants their kids to be taught that their great-grandfather was an ape."

P: For God's sake!

E: Yeah.

P: How often are we (unintelligble)

E: Certainly I wouldn't want to be told that, because it's not true.


B: What year is it? I mean, what year is it?

P: That's true. It's true.

S: That is so Scopes monkey trial.

E: Wow!

S: Your granddaddy was an ape, a monkey.


E: Oh.

B: A big problem with that is he probably doesn't even really believe that. He's just saying it to inflame people.

P: He's certainly evidence of de-evolution, and I don't know about evolution.

B: I mean, he certainly has a very limited understanding of evolution, but even he, I don't think believes that.

S: No, no. That's hyperbole. That's hyperbole.

P: Say it is, it is. Very useful. It's useful.

E: How old is the Earth? Well, that's another story.

P: 6000 years old.

E: 6000 years.

P: Bishop Usher.


P: "I'm more interested in the rock of ages than in the age of rocks!"


P: Yes, go ahead, what?

Holy Hardware (5:50)[edit]

S: Another item on the religion front.

P: I stole that from "Inherit The Wind." I have to give proper credit.

S: Yes, you did. So a Connecticut man, trying to make a quick buck on eBay with a piece of metal. Now, this piece of metal happens to have what he claims is the face of Jesus on it. At least it's a little bit more substantial than the grilled cheese that was selling on there last year. I'm sure you guys remember that.

E: Right.

P: Oh, yeah.

E: Oh, sure, are you kidding?

S: The virgin.

B: At least it won't rot away.

S: You could put it on your wall or something.

P: That's true. I think the current bid is over $1000 for this.

E: That's correct. As of tonight the bid: $1025. Bidding ends one week from tonight, folks, so get your bid in. I think you can buy it now for $10,000, if I'm not mistaken.

S: A mere ten thousand.

P: That's not bad!

E: I think there's a button somewhere.

P: Buy it now?

E: So, who knows. There's obviously people cashing in on this, on this stuff. There are also other products out there on eBay claiming to have other likenesses of Mary and Jesus.

P: There's all sorts of relics and artefacts.

E: Now funny Joseph never gets — never appears on anything. I wonder why, why that is. It's always Mary and Jesus.

B: I loved in the article somebody said to him that it looks like Jim Morrison's face. That was great.

S: Yeah. Right. It doesn't really say what the image is in. Is it just in the pattern of the burnished sheet metal? There's no rust or paint or anything on it, right?

E: No, from the pictures it looks like — it almost looks like it's an oil stain of some kind, like there's a very fine coat of oil, although I'm sure — well maybe they haven't — but tried to smear it to see if in fact it is just some oil, but if they did that, perhaps, they would ruin something ...

S: Right, right.

E: ... that otherwise is going to yield them some money. Here's the description on eBay. I'll read it to you. It's pretty short. Here's how they describe it, the sellers: "Image of Jesus on sheet metal unpacked right from the crate. I had to do a double take. I was totally amazed. Several people — you can actually see an image of him with his arms in the air or a frontal and a side image of him." Okay. So I guess ...

B: Like mug shots.

P: Yeah. Right. Exactly. Exactly.

E: He said "I felt chills when I held it." OK, so here he is — Manchester, Connecticut, February, twenty-five degrees outside, holding a piece of sheet metal — what do you think you're going to feel when you hold a piece of sheet metal?

S: He feels chilled.

E: "I felt chills when I held this."

S: That should do it.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: The Jim Morrison comment is classic, because of course he doesn't see the face of Jesus. What he sees is a vague resemblance of a human face, and he just assigns it the meaning that he wants it to have, but it could be anybody.

P: Just doing a quick search on eBay. We have an image of Jesus on wood. We have an image of Jesus on pita bread. There's actually a piece of pita bread here with an image of Jesus on it. We have a photo of Jesus in the clouds taken from a plane.

S: That one is crusty. That picture has been circulating for decades.

P: The one of the clouds? The cloud one?

S: Yes.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: I've seen so many iterations of that photo.

P: We have an image of Jesus on a soft drink lid. In fact there are a great many images of Jesus out there.

E: In fact, if you want another web site to go to see even more, there's a very funny website called [|].

P: Uh huh.

E: And if you go there, they have captured images of Jesus on — let's see we have of course the sheet metal of recent news is on there. There are doors, the wood grain of doors. There's Mary, the Virgin Mary on a basketball backboard, the board behind the hoop.

P: Really?

E: There's of course the cheese sandwich. There is the dent in a car that looks like Jesus. There's the fish bone that looks like Jesus on the cross. Very good website. You should take a look at it sometime.

P: It's pretty good.

B: Pretty funny. Guy's, I'm looking at the auction right now. One thing that strikes me is that it looks like some random image. Pareidolia is kicking in. It's an interesting image. You can clearly see the impression of the eyes and the nose and things. But one thing that seems to be missing — usually when you see an image of Jesus on something, one of the big features that I think makes it very identifiable is the long hair.

P: Right. Yes, that's right.

B: Don't you think? You could really put a vague image of anybody, anywhere. If put the long hair on him, you could say "That's Jesus."

S: Right.

B: There's no impression of hair here at all. It's just the face, the forehead down to the chin, and it's a little indistinct as you get closer to the chin. But it's no hair here at all. To me this looks like Gary Oldman.

S: Gary Oldman?

P: Gary Oldman?

S: A fine actor.

P: Of course, of course.

B: I mean you could literally say this is anybody. It's just a generic face, and I don't see any hands at all.

E: I don't quite get it.

B: Or anything that could be described as hands.

E: I've seen better likenesses of Jesus on other objects and stuff.

B: It could be oil. It's probably some sort of iridescence or thin-film interference. Some oil got in there. It doesn't take much oil. Because you know, oil spreads so, so thin, you just need a tiny drop of it. It actually spreads so thin because it has very little surface tension, and it can get so thin that it's roughly equivalent to the wavelength of light, so it spreads super-thin, and that's what this could be.

P: Right.


Peak Oil (11:50)[edit]

S: Right. Actually, Bob, speaking of oil, why don't I use that to segue into our e-mail section. We got several emails about the podcast last week. The first email is from Rob Van Nostrand in Nova Scotia, Canada. He writes "Hello. I love your podcasts. Keep up the good work. Two questions ..."

P: And we love Nova Scotia, by the way.

S: Absolutely.

E: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

P: Go ahead.

S: I'm going to read his second question first, then we can talk about that one. I'll save his first question till later, because we actually have another e-mail about the same question, so I'll deal with them both at the same time. So a second question was: "I don't know if this fits into your mandate or not, but I keep getting confused by the various opinions about the 'end-of-oil' crisis. In particular, the wide variances in the peak oil point, plus or minus thirty years. Some say we cross this point in December, 2005. Others seem to suggest it's still way off. The frustrating thing for me is that we know that we will run out of oil within the next hundred years. It seems odd that more action isn't being taken now." So, we don't want to get too much into the whole political question of what to do with the oil, but the scientific question is basically: how much oil is there? How much oil can we get to? When are the supplies going to start running out?

B: That's the problem. Estimating the reserves is very scientific. There's going to be a certain amount of uncertainty in the estimates, but it wouldn't be a huge uncertainty. The problem is that the actual figure itself — the whole process is such a political thing.

S: Right.

B: First off, you've got governments. What's their incentive? Governments own like 90% of the reserves. What's their incentive for giving the best number that they can come up with? It's probably not to their benefit to actually to do that in a lot of cases, and oil companies, it's the same thing. For commercial reasons, they are not going to tell you "this is exactly what we got," so it's such a political thing.

S: Right.

B: It's very hard to determine what the actual reserves are. Let me throw some estimates that I gleaned from a quick search of the web. One guy here was saying we're going to reach peak this year.

S: Mm, hm.

B: That means that we've exceeded 50%, and that the gains are going to show a slow decrease, and this guy sounds very, very reliable. I was very impressed with this description of him. His name is Colin Campbell. He helped found the London-based Oil Depletion Analysis Center, and apparently he's got no financial agenda, which is appealing to me for an unbiased opinion, and he's spent his entire life on the front line of oil exploration on multiple continents. He's a chief geologist for Amoco. So this guy — it sounds like this is a pretty reliable source, and he's saying ...

P: What's his motive for putting up the website?

B: This was an interview I believe he did for the Guardian, actually last year. So he's predicting this year that we're going to reach the peak amount.

P: I mean, what's his motive, Bob? He started the Oil Depletion Analysis Center. Why? Why did he do that?

B: I guess to try to come up with the best figure possible in determining how much oil we we actually have left. But even this guy, he's basing it on estimates, and it's only as good as the estimates he's getting. You go to the US Geological Survey, and they're saying that peak production won't come for 30 years. Then you've got the International Energy Agency, they're saying between 2013 and 2037.

P: So it's all over the map. The information's useless.

B: It is. There's just... first off, to really give a good scientific assessment, I figure that can't be very cheap. And you've got the whole political aspect of it, so it's — there you go. Either way, we've really got to start — we've got to turn the search for alternative energy sources into like a Manhattan Project. Come on! Let's do it! Even if we had millennia of oil left, there's still plenty of good reasons to get off oil.

S: Right.

B: So let's just do it. Come on. The initiatives Bush has set into motion the past month are great, but, man, let's do more. Let's keep it up and let's do more and more than even what he suggested.

S: Part of the problem is that oil is still a really cheap source of energy, so there's no economic incentive at the moment.

B: Well, we're getting there.

S: Until oil start to run out, so we'll see. Just getting back to just the scientific question of how much oil is left, there's a lot of variables to consider. It's like estimating what's the probability of life existing in the galaxy. You have to make a guesstimate on so many variables, and the error bars get magnified for each time you have another variable, so the error bars you end up with can be huge, can be orders of magnitude. So, for example, with oil, we don't know how much oil is actually in each reservoir that we have. You drill a hole in the ground, and I'm sure the geologists have lots of ways of estimating how much oil is down there, but they don't really know. The other part of it is that the technology for extracting the oil is evolving.

B: Right.

S: For example, if you do high-pressure steam injection into a used oil well, you may start to get out more oil out, and we don't really know how much more oil. It may be another 50%; it may be three times as much as what was originally in there.

P: Right.

S: So that's a huge variation that we just don't know. So do you take optimistic or pessimistic estimates of all of these variables, and will we find new reserves. Who knows? That's predicting the future.

P: So the bottom line is the answer to this question is currently unknowable, right?

S: Well I think you can say that it falls within a certain range, and here are the error bars, but the error bars are huge. I don't think that we have 1000 years of oil left.

P: Right.

B: Right.

S: I think there's a broad consensus for that. I think that most of the estimates are less than a hundred years in terms of reaching our peak.

B: Well, Steve, a lot of the most recent estimates are — don't really go too far beyond, surprisingly, 2020.

S: Right, right.

B: So that seems very telling to me, and even more reason why we've really got to start pouring billions of dollars into this.

S: Oh, absolutely.

P: Mm, hm.

E: I was just wondering if any of you guys heard of oil shale.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: Yeah, absolutely. Oil shale has a lot of oil in it, and you can make gasoline from oil shale.

P: Right.

S: But it costs more per gallon than just pumping it out of the ground, now.

E: Understand. Here's a statistic I found, though. The United States Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves estimates the world supply of oil shale at 1.6 trillion barrels, 80% of which are located in the United States.

S: That's a big number, but how much of our oil use is that.

P: Right.

E: Right, yeah.

B: That's a good chunk, Steve.

P: Still, it's a lot harder to get oil out of shale, like we said.

E: That's right, it's more expensive.

P: It's a much more expensive process.

B: Right. That's the big problem. That is a big number, and that would last decades.

S: Right.

P: What is oil today, about 60 bucks a barrel?

E: Yeah

P: In the United States?

S: Sixty-six, something like that. Sixty-six, sixty-seven, yeah.

P: That's still cheap. That's about ten cents a cup. It's still cheap fuel, boy.

S: It's cheaper than bottled water. Of course, bottled water's a rip-off.

E: Oh, yeah. That's a whole other topic.

B: Whole 'nother.

More On The G-Spot (20:07)[edit]

S: Rob's first question, which I'm going to read second, is this: "Regarding the G-spot article you might be interested in a recent podcast by Audible's In Bed with Susie Bright. She provided some additional insights that would seem to point out the flaws in the quest for "nerve endings" on the G-spot. It appears that it is not on the surface, but well beneath the surface and triggered more by internal pressure." He jokingly says I'll have to experiment with my wife. She references another website with some information, and again this will be on our notes. So again, saying that the reason why, again just to summarize what we discussed last week with Terence Hines, which was our guest, Terence had published an article called "The G Spot, A Gynecological Myth," where he basically said that there is no published scientific data establishing the existence of a G-spot physiologically and anatomically. Specifically, if you look at sections, pathological sections of the vaginal wall, there is no area that's any different than any other area, and specifically there's no area that has higher concentration of nerve endings, which is what one might predict would exist if there were a spot which is more sensitive. Now he wasn't necessarily saying that the G-spot doesn't exist, just that he was surprised to find that there was no evidence to support its existence, and that there are certainly other explanations for, possible explanations for the anecdotal experience that a G-spot may exist. The other e-mail that we got was this: the sender requested that we do not use her name, but she writes "First of all I'd like to say that I've been listening to your podcast for several months, and I enjoy it greatly, even to the point of getting irritated when you haven't posted a new one in a while. It's refreshing to listen to people who are ..."

E: Very good.

S: Which prompted my earlier comment. " ... who are so dedicated to the scientific method and to cutting through some of the malarkey that passes for information these days. Keep up the good work, guys." Well, thank you.

P: Hear, hear.

E: Yes, yes. Yes, we will. We will continue.

P: Hear, hear.

S: "With that said, I have to respectfully disagree with your recent show where you debate the existence of the Gräfenberg spot and female ejaculation. Please pardon my boldness, but in the interest of science I'm going to get quite graphic here." She sends me a link to a G-spot website, which I looked at. There was no scientific evidence on the site. It was just "This is how you find it. You can buy stuff to help you stimulate it. Blah, blah, blah."

P: She has the nerve to disagree vis us? This is an outrage. OK, you can disagree this one time.

E: Funny you use the word "nerve," there, Perry.

P: It's all part of the cerebral nature of the podcast.

B: ha, ha, ha.

P: Go ahead, Steve.

S: She basically sends her anecdotal experience with the fact that there is such a thing as a G-spot and female ejaculation. I had some time after getting these emails. I actually did a literature search on the G-spot just to see what's being published on this. I found Terry Hines' article, a bunch of letters, nothing else really recently except for one thing, one article, these are like technical medical articles, not opinion pieces, that were published on it. Very interesting. It wasn't really specifically trying to address whether or not the G-spot exists or not, but the implications of the article are very interesting. The title is "The Electro-Vaginagram: Study of the Vaginal Electrical Activity and its Role in the Sexual Act and Disorders." So basically it is an anatomical, physiological study looking at the electrical activity of the nerves in the vagina. Now what they found is that the vagina has a pacemaker, what they're calling the vaginal pacemaker, which is cells in the vaginal wall which cause the vagina to contract, which is the origin of rhythmic contractions that occur during coitus. They hypothesize that this vaginal pacemaker is the G-spot. Now that's very interesting because — so what they're saying is that the G-spot, if you stimulate it, that that triggers vaginal contractions, which is part of a physiological response which causes heightened stimulation and arousal. So perhaps the G-spot is not any more sensitive than any other part of the vagina and therefore doesn't need more nerve endings. Perhaps the nerve endings that are there just function differently. They function as the pacemaker. So that would be a possible ...

P: How about that.

S: How about that? That could be a way. I haven't had an opportunity to run this by Terry Hines. I'll definitely get his — I'll e-mail him and get a response from him on this. Maybe we'll have him back to talk about it briefly, but that certainly is a very plausible alternate hypothesis for how you can have a G-spot without having an increased density of neurons, of nerve fibers or nerve endings in the vaginal wall. I think that's a better explanation than the one that was suggested in the previous e-mail about it being deeper. I think that's naive. The whole vaginal wall has been looked at, not just the surface, and have it being pressure nerve endings. Those are nerve endings you can stain in see too. I don't think that that's a good explanation. But this explanation struck me as perfectly consistent with existing evidence. Again, it's one study, it certainly needs corroboration. We need to see, to correlate the vaginal pacemaker with the psychological and physiological response of a so-called G-spot. There's lots of follow-up studies that need to be done to really ask all the questions that you can ask about that. But that's interesting. Definitely have to run that by Terry.

P: Certainly is. Yeah, that's very interesting.

E: You learn a...

P: It seems a reasonable hypothesis, it does.

E: Yup, yup.

S: Right. So maybe there is a G-spot after all. It also brings up again — I like to talk about the logical points that these kinds of questions bring up and their implications for skepticism in general. It's always difficult to make an argument based upon the lack of evidence.

P: Right.

S: As we say: lack of evidence or absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

P: Right.

S: But that's an over-simplification. It actually is evidence for absence, but you have to put it in the proper context. And this is where I think that skeptics and believers sort of get into unresolvable disputes. If you are making an argument that something probably doesn't exist because we haven't seen it or found it yet, that always has to be coupled with a very realistic and unbiased assessment of how probable it is that we should have found it. So, for example, well if we've ...

B: Right.

S: ... if we've never looked.


E: Big foot.

S: SETI, right! SETI is a good example. So some people say all you know it's been thirty, forty years, we haven't heard any signals from aliens sending us radio signals trying to communicate with us, therefore they don't exist. But you have to say well how much of the sky have we surveyed, how much of the electromagnetic spectrum, with what sensitivity and what power? So do we really expect that we have had a big chance of finding them? We had this exact dispute with the gentleman who believes in Bigfoot, going back a few podcasts. Again, the fact that no-one's ever hit a Bigfoot with a car or taken a really good picture or video or there's zero biological evidence of DNA or a corpse, basically, of a Bigfoot was more compelling to us than to him. He thought that there was a low probability that we would have found biological evidence, and we thought there was a high probability that we ...

P: Right.

S: ... should have found biological evidence. And that's kind of an unresolvable judgement call. How do you quantify the chance of finding an unknown entity? You can't do it.

P: Right.

S: So, anyway, it's the same thing. Even though it is as different as Bigfoot and the G-spot allegedly are, ...


E: I think we're on to something, here.

S: ... it's the same point of logic that a Terry Hines was saying: "Hey! No one has found anything physiological that can correlate to a G-spot," and the believers said "But we haven't really looked, and there could be something else that we're not thinking of." And in this case they may have been right. Not that they haven't looked, because we have looked. We've taken sections and it's been explored, but this is a completely different approach, thinking of it not as increased density but different type of neurons, that that's always the variable when you're basing a conclusion or an argument on a lack of evidence, that there could be a kind of evidence that no one has even thought of yet that can hit you.

P: You're a neurologist, Steve. That is a reasonable explanation: neurons that act differently?

S: Absolutely.

P: Yeah, OK.

S: Those kind of pacemaker function of neurons is well-established.

P: OK.

S: The evidence that they've found a vaginal pacemaker is preliminary, I think. So, again, it needs further exploration, but it's perfectly reasonable. It's nothing ...

P: Right.

S: ... earth shattering in just that implication right there.

P: Very, very interesting.

Zecharia Sitchin (30:07)[edit]

S: One more e-mail. This one comes from a gentleman who calls himself Aram. He writes "I am an avid listener. I've downloaded all of your podcasts and listened to them every day while I drive."

E: Every day?

S: "I've learned a lot from you guys, especially with science or fiction." Well, thanks Aram. We enjoy science or fiction very much as well. "Anyway, I have a question about Zecharia Sitchin. I haven't read his book The 12th Planet, yet, however I do know about some of the claims he makes. I wanted to know what you think about Sitchin's interpretation of the Sumerian tablets and that we come from a family of aliens — Anunnaki, or whatever — and some revolving planet Nibiru. I'm sure you can debunk it in minutes. I'm very skeptical about it. I heard about Sitchin in a book by Lloyd Pye." You guys remember Lloyd Pye, right?

E: Oh, sure.

P: Of course.

S: The author of the book Everything You Know Is Wrong.

P: Yeah.

S: "In the book he talks about the gaps in the fossil record, that our closest ancestor apes only have a few genetic defects, and we have thousands. How can it be that we have so many defects and our closest DNA ancestors have so little."

B: Well first off, we don't have DNA of our closest ancestors. I mean how could you make that assessment when we don't have any good example of any DNA from a Cro-Magnon or a Neanderthal. They did find ...

S: I think he meant living ancestor. I think he meant living ancestor. I'm just assuming that. What he is talking about is chimpanzees and gorillas as our closest living ancestors.

P: I believe that's correct, yeah.

B: OK.

S: Here's the logical problem with that, this is the problem with the question.

B: Well, it's wrong.

P: Hold on. Bob.

S: He's just asking. I just assume he just doesn't understand why is it that human beings have so many more — what he calls genetic defects a geneticist would call a genetic mutation, which is technically — you can't think of it as a defect, but that implies that one gene sequence is correct, and another one is incorrect. It's really kind of a misnomer. We use mutations, because it just means that they're different. So what that means is that if you look at any protein in humans, you look at the gene, maybe there's a thousand base pairs in the DNA sequence that codes for that protein, and there may be 20 or 30 different varieties or genetic varieties of that protein across the human spectrum. You can have lots of mutations in the DNA sequence that do not affect the protein at all. A lot of mutations are what we call silent mutations. Silent mutations, in other words, different combinations of three base pairs may code for the same amino acid. So that means there's literally zero difference in the final protein structure. Those mutations cannot be altered by evolution, because there's no phenotype. There's no effect to them. So, basically, when those mutations occur, there's no evolutionary selection against them. That has led to the creation of what we call a molecular clock or DNA clock. So these mutations should happen on a regular basis just on the basis of the stability of the DNA molecule and the efficiency of the repair mechanisms. So they basically pop up in DNA based upon the size of the DNA over a period of time, and we've used this to decide how far in the past different species have diverged from each other by comparing their DNA and seeing how many mutations they have in common and how many are different. If we had X number of new mutations that are different than say from chimpanzees and that means that comparing that to the molecular clock we must have split with them 5 million years ago, for example. But here's the thing: genetic mutations will increase over time, just as a natural course. They will increase the larger the population that you have, and whenever a species goes through a period of time where they have a very small population, most of these mutations, most of these genetic variations die out, and then a very few mutations become the parents, if you will, of whatever subsequent population exists. So that's what happened, that happened with the human species about 200,000 years ago. That was the most recent narrow population hole that we passed through. There was probably about 2000 individual human ancestors living at about 200,000 years ago. We were basically on the brink of extinction.

P: Wow!

S: And all the six-and-a-half billion people that are alive today all can trace back their parentage to those 2000 founders. So the number of mutations that we have basically cropped up over the last 200,000 years. Chimpanzees have a much smaller population, and they passed through these constrictions of populations much more recently. They're much more of an inbred population. So they have many fewer mutations than the six and a half billion people have. Does that make sense?

B: All right, so that's what he was talking about.

S: Yeah. That's what he was talking about. The explanation is going through these population narrowings and how long in past it may occur.

P: It's a little dense, but I got it.

S: Yeah. It is complicated. Some say that's why he didn't understand what the answer to that is. Morons like Lloyd Pye use these somewhat sophisticated genetic arguments to claim that there's something wrong with the standard explanation for genetics and evolutionary relationships. The only thing that's wrong is that Pye doesn't understand the first thing of the topics that he deigns to completely denounce.

P: Hah, hah. Yeah.

S: That's why you can write a book with the title of Everything You Know Is Wrong', because this guy doesn't know the first thing about anything.

E: I always have a good chuckle on that title.

B: Steve, wouldn't it be interesting if our population wasn't narrowed so drastically, we might be a considerably different species now. Maybe not considerably, but we might have some really bizarre mutations that would be of course normal if we were used to it but from our point of view might be "whoa, what's that?"

S: Right.

P: You mean like laser beam eyes and wings and stuff, what are we talking about here?

B: Yeah.

E: Oh, no, those are fine.

S: You think about the degree of genetic variation in the human species today is the different races: Caucasian, Asian, African, Australian. That's the amount of genetic variation that arose over 200,000 years based upon geological separation. Separation creates disparity, diversity, and time does. Yeah, so imagine if Homo Sapiens were a large outbred population but geologically separated for half a million years or a million years.

B: Right.

S: But at some point you cross the threshold to where you're a different species. But just shy of that, you can have very different races. Think of how different breeds of dogs are. All dogs are the same species...

B: Dogs. Yup.

S: ...but you have chihuahuas and Saint Bernards. Those are pretty different, but they're the same species.

P: Right.

S: And they can share genetic material. So, yeah, it would be very interesting. Think of the historical problem we've had with racism, which is ...

B: Right.

S: ... the disparity we have now. Imagine if there were more dramatic differences in human races or sub-populations. It would be interesting. Let's get to the first part of Aram's question where he talks about The 12th Planet, Zecharia Sitchin. I did not read The 12th Planet, but I did read Zecharia's website and a lot of what he's written, his articles, where he summarizes and talks about his claims. This guy's a total oddball.

P: Heh, heh. heh.

S: His website,, goes over his basic claims. So this guy basically believes that — he interpreted some ancient Sumerian texts, about 6000 years old, what he calls the "Sumerian cosmogony," wherever that is. He believes that there was a large planet in our solar system called Tiamat, which was ...

B: Tiamat!

P: Tiamat!

E: Tiamat! A five-headed dragon.

P: Five-headed dragon.

S: Right. That's right. Which was I think from Sumerian legend.

P: Yeah

S: Which was struck by a planet which was ejected from another solar system.

P: Uh. Jeez.

E: Called Chimera.

B: Oh, my God! Do you know the odds of a planet from another solar system hitting our solar system?

E: I do. I really do.

B: Oh, my God!

S: Spock does. He can quote the odds.

E: Oh, sure.

S: The collision created the Earth and the asteroid belt.

P: Of course

S: And the planet was captured in solar orbit, but it's farther out. It's the 12th planet in our solar system. So ...

B: OK.

S: There's huge problems with that hypothesis. I mean, enormous. First of all the Earth is in such a nearly perfectly circular and stable orbit that it could not have historically had such a catastrophic collision, especially one that would have so significantly knocked it from its original orbit.

B: Well, Steve. Don't forget. Now don't forget though that in our past it is pretty generally accepted that the Earth was hit by a Mars-sized object many ...

S: Yes.

B: ... early in our formation, and so they might come back to you with something like that, saying "Hey, scientists agree on this, and our orbit is still ..."

S: No, absolutely.

B: That describes it.

S: That collision probably formed the Moon, so what you had was ...

B: Right. Right.

S: ... basically the early solar system was made from collisions. All the planets were basically the product of massive collisions, and initially with small objects, and then they got bigger and bigger. And at some point early on in the Earth's history, a fairly large object hit the Earth and split off the Moon. But, you know, that was probably something that was already kind of in our orbit.

B: Right. Steve, let me just quickly — I saw a simulation of what this might have been like.

S: Right.

B: Real quick. Very interesting. This was a planet that was, like I said, it was Mars sized.

S: It's smaller, much smaller than the Earth.

B: Right, which is about, I'm not quite sure, a half, a third? Something like that.

S: It's about one third the diameter, I believe.

B: And it was in a very, very similar orbit, and it at one point it just kept getting closer and closer. I've just got this image in my head of what that last orbit would've looked like. The last time it went by us without hitting us. Can you imagine what that would've looked like having this planet shoot by your planet. It would be like a 100 times bigger than the Moon. And then of course the next orbit it knocked into the earth and actually ...

E: Cosmic billiards.

P: Yeah, ha, ha.

B: Well, yeah.

S: Basically.

B: Scientists speculate that actually life might have gotten a foothold on Earth before the collision, and they actually called that Earth before the collision Mark I, and the Earth we're on now is Mark II, in the sense that ...

S: Right.

B: ... life might have been completely scrambled and started over from scratch, and if we were never hit, we could be populated with life, and we would be populated with life ...

S: We would be very different now.

B: Completely different than what we have now.

P: Huh!

S: So, but the upshot of that is that just looking at Newtonian mechanics, you had two objects in a similar circular orbit ...

B: Right.

S: ... hitting each other and resulting in ...

B: The relative velocities wouldn't be immense.

S: ... basically a binary system with the Moon and the Earth. Still ...

B: It's like hitting a car on the highway travelling in the same direction and nearly the same speed you are. It's not nearly as nasty as a head-on collision.

S: Right. Or getting hit from the side.

B: Right.

S: If you imagine a planet careening in from another solar system at an incredibly eccentric orbit, and the other thing to think about, Bob, is what he's saying is that some of this material resulted in the the asteroid belt, which is beyond the orbit of Mars, between Mars and Jupiter.

B: Which makes no sense. Right.

S: And the rest resulted in the Earth in this nearly perfectly circular orbit. That's also extremely impossible from a mechanical point of view.

B: Right. That's quite a trick shot.

S: And, to boot, it seeded the Earth with life at the same time, and somehow the ancient Sumerians figured all this out.

P: Of course.

E: They're brilliant. They're brilliant.

P: Ha, ha, ha. Absolutely.

S: His website today is interesting, because he tries to take credit for predicting things like collisions, saying that "Oh, you know, when I first wrote my book astronomers scoffed at the notion of catastrophic collisions occurring in planet formation, and now that's a mainstream part of astronomy and cosmology." That's nonsense. He also — his most recent thing is he's quoting — remember we have reported recently about finding the most Earth-like planet to date around another star.

B: Right.

S: And he's somehow trying to say that this supports his entire hypothesis like "See, there are other Earth-like planets out there."

B: Oh, God.

S: "Isn't interesting that this planet is about the same size and distance from the Sun as what I said Tiamat was?" No, it's not interesting at all. It has absolutely nothing to do with his hypothesis.

B: Wow!

S: He's trying to make it seem like astronomers doubted that there ever would be Earth-like planets around other stars. I never heard that. That's just nonsense. So, he's really, really grasping at straws trying to trump up intervening astronomical discoveries to make it seem like it somehow supports what he said, when, in fact, there's zero evidence for his scenario, and nothing has been discovered which supports it.

B: So, Steve, what was he selling?

S: Well, his book. (unintelligble)

E: Everyone's got a book.

S: These guys make money by giving lectures, selling books. He also has a section in here on biblical prophecies, so he's into that as well. What else does he talk about? Oh, here we go. I do want to talk about this. Now he has "Puzzling Photographs from Mars Need Explanation."

E: Oh, my. Here we go.

S: These are not the face on Mars, which is old news.

E: The canals.

S: That's even older. But these are photos taken by the Mars rover.

B: Oh, yeah. I've seen a lot of those.

S: And these are on his website. So I'm looking at one right now. It's a very nice picture, provided by NASA, of the surface of Mars. You can see a little bit of the rover in the lower right corner of the picture. It's a Martian landscape, and in the distance you can see two dust devils. You guys have seen dust devils, right? It's a little ...

E: Yes.

P: Sure.

S: ... swirl of dust. The surface of Mars is very dusty. In fact, during a Mars storm — Mars has dust storms which last for days or weeks that absolutely scour the surface.

B: But let me guess, Steve. He thinks that this little dust devil is proof of a Tasmanian devil on Mars?

P: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

S: That would be more logical than what he says.

B: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

S: He writes "but as one looks closely at the photographs, there are many of them, one notices incredible features. What looks like a long sand-covered wall, a black stone ring, a sand-blown conical structure, and rectangular areas marked off by stone boundaries." What I see is nothing! A mean there's nothing there!

E: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

S: This guy has a very active imagination. Talk about pareidolia and the face of Jesus.

P: Yeah.

S: They have nothing on this guy. I mean, seriously, it's a horizon. It's like you are looking at the Mojave Desert, and there's a little — I can't even imagine what the guy is seeing.

B: Perry, or Evan, this guy would look at that sheet metal ...

P: Exactly.

B: ... at that sheet metal and he'd see the Last Supper.

P: Exactly. That what I was going to say that. The whole thing, all twelve apostles.

S: It's just rocks scattered across a desert-like landscape. If you look at enough of these pictures of, again, just random alien landscapes, people pore over thousands of pictures being produced by NASA, and they find all kinds of apparent things, but it's really just looking for patterns in these random pictures.

B: Or Steve, even obscure geological formations, and oh I can see that. You see something that really a shape that "What is that? How could that have been created?" You talk to a geologist and he's like "Oh, yeah, no problem." You could explain these things, but people just take it to the Nth degree.

S: Right. Right.

Science or Fiction (48:29)[edit]

S: Let's do our Science or Fiction.

(recorded intro)

S: The theme for this week is "Too good to be true." So each week I come up with three science news facts or items. Two of them are real, two are science, and one I've made up. One is fake. It's total fiction. Occasionally, my skeptical colleagues have sat in for me and done their own science-or-fiction, but I do most of them. So you as the audience, of course, are encouraged to play along with us. I'll read all three items and then solicit comments from my panel of skeptics. We'll see if they can figure out which one is fiction. Are you guys ready?

B: Yup.

P: Yep.

E: Ready.

S: Again, the sort of loose theme here is that these are all things which sound too good to be true at first blush. Item number one: scientists have built a quantum computer prototype that was able to compute the correct answer to a calculation without having to actually run. Item number two: a review of data at a recent symposium at the annual National Academy of Sciences meeting supports the claim that chocolate is healthy for the heart and has other health benefits. Item number three: material scientists from MIT have developed a process that can mass produce carbon nanofiber cables of any thickness or length. Such cables would be many times stronger and lighter than steel. So do we have a quantum computer that can do calculations without having to actually run, is chocolate healthy, or can we mass-produce nanofiber cable stronger than steel?

P: Huh!

S: Evan, why don't you lead off.

S: I'm tempted to say B is the one that was made up. However, I don't know. Boy, this is a good one. This is really good. These are all too good to be true in my estimation. Certainly there's some kind of appeal to that chocolate-being-healthy one. Too much of an appeal in that that's the one you're trying to trip us up with. So, OK, what the heck, why not, I'll just say that B is fiction here. Chocolate's not healthy.

S: OK. Number two. Chocolate's good for you.

P: Evan's wrong. It's dark chocolate that's good for you. I believe I recently heard that. Evan got that wrong. My logic just tells me that A is — I don't see how — if the thing is off, it's off. I don't see how it could work. Simply just based on that I'm going to go with A. I think A is false.

S: OK. All right. Bob?

B: Both of you guys are wrong.

E: Of course.

B: Steve, you're generally very good about finding these articles that I am not privy to, and I generally have to just rely on past experience to try to figure out.

E: Or cheat.

S: You've read these.

B: The first one, the first one, the quantum computer does exist. I read the article on it and I actually sent it to my home e-mail account so that I could potentially use it in my science or fiction entry.

P: How could it work if it's off?

B: You know, I read it. I have to read a couple more times before I could do it justice.

P: All right, all right.

B: I'm not even going to attempt, but it sounded somewhat plausible.

S: In my defence, Bob, I had very short amount of time for this one because I'm stuck down here in Florida.

B: Right.

S: I just got internet access a couple of hours ago down here. But I had to go to less obscure sites. So that's why.

B: Right.

S: That's why you've read these ones.

B: OK, OK. The chocolate health benefits — I've read stuff similar to that — not recently, but that doesn't surprise me at all.

P: Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate only.

B: Well, come on.

S: Remember I said that this was a recent symposium ...

B: Yeah

S: ... reviewing the data, and basically supporting these claims that you may have heard in the past.

B: OK.

S: Just to be clear.

B: Now, the third one. That is too good to be true. I like to think that I would have heard something about this. Mass-producing carbon nanotubes of any length? Can you say space elevator? I mean that would be ...

E: Really.

B: ... that's like the only major technological problem that we need to surmount in order to produce a satellite — an elevator to a satellite in space. But that's kind of like an esoteric application. Being able to produce them any length you want. That's the biggest problem with these nanotubes is actually making them in quantity.

S: Bob, you sound pretty confident.

S: Right.

B: Yeah, I am.

S: Is that your final answer?

B: Oh, it is. If I'm wrong and it's true — and I hope I'm wrong. Because if that's true, that's awesome.

S: Do you want to use a lifeline?

B: No, no. Go ahead. What've you got?

S: All right. Let's go to number one. Number one is the quantum computer can give results without — here's the article "Quantum computer gives results without running." Now I had to read the article a couple of times.

P: I'll bet you did.

S: Whenever you are dealing with the quantum stuff — so basically, this is true. The computer was trying to — it was comparing two states of, I think, of a photon, whether it was in one state or another, and the computer had to decide if they matched or not. That was the calculation that it was doing. So a very, very basic one bit of information kind of thing.

B: Right. But there is some sort of interaction going on.

S: Yeah, but they did the old beam splitter thing where ...

B: Right.

S: ... the photon — it either, depending on it's quantum state — it either goes through the computer or it doesn't. So it's in a juxtaposition, right, of going through or not going through.

B: Superposition.

S: Superposition, I'm sorry, you're correct, a superposition. And what they were able to show was that when it collapses and it either goes through or doesn't go through, basically when they take the measurement, that at times when they're able to prove that the beam of light did not go through the computer, it still was able to produce the correct prediction of whether or not these states matched or not. So in other words when the photon didn't go through the computer, the computer still got the right answer, which is amazing. Which of course has something to do with the whole quantum fuzziness of superposition.

B: Right.

S: It must. Not that anybody really understands it means.

P: What? I don't even know what you're talking about. I'm serious, I'm lost.


B: I've got you, Steve. Keep going.

P: OK.

S: The implications of this are huge. It may not sound that impressive, but it's a huge step forward for the whole quantum computing technology, and they're predicting that they can get the reliability of this process up to close to 100%, and that ...

P: Well, what will it mean? Super, super fast computers?

S: Yes. What it means is computers that run trillions of times faster than what we have.

P: Trillions, with a "T"?

B: Well, but for certain applications. It's not like you're going to have a quantum computer on your desk running Word.

E: No.

B: That's really not going to happen. But for certain applications like cryptography and code breaking, it's going to be wicked fast. You can't apply it to everything, like a general purpose computer.

E: Great. Some fifteen-year old is going to use this to hack into my MasterCard account and rip-off my fricking numbers.

S: Right, basically.

E: Horrific, frankly.

B: Next one.

S: Let's go to number two. The name of the article is "Prescription-strength chocolate revisited."

P: Right.

S: Again, it's true. But let me give you the upshot of this. The more common claim, and this has been encouraged by certain manufacturers of chocolate products, is that chocolate has health benefits in that the dark chocolate, as Perry said, is the healthy kind of chocolate. However, it's not true, because mass-produced chocolate, even the dark chocolate — if you buy a chocolate bar at the candy shop, it has none of the specific products in there that have been shown to have the health benefits. Basically, chocolate, naturally-occurring chocolate, contains flavonoids, and flavonoids have a number of effects, antioxidant and other effects, although the key is not actually it turns out it's probably not their antioxidant effect, but in any case that have been shown to have cardiovascular benefits. It may have some anti-cancer benefit, but the jury is still out on the net clinical benefits of chocolate, if any. There is very suggestive preclinical data and some preliminary clinical data to suggest that, especially for the cardiovascular benefits. The problem is — there is also some good epidemiological data in terms of native peoples that consume chocolate — but the problem is that when big companies process chocolate, they destroy all the flavonoids. So any alleged benefit is gone.

B: Those bastards!

S: The key is that they've gone farther in identifying what the active compounds are in chocolate that potentially can be helpful.

B: Cool!

S: And that may enable manufacturers to change their manufacturing process so that the flavonoids and the other things are not destroyed. So it may be that ...

B: Steve, make a pill out of it. Screw the chocolate!

S: Right. Or you just pack them into a pill, which is the other thing you do. That's what the pharmaceutical industry has been doing for a hundred years. You find a naturally occurring herb or plant or root or whatever that has some physiological effect, you isolate, purify, identify the active ingredients, do safety and pharmacological and physiological studies on them, find out dosing, and then start testing them for specific clinical applications. That probably will happen with this whole thing as well, but it's also possible that you may be able to buy chocolate bars that actually may have some healthy substances in them.

P: Can't you just stick a multivitamin in a Hershey bar? Wouldn't that be the same?

S: So as far as that goes, that was true. I think that, again, there's still a long way to go before there's convincing clinical evidence, but that was true. The last one was fake. That was fiction.

B: Damn!

S: That was exactly right. I thought I might just get you on that one, Bob, because you would have been so starry-eyed about the implications, but you're right, we probably would've heard about this. So carbon nanofibers have been produced. These are like little helical structures of carbon atoms that produce these very, very tiny tubes, which are super-strong fibers. If you could actually make a cable out of these things, it would be much stronger than steel, much lighter, and Bob already mentioned one of the applications being a space elevator. Basically, the idea is that you anchor a big cable to the equator somewhere, and at the topside to a station in geosynchronous orbit, and you can just use it as an elevator to hoist things into orbit. The problem is that we don't have any material which is strong enough ...

B: Right.

S: ... so that it won't snap. So it's theoretically possible, but we don't have something to make the cable out of. Carbon nanofibers would be strong enough to support a space elevator.

B: Right.

S: But the problem is that we can only make them very, very tiny. We don't have a manufacturing process where we can create them longer and thicker. So that's the next technological breakthrough that we need.

B: And Steve, don't forget now, carbon nanotubes have a host of other potential applications well beyond a strong rope. I mean it's ...

S: Absolutely.

B: They could use then in computers, they're conductors, they're semiconductors. They could make transistors. I mean they can do so many, there's so many potential applications of this. It's like a wonder material that's just going to explode.

S: (laughs) It certainly seems that way.

P: Why do they have to be tubes? Why tubular?

B: They self assemble. They self assemble into these tubular shapes.

P: Oh.

S: And it's a very strong structure. That's the whole point. Well, good job this week, Bob. It's helps when you actually read the science stories that I'm basing science or fiction on.

P: Of course, of course.

S: That's part of ...

E: You used the word "nano", so Bob got it right.


E: If the word "nano" exists anywhere out there, Bob has read or studied up on it like no one else.

B: Nano, nano, nano.

P: It's true.

E: So that's why Bob would have heard about it if it were fact.

P: He's a nano junky. It's a disgrace.

B: I'm very excited. Apart from nano-technology, I'm very excited about the prospects of a space elevator after reading a few articles by this one guy who is really, really pushing it, and he just made it seem something that wasn't as so much pie-in-the-sky that maybe my great grand-kids will see. It's something that we can potentially see in our lifetimes, based on what I've read and what this guy has said.

S: It would be interesting. It would be very interesting. It'd be a major, major project.

B: Right, and once you have one of these things, you could build your second one in a fraction of the time, because you have access to a pre-existing space elevator. So the second one that you build, but imagine — talk about a terrorist target.

S: That's true. That's true.

B: Right?

S: We may be technically capable of building and maintaining a space elevator before we're politically able to maintain it. It would be such a target, and how do you protect a ...

E: It's true.

S: ... what would it be, 23,000 miles. How do you protect a 23,000 mile cable?

B: Yeah, it's a long ways out there. But, the main thing you'd have to protect would be the anchor on the Earth. You could put a flotilla of warships around it. No ones going to get near it unless they're supposed to.

P: If there was only one it wouldn't be too hard to protect. If there was only one, you know. It wouldn't be too hard to protect. It really wouldn't.

B: Steve, it these terrorist have access to missiles that can reach it high up, then you've got other worries beside them attacking your space elevator, you know.

P: Absolutely.

S: Well guys, believe it or not, we are out of time.

P: That's unpossible.

E: I believe you.

S: It's a quick show.

B: Good episode guys. I enjoyed it.

S: Bob, Evan, Perry, thanks for joining me again.

P: Thank you.

E: Thank you all.

S: Always a pleasure.

B: Steve, I hope it's cold and rainy in Florida.

P: Yeah.

S: Your wishes will go unfulfilled.

B: That's alright. I'm used to it. I'm used to it.

S: Everyone out there, thanks for listening. Again, if you have any questions for us, please e-mail us. You can get our e-mail off of our website: If you want your voice to be heard on our podcast and you can e-mail us a either a WAV or MP3 file of you speaking your question, and we'll play it on the podcast rather than just ...

P: Wouldn't that be neat.

S: ... rather than just reading your e-mails. So send us your questions. They're always enjoyable. It's good to hear from our listeners. Guys, again, thanks. For everyone out there, we'll see you next week. This has been 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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