SGU Episode 331

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SGU Episode 331
19th November 2011
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 330                      SGU 332

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


NT: Neil deGrasse Tyson

PP: Phil Plait

Quote of the Week

Perfect as the wing of a bird may be, it will never enable the bird to fly if unsupported by the air. Facts are the air of science. Without them a man of science can never rise.

Ivan Pavlov

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is November 16, 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: Yup-up.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Olas Nuetes. To all of our listeners who speak the Galician language.

J: Or Galactican.

E: Yeah, that's what I thought it looked like, too, Jay, but, in looking at it a little closer, Galician is the language.

S: What is Galician?

E: It has its roots from a Latin-derived language based out of western Spain and Portugal, around the time of the 13th century. And there's currently 3.2 million native speakers in the world, of that language.

S: Um hmm.

E: So it's the Yiddish of Spain, let's call it that.

J?: (In a Yiddish accent) Vat is this, Galician? (laughter)

E: You know, you learn something new every day.

S: That's what you learned today?

E: That's what I learned today. I didn't learn anything else except that.

This Day in Skepticism (1:10)[edit]

S: Well, how about November 19th in history?

E: Yes. On November 19th, this day, in history, the Apollo 12 astronauts, Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, land at the Ocean of Storms on the moon, and become the third and fourth humans to walk on the moon.

S: Oceanus Procellarum. Awesome.

E: That is it.

S: Sounds cooler in Latin.

R: It does. I don't know, Ocean of Storms, that's pretty cool, too.

E: Ocean of Storms is pretty cool.

S: Isn't that the next book in the Game of Thrones series?

B: Oh my god, I was thinking the same thing. (laughter)

J: Isn't that, isn’t that also a region on the moon?

S: Yeah.

R: Good one, Jay. (laughter)

E: Love it.

S: It's where they landed.

E: Apollo 12 is the, one of the missions that really gets forgotten about. You know, you have, obviously, Apollo 11, which is the seminal moment.

S: Yeah. 12 is the one after that, right?

E: 12 is, yes. And the one after that is Apollo 13. Of course, you know, the botched mission, with the failure and everything and the very popular, excellent movie, it was based on. But 12 kind of gets lost in the mix.

S: It's the forgotten Apollo mission.

R: (sadly) Oh.

E: It is.

S: You know why, because it was successful! It was the second, so, you know, it wasn't the first, and nothing bad happened. They went to the moon, they completed their mission, they came back.

E: Well, actually something bad sort of did happen. They almost had to abort the mission.

S: Yeah, but almost doesn't count.

R: Horseshoes and hand grenades.

E: But 36-1/2, this is cool . .

B: And Tiddly-Winks.

E: Their end lift-off, 36 seconds into the mission, and lightning becomes discharged through the ship, down through the Saturn V rocket, right down to the Earth. It was, through the ionized plume. And the protective circuits on the fuel cells in the service module falsely detected overloads and took all the fuel cells off-line. They didn't know what to do. They almost had to abort the mission, until Bean remembered seeing this in a simulation about a year ago, that they were practicing for, and they switched something over to auxiliary power, and that corrected the problem. But they, it was really a guess. They weren't sure that that was gonna work. But turns out it did, and off to the moon they went.

S: Awesome.

E: On a less-than-memorable mission, right?

S: That's good work, boys.

E: And something else, one other little interesting factoid. They used Doppler radar in order to land, pretty much precisely on target, where they wanted to, and that was the first time that that had been used by NASA.

S: Yeah, I know Apollo 11 landed way off. So they were testing this new method for precise landing, and it worked well.

E: It did. So, the moon is cool.

News Items[edit]

The Moon's Magnetic Field (3:55)[edit]

NBC news: Is the mystery of moon's lost magnetism solved?

S: The moon is cool, and that's why it's our next news item, too. Bob, you're gonna tell us about the moon's magnetic field.

B: Yeah, this is pretty interesting. A forty-year-old moon mystery may have been solved recently. It looks like that we may have two viable theories, not one. We've got two viable theories why some moon rocks that were brought back in the '70s and were examined are magnetized, even though there's no magnetic field around the moon now, and we don't know how there ever could have been, until recently, of course. So, it pretty much started in the '70s, that moon rocks that were brought back from the Apollo missions caused quite a surprise when they examined them and they discovered that they, that they were magnetized. And, this of course meant that there almost certainly had to be some sort of magnetosphere around the moon at some point in its past. I'm not sure why the article I read said "almost" certainly, I mean it seems a hundred percent certain to me. I mean if they're magnetized. . .

S: Well, it's possible that Magneto went back in time to the moon (laughter) and magnetized the rocks where he landed.

E: I knew it, I just knew it.

S: So that's, yeah, you gotta hold out for that, you know.

B: Okay, there's the .000001 percent. The problem, though, is, how did the moon actually make a magnetic field. That's what the big mystery has been for over forty years. The moon is too small to make them, and, at least in the way that the Earth does. So, the Earth's magnetic field is caused by the interplay of two things. You've got the convection of electric charges, which is really key, that's primary. But you've also got rotation, which is also pretty important. This is the essence of a geodynamo. This is exactly what stars do as well. This is how they, how stars create their magnetic fields. The large temperature differences of the liquid metallic alloys in the outer core of the Earth causes like this lava lamp type convection of these electrically conducting fluids. So they, so these fluids move up and down through convection. And this coupled with the rotation of the core is what really creates this magnetic field that extends all the way to the surface and far into space, and which, of course, totally saves our ass,

S: Right.

B: from solar wind, and so it's really nice to have a magnetosphere.

S: And Jupiter has a very strong magnetosphere, and that's because of the metallic hydrogen, right?

B: There you go, the moving charges, yup.

J: Do you guys think with all these fortunate things that made it so life could exist on the Earth

B: Don't go there.

J: Wait. Wait. Do you think, though, that if, say, the moon didn't have a property that protects life, that other life would have evolved?

B: Well, sure. Life that would have been able to evolve in the different environment that whatever the moon lacked, caused.

S: Yeah. Obviously, life adapted to the environment, and so the environment is perfect for whatever life exists, because, you know, life evolved and adapted to it. But, the question is, how far can you stretch that before you're outside the parameters that organic life can form and be stable, and it's hard to say, you know.

R: Like a very wise Ian Malcolm once said, "Life finds a way."

E: Jurassic Park.

R: Yes.

J: So it's possible if the terrain on the Earth and the environment on the Earth was like, totally badass, that some form of life could have evolved that could just withstand extreme temperatures

B: Jay.

S: Like the Horda?

B; Jay, look at. . . Dude, no. (laughter). Not that extreme. But Jay, look at extremophiles. There's bacteria that can survive boiling water. They can survive radiation in space. I mean, sure, it might be so nasty on Earth that all you'd ever really have is these extremophile bacteria, but so, sure.

S: Yeah, but Bob, they . . .

B: That's not a problem at all.

S: wouldn't be extremophiles, they'd be normophiles. (laughter) Because they would be normal and we would be the extremophiles.

J: Well, the cool part about thinking about this, Bob, isn't that it would be bacteria. It'd have to be a complex organism that can think, and all, you know. I'm just thinking of the wicked tough alien that can withstand pretty much anything.

S: Yeah, they would be sitting around wondering if, hey, if the Earth had a magnetic field, do you think life could have evolved and survived? In a constant magnetic field, though, my goodness. Alright, so Bob, so, what's the mechanism, let me get this back on track, what's the mechanism for the moon having a magnetic field?

B: Well, the point is that the moon can't have a magnetic field the way that the Earth does, or stars do. It's way too small. The temperature differences that would be, that are near the core just aren't great enough to support any type of convection that would be required. How did the moon, then, magnetize these rocks? So clearly there's gotta be another way for a geomagnetic field to be created. And this is exactly what these two new theories are dealing with, in the Journal of Nature, I think they're in there now. The first theory describes the moon after it was formed. I think we've talked about this before. In those early years, it was much closer to the Earth. I think it appeared 15 times bigger in the sky. It was much closer.

J: Wow, that's cool.

B: So that, yeah, imagine that night view. So the tidal forces were equally great. They were really titanic. The moon raised mountain-sized tides on the Earth. But that also means that the Earth probably had a pretty dramatic tidal impact on the moon as well.

S: You know what just occurred to me, Bob, when you say that? I don't know if we've talked about this before, but in a lot of science fiction shows, they show these massive moons in the sky, you know, of the planet, and it's beautiful. But there would have to be a titanic. . .

E: Impractical.

S: tidal force, as well.

B: Oh my god, yeah.

S: And they never really show that. You know, they have these planets that are like Earth, but they have these gigantic moons in the sky without accounting for the fact that there would have to be an equally gigantic tidal force.

E: Would multiple moons, how would multiple moons, could one on each side of the planet, sort of equal it out?

S: That would make it worse. If they were on exact opposite sides of the world the tidal forces would actually reinforce each other.

E: Alright, well is there a configuration where if you had multiple moons, it could sort of balance each other out that things would remain stable enough for life to evolve?

B: I don't think it would balance out that way.

S: Yeah.

B: I think you'd end up having, you could end up having four tides a day, type of thing.

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah, or really big ones, or, yeah. It would not be nice.

E: All right.

B: So, Earth's tidal force caused the moon's mantle to actually rotate around a different axis than the molten core was rotating, and this causes turbulence within the molten iron and that gives rise to magnetic fields, which in turn, imprinted itself onto the rocks cooling on the surface of the moon, which are the ones we found. Now, the second theory describes a moon that's being pelted by waves and waves of asteroids, and this gargantuan energy that these asteroids impart on the moon cause the mantle to actually rotate against the rotation of the core, causing turbulence again, which gives rise to the magnetic field. And this turbulence could last for 10,000 years, which would be plenty of time for cooling rock to fossilize the magnetic orientation. So in fact, the period of time in the solar system when this was a common occurrence, it's called the Late Heavy Bombardment, is precisely when the moon's magnetic field seems to have existed. So you've got these two interesting theories, and they are very complementary because they both share this key point that convection is not absolutely required. Simple mechanical stirring is really all you need, it seems, if these theories pan out, to create a magnetic field around a celestial object.

S: Yeah, so essentially the ess…the key component is that the core is rotating at a different angle that the outer mantle, so they're sort of rubbing up against each other causing. . .

B: Yeah. Causing the turbulence, which causes the movement of the electrical charges, and the rotation too, which helps create the magnetic field and there you go.

Europa's Icy Surface (11:33)[edit]

BBC news: Jupiter moon Europa 'has shallow lakes'

S: Well, we've actually got one more astronomy news item this week, but we'll do this one quickly. This one is about Europa. It's one of the coolest moons in the solar system because it potentially has an ocean of liquid water underneath its icy outer shell. And it's one of, it's on the short list of worlds in our solar system that might have life. You know, liquid water . . .

B: It's number one on that list.

S: Yeah, it could be, could very well be number one. But one of the questions is how thick is the ice on the surface? And this is a hotly debated topic among the relevant astronomers. And it makes a difference because, you know, if it’s really thick, thick being greater than ten kilometers, let's say, it would be a lot harder for us to send a probe there and drill down through the ice to get to the liquidy center. But if it's thin, like at three kilometers, then it would be a lot more plausible to be able to do that.

B: Wasn't there another important point, though? They said something about the interaction of the surface with the liquid underneath would help give a boost to the potential of life and I didn't really understand why that interaction would be helpful but they did kind of key in on that.

J: Why don't we just nuke a hole in the surface and then send a probe after that?

S: Yeah, just blow it apart? Yeah.

B: Hello, aliens!

R: The Bruce Willis effect.

E: We come in peace.

S: So you're talking about a new study, also published in Nature, a lot of interesting articles in the recent Nature, where the astronomers were looking at the formation of the ice sheet on the surface, basically features on the surface of Europa and how to account for them. It's pretty technical; I confess I don't fully understand what they're talking about. But essentially they're looking at these zones called "chaos terrain," and how they form. They came up with a model of how they could form that implies a thin ice sheet on, at least at that section, over the chaos terrain of about three kilometers. So that would mean that, at least in those locations, there is a very thin, you know, again the three-kilometer ice sheet on the surface of Europa. What you're talking about, Bob, is that also, this would imply a convection of the warmer water from deeper down to the surface. And why that's significant to the question of life is because that would mix nutrients into the ocean and make it, you know, life more viable.

B: So there's nutrients on the surface?

S: No, no. Just in the water. Mixing in the ocean of Europa, under the ice ocean. Basically dragging up minerals from deeper in Europa up into the water. Up into the ocean. So that would be a resource for any Europans.

E: Europeans.

S: And one of the articles I read on BBC was saying that the U.S. and Europe are working on missions to Europa that they're planning, hopefully, either later in this decade or early in the 2020s. But I hadn't heard anything really specific about that.

B: You know, it's times like this that I wish Superman was real. You know, like, hey Supe, you know, just fly to Europa, come back with a sample. You know, you'll be back in a day. You'll save us a quadrillion dollars, come on.

J: Bob. Bob. (laughter) Really, like, that's all we would use Superman for, like . . .

B: No. That's not all. (Many people talking at once) . . . key activity.

J: But that's the thing that you would be like . . .

R: Bob, if Superman exists then we already know there's intelligent life in the universe.

(Bob laughs)

R: That is Superman. He's an alien.

B: Oh, you're getting silly now.

R: That's not silly.

J: Yeah, 'cause what you said isn't ridiculous or silly at all.

R: Yeah, I think you started it.

E: Marlon Brando . . .

B: Superman would be a boon to science.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

J: Yeah, do you think that he would be like science's bitch, just waiting around for them to say "Go here," "go there."

B: No, he wouldn't be our bitch, but, you know, a couple days a year he could devote to science.

S: More than that. I think that would be a high priority.

R: Oh, yeah, we'd find a way to knock him out and cut him open in days, probably.

E: (laughing) and figure what makes him tick. (laughter) "Hey, look at that."

S: You would just, yeah, use some kryptonite, that's all.

R: Yeah, the U.S. government would stockpile kryptonite. And build a kryptonite jail, and then experiment on him for the rest of his days.

S: Yeah. I'm really glad we didn't get off topic on this one. (laughter)

R: What were we talking about? Oh. Europa.

S: Yeah, Europa; it's cool.

False Confessions (16:05)[edit]

APS: False Confessions May Lead to More Errors in Evidence, a Study Shows

S: All right. Let's change topics completely. Rebecca, you're gonna tell us about false confessions, and why that they are, can be even more misleading than you might think.

R: Yeah, well, yeah. I mean, you can already guess that false confessions would be a terrible thing. There are a terrible thing, and they happen at a frequency that's probably higher than most people suspect. So they're bad enough when you have people who are making false confessions under duress or maybe they have a low I.Q., or for some other reason. But, a recent study shows that they can actually be even worse than just, it's not just the person falsely confessing to a crime. That false confession actually sort of reverberates throughout the criminal justice process and can end up influencing other people in the, other people who are investigating the crime. So, basically what this study did was look at 241 people who had been exonerated by the Innocence Project since 1992. And a quarter of those involved false confessions, and 75% involved eyewitness mistakes. And what the researchers found was that the cases that involved false confessions had a much larger instance of multiple errors turning up on the part of the people investigating the crime. What they found was that false confessions can influence, for instance, people who are in the lab, who are testing the DNA results; people who are polygraph examiners – that's of course a whole other topic for another day.

S: Yeah.

R: But fingerprint experts and other people, when these people are told that there is a false confession involved in the case, they are much more likely to make a mistake, according to this study.

J: So, why? Because it influences them to dislike the person on trial or to like the person on trial?

S: No, to clarify. When they're told there's a confession, they don't know it's false.

R: Yeah, I said "false." Sorry.

S: They don't know, yeah, they're like, "Oh, this guy confessed . .

R: And it's wrong.

S: He confessed, therefore he must be guilty, and then, then, just like Sherlock Holmes said, you know, once you have a theory, you then twist the facts in order to fit the theory, right? It's amazing how every little bit of evidence can be twisted in that. They also mention, this is confirmation bias that we always talk about, I mean, the researchers going over the kinds of things that they've discovered. Where, for example, eyewitnesses may not come forward because they think, "Oh, well, I must be wrong, because this guy confessed."

R: Yeah.

S: "So I'm not gonna give my testimony that would exonerate him." Eyewitnesses that contradict the confession are dismissed. But then eve, to give examples of, as Rebecca was saying, of DNA experts giving wrong testimony, such as, the one example they give

B: The DNA could disintegrate, and change, like what?

S: Yeah. I mean, basically making false excuses for why the evidence doesn't corroborate the confession.

J: Oh, wow.

R: And this is exactly why, in science we have double-blinded experiments, because, you know, the science isn't, science isn't this cut-and-dried thing that is automatically going to speak for itself. There are a million little ways that humans can influence the process. And this is a real-life way that, you know it's a real-life example of what kind of a serious impact this can have on people's lives.

S: Um hmm.

R: 'Cause, you know, this an actually put people away. You know, a false confession featured prominently in the famous West Memphis Three case, which I think we've talked about before on this show, where three teenagers in Arkansas were jailed due to Satanic murders of some children in their area,

S: Yeah

R: when in fact there was no real evidence to convict them. One of the kids had a very low I.Q., he was kept in custody for a long time, he eventually gave a confession, and that's recently been, they were very recently exonerated. There's a huge number of people out there being falsely imprisoned due to things like this. So, it's a really interesting study that shows why we need double blinding in circumstances like this.

S: Or even just single blinding.

R: Yeah.

S: Whoever's making the judgment can't know what the outcome is supposed to be. Otherwise it's not independent. That's what they were saying, you know, one of the checks and balances, you know, for guarantying that you don't falsely convict the innocent is that there has to be corroborating evidence. Which is a good principle, but if that corroborating evidence is all contaminated by people knowing what the outcome is supposed to be ahead of time, then it's not independent. It's all, as you say, it all flows from the one false assumption. It's just amazing how easily we can do that to ourselves and in processes even outside of science, any investigative process, you know, without that blinding, we'll just lead ourselves astray. We see the exact same thing in medicine. Your, physicians make bad diagnoses an then stick with them and then start, I see this happen every day you know, how easy it is to dismiss inconvenient evidence that doesn't fit your diagnosis of what you think is going on. Rather than, always stepping back and saying "All right, could this be interpreted a different way? Could I be wrong? Could, what are the alternatives? What do we really know for sure?" You know what I mean? If you don't systematically do that, you just, you can convince yourself of anything. It's always, it's good to be reminded. It's one of the core, core skeptical principles. We can't forget.

Who's That Noisy? (22:14)[edit]

S: So Evan, it's time for Who's That Noisy.

E: It is, isn't it? So, let's play last week's Who's That Noisy and do a little review. Here we go.

Man's voice: "Flying saucers and we had other things and all."

S: Who was that and what was he saying?

E: That is former President Harry S Truman. Yes. He's commenting on flying saucers, UFOs, this is back in, a clip taken from 1952, in which the famous UFOs over Washington, D.C. video was captured. Kind of took the nation by surprise, if nothing else, and has become, I don't know, iconic in its own right.

S: Yeah. You see that commonly referenced still, in UFO proponents' "best of," best cases.

E: But, you know it's interesting because, starting with Harry Truman, he sort of, became, I don't know, like the first UFO president, in a sense.

S: Um hmm.

E: And in another sense, every president since has been asked, or every administration, I should say, has been hounded, by UFO enthusiasts asking them to tell the public what they know, about, you know, little green men and alien bodies, flying saucers and whatever else.

S: Yeah, though at the time, you know, it really was a new phenomenon, the whole UFO thing, and there were, there were legitimate security issues. Such as, enemy nations using UFO reports as a distraction or as a psychological campaign, maybe even to provide cover for legitimate intrusions into our airspace. So that they were thinking about it in those terms, you know, the government. Not necessarily, even if they didn't think there was flying saucers or alien spacecraft, they were still concerned about it as a potential threat to our security.

J: Yeah, so they had to take things like that as if, well, maybe people think they're seeing something, but it actually could be, you know, a Russian spy plane or something.

S: Yeah, right, right. All right, Evan, who guessed that correctly?

E: Well, our dear friend and devoted listener Trinnock, once again. So congratulations to Trinnock once again.

S: He's just, he's getting too good at these.

E: Yeah, is there something we can do about that?

J: Steve, Rebecca and I came up with a good idea. Let's have Trinnock do his own Who's That Noisy.

S: If he wants to, sure. And that way he can't guess.

R: Yeah.

E: Yeah, that's one way.

R: That's the only way we came up with to take him out of the game in a fair manner.

S: Okay.

E: Well, at least for one week.

R: Yeah, for one week.

S: Right. So we'll see if he accepts our challenge. Meanwhile, Evan, what have you got for this week?

E: Okay. Brand new, fresh, hot off the presses. This week's Who's That Noisy.

(a conversation among two or three men, traffic noises in the background) X: He's here every day. Y: Is that good or bad for your business, with him hangin' around? X: Don't think it makes any difference. Z: Kind of like my chiropractor.

S: All right.

E: All right.

S: Interesting.

E: Go ahead, post your answer on our forums, on our message boards, or send us an e-mail at And of course, good luck to everyone.

Questions and Emails[edit]

BMJ Poe (25:17)[edit]

S: Thank, Evan. All right, we're gonna move on to a listener email. This one is a correction from last week. Are you guys familiar with Poe's law?

R: Oh yeah.

S: Okay.

E: I am now.

S: Poe's law is as follows; this was formulated by Nathan Poe, only in August 2005. It's sort of taken for granted now, but it really was very recently; and who wrote: "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake it for the genuine article."

R: And this has been adapted to people saying that something is a Poe.

S: Yeah.

R: If it, if it rides that line between parody and real life.

S: And it's been, yeah, also extended beyond creationists to fundamentalists, or even really any pseudo-science that's sufficiently crazy. It's hard to, it's like beyond parody. And when you attempt to parody it, people will think that you are serious. So with that in mind, getting back to our discussion of the BMJ article last week about the research of intercessory prayer retroactively. Praying for people who were sick four or five years previously, we got a letter from Jack Gibson from Nottingham, and he writes:

Guys, Felt the need to send a quick mail after hearing you trash one of my employers on the latest podcast! I'm one of the stats editors for BMJ group. The BMJ has a long tradition of running seriously-conducted research articles on absurd topics in the Christmas edition each year. The paper on intercessory prayer is one of them (note the publication date of 22 Dec 2001). It's not meant to be taken seriously.

Then he gives us an example of other articles in that issue or similar issues: "Longevity of screenwriters who win an academy award: longitudinal study," "The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute." And, here's one: "How long did their hearts go on? A Titanic study"

B: Oh, god. (laughter)

S: "Ice cream evoked headaches study: randomized trial of accelerated versus cautious ice cream eating regimen." So, apparently it is true that what he is saying is correct and this is the Christmas issue of BMJ where they run, they're not really parodies, you have to actually do the research, apparently. But the researchers are in on the joke. It's not like serious researchers who are getting an igNobel, you know what I mean? They're doing a, sort of a joke study and the BMJ is publishing it. Which I was not aware of. That they did this. I don't know how long this tradition's been going on and why they don't do it in the April first issue.

R: Because it's too obvious then. I really appreciate that because I hate April Fool's pranks because they're so obvious, so, I think it's nice to do it at Christmastime.

S: Well, the, so here's the thing, is that it's apparently very obvious from the print version of the Journal that it's all a parody, that it's all in fun. But now these articles are on line as a peer reviewed published article, and you find them, and there's absolutely no indication, unless you check the date and know this tradition, there's no indication that this isn't a serious article published by a real peer-reviewed journal. Right? Which is what happened to us.

R: Yeah, they should probably put a little note there.

S: Yeah, they should make the on-line versions as obvious as the printed version, that hey, this is, you know, some kind of indicator that this is, you know, in fun for the Christmas issue. The other thing is is that this, the article was not really any different than other intercessory studies. We talked about one, remember, about a year ago that was just as absurd as this one.

E: That's what made it so, right, why would you think it was a parody?

S: It absolutely is Poe's Law. I mean, the thing is, the whole notion of intercessory prayer is just as magical as doing it back in time. Which actually makes this a really great parody. You know, now that I know it's not serious, it's really funny. But there really wasn't any way, in my opinion, to know that it wasn't serious 'cause it was just like any other intercessory prayer study.

B: Steve, I'd argue that even making it obvious on line would be, it would obviously be better, but I still think that's not a great idea, because you could still say look, look at this study I did, or look at this study this person did, and it was in this peer-reviewed journal. Just saying it, or even cutting and pasting the article out of the website, I think could, still could be very misleading and I don't know if it's worth it.

S: I know, I started doing that for my own, occasionally I'll write like a satirical piece and I have to put a disclaimer in there. Because the first time I did it, I wrote a satirical piece about alternative engineering.

E: I liked that article.

S: Basically applying all the same kinds of rationalizations that people use to defend alternative medicine and applying it to like building bridges and cars. To me it was blatantly obvious satire. And yet, I was contacted by a senior producer at 20/20 who thought it was dead serious (laughter) and wanted to interview me about alternative engineering, and I had to let them down and tell them it was satire.

E: (laughing) Oh, I did not know that. That's

J: It's amazing that you get instant attention when you say absurd things.

S: Yeah. Right, exactly. That's the other thing. I made a completely absurd claim, even though I thought it was obvious that it wasn't serious, and I got, immediately you know, I'm talking to a senior producer at 20/20. I wonder, I haven't had time to like really search, 'cause you have to actually dig up the full articles and read the methods and everything, but, I wonder if anyone's done a review of intercessory prayer and included this article in the review.

E: How interesting.

Catholic Pox Parties (31:17)[edit]

S: Yeah. Anyway, let's move on. We've got one more email. This one comes from Cindy Lebsack from the United States, and she writes:

Hi guys, I listened with interest to pox party bit because our neighbors do this. They intentionally expose their youngest children to chicken pox if someone in the community has it. I was surprised that you didn't mention their particular rationale for doing this with this particular disease. They are Catholic and will not use the chicken pox vaccine because it was developed using aborted human embryo tissue. My BS alarm started flashing when they told me this, but surprisingly as far as I can Google this seems to be real. It puts a much more interesting spin on the bioethics of their situation because rather than being demonstrably factually wrong like the typical anti-vaxers, they are ethically opposed to using a medicine. I would love to hear your take on this. My thought is that by not vaccinating, they are putting many more babies, embryos, elderly and otherwise immuno-deficient people in danger. My other question would be is there an ethical and safer way of doing this? What quarantine procedures would they need to employ? Can other family members leave the house while there is a child sick with chicken pox without exposing the community? There is a large population of Catholics in my area doing this and the issue comes around almost every year. Fighting back against it requires knowing where the other side is coming from.

Then she also gave me a link, which I had seen previously, actually, to the Vatican's response to this issue. But first, let me just give the quick back-story. So, it is true that some vaccines were developed using cell lines that themselves were developed from aborted fetal tissue. So . . .

R: Legally aborted fetal tissue, from like, the '60s and '70s. Not

S: Yeah.

E: Yeah, but the Catholics don't care, legal or, you know.

R: Yeah, but I just think it's important to distinguish, because I feel like there's some people out there who are spreading the idea that there are aborted fetuses in vaccine.

S: Well, yeah, the anti, you're right, Rebecca, some anti-vaxers will claim that vaccines contain aborted fetal tissue. And that is incorrect. They were simply reproduced in cell lines that were previously, that were derived, you know, again forty years ago from aborted tissue. So, but there is no, yeah, there are no fetuses in vaccines. That's a lie that some anti-vaxers tell today. But in this case, they get their facts straight, It's just that they're, they don't want to, I guess, eat their fruit from the poisoned tree. Right? They don't want to use a medicine that was derived unethically, in their opinion. And again, just putting the ethics of that, of abortion, et cetera, aside, we just take it, that's their belief. So given that premise that, you know, they do not accept abortion, what kind of ethical situation does that put them in?

R: And yet, I bet if they were on, let's say, an organ donation list, and a full grown man was murdered and his organs were harvested and offered to them, I guarantee that they would accept those organs without hesitation, despite the fact that they disagree with the way in which that man's life was dispatched.

S: Yeah, so, these are interesting ethical questions. And you're creating a dilemma where there's no one clear right or wrong answer. So I read through the Vatican response. Actually, I read through the summary of their full decision, and the summary is so unbelievably long-winded, it's funny, they go on and on and on.

E: (unable to hear the first part) by the letter.

S: And it's all, it's so funny, they go through of like the authorities. It's one massive argument from authority. It's very interesting. But, in the end they make a very cogent argument, which I think is reasonable and they essentially say that, yes, there are moral problems with the vaccine, but there's also moral problems with not getting vaccinated.

E: Yes!

S: And if you balance the two things, there's this tenuous connection to an abortion that happened forty years ago versus putting people, your children and your community at immediate risk by not getting vaccinated, that the lesser of two evils essentially is to get vaccinated. So get vaccinated. So that they, I agree with the decision they make at the end, and they do, I think, make a legitimate ethical argument. So, I guess, you know, to Cindy and to others and to any Catholics who happen to be listening, or any conscientious objector, because it's interesting to point out that the Vatican looked at this issue and they came to the decision that it's ethical to get vaccinated. They do say that you should, you know, if there is an alternate vaccine, you should use the alternate vaccine that isn't derived from cell lines that were derived from aborted tissue. And you should advocate for the replacement, or the development of new vaccines that do not ultimately lead back to that. But in the absence of that, get vaccinated. That's what they say.

E: Reasonable.

R: Um hmm. And in the absence of that, move to Antartica.

Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson (36:28)[edit]

Hayden Planetarium: Neil deGrasse Tyson

S: We are joined now by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

(commotion in the background)

NT: Thank you. Thank you. It's been a while.

S: It's been a while.

E: A couple years.

S: We catch up with you when you're at TAM.

NT: Yeah.

S: Tell us about what you're going to be talking about.

NT: I thought long and hard . . .

S: Yeah.

NT: about this. Because I don't know what new I can share with an audience that prides itself on the depth of skepticism that they bring to others. And when you gather a roomful of such people, what do you tell them? You know. Don't trust what you hear? (laughter) What edict is left that I could possibly share? And so what I thought I would do is, the talk is titled "Adventures in Science Illiteracy." And I'll be drawing from my life experience encounters with profoundly scientifically illiterate people, institutions, organizations and politicians. And so it's really a, kind of a session of commiseration. (laughter) And so, maybe at the end I'll be begging for sympathy and shared concern for what I encounter, because I have very many sort of public, or extensive enough public exposure so that I see things that might not show up in everybody else's life. And so that's what I want to share. The nooks and crannies of where this can go awry.

R: Well I think you very much know your audience, because, the last time you were at TAM, from what I could tell, the best audience reactions, I think because you are known for your affability, I think the audience really enjoyed it when you would just take a shot at someone. (laughter)

J: Absolutely.

NT: Well, yeah. I mean there aren't many audiences where that would work, or even matter, and so here, I actually feel a deep kinship. (laughing) Spiritual kinship with this audience. (laughter) And so, it actually gives me certain speaking freedoms that I wouldn't otherwise have.

R: Well, you know, I for one really value your ability to target to your audience. You know. It's fun here at these meetings, but, more so, your ability to present the message that I think we all want to get out there, to an audience that is not always receptive to our message.

NT: Well thanks for noticing that because I do invest a lot of, sort of, emotional and intellectual energy to try to accomplish that. And I guess the greatest compliment I can get is when someone says "Oh you're so natural!" It's like, you have no idea (laughter) what went behind that! And the people who do notice are educators. They'll come up, while others are saying "You're such a natural," they're saying "You were working hard up there." 'Cause they recognize and understand and value that extra effort to link to what might be the tangled mental roadways of an audience.

R: Yeah.

NT: And so, yes I do put effort into that, I'm glad somebody notices (laughing). Thank you.

S: It's a skill set that most scientists don't have.

NT: Well, I think it's, many people think that to be an educator is you have a lesson plan and you deliver it. And whether they receive it or not, if they don't then it becomes their problem. "Oh, they don't wanna learn" or "They can't learn" or "they have a learning disability" and I think the, education at its best is an investment in knowing what channels are there, are already open that you didn't notice before or what channels can you create from your message into the brain wiring of the listener.

R: How did you develop that skill set? And I ask that with the hopes that we can somehow encourage other scientifically literate people to adopt those skills.

NT: I think one of the, I don't know if this critique applies only to scientists or to anyone in general who might want to communicate. So let me just state it. I think anyone who's educated is, can put together a sentence, can write, you know they can write, they can speak. And so, often what comes along with that ability is the expectation that you can communicate. And just because you can write a sentence doesn't mean you can communicate a sentence. These are two different exercises. One of them, for example, is, what you might do to write an encyclopedia article. You're an expert at something, you put it down to page. And, anyone can read it, but you don't expect encyclopedia articles to be riveting, or page-turning experiences. The page-turning experience is a whole other investment, not only in your writing skill, but in your speaking skill, if it, if speaking is what it is you intend to do. And so, all I did was, I said, well, how can I be better at this? I never asserted that what I was doing was good enough, or even good. I just always felt, how will I know b…, next time, let me monitor the eyebrows and the dilation of the pupils, or their facial expressions, there's a lot of body language reading that goes on. Because, as I speak, I'll know what words I use that trigger interest, what phrasing works best, what pauses to take between ideas, to allow a person to digest a thought, and be ready for the next one. So, the dynamics here is a little bit trial and error. But it's not hard. Because the feedback is instant. It's there, if you're paying attention. But if you're not paying attention then the person is just a pair of ears there, and you don't know to recognize it and to embrace it. What I used to like, I don't do this much anymore, but I used to get a movie that had very good actors in it. And just turn down the sound, and imagine what it is they were thinking and saying just by their acting. And good actors, their whole body expresses what it is they're saying and thinking. And that would work my experience in reading body language. And then you fold that into what it is you've been saying or what you plan to say. So I have an entire edited portfolio of things I talk about with regard to the universe. There are things that interest me, but I know would bore people to tears, I don't even go there. And there's the rest, that excite me and excite the audience, or there's some that don't excite me but I know excite the audience, and so I pick and choose, depending on the messages I need to deliver.

J: Well it's encouraging to hear you say that, because you know, anybody that's producing any kind of content, we wanna get better at what we do, and we want to be more entertaining and not lose our edge and not lose our ability to . . .

NT: You don't wanna lose anything.

J: Right.

NT: Do it all but not lose anything.

J: So, that's good, but, you know, we also have to – you're very charismatic, and that's part of it, but I love the idea that it's calculated behind the scenes. 'Cause you know, anyone can make themselves more educated, and I dare say, even smarter, right? We can make our brains work a little bit better by practicing at it and everything. But you definitely achieve something that 99.999 percent of the population can't do. First you're accomplished at, your education, you're very accomplished, and you're a leader, you're a thought leader in what you do. Oh, Christ! No, we don't have time for this

(laughter and disturbance) (Phil Plait has joined the group)

NT: Are they calling you Christ now?

PP: It's Podcast bombing. Hi, Neil! (laughter)

J: All right, come on. Just sit down.

NT: Dr. Phil Plait. There's an extra headset there.

R: Yeah. As chance should have it.

J: Who told him we were in here?

E: It has Phil's name on the side.

R: No one needed to tell him. That's one of his senses, is publicity.

PP: We should tell Neil that this is a long-standing tradition. I think it started with Adam Savage.

R: It's true, Adam Savage bombed you.

PP: He jumped in on my podcast with these suckers here.

NT: Oh. Okay.

PP: And then Geo, and I think Richard Wiseman has. It's a long tradition.

NT: Podcast crashing.

S: Yes.

J: Let me finish my thought real quick. But you did the thing that. . .

NT: You act like I interrupted you! (laughter)

(lots of people talking at once)

NT: . . . finish your thought.

J: I'm talking over here.

(things calm down a little)

J: So, as developers of content, we wanna get the message out. We wanna reach a wider audience. And you went through the thing; you are a rock star. And I'm a lowly musician who just bought a guitar, and I wanna know how to become a rock star. Is it really a huge portion luck? Is there a secret that you stumbled on, or is there an avenue that we could practice?

NT: That's an excellent question. I think it's a little bit of all of the above. And, I think I started out as generally a socialized person. Not remarkably socialized among socialized people, but socialized among those who you wouldn't think would be socialized. So, generally the scientific community is stereotyped as not being social animals, the last one out at the party kind of thing. So, in that group, I had more sort of social adroitness than others.

S: Why are you looking at Phil Plait when you say that?

NT: No, no. (laughter) But I think it was nonetheless average, if I were in a group of people where their livelihood thrives on their ability to communicate. So, that alone I don't think was a, is what made a difference, but it put me in a place to notice how people are paying attention and when and where and why they're paying attention, and when they're not. So, so, and there are other little things. For example, my appearances on talk shows. Some people are like, they go on, fellow scientists for example, and the talk show host, particularly the comedic ones, Jon Stewart, they're like dancing circles around them. And there's a frustration there because you're not getting your point across. Well, excuse me, if you devoted your life to understanding the universe and you wrote a PhD. thesis that's hundreds of pages long, and you know how to . . . if this is what you're capable of, then why don't you study the show before you get on? That's what I did. I said, what is the rhythm of how long it takes Jon Stewart before he interrupts you, after a question? There's a rhythm to that.

J: Yeah.

E: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

NT: Okay? Is it three seconds? Is it four seconds? So I would parcel that information I would be delivering to fit those two, three four-second intervals. And in that way, I could get my point across, he can crack a joke, and the joke can be on a formed thought, rather than a fragmented thought, which then has the interview self-disassemble. In situ.

J: Right.

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah.

E: But one of my most memorable moments of you on television is during the Einstein show that they did?

NT: Oh, okay.

E: For Science Channel. And they were getting your opinion about the first photographs that came back, and which they're trying to analyze the stars in the background. And you just gesture like this, and it came back and it was a smudge; that's all you said, and you just moved your fingers a little bit and just made this expression, and I was dying. I'm like, yes! Yes!

NT: Well, okay, so, I'm glad you noticed that because I'm occasionally accused of being Italian, with, Bob, you know,

S: That's a compliment.

J: That's okay, we're all Italian here.


NT: Da grazie.

S: Forgedaboutit.

NT: Aaa, forgedaboutit. So, the stereotyped Italian uses hand gestures frequently. But I study that. And, I found there is a difference. The Italian uses the hand, those who do, use their hands as punctuation in a sentence. So their hands sort of move, and they're adding, sort of emphasis.

E: Exactly.

NT: Okay? When I use my hands, that's not how I use them. My hands are part of my body, my hips, my neck, my eyebrows, and my body is drawing a picture, when it can, of the content that I am delivering. And I learned to do this back in the days when I was a TA, as a graduate student, because what I found is that students learn more deeply the more senses you can excite in the effort of teaching them. And so it's one thing to speak to them, and then they hear you, and it's one thing for them to see you speak. Okay, but what does that do unless the act of seeing you speak contains extra graphical information for them to embrace. And so, when I think of, I remember imitating the display of one of our asteroids, meteorites at the Museum of Natural History, the Willamette meteorite, in the old Hayden 'cause we rebuilt it ten years ago. It was sort of plunked down on a pier. And it's like, look how big our meteor is, you know, meteorite is. We remounted it to be more precariously placed, visually precariously placed and then we surrounded it with an exhibit on asteroid impacts. Rather than "Look at our artifact. Look at, what is it made of, how big is it?" We turned, we created a storyline out of it. But, I give several talks where when I describe the mounting of the asteroid, I do this, even though we're audio here I'll do it in front of you. I gestured like this, I said "The meteorite was just sort of plunked down, in this pier.

R: He's currently plunking. (laughter)

NT: Just plunked down, and that created a visual reference for people that was, that added to the word if my word didn't otherwise hit the homerun for them.

J: It makes it so you have to say less.

NT: Yeah, and I think it's, I think we should use all available ways to inform the senses that people have brought.

J: You're saying, go Italian. (Laughter)

R: He's saying go better than Italian.

S: The research backs that up, too. What you learned is backed up by a lot of research which shows, yeah, there's ways to affect the retention, and people's attention. First of all, people can pay attention for about 20 minutes. That's it. Unless you completely re-engage them in some way.

NT: Um hmm.

R: That's why our podcast is an hour and 20 minutes long. (laughter) (lots of talking in background)

PP: Except for when I'm on, then it's like four hours.

S: Every sensory modality you add adds to people's perception and retention of the information you're trying to get across. So it's . . .

NT: Sensory modality? Did those words actually come out of your mouth?

R: Yeah, he actually said that.

S: Yeah.

NT: He actually said that, okay.

J: Yeah, you and the guy that came up with that term know what it means.

PP: I had to look that up, listening to this, 'cause he's a doctor, so he talks about "Well that's not a very effective modality of medicine."

NT: Modality.

S: Is that not a word you guys use in your every . . .

(Lots of talking at once)

NT: Never.

S: Is vernacular a word you use in your every . . .

PP: Modal's a, modal's a math word, isn't it?

J: Yeah, it's a programming word and a math word.

PP: Okay.

NT: The question is, have you ever heard anyone else use that word . . .

S: Yeah, all my colleagues and . . . (much talking and laughing)

NT: Just the people you're trying to train.

R: Right.

S: That's right. I train people who know how to use that word.

R: I heard a bunch of lawyers on the plane the other day use the word vis-à-vis, and I was just thinking,you know what – you are lawyers. I know you are lawyers.

S: But what Jay was saying was, before, I think was that, and what you confirmed, that you have, it's no one thing, it's the perfect storm of charisma, knowledge, enthusiasm and actually working on the skill set of communicating to other people.

NT: I would say it wouldn't have to be a perfect storm if you come over-prepared. So over-prepared would mean, you walk up to the stage, with a utility belt. And in that utility belt

(laughter and a lot of talking)

PP: Rebecca as a look of distaste on her face right now.

R: They wear all their shit on their belt, you know, their cell phones. They're so proud of it, and I said, "it's like a fanny pack" and they insist it's like a utility belt.

NT: Oh, okay. Well, this is a philosophical utility belt.

R: Yes. I approve of that.

NT: A creative utility belt, where in that belt, as you come to the stage, you can invoke a humorous reflection on a scientific theme. You can reference a pop culture icon or a pop culture event that you know most of the audience have heard about or read about that can inform the otherwise non-linked information you're trying to share. You come up with the ability to move your body in a way that can assist you if necessary. And I've given talks before where they say "Okay. Here's your podium and here's your fixed mike, and the podium's this big and all they can see is my head sticking out above. And I'm thinking, how'm I, I can't, what?

J: I can't work with this people.

NT: I can't

PP: That'd have to be a pretty big podium.

NT: And not only that, people say "Could you send your talk in advance?"

R: Oh, I hate that.

NT: No, I can't send my talk in advance! Because the talk is a talk that I give, I'm screaming here, I'm sorry. The talk is the talk I give when I give the talk. If there's an advance talk, why the hell invite me? I'll just mail you the talk and read the damn thing!

(lots of laughter and talking and commotion)

J: I should send them a piece of cow brain, I cut out a piece of my brain, there's my talk.

R: I'd really love to . .

NT: Send them my talk. We'd have to wind down from that. Say something, Phil, just so I can wind down.

PP: Neil Tyson, everybody.

NT: (laughing) Okay.

J: That'd be like a woman saying "Send me the date." No, I have to be there, it's a physical thing.

NT: (laughing) Send me the date!

R: You probably get that a lot from women . . .

(still a lot of laughing and talking at once going on)

J: Neil, have you met my fiancée?

R: Send me the ring. What I'm interested in, to contrast the amount of preparation, the huge amount . . .

NT: Oh, oh, oh, wait, wait, wait. I'll just finish my point. So, when you're overloaded, you don't know at any given instant what you might need because it depends on what the attention span factor is at that moment. So I might invoke one thing versus another in one situation and invert it in another situation. So, to say that everything is calculated, no, that's not really true, because, the more you calculate it the less nimble you are when you have to be.

J: Yeah.

NT: So you want a non-calculated capacity to express yourself.

J: It's called, you're rolling with it. You're rolling it.

NT: Rolling with it. But you need enough wheels so that you roll.

J: You can roll with it, that's the (inaudible), sure.

R: Our metaphor is getting a little clunky.

E: Bob, go to school on this. You could learn something on this.

B: I'm not paying attention. (laughter)

PP: He's under prepared.

J: Once again, people ask us all the time about Steve: "How does Steve write four blogs a week and, you know, do the show, and post-produce the show and everything" and the answer always is it's a shitload of hard work. It's hard work. It's the sweat, so there's no magic . . .

R: Well, that's, that's where I wanted to go next, was, to contrast the amount of hard work that you do in these situations to, you know, Carl Sagan used to get a lot of crap from scientists who didn't respect him because of his ability to relate to the general public. And I think those scientists were missing the amount of work that goes into what you do, and also the importance, so, I'm wondering, I should say the amount of work that Sagan did, and what I'm wondering is if you've seen a similar response from the hard science community.

NT: A similar push-back.

R: Yeah.

NT: No. And it's because, when Carl did it, it had never really been done before, certainly not on that scale. And, the most expected of an academic was maybe you'd write a textbook. Or perhaps, a popular book based on the research that you did, just 'cause it worked out. But the breadth and depth with which he engaged the public; in fact, he appeared on Johnny Carson. What a transgression that was! It wasn't just a formal talk show, it was a comedic, late night. . . so, what he did was clear the brush. And, the brush has not grown back. The brush is cleared. And my colleagues, who recognized in the wake of Sagan's efforts, that funding improved. Members of Congress knew of what we did simply because of the work of Carl Sagan. And they then became more charitable, more giving, more understanding of our plight, as scientists in general, and as astrofolk in particular. So, I can say without hesitation that my field embraces this. And, now you might wonder if I'm delusional. Right? It's easy to think that you're loved for what you do. But I have metrics for this, and it's the fact that I continue to receive invitations to serve on panels that advise agencies with regard to research money, that sort of thing. People value, if they didn't value it I'd be persona non grata and it would reveal itself overnight. So, so, yes. There's blood on the tracks that he left. I'm happy to say that the track that he left is wide and many of us, I'm in there, but so is Phil, so is, a half a dozen other people we all know and can list, and we're not bloodied because he led the way. Now, I cannot say the same for other scientific professions. I don't know that physics has the same capacity to embrace this activity that we do in astronomy. I don't know that geology does. I don't know that engineering does.

R: I've actually heard biologists, for instance, criticize some of the more prominent evolutionary biologists.

NT: Meanwhile, just look at the numbers. Among all these scientific professions, the astrophysics community is the smallest. By far. Compare the several thousand astrophysicists in the world with the number of chemists. It's like a factor of a hundred, or something. Factor of a hundred. Yet some of the most visible scientists of the past half-century have been astronomers.

J: So why is that? Where is all this charisma coming from?

PP: Astronomy's cool. The other ones are boring.

(several people talking at once)

NT: It's cosmic charisma.

S: You have to say "baby" after that.

NT: It's cosmic charisma, baby.


S: I get a lot of push-back in the field of medicine, I have to tell you that. Academic medicine is very, a, it's difficult.

NT: They should be glad that you're not a crackpot, given how many crackpot medical . . .

S: Well, I think that may be part of the problem.

NT: We have the advantage. We have very few crackpots. We get one a decade.

R: Yeah, maybe that is the issue.

S: That could be the issue, is that, you're popularizing medicine – are you a crackpot?

NT: But most, most, you've gotta look at 'em a little strange when they do their thing.

S: Ah, see, I know, I hear ya.

R: Also, I mean, I always thought though that there is also an issue with the scientists who are doing their everyday, you know, work, are worried about the people who are popularizing science misrepresenting it, oversimplifying it.

NT: Oh, oh, oh. Thanks for bringing that up. Thanks for bringing that up.

R: You're welcome.

NT: What I do, that Sagan did not do, again Sagan did it first, so you can't criticize anybody for doing it first, because you've gotta make it up as you go along. I don't have to make it up as I go along because I can see what happened before me. What I do not do, is if the evening, I live in New York City; the major news-gathering headquarters of the nation are ten blocks away from my office. I'm the easiest date they can possibly construct for a sound-bite for their news story. So, if it's network, and there's a major astro discovery, and they want a sound-bite, and they call my office, I say "Have you interviewed the person who did the work?"

J: Right.

NT: They're a network. They've got people in every city. Get the interview. If you have not, I've got nothing to tell you. And they go get the interview, then it comes to me, and I am happy to tie a bow on the story, give it a cosmic perspective, make it real. And in that context, the person who worked their butt off to do the research; typically it's a result, a research result that they've been working on for five years, and they're pale because they haven't been out in the light for that long, trying to get the story out, and now they finally get a little bit of attention -- it's their day in the sun. But then they find out that when I'm attached to the story it ratchets it up a few notches because then it gets the exposure and then people will appreciate it at the level that they know they like, but they're in the story as well. And I do that consistently and persistently on purpose.

S: Neil deGrasse Tyson, thank you so much coming back on the show.

NT: Happy to be back with you guys.

R: Thank you, Neil.

J: Thank you, Neil.

S: You're welcome any time.

NT: I've never been interviewed by seven people before. (laughter)

S: It works, though.

E: It's a round table discussion, literally.

R: Right. Thank you, Neil.

J: Thank you.

NT: All right.

E: Thank you.

Science or Fiction (1:00:43)[edit]

Voiceover: It's Time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fictitious, and I challenge my panel of expert skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. Is everyone ready for this week?

J: Let's do it!

E: Standing by.

R: So ready.

S: I swept you guys last week.

R: Yeah.

E: Yeah

S: Just sayin'. All right, here we go. Item number one: An epidemiological study confirms that smoke-free workplace laws significantly decrease the incidence of heart attacks and sudden death by about 50%. Item number two: Researchers have demonstrated a simple method to improve the capacity and charging rate of lithium ion batteries by a factor of ten. And item number three: A new study shows that deforestation in high latitudes, above 45 degrees, contributes significantly to global warming. Jay, go first.

J: The one about the smoke-free environment, workplace environment. It says that it cut the incidence of heart attack and sudden death by about 50%? That's a lot. There's not a lot of information in this one line here, I'm not, I have a lot of questions, so, I'm a little vague on that and I think that number seems very high. And the one about increasing the ion, recreasing the ion batteries by a factor of ten, by just changing the method that they charge it. Wow, that's a, an order of magnitude is profound for a battery. Hey, man, this is one of those that I really want to be true. I don't know. That's interesting. I mean, there's so many factors that go into, that go into this. I don't think so; that one's definitely not seeming right to me. The last about the deforestation at high altitudes, I'm sorry, in high latitudes, can increase global warming. Wow. That's interesting. And it does, it does in a way make sense, I mean, it shows that the environment interacts obviously, the flora interact with the atmosphere, and that could have an impact on the amount of what types of gases are in the atmosphere. That makes sense. So I think I'm gonna go with the battery one as the fake.

S: Okay. Evan?

E: The one about the smoke-free workplace law. I don't know about this one because, for a smoke-free workplace, I mean people are still smoking, okay. So maybe they're not smoking at work, I mean, they're still going out. I mean if they can't smoke at work, the people who do smoke and work there are going to find a way to get their smoke even if they can't do it on premises. They'll go to their car, they'll take a ride somewhere, they'll go, the building next door or something, so I just don't know about that. With the one regarding lithium ion batteries by a factor of ten, and we've spoken so many times on this show about how advancement in battery technology is a slow crawl to our lofty goals and aspirations of what we all want our batteries to be able to do. This would certainly go against that. But I'm not convinced that just because of that that that's the reason why that this one would be false. A simple method, I wonder what that simple method is; I'm gonna be really interested to hear about this one. The one about deforestation in high latitudes. I'm trying to think if it has something to do with, above 45 degrees, well, snow cover, would otherwise occupy the space that the trees would otherwise occupy and is there something having to do with the amount of surface area that's covered. It's snow, and somehow that gets direct sunlight that might have something to do with the increasing global warming. Maybe, but I can't put my finger on that, really. I'm kind of going with my heart here a little bit more than my mind, because I really want this battery one to be right, more than anything. So I think the smoke-free workplace laws one is the fiction on this time around.

S: Okay. Rebecca?

R: Okay. That's funny, because I think Evan just talked me into, I wasn't very sure because they all sound very plausible. The workplace deaths thing sounds drastic, especially considering that the laws haven't really been in place for very long. So, that's a little tricky, but if it's a small study I can see how maybe it got such a large number. I'm not sure. I can always believe anything you say about battery efficiency. I will probably say okay, yeah, sure, that

S: A one million fold increase.

R: Yeah. A gazillion. Yeah. An order of magnitude, or ten. I don't know. Yeah. There's always something we're talking about in terms of battery efficiency, so, the . . . deforestation has been well known to contribute to global warming due to the fact that trees trap carbon dioxide, so, that was very believable, although, I was leaning towards that just because global warming is so, such a big and complex issue that there are a million different things that could affect it. And so, I can see how this one could easily get tricky. And then Evan mentioned snow cover. Well, if the trees are cut down, and snow is left, then, there'd be a difference in the way the light is reflected. That would change how the Earth is warming or cooling. And in that case I think that it would do the opposite. Deforestation, if it left bright white ground, would cause global cooling. So I think that that one is the fiction.

S: All right. So we're all over the place, Bob. You're gonna have to break the three-way tie.

B: Oh, wow. The lithium ion batteries, factor of ten, yeah, I could see some simple, silly thing that maybe could just be added to the mix that could somehow have such a dramatic change. I mean, it says "researchers have demonstrated." Big deal. Show me the battery that I can put into a flashlight or whatever. Demonstrations don't mean that much. I mean, they're great and of course they're important for a step, but that's not surprising me that much. The first one, though, the smoking in the workplace, that one seems kind of sneaky to me, 'cause first of all, "decrease the incidence of heart attacks and sudden death by 50%." In who? The smokers or the people in the environment?

J: That's why I said, it's vague, you know?

B: That's, to me that's key. 'Cause, well, I don't think second-hand smoke, because the people that are just in the environment are not necessarily smoking, then 50% I think is way too high. And I think it's still too high for even the smokers. 'Cause I mean you have, you reach a set point. You know, you smoke however many cigarettes a day, and you're pretty much gonna get it even if you're, even if you're, even if the amount you can smoke during the day is reduced a bit, you know, you'll go out to lunch and you'll have three, or when you go home you'll smoke a little bit more, and it just seems, that just seems way too high. It seems too vague on purpose. 'Cause I think that's a huge distinction, whether it's the smokers themselves or the second-hand inhalers. So for that reason, I'm gonna say that one is fiction.

S: Okay. So Evan and Bob think the smoking one is the fiction. Jay, you think the battery one is the fiction; Rebecca you think that the global warming one is the fiction. So, I guess we'll take these in order. An epidemiological study confirms that smoke-free workplace laws significantly decrease the incidence of heart attacks and sudden death by about 50%. And, that one, is, science.

B: Crap.

S: Sorry Bob and Evan.

E: Smoke-free workplace, you see, I didn't equate second-hand smoke. Is that gonna be part of this answer, Steve?

S: So this is a population-based study done at the Mayo Clinic. So it's everybody. It's not distinguishing among smokers versus second-hand . . .

R: And don't forget that workplaces can also include bars.

S: Yup. That's right. It does include bars, in fact.

J: You know, she's right, Evan.

E: I'm glad you're here to tell me these things, Jay.

S: So, they followed, they looked at the 18-month period before Olmstead County passed their first smoke-free law for restaurants in 2002, and the regional incidence for heart attached was 213.2 cases per hundred thousand. And then the 18 months following a comprehensive smoke-free ordinance in 2007, where restaurants and workplaces became smoke-free and that rate dropped to 102.9 per hundred thousand. So, a little more than 50%. Additionally then, during the same period, the incidence of sudden cardiac death fell from 152.5 to 76.6 per one hundred thousand residents, also about a 50% drop. So these are relative

R: Who's crazy?

S: relative risks, I'll point out, not absolute risks. But still, you can see, you know, it starts at like 70-something fewer deaths, a hundred fewer heart attacks over an 18-month period. That's, yeah, that's pretty significant. And this does confirm other studies which are showing the same thing, the signal seems to be showing through in communities that pass these kinds of laws. The incidence of heart attacks has been decreasing. It's probably a combination of, and this study does not separate out these variables, but it's a combination of smokers smoking less, 'cause there's a chunk of time during the day that they're not smoking; second-hand smoke exposure of other people, and some people just quit because it's too inconvenient to smoke. You know.

E: Quit smoking or quit the job.

S: They quit smoking.

E: Yup.

S: Yup.

R: Bad economy. It's easier to quit smoking than to quit a job.

E: Cigarettes are expensive, too.

S: So, this is good news. I think this is going to have a significant effect on these laws being popular and spreading around. Which I'm for because I hate being forced to be exposed to second-hand smoke.

R: I agree.

S: Purely selfish reasons I'm all in favor of it. But also as a physician because people shouldn't smoke.

R: Yeah, I don't think you should classify "I don't want to die of lung cancer" as selfish.

S: Yeah, yeah.

R: Or just like, I want to breathe.

S: Even if it doesn't cause lung cancer I find it incredibly annoying. I'm just, I'm happy . . .

R: That's why I add the "I want to breathe."

S: That's true. I feel like I should be able to go through my life without getting exposed to something as obnoxious as cigarette smoke. And I'm very happy the way things are now. I basically never get exposed to it because, my work environment is smoke-free, and, I finally got my parents to quit. So, there's really no place I go where I'm forced to be exposed to cigarette smoke, and that's great.

R: There's only one place I go that I'm ever exposed to cigarette smoke, and that place is The Amazing Meeting, in Las Vegas.

S: Yeah, that's true.

J: Yeah, in the hotel.

S: The casinos.

R: 'Cause they, you're allowed to smoke in the casino.

S: That's why I don't spend a lot of time . . .

R: And even there, where they like, you know, pump in, oxygen and stuff, it's still, it's still really hard to sit at the bar, like my throat gets sore immediately.

S: Yeah, yeah. Let's go on to Item No. 2. Researchers have demonstrated a simple method to improve the capacity and charging rate of lithium ion batteries by a factor of ten. Jay, you think this one is fiction, just too good to be true. Everyone else thinks this one is science. And this one IS . . . science!

J: Whoa!

E: Woo hoo!

J: Bittersweet!

B: Yeah.

E: Happy about that.

S: And of course, you know, Bob's caveats will all stand. We don't know how this will translate to an actual product. But it does seem like, and again, I see these things all the time. It's like, oh, a new advance in solar panels. Almost every week you see news items where they're making some incremental advance. And we've also talked at length about the hidden down sides, you know, they talk about the one feature that's truly great and not about these down sides they're assuming they're gonna be able to figure out that actually kill the technology, but this one. Yeah, you know, sounds really good. What researchers found, this is the scientists at Northwestern University, is they used a milling method to essentially make a bunch of tiny little holes in the layers in the graphine coding.

B: Increase the surface area?

S: Yeah, increase the surface area and allow the ions, I guess, to move a little more freely. So one event, it seems to be a simple manufacturing method, nothing too complicated. It's being applied to standard lithium ion batteries, so it's not like you have to use some entirely new substances or infrastructure. And, the effects were to increase both the capacity and the charging rate. So it charges ten times faster and it holds ten times the charge. It still has. . .

E: Gets ten times hotter.

S: Well, yeah, there may be something like that that will crop up, but . . .

J: Yeah, it's a hundred thousand times more expensive.

S: No, again, it's the same material, you just do this method which they say is simple, a simple ball milling method. So it, it seems like it's not gonna be a limiting factor. The one thing that's worse about it, though, is the charge/discharge cycles. So, the slope by which the capacity decreases with each cycle of charge and discharge is greater than with the current batteries. But even after 150 charges, they say it has 83% of capacity retention at over 150 charge/discharge cycles. And then even then it still has greater capacity and recharge rate than current batteries. So even if it, you know, drops off very quickly, you know, it still will have a greater capacity than current batteries. Also, you have to consider that because it's holding ten times the charge, like, let's say this kind of battery were in your cell phone, the charge/discharge cycles are ten times as long. Right? So, 150 cycles would be ten times as long as 150 cycles on current batteries, right? 'Cause they're lasting ten times as long. You'd have to charge your phone once a week instead of every day, or something like that.

B: Wow.

E: That'd be nice.

S: We'll have to see. Maybe somebody five years from now can send a message back in time and let us know how this worked out.

E: Superman.

S: Or Magneto. 'Cause he's a time traveler. As we've already established. Remember, we established that Magneto travels back in time to the moon.

R: Sacked. (Laughter)

S: Okay. Let's go on to number 3, a new study shows that deforestation in high latitudes, above 45 degrees, contributes significantly to global warming. And this one is the fiction.

R: Hooray for me!

S: And Evan, you were, you hit it. You hit it, but you just didn't take it to its full conclusion. It's because taking down the trees exposes more snow-covered surfaces. The snow reflects the sunlight and therefore absorbs less of the heat. So it actually causes cooling. In addition, as a second method . . .

R: I dedicate this win to Evan.

E: I'll take the assist on this one.

S: An assist,but you didn't assist yourself.

E: When Rebecca

S: But Rebecca, there's a second mechanism. It's not just that the snow's reflecting back the sunlight, it's also

R: I don't care.

S: I didn't think of this too, either, until I read the article.

R: Oh, all right.

S: They say that at nighttime when the sun isn't shining, the deforested areas actually cool more quickly. That the, more of the warm air escapes to higher levels, whereas the trees sort of keep the hot air trapped . . .

B: Blanket.

S: Yeah, it's like a blanket, too. So

E: Canopy.

S: So, good work, Rebecca.

R: Thank you. Thank you.

J: Not bad. Not bad.

B: Whatever. (laughter)

E: Honorable mention . . . I'm cool.

S: It turned out to be interesting. You gotta take what you can get, Evan.

R: And I learned an important lesson about listening to my fellow podcasters.

S: Right. About not going first in Science or Fiction.

R: Shut up, Steve. (laughter)

J: Look, I took the bullet this week for everyone, okay?

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:40)[edit]

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

J: Ivan Kisilov. Ivan sends me a quote from a man named Ivan Pavlov. 1849-1936, was a famous Russian physiologist, although he made significant contributions to physi-ecology (Laughter), he was not, in fact, a psychologist himself, and actually had a strong distaste for the field. This is a really cool quote. "Perfect as the wing of a bird may be, it will never enable the bird to fly if unsupported by the air. Facts are the air of science. Without them a man of science can never rise." (shouts) Ivan Pavlov.

Announcements (1:18:20)[edit]

S: Jay, tell us about NECSS 2012.

J: Yeah, NECSS 2012 is happening April 21 to 22 in New York City. We've been working on securing the line-up for it. Everything is looking great. Having a really good time working on the event this year. We're getting a lot better at putting these things together and I just think everyone should come if you haven't come, and if you did come last year or the year before that, you should come again.

S: All right, thanks, Jay. Well, thanks for joining me this week, everyone.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Hey, it was fun.

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

Voice-over: 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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