SGU Episode 339

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SGU Episode 339
14th January 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

SGU 338 SGU 340
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
Where there is shouting there is no true knowledge.
Leonardo da Vinci
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, today is Wednesday, January 11th, 2012 and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey, guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Did we miss someone?

J: Where's Bob?

S: Yeah, Bob is on vacation this week.

E: Vacation? I didn't know we get vacations!

S: (laughs)

E: Nobody told me; six and a half years.

S: You guys do. Occasionally.

E: Lucky guy.

J: I had a pretty cool day today because Bob was on vacation. I got about thirty pictures and one video sent to me from Bob from Disney World.

S: Is that where he is?

R: Aaah, he's in Disney World. I want to go to Disney World.

E: Isn't that the theme?

R: This show sucks.


This Day in Skepticism (0:57)[edit]

January 12, 1990, is the death date of Dr. Laurence Peter, creator of the Peter Principle, a scientific observation that employees will rise to the level of their incompetence.

S: Well, Rebecca, you have an interesting This Day in Skepticism this week.

R: You'd better hope I do, Steve.

S: Yes.

R: And I do! Yes, this podcast is going out on January 14th, which is—first of all I want to mention, it's an important Christian holiday, the Feast of the Ass. So I just want to put that out there.

J: What?

R: It's uh, the Feast of the Ass...


R: It was a medieval Christian feast that was observed on January 14th, mostly in France, apparently, and it celebrated a lot of the Biblical stories that involve donkeys. So Feast of the Ass; look it up; real thing.

S: Real but obscure.

R: However, the event that I would actually like to talk about happened on January 12th, and I really want to talk about the person who unfortunately died January 12th, 1990—the world lost a great scientific mind. That of Dr. Laurence Johnson Peter, who gave his name to what we call the Peter Principle. For those of you who are unaware, the Peter Principle states that members of a hierarchical organisation will climb the hierarchy until they reach their level of maximum incompetence. And it is the defining principle of most office environments where middle managers flourish despite being completely unable to do their jobs. Now the idea behind the Peter Principle is that the best members of the hierarchy in question are rewarded with promotions. And these rewards take into account the member's competence at his or her current level, but not the level to which he or she is being promoted to. So in 2009, Italian scientists published a computational study that showed that when a hierarchy utilises the promotional system that I've just described, the Peter Principle is inevitable. They also showed that this results in a significant reduction of the efficiency of the organisation. Of course, because you have completely incompetent people at every level. Using game theory, the researchers found that the ideal promotional technique was actually to either promote people at random or to randomly promote the very best and the very worst members in terms of competence.

J: Oh my god.

R: Isn't that crazy? So seeing as that system might actually cause complete chaos in an organisation of real humans, you could also just train people for a position prior to promoting them, which would ensure that they have the required level of competency at the start. So that's the Peter Principle. Unfortunately, Laurence Peter, Dr. Laurence Peter died January 12th, 1990.

J: Now, this guy's middle name was Johnson and his last name was Peter.

R: Yes, yes.

J: Just checking.

S: That reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a distinct effect described by a psychologist, Dunning and Kruger. No relation to, uh...

R: Brian.

S: Brian Dunning

R: Or Freddy.

S: Yeah, to Brian. Yeah, or Freddy Krueger


E: Freddy Dunning.

S: It essentially says that peoples' incompetence makes them incompetent to detect their own incompetence.

R: Indeed. Yeah, I believe that these two principles work in tandem to create the worst possible office environment.

E: Oh, it's like when people have body odor and they don't smell it on themselves but everybody else smells it.

S: (laughing) Kind of.

R: Yeah, yeah.

E: That happens.

R: Which also combines with these two principles to make the worst office environment ever.

S: It is also in effect at Dragon Con.

E: (laughs)

J: Most people that have something wrong with them—we're kind of saying now they can't detect it.

R: Well, the Dunning-Kruger effect is specifically about incompetence. As is the Peter Principle; is about incompetence.

J: Because I'd put bad breath on that list as well.

R: And with the Peter Principle, though, it's not necessary that the person who is incompetent not know that they're incompetent. I'm sure that there are plenty of people out there who know that they're completely incompetent at their jobs but they soldier on regardless. So it's only when combined with the Dunning-Kruger effect that you get the rare—unfortunately not very rare—manager who is completely incompetent and yet is absolutely sure that he or she knows what he or she is doing.

J: It sounds like the TV show The Office.

S: Yeah.

R: And every office I've ever worked in. I'll also mention that Dr. Peter is known for the quip, "the noblest of all dogs is the hot dog. It feeds the hand that bites it." That is all.

E: Wow.

R: This day in science.

J: Why, thank you, Rebecca.

S: I would point out, though, that I think the Dunning-Kruger effect—this is my speculation—is there really a fundamental difference at the low end of the competency range, or essentially can we generalise from that to say that we're all incapable of truly assessing ourselves? Because we can only assess our own level of knowledge and competence from the perspective of our own knowledge and competence. It's just that it's really obvious in people who are less knowledgeable and competent than you are. But somebody who is more competent and knowledgeable than you would think that the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to you. Do you think that's true, or is it really something that is unique to the low end of the competency scale?

R: I don't know; consider that I don't have any idea how to play the violin, and I have knowledge that I can't play it even though I'm completely incompetent at it.

J: (laughs) I'm so incompetent that I can't even follow this conversation.

S: I'm going to answer my own question.

R: You always do.

S: It's an interesting question. I think if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that—although I don't think this is necessarily true, but I do think there's a tendency for greater humility, in a way, as you learn more, because as you begin to gain knowledge in any area, you go through this phase where you... the first thing you realize is how little you know. And then you progress to the point where you start to feel confident in your knowledge. So I think the Dunning-Kruger effect are people who haven't even got to the phase yet where they know how much they don't know.

News Items[edit]

Tricorder X Prize (7:04)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on from that to the Tricorder X Prize. What's better than this, Jay? 10 million dollars for inventing a Star Trek-esque tricorder.

J: Yeah, that's what caught my eye originally and when Steve and I were talking about this news item, he said, well, he goes, "you know you and I know about the X Prize thing but why don't you write a quick summary about what is the X Prize?" And you know what, Steve? I found out that I didn't know quite as much about it as I thought. So I'll get to the tricorder thing towards the end, but let me give you a little info on the X-Prize and some of the past and current X Prizes and talk to you about why X Prize exists, which was the actual part of this I didn't really know all the details on. So the X Prize Foundation conducts incentivized competitions and they typically have a substantial payout in the millions of dollars. And I've read of X Prizes going from 10- to 30-million-dollar payouts. There is four prize groups: education and global development, energy and environment, life sciences, and the last one is exploration, which both covers ocean and deep space. Deep ocean and deep space, I guess. The point to the prize is to inspire research and development in technology that will have a far-reaching potential for humanity. And that's a big thing to say but the real idea here is that they develop these prize concepts. So you know, they don't just throw around a few ideas and pump them out. They really put a lot of time and energy into coming up with, basically, where are the holes in current technology? What are some things that humanity perceives are too costly or too impossible to actually achieve? And what, of these goals, which ones would benefit humanity the most? So then what they do is they put a prize together, usually with a number of sponsors, but a lot of times you will see a company's name attached to the actual prize, because typically they're involved in it, mostly financially, I'm guessing, but maybe they actually have a hand in helping them shape it as well. But the prizes then end up being so minute compared to the amount of time and energy and money that companies would put into actually doing the research to become a part of the people who are competing in that prize. So like, let's say that there was a 10-million-dollar prize; a lot of companies were spending 50 million, 100 million dollars to develop the technology. And the prize really is more of an inspiration at that point, and not really, you know—if we win that prize money it's going to pay us back all the money we put into it; that's typically not the case. But it's a good thing because when companies latch onto these prizes, they're also acknowledging that they agree that first of all, they're achievable, and second of all, that there is a payout for them eventually, because very good well-thought-out technology that can do certain things typically does have a pay out.

S: So I mean, the 10 million dollars is nice. It probably doesn't pay back the investment, but it helps you—if you do win the prize, it helps recoup some of that cost, but the real payout is in the technology itself.

J: Right. These prizes are not rewarding good researching; they're actually rewarding success. They're rewarding a finished product; they're rewarding the achievement of the goal, OK? So like—

S: And they don't care how you get there.

J: Absol... well, they have parameters; there's always parameters. And those parameters vary greatly depending on what the actual prize is, like there's usually goals that have to be met and there are time-frames that have to be met. But let me give you some examples—you know, you might know some of these; you might not. The Progressive Insurance Automobile X Prize. That was a global competition; it awarded 10 million to three teams that built cars that achieved at least 100 miles per gallon in real-world driving. And that real-world driving means four wheels, four passengers; the vehicle had to weigh X amount and blah blah blah, right?

S: Right.

J: So the cars had to be safe, affordable, and with the ultimate goal of appealing to consumers.

S: Mass-producible.

J: Yep. Three people got awarded this, and you go on the website, you could take a look at the winning cars and read the stories behind it, but that is of course so obvious in its utility and it's helping humanity in so many ways, just that one idea. I was very much following that. Uh, the next one, which was one of my favorites, the Ansari X Prize. This one also awarded 10 million dollars. The two guys that won that prize, Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen, led the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 km above the Earth's surface twice within two weeks. And I was watching that; I was actually watching it as it unfolded and it was really exciting and it was really cool. And that technology absolutely has moved on to bigger and better things. So a couple of more quick ones. These are ones that are in progress right now. The Archon Genomics X Prize, which is... it's an advanced genome sequencer that can do 100 people and they want to pick 100 people that are above 100 years old. And the trick with this one is, is that it's not—it's doing the reading very accurately. Much more accurately than we're doing today. So basically they're one-upping the whole reading a person's genome and getting useful information out of it.

S: So hang on, they want to sequence the genes of 100 people over 100?

J: Right.

S: Thinking that they'll find some longevity genes in there.

J: Yeah, they want to see what the difference is, and they want to actually find specifics in there. That was part of the contest. And then the other one, which I'm really looking forward to seeing some footage on and seeing them actually attempt it is the Google Lunar X Prize. This one pays out 30 million and this is paid out to privately funded teams that safely land a robot on the surface of the moon. There's more details in there, of course, but that's a really cool one and I recommend that you read some of these to see what's happening.

But now we come to this new one that was announced recently. And this is the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize. This one is paying out 10 million; it's a global competition, and this is in hopes to stimulate innovation with precision diagnostic technologies. What Steve said is correct; they want to make a tricorder-like device, so obviously it's not going to be like the Star Trek tricorder that can give any information. The machine has to be 5 pounds or less; I mean, I keep seeing people talk about it like it would be like you're holding an iPhone-type of device but it could be bigger than that and heavier than that. And it also doesn't necessarily need to be limited to just one single device; it could be like that's the home-base device and then there could be things that attach to a human here or there; it could have wires or whatnot; I mean, they're really leaving that open-ended. They want the device to basically be able to pick up on a lot of body information and be able to diagnose 15 diseases. So they were saying of course it's going to pick up metrics like blood pressure and respiratory rate and body temperature, but of course, it would need to collect a lot more than that. It would need to probably be taking blood samples and things of that nature. And also discovering things that we as of today are not discovering. It's not just collecting processes that we're able to recognise today; you know, you have a protein spike and that means this or that or whatever. They want to come up with new stuff. But it's a pretty hefty goal. But the payout here is—and this is actually the part I found most interesting—was that they wanted this machine to be more of a daily recorder of what your thresholds are, and gathering of information in such a way where they can watch you over time and then they can extrapolate data from that. And, the one big thing that they wrote on the website, which I found really surprising was they wanted to take health care, not away from doctors, but out of their total control. Meaning that you don't have to go to a doctor to get a readout on what your current state of health is. And obviously, with the explosion in population and everything, this would be a much less expensive way, if people were able to have these devices or at least have access to them when they needed them—it would be a cheaper way for people to maintain and monitor their current status. And then, if they needed to go to a doctor then they could bring that information with them to the doctor, or of course, by the time this comes out there would be software in place where it would be automatically uploaded to your doctor and all that. But it's very cool, and I'd like to add to this, which I find very interesting: when they fashion these contests, they truly do believe that the technology is possible. So they're really not saying, you know, maybe people will do this; they have a very strong inclination that people are going to be able to do this, and I'm really excited about this one. Anything that has to do with health care and lowering costs of health care I think is a great thing for the general population.

S: Yeah, absolutely. I thought though, that the description of how this technology would be used was a little naive. Saying that they want to put the diagnostic tool in the hands of the consumer. And it was sort of taking it away from the health care professional. So from my perspective, obviously I have a certain perspective on this as I'm a physician. But you know, information, especially health care information—we're used to thinking of the general principle that more information is always better. But it's not always better because information, especially if it's all the time, low threshold, just gathering tons of monitoring-type of information actually could be extremely counter-productive. If you look for things and you monitor parameters, you're going to see a lot of normal fluctuation that will freak people out and cause them to seek health care that they otherwise would not have sought out and that they don't need, and that's going to lead to a lot of downstream negative consequences. This has come up even when physicians are doing the monitoring. Here's an example: Research looking at foetal monitoring, you would think, "oh that's great; you're monitoring the status of the foetus". But there definitely was a time when the research was showing that more foetal monitoring was actually a net negative because it was causing physicians to do things and they were overreacting to just fluctuations that weren't clinically significant. Imagine now that same kind of monitoring in the hands of a lay-person. Especially, who are the people who are going to do this? People who are generally neurotic, right? They're going to be obsessing over tiny fluctuations in their own parameters, whether it's blood pressure or whatever, and that could actually drive a lot of anxiety; it could drive a lot of unnecessary consumption of further testing and of health care and I wouldn't assume that that's going to be a net positive. That, having said all that, I think this kind of technology can be very powerful and very useful. I just don't think that their vision, at least as they outlined here, of how it's going to be use or how it would be used when we have this kind of thing, matches the way it really is going to be used. I think it's one of those things that, once it becomes—once it's available and then the marketplace, both professional and non-professional, starts to tinker with it, then we'll see what it's really useful for. It's like a lot of new technologies. It's hard to imagine how they're going to be used and what people naively think does not turn out to be the case but then people find really awesome uses for the new technology and that's what takes off.

J: Well, Steve, the thing is, I understand what you're saying but I would imagine that, as these technologies progress and they become more common, that won't the software and won't the actual device know that there's fluctuations that happen all the time and it won't be so alarming? I would imagine that people could have a readout of what's happening on their device and read it but at the same time, if there's a problem, I bet you the software would say you should go say your physician now.

S: Sure, but again, that's not contradicting what I'm saying. Now we're going to have a bunch of people calling their doctor saying, "oh this device said I need to call you", when in fact it's not necessary. Right? So you understand how that would drive up unnecessary access or utilisation of health care services?

J: Sure, I could see that. And that's probably one of the challenges is to make it all work, to make it so that it is less of a drain and...

S: Right, so it's not—so in other words, it's not a no-brainer. How this technology would be ultimately applied is actually fairly complicated. If we had it today, we would have to think about how really to incorporate it best into health care so that it doesn't become a way of driving unnecessary tests and treatments.

E: Huh. Are there any privacy issues also involved with this technology that might prove to be problematic, sort of unintended consequences?

S: I guess it depends on range and things like that, and maybe you might need to have some kind of receiver that's, like, actually on your person; you know what I mean, like, attached to your skin or something. Right now... I mean the other thing I was thinking about is like, is this really doable? You can't... while I love the concept of the X Prize, I think the X Prize has a sweet spot for technology that is possible and right on the cusp and bringing that technology to fruition. I don't think, however, it would enable us to level-jump; you know, to create technology that we're just not ready for.

J: When you say "not ready for", what do you mean?

S: In other words, you might need some fundamental breakthroughs before we could even approach this kind of technology.

J: Well, what about the smart phone, Steve? I mean, maybe it's more of a collection of technology that's achievable.

S: Yeah, so is it achievable with an application or extension or baby steps taken from existing technology?

J: Steve, didn't you ever watch the Six Million Dollar Man? We will rebuild him, you know.

Sheldrake on Presentiment (21:34)[edit]

Daily mail: Why we ALL have psychic powers: How thought premonitions and telepathy are more common than we think

S: Well, Evan, tell us about Rupert Sheldrake's latest shenanigans.

E: Yeah, latest shenanigans. More like a new gig he has.

S: Yeah.

E: If you can believe it. Well, but not exactly. So, he has a new book out that he is self-promoting. The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Inquiry by Rupert Sheldrake. Which, you know, his new book. And what he's doing is he's teamed up with the folks over at—what is it—the Mail Online, the Daily Mail and he is producing a series of articles, you know, glorified blog posts, otherwise, in promotion of this book. Some of the topics that he talks about in his book and he's turned into these little articles so that the Mail gets articles out of it and Sheldrake gets to promote his book out it. So for them it's a win-win. For the rest of us, though, we have to suffer through it. In his début, he titled it Why We All Have Psychic Powers, and How Thought, Premonitions and Telepathy are More Common Than We Think. For those of us familiar with Rupert Sheldrake, he's well known for his research into parapsychology and for having proposed a scientifically—we'll call it unorthodox—account of morphogenesis. His books and papers stem from the theory of morphic resonance.

S: Mmhmm.

E: If you were to read his own definition of morphic resonance, you'd have to read it maybe about four or five times to sort of maybe get a clue about what he's trying to say, but I think Susan Blackmore puts it best when she says that the idea behind morphic resonance is that memory is inherent in nature and so that when a certain or structure has occurred many times, it's more likely to occur again.

J: (sarcastically) Oh, that makes perfect sense.

E: She says, if this were true, if this were to be able to play out, if we could actually test this and if it were actually happening, then things like newly synthesized chemicals would become easier to make, puzzles would become easier to solve just from the fact that people have been solving the puzzle more and more from all around the world, that would kind of build on itself, and video games would also become easier to play as more people played them. And it would also offer an explanation for such things as psychokinesis, telepathy and other things that Sheldrake champions all due to his morphic resonance theory, which is solely his, I must say.

S: Mmhmm. It's essentially made up mystical BS.

E: It is.

S: There's no—yeah, there's no actual scientific basis to it.

E: So this article, in particular, he describes some stories from his book which are anecdotes from the past in which these people have pre-sentiments, which are feelings that something was going to happen without knowing exactly what it would be. You know, a little bit different from premonitions, in which you have a little bit of insight into what lies ahead, but these were pre-sentiments, in which something just doesn't feel right. So you should kind of, sort of, stop what you're doing; allow whatever events that were going to be bad happening to you in the very near future occur, and therefore you have successfully avoided some bad consequences of whatever those bad actions were.

R: It's like Spidey-sense, but useless.

J: (laughs)

E: Yes...

S: And non-existent.

E: And non-existent, yeah. You know, he's very good at describing stories and anecdotes about, and I'm sure he has hundreds if not thousands—he only offers a few in this article—about how people had this sense. "Oh, you know, I knew something was wrong; I decided to stop my car and get out and it turns out down the road there was a tree that fell, and what if that tree had hit me? Like, I had no idea".

S: And you're right; they're anecdotes. He presents them breathlessly and uncritically, without any discussion about why scientists are not compelled by these stories. And then he wonders why science doesn't take him seriously, and he feels like he has to write a whole book about what the problem is with science.

E: That's right. He bashes science in the wake of his lack of being accepted for his unique notions about these sorts of things, right? And has it ever occurred to him that for every person who has had some sort of presentiment that turned out to be favourable—I mean, how many presentiments did they have that turned out to be absolutely nothing? Right? Had no consequences; good, bad or whatever?

S: Yeah, of course; unless you have some kind of statistical analysis or controlled situation, there could be a thousand times where people thought they had a premonition and then nothing happened, so they forgot about it. People remember the remarkable coincidences and then that gets spread...

J: The hits.

S: Yeah, they remember the hits, forget the misses. That's basic, basic critical-thinking-type stuff that Sheldrake seems to be unaware.

R: But you know, that one anecdote was pretty convincing; the one about the kid who was about to get on a flight with his classmates and then he had a premonition of the plane crashing, so he didn't get on and he got some of his friends off and then the plane crashed. Wait, wait; no, that was a movie. That was Final Destination one. Sorry.

S: Yeah, yeah.

E: Right? I mean...

J: (laughs) And I always think the plane is going to crash. I mean, every time I'm on a plane I'm like, "this is it, this is the statistic right here". Evan, you get the feeling with people like this that... they really want to believe, you know.

S: Oh yeah.

J: They're not following...

E: That's the main point, I think, Jay, is that you're right; people do want to believe. You know, it's also good that you brought up the example you did because, you know, Sheldrake—those are exactly the kind of examples that he talks about also in his research. For example, he says that over time, so many people have told him that for no apparent reason they were just going along in their lives and then the phone rang, right? And they knew who was calling before they even picked it up. And he did an experiment, basically, to test this. You know, it involved asking subjects for the names and phone numbers of four friends or family members before placing them alone in a room with a land line telephone and no caller ID. He then selected one of the four callers to call at random, asking them to phone the subject, who had to say who—and they had to say who was on the line before answering. And you would think—he says, you know, by guessing by random, it would be right one in four times, 25%. But his research shows that it happens 45% of the time.

S: Mmhmm.

E: The problem is, is that when you look deeper into his methodology...

S: Mmhmm.

E: ...there's problems. There's problems with making sure that these things are properly set up, properly blinded—

R: No shit.

E: —properly randomised. Right? Devil in the detail, Steve? We've talked about that before.

S: Evan, let me go on a little tangent here, though. Sheldrake also presents a lot of his own research in a... saying as if it's accepted. It's like, "oh really? We've proven that ESP exists 100 years ago and then nobody noticed?" You know, quoting meta-analyses of studies from like the 1870s to the 1930s; you know, back before they knew how to even do good experimental protocol. Here's the thing. You could think about these studies in a couple of ways. One is that you could, if you read the protocol, you can find blatant flaws or sometimes subtle flaws that could account for what's often a small statistical effect. Obviously, the crappier the methodology, the bigger the effect. He describes another paper where the effect was 33.3% by chance and then people performed 37%. Whoop-di-doo. You know, 37% vs. 33%. And you think, yeah but it's statistically significant, but that's—it's actually not a compelling. And here's why. Even when a study looks iron-clad on paper, it's possible that the researchers made a lot of choices in how the study was conducted, maybe even throughout the data collection, that could have influenced the outcome. I wrote a blog post last week called Publishing False Positives, which was a discussion of a recently published research paper where the researchers did a very interesting thing. They collected data in a completely iron-clad way. In other words, the methodology in—at the end when you describe the methodology, you can't find any flaws. And they looked at something that they knew was impossible. They looked at whether or not listening to music about old age, like the song "When I'm 64", actually made people younger.

J: What!?

S: Made them physically younger. Not feel younger. Yeah, I mean the whole point, Jay, was to collect data on a question that is blatantly impossible.

J: OK.

S: So that was the point. And then they showed that they could make the data statistically significantly positive just by exploiting what they called the researcher degrees of freedom. Which means that choices that researchers make about variables to include, when to stop collecting data, which comparisons to make and which statistical analyses to make. You can justify each individual decision; you can make it all sound reasonable, but if you didn't make all of those choices before you started collecting data, that you can bias each of those choices in a way that pushes the data in the positive direction. So essentially what they're saying is, that even when the methodology looks good on paper, researchers can make those kinds of subtle, non-transparent decisions, that you could manufacture a false positive out of almost any data. And that's what people like Sheldrake, in my opinion, are doing. Or at the very least, that's why, when they publish a result that's like, oh 37% vs 33%, that's within the noise that you can manufacture by exploiting these researcher degrees of freedom. And it may not be something that you can see on the published paper. You would have to do a precise replication; you would have to make all the same choices, collect a fresh set of data and see if it still comes out positive. And that's why exact replications are so important. But the researchers also point out that prestigious journals don't like to publish exact replications because they're boring. If you remember, Richard Wiseman just had this problem trying to get published exact replication of Daryl Bem's precognition research. And even the journal that published Bem's original research was not interested an exact replication, because they said "we don't do that", because it doesn't get them press releases and headlines; it's boring. But that's a problem because that's one of the best ways to—

R: Reproducibility is like a cornerstone of good science. And it's sad that actual academic papers are using the same excuses that you hear from TV producers for why they would rather have a show about magical prayer healing than something about a scientific investigation of prayer healing. Just, you know, they find that the sad reality is boring to them. Which, OK, for TV producers I'm willing to at least shake my head and say "well that's life", but for an academic journal? That's terrible.

S: Well, they just use the term "impact factor"; that's not going to help our impact factor.

R: Right. Ratings; let's just call it ratings.

S: Yeah, it's ratings. Yeah.

E: Exactly.

Physics Cranks (33:32)[edit]

Neurologica: Cranks and Physics

S: Exactly. This actually dovetails with the next news item, which I also wrote about, and that was an article published in Slate recently. It was actually republished from New Scientist by Margaret Wertheim that discusses the phenomenon of physics cranks.

E: You're right, Steve, it does tie perfectly into that line.

S: It does. Because Sheldrake, in my opinion, is a crank.

E: Yeah.

S: That's the bottom line, and we also talked about the Dunning-Krueger effect and the incompetence thing; that also plays a role here, it all ties together.

R: This whole show has a theme.

S: It all comes together. So I tore apart Wertheim's article; so did Orac[1], by the way; we sort of tag-teamed it because it just was so terrible. Her basic point is that these alternative physicists, people who think that they have come up with a completely alternative theory as to the nature of the universe—they've essentially overturned Einstein, relativity, quantum mechanics and all of that, and they have replaced it with their own completely separate theory. She says that they shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, even if they're wrong, and that she blames mainstream science for not being accessible for the existence of these physics cranks.

E: That's harsh.

S: It was a non sequitur; it was completely muddled and confused argument that she was making. Essentially, the people that specifically and in general that she was describing were those who—maybe they have some intelligence, some ability to be persistent, to master a set of information and maybe even creative ideas, but there's definitely something missing from the process. They're not interfacing with the scientific community. The one person that she talks about the most, Jim Carter, took one semester of undergraduate school, never published in the peer-reviewed literature, never did any actual research, didn't even learn the physics that he now disputes. And he came up with this completely fabricated notion about the whole universe is made out doughnut-shaped particles called circlons. OK. It's his—so it's just a crank theory of everything. And then she criticizes physicists who get inundated with these crank theories of everything, for dumping them in the trash. Well, really, what should they do with them?

R: Stop doing real physics and dedicate their entire lives to investigating these guys.

J: To disproving everyone's crazy theories; that's phenomenal.

S: To reading multi-hundred page treatises that have almost no probability of containing any useful ideas or information whatsoever.

R: I think there was a This American Life about that called A Little Bit of Knowledge, where they talk to a physicist who has to deal with that stuff. And yeah, it's just overwhelming, the amount of requests he gets from cranks. There's nothing to be done about it.

S: Right. You know what? Do the work. Study physics.

J: Steve, this reminds me of the—I guess in the past ten years or so, the whole everybody is talented at something.

S: Yeah, it's the American Idol phenomenon.

J: Every kid gets an award; nobody's-better-than-anybody-else crap...

S: Everyone wins! It is interesting how much of this is a cultural phenomenon and is it something with the more recent generation or is this something that's there all the time. And American Idol does come up as an example because they showcase people who clearly have—they go beyond having no talent; they have like a shrieking voice and then they get indignant and hurt and amazed that the judges don't love them. And then they attack the credibility and the credentials of the judges as if the system is broken; that's why they were rejected. So in my mind they're a perfect analogy of these cranks. They don't—they're unable to assess the limitations of their own knowledge. They think that they're geniuses; they think that the reason that they're being rejected by the scientific mainstream community is because it's composed of idiots who are unable to recognise their genius and that the system is broken; it's closed and corrupt and that's why they're being rejected. They are American Idol rejects. That's the same sort of emotional personality profile that we're dealing with. And it's not the fault of mainstream science; it's these peoples' personalities and their own failings that make them that way. In fact, I do think that the accessibility of, and popularisation of science is an important issue; it's something that we deal with all the time, but in fact we are living at a time when science is more accessible to the public than any other time in human history. There is more being written about science, popularising science to the public than there ever has been before. And now there's blogs and podcasts and scientists writing directly to a public forum, to a lay audience. It's all there. The problem is that these people are not willing to be spectators. They want to be on an NFL team without ever going—learning how to play football or showing that they have the ability to do so.

R: The first and last sports metaphor to ever appear on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

E: I'm not sure about that.

J: But that's an interesting metaphor, Steve. Because imagine if it did work like that. Let's say that it was physical like that, OK? And you take a person that clearly should not be on the football field and they go out there; they are going to get obliterated.

S: The sports analogy is apt because nobody questions the elitism of professional sports. Nobody questions that only the best get on the professional teams; that there's a process you have to go through, right? That it's a meritocracy; there is no everybody wins and everybody's good. We don't consider it to be a closed or unfair or Draconian system because we require people to demonstrate a professional level of ability and dedication and training and all that stuff. But the same is true of world class scientists. And we should expect the same of them and they, and it is an elite club but people rail against the elitism in intellectual circles and science but it's the same thing as thinking that anybody should be able to play on an NFL team. It's ridiculous.

R: And also though, I think an even bigger problem is, in general, our culture's hatred of intellectual leaders and the fact that elitism has a negative connotation; the fact that—you know, look at our political races where being the good old boy is seen as—we want to vote for the president you can have a beer with, not the intellectual snob. And I think we're slowly starting to overcome those sort of things but it's pretty goddamn slow so the idea that some blue-collar guy can go into his garage and just fix up this perpetual motion machine plays into our fantasies of having the underdog; you know, the brutish sort of cool guy you want to have a beer with overcoming the elite snobs that we all love to hate.

S: 200 years ago you could do that. But now we have 200 years or science that you have to master before you can get to the cutting edge and make a meaningful contribution. And if you're not willing to do that, don't whine about not being taken seriously.

E: The cranks would rather see the system dumbed down to their level so that they can play on those fields and they have to do that by attacking the legitimate scientists and the legitimate fields of study out there.

S: They don't—they want to get rid of the quality control because they're filtered out by the quality control and they don't like that.

E: Don't like it.

S: Yeah, so they want it to be open, right? Where have we heard that before?

R: Expelled.

E: Tell you what, I'm grateful for those people and I'm grateful that they're choosing to do the work that they are doing.

J: Absolutely.

S: We need a Simon Cowell of science.

R: (laughs)

S: (laughs) To tell people, "look, lovie, you're not made for science."


R: Was that really your Simon Cowell impression?

E: That was awesome, Steve.

R: Oooh, that was good.

E: Steven Cowell.

S: Do something else, not science.

Witch Hunter comes to US (41:57)[edit]

S: All right. Next up, Rebecca is going to tell us about a Nigerian witch hunter coming to the US.

J: What!?

R: Yeah, aren't we lucky? I'm not sure how many people in the audience know this, but the witch hunts that many people in the west remember as being far in the distant past are, unfortunately, still happening in places like West Africa. Particularly, there's a—the Nigerian Humanists have been really fantastic about battling these people, luckily, because they're casing a great deal of harm. One in particular is very well known; her name is the Lady Apostle Helen Ukpabio I believe—I know we have some West African listeners, so if I screwed that up too badly, please let me know. But she is a preacher who preaches against witches and who are witches? They are usually—they're marginalised people; they're people who need our protection more than anything, people like small children; also, elderly women are often targeted. So yeah, the people that most need the help of society are being turned on and accused of witchcraft. This happens all over West Africa, particularly in communities where there's no good access to medical care, for instance, or maybe they just don't—there's not a lot of education about things like the germ theory of disease, which is something that seems very basic to most people today in developed nations, but unfortunately there are a lot of people out there who still don't necessarily understand what happens when people get sick. And so they turn to the churches and in this case, these are Christian churches that are preaching about evil spirits that cause all kinds of disease and—or maybe just crops failing, things like that. And they encourage people to track down witches, and again, these can be children, the elderly. They encourage them to track them down, throw them out of their houses and sometimes even kill them, and it's really kind of a horrific thing. There are people, hundreds of people who are rotting in jail on charges of witchcraft with little to no evidence, you know, aside from some, you know, one person's testimony of seeing something strange. It's really pretty disturbing. So now one of them is coming to our shores, particularly the one I mentioned, Helen Ukpabio. She's going to come to Texas, particularly Houston, Texas, from the 14th to the 25th of March 2012. We'll have a link in the notes page for those of you skeptics who would like to maybe organise some kind of demonstration. I'll give you a list of some of the things that Ukpabio says that she will help with. People who are in bondage, having bad dreams, under witchcraft attacks and oppression, possessed by mermaid spirit and other evil spirits, untimely deaths in the family, barren and infrequent miscarriages, under health torture, lack of promotion with slow progress, unsuccessful life, disappointments, financial impotency and difficulties, facing victimisation and lack of promotion, stagnated life with failure and chronic and incurable diseases. So...

S: I like how she opens up with "in bondage".

R: In bondage, yeah. I thought it might be fun for some protesters to go in full bondage gear, but that's totally up to you.

E: That's Biblical, by the way; it's sort of a Biblical reference as well.

S: Is it?

E: Yes, like for when the Jews escaped the bondage of the Pharaoh of Egypt. I remember it from all my prior religious trainings and such. So that was the first thought that came to my head.

R: I also like that she promises to cure people who are facing victimisation by basically victimising victims.

S: Right, right.

R: It's kind of horrific. And also, there's the slightly humorous aspect of someone coming to the US to cure people who are possessed by mermaid spirits.

S: Yeah.

R: Which I looked up and it's actually very interesting. There's a very well known, apparently, West African deity, spirit of... it's a water spirit that can have the upper half of a woman and the bottom half of a fish or a serpent and it's called Mami Wata. So please turn out. In case you're wondering whether or not this could possibly be a problem outside of West Africa, I'll just mention that last week in London, East London, a 15-year-old boy was tortured and drowned by his sister and her boyfriend because they believed he was a witch. People like Ukpabio are spreading hatred and violence, using religion. So those of you in or near Houston, please try to organise something. I know that there's a very active Houston skeptics' group.

S: But yeah seriously this is an issue over which I think the non-believer community can find common cause with the Christian and even fundamentalist community, because in the name of fundamentalist Christianity, she is spreading a lot of medieval hatred that is leading to the victimisation of innocents. They should be offended more than anyone else, in my opinion. If somebody were doing these kind of things in the name of my belief system, I would be very offended and feel the need to do something about it.

Who's That Noisy? (47:57)[edit]

Answer to last week: Antivaxers

S: Evan, it's time for you to get us up to date on Who's That Noisy.

E: (imitating Dr. Strangelove) It would not be difficult, Mein Führer. I mean, Steven Novella.

S: I mean Mr. President.

E: I mean Mr. President. All right, so every week we play a noise or a series of noises or something and we ask our listening audience to guess as to what it is they are hearing. Last week we tried something a little different in which we played three noisies back to back to back and they all had a certain theme to them. And it was the listeners' job last week to guess the theme of the noisies and I'm going to play for you again what those noisies exactly were. Here they are:

First voice: This is what the mother was talking about.

Second voice: Who'd want to empower parents.

Third voice: Mental regression into diseases.

E: All right, did you have any idea last week?

J: No idea.

E: Well, we had several listeners who actually did have a clue and they answered correctly. The first one to guess correctly, from our forums, smithkholm, who realised the theme was anti-vaxers, anti-vaccination crowd folks. In order that was David Kirby, Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield. Little snippets of each one, about as much as any of us can really stomach.

S: Right.

E: (laughs) A few people thought the middle voice was that of Michele Bachmann, who here in the United States is a part of our Congress, US House of Representatives and also a former presidential candidate, but it was not her; it was in fact Jenny McCarthy, whom we are all familiar with on the show. This week I've got something that is similar, it's again a theme. You're going to hear three distinct noisies and you're going to have to let us know what you think the theme of these noisies are. And I'm going to play those for you, actually... right now:

(Tweeting birds)

(Electronic toy music)

(Piping sounds)

E: All right. So, our email address is or you can post your answer on our forums at And as always, to all of our listeners everywhere in the universe, good luck.

S: All right. Thanks, Evan.

E: Right. You're welcome.

Name That Logical Fallacy (50:20)[edit]

Neurologica: Fighting CAM in Australia

S: We're going to do a Name that Logical Fallacy this week; we haven't done one in a while. Professor Ian Graham from Southern Cross University's School of Health defended his university for teaching the use of alternative therapy, such as homeopathy. One thing he said was that homeopathy can be traced back as far—well actually I'll give the exact quote. He said, "alternative therapies such as homeopathy, can be traced as far back as ancient Greece." So this was a defence for why universities should be teaching these dubious methods. So obviously what fallacy is that?

R: Appeal to antiquity; is that what it's called?

S: The argument from antiquity, which is a type of argument from authority; you know, saying this has authority because it's old; it's been around for a long time. But I also found it interesting... I think this, I hope this guy doesn't think that homeopathy goes back to ancient Greece. Homeopathy is about 200 years old.

R: Demonstrably German, right?

S: 200 years, Samuel Hahnemann. Not ancient Greece. I think he was saying that some alternative therapies, and then using homeopathy as an example of alternative therapies, but not necessarily the one that specifically goes back to ancient Greece. Maybe I'm giving him too much benefit of the doubt, but—

R: But in that case you could say that alternative therapies go back to the Neanderthals; I mean, people have been eating herbs in an attempt to feel better since they were human.

S: Well, even chimpanzees do it.

R: Yeah.

S: Even before that. Right, so it goes back millions of years!


R: Did we just strengthen his argument? I can't tell.

S: Right, well, being old is not necessarily a virtue. So people came up with lots of superstitious, wacky ideas before they understood how things worked; things like biology. And so it's odd for a university to appeal to antiquity like that. It's also related to the argument from popularity, which he goes right into next. He says, "eighty per cent of Australians seek alternative therapies."

R: If 80% of Australians jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?


E: Why not? It's popular!

J: Are they good looking?

S: See, Rebecca, you're ready to have kids.

R: Yep, that's it.

S: That and you're going to poke your eye out! That's all you need to know.

R: Done and done.

S: I didn't buy the 80% figure, by the way; I thought that that had to be exaggerated.

R: Well those are—those sort of figures can be easily inflated, because alternative therapies can sometimes be expanded to include things like massage therapy or...

S: Taking a multivitamin, prayer.

R: Yeah, a multivitamin.

E: Aromatherapy.

S: Yeah.

R: Yoga.

S: Right. If you look—I don't have a detailed breakdown of modalities being used in Australia, but in the US, you're in the single digits for things like energy therapy, homeopathy, acupuncture, anything like hard-core alternative. The only things that get in the double digits are things like massage and chiropractic, because we have a lot of chiropractors here. And even then it's like—you're talking 15 or 20%. So you've really got to do a lot of straining to get up to, say, 30%. In order to get all the way up to 70 or 80%, you've got to include—you've got to start including things like anyone who's taking anything, any nutritional supplements, for example. So yeah, you're right; it's very easy to inflate that number and I think he even went beyond the inflated published numbers, somehow rounded it up to 80%. Then he makes his final logical whopper, he says, "obviously, orthodox medicine is not working for everyone."

E: What?

S: So what do you think about that, what's the fallacy there?

R: Is it a false dilemma?

S: No, I believe that's begging the question. That's the only reason why people would pursue alternative therapies is because they're not satisfied with mainstream medicine. I find that to be an incredibly common assumption, even among critics of alternative medicine. I think it's just something that everyone takes for granted and I've actually spent a lot of time looking at that question and to see what is published about it. And in fact, what few surveys and studies are published on that question uniformly contradict it. Patients who seek alternative medicine are generally satisfied with their encounters with mainstream medicine. Like most people, they think, "oh yeah, my doctor is fine; it's all the other doctors who have problems", but everyone finds somebody that they can deal with, that they get along with and trust. I shouldn't say everybody; there is a small percentage of people who use alternative therapies who are not satisfied or who are actually angry at mainstream medicine. But the vast majority, more than 85%, are perfectly happy with mainstream medicine. People seek alternative therapies because guys like Professor Graham make it respectable, because they were made open minded to it by the media, by naive or clueless professors, or because it's compatible with their world view, because they already had a world view that made it appealing to them, ideas like things that are natural or holistic or non-invasive etc. So it's—in other words, it's ideology or philosophy. It's not evidence; it's not anything else.

E: But Steve, he's also—you know what else he's saying here now that I'm reading this again? "Obviously, orthodox medicine is not working for everyone". It's like some sort of assumption that all medicine should work for everyone all the time otherwise there's something wrong.

S: Well that's the other thing, is that there is sort of a false dichotomy in there, or I think maybe that's what you were getting at with the false dilemma, Rebecca.

R: Yeah.

S: It's that if mainstream medicine is not giving you the solutions you seek, then therefore it's justified to seek an alternative, a specific alternative, not just look for any alternative. And that's kind of like the creationists saying, "oh, there are problems with evolution, therefore creationism is correct". There are problems with mainstream medicine. Well, yeah, there are problems with mainstream medicine because there are problems with every human institution, because people are imperfect and our knowledge is imperfect and our institutions are imperfect. But that doesn't mean that any specific alternative is necessarily better. All of the things that people criticise about mainstream medicine, so-called alternative medicine is worse. They have really no evidence to back up what they do; they're not evidence-based at all, they have—under this broad umbrella, they promote mutually exclusive ideologies or ideas or philosophies; they completely go against the ethic of informed consent by not giving accurate or reliable information to the people that they treat, etc., etc. So.

J: Yeah, meaning well doesn't mean doing well.

S: And not all of them mean well, because I think it's—the whole philosophy of weakening the criteria for what passes as a legitimate therapy becomes a lightning rod for charlatans, because in a way, when you loosen the rules of evidence and science, that opens the flood gates wide open to anyone, any snake-oil salesman who has something dubious to sell. It gets back to the crank idea, right? People who don't want there to be rules of evidence and science because they don't do well under those rules. So then they make a freedom and openness argument so that they can get in what they want to get in.

Science or Fiction (58:01)[edit]

S: OK, well, let's move on now to Science or Fiction.

Iszi Lawrence: 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, then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Is everybody ready for this week?

R: Yep.

J: Yes, let's do it.

E: Ah, yes.

S: Bob's perfect score will stand for at least one more week—

R: Aaah, that bastard.

S: —since he's not playing today.

E: Only because he fled the battlefield.

S: Yes. All you guys are at zero percent...

R: Not cool.

S: Hoping to get up to 50% after today; we'll see.

E: His tail tucked somewhere in Florida.

S: In Disney World. All right, here we go. Item number one: The Hubble telescope has identified the furthest galaxy protocluster ever discovered, about 13 billion light years away. Item number two: Researchers have designed a nanoparticle material that can automatically repair glass materials, such as the surface of an electronic device. And item number three: New research finds that surgeons generally continue to improve in skill and performance into their 60s. Evan, go first.

E: OK. The Hubble telescope identifying the furthest galaxy protocluster ever discovered. Well, I think 13 billion light years away is right. The universe is what, at best estimates 13.73 billion, if memory serves. Um, and Hubble is constantly finding the most faintest signals of light that were produced from way way back when. So it's totally plausible. The second one about researchers designing this nanoparticle material—automatically repairing glass—well, automatically. Hmm. Well I suppose that once applied to the material, the nanoparticle knows exactly what it's supposed to do to perfection to repair the material. It sounds, again, plausible but I don't know about automatically repairing—I think that could be the trick here, how could it know? Interesting. The last one in which researchers finding that surgeons generally continue to improve in skill and performance into their 60s. Boy, pros and cons here; I think about people who are certainly more experienced, that's a pro, they've been doing this for decades most likely; definitely a pro, but also people's natural skills start to break down; their hands perhaps aren't what they used to be, and their minds in some ways are not necessarily as sharp as they once were, so perhaps that works against it. Well, I'm having a problem with this nanoparticle one because I don't know how it would automatically make the repair. It's fascinating but I'm going to have to say that that one is going to be the fiction.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: I have a question. What is a protocluster?

S: A galaxy cluster is a cluster of galaxies, like the Virgo Supercluster of which our galaxy is part. A protocluster is like a galaxy cluster in the process of forming.

R: I think 13 billion light years away is far, not outside of the realm of possibility, I guess, but I know that there have been a couple of other recent discoveries by Hubble that I do know about but I don't think I've heard of that one, which makes that one very suspicious. The nanoparticle thing sounds cool and like Evan, I don't know anything about nanoparticles so I don't know how exactly it could work, but in my Doctor Whovian view of nanoparticles, where they are magical, I can certainly see making a material that can somehow knit glass back together. And I guess it would just be a matter of finding imperfections in the glass and yeah, repairing it. I can see that happening. It's cool; I hope it's true. And surgeons increasing in skill well into their 60s. Skill and performance. I think brain-wise I think they'd be fine, because if they're still practising into their 60s, they're probably—their brains are staying limber and all that good stuff. Physically, I guess that's where I guess this would get tricky, but I think that continuing to practice could have—could affect their health in positive ways that would allow them to continue to improve in skill and performance, so that makes sense to me. So I'm going to go with the Hubble one as being the fiction.

S: OK. Jay.

J: OK, I think the one about the Hubble is true. I don't see why they wouldn't be able to see something that far away. And I don't see why the fact that it's a protocluster would change my mind about anything. It's just can they see something from 13 billion light years away, and I think it can. Researchers have designed the nanoparticles to repair glass. Remember Perry said once, "if the item has 'nano' in it, just say yes"?

R: That's a good rule.

E: It is a good rule.

J: I think this one also is true because I remember reading about different companies doing research when, like say, microcracks happen in glass and there could be tiny little particles of epoxy in there that seal it up and stuff like that, maybe somebody came up with that. That doesn't seem too far fetched at all; I think that would be awesome and this is probably one of those—you know, "it's five years away" jobs, though. So—but I think that's true, so I think that the last one about the surgeons continuing to improve in skill and performance into their 60s; I think that one sadly is probably false.

R: You can't get us all, Steve.

S: An even split, an even three-way split. So I guess I'll take them in order.

E: Oh gosh.

S: Item number one, the Hubble telescope has identified—

J: Ah hah!

E: (laughs)

S: —the furthest cluster ever discovered, about 13 billion light years away. Are you guys familiar with the meme, "Hubble gotchu"?


E: I am now.

R: No.

J: You just made that up; come on.

R: I guess we're not as tuned in to meme culture as you are, Steve.

E: Or protocluster culture.

J: (singing) Hubble gonna find you...

S: Milky J.

E: Milky J?

S: Jay, yeah.

E: The Milky Jay Galaxy?

S: No, Milky J is a rapper.

E: Oh, OK, I was going to...

S: With Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; he has made several appearances on that show where he asks some question like, "do you need an image of a spiral galaxy? Hubble got you!" It's pretty funny. He shows like a picture from the Hubble telescope. Well, Rebecca, sadly, Hubble got you.

R: Yeah thanks, thanks, Steve.

S: (laughing) The Hubble telescope has indeed identified a protocluster 13 billion light years away. This is the furthest, faintest and therefore...

E: Oldest.

S: Oldest or youngest, depending on your point of view, galaxy protocluster ever discovered.

J: Ahhh.

S: Very cool. Yeah, so they are describing the process; it's very difficult because they have to look at an empty patch of sky and just hope there's something there. And lots of times there's nothing, but if they get lucky and they look at a patch of sky and they do an exposure to get a very very distant, deep view, they might just barely see this faint object and they did discover this faint protocluster. So a galaxy cluster in the process of forming and this helped verify our current model of how galaxy clusters form and how galaxies form. So it's a significant piece of science, not just a cool Hubble discovery.

J: Excellent.

E: Wow.

S: Excellent. Let's go on to item number two: researchers have designed a nanoparticle material that can automatically repair glass materials such as the surface of an electronic device. Evan, you think this one is the fiction.

E: Uh huh.

S: And this one is... science.

R: Wow.

E: Well, there you go.

S: This one is very cool science.

J: Thank you.

R: Jay.

S: The researchers have designed the material—they've designed and computer simulated it; they haven't manufactured it or created it yet. But this is a very interesting idea; it's a nanoparticle material that you would incorporate ahead of time into a device like a personal electronic device like an iPod or an iPhone or whatever. And then it would make that material "self-healing" or they also say—they also characterise this as repair and go or repair on the go. Essentially the material would seek out and fill in any nano-cracks or fractures and maybe even larger ones by themselves; they would just sort of ooze into and then close up and repair the surfaces automatically. This would make the surfaces much more durable, greatly increase their lifespan and would be very cool. So these are hydrophobic nanoparticles encapsulated in a deformable shell.

R: Do they have rabies?

J: (laughs) So Steve, from what you're saying, it sounds like when you get down to the molecular level, that when there's a depression or an indentation or whatever, it'll slowly ooze in and fill it in a little bit.

S: Yeah, yeah.

J: All right. So this isn't like a sphere cracking open and glue coming out or anything.

S: No, these particles are the glue; they just sort of exist in the material and just go to where they need to to self-repair any cracks. This notion of materials that are self-healing is very compelling; it's very interesting, you know, because wear and tear obviously is ubiquitous and inevitable; everything that we own is constantly going through entropy and wear and tear. And just like our bodies but our biological systems have the ability to repair themselves. Imagine if they didn't; imagine if there was no self-repair or self-healing; you would be in a constant state of breaking.

R: I am in a constant state of breaking down.

J: (laughs)

S: But even more so.

E: Even more so already, yes.

S: So yeah, so imagine having a computer screen or whatever that was constantly sort of healing and regenerating and repairing itself. So it's always in a state of being as if it were new. That would be cool.

J: That would be awesome.

R: Mmhmm.

J: And I expect that to come out in two years.

S: Yeah, right? It is at the computer simulation stage, so we'll see. Which means that "new research finds that surgeons generally continue to improve in skill and performance into their 60s" is fiction.

J: Thank you.

S: Jay, so guess what the truth is, Jay, since you've spotted this one as the fake.

E: Yeah, Jay.

J: Well, OK, now, see? Rebecca? I'd like you to pay attention: this is Steve making me look stupid even when I get it right.


S: No, I am giving you the opportunity to impress us even more.

J: OK, I think that surgeons can continue to improve their skills into their 70s.

S: No, you don't.

E: (laughs)

R: That doesn't make sense.

J: I think that they can continue to improve their skills into their 50s.

S: No.

J: I think that...

S: The study showed... (laughs)

R: Just let it go.

S: This is a study published in the British Medical Journal.

E: Enjoy your win.

S: That surgeons perform best between the age of 35 and 50.

J: 50, yep. There you go; I knew it.

S: So Evan, I think it was you who was saying that two factors to look at—the fact that surgeons gains more experience—was that you, Rebecca?

R: No, I think Evan mentioned the experience.

E: I mentioned experience.

S: So they gain experience but at the same time their physical skills may be deteriorating. So how do you balance the two of those things? Well, you balance them by surgeons in between 35 and 50 have the best balance of those two things. They have the best combination of experience while still being young and dexterous. That's the thinking, anyway. So less than 35, surgeons don't have enough experience; after 50 our brains atrophy and we lose dexterity and all that stuff. So... also, the other issue is, or question—and there's some evidence to back up this view—that as physicians in general get further away from their training, in some ways they actually get a little bit more out of touch, you know? Get a little bit further from the cutting edge.

E: Really?

S: So the degree to which physicians keep up with the latest and greatest information is not always optimal. So in some ways physicians fresh out of their training may have more up-to-date knowledge. But they don't have the experience. So there is this combination of factors at work, and it makes sense; you can make sense of it in retrospect, that yeah, that's the sweet spot, between 35 and 50—it's also I think when most physicians are at the peak of their practice; they're doing the most work as well. So it makes sense.

J: Steve, I have a theory.

S: Yeah.

J: I think that everybody has someone on the show that when they're not there, they do better at Science or Fiction.

S: Mmhmm.

E: OK.

J: And I believe mine is Bob.

S: You think Bob's dragging you down, Jay?

R: (laughs)

J: Yep. I really do.

E: Is this a quantum thing?

S: Are you going to blame Bob for your poor performance? Are you just trying to give us another demonstration of the Peter Principle or the Dunning Krueger effect? The American Idol effect?

J: Johnson Peter?

S: (laughs)

R: Well maybe we can test this. From now on, Bob will log off while we do Science or Fiction and then come back on and give his answer.

J: Bob does all his thinking off-line. That's what you're saying?

R: Yeah.

S: Yay, I'll just make you always go before Bob.

J: Look, don't get technical; I'm just saying when Bob's not on the show—he has to actually be in Florida. How about that?

R: Yeah, see, I was assuming there was some magical property.

S: He has to be on a Disney World ride at the time that we're doing Science or Fiction.

E: Watching a space shuttle or something.

S: In the haunted house.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:12:41)[edit]

S: OK. Jay, give us a quote this week.

J: Here's the quote. You guys know who Iszi Lawrence is, correct?

S: Oh yeah.

R: Yeah, of course.

E: She was on our show last year[2].

R: Mmhmm.

J: And Iszi is the current voice-over artist for the Skeptics' Guide.

R: Yeah.

J: Iszi sent me this quote and said, "I thought this would be funny". So this is a quote by Leonardo DeCapr... I mean Leonardo daVinci.


J: And the quote is:

Where there is shouting there is no true knowledge.

J: Leonardo da! What the h... did she just make fun of me?

S: Did Iszi making fun of you about your shouting?

J: Where there is shouting there is no true knowledge.

S: Is that just dawning on you?

J: Wow.

E: Wow. New quote.

J: I see how this works.

E: (chuckles)

J: Win at Science or Fiction and someone's gotta take something away from me.

R: Yeah but she didn't actually know that you were going to win.

S: So the tally so far is: Bob 100%, Jay 50%, Evan and Rebecca 0%.

R: Oh Evan, we'd better get our shit together.

E: Oh my gosh; it is dark here in the basement of Science or Fiction.

R: Yeah, now I know how Jay feels all the time.

S: (laughs)

E: Rebecca, it's early.

S: Even when you win, you can't get any love.

J&R: (laugh)

E: Hey Rebecca, I think when Ted Williams in 1941, the last man to hit over .400 in a single season, right? .400 batting average.

S: 400!

J: 400! (laughs)

E: I think—if memory serves, I think he started his first game 0 for 4.

J: Yeah.

R: Mmm.

E: So we need to keep that in mind.

R: I appreciate that pep talk, Evan.

E: As we get up to plate next week.

R: Yeah.

S: Jay, excellent job at Science or Fiction this week. I just wanted to congratulate you.

J: Thank you, sir.

E: Jay, oh my god.

R: Yep, well done.

J: I appreciate that, Steve.

E: It was awesome.

S: Thank you all for joining me this week.

R: Thank you, Steve.

J: Thank you, Steve.

E: Thanks, Doctor.

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

Voiceover: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can also check out our other podcast the SGU 5x5 as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions and other feedback please use the contact us form on the website or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune or your portal of choice.


  1. Respectful Insolence: A profound misunderstanding of the significance of cranks in science
  2. SGU Episode 301
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