SGU Episode 341

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SGU Episode 341
28th January 2013
SGU 340 SGU 342
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
SC: Sean Carroll
Quote of the Week
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge
Isaac Asimov
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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 25th 2012 and this is your host Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella.

B: Hey Everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson.

R: Hello Everyone.

S: Jay Novella.

J: Hey guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Bully. (editor - sp?)

S: How're you doing today Evan?

E: (laughs) I'm in a Winston Churchill kind of mood so I'm doing just fine.

S: (laughs)

R: Winston Churchill said olé?

B: No, he said bully. (editor - sp?)

R: Oh, bully. (editor - sp?)

E: (laughs)

J: You know when I'm looking for quotes, I find tonnes of Winston Churchill quotes...

E: Oh, forget about it.

J: ...Not completely skeptically related but the guy said so many cool things at such a time in history when people really needed to hear those cool things. He was epic man.

E: Without a doubt.

S: (laughs) Alright Rebecca.

E: (laughs)

R: Winston Churchill, cool dude.

J: (laughs)

E: Yeah.

This Day in Skepticism (1:00)[edit]

January 28th, 1887 In a snowstorm at Fort Keogh, Montana, the world's largest snowflakes are reported, 15 inches (38 cm) wide and 8 inches (20 cm) thick.

R: Hey guess what today is! On January 28th 1887 according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world's largest snowflake fell during a snowstorm in Fort Keogh in Montanna.

E: Just how big was this snowflake?

R: It was so big...

S&E: (laugh)

E: How big was it?

R: big it got into the Guinness Book of Records.

B: Shouldn't you say it was the world's biggest recorded snowflake?

R: Actually, it's not even really well recorded. Basically just some guy said that he saw it. So it was a rancher called Matt Coleman...

E: While chewing on peyote or something.

J: For some reason I just picture some guy like sitting at his window during a snowstorm and he's looking up and he sees this gigantic-ass snowflake and he's like "Hello..." (British accent)

R&E: (snicker)

J: "...hello big boy" (British accent) You know, and he runs out and catches it he and measures it, and of course he touches it by accident and he melts the freaking thing.

R: Mmm, mmm hmm.

E: That's a sordid story.

J: How can it not be that?

R: Well Matt Coleman said that he saw a snowflake that was fifteen inches wide...

E: Whaat?

R: ...and some places I saw reported fifteen inches wide and eight inches thick?

J: Rebecca, does the diameter matter with a snowflake?

E: It's like a football (laughs).

R: But anyway, massive, a massive snowflake.

B: God, that's huge.

R: But you know, we don't really know because the problem is that in 1887, cell phone cameras were few and far between, so we really only have his word. But I wanted to look into whether there or not are have been any confirmed reports of snowflakes that were anywhere near that size. Since then, it turns out there have been confirmed snowflakes s of up to four inches, which is nowhere near the same, but still pretty massive. Four inches in Berlin in 1915, and also up to three inches in Laramie, Wyoming in 1970. And in 1992, field researchers used laser probes to measure snowflakes that were up to two inches wide with snow crystals the size of a pea in Newfoundland. And to make things clear, when I say 'snow crystal', I'm talking about the usual six arm star image that we all know and love, and the word 'snowflake' usually refers to many of those crystals all clustered together in mid-aid. And thousands of those crystals can cluster together to make up one giant snowflake that could be several inches across. So thanks to more and more field researchers out there studying climate and other things, we figured out the chain of events that lead to giant snowflakes. It happens when the temperature is just above freezing, and winds are calm enough to not break up the flakes. Dendrites are the largest of the snow crystals. What happens is that they can form really high up, like three miles in the sky. So that gives them a lot of time to fall and bump into smaller crystals, and accumulate, or 'snowball' if you will, and eventually you end up with massive flakes. But so far, nobody has any convincing evidence that they will get to fifteen inches across. However there's nothing in the laws of physics that says that it can't happen, so keep your eyes peeled.

S: Mmm hmm. Yeah it's pretty thin evidence though. I mean two to three inches sounds more plausible.

R: Right.

E: Much.

B: I'm surprised Guinness even accepted it.

R: Yeah, 'cause you know they're that bastion of proof.

E: (laughs) Of science, yeah.

B: No, they're generally, I thought they're fairly, you know they're generally strict in documenting and making sure that it was actually done.

R: I think they were just trying to pad out their book.

S: (laughs)

News Items[edit]

Stem Cells for Blindness (4:43)[edit]

Neurologica: Stem Cells for Blindness

S: Alright let's move on to some news items. Jay, you're gonna tell us about a stem cell treatment for blindness.

J: Yeah I was reading about a recent news item where some scientists were doing research on this stem cell treatment of the two most common types of blindness and this is world-wide. But real quick is this quick history on stem cells. So since 1998 when scientists figured out how to grow actual stem cells, stem cells have been considered a promising source of replacement cells for regenerative medicine. And when I say that they discovered how to grow stem cells, we knew that stem cells have existed much longer than that, but scientists actually figured out a way to take existing stem cells and basically culture them to make them grow so they had a population that they could actually draw from and do testing with. And since then, stem cells have proven to be very difficult to work with because of their complexity. I mean, the way that stem cells are unique are that they can become any other type of cell that's in the organism depending on the environment that they're in.

S: Well there are different kinds of stem cells. I mean the embryonic stem cells can become any other kind of stem cell. But then there are more specific types of stem cells, like there are blood stem cells that can become any kind of blood cell, but not non-blood cells.

J: So this recent study that we're talking about that was in the news uses embryonic stem cells on Stargardt's macular dystrophy, and dry age-related macular degeneration, and like I said these are the two leading causes of blindness in the developed world. The study was considered to be preliminary and designed to mostly take a look at the safety and the procedure how they would actually use it. And they do have concerns of course of injecting stem cells into any part of the body, particularly the eye because of the following reasons, and one of them of course is tumour formation, but they were saying there wasn't any hyper proliferation - this is they're language - which is an abnormally high rate of cell division, which is a cause of cancer or is cancer, abnormal cell growth, or the immune system rejection of the transplant itself in either of the two patients that they tested. They tested these people for four months after the procedures were done. Now Steve you were gonna talk about the results that they found from the test right?

S: So to be clear, this was a preliminary study looking at safety only. Their only concern was can we inject stem cells into patients' eyes basically, into their retinas, without them forming tumours or other bad effects, like you mentioned hypoplasia, also rejection, and will the cells survive and become the right kind of cells. So this is a preliminary test of two patients where they injected one eye and there were no negative outcomes to either of the two patients, so these stem cell injections appear to be safe. Although the study wasn't specifically looking at benefit, both patients also reported improved vision. The one patient, the scientists who did the study are saying that there appears to be a clear improvement in the vision of the eye that was injected

B: Did they get super vision?

S: They did not get super vision or x-ray vision.

B: Aaw crap, damn.

S: But the patient reported that for example she was able to read the time on her watch when she was not able to previously do that. The second patient also reported improved vision, but it's not clear that that's anything other than a placebo effect. She actually reported improved vision in the eye that was not injected...

B: Heh.

E: Wow.

S: both eyes including the one that wasn't injected. So what's interesting about this study? One is that we're starting now to get the early reports of preliminary research of embryonic stem cell applications.

B: Took long enough.

S: Well this is about right actually, and we're still five to ten years away, even at this stage. If everything goes well, they have to look at this in many more patients, they have to follow outcomes much more thoroughly, the longer-term follow up to make sure these don't become tumours or increase the risk of developing cancer or have other problems. It takes five years to do a five year follow up...

J: How do you figure that?

B: (chuckles)

S: ...before this is considered safe for doing routinely.

J: But the good news is that in the four months that they were following the patients, they didn't see anything that raised any red flags, which is fantastic.

S: Yeah.

J: And also, I do believe that it legitimately did help one of the subjects. They're using very common eye tests on these people, and one of them is basically reading of the eye chart, which you can't fake.

S: The only way to fake it is to memorise it.

J: The point here is though once again, we're always saying "Five years, five years." you know, everything is seemingly five years away, but they did actually hit a milestone here.

S: Yeah, this is I think a recognisable milestone. The other thing I found interesting about it is the reporting of it by the scientists themselves. They were very conservative, very cautious, considering other interpretations, like you know 'this might be the placebo effect, we're not sure this is really a good effect', and emphasising how much more research has to be done. And it always strikes me, I think it's important to note the contrast between real scientists doing legitimate research, even here where you have...

B: (chuckles)

S: ...a very sexy breakthrough treatment - using stem cells to treat blindness - how cautious they're being, and to contrast that to the snake oil salesman who use flimsy evidence to make these bold, expansive claims without the qualifiers, and without the caution that these scientists are stating. So that says a lot about, that's a good sort of first approximation of when you're dealing with in my opinion, like legitimate scientific medical research and snake oil salesmen.

B: Yeah, if the snake oil salesmen had these results, they'd be asking for like a Nobel prize, they'd be selling the treatment on the internet, and then China, and anywhere else they could sell it.

S: Yeah, sometimes you know like people send me links, where they just find links to pseudoscientists, you know cranks and quacks who are selling whatever they're selling, and it's unbelievable how hyped up their claims and their credentials are. It's like "this is the greatest breakthrough perhaps in a thousand years", and they go over and over about how renowned this guy is and he was invited to speak to this eminent congregation of scientists who had to get together to see/hear what... It's like a movie, the way they're presenting it. It's just ridiculous. Whereas here you have actual scientists with this stunning milestone, I mean this is still gain a long way away from an actual treatment, and they're downplaying it, downplaying it as much as possible.

E: As they should.

S: Yeah, as they should.

Chiropractic Neurology (11:41)[edit]

Science-Based Medicine: Chiropractic Neurology

S: So Evan, tell us what's up with Sidney Crosby.

E: Yeah, well we're about to hit the other end of the spectrum now with this particular news item. Like you said Steve, Sidney Crosby's a big NHL superstar.


E: NHL...

S: (laughs)

E: ...National Hockey League?

S: Aaaah. Hockey.

E: Yes. Now this guy was no slouch. He's the highly touted number one pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins - that's a hockey team - in 2005, and this guys was destined to become a big-time superstar, I mean he was being compared to Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux, I mean the guy was...

S: Wayne Gretzky? Let's not get crazy. (sarcastic)

E: Yeah, he scored a goal or two. But really, his impact was immediately felt on the team. He scored 100 points first season, he lead his team back from playoffs in 2007 after a long absence, he was the league's most valuable player that year, and then in 2009 they won the whole thing, the Stanley Cup Championships. So on this guy's back, he basically turned this franchise into a modern winner. But then in January of the 2010-2011 season, Crosby suffered a concussion during the NHL Winter Classic Game, which was a highly-watched televised game, it's annually held in an outdoor venue, which is unusual for the NHL. It was a blindside hit that was kind of brutal, but it wasn't vicious, so it wasn't a cheap shot per se, but it was just a really bad hit, and it was a substantial injury. Although he and the doctors didn't know it at the time, Crosby wound up finishing the gain, and he played for a whole 'nother week before he suffered another hit to the head, and that sent him off the ice indefinitely. So this is the NHL's biggest star, and he had to sit out the rest of the season in hopes that things would get better in time so he could return to play for the star of the next season. So the Summer of 2011, this is where the story becomes of interest to skeptics and the science-based medical community. In early September, Crosby and members of the Pittsburgh Penguins management held a press conference. But sitting across said Crosby at the conference was a person with the nametag of Dr Ted Carrick. Now Carrick is a "chiropractic neurologist". So what exactly is a chiropractic neurologist, right? Sounds a bit oxymoronic to me. It's a chiropractor who applies their trade to people suffering from neurological disorders. And Steve, you had blogged about chiropractic neurology back in November and about Dr Carrick specifically, and you found a very telling quote made by Dr Carrick during a PBS interview he had given in which he said "Well, we’re finding every day that more and more things that we didn’t think were associated with chiropractic treatment can be affected very nicely. There are testimonials from people who have had their eyesight and hearing back, and people waking up from comas."

S: So let's contract that with the eyesight researchers, the stem cells for vision who are trying to downplay it. This guy's like 'Oh yeah, we can cure coma, we can wake people, give them their eyesight back, hearing, suuure.'

E: (chuckles)

S: ...based on the flimsiest of testimonials, which is mostly what this guy has. He just has anecdotes and testimonials. So chiropractic neurology is as far as I can tell is 100% nonsense. It is not based upon any body of scientific knowledge, any understanding of neuroscience, neuroanatomy, or anything. It is just chiropractors trying to apply their voodoo to neurological disorders. Carrick has published a few studies, but they're laughably pseudoscientific. He published one study in which he claims that first of all, he claims that you can tell something about brain function by looking at the blind spot, by mapping the blind spot of the eye. This is simply not true. He then claims that you can improve i.e. reduce the size of the blind spot in the eye by doing a chiropractic adjustment, which is absurd...

E: Wow.

S: ...squared, yeah. So this is his evidence, this kind of nonsensical research which is terrible and testimony and anecdote leading him to blithely claim 'Oh yes, we can wake people from coma.' This is the guy treating Crosby, and also is relying upon just the placebo effect and testimony just to argue that his treatments are in fact helping, but there's no reason to think that Crosby's not just going through the normal period of recovery from a concussion.

E: Steve, even other chiropractors have spoken out against Carrick and his practises. We know that there are some chiropractors that are trying to apply...

S: Yeah.

e: ...a real scientific approach to chiropractic, and one such chiropractor, David Seaman had this to say about Carrick, he said "In recent years, the work of Dr Carrick...has resulted in a style of dogmatism that echoes that of BJ Palmer. In the case of Carrick, students believe that his words represent state-of-the-art, referenced material...when an instructor implies that he is correct and accepted scientific texts are wrong, he fosters an instructor/student relationship that leads to unbridled dogmatism." [1]

S: Right. Yeah, he's a guru.

E: Calling him out. As far as Crosby's concerned, at that press conference in September, Carrick boldly predicted that Sidney Crosby would be back and playing in time by Christmas, by around the Christmas season is his recovery. And he specifically said and I quote him, "Sidney shouldn't have any problems in the future." [2], thanks to the practise of chiropractic neurology.

S: Mmm hmm

E: Well guess what. So much for not having any problems in the future for Sidney, because he did return to playing again in late November of 2011. He played in 8 games, and Sidney's symptoms all returned, and he's now once again inactive due to these symptoms recurring.

S: Just to clarify, it wasn't a new injury, it was a just a recurrence of his symptoms from the previous injury because he was being too active, he was playing.

E: That's right.

S: Yeah.

E: And the recent headlines from just last week said that Crosby is going back to Carrick again...

S: Yeah.

E: ...for more treatment.

S: He has his hooks in him.

E: So it's really unfortunate. You've got the biggest star right now in the NHL, really helping carry the water for Carrick in this sense. He's making him legitimate in a lot of peoples' eyes.

S: Yeah, it's gonna be huge free advertising for him. He's getting so much press coverage. A lot of it, like Sports Illustrated covered him very uncritically, although in their earlier article, they did also quote a neurosurgeon who said, that was very critical of Carrick saying 'he's all based on anecdote, and what we do today is based on evidence based medicine.'

Psychogenic Illness (18:30)[edit]

Bethel Buzz News: (UPDATED) Cause of Sick LeRoy, NY Teens Remains a Mystery (With Poll!)

S: One more medical news item by coincidence. Again, a number of people sent this to us. This has a little bit of a local angle for us, also a chiropractor. Again, this is not by design, this is just one of the things we wanted to talk about. So in a small town, LeRoy New York, twelve teenaged girls have come down with what the presses calling a mystery illness. You guys hears about this?

E: Mystery science illness 3000 (inaudible).

J: I sure did!

S: Yeah, they all attend the same school. It's a middle school high school. And all twelve of them are displaying symptoms that are being described as Tourette-like symptoms, that they're having these involuntary motor tics or movements. The question is why would twelve girls all come down with the same constellation of symptoms over a short period of time. So of course the CDC has gotten involved. There is one neurologist who examined I think eleven of the twelve girls, who has been doing an extensive testing on all of them, trying to figure out if there anything environmental. But what caught our eye about this is this story is there is a chiropractor by the name of Russell Caram who is local to us, he's in a town nearby us, wrote an article about this situation, and starts off okay, I mean I think a little bit clunky, but saying that there's a cluster of cases, so there has to be an explanation that can accommodate that. It can't be genetic 'cause they're not genetically related, and eventually comes to the conclusion that it's got to be something environmental, which I think is actually a reasonable conclusion. But then I think he inappropriately narrows the list of what counts as environmental. Says that well okay toxins and infections, seems that they've been ruled out. So he comes to the conclusion that the environmental trigger was probably the HPV vaccine - Gardasil or Cervarix - that it would explain the timing, the age - why it's all girls. So essentially he's trying to blame vaccines on these symptoms. And he goes on to talk about that there's high levels of aluminum in the vaccine and that could be a cause of toxicity, and then he goes on from there to saying how the government's untrustworthy, and we can't trust the government to investigate this properly. So at the end, it just became an anti-vaccine crank diatribe. Where he most significantly goes off the rails is in dismissing the possibility that the environmental trigger here is psychological, because that is something else that these twelve girls share in common. They are all part of the same very small community, attending the same, small school. He writes, now in scare quotes "Now the “establishment” has diagnosed them with “Conversion Disorder” – a disease resulting in similar symptoms...but usually brought on by some kind of stress or traumatic event." Actually it wasn't the "establishment", it was a neurologist who actually examined eleven of the twelve girls, ran a battery of tests, ruled out anything else that could link these together, and by the process of elimination, but also from direct examination and history-taking et cetera concluded that this is a case of mass psychogenic illness, which happens, this is a known phenomena, and cannot be easily dismissed. I actually did find video of some of the girls displaying their symptoms So this is similar to prevous cases that we've talked about, like if you remember the cheerleader Desiree Jennings who belived she had vaccine-induced dystonia. Movement disorders can be diagnosed by video because what's important is how they're moving, so it's not a substitute for a complete neurological exam, but you can actually tell a lot just from a video of what the movement itself is. In this case, what I'm seeing is something that does look like tics. I think that 'tics' is the best technical description for the kind of movement that it is, a sudden, somewhat bizarre facial movement or gesture, maybe involving a vocalisation. This could be compatible with a tic disorder or Tourette's syndrome. I don't think I can say based upon this video alone that it's psychogenic, that it's psychological, because tics can be almost anything. Although I will say that it's a little atypical, it certainly could be psychogenic also. I think the fact that there are twelve unrelated girls who are all affected over a short period of time without there being any detectable environmental trigger or other environmental trigger is pretty strong inference that it is psychogenic. These psychogenic episodes are much more common in women than men for whatever reason, so kind of fits that profile as well. So it's interesting, I think that this is a difficult kind of a situation to deal with in the press, in public. This is something that should be dealt with between these families' physicians and them, because it's very delicate.

R: Yeah and I think that the public aspect of this and the Desiree Jenkins [sic] case actually make it more difficult because of the bias against psychological...

S: Mmm hmm

R: ...illnesses. You know I think that people would rather have an obvious physical disability they can point to as opposed to a psychological illness, just because we see people with psychological...

S: Yeah.

R: ...illnesses as "nutso freaks", you know. So without the public aspect I think there would be a better chance of them actually confirming that it's psychological...

S: Yeah.

R: ...and getting the correct treatment.

S: Yeah I agree there's a stigma attached to it and because when it's made public, I mean these girls are going on the news, going on TV, that invests them in the reality, the organic bases of the illness to an extent that would make it very hard for them to sort of just give it up. And it's hard enough as it is to get people to accept the diagnosis that it's psychogenic and to make it stop. It's something that's incredibly hard to treat. It becomes almost impossible if now it's been made public and they have that angle to it, again like with Desiree Jennings, I mean she's become so invested in that that I think it would be hopeless to try to get them to get past this. So it's unfortunately very counterproductive. But if you reads the comments, a lot of people made the analogy to the Salem witch trials where you essentially had a small group of young teenaged girls who started manifesting symptoms that were blamed on withes at the time, but you know in certain ways very similar.

R: Yeah, and when you start blaming vaccines instead, which helps feed into the idea that vaccines are dangerous and convinces more people to not get vaccinated, then you could even say that they have a similar level of danger to them as the witch trials.

S: Yeah, I mean this is a with hunt against vaccines, it is very similar.

Who's That Noisy? (26:23)[edit]

S: Alright well let's move on. We're going to... Let's move on first to Who's That Noisy. Evan, give us the answer to last week.

E: Here we go, last week's Who's That Noisy.

Recording: There's no such thing as a psychic.

E: You guys remember that?

S: Yes.

J: Yes I do! That's from TV.

E: "There's no such thing as a psychic."

S: Nope. It's from a movie.

E: Now, it sounds like it's from TV. It's actually from a movie. The movie is Ed Wood...

S: (laughs) That's a funny movie.

E: of my all time favourite movies, wonderful!

B: Really? I've never seen that, I have to see that.

E: Oh you must see, must see movie Bob, you will not be disappointed. It is incred... One of Tim Burton's finest in my opinion.

B: Yeah, Burton and Depp, how could I not see that?

E: Right? You totally should see it, they were wonderful. But that was actor Jeffery Jones, portraying the Amazing Criswell...

S: Mmm hmm

E: ...who was of course was an actual psychic at the time, well...

S: Stage psychic.

E: ...not really psychic. Yeah, a showman, (laughs) because he basically admitted in that same scene in the movie to Ed Wood (laughs), said it's all horseshit.

S: Yeah.

E: (laughs) That's basically what he says. 'I just guess. People believe be 'cause I wear a tuxedo.' (laughs)

S: Yeah, it's all showmanship.

E: So, while he admitted that certainly to his friends, he was quoted as saying once that he once had the gift, but he lost it when he started taking money.

S: Yeeahh, see you can't take that evil money, otherwise yeah, your powers go away.

E: Yeah, your cosmic energy there plummets at that point.

E: Right, isn't it like that James Bond movie where the tarot card reader, her power went away because she had sex with James Bond?

(all laugh)

B: Oh yeah! Oh my god! (laughing)

R: That is one powerful cock.

S: Yes, you so you can't take money or have sex.

J: He stole the mojo. (Austin Power voice)

E: And that's what Sean Connery said...

S: (laughs)

E: ..."I bet you didn't shee that coming. (laughs)" (Sean Connery accent)

S: Although it might have been not Sean Connery. I think is was Roger Moore.

E: (simultaneously) Or Roger Moore?

S: Right. Who got that quote?

E: So, a lot of people... Well a lot of people actually guessed it was The Mentalist, right, you know?

S: Mmm Hmm Similar thing.

E: 'Cause it's similar, but you know there was that music in the background, right Rebecca that you noticed last week...

R: Yeah.

E: ...and, so it was... You have to know the movie perhaps as in depth as I know it which is almost line for line. We had no winners.

R: Oh! Wow.

E: I was able to stump...

S: Clean sweep.

E: ...our listening audience.

S: Good job.

E: So we're gonna do something a little different this week.

S: A lot different.

E: Aah you're right. It is a lot different.

S: It's a kind of an experiment which we do in January.

E: (laughs)

B: I'm scared.

S: (laughs)

E: Don't be...

R: Hold me.

E: Don't be frightened, hold my hand, here, hold my hand. Eeh! That's not my hand. We're gonna have a Who's That Noisy scavenger hunt. So instead of me playing a noisy for you this week, I am tasking you, the listening audience to come up with the correct noisy for us, and the listening audience of course. You must submit to us... I challenge you to submit to us...

J: (laughs)

E: ...the dumbest thing (laughs) that in your opinion, that a politician has said concerning science or a scientific statement that is just so stupid that a politician must have said it. Send us your submissions, send us your audio clip.

S: Yeah it's got to be an actual audio clip, not a...

E: ...had to be an audio clip.

S: ...a link to it, not a transcript, we need the audio.

R: It is a podcast.

S: Yeah.

E: After all it is.

S: And brief.

E: And yes, brief.

J: And your underwear, yes.

E: Yes.

S: Right.

E: I understand politicians, their mouths move all the time, and lots of dumb things come out of their mouths but, keep it brief.

S: And give us the information, you're not trying to stump us. We will select the dumbest thing that... statement that people send us and we'll play that next week.

E: And we'll play it next week...

S: Yeah.

e: ...for your listening enjoyment. Alright? So you have your homework, and we're lookin' forward to seeing what you come up with.

S: Yeah.

E: I know I am. (laughs)

S: It should be...

E: This could be hilarious.

S: ... should be fun, should be fun.

E: Yep.

S: Aah, okay, well thank you Evan.

E: You are welcome.

Questions and Emails (30:18)[edit]

Question: Sounds in the Sky[edit]

S: We're gonna do one email this week, and Rebecca, you're gonna take the lead on this, do you want to read the email?

R: Sure, here we go. Michael from Ohio writes:

Hello Skeptics guide, during my daily science news story search on the internet I came across a couple of stories about "strange apocalyptic sounds coming from the sky from canada to budapest..." Having some critical thinking I began to inspect the videos to try and discern what they were. After much failed research on more worthy sites I could not find a good answer. To me it sounds like it could be something simple like a plane flying overhead to something more atmospheric. But these are wild guesses. I thought you may want to look in to it so that you may have better luck than me finding out what it actually is. Here is the original link I came across that brought this to my knowledge p.s. We all hope that it is as one commenter commented, the cthullu shai-hulud movie! Thanks for all your good work! Michael Ohio

R: And so I checked it out, and it's true, strange sounds coming from the sky have taken YouTube by storm. I've taken this story because as you all know, I do have an ongoing segment on SGU called Things People See in the Sky and Mistake for Other Possibly Paranormal Things. This is related, only instead of seeing, it's hearing. And I'm gonna give you a warning at right from the outset here: I'm gonna explain some of the videos, but as soon as I do, someone's going to upload a new video using a new trick, and somebody's will have to start all over again to debunk it. So remember a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. That said, creepy sounds are probably about as common as creepy sights, but for some reason, photos of UFOs tend to get more attention than recordings of those weird bleeps and bloops and rumbles in our lives. The rumbles, when they have a most likely natural origin are known as brontides, which we've talked about before. They're deep, booming sounds that seem to come from very far away, like there's no definite source that you can pinpoint. They're often heard near bodies of water, like the with Guns of Seneca at the Seneca Lake in Ney York, or the Barisal Guns near the Bay of Bengal. They could be caused by thunder, natural gas explosions, seismic activity, or some people even think possibly waves of water hitting at resonant hollows. And they can easily be confused with man-made sounds like sonic booms, artillery, construction, stuff like that. There's also the Bloop, I think we've talked about that. It's an ultra-low frequency sound that was detected underwater by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1997, that's NOAA. It was several times louder than our loudest known creature which is the blue whale, and nobody knows what caused it [see episode 385, news item Bloop Solved for an update]. NOAA in addition to the Bloop has found five other sounds of unknown origin under water, so that's kind of scary and fun. And even fairly well known animals can make sounds that scare people, like owls, foxes, fisher cats, and even rabbits can actually sound like people screaming for instance. Very creepy sounds. So all of these weird sounds can freak people out in much the same way that satellites and the Moon and stars and weather balloons can freak people out when they're not sure what they're looking at. So ordinarily if you go on YouTube, you can find a lot of videos of people who have recorded sounds that genuinely scare the crap out of them. However if you go on YouTube to search for strange sounds these days, you will most likely only find lies. Bald faced lies. And that's what our email had written in about. I first became aware of these about around January 12th or so, that's when blogs started picking up on this huge influx of videos featuring creepy sounds. All that week, there were an insane number of videos being uploaded from all around the world like the emailer says - the US, Canada, Russia, Brazil, Australia, and they all claim to demonstrate a creepy sound, sort of like, most of them sound sort of like trumpets signalling the oncoming apocalypse or something. So I'll play you an example:

Recording: (Male voice with British accent) Can anyone else hear that noise? (low rumbling sound) The hell is that? (low rumbling sound)

R: Okay, that was from Melbourne Australia, and that's one of the first ones I saw. Now, I found that one kind of suspicious, because in the video there's no one around, even though the guy seems to be asking someone if anyone can hear the noise. So I decided to do a little digging. I got the audio off of YouTube, and I threw it into Audacity, which is the free sound editing program that we all use to record this show, and I noticed that it's in stereo, which made me very happy because I don't know a whole lot about audio, but I do know that there's this really neat trick that you can do with a stereo track that you think might have been manipulated. You can also use this trick if you want to make karaoke songs. You see if the manipulator of the video is particularly lazy or just ignorant, they might actually record their audio in mono, but then add a stereo sound effect to it. Stereo meaning there's a left channel and a right channel, so you hear different things in each ear. Mono, you hear the same thing in each ear. So Audacity has this free plugin called Centre Pan Removal, which basically inverts one of the channels and then puts the audio back together again, causing the mono sounds to cancel each other out, and you're left hearing only the stereo sound. So I did that, and ten seconds later, this is the exact same clip you just heard but with the mono gone:

Recording: *silence* (low rumbling sound)

R: So you may notice there's a bit of silence where there used to be a man talking...

Recording: (low rumbling sound)

R: ...and then the creepy sound. Isn't that convenient?

S: So this is a stereo effect added to a mono track.

R: Exactly.

S: Yeah.

R: Or maybe the angels of the apocalypse broadcast in magical stereo that bypasses mono devices. (sarcastic) Or yes, this is actually a complete and utter fake.

E: (inaudible)

R: And not just like a "whoops I made a mistake, I thought it was a ghost" but it's not fake, this is someone who went into an audio program and added that sound. And as for the actual sound, it doesn't really matter what it is, and it could be any number of things, but I happened to have watched Kevin Smith's film Red State last month. It's free on Netflix watch instantly. And spoiler alert everyone, don't listen if you haven't seen the movie, if you want to see the movie, I'll be honest, not that good of a movie, but spoiler.

E: (snickers)

R: At the end of the movie, there's an apocalyptic trumpeting sound and seriously, this is a big spoiler even though, not a good movie.

S: (snickers)

R: The trumpeting in the movie is actually caused by some kids playing a prank on a Christian doomsday cult. So I thought this sound you just heard in the Melbourne clip, I thought it sounded kind of familiar, so I went and found that clip of Red State, and I will play it for you now.

Recording: (low, rumbling trumpet sounds and faint sound of men crying out)

E: Now, where have I heard that before? Ummm...

R: (snickers) So yeah.

E: Sounds so familiar.

R: ...that should sound pretty familiar to you.

B: Yeeeah.

R: I mean maybe, maybe it's not, maybe it's something different, but yeah, those do sound remarkably similar to me, and there are a number of other videos that use a remarkably similar sound. So you can keep an ear out for that. I was ready to just say that this is a sound that comes from some psy-fi movie, but just a few hours ago, one of my Twitter followers notinmyname2050, I'm sorry I don't know your real name, but I guess that's appropriate for your username. But anyway, notinmyname2050 pointed me to a video by YouTuber Voodoo 6, in which he figures out that that came directly from the 2008 film [transcriber's note: 2005] War of the Worlds. So...

S: Yeah, I recognised that.

R: Okay.

B: Yeah.

R: See yeah, I like most people skipped that film.

S: No, that was the...

E: Just 'cause Tom Cruise was in it.

S: I mean it was a mediocre movie all things considered, but I loved the Martian or whatever machines and they made a noise that was legitimately scary.

R: Yeah, and that's the thing. Some of these videos are pretty scary, if you can sort of put yourself in that mindset.

S: Yeah.

R: Sure the short version is - don't worry, the apocalypse is not until October at least.

S: That's right.

R: So you're fine.

S: Right. Alright well thanks Rebecca, let's move on to our interview.

Interview with Sean Carroll (40:00)[edit]

Science or Fiction (1:00:51)[edit]

Item #1: Chemists have created the first completely synthetic cell membrane. Item #2: Physicists have created the first atomic X-ray laser. Item #3: New computer models show that adding sulphate particles to the stratosphere to reflect the sun's light could completely compensate for the effects of man-made global warming.

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:13:41)[edit]

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

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


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