SGU Episode 33

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SGU Episode 33
March 9th 2006
SGU 32 SGU 34
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
RW: Rebecca Watson
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Show Notes


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

Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Thursday, March 9th, 2006. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. With me today, as always, is Perry DeAngelis ...

P: Yes, I'm here.

S: ... Evan Bernstein, ...

E: Hello, everyone.

S: ... and Bob Novella.

B: Good evening.

S: Well, for those of you out here who maybe have not listened to our podcast before, just a little bit about the Skeptics' Guide. We are a discussion — a weekly podcast that we discuss science items, skeptical items, paranormal, pseudo-science, controversial claims, the kinds of news items that get missed by the mainstream media, and we discuss everything from a very hard-nosed, scientific point of view.

P: We are both riveting and entertaining.

S: Absolutely, and we have fun doing it.

P: (chuckles) Yes.

S: Coming on our show in just a little bit is Rebecca Watson. Rebecca is the founder of the Skepchicks organization; we'll be talking to her in just a moment. But first, we'll start, as usual, with some news items; things that have caught our attention over the last week.

News Items[edit]

Magnet Therapy (1:27)[edit]

S: The British national health service recently decided to pay for magnet therapy to help prevent chronic ulcers. Now, England — Britain, as you may or may not know, has a national health service. They have socialized medicine, although what they have is a two-tiered health system. There's a private health system for people who have money, and there's a national health service for everybody else. So, this is basically a government-run health care system. And they decide, from the top down, at a bureaucratic level, what they're going to pay for and what they're not going to pay for. And they decided — this is the first time they're deciding to pay for magnet therapy for anything. Which was, you know, quite a bit of news. Of course, the alternative medicine proponents are hailing this as a victory.

P: (chuckles) (English accent) it's a bunch of bloody rot.

S: Magnet therapy — this is something that's been around for a long time, for centuries really, since magnetism was first discovered. I think quack uses for magnetic fields goes back probably to Mezmer, the guy who coined the term "animal magnetism," and it's recently had a lot of exposure. There have been a lot of companies selling either magnetic bracelets, or braces, or wraps for both sports performance and healing wounds and basically any health claim that you can possibly imagine. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no science to support any specific health claim for magnetic therapy.

P: Of course not. How could the upper echelons of the English health care system support this?

S: It's really disappointing. Unfortunately, when you have a top-down bureaucratic-run healthcare system, the decisions are made very politically. Its just like in this country Medicare, Medicaid will cover certain things that I consider to be complete quackery or for which the scientific evidence is significantly lacking, like acupuncture for lots of indications, for example. So it's not surprising, although it is disappointing. The claims behind magnet therapy are based upon — usually based upon the notion that the magnetic fields increase blood flow to the tissue, and many of the defenders, and, in fact, in the recent articles talking about this decision, that some of the supporters claim make that specific claim, that the magnetic fields increase blood flow. Here's a woman by the name of Kleshna, who is a maker of magnet jewelry, so she has no hidden agenda whatsoever.

E: She's a magnetition.

S: She claimed in her press release that magnets created a whirlpool effect to the iron in our blood to get it pumping around much faster than usual.

P: (laughter) I believe the iron in your blood is nonferrous.

S: That's right. That's just what I was going to say. The big problem with that is that the iron in blood is nonferromagnetic. It does not respond to a magnet.

E: Doh!

S: So any hand-waving explanation that involves the magnetic fields affecting the iron in the blood is a priori wrong just on the basis of physics, let alone any biological evidence.

P: Physics, schmysics!

S: Supporters — they've put forward all kinds of hypotheses, every single one of which has been proven not to be the case. It does not change neuronal function. It doesn't make the cells act any differently. One supporter made the argument that — he said "anyone who doubts that magnets have an effect on the body, just put a magnet up to the left side of your brain, and you're right arm will twitch, ...

E: Oh, my!

S: ... because the left side of your brain affects the right side of your body.

E: Uh, huh.

S: That is simply absurd, unless, of course, you're using a ridiculously powerful magnet, not the kind of thing that you are going to be able to hold up to the left side of your brain.

E: Like millions of gauss. Billions?

S: The two problems with that is one, it is true that our nervous system is electrical, and magnetic fields can induce electrical currents, just like electrical currents can induce magnetic fields. In fact, our brains produce a magnetic field, and there are a number, only a handful, though, of instruments called magnetoencephalograms that can measure the very faint magnetic fields that our neuronal processes produce, and if you did produce a strong enough magnetic field, you could induce electrical currents in the brain. You could have magnetic induction of conduction through nerves and through the brain. But that's just because our brains are electrical. That says absolutely nothing about the effects of magnetic fields on any other tissue in the body, and certainly says absolutely nothing about any alleged healing effects of magnets, and it's is a good example of just the slovenly thinking of a lot of alternative medicine proponents, and specifically proponents of magnetic therapy that they would use that as an example.

B: If they claim that they could affect your thinking processes, or something with a suitable magnet, that would be more plausible than saying "Oh, I'm going to heal your bones faster using these magnets." Right?

S: Right. Regardless of any alleged mechanism of action, more importantly is: what is the evidence, say. If we're going to evaluate this based upon what I feel is the narrow but legitimate within itself precepts of evidence-based medicine, what is the evidence say for its effectiveness, and the fact is there is no consistent pattern of effectiveness. There are some small pilot studies which may have shown an effect, but the later, more definitive trials have all been essentially negative. So there is no proven clinical effect of magnetic therapy. The best you could say, if you're being generous, is that the jury is still out, but there certainly is no proven benefit. So ...

P: Poppycock! Pure poppycock.

S: It's just another example of the barbarians at the gates, of a pseudo-science working its way, basically through political machinations, into legitimate medicine.

E: How strong are the magnets in an MRI machine?

S: That point comes up, too. People talk about these weak magnetic fields when the magnets in an MRI scanner, your average clinically-used MRI has a two tesla magnetic field. There are four and eight tesla magnets that are used for research, and the clinical magnets for MRIs will be getting stronger and stronger, because you can basically see tissue better with them. So here you have people, sometimes even specifically people's heads, their brains, inside these ridiculously powerful magnetic fields for 45 minutes, for an hour, and there's no biological effect that's been observed from this. People don't even have weird neurological effects, hallucinations, or visual illusions or alterations in their thoughts. There's no effect to these extremely powerful magnetic fields. The refrigerator magnets that fill most of these catalogs of magnetic devices have magnetic fields which are a millionth of the strength of the magnet, or less, than the magnet in an MRI scan. But not only that, the types of magnets that are in many of these devices, they are "refrigerator magic types", which means that they're strips of magnets with alternating poles, so the polls are going in different directions, and the reason why they do that is that creates with a relatively weaker series of magnets, you get a very strong magnetic field, strong for a refrigerator magnet, but not anywhere near what you get with an MRI scan. But you get a stronger magnetic field, but with a much shorter distance. So you may have noticed that magnets stick really well to the refrigerator, but you only have to peel them very slightly off the refrigerator, and there is no attraction at all. The magnetic field is very shallow. Now wrap that magnet in a bandage, and wrap it around your elbow, and the magnetic field is probably not getting through the bandage, let alone through your skin, let alone down to the tissue. Most of the magnets that are being sold are not producing a significant magnetic field at the tissue level. So, you're not even getting the magnetic field, whether or not a magnetic field has any health effects whatsoever.

B: Pure placebo.

E: If I recall we have had a magnitician come in, once, to give us a demonstration at the New England Skeptical Society.

S: At one of our lectures we allowed a hawker of magnetic quack devices to make his case, and we did little tests of them while we had him there. It was pure nonsense. One of the things he did, he had two magnetic balls, and he would shake them up, did his little ritual, shaking them ten times, and then he would hold them next to your back, and then he would have the person, the subject, turn around at the waist, and measure how far they could turn around. Then he would hold the magnets next to your back, and you should be able to turn around an extra 10 or 15 degrees, and that was supposed to show something. But these demonstrations are all designed to be deceptive, to make you see — make it seem as if there is an effect when there really isn't. And of course, if you do them in a blinded fashion, you would get the same effect. You only have to try a little bit harder to be able to turn at the waist a few degrees more than you did without the magnets. He was also the guy who demonstrated the amazing ...

E: Oh, the plate that (unintelligble).

S: ... the plate that would defrost meat without having to plug it in our anything.

B: Oh, yeah.

E: Right.

S: It's basically an aluminum plate, and it was thicker — yeah, the meat will defrost faster than if leave it on the counter-top. Yeah, that's because counter-tops don't conduct heat and metal plates do. It just basic physics.

E: Shh. You ruined it, Steve. You ruined it.

S: I ruined the bit?

E: I think you ruined his day, actually, frankly, when he came in and tried to show us his incredible devices.

S: He was a true believer. He thought he was going to convince us.

E: Oh, yeah.

Tax Scams (12:25)[edit]

S: The IRS put out a warning this week about tax refund scams. Always another scam in the works, and you have to be on the lookout. It's tax season. You guys filed your taxes yet?

E: Yes, I have.

S: Good for you.

B: No.

P: I have some little people that do that for me.

E: Do you actually pay tax? — well, that's a whole other story.

P: Excuse me?

S: Both the IRS and the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services have put out warnings. Basically, either the IRS or your state department of revenue — they never will send you an e-mail asking you for personal or identifying information. They'll never ask you for your Social Security number, for bank account numbers. They will never send you an unsolicited e-mail asking you for information. So if you get an e-mail, it's a scam. First of all, never click a link, even just to see what it does or where it goes, because just the links themselves can be malicious, and never respond to them. Don't respond to them to tell them to take you off a list or not to send you e-mails anymore. Just delete it, or better yet forward it to the FTC. You can forward it to, and they will register it as fraudulent e-mail. If you have to contact the IRS, then go directly to their website or call their number, but don't interact with the e-mail at all.

P: Hear, hear.

B: Don't even download pictures that are part of the e-mail. Some e-mail applications will let you — will auto-download pictures that might be sent with an e-mail, and that just tells people that you're active, if you actually download it. So set it so that you have to download the pictures within the e-mail manually, and that will ensure your privacy.

P: Right. Good advice.

Plastic Scare (14:23)[edit]

S: Evan, you sent me this other item the other day, and I had received this from other people as well. This is an internet urban legend that has been running around for a few years now. This is a plastic scare. Basically, you get a bulk e-mail, probably from somebody you know, to 20 or 30 or 40 people in their e-mail directory. The prose is typically hysterical, warning you not to put plastic in the microwave. That when you put plastic containers in the microwave, it releases dioxins, which are poisonous. You shouldn't put plastic in the refrigerator. You shouldn't put water bottles that are plastic in the refrigerator.

E: I hadn't actually heard this until my wife Jennifer had sent me the e-mail, and I forwarded on to you guys to talk about tonight.

S: Right. What typically happens is people get this e-mail, it may look legitimate, they will usually quote some sources. This one quoted the Johns Hopkins University, basically saying scientists — I think it might even name the person specifically at Johns Hopkins University — discovered this and put out this warning. Sometimes they don't mention Hopkins. There's usually a few variations of these internet scam hoax chain letters. But people, meaning well, wanting to warn their friends, pass them on. When you get these e-mails you really shouldn't pass them along. You should at least do some preliminary investigation or ask somebody who may know before you flood your friends' e-mail boxes with scams. Now this one, when I first got this, my wife sent it to me, too. She had got it from somebody at work, and it had gone to everybody at her work, and she sent it to me and said "Steve, this looks bogus. Tell me if this is legitimate or not." It literally took me about 40 seconds on Google to find a definitive article debunking this e-mail. It didn't take long for me to figure out that it was fake. So, in fact, because Johns Hopkins was mentioned specifically, the Johns Hopkins public health newsletter put out an article dispelling this particular urban legend. The link will be on our notes page, again, and basically spelling out the fact that heating or cooling or whatever, freezing plastic does not release any toxins into whatever's in the container, into the food or water. There is absolutely no risk to this. This is a complete invented, fabricated out of whole cloth urban legend, and they had never put out any such evidence or any such warning in any of their publications. So they dispelled that particular myth. So if you get this one, hit the delete button. Don't pass it on. It is just an internet hoax.

Questions & E-mails[edit]

Nearest Relatives (17:15)[edit]

S: Before we go on to our guest, we did have one of our listeners sent us an e-mail this week. This is from Peter Holt, and Peter writes "I've been enjoying your podcasts, but I wanted to pick you up on something you said in your last couple of editions. You described other primates, such as chimps, as our nearest ancestors, which is incorrect. They are our nearest relatives. Evolution deniers grab onto the incorrect idea that they are our ancestors to try to discredit evolution with lines such as 'If we descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?' I also wanted to share my own theory as to why some people, not necessarily religious fundamentalists, have trouble grasping the concept of evolution. I believe a lot of people simply can't comprehend the time required for evolutionary changes in a complex life form. They can't think in terms of infinitesimally small steps over millions of years. This might explain why evolution deniers can get away with saying ludicrous things like 'Nobody's has ever seen a cat turn into a dog in the laboratory' or 'My great-grandfather wasn't a monkey.' Keep up the good work. Peter." So I went back and listened to last week's podcast, because I had a sense that he was right. We were responding to an e-mail that we had received and that we were talking about. The discussion began with quoting from the listener's e-mail who asked "How can it be that we have so many defects and our closest DNA ancestors have so little?" So the error was started with one of our listener's e-mails, but we did fail to correct it. But I think Bob, in fact, you were a little confused by his use of the word ancestors. I kind of figured he was talking about our relatives ...

B: Right.

S: ... but didn't specifically correct his use of the term, and I think, listening to it again, I think I did perpetuate it once. So, Pete, thanks for the correction. That, of course, is correct. Living chimpanzees, living gorillas are not our ancestors. We share a common ancestor, again probably about 8 million years ago or so with chimpanzees, or something like five to eight million years ago, maybe up to twelve or so with apes, with gorillas and other great apes. But living apes are not our ancestors. They are our relatives, our closest living relatives, our evolutionary cousins. So thanks again for the correction. He also mentions his hypothesis as to why evolution is so easy to deny. Actually, do any of you guys recognize the logical fallacy that he is referring to in that hypothesis? Basically, that people can't simply comprehend the time required for evolutionary changes in the complex life form. So, what he is talking about is the argument from personal incredulity ...

P: Ah!

S: ... which creationists use quite liberally. Creationists argue in effect "I can't imagine evolution, blind forces, producing all ..."

B: Right.

S: "... of the complexity that we see today. Therefore, it's not plausible or it didn't happen." Their argument is basically that the complexities of the universe should somehow be limited to their personal imaginations or ability to understand things.

B: There's one thing, though. Humans generally can't conceive ...

S: Right.

B: ... of those timescales. We just didn't evolve to be able to grasp something more significant than eight decades, nine decades. I mean I read an article that went into detail about this. Nobody can really wrap their mind around millions of years. It's just something that's inconceivable.

S: Six hundred million years? Yeah. You can't wrap your mind around that.

B: Right. Like the size of the universe. You've just got to go with it, and there's no way you going to imagine it or think about it. You just can't do it.

S: So Pete was correct in pointing that out. That definitely is one of the things that creationists do is play on how difficult it is to imagine the subtle changes in evolution accruing over hundreds of millions of years and resulting in the amount of changes that they do.

B: I don't know why that is so hard to believe.

S: Yeah! No, I agree. I think, in fact a lot of creationists have argued to me that they agree in micro-evolution but not macro-evolution. So small changes can occur, but not big changes. The reason why that is fallacious is because, well, if you agree that a small change can occur, then ...

B: Right.

S: ... just extrapolate that over hundreds of millions of years.

B: Right.

S: Can ten small changes occur? Can a hundred? Can a thousand? Can ten thousand? And if ...

B: Look what we've done with dogs. Look what we've done with dogs. We have done that. We have seen it over the course of human civilization what can be done with dogs, and that's how many centuries have we been doing that? Now, just multiply that times a thousand. What can happen by natural selection.

S: I agree. Intellectually it's not hard to understand how evolution can have created so much change over the time period that it has had to work with. The argument from personal incredulity here is just willful ignorance, in my opinion.

B: It's just another example of science knocking humans off of their pedestal. People don't want to believe that they're not special, that humans are not special, somehow. It just hits too close to home with the whole religion and God thing. Those are some of the primary reasons right there.

Interview with Rebecca Watson (22:50)[edit]

S: Well, it's time to move on to our guest, so let's bring her on now.

RW: Ok.

S: Joining us now is Rebecca Watson. Rebecca, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

RW: Thanks! Good to be here.

S: Rebecca is the founder of the Skepchick organization. She is a freelance writer, and a skeptical activist. You can read about her organization at Among other things, the organization is the publisher of the Skepchick calendar. Rebecca, why don't you tell us about the calendar? How did you get started with that?

RW: Well, actually, the calendar started the whole organization. It was just 12 of us got together, and we wanted to raise some money to send some women to The Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas, hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. And hopefully just to get more women involved in skepticism. And we thought we would sell a few to our friends; but then word spread, and it ended up being a really big hit. So we just kind of ran with it. And that's how Skepchicks started. That's how the online magazine got started and everything.

S: So, who would have figured a calendar with semi-nude ladies on it would have been popular.

RW: (Laughs) We had no idea. (Laughs)

B: Rebecca, how do I get one of those calendars?

RW: We're actually all sold out of the 2006 calendar. Yeah, you should have gotten on it earlier. But we do have calendars coming out in 2007. And we've got a great lineup of people involved. And in fact, we're going to be doing two different calendars – one of all women, and one of all men.

B: Oh!

RW: So that's pretty exciting.

S: Now, Bob is pretty buff. You may want to interview for the Skepchick calendar...

P: Hey, we have some pretty firm flesh at the New England Skeptical Society.

RW: Well, you know, if you'd like to apply, go for it. You will be up against some pretty heavy hitters that we already have signed on though, like the bad astronomer Phil Plait is going to be in it. And, in fact, James Randi already sent in his photo. So he's definitely going to be in it. (Bob laughs) And let me tell you, it's a good photo. (Laughs) So, we're very excited.

B: That'd be awesome. Wow.

S: That sounds great, yeah. So, it's a very, it's a fun project. And that, the calendar started it, and then that led you into skeptical activism in general, just with the skeptic organ... So what else have you been doing?

RW: Well, what we first set up was the online magazine, and that comes out every month on the 15th. We've got the March one coming up soon. And that's been really great, and it's gotten some really good feedback. And I also started up a daily blog, which is just me commenting on various happenings of the day. And that's good, because it gets people coming back to the site every day. And so it's also been pretty popular.

And then coming up, we want to eventually start setting up chapters around the country and around the world, where women can get together and discuss certain critical thinking topics, or host lectures, things like that.

S: Excellent, excellent. Now, of course, the interesting thing about this is this is always a topic that comes up in skeptical circles, is why are there so few women in skeptical activism?

RW: Exactly.

S: I don't think that anyone has the definitive answer to that question, but since you're involved, what's your opinion? Have you thought much about this?

RW: Well, yeah, I have given it a lot of thought, and I'm really not sure. I think it's actually a lot of factors. And one of the ones that I'm trying to tackle with skepchicks is just kind of making it – making science in general – more available to women, and showing them that it can be fun, and interesting to use science in your everyday life.

S: Right.

RW: I think that's really important. And I think that's important across the board is showing men too how science relates to your everyday life, and how amazing science is; and how much crap is out there that they need to be wary of.

B: I think, yeah, I think part of it's cultural. Women, I think, are generally steered away from the hard sciences, just in general. I mean, you don't see, I don't think there's too many – compared to men – women in skeptical graduate courses, or I mean, scientific, like physics, and things like that.

P: Well, in recent months I've seen ads on television about girls staying with math and science as they get a little older, and when I researched those ads a little bit, I saw that behind them was in fact the Girl Scouts of America. They have a "Science is cool" website. And people are certainly conscious of it; they're pushing for it.

S: But you know that kind of campaign to get women more involved in science has been going on for 10, 20 years now. And it's working. The number of women in college in general, and in the math and science is steadily increasing. And, in fact, it's overtaking men!

RW: Yeah, actually I just heard that on I think NPR. They were talking about that just the other day.

S: That's right.

RW: And I thought, "Oh! Wow! I might be a ... our organization might be out of business." (Laughs)

S: Right, right. But, in 20 years, if the trends continue, women may really be dominating higher education and specifically the sciences. Certainly, they've already tipped over into the majority in the health sciences, which I think is generally, has always been a little bit more appealing to women for whatever reason.

RW: There is one thing, an interesting fact is that even though we have more women who are studying math and science, they're still having a lot of trouble keeping them in academia. A lot of them end up falling out of it and going towards more independent corporations and whatnot.

S: They're smart.

RW: Yeah, I was just talking to one of the skepchicks – I believe it's Miss August. Who just got accepted at MIT for graduate studies, and she was telling me how she just doesn't see a lot of women in those upper echelons of academia. And so, there's a big push to figure out why that is. And, of course, you guys know about Larry Summers, the President at Harvard who just ..

B: Yeah.

RW: So, there's definitely a lot of people talking about it. Unfortunately, it's kind of taboo, but hopefully we can keep talking about it.

S: What did you think about the Summers incident?

RW: Well, I actually, I blogged about it, and it got some interesting reaction. I'm a little torn about it. I think that there was definitely some over-reaction to what he said. I read over his speech, and I got the feeling that he was bringing up these hypotheses for why he feels maybe women aren't getting as involved as they should be.

S: Mm, hm.

RW: And he was sort of attacked for those hypotheses when he wasn't saying that they were facts; he was just saying, "Let's explore these possibilities."

S: Right, right.

RW: And I think that's fair. I think you should always be able to say, "Well, let's look into this, and study it, and see what's going on there." As opposed to saying, "You can't say that; that's sexist." I don't think it's ever sexist to say, "What if?"

S: Yeah, I agree. I think, for me, the biggest issue was that – and I'm an academic. I'm obviously a big fan of academia, and its roll in society. But I think at least in this country in the last couple of decades, a legitimate criticism of academia is that they actually are not upholding the highest principles of free speech and freedom of ideas. I mean, there are speech codes on campuses. They actually use censorship. And there is this extreme expression, I find, of political correctness on campuses. And even though it may be motivated by legitimate and good principles like sensitivity and egalitarianism, etc., and openness, etc., I think at the end of the day, it's censorship! And I think that was a particularly egregious example of it. And I agree – I think it was an incredible over-reaction. If you don't like what he said, then make a counter argument.

RW: Exactly. Yeah. The response should never be, "How can we make him shut up?"

S: Right.

RW: It should be, "Let's show him the evidence that he's wrong."

S: Right, exactly. And I think it's actually a very interesting debate, but one that doesn't get, I think, a fair and open discussion because a lot of the — any suggestion that maybe there's some inherent differences between men and women is just taboo within academic circles. And I think one of the principles of skepticism is that no idea should be taboo.

RW: Exactly, I agree.

S: Whatever it is. No matter how distasteful you think it is, you counteract it, again, with arguments, not with censorship. It's similar to the David Irving incident, recently, where David Irving is the holocaust denier that was put in prison for denying the holocaust.

RW: Right. In Austria was it?

S: In Austria; that's right. And somebody pointed out, I thought it was very accurate, that right on the heels of Europe essentially lecturing the world about freedom of expression over the Danish anti-Muslim cartoons, they put a guy in prison for just expressing an idea about history. As wrong as it is, it was incredibly hypocritical of them to do that.

RW: Right. And those are the cases that really, really test us. We need to defend the speech even if it offends us horribly.

S: Right.

RW: We just have to. There's no question about it. You can't throw somebody in jail just for being an idiot, unfortunately. (Laughs)

B: We don't have enough prisons.


E: That would be true.

RW: And plus, what would I do all day in prison?

S: That's right.


S: Getting back to the women in skepticism issue just a little bit; I think even though women are increasing their presence in academia and in science, I don't know that I've seen that it's really penetrating the skeptical movement very much. I think in fact, if anything, you and the Skepchick organization are on the forefront of trying to break women into skepticism. But I haven't really seen much else, evidence of that.

I think there's something else, other than science, about skepticism – especially skeptical activism – that I think is just more appealing to men. Again, whether that's cultural or inborn is probably not resolvable at this point. But, there's something confrontational about it. There's confrontational about skepticism.

RW: Exactly. Yeah.

S: You find, you agree with that?

RW: I do; definitely. I think that in general, I think it could be both a product of the environment and heredity. Men are just naturally more prone to be confrontational. And we encourage that amongst men, but not always so much amongst women.

S: Right.

RW: And so, a lot of times, you find women who just want to be nice. They don't want to say, "Oh! Well that sounds like total bull." They want to, you know, get along with everyone. And I think they need to know that it's okay to say that, "Oh, that guy's not actually a psychic." Or, "You don't actually have a chakra." It's okay to say things like that.

P: What led you to a skeptical outlook yourself?

RW: I usually like to say something like, "Oh, psychics killed my parents," or something. But ...


RW: I don't really have a spectacular story about it. I used to be a magician; and I learned about (unintelligble)

P: That is excellent training ground for skeptics, being a magician.

E: Oh yeah.

RW: It is. (Laughs) Although, you'd be surprised at how easy it is sometimes to compartmentalize things, and ...

B: Oh yeah.

RW: ... so, you know, you don't really always apply what you know to everything. So eventually, I learned to do that. But I found Randi, I knew about him as a magician, and then I found out about what he was doing. And I basically just fell into it that way. I got involved with his forum – his online forum – and that was really huge because that was just a way of connecting with other like-minded people. That I didn't really realize that community existed before. And since it was from that pool of people that I met the women that ended up doing the calendar with me, and organizing skepchicks. So, I'd say Randi was the big gateway drug, so to speak.

S: I have to ask you, how did you think of the name, "Skepchick?"

RW: Actually, I didn't come up with that. I wish that I did. That was a name that was tossed at me the very first time I posted on the James Randi board. They said, "Oh good! Another skepchick! Finally!" And I'm like, "Okay, what's that?" (Laughs) That's clever, but do I need to pay some membership dues or something?

S: Right. The reason why I ask, is because I think I know who the original skepchick was.

RW: Really?

S: I asked you about this on email when we were talking about doing the show. Now our, for a few years, our Massachusettes chapter was run by a woman by the name of Sheila Gibson, who insisted on being referred to as the Skepchick.

RW: Ah! Right. That's right. I remember you did ask me, and I never responded to you. I don't think I've ever met Sheila, but I've heard her name bandied about. And I think I need to meet her.

S: Yeah. She was a hoot! She really was.

P: She was, yeah.

B: She was a live wire, you might say.

P: You remember her once you meet her.

S: Yeah. She always used to wear gloves everywhere she went.

RW: I keep hearing that she's a hoot and a holler. So ...


E: Also a writer, wasn't she?

B: Yeah!

S: She was also a writer.

B: She did a bunch of articles.

P: She worked for Robb magazine? The Robb Report, was the magazine she worked for, at least when we knew her.

RW: Shiela, if you're listening, email me, because we need to connect.

P: Right.

E: You'd better be listening.


S: Well, I was looking through your blog, and the one for yesterday caught my eye because you write about Snipply the Furry Lobster.

RW: Yes! I'm in love with Snipply the Furry Lobster.

B: Ah! He's awesome!

RW: Don't you want one?

S: He's so cool looking.

B: I love his scientific name! Kiwa hirsuta is perfect! Absolutely perfect!

RW: Well, you know, it's a good name, but I'm kind of partial to Snipply.

S: You like Snipply better?

B: Well, yeah. I just love how they threw in, you know, hirsute in his name, which means hairy. So it's just very apropos.

S: Well, what else you gonna call it? It actually caught my eye because until I saw that, I was gonna use that in Science or Fiction this week. So, the guys were all gonna see that, because they were going to your website.

RW: You're gonna have a tough time for that, because I love weird news, so ...

B: But what a weird adaption that is! Why would you need to grow hair four or five thousand feet under water near a vent? That's where they live, right? Near these ...

S: Yes, the hydrothermal vents, right.

RW: And silky, blonde hair at that.

B: Yeah, right. Not even dark. Just an incredible color. Unusual. What kind of adaption you think that might be ...

S: I can tell you what I read.

B: Sure, go ahead.

S: That the hair, the fine, hairy filaments...

B: Oh, it captures minerals and stuff!

S: Bacteria, actually.

B: Bacteria!

S: Because, it's a home for bacteria, which helps them adapt to the hydrothermal vents. They serve some adaptive function for them.

B: Really!

S: Yes. That's the working hypothesis so far. Of course, this is a very recent find. So, it needs to be explored further. But that was the hypothesis that I read.

RW: You know, I have silky, blonde hair, and now I'm a little worried about the bacteria.


B: I just love that. The whole hydrothermal vent ecosystem is so fascinating! And to think that we had not a inkling of it just probably, what, a couple decades ago.

S: Right, it's about 30 years.

RW: 30 years ago.

B: This whole ecosystem that's completely — does not rely on photosynthesis. I mean, it doesn't need the sun to survive. And to me, that's important, because it points to the fact that there could be a lot more life on other planets out there, like Europa, where, just because you're not exposed to the sun, you don't need the sun. It could be, you know, instead of photosynthetic life, it's chemosynthetic life. I mean, all you'd really need is water, minerals, and some heat; and BAM! You could have evolution taking over. So it just – to me, it expanded the range of life in the solar – in the universe, really!

RW: Well, yeah. Not to get too off topic, but did you see that the NASA just announced they found water on ...

S: Enceladus, yep.

B: It's erupting like a geyser, yeah.

S: Yes, actually, I think that that was a prior Science or Fiction, where I asked about ...

B: Yeah, volcanic activity.

S: Volcanic activity; and at the time there were only three places in the solar system: Earth, Io, and then the new one that was the subject of the ... which was Titan. Or it was Triton, sorry. It was Triton, which is a moon of Neptune. And now, this would be the fourth volcanic-type activity. And the question is, is this ice, which is rapidly turning into a gas, or is there actually liquid water just under the surface, that's coming out? And if it's liquid water, that may expand by one the possible locations in the solar system that could be harboring life.

B: Right.

S: It's pretty cool Maybe there's some Snipplies down there.

RW: There may be.


S: Some hairy lobsters from Enceladus.

RW: Alien Snipplies.

B: I'm surprised there's not more volcanism in the solar system considering Titan ... Jupiter, and Saturn have so many moons, and the tidal forces must be so great, that you would think that there would just be more volcanoes in the, around, orbiting those planets. Just because of the tidal forces, and how they react.

S: But, I think the reason for that, Bob, is that there's a narrow band of distance from that planet. Too far away, and the forces are not great enough to cause, to melt basically, the crust of the moon, and cause volcanic activity. And too close and you would break up and become a ring.

B: Right.

S: So, you have to be right in that zone.

B: The zone.

S: For Jupiter, the only planet in that zone is Io. The other ones are too far away. And farther in, you'd have just a thin ring.

B: Makes sense.

S: Well, speaking of Science or Fiction, why don't we go ahead and do Science or Fiction for this week. Rebecca has graciously agreed to participate.

Science or Fiction (43:10)[edit]

S: So for those of you out there who don't know, every week, or most weeks, we do a science or fiction. I come up with a few science news items or facts. Two are genuine; one is fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to figure out which one is the fake. Doing it slightly differently this week. The first difference is that I have four items instead of three, because these are brief items, so I thought four would be a little bit better.

E: Uh, huh.

S: What I'm going to give you are myths, common myths. Three of these are actually myths. One of them is true, so the rules are reversed this week. I'm going to give you four items, three are myths, are not true, and one, although it may sound like a myth, is actually true. You guys have to tell me which one of these four things is true.

B: OK.

S: Do you get it?

E: Got it.

P: I'm totally confused.

E: Follow me, Perry.

S: Let me read all four items first before anybody makes any comments, then I'll ask around to see what you guys think. So item number one: the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from space.

E: I've heard that.

S: Item number two: (hold your comments until I'm done with all four, Evan).

E: OK. Excuse me.

S: Item number two: yawning is contagious. Item number three: adults don't grow new brain cells. Some don't, anyway. And item number four: a penny dropped from the top of a tall building could kill a pedestrian. Rebecca, since you are a guest this week, we'll start with you.

RW: Oh, man. OK. Well I'm pretty sure that number one is a myth. The Great Wall of China thing. I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that that was debunked. And I'm also fairly certain that somebody tested number four and found that to be a myth.

S: OK.

RW: So it's either ...

S: Yawning is contagious or adults don't grow new brain cells.

RW: The yawning thing, I know I saw a psychological study on that when I was back in college, but I don't remember it being conclusive. But I'm going to say that that one's true, because it just seems true.

S: OK.

RW: Yeah, I'm going to go with that one.

S: Ok, you're going with yawning is contagious is the true one of those four.

RW: And I'd like to believe that I can grow new brain cells, because I've killed a lot of them. So... Endless hope.

S: Perry?

P: I agree. I think it's yawning, also. That's what my gut tells me. I'm going to go with it.

S: You're going to go with your gut.

P: And Rebecca.

S: OK. Evan? Evan, why don't you go.

E: So I came up with either yawning or adults are the — one of those two is true. And I could've sworn, Steve, that at some point we spoke about yawning. It had to be a couple of years ago I think we were talking about it, and I think, if memory serves, that they weren't sure. It was inconclusive as to if yawning was contagious or not. So, I would have to say that based on that, I'll say that that actually is a myth, and therefore the new brain cells — that's the one that's true. Adults do not grow new brain cells.

S: OK. Bob?

B: Well. It's funny. It's a coincidence. I read something similar to this today. I pretty much knew most of it, except possibly the yawning thing. The wall of China. State that again, exactly what you said, Steve.

S: The Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from space.

B: Well, it depends how you define space, first of all.

S: I agree.

B: Where does space begin?

P: Bob always tortures these things.

B: Yeah, come on.

P: He does. He tortures. It's brutal.

B: Perry, Perry. Perry, listen and learn. All right? Just listen. OK.

P: Yes, sir.

B: It depends how you define space, but generally, yeah, you can see the wall of China, but you could also see six-lane highways, the pyramids of Giza, and other stuff that are even bigger.

E: Yeah but can you can see it from fourteen billions light years away. You can't see it.

B: If you have a powerful enough telescope, you can. It's not the only thing, so that is wrong.

S: OK.

B: Yawning is contagious? I believed that at one point, but apparently, because I know three is true, so that's got to — so yawning's got to be a myth. No new brain cells — yeah. Forever, people believed that scientists and neurologists believed that there were no new brain cells being created in adult brains, but recently, and not very recently, like a couple of years ago, they discovered that there were, which is pretty interesting. And the penny drop one, that's a myth as well.

S: So what are you saying?

B: I'm saying that no new brain cells is — how did you phrase it?

S: Adults don't grow new brain cells.

B: It's false. That's false.

S: OK. So which one is true?

E: Must be yawning.

S: Must be yawning is contagious is true.

P: Bob, you're so tortured you don't even know what you're talking about any more.

S: You confused yourself, Bob.

RW: He sounded really sure of himself for a minute.

B: Steve, you changed the format.

E: No, he didn't. No, he didn't.

B: Let's see, then.

P: This is totally embarrassing.

B: Let me think. Two or four?

P: Dolts! I'm surrounded by dolts! All four of you.

B: I'm going to go with the yawning.

P: We need more females (unintelligble).

S: Everyone agrees that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from space is an actual myth, and that is a myth, and Bob did partly hit upon one of the key elements is that space is ambiguous. But if you consider that to be low-Earth orbit, let's say the highest orbit from which you can see the Great Wall of China, you can still see other structures. You can see, Bob already mentioned, the pyramids of Giza, your can see airport runways. There's lots of structures that are equally as visible from low-Earth orbit. So that is just a completely made-up myth.

B: Well, Steve.

S: Yeah, Bob.

B: I was just going to throw in a little trivia for you guys. Actually, scientists or NASA or somebody actually defined where space begins for practical reasons, and one of them, I forget the distances, 50 miles or whatever, but one of them is you're above 99% of the atmosphere.

S: Mm, hm.

B: That's one definition of where space begins. The other one is, is where the drag from the atmosphere, if you were in orbit, where the drag is completely insignificant. That would be another type of definition of where space begins.

S: Right.

B: The third one.

S: Which is about a hundred miles or so up.

B: Yeah

S: Basically, which is low-Earth orbit. You all also agree that number four was a myth, a penny dropped from the top of a tall building could kill a pedestrian. I've heard that so many times myself.

P: I've heard it will go four inches into the cement, or something?

S: Four inches down into the cement.

E: The Myth Busters tackled it, I think.

RW: Yeah, I think they did.

S: Because of aerodynamics, a penny would reach its terminal velocity actually pretty slow. It would raise a welt on you, but it wouldn't even break the skin, probably.

B: Well, still it would hit you at terminal velocity, like 120 miles an hour, wouldn't it?

S: No, that's not the terminal velocity for a penny, though, Bob.

B: No.

S: Because of aerodynamics.

B: Because of it's shape, it never reaches that speed, OK.

S: No, it would smart, but it wouldn't hurt you. So we are down to number two and number three. Evan, I think you were the only one that broke from the other three. You said that you believe that adults don't grow new brain cells.

E: I'm an independent thinker.

S: You are. You are. Probably because you're still growing brain cells.


S: Because that one — Bob is correct. That was the conventional wisdom for awhile. It's been more than a few years, though, that they have been documenting that brain cells do continue to emerge, to divide, and to grow in the adult brain.

P: Doesn't mean that everybody actually uses them.

S: That's right.

E: Well, that's true.

S: Well, we only use ten percent of them.

P: That's right.

B: Right.

E: Twelve percent, on a good day.

S: Ten, twelve, whatever it takes. So we do grow new brain cells. Unfortunately, as we get older, our brains do atrophy, so that the new brain cell growth does wane and does not keep up with the death of brain cells. It's still controversial whether or not the brain cells that are dying over time are ones that never became established and used in pathways or if it's actually a loss of functional neurons. Whether it's a so-called winnowing away of the dead wood or an actual loss of function. Probably a little of both. Adults — we do after the age of 40 or 50 or so, we do start to lose our cognitive edge, unfortunately. But that one is a myth. Number two is in fact correct. Yawning is contagious. It's an interesting topic. There's a lot that we're not really sure about, but it has been actually pretty well established that the probability of yawning goes way up if you are exposed to other people who are yawning.

B: But why?

S: That holds true — that's the $64,000 question.

B: Right.

S: There is a lot of speculation. It does hold true for other animals, too: chimpanzees, the big cats, etc.

B: Well, Steve, one explanation I heard is that for early humans to synchronize sleep cycles, so that everyone would pretty much go to sleep at the same time. That's maybe one reason why it was selected for. That kind of thing.

S: That's one hypothesis, although I don't think that's the leading one at this time. One myth about yawning that was debunked with research ...

B: Was it the demon? The demon that goes in your mouth when you yawn, and that's why you cover your mouth?

RW: No, no, that's true.

S: That's true, Bob. That we yawn because our oxygen levels are dropping.

B: Right, right.

S: It actually has nothing do with respiration. Yawning does not have to with the movement of oxygen or CO2 or any function of respiration. So that's not it. Actually, the other myth about yawning is that it's an activity which is restricted to being sleepy. In fact, we yawn more when we're waking up than when we're about to go to sleep. And the leading hypothesis that I've read so far is that yawning is actually an activating activity. It actually makes us more awake and alert.

B: Interesting.

S: And maybe by stretching the tendons in the temporal mandibular joint.

E: Exercise.

S: It's a form of exercise and stretching, which may actually have an activating function, and the reason why it's contagious is because if one member of your troop or pride or whatever is yawning, they're getting ready to do some activity, then it's advantageous for you to be getting more alert and more ready to do activity as well. Still speculative, but that's where we are right now with that evidence.

P: Are you suggesting that we evolved from some lower form of animal?

S: I wouldn't say lower.


S: Just different.

P: Thank you.

S: Don't fall into the ladder of evolution myth, Perry.

P: Of course not.

E: Are you saying people that are yawning while listening to this podcast, perhaps are ...

B: Exercising.

E: ... getting themselves revved up for the next segment?

S: That's absolutely right, because we're just so damn exciting.

E: Good. Phew!

B: Rebecca ...

S: You guys did a very good job.

P: You hit it, Rebecca. Congratulations.

S: Three out of four. Congratulations.

RW: Yeah, what do I win?

E: Well.

S: You win my voice on your answering machine.

RW: Yes! By the way, I love you on Morning Edition.

S: Oh, thank you, thank you. You win our parting gift, his-and-her motorbikes.

RW: Oh, what fun.

Interview with Rebecca Watson continued (55:21)[edit]

B: I want to mention Rebecca's Adventures in Online Dating.

S: Okay.

E: (unintelligble)

B: It was very interesting. Now, if I was doing online dating, and I came across this entry, I would literally think that somebody was putting me on, and saying, "Wait, this is just too good to be true." I just love these entries here. You have, "Last great book I read was Feynman." You also mentioned Dawkins. And if you could take a class on any subject, Quantum Physics 101. I mean, that's just so cool! Let's see ...

S: Perry used to take that course.

P: Absolutely.

B: Right. More on who I'm looking for section, she, Rebecca wrote, "Someone who likes science. And I'm looking for some one who knows and understands that astrology is bull whatever." (Rebecca laughs) No, really. It's funny, you go on. "No, really! This is very important. I know it seems like common sense, but you'd be surprised. I also checked off that I was an agnostic looking for an agnostic or atheist." I mean, there can't be too many entries in these online dating services like this.

RW: (Chuckles) There really aren't. I definitely hold an edge.

B: Oh my god!

RW: (Laughs) And, you know ...

B: I'd be sending you an email if I was on that service.

RW: Oh, that's very nice. You know, you can still send me an email. (Laughs)

B: Okay.

RW: No, in my blog, I write about the funny, really terrible responses I get. But to be fair, I did get a lot of really great responses too ...

B: Oh good!

RW: ... from very cool people. I've been out on a lot of dates with scientists, and I actually met some really cool people through that. And a lot of my friends today are ex-first dates off of there. So, I really can't complain in general about it.

B: Okay.

S: It's an interesting phenomenon, the whole online dating thing. I have to tell you, Perry met his wife online!

P: That would be accurate! (Laughs)

RW: Oh! Really?

P: One of the early ones. Fairly early, anyways.

S: It actually worked out.

P: It did! (Laughs) Worked out very well.

RW: Well, that gives a lot of people hope.

P: Absolutely.

RW: I actually, I'm not on there any more, but it's mostly just because I don't have time any more, which is really kind of pathetic. But I have no time for going out any more.

P: Really?

S: Is the organization keeping you that busy?

RW: Yeah! It's all skepchicks all the time now. It's okay, because I find the skepchicks to be a lot more enjoyable than a lot of the dates, so (laughs). It's okay for now.


P: Doesn't speak very highly of scientists!

RW: The scientists have been great. It's the spiritual, not religious people, and those other types. But, I guess I should really go back on there if only to get more stories to write about. People seem to really enjoy those.

S: You could write a Sex and Skepticism column. Like a take off from the Sex in the City column.

RW: That would be fun, actually. But I'm not sure I could really write a tell-all though. I think people would get angry, so ...

P: We recently had a little controversy in The Skeptic's Guide about the G-Spot, Rebecca. I don't know if you heard that.

RW: I did hear that! And I was alarmed to find that you guys did not know that female ejaculation is a fact.

S: It's a fact, you're saying.

RW: It's a fact. It is a confirmed fact.

E: I don't think that was the argument, though. Everyone was "Is was there a G-Spot that triggers the ejaculation?"

S: Oh it was just, those were two separate questions. Is there a G-Spot, and is there female ejaculation? And we didn't really talk about the ejaculation part. Terry Hines mentioned it as an aside.

E: Right.

S: The discussion was focused more about the G-Spot. But I confess my ignorance of the scientific evidence one way or another.

P: So back to female ejaculation ...


P: It's always a favorite topic of mine. I will admit, we're fairly ignorant on the topic.

RW: It's documented. See, and that's why you need more female presence.

P: Hear! Hear! I agree 1000%.

E: Absolutely! No question.

RW: I'm here to get you guys in line. There's too much testosterone.

S: You're a believer in the G-Spot as well, just to be official about this? Just to get this on the record?

RW: Actually, I am pretty, like, the G-Spot thing, unconfirmed. You know. And I have no evidence one way or the other, personally.

S: So you're agnostic about the G-Spot.


RW: Yeah, I am.

P: Do we have an open invitation to call you whenever these topics arise in the future, Rebecca?

RW: Oh yeah! No, not only do you have an open invitation, it's a demand! You have to call me.

E: There you go.

S: You are our official skepchick consultant.

RW: Yes.

S: Whenever these issues arise in the future.

E: Oh, man.

RW: Yes, I expect one day to be out at the bar with friends, and to get a call of you guys on the podcast saying, "Okay, we have this question about orgasms."


RW: (unintelligble)

P: Anything remotely regarding female genitalia, you're there, Rebecca.

RW: That's right.

P: Alright, good, good! It's good to know!

B: Rebecca, what other topics could we call you on? What are your areas of interest besides cereal, apparently, from your blog. If we have any cereal questions, we will definitely give you a call.

RW: I'm an expert on cereal. I'm a cereal fanatic. Juggling, magic, female ejaculation ...

P: All those related topics.

RW: Yeah, you know. It's all pretty much in that category.

S: How many items can you juggle at once?

RW: Four.

S: That's impressive!

B: Wow!

P: Pretty good! That's pretty good!

RW: Yeah, anybody you know who can juggle five, they're either a professional juggler, or insane, because ...

P: You ever seen Penn Jillette juggle those broken bottles?

E: Oh! He juggles everything.

RW: I have. I saw him in Vegas.

P: It's absolutely astounding. Astounding.

RW: Yeah. That's a really great part of his act. I love that.

B: Did you guys read, I think it was the Discover Magazine a couple years ago, a juggler wrote in a very interesting article about juggling and the mathematics of juggling. And he came up with some very unusual – god, how do I describe it – these weird algorithms that he could apply to juggling. It was a fascinating article! Unfortunately, I can't remember a lot of it. But it was very ...

S: It was all about the timing of when you throw up different ...

B: Right, right.

S: ... objects.

B: And he – my god – he was insane! I think, what was he juggling, Steve? Like six or seven or eight? Just some crazy number of things that he could juggle.

RW: That's outrageous.

B: Yeah, he was pretty talented.

S: More uses for math. Juggling lots of weird stuff.

B: Right, there you go.

S: Well, Rebecca, it was an absolute pleasure to have you on The Skeptic's Guide.

RW: Thank you! I had a lot of fun.

S: The time always seems to run out very quickly. I hope that you will join us again, and we'll absolutely keep you on our hotline for women in skepticism issues.

RW: Great, yeah, keep me on the speed dial.

S: What's in the future for the Skepchick org? Just plugging away at the calendar and your blog? Or you have anything new on the horizon?

RW: Yeah, the calendars are coming together quickly. And we're just pumping out new issues of the online magazine. And it's getting bigger and better every month. So, definitely check it on March 15th is our next one.

S: Glad to hear it. And again, that's at The links again will be on our notes page for this podcast. Again, Rebecca, thanks for being on The Skeptic's Guide.

RW: Thanks for having me.

B: Thank you, Rebecca.

P: Thanks, Rebecca. Bye bye.

E: Good night.

Wrap up (1:03:11)[edit]

S: So, what did you guys think about Rebecca Watson, the Skepchick?

P: She's terrific.

S: She was great!

B: She was awesome! Excellent!

S: It was really great having her on.

B: We gotta have her back!

S: Definitely.

B: Gotta have her back real soon.

E: And we would also like to hear from other women out there who listen to this podcast, and get their thoughts on a lot of these things. It's great to have more females involved in this.

S: Send us your emails. Send us your voice mails, your voice recordings, so we could play you on our podcast. Definitely need to get more women involved in skepticism.

P: I'd also like to say that we saw Rebecca's calendar pictures, I guess, and she's a hottie.

S: Yep. (Inaudible)

P: Absolutely. She is, yeah. She was great.

B: And she picked a good month – October! The best month!

P: Yeah! That's right.

S: So, that is all the time that we have for this week. Guys, thanks again. Always a pleasure, Bob, Perry, Evan.

P: Righto.

E: Yes sir! It was a pleasure.

B: That was a good episode, guys.

P: No problem.

S: For our listeners out there, we'll see you again next week. Until then, this is your Skeptic's 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 New England Skeptical Society. You can send us questions, comments and suggestions to 'podcast @'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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