SGU Episode 320

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SGU Episode 320
29th August 2011
SGU 319 SGU 321
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
JA: Jad Abumrad
Quote of the Week
The difference between faith and insanity is that faith is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence, whereas insanity is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence.
William Harwood
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe! Today is Monday, August 29th, 2011, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella –

B: Hey everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson –

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella –

J: Hey guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: God kveld, all of our listeners in Norway.

S: And to you, too, Evan.

J: I have a friend that lives in Norway that listens to the show.

R: I have a friend in Norway, Marit. Yay Marit!

E: Marit! Yay! In fact, Marit was the one who helped me with my pronunciation of "good-evening" in Norwegian, and –

S: It shouldn't be too horrible, then.

E: Well, I hope not. She's also – She's the president of the Norwegian Skeptics, by the way, so she comes –

R: She's super cool.

E: She's very cool. I got to meet her at TAM, it was very nice meeting her.

This Day in Skepticism (0:53)[edit]

S: So, Evan –

E: Right! This Day in Skepticism. Well, on September 2nd, 1914 — and, actually, I found a reference that that was perhaps September 1st, 1914, but we'll stick with September 2nd — the Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, became extinct, as the last surviving bird of the colorful –

S: – was killed and eaten!

E: Yeah, right? Basically. The last surviving bird of the colorful native American species of dove, the Passenger –

B: Imagine you kill the last one, and you eat it, and you cook it really poorly, and you're like, "Oh, shit."

S: "It wasn't worth it."

E: Take one bite out of it and "Waugh! That was awful."

B: Should've – 

E: Scrape it into the compost.

B: I wish I didn't burn it.

E: 1914, you know. It's quite a story, actually. The Passenger Pigeon was hunted to extinction. These pigeons were, boy, everywhere, in most of North America in the 1600s and 1700s. They estimate that there were three to five billion of these pigeons in the United States.

B: Did you say "million"?

E: "B". "Billion".

B: "B"? "Billion"?

E: They believe that one third of all birds in North America, at its peak, of the species of this pigeon, were the Passenger Pigeons. Imagine that. One of every three birds was a Passenger Pigeon.

B: How the hell do you kill so many birds? So many of anything?

E: You eat them.

B: Wow.

E: Primary factor to their extinction emerged when pigeon meat was commercialized as a cheap food, especially among slave populations, and other poor people in the 19th century. It's amazing. It went from, you know, billions of these things to none of them in a couple of generations.

S: Yeah, it's like a – it's a story that's, like, it's so perfect it's almost made up. It's the most populous bird in North America. I mean, you hear stories about flocks of Passenger Pigeons taking hours, if not days, to complete is passage over a certain point and then it was literally hunted to extinction.

B: Wow.

S: You know, it was over a period of time, you know. It was –

B: Yeah. Months, at least.

S: – the settlers, who started to, yeah, like, really rely upon them for food, and they figured, "Ah, you know, look how many of them there are," and would just decimate whole flocks of them.

R: Humans are idiots.

E: Yeah. And they only lay – the females lay one egg a year –

B: Oh.

E: – as it turned out.

S: Yeah.

E: So it just could not keep up with its rate of decline that way.

S: I do, I'm looking at a picture here of a specimen of Passenger Pigeon and it actually looks – the wings look a lot like a morning dove. They have that same coloring and sort of speckle pattern –

B: I was thinking the same thing.

S: – but the breast and the neck is, like, this red-pink color. It's really very pretty. That was a pretty bird.

B: Really?

E: Pretty bird.

S: Pretty bird.

E: Pretty bird.

You know, this relates to a news item that was sent to us this past week by listener Theron, from a place called Battle Mountain, Nevada. He claims that it's our first email from anyone in Battle Mountain, Nevada, and I have no way of really knowing that for sure, but I'll take his word for it. And he tells us that a new bird species has been identified, and in the United States, of all places, for the first time in decades –

S: Well, Hawai'i.

E: Well, OK.

R: It counts!

S: It counts.

R: It counts.

S: It's not mainland. It's not mainland, though, but, yes, it's in the U.S.

E: This bird is called Bryan's Shearwater, or Puffinus bryani, from the Hawai'ian Islands. This is the first new species of bird found in the United States since 1974.

S: And you know where it was discovered?

R: Hawai'i?

S: In a museum drawer, where – it was there for, like, 40 years.

E: Oh.

S: Somebody was going through – A lot of discoveries are made in museum drawers, 'cause there's so much crap there that people just haven't sifted through. So, some guy was going through, identifying the birds. He couldn't identify this one. It's like, "Yeah, it's some kind of shearwater. Is it this one, or –" it didn't fit, until eventually he realized that it was a new – previously unidentified species.

R: Cool.

B: So somebody grabbed that specimen –

S: Yeah.

B: – decades ago, or –

S: Yeah.

B: – or more –

E: That bird must be hungry.

B: – and didn't know he had a new species.

S: Mislabeled it as another kind of shearwater.

B: (?)

E: D'oh!

E: Yeah. Yep. But, but, DNA tests revealed the difference.

S: Yeah. Well, he suspected it from morphology, but it confirmed –

E: Did he?

S: – that it was a different species.

News Items[edit]

Hurricane Irene (5:17)[edit]

National Hurricane Center

S: Well, last week we talked about surviving the Big Quake of Ought-Eleven, and –


S: – of 2011, and this week, right on the heels of the biggest earthquake to hit the East Coast in a hundred years, we had one of the biggest hurricanes in the East Coast in a century. Hurricane Irene barreled its way up the eastern seaboard.

B: I predict a volcano next week.

S: Next week? Or a tornado. Maybe we're due for some tornadoes.

B: Eh.

S: Tsunami?

E: Yeah, that's rare.

S: Or, maybe, a meteorite?

E: Ooh.

B: I'm sticking with a volcano.

S: This is interesting, I mean. So, we were ready for it, because they were – obviously, you could see it coming, got the satellite images. But you never know exactly where it's going to hit, how powerful it's going to be when it hits. It pretty much battered the Carolinas, but then, by the time it got all the way up to New England — up to us — it was downgraded to a tropical storm. But that's still, that still did a lot of damage. Half of Connecticut is still without power. Jay and Bob are without power due to the storm.

E: When you say "half of Connecticut", Steve –

S: Yeah.

E: – you're saying that figuratively.

S: No. No, no. Fifty-one percent of homes were without power yesterday. They've only gotten it down to forty-five percent today. Forty-five percent of homes are still without power.

E: I didn't hear it was that extensive! Wow.

S: Yep.

J: The town I live in is still eighty-seven percent without power.

E: (gasp)

S: Yeah.

J: I actually had a stretch where I did not take a shower for three days –

S: Mm-hmm.

J: – because of the circumstances.

B: That's bad.

S: Is this new for you?

E: And then a storm hit.

R: Yeah, that happens every week.

B: "A storm hit"!


B: I know someone who went through two weeks. No power.

S: Yeah.

B: Two weeks, in Florida, in August, so you know I was hot. No air conditioning, and that, just, you know – i feel better when I hear about that, because, two or three days, you know, in Connecticut in August? I mean, I could deal. Two weeks.

S: I know. It's like, last week, you know, we sort of laughed at ourselves for getting all uptight over a five-point-eight or -nine earthquake — nothing compared to, you know, a serious earthquake — and this week – i mean, this was a serious inconvenience, you know, and there was some damage done, there's some flooding, but it's nothing compared to, obviously, things like Katrina –

E: Right.

S: – which was, like the worst probably hurricane disaster ever in the U.S. And, what the gulf states and the real southern states go through on an annual basis. It's just, you know, not – it's uncommon for a storm of this magnitude to reach all the way into New England, but it did.

J: I was surprised to see how underwhelming the storm actually looked, because, from what we were doing, it was going to be epic. But, man, it did a hell of a lot of damage.

S: Yeah.

J: I mean, I guess that the wind really did knock down a lot of trees that knocked down a lot of power lines. But something really, really cool happened because of this, and it won't ever happen again, I'm pretty damn sure. Because there was no power in my town, the sky was pitch-black, and the storm had cleared out –

E: Yeah.

J: – and I saw, for the first time, a density of stars I'd never seen in Connecticut before. But, it was just a coincidence that I happened to be outside when the ISS flew by — the International Space Station.

E: Oh, I love that.

S: Cool.

B: You saw it? Awesome!

J: This was the second time in my life I've seen it, and the first time I saw it it was much smaller, it wasn't anywhere near as bright.

B: How'd you know what it was, Jay?

J: 'Cause I — for two reasons. One, because I'm constantly looking up at night and I have an app on my iPhone that, like, literally shows you where every satellite is –

B: Oh, (?)

J: – and all the planets and stars are, so, I know, I know where the ISS is, you know, I'm kinda loosely keeping track of where it is. But, you know, it's all over the place. It's not, like, over you every day, you know what I mean? It –

R: You can track it online through a couple of different websites like, and there's one really good one where you put in your location and it tells you –

E: Tells you when?

R: – exactly, to the minute –

S: Yeah.

R: – when it's going to be passing, from what direction.

J: The app I'm using is SkyView.

S: SkyView?

J: For the iPhone.

S: So, a funny thing happened to the Novella boys at the hurricane. Our parents are moving into – just moved into a new house, and are excited about the fact that they have – the house comes with its own backup generator.

E: Nice.

S: I don't mean, like, a little thing that you start and pump up. Propane-powered, really powerful generator that could run the whole house for days. So they essentially lured us over there with the promise that, you know, there's going to be power outages everywhere, so come with, you know, you can be over here, and if the power goes out we'll have the generator. So, of course, you know – they were watching my kids over there anyway, so my wife and I went over there to be with the kids, and, of course, Sunday morning, we wake up. There's no power –

E: Nope.

S: – and the generator didn't kick in.

R: Oh, no.

S: It didn't work.

E: Technical?

S: We spent all morning trying to get it going, and eventually I figured that it was busted. I mean, there was a light on that said that it's busted, call a maintenance guy, you know. And they were – we got in the phone queue, but there was, like, no hope for them responding to us that day, they were so overwhelmed.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: So I guess those generators aren't really reliable. But, even worse, is my parents made no backup plans for not having power 'cause they were counting on the generator.

E: So there was no extra water –

S: Worse! It was worse than having no generator because they were even more unprepared.

R: That's funny.

S: Meanwhile, I had power. I never lost my power.

R: Yeah.

E: At your house.

S: At my own house, yeah.

J: But Steve, it was actually good, because we were – we had time to build the SGU-24 set.

S: We did work on the set –

R: Ah, so there's that.

S: – in part by, you know, artificial lanterns.

ISS Threatened (10:55)[edit]

BBC News: Russia delays next manned space flight to ISS

S: Jay, speaking of the International Space Station, there's some concern about our ability now to service it.

J: That's pretty unfortunate. The Russians were sending up a Progress M 12 N cargo ship, which is perched on top of one of their Soyez (?) rockets. It seems that the Progress was not put in the correct orbit. So, what that means was that it fell, and it crashed.

S: Mm-hmm.

E: Oops.

J: So, the Progress had three tons of supplies for the astronauts that are on the ISS, and they were also supposed to bring back three of them.

S: Yeah.

E: Double oops.

S: Was that one supposed – I don't think that one – that was an unmanned, just a resupply ship –

J: Yeah, but the crash stopped – that grounded the fleet.

S: Yeah.

J: Because of that, they're not picking them up.

S: So, that rocket wasn't going to bring them back, but they've delayed the launch of the next rocket, which was supposed to be – which was supposed to bring back some of the astronauts.

J: So, now, three of the six astronauts are going to have to wait to return back 'til mid-September.

S: Yeah, if we're lucky. They're still not sure what caused the crash, and that's why they're delaying any further launches.

J: Well, the Russian Space Agency has had other problems this year, too. They had a couple of other mishaps happen — mistakes, and satellite launch errors, and things. I mean, they fired the head of the program in December. So they're having some problems, and I think it really is coming down to money. So, I was telling you guys, we've talked about this a few times. I'm really disappointed they landed – they grounded the Space Shuttles and – it's like, where are we now, you know? I thought Russia was supposed to have it together, and, you know, now we have this problem. It's kind of scary. I would be really pissed off and upset if I was one of the astronauts up there right now.

S: Yeah, well, they have enough supplies for a while. It's not like they're now gonna go hungry. But the next one better work. If there's any long-term problems and – we talked a couple of weeks ago about the private corporations who are working on – working with NASA to be able to run resupply missions to the ISS. But we're in the gap, you know, so, no Shuttle, no private fleet. We're totally dependent upon the Russians, and they're having major problems. What's the backup of the backup, right? So, this is a potentially –

J: Yeah, the generator didn't kick on, so what's the backup, right, Steve?

S: Exactly. But, I guess, if you're, you know, one of the private companies, this is an incentive to, like, really accelerate your program, you know, like, we need this. They're also saying that they may have to bring the astronauts back and leave the ISS without any staff for a while, with no astronauts.

E: Oh, my.

B: Let the robots handle it all.

S: That's a way to go, is let the robots handle it. Exactly.

E: I know this wasn't part of the article, but I thought we read recently, didn't get a chance to bring it up on the show, that the ISS is gonna be done in ten years or so.

S: Yeah, everything has a life span.

J: That's interesting, right Evan? Like, why? Why wouldn't it just be up there for another twenty or thirty years? Is there wear and tear –

S: Oh yeah.

J: – that we can't fix, or –

S: Yeah. Oh yeah.

B: Does that – and the orbit –

E: They can't maintain the orbit?

B: – can decay after a while, and –

S: Well, they're maintaining the orbit.

B: Yeah but –

S: I think it's mainly that there's lots of micropitting and radiation damage, and things wear out, eventually just the whole infrastructure. They won't be able to keep it going anymore, you know? It'll become too dangerous. We talked about, remember, parking one of the shuttles in the space station –

B: Yeah.

S: – and we actually got some really good feedback from people who know what they're talking about? And that was one of the things they said, you can't leave the shuttle up there forever. Being in space is a lot of wear and tear because of all those things, you know, micropitting, small impacts, radiation, et cetera, and then eventually the electronics and everything will wear out.

LHC and Super Symmetry (14:46)[edit]

BBC News: LHC results put supersymmetry theory 'on the spot'

S: All right, well, Bob, tell us about the Large Hadron Collider and its spoiling the party for supersymmetry buffs.

B: Yeah, right. Is it hay-dron or high-dron?

S: Yes.

B: Hmm, OK. So, like Steve said, scientists have recently made a fairly interesting announcement regarding –

S: The LHC.

B: – regarding an experiment run by the LHC, or Large H Collider –

R: Don't you mean the "L-hac"?

S: The "L-hac"! That's what I meant, yeah.

B: "L-hac", oh, good one. I like that. Well, it seems that they may have delivered a near-fatal blow to the concept of supersymmetry. Now, this announcement was recently made at the — get this — the Lepton–Photon Science Meeting in Mumbai. How cool is that science meeting?

E: (singing) Lepton, photon, neutron....

B: The Lepton–Photon Science Meeting. I love it. Now, this most detailed experiment to date of its kind was run on the LHC Beauty Experiment, which – it's one of the four main detectors that they've got embedded in the collider ring and, so, what the experiment showed might sound kind of like, "So what?", but the ramifications are fairly interesting. It showed that certain particles — I think they were B masons — decayed less often than we thought, and also showed, among other things, that certain matter and antimatter particles decay too similarly. The difference should be greater if supersymmetric particles existed. Now, we've – I think we've touched on supersymmetry, very briefly, before, but this is the theory that states that, in addition to all the particles that we know so well, there's also these related so-called superparticles that are just like their partner particles, but they differ pretty much only by a half-unit of spin. And spin in quantum mechanics is – it's a type of angular momentum, but it's really kind of weird. Look it up, if you really want some details on that, because that one's really kind of hard to wrap your head around. But these are called superpartners, these particles are called superpartners, and, you know, i never really – i always had a problem with supersymmetry, because, it just seems like, "Oh yeah, in this theory, we're gonna double all particles. Now there's twice as many as we thought." It's like, "Oh, great. We don't have enough?" So I always had a bit of an issue with supersymmetry. But it's still kinda sad to see such a theory with such potential to conceivably go down in flames, which they might have done, because this was a really detailed experiment, and a lot of people think that, yeah, they really should've got a really solid hint that these particles exist, and it didn't seem like they did. A little bit more technically, in supersymmetry, each boson has a fermion partner of the same mass and quantum numbers, except for that small spin difference that I talked about. Fermions are matter particles and bosons are force carriers. Generally, those statements apply all the time. Supersymmetry is important because it can potentially offer some really key information about really puzzling aspects of particle physics, like dark matter, for example — they think that it could shed some important information on dark matter — Higgs boson, which has been in the news for years now, especially with the LHC, the particle that could potentially be the author of all mass everywhere. Supersymmetry could also potentially help with that. And, also, I wasn't aware of this, but it's really – supersymmetry's really tied in intimately with string theory itself, because lots of – most versions of string theory, we know there can, at times, be lots of different versions of string theory, but a lot of these theories include supersymmetry in it. And if they actually shoot down supersymmetry then a lot of these string theories are gonna have to be completely revised, which is really not good at all.

S: So, what's interesting about this, Bob, is that supersymmetry – one thing that struck me is that supersymmetry, essentially what they're saying is that it had a lot of explanatory power, it was able to explain –

B: Yes.

S: – dark matter, the Higgs boson, and some of these aspects of cosmology, like some string theories, et cetera –

B: Yes.

S: – but the second component to being a legitimate science is that — a good theory — is that you have predictive power, not just explanatory power.

B: Right.

S: And that is where the supersymmetry is failing. It made predictions about what we should have seen, with these LHC experiments. We didn't see them, so it's failed that more important piece to the puzzle, of predictions.

B: Yeah, and that kinda ties into a quote I wanted to mention. This – Dr. Joseph Lichen of FermiLab said, "It's a beautiful idea. It explains dark matter. It explains the Higgs boson. It explains some aspects of cosmology. But that doesn't mean it's right." For me, that – i really like that sentiment because I think it shows a real key aspect of science. 'Cause, you know, it can be so easy –

S: Yeah.

B: – to succumb to a theory and defend it at all costs, right?

S: What's that quote by T. H. Huxley? He said, "That's a beautiful, elegant theory –"

B: Yeah.

S: "– destroyed by an ugly little fact."


B: Right.

E: Ha, nice.

B: Now, of course, as usual, it doesn't mean – this doesn't mean that supersymmetry is totally dead. There's other versions of the theory that have not been ruled out by this latest experimental results. But they're much more complex. The simplest theories have been kind of refuted by these latest experiments, but the more complex versions of the theory haven't been ruled out, and – but, of course, that means that it could take, potentially, years for these more complex particles to be found; or, conversely, that it could take years for the theory to really get that last nail in the coffin. So, we might be hearing a little bit more of it, but it does not look good for supersymmetry.

S: Yep. Yeah, the whole "there are more complicated versions that are not ruled out" sounds a little bit like special pleading, you know what I mean?

B: A little. Yep, absolutely.

S: Where you jury-rig it just right, you know, you can accommodate for all these – It doesn't make it wrong, just, yeah, doesn't feel good, you know, just makes it seem a bit less likely.

B: Yeah.

E: Well, what's the next most likely?

S: I don't know. Going back to the drawing board, right? I mean, they don't know. They have to –

E: Really? You gotta, kinda start over?

B: Well, no, not necessarily. I mean, yeah, some string theories might have to be revised, if they become really – they really start thinking this supersymmetry is shot, but it's also a boon for things like loop quantum gravity. This is actually good times for loop quantum gravity.

S: Woo-hoo!

E: We'll I'm going to invest in loop quantum gravity –

B: There you go.

E: ... right now.

S: LQG, baby!

B: Because –

E: Yep.

B: Because string theory and loop quantum gravity, they're both trying to create this quantum, you know, this theory of quantum gravity, combining quantum mechanics and general relativity, and if, you know, if string theory is gonna have problems now because supersymmetry is a key –

E: ??

B: – is an important part of it, then loop quantum gravity is like, yeah, so I think this is gonna be a lot more interesting, –

S: Yeah.

B: – and loop quantum gravity, especially by the ??

S: I'm gonna call it "L-quag".


B: You can do better than that.

Alien Signals (21:29)[edit]

The Daily Galaxy: "ET Technology Could Appear as Natural Objects in the Universe" (Today's Most Popular)

S: All right. Rebecca, tell us how come we're never going to detect alien signals and SETI's all a waste of time.

B: Oh!

R: Yeah, leave it to me to put a damper on everyone's spirits.

E: Seth is not gonna like that.

R: Sorry. It's not my opinion. Actually, it is my opinion, but my opinion doesn't really matter. It actually comes from British physicist Stephen Wolfram, the creator of –

B: Oh, he doesn't know anything.

R: – the Wolfram Alpha project –

B: Yes, ?? a –

R: – which is fun to play with.

B: – i love him. I was kidding.

E: (in Austrian accent) ??

R: You're like, "I love him! Please don't hurt me!"

B: No, he's a crazy genius. I mean, he's, like, super crazy smart.

R: Yeah, he is a genius. He was, like, a child prodigy, I think, as well, and, unlike, I think, most child prodigies, he continued to be brilliant throughout his life, at least up until now.


R: Not that – no, I didn't mean it like that!

E: Sure you didn't.

R: I just meant that he could get stupider in the future. I don't know. This is all turning out terribly wrong.

E: It's always, that's always ??

S: He could get brain damage.


B: I don't think he's really anticipating that.

R: I'm just gonna start over.

S: Anyway.

R: No, anyway, he's published a book, and I think it's all available for free online, which is kind of awesome. You can get it in hardcopy as well, but if you go to you can find it in full. So that's cool. And it's called A New Kind of Science, and, in it, he talks about his revolutionary ideas, which include – I guess the biggest one is the idea that our entire universe is based upon a very simple computer program that is creating complex life due to a sort of – due to the data its putting out sort of feeding back into it, and then –

B: Recursively.

R: Yeah, recursive. That's the word. So, that's the big thing that he's talked about, and that I think a lot of people are talking about. But, also, yeah, he talks about how – the way that our technology has evolved has been to reduce the total amount of leaked signal, you know, that we – we're making it very precise, and, because of that, he's guessing that extraterrestrial life would probably be similar, and so would make their signals very difficult to detect, and our own signals have become difficult to detect. So, he says that alien civilizations could be extraordinarily close to us, yet still not be making such a fuss, you know, not be putting out any kind of signal, that would allow us to find them. So, yeah.

S: Yeah, it's an interesting idea, this notion that compressing data, you squeeze any recurring patterns out of the data, 'cause then any recurring pattern you can then, you know, you can encode more simply. So, eventually, when you completely compress data to its most efficient form, it looks like random noise, so it wouldn't be – if we detected it, we wouldn't be able to distinguish it from a natural signal. That's an interesting idea. However, what we're looking for is a deliberate carrier signal, right?

B: Yeah. Right.

S: We're looking for a beacon saying "This is an intelligent signal."

E: Yeah, like Contact.

R: Yeah.

S: Yeah, and then the data will be compressed along with it, you know, in some format, and that may be indistinguishable from background noise, but that's not what's gonna get our attention, right?

R: Yeah, I guess that the idea, though, previously, was that even if a civilization isn't putting out a specific welcome mat, the signal they're producing just in their everyday lives would at least serve as some sort of sign that they're there, right?

S: Yeah, but that was always kind of a low hope anyway, because in order for a signal to reach us and be detectable –

R: It would have to be directed at us.

S: – it would have to be directed at us, or it would have to be so massively powerful, if it was going out it all directions. It wouldn't be just the leakage of signals from a civilization. It would have to be putting massive amounts of energy into that signal. Or, again, they would have to be sort of aiming it in our direction for whatever reason. So, anyway. But, yeah, if there was a nearby star that was just leaking electromagnetic radiation that they were using for data carrying, yeah, it might be compressed to the point that we wouldn't notice that it was not a natural signal. That's a good point. But I don't think it's really ultimately relevant to SETI, 'cause it's not what we're looking for.

R: Yeah, so shut up, Stephen Wolfram. You're not supposed to ??

B: Yeah!

S: Rebecca, I sent you this other news item. I know you read it really quick, but I sent everybody this. "Scientists warn that aliens may come to destroy us". Did you guys read that?

R: Yeah, that's definitely gonna happen.

S: Oh yeah.

B: I couldn't get past the title.

S: The line here that just cracked me up was – so, this was talking about a study — I don't know what the hell they were studying, it's really just sort of sheer speculation — where the author writes, "A core concern is that ETI [extraterrestrial intelligence] will learn of our presence and quickly travel to Earth to eat or enslave us."

E: Those are the choices?

R: My favorite line, too. Yeah, those are the two options.

B: "Quickly travel to Earth".

E: "Quickly".

B: Yeah, that's – yeah.

S: Yeah.

B: ?? of course?

R: And I like how, the implication, I think, is that, on the way, they're having an argument about which they're gonna do. "I'm hungry!" "I want slaves!"

E: Eat half of us and enslave the other half.

R: "No, Mordok, we had slaves last time!"

S: "Yeah, we'll enslave half of them, and eat the other half."

E: So, like a Futurama skit.

S: Yes. "How to cook for forty humans".


R: "Not me!"

J: "We've achieved intergalactic flight! But we must eat human flesh."

E: "Those humans aren't sitting well."


Who's That Noisy (27:48)[edit]

Answer to last week: Marilyn Manson

S: Evan! It's time for "Who's That Noisy?".

E: Yep. So, lemme go ahead and play last week's "Who's That Noisy?" for everyone, in case you forgot exactly what it was, here it is again:

No one has an explanation for it. The fact that it disappeared, like it was some sort of evil oasis in the ?? of night, and that was the most supernatural strange thing that I've ever in my life experienced.

E: Any guesses by –

S: I have no idea. I only know what I've read on the forums.

R: Nope.

J: No clue.

E: Anyone ever heard of Marilyn Manson?

S: Yep.

R: Oh, yeah.

E: Yeah, Marilyn Manson.

J: Very cool.

E: I mean, it wasn't much of a stretch to think that perhaps someone like that would –

S: What do you mean by that, like, by "somebody like that"?

E: Well, a celebrity.

S: Celebrity.

E: ??

S: Have you ever seen "Bowling for Columbine"?

R: Yeah.

E: Well, yes.

S: Marilyn Manson was in that movie. He was the only cogent person in that whole movie.

R: Yeah, he's really awesome.

S: He's actually – he's a bright guy.

R: Yeah.

S: He's a down-to-earth rational guy.

J: Yeah, that whole – the whole thing with him, it's more of – that was a vehicle to get him where he wanted to go, but he is very intelligent.

E: That was him featured on the show "Celebrity Ghost Stories", which I've actually watched a few episodes of. Because it makes – in a way, shows like that make famous people seem a lot more like average, very ordinary people.

S: Is that right?

E: You hear some of the stories they tell, it's like, "Oh, that's pareidolia. Oh, that's hypnagogia. Oh, that's –" you know, you can just kinda pick it out. They have the exact same experiences –

S: Because they are ordinary people.

E: Well, I get that, I get that. But, you know, it takes the shine off a little bit.

S: Right.

E: It makes them a little more approachable, in a sense. Aaron from St. Louis — at least I think it's St. Louis — AaronSTL, from the message boards, was the first one to guess correctly. Well done, Aaron.

S: I think that that's from Saturn's Lagrange point, actually. STL.

E: I guess Aaron'll have to let us know! I'm sure he'll clarify that for us!

S: All right. What do you got for this week?

E: Here we go, this week's "Who's That Noisy?". Ooh, another person! Here we go.

If you have any type of body injury or pain, that represents an energy blockage that can be helped or healed if you would simply, calmly, have a prayerful lesson, would be appreciated.

J: Now, how do they think this "energy" is being "blocked"? By other energy?

S: No, by stress, toxins – toxins block your energy. Oh yeah, they're –

E: Toxins is the big one, yep.

J: Yeah, but when we say "energy", you know, I can only think of – I'm thinking more of spiritual or –

S: Well, the key word there is, Jay, is that you're thinking.


E: Vat are you sinking?

S: All right, I'm sorry.

J: You got me on that one, Steve. I'm just saying, though, I mean, I don't see how energy gets blocked, you know?

E: It's a very all –

S: Right. Is that when you cut the wires, you know, or – I don't know. Resistance in the lines?

E: It's a very happy, all-encompassing term, it could mean lots of different things.

S: It's a Faraday cage. Didn't we talk about that last week?

E: We did. We sure did.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Tin Foil (30:58)[edit]

S: Speaking of which, let's go to our first email. This one comes from John, the Funky Medic from the United States –

R: Wait, is "the Funky Medic" his last name, or –

S: It's "John-comma-the-Funky-Medic".

R: Ah.

E: Speaking of words that can mean double – you know, multiple things, you know, funky's one of them –

S: Right, that's – this is true. All right, well, John writes,

I wanted to bring something to your attention that is probably just a pet peeve. [S: All right. Here it comes.] Tin foil, as in foil made of the metal "tin" (Sn - atomic number 50, weight 118.710) was phased out starting in 1910 and pretty much no longer in use by the end of WWII. As I am sure you all know having been in a kitchen at some point in your lives, it was replaced by the lighter and cheaper aluminum (Al - atomic number 13, weight 26.982). So nobody on this show was alive when tin foil was in use, yet the rogues on my favorite science podcast say tin foil over and over again for some reason. This bugs me because I am so used to you guys being thorough to the point of tedium up on complex science concepts or even pronunciation [R: "Tedium"?] (see RF-ID vs. Arfid from the same episode). For instance, you would never let anyone get away with saying dry ice was frozen CO. You'd dog pile the rogue that said it, and it would probably by Jay and he'd come up with some hilarious reason that he said it.

S: Then he goes on to say a few other things, but, so, yeah we were saying the word tin foil when, obviously, we meant aluminum foil, because nobody uses tin – actual tin foil anymore.

R: But that's what we call it! No one says – if someone had specifically said, you know, "of course, it's made from tin, so that's why it blocks the –", then we would have jumped on it. But this is a common usage, at least in America.

E: There we go again, common usage.

S: If his peeve is a fallacy, what fallacy would that be?

E: Nitpicky pedantic fallacy.

S: This is a bonus Name That Logical Fallacy.

R: Argumentum ad

J: Oh, this is really good, Steve. So, basically, there is a logical fallacy here.

S: Yes, a very specific one. We actually talked about it previously on the show, so you all know it.

R: Yeah, I don't listen to the show.

J: I'm sure we have, but I'm not making a connection here.

E: Which show, now?

S: It is the genetic fallacy.

R: Ah.

J: Aha!

S: Yeah, genetic fallacy, meaning that – the fallacy is judging something by its historical use, right? In this case, the term tin foil is, you know, is appropriate because it's come into common usage to mean, you know, that product, the foil that you use to wrap food or whatever you do with it, not necessarily to refer specifically to foil made from tin. It's just like saying "Sunrise and sunset, yeah, well, that's wrong because the Earth is rotating". That's a genetic fallacy. But, the thing is, so, the question that I always ask with – yes, John's correct. It is aluminum foil. That is actually the name of the product. The term tin foil is archaic, but remains in use. It's one of the – our language is loaded with terms like that. We still call the remote control the clicker, you know. We still use terms that refer to –

R: The "save" file still looks like a – the "save" icon still looks like a disk.

S: Yeah –

R: ??

S: – or we save files in "folders" and the icon looks like a manilla folder. Yeah, I mean, there's all kinds of things like that that are –

R: Still call things "films" when they've got – when they don't use film at all.

S: Yeah.

J: I'm sure that John gets that, and I don't think he's saying we must expunge all of these from our vocabulary. I think what he's saying, though, is, I mean, to be pedantic and to be a little bit more accurate, let's call it "aluminum foil", you know. It's two more syllables.

S: No, I think it's more than that.

J: Or more. Three? A-lu- –

R: Three.

J: – mi-num.

S: Three.

J: It's three.

E: Aluminium.

J: Close enough! Whatever.

R: Four!

S: Three, or four if you say it wrong, like the English do.

R: Or in Australia.

J: But the bottom line is –

S: Like everyone else.

J: – it's not that big of a deal. He wasn't being a jerk about it.

S: No, no, it was fun. It was fun.

R: No!

E: No, no.

S: But it's – it was partly just to say, yes, of course we meant aluminum foil when we used the term tin foil. Because it's also a phenomenon that's very common where a brand name becomes the generic name for that type of thing.

J: Like a Q-tip.

S: Q-tips, Xerox, Kleenex. I mean, no one says "facial tissue". You ever refer to it as "facial tissue" ever in your life? No. Nor are you going to.

R: Sounds filthy.

S: Yeah. It's –

J: What's a Q-tip called? Like, an absorbent –

S: It's a cotton swab.

R: A cotton swab.

E: It's a swab.

J: A cotton swab!


E: "I dropped my cotton swab."

S: Right. "That's OK. You can pick it up with your facial tissue." That's how language changes, you know. Languages are, you know, living things that change with use, and – I'm actually really fascinated by archaicism in language, like, "Where did that term come from?" and how long terms can remain in use, long after their original meaning is completely obsolete.

J: Yeah, like "the whole nine yards"; you know, "five-by-five".

E: Yep. "Rule of thumb"

S: "Loose cannon on deck."

E: Well, maybe not "rule of thumb".


Skeptical Shout-out (36:14)[edit]

S: We do have one quick shoutout. Jay, do you want to read this one?

J: Yeah, so this was an email we got in from a listener named Brian Stoveken, and Brian said,

Hey guys, This may be a long shot, but I'm writing to see if you'd give a shout out to a coworker of mine who will be leaving our research group this week to pursue graduate studies. He got me (and subsequently my friends/colleagues) into the SGU podcasts, and generally does a great job promoting skepticism and critical thinking. He's been a great person to discuss skepticism and critical thinking with, and we're going to miss him - As you may appreciate, it's hard to find people willing to engage in skeptical inquiry at a conversational level; much less people you really enjoy doing so with. As a going away surprise, it would be awesome if maybe you could fit in a brief shout out/good luck to him as he departs for school. His name is Jan. Anyway, great job on the podcast - Can't wait for SGU 24!

J: So, Jan! Yeah!


S: That was Jay's shoutout.

R: That's the – that's a shoutout?

S: No, it's cool to get emails like this, and, what it made me think of is, it's like, every social group, whether it's a workplace or family or group of friends or whatever, it's good to have, like, that one skeptical person in there in that group to represent. It's something that everyone can do, make their little corner of the world just a little bit more critical thinking and – and, obviously, we greatly appreciate anybody who spreads the word of the SGU and gets more people to listen.

J: (yelling) Good luck, Jan! We'll miss ya!

J: Is that better?

R: Yeah, that was good.

J: OK.

Name That Logical Fallacy (37:43)[edit]

Respectful Insolence: Jeremy Sherr, homeopathy for AIDS in Africa, and the most fortunate failure of memory holes in the age of Internet

S: OK, we have one real Name That Logical Fallacy this week. I won't tell you who wrote it just yet. This was left as a comment, left on a blog written by Orac. This was left on Respectful Insolence, and it was a blog post about Jeremy Share using homeopathy for AIDS. So, listen to this – I'll read the first few sentences.

What I find so curious about people who represent themselves as pratitioners [sic] of “skepticism” is really how little of it they employ, and how predictable they can be in their beliefs. If you’re going to be a real skeptic, then the first things you would naturally be skeptical about would be your own beliefs. But instead what I see you doing is jumping to a conclusion made by others for you, that you’re just passing along as talking points simply placing your own anecdotal theory in place of evidence: The physical, in vitro, in vivo, user demand and FDA regulatory protections. If you had a leg to stand on, you wouldn’t be writing blogs about it, you and hordes of people like you would be actually doing something in court. If it’s fraud, it can be proven as such in court.

S: He's talking about homeopathy, of course. You guys have any idea who this is?

J: I know who it is.

R: Oh, I have an idea.

S: This is our old friend, John Benneth.

R: Friend is a weird word to use.

S: It's what – we use the word for – euphemistically frequently, you know, on this podcast. He –

J: He's awesome, Steve. He's awesome! I love that guy.

S: He's awesomely cranky, is what you mean.

R: Yeah.

S: He's –

R: Yeah, I mean –

E: He is. He's the crank's crank.

R: He's a rage. He's just, like, nonstop rage and insanity.

S: He's a homeopath who's definitely tried to take on the skeptics. He made a number of YouTube videos, some of them attacking me personally.

J: But he is funny. I mean, come on. The guy is actually entertaining.

S: He's a parody of himself.

R: Not in the way he means to be.

J: It doesn't matter! He's awesome.

S: He's ironically funny, Jay.

R: Yeah.

S: All right, but let's get to the sentences. "If you had a leg to stand on, you wouldn’t be writing blogs about it, you and hordes of people like you would be actually doing something in court. If it’s fraud, it can be proven as such in court." What fallacy is he committing there?

J: That's a logical fallacy.


S: Actually, maybe not.

R: That's good.

S: It may not be a fallacy in logic.

E: Yeah.

S: So what's the other thing it could be? If it's not a problem – if the argument's not –

E: It's a false premise.

R: False premise.

S: False premise. I think he's got a major unstated premise in there –

E: False premise. Yep.

S: – and that is that if something is unscientific or scientifically wrong, that it is necessarily illegal. So he's saying, if homeopathy is a fraud, you would be able to prove it's a fraud in court. That's a – there's a false assumption there. But the fact is that, in the United States, at least, and in many countries, the laws are written – that have legalized homeopathy. Those laws were not based upon science; it was based upon political advocacy.

R: Yeah, I mean, regardless, we don't use our court system to determine what is and is not good science.

S: Right, right. So the reason why we're not fighting it in the courts is because the laws don't allow for it. Homeopathy isn't illegal. But it's still utter nonsense. It is – it's not even necessarily scientific fraud. It's just pseudoscience. It's bad, terrible science. And the claims are false. You know, Benneth doesn't actually address the points that were made in the blog post, doesn't address the skeptical position about homeopathy. He just takes a swipe at skeptics in general. So that's an – that's ad hominem.

E: That's all they have.

S: So the first few sentences were all ad hominem. We're not "real skeptics", you know. Then he makes this argument with – based upon this false premise. He goes on. Lemme read another sentence. He says,

So really, in the face of reality, that this is a long practiced form of legal, curative medicine, do you really think you have enough of an argument against it to give you license to defame the Sherrs and others who have medical degrees? Of course not! Skepticism really is nothing more than a name peole [sic] give themselves when they want to dismiss or defame something they don’t want to believe.

R: Let's see. There was an argument from popularity, right? An argument from antiquity –

E: Argument from authority.

S: From authority –

R: – authority –

S: – nd then an ad hominem at the other side. Right.

E: Homina homina hominem.

S: Yeah, so, talking about, you know, the guy having a medical degree, as if that's a guarantee of being correct. "Long-practiced": argument from antiquity. He's trying to say that it's legal, therefore it's legitimate, so there's a false assumption in there. And then again he defames legitimate skepticism, so he makes an ad hominem logical fallacy. He's really cramming them in there. I mean, he's got –

E: He's batting 1000! He's doing great. I mean, I'd have to try really hard to create something like this, that had so many fallacies.

S: Right, right, right.

Interview with Jad Abumrad (42:32)[edit]


S: All right, well, let's move on. Let's go on with our interview.


S: We are being joined now by Jad Abumrad. Jad, welcome to the Skeptic's Guide.

JA: Hey, thanks for having me. Very honored to be here.

S: And Jad is the producer, cohost, and sound designer of the popular radio and podcast show "RadioLab". Can you tell us how you got started doing "RadioLab"?

JA: Well, I never actually planned to do radio. I was – I kinda just, my entire life, thought I'd be a musician, writing music for films. I kinda had that idea in my mind pretty much since I was a little kid, and tried to do that for a little while, and it wasn't really working out too well. I couldn't seem to make a go of it. And then, somewhere along the way, you know, five, six years out of school, I got the random — and it was truly a random — idea to work in radio. I never listened to the radio. I had – I wasn't one of those people, like, who had a relationship to the radio. But it seemed interesting to me 'cause I had been writing a lot, and I'd been doing music, and kinda seeing those two things together. So I started volunteering, started trying to figure out how to report the news for a local station, and I kinda slowly started to figure out the whole storytelling thing. I don't know. Fast-forward many, many years, I was working at WNYC and 9/11 happens and, for some reason, they completely change the schedule, and, as a result, there were these, like, big chunks of time that opened up really late at night on Sunday night on the AM station, which, really, no one listens to at all. I didn't know this at the time, but, literally, they dropped the power at night, so no one could actually hear the radio station at all. So, they were like, "You! There in the hall, in the blue shirt. Why don't you do something on Sunday nights?" And, I was like, "Sure." So, they gave me, basically, a slot where – I mean, I'm not exaggerating, I think maybe five people heard it, ever. As many people as are on this call. And I just sorta did that for a while. I did it for about a year or so, and then – but, a year later, I met Robert. We met his friends, and we started, you know, having breakfast. Meanwhile I was doing this thing Sunday nights. Eventually he heard it. He was like, "Oh, this is pretty good." So then, he and I started messing around. Literally no one was listening, no one cared. We would do little experiments that involved radio theater, and we'd kinda like, just make stuff up. And, I don't know, two or three years into it, eventually people started paying attention — people in the station. They moved it to the FM signal, where there actually were people listening, and that was kinda the beginning.

R: Where did your science focus come from? Because, I mean, your background is in music, and you can obviously hear in the podcast, but, you know, most of your subject matter is science.

JA: Well, I mean, my parents are scientists, so I've always been around it, and, consequently, for a long time I went in the opposite way. You know, I was like, "I wanna do music and humanities stuff, and not do science." But I'd always kinda, like, been interested in it. And, I don't know, something happened to me after school. I was – maybe it has more to do with where science was headed, rather than with what I was doing, because at a certain point – I mean, I'd always been interested in thinking large thoughts and wondering about the sort of eternal questions. Science somehow, maybe because of neuroscience, maybe just 'cause of a lot of things, science began to somehow become the place where those questions were addressed. I mean, I got into radio to try and do classic kinda This-American-Lifey sort of stories, and at a certain point I was getting tired of that and I wanted to do stories that somehow figured out the world. So I would do kinda how-it-works kind of stories. And that became boring to me because that was just, like, so very mechanical. And, so, I began to try and do stories that sort of, like, accessed larger questions, but at the same time give you a sort of a concrete sense of how stuff worked. Inevitably they ended up, you know, two or three scientists in every piece. So it was never a conscious decision, but it was just something like, "Oh, you know, I'm really interested in time. What is time?" It's not particularly a science question, it's just a, like, get-up-and-look-at-your-clock kind of question. Like, you know, having one of those moments in the morning when you're like, "It's seven o'clock. What the hell does that mean?" You know?

J: When I first started listening to RadioLab, I did think it was a science show, and that's probably part of the reason why I downloaded it. And, of course, it came highly recommended. But, after listening to three or four episodes, I started to shift my opinion of it to more of a show about – it's more about, like, you're telling a story. You have a subject matter. You pick your story, you pick your topic, but you're fashioning a story around somebody's experience, and a lot of times it happens to be something where there's a neurological problem, or a health problem, or an accident, or some type of, you know, something profound in a way.

JA: Mm-hmm.

J: I notice that you always bring in a tremendous human element into these stories. And from my reading of the way that you edit, it does come from your editing, more than it comes from your interview style. Would you agree with that?

JA: I don't know. That's an interesting question. Well, yeah. It's kinda everything. I mean, it's definitely the edit. The edit is, like, I always think of the editing as, you know, you edit it to make a story make sense, so there's a kind of, like, explicit thing you're trying to do with the edits, but it's often like you're trying to, like, access the subterranean depths of a story, you know, of, like, what is it that's really happening there, to the person that you're telling the story about. And, so, the sound choices, the editing choices, are trying to kinda get into that place that's kind of, like, it's like the story is this little boat sailing on a sea, and you're trying to get underneath the surface. And that's what the editing does. But I also think, in the interview, you're just constantly – it's like, there's a tension, there's a tension in a lot of these stories where we tell, where it is, like, an experience, but the experience is pregnant with some kind of idea that is maybe about something universal to the way that humans work, you know? And, so, you want to somehow understand this micro-story and honor it. At the same time, you want to kind of, like, enlarge it, and whip out of it at some point to explain something, then go back in. And, so, the interviews that we do often are – there's a kind of, like, schizophrenia to it, where, like, you're really – it's, like, very technical. Like, I was just doing an interview yesterday about, like, the feedback loop of pain in the body, and you're like, OK, wait, so, wait. A nerve goes from your finger, and it goes through your damn elbow, and it goes up your shoulder, and then it goes through this thing in your spine, and it hits this glial cell, and you're like, "OK, now, what does a glial cell do?" And you're like, "Well, it kinda amplifies it", and you're like, "How does it amplify it? Is it chemical? What happens to the chemicals? Do they spill out, or do they go somewhere?" So, half of the interview is just trying to get the damn details right. And that's the part where I'm just, like, just not, as a person, geared for that, you know? It's not – that's not the part that comes natural to me, but it's like – at the same time, you know, that's your job. It's your responsibility. You just kinda have to know it. But, then, the other half of the interview is just, like, you're trying to get a deep sense of the person you're talking to; trying, for a second, to truly understand what this person – what they're struggling with –

J: Right.

JA: – the mechanics of their struggle. And, so, it's both, really. It's a kind of tension.

R: It's a total tightrope that I think you're walking, and I think you guys do it extremely well, in part, I suspect, because you are storytellers first, and science communicators second, which, I think, for the greater audience, is a benefit, because what you're doing is you're spinning this tale with these aspects of science that people can get absorbed in and really appreciate in a deeper sense, in a metaphorical sense, than they would if they were to crack open a textbook. But, I'm wondering if you get a lot of feedback from scientists that don't like seeing their work or the work of their colleagues represented in that sort of sense. Do you get a lot of, like, angry feedback like that?

JA: No, we don't actually get that. We do and we don't. We don't get it from the people we interview. I mean, hardly ever. I can think of one case where somebody felt like we got – there have been times when we got stuff wrong, so, like, you know, we said dates wrong, or we misstated certain facts. But that happens –

J: Yeah. (laughs)

JA: Yeah, I feel like that happens to every journalist. I mean, it's kinda the unfortunate thing. But, our subjects are generally not upset with us. In fact, they're kind of excited. And the reason that is because – you know, when you're trying to do this kind of stuff and you're using all these analogies, you kinda have to go back to the person sort of mid-stream in the process and be like, "OK, look. We're going to do this whole little song and dance. It's gonna involve mice in a big, you know, rosebowl-type thing, and there's going to be all kinds of singing, and this – are you cool with that?" You know? And they'll say, "Yeah, I am, but you need to say this little word right here." And it's usually equivocating words like "Oftentimes, this'll happen" or, you know, "The theory goes," da-da-da-da-da. You have to kind of, like, qualify stuff, and you go back to the person and they kind of help you with that. And then they're kind of – if we do our jobs well, they're really excited, because oftentimes – I mean, I know how this is. I grew up with scientists for parents, and they would tell me about their work for my entire life, and I never cared, you know? Because it was highly technical, it was just complicated, you know? But then, if you get – if you tell a story well, it dances, and it's got that movement, and they have the experience of their kids actually caring about what they do for the first time, perhaps. So, they're excited! They're psyched. The people that sometimes aren't psyched, I don't really know who these people are, but if you look on our website, and if you go to any show that we've done in the last year, there's, like, a fairly vocal contingent of – I don't know if they're scientists or if they're kind of, like, science – watchdog-minded science-lovers or something, but they will yell at us quite a bit.

R: Pedants.

JA: Yeah, and I sort of, in a way, enjoy it at this point. Like, OK, they're angry. That must mean we're doing something right. Maybe it means we're doing something wrong. I don't know, but there are – there's a faction of our audience which is constantly demanding that we do more science, we do it more technically, we do it with less, you know, less fun.

J: That bothers me, too. We're pretty – I wouldn't say that we're all hardcore science-minded people here. I mean, I'm kidding myself. We – to me, you know, our show is more of a conversation among family and friends about topics that interest us, and we try to be as accurate as we can, but we've had people write in and say, "Your show should, instead of being an hour and twenty minutes, it should be twenty minutes, and you should just get to the facts", you know –

S: "If you cut out all the jokes and humor and –". No.

J: What's the point?

JA: Yeah, yeah –

S: Yeah.

JA: – we get that in spades, yeah.

J: And that's why, like, anyone that listens to RadioLab and recommends that you guys fill it with more science, they're not getting the point of the show, and that's, you know, that's fine, but they're missing out, as far as I'm concerned.

JA: Yeah. And the giggling thing, we get – I can't – i could fill a ??-sized volume with emails saying we should laugh less. That seems to bother people. Like, laughing, you know. But, you know, it's fine, you know, it's – I love science, I hate science, you know, so it's, like, I have the relationship to science that I have with everything, which is that you love it sometimes, you hate it other times, you know.

R: Well, let's – I'd like to use that as an opportunity to talk about one episode in particular that I suspect you must have heard a bit of feedback on — maybe negative feedback — because we heard a lot about it. When this episode came out, a lot of our listeners wrote in to ask us what the deal was, and that is, hookworms.

JA: Hookworms, yeah.

R: Yeah. Basically, the episode was about a man who used hookworms as a way to treat certain conditions, and the feedback we got was that the audience was supremely skeptical of this, and, if I understand correctly, according to an update that you guys posted on your website, the FDA was equally suspicious of this person. I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about your feelings about the whole – the hookworm story, how you felt about it, and if – I guess, if you feel that you guys have, you know, a responsibility to sort of triple-check the science of what's happening in these stories. Because it was a really fantastic story, but I think that a lot of people wondered if the science was quite right.

JA: Right, right. Well, I liked the story. I stand by it. I could be wrong about this, I mean, so definitely correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that this guy was closed down because his science was shoddy, necessarily. I think he was closed down because he was – his whole business was shady, frankly. Like, he hadn't gotten any clearances, and run it through any of the necessary approvals, but, I mean, the fundamental scientific backing of "Do hookworms regulate the immune system?" and "Do they do the things he's claiming they do?" – there's a fair number of people who have studied these, and done it in a controlled way, not for sale but just for research purposes, and they think he's right. Now, whether or not he should be administering it just out of his kitchen – I mean, that's another question. And, so, I – we were profiling the guy not to advocate for his product — not at all — but we were – we found it very – it raises a very, very interesting hypothesis about, you know, cleanliness, about the role – the really fascinating role that these critters could be – these are tiny, tiny critters, and the fact that they might have very sophisticated abilities to regulate our immune system, and that we may have co-evolved with them – that was all fascinating to us. I could give less of a shit whether or not he sells his hookworms, and I hope we were – we expressed our skepticism strongly enough. I mean, if we didn't, then, you know, the people who complain may have a point. That's part of that tension that I was talking about, I mean – you know, you can find something fascinating but not necessarily agree with it. I think it's worthy of – it's a worthy profile, at the same time I hope it didn't come off like we're advocating for his –

S: Yeah, it's really tricky. This is, I think, a generic problem — or challenge, I should say — with non-scientists being science journalists, and even the ones that I greatly respect — like, I think you guys overall do a great job; there's ones like Carl Zimmer, who I think is just a fabulous science journalist —

JA: Yeah.

S: – but, I think, where they often get into trouble is in seeing the real, full context of a story like that, putting it into it's proper perspective. So, for example, my problem, I think, with the way that this guy's story was presented was, you know, his data was all very preliminary, and basic science, and he was extrapolating from that way beyond, you know, the science that had been established to clinical claims. That was the problem with what he was doing. And, you know, I'm not sure that a non-physician or non–medical researcher would necessarily see that, or understand that was the nub of the problem with what he was doing. So, again, even if you do your job really well as a journalist, you could still miss context like that. Do you worry that that can sometimes happen, and how do you protect against it?

JA: Yeah, sure. I mean, you always worry. I mean, I still – I'm not sure that – Maybe I didn't make my point just a second ago. He's not a researcher. We never presented him as a researcher. There were researchers in the piece who we – we did check their science, and we think it's interesting, we think it's solid, you know. Our intent was not to say, "This guy has a great idea that he – and he has the evidence." It was more like, "Here's a guy who's doing something a little bit strange, a little bit dangerous, a little bit interesting. Let's look into it." And, as we looked into it, we thought, "There might be something here." Not saying, "Go do it", but "There might be something here". Sure, I mean, yeah, we miss context all the time, but, I mean, I know the dangers of getting things wrong, and, you know, it is a struggle, at the end of the day, between the storyteller in you and the person who wants to be as precise as possible. But there are whole parts of the process where all we do is fact-check, you know. All we do is just pretend to be, you know, journalists with no sense of humor, just so we know what we don't know, we at least have a sense of the facts, you know. And, so, I do feel fine about the hookworms piece, you know. If there are specific things within it, then, you know, lemme know.

S: Well, Jad, thank you very much for joining us on the show. It's really been a great interview.

JA: Great. Thank you.

R: Thank you, Jad.

J: Thanks, Jad.

Science or Fiction (1:00:48)[edit]


S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Let's see if I can sweep you guys two weeks in a row. What do you think?

R: Ugh.

J: Not likely.

E: ??

S: It is not likely. You are correct. Regression to the mean predicts that that's not going to happen this week, but we'll see. There is a theme this week. The theme is longevity. This is all about – all news items about making us live a little longer.

J: Jay's area of expertise.

S: Item number one: A recent analysis shows that an introverted personality type is associated with a 25% increased risk of death from heart attack. Item number two: A new systematic review of studies shows that high levels of chocolate consumption is associated with a greater-than-one-third reduction in heart attacks. And item number three: A new study looking at cyclists shows that riding intensity, rather than duration, is favorably associated with longer life and reduced risk of heart attacks. Bob, go first.

B: All right. This is the one time I did, like, literally, forty seconds of research. Damn you, Irene!


B: OK.

S: That was a song, wasn't it? (singing to the tune of "Come on, Irene") Damn you, Irene....

B: (singing) Damn you, Irene.

E: "Come on, Irene"

B: Oh boy, Steve, you gotta autotune that post-prod.

E: George Hrab's already on it.

B: So we got introverted people associated with an increased risk of death from heart attack. It kinda makes sense to me that more outgoing and gregarious you are, the better it would be, but, so that seems a little bit counterintuitive, based on that. But let's look at the second one here, that, back to chocolate here, chocolate consumption. So, more chocolate, less heart attacks. Oh boy. That certainly sounds nice. I wonder if it still holds if it's chocolate and peanut butter. The third one, though, I think I've got a problem with this third one. Riding intensity rather than duration. See, my inclination here is that intensity – you know, I've always heard that interval training is best, where, you know, you can do a couple of minutes of high intensity and then low-intensity for a minute, and then back up, but for most people, just to get – doing anything – I mean, what was that recent news item? Fifteen minutes a day of walking was still, you know, very beneficial for lots of people. Damn. The introverted one, number one is also – all right, I'll just pick one here.

S: Yep, that's the name of the game.

B: All OK. Thanks for clearing that up.

S: Actually, the name of the game is "Science or Fiction".


S: The point of the game is that you have to pick one.

B: Point of the game, yes. But you'll notice that there's no mention of how much time I need to take to do that, so I'll take my sweet time.

R: Yeah, we – you'd think we would have changed that, like, four years ago, when Bob took thirty minutes.

S: The show is only an hour and twenty minutes, Bob.

B: All right, I'll go with my gut here and –

E: Go with your heart.

B: – say that the intensity – number three, the riding intensity, rather than duration. That one's fiction.

S: OK. Jay.

J: OK. The analysis shows that the introverted person is more likely, 25% increased risk of death of heart attacks. Now what does that mean? Are they sitting there, like, just frustrated and pissed off because they're afraid to do and say what they want? It could mean that they're leading a more stressful life, but, at the same time, introverted people to me always seem to be a hell of a lot calmer — than me, and I'm certainly not introverted, and I'm certainly a stress case. But, then, of course, that's my anecdote. All right, so, then, I could see that there is a connection between health and mental attitude and all that stuff, and I could see how that's possible. The second one, about the third reduction in heart attacks associated with chocolate-eating. I could see that, too. We know there's chemicals in chocolate that are beneficial, so I could see that that's possible. And then, the last one, cyclists show that riding intensity, rather than duration – so, OK, this item, I have the same problem that Bob has. You know, taking it to an extreme from what Steve is saying, like, if you rode incredibly intense for two minutes, that's supposed to be better for you than, say, riding for an extended period of time? Like, I know I can't just randomly throw in numbers here, but I'm like, OK, it's better to ride more intense for a shorter amount of time than a long term. That doesn't make any sense. You get – you need to exercise a certain amount of time in order to get your heart rate up, and then you need to get your heart rate up for a certain amount of time to increase your metabolism. This one just seems wrong to me, so I'll take that one as the fake.

S: OK. Evan.

E: The introverted personality. A 25% increased risk of death from heart attack. Ouch. That's significant, to say the least. I think that one is the one that is most surprising of these three and is, I think, therefore, likely to be one that is true. So, the next one, about chocolate consumption associated with greater than one third reduction in heart attacks. Have we talked about dark chocolate on the show before? I think we have.

B: Dark matter.

E: A little dark matter, a little dark chocolate. It's the same thing. It's good for you. It's good for you. The last one, about the cyclists. Jay, I think what you said was right, or, at least, how I understood it to be, and maybe we're both wrong. Riding intensity rather than duration. So they're looking at cyclists. So, I wonder what cyclists. Are they professional cyclists, or people who, like, cycle as a recreation? Like Rebecca! You're not a professional cyclist, Rebecca, are you?

R: No, no I'm not.

E: OK. You consider yourself a recreational cyclist.

R: Yeah, I'm an amateur-level cyclist.

E: I think that I'm gonna have to go with the cyclist one, because I find the chocolate consumption one extremely appealing, and I kinda have a desire for – wanting for that to be true, so I'm gonna let my inner nature kind of take over and determine that one's correct, and, therefore, cyclists is fiction.

S: OK. Rebecca.

R: OK. I was going to go with the cyclists one as well, until Bob said the thing about interval training, and, because my initial thought was that intense activity would be more likely to –

B: Cause ??.

R: – cause heart attacks, yeah. But interval training actually is, as Bob said, really good for your health. So, now I'm more inclined to believe that one. The chocolate one, sure, like, you know, chocolate has tannins or whatever. Every other day, chocolate, coffee, and red wine are said to, you know, either cause cancer or cure cancer or whatever. Which is also why, I really don't know, any of these, because I don't pay attention to these news stories at all. Because they mean absolutely nothing! Like, one study means nothing. So I hate these. So, thanks for nothing, Steve.

S: Yep.

R: But that leaves us with the first one, which, originally, I thought seemed fair enough, that introverted people would be more likely to die from a heart attack. My thought at first was, well, introverted people, less likely to have partners, maybe, and, you know, it's been shown that having a partner in your life helps with things like that. Like, if you have a heart attack then they can get to you faster, and save your life. But, introverted personalities? It doesn't mean that they don't have partners, and, you know, after thinking about it an extra minute, I realize that introverted people, yeah, Jay said, are actually usually pretty chill. So, I think that that one's the fiction.

S: OK. So, all right. So you all agree that "A new systematic review of studies shows that high levels of chocolate consumption is associated with a greater-than-one-third reduction in heart attacks" is science. You all think that one is science and that one is... –

E: Uh-oh. Sweep! Sweep!

S: – science.

E: Oh.

R: Aha!

S: No sweep this week.

E: Ooh, no double-sweep.

S: No double-sweep, nope.

E: Nope.

S: Yeah, this is a review of studies, not a one-off study, and they looked back at a number of high-quality studies and showed that there is a very robust association. When you look at the highest-consumers of chocolate in these studies to the lowest-consumers of chocolate, there is a statistically significant association with the reduction in heart attacks. Now, this is a correlational study only, does not establish cause and effect. It might be that chocolate-eating is predictive of something else that is protective [sic] of having heart attacks. Although, the speculation is that chocolate contains anti-inflammatory properties, and that that actually – anti-inflammatory properties strongly correlates with a reduction in heart attack risk.

E: Sweet.

S: They also mention antioxidants. I'm not as much impressed with that, with having antioxidants in chocolate. But either of those could be playing a role. They analyzed seven studies involving over a hundred thousand patients — participants — to come up with these results. The highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduction in stroke, compared with the lowest levels.

E: Yeah, but the diabetes was off the chart.

S: Well, they say that they wouldn't use this systematic review of studies in order to recommend that people start consuming a lot of chocolate, because it contains a lot of fat and calories. So, you don't know that it's worth all the extra calories, right? Because, again, this wasn't – these were not interventional studies, they're correlational, so it doesn't really tell you about other things. So, maybe we do need to do an interventional study, and maybe we need to try to isolate the things in chocolate, and then get –

E: Right.

S: – and then study those effects.

E: Yay cocoa bean.

S: All right, let's go to number one: "A recent analysis shows that an introverted personality type is associated with a 25% increased risk of death from heart attack." Rebecca, you think this one is the fiction; everyone else thinks this one is science; and this one is... the fiction.

S: Well-done, Rebecca.

R: Aha!

J: Oh!

B: Nice.

E: Good job.

R: Thank you. Thank you.

B: Good job.

S: So, this study actually showed that there is a significant risk of increased heart attack from people who are angry – from anger. Yeah. "There is a growing awareness that psychological factors play a major role in triggering and modulating the progression of ischemic heart disease." And this was looking at, essentially, people who are angry all the time, and they had a significant increase in the risk of heart disease. That was the study I was basing it on. However, you know, I just chose introversion. I was trying to pick something innocuous to take its place. But then, since then, I've combed through the literature on PubMed, just to make sure it was false, and, actually, the introversion thing's a little complicated. Overall, there's no confirmed correlation, but there're – I did find this one study — again, where I looked at systematic reviews, they said it's not established, so I don't think you could say that this is established — but they said there's this one study that used introversion, among other things, as a marker for anxiety; and anxiety correlates with increased risk of heart attack. So, that wasn't this study. This was, like, a three-year-old study, and the systematic reviews basically said, no – said that it was inconsistent, and you can't really make any conclusions about that. Anxiety, yeah, pretty much Type A personality, you know, still less consistent; depression, yes; you know, again, anger, yes; but, so, you know, it's possible that introversion is an independent risk factor for heart attack. It just wasn't a recent study and is not something that's clearly established, so. But, let's go on to number three: "A new study looking at cyclists shows that riding intensity, rather than duration, is favorably associated with longer life." And that one is science.

R: Hooray for me living forever!

S: Yes.

R: Unless I get hit by a car.

S: So, this study, done in Paris, France, conducted among cyclists — actually, it was presented in Paris; the study was done in Copenhagen — showed that it is the relative intensity, and not the duration of cycling, that is the most important predictor of reduction in coronary heart disease. The study presented showed that, if you looked at the – with the greatest intensity, they survived 5.3 years longer than cyclists with an average intensity, who survived 2.9 years longer than those with a lower intensity. So, yeah, the men – the cyclists who survived — similar numbers, but less intense, for the women — so, the cyclists who had the greater intensity of riding survived longer than those with longer duration but lower intensity. There you go. But it is one study.

R: Even though I won, I still have to say that these – yeah, these studies are – they're not useless to the field, but I feel like they are useless to the general public, because the general public tries to then adjust their behavior accordingly, and then the next study comes out and says, "Well, actually –"

S: Yeah, it's always more complicated, especially looking at this epidemiological shit. Absolutely. That's why they don't run out and start shoving your face with chocolate, yes.

R: No no no, I'm gonna do that anyway.

S: You might wanna do that for other reasons. And, yeah, you're right, the bulk of the research shows that interval training is – that's the consensus at this point, in terms of what you should be doing.

E: Wow.

S: And, yes, there's a lot to be said for duration of exercising as well; but, among cyclists, this is what this data showed. The other thing is, this was all comparing cyclists to other cyclists. It may not be relevant to the average population, to the general public.

J: Which you clearly didn't say.

R: Maybe cyclists live ten years less than the general public.

J: Thanks, Steve.

S: I said, "a new study looking at cyclists". What was unclear about that, Jay? These are cyclists.

J: The audience and myself know what you pulled here today, OK?


E: They're not stupid, you know.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:46)[edit]

S: Well, Jay, do you have a quote for us this week?

J: Yes, I have a quote. This quote was sent in from a listener named Andrew Gold from Cambra, and the quote is:

The difference between faith and insanity is that faith is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence, whereas insanity is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence.

J: See what I did there, ???

S: Yeah, yeah. That's clever.

E: Yeah, that's – yeah, clever.

B: I think I get that. I think I get that.

S: It's clever.

J: That was a good quote by (yelling) William Harwood!

Announcements (1:16:19)[edit]

S: So, SGU-24 coming up. We already have a number of people who have very generously sponsored one hour of the show. You can do the same thing. You can donate to the SGU or to the show or you can actually sponsor an hour of our 24-hour show by going to, clicking on the big "SGU-24", and that will take you to the SGU-24 page, which will have – we will have the event actually streaming there. We will have more information as time goes on. And you can donate to the effort, including sponsoring an hour, so please consider doing so. We already have nine hours – have already been snapped up, and they're going fast.

E: Yep.

S: Yep. And we will read your name and even a message from you on – during the hour that you sponsor.

E: And if you don't supply us with a message, we'll make up one.

S: We'll make – that's right. We'll be happy to supply one ourselves, absolutely.

J: John from Washington said, "Blah".

J: We have some cool things for the show, though. We have a lot of audience interaction plans, and simple things, like, if you're watching the show and – I'll give you a quick teaser here: We're gonna come up with a list of things that, if somebody breaks, like, for example, if somebody falls asleep, an audience member can catch it, where maybe one of us in the studio won't catch it, right? So you can Twitter us. We'll read it, we'll have someone monitoring the Twitter, and then we'll –

S: Or you could tweet us.

J: – or you could tweet us.

E: Yeah.

J: What'd I say? "You could Twitter us"?

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah. ??

S: That's totally different. That's a completely different activity.

J: Actually, if you want –

E: Is it?

J: – send in a video of you Twittering someone and we'll analyze it.

E: We need to conjugate the verb twitter.

S: Twitter.

R: It's tweet!

J: Let's say that you find or notice something that somebody did on the list of things that they can't do –

S: You Twitterpate.

J: – then, we have a consequence, which is very fun, and I don't wanna reveal what the consequence is, or series of consequences, but it's a game that we're gonna play, you see? And you can get involved here any way you like.

S: Yes.

S: And we have an excellent lineup of special guests who will be joining us, including: Adam Savage will be joining us –

B: Awesome.

S: – the Mythbuster himself –

E: Yeah.

S: – as well as an all-star lineup of skeptics from around the globe. I'm very excited.

B: Very cool.

S: So, tune in September 23rd and 24th, starting at 8 pm on September 23rd, Eastern Time. Well, thanks for joining me this week, everyone!

J: Thank you, Steve!

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Hey hey!

J: I'll see you at Dragon*Con!

S: Yes, we will see you at Dragon*Con!

J: Yay!

S: And, until next week, this is your Skeptic's 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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