SGU Episode 346

From SGUTranscripts
Jump to navigation Jump to search

SGU Episode 346
3rd March 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 345                      SGU 347

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


GM: Gordon Maupin

Quote of the Week

How weak our mind is; how quickly it is terrified and unbalanced as soon as we are confronted with a small, incomprehensible fact. Instead of dismissing the problem with: ‘We do not understand because we cannot find the cause,' we immediately imagine terrible mysteries and supernatural powers.

Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, February 29th 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: Evening, gentleman and lady.

This Day in Skepticism (0:28)[edit]

R: Happy leap day!

S: Happy leap day!

E: (gasps) It is leap day!

S: This is the only time that we have recorded a show on February 29th, and it may be a long time before we get an opportunity to do so again.

R: That's true. Yeah. Very exciting.

E: That's true.

J: So explain to me leap day, leap year; what's happening here?

E: (laughs)

R: Well, OK; so our current calendar is 365 days in a year; however, the way we figure up days does not have anything to do with the way we figure up what makes a year. And so, there aren't actually 365 days that make up one year. There are actually 365 and a quarter days, almost, sort of.

E: Almost, roughly.

R: Yeah, and so to make up that quarter, every four years, we add an extra day. Of course, that is not true, it is an oversimplification, because every four years we add one day unless that year is divisible by 100, but not by 400, and we do that because it's not exactly 365 days and a quarter; it's 365.24...

B: Two-two. Point two-four-two-two.

S: Two-four-two-two-two-two-two.

R: Good, yeah. So that's about as close as we can get it at the moment. We can get it even closer by, I believe, skipping a leap year every 4,000 years, and then that will put us back on track. But right now, the way we're doing it, it keeps us pretty much on track.

E: I think it's a pretty good system, all told.

R: It is.

B: Yeah, it works fine.

R: It is, and it's interesting how long it took us to get there. I mean, the ancient Greeks knew, you know, how many days it took us to go around the sun—they knew, down to the decimals, you know, that it wasn't exactly 365 days. But... the history of the human calendar is long and arduous. In fact, there are tons of places where, as recently as the 1700s, whole countries have skipped an entire week or two—usually, I think it's 11 days or so—so that they could catch up to the rest of the world, switching from the Gregorian calendar to the Julian calendar.

B: Other way around?

R: Because of that switch, Sweden in the 1700s actually had a February 30th of 1712. It happened only once, never to happen again, poor February.

J&S together: Wouldn't it would be cool if you were born on that day?


R: Yeah, you never get another birthday.

B: Never age, awesome.

E: Stuck in limbo.

S: Did you know that in the Chinese calendar, they have a leap month that they add every 16 or 17 years?

B: Really?

E: Is it the year of the frog or something?

S: They add an extra month.

B: Really? Do you know what that is called?

J: Leap month!

S: They have a lunisolar calendar. It's called an "embolismic" month.

B: Oh, really, I didn't hear of that one. The term I came across was "intercalation", which is the insertion of a leap day, week or month. So that would fall under that rubric.

S: Yeah. This is one of my favorite bits of astronomical trivia: do you know how many times the Earth rotates on its axis in one year.

E: 364 and change?

S: You've kind of got the right idea, but—

B: Yeah, but then there's a little extra rotation because—

S: Yeah. The wrong way. Yeah, it's 366.

E: Oh!

B: Yeah, we actually talked about this[link needed].

J: Come on, Evan.

S: 'Cause every time— yeah, because as it travels around the Sun, it has to rotate a little bit farther each day, and that adds up to one day. So it actually has to rotate one extra time as it moves round the Sun.

E: Cool.

B: Yeah, one thing I'll throw in: as good as the leap year idea is, and the end-of-century leap year that Rebecca mentioned, we are still about 30 seconds off every year. Which isn't much, but it does add up, and I think the number is 3300 years, in about that time, we'll be off by a day. So that means the calendar year will have diverged from the solar year by an entire day. So I wonder, if this concept is even around in 3 millennia, will they actually add an extra day then?

R: Actually, I just looked it up, and it was astronomer John Herschel in the 19th century who proposed an extra... skipping the leap day on years that are divisible by 4000.

E: Herschel, good man.

S: All right, well that's more than you ever wanted to know about leap year.

E: Oh yeah.

J: I wish I didn't ask!

E: It's also Saint Oswald's day, and there's even more.

R: It's also the international day of rare diseases, I believe, which I thought was kind of clever.

J: What, do you hang out with people who have rare diseases and talk about your stuff? What do you do?

R: I think it's kind of like any other awareness day.

S: Do you know where the national organization of rare diseases has its headquarters?

J: Deathville, Wyoming?

S: Nope. New Fairfield, Connecticut.

B: What?

J: No shit!

E: Oh!

R: And rare diseases don't necessarily end in death, so...

S: Yeah, that's true.

R: Just putting that out there.

J: Well, just so people know, that's the town that we grew up in.

S: All right. Jay, tell us about—Oh, God!

R: Wait! One other thing! Quickly, very quickly.

E: Very quickly; we can only do this once every four years, folks.

R: I just wanted to mention that this year is special because there will also be a leap second introduced on June 30th 2012. We can talk about that closer to then.

J: Why don't they— why leap—

B: I love leap seconds

J: —week, month, year? Why don't they just put them all together? Make it all happen at the same time?

R: Well we'll talk about it in June

E: Leap time!

News Items[edit]

Iceman Genome (6:33)[edit]

(erratum and discussion in episode 347)

S: All right, Jay, tell us about our favorite prehistoric man.

J: So you guys know who—

B: Fred! Fred Flintstone.

S: He comes from a modern stone-age family.

J: Do you guys know who Oetzi the Iceman is?

B: Yeah

R: Yeah

E: Hootzi?

R: My favorite tattooed ancient dead person.

J: Well, I read a lot about Oetzi recently, and I didn't know anything about this guy other than they found some frozen dude years and years ago. So here's a quick one-two: Oetzi the Iceman; it's a name given to a well preserved, natural mummy of a man that lived about 5,300 years ago. So, Oetzi was found in 1991 in the &Oumltztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy, by two German tourists. He is Europe's oldest natural human mummy, and has offered an unprecedented view of chalcolithic Europeans. His body and belongings are displayed in the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, and every single word I just said I could have mispronounced, and I'm sorry if I did. He was about 1.65m, or 5'5" tall; he weighed about 50kg, or 110 pounds, so he wasn't a big guy. And estimated to be about 45 years old, and if you haven't read about him, it's actually really cool. The things that they found out about this person that used to live by his corpse is pretty amazing. The scientists collected an incredible amount of information on him by studying the contents of his stomach and analyzing his hair and taking samples of pollen that they found all over him and in the food that he ate and the grains that he was eating. So I dare any pseudoscience to try and collect this kind of data with this kind of accuracy.

S: He is the most studied mummy in existence. I mean, he's been having one high-tech evaluation after another over the last 20 years.

J: So what's happening is, up until recently, they knew little about his genetics. But finally, Oetzi's full genome has been reported in Nature Communications.[1] So his mitochondrial DNA was found and analyzed in 2008, and although this gave them some information, it was nowhere near the complete picture. In this latest study, though, they were able to perform next-generation whole-genome sequencing that revealed a much more complete genetic snapshot, found in the nuclei of Oetzi's cells. So nuclear DNA is rare and typically less well preserved than DNA within the mitochondria. Albert Zink from the Eurac Institute for mummies said that

Whole-genome sequencing allows you to sequence the whole DNA out of one sample; that wasn't possible before in the same way.

J: They now know that he had brown eyes; he's type-O blood; he was lactose intolerant; and he was predisposed to heart disease.

S: And he had a fabulous singing voice.

J: (laughs) They found all this stuff out, though, just by—they had this advanced testing that they had on this genome sequencing. They also discovered that he had been infected with Lyme disease

S: Oh!

E: Oh!

J: —or the Lyme disease bacterium, and that makes him the first documented case of this infection. Which is pretty interesting. And after analyzing anomalies in his DNA, they found that he was more closely related to modern inhabitants of Corsica or Sardinia. They said that it's more likely that he's from those places than from the Alps where they found his corpse. And I was wondering if that means that he himself traveled from those two islands, which can be found nestled between France and Italy, or maybe his ancestors were from there. But, to continue down that same questioning, they found that some of his DNA sequences showed his ancestors were likely to have migrated from the Middle East. So, going even further back, they can show where his people came from, and how they migrated. And Zink, the scientist I mentioned earlier said they're only just beginning the analysis of this new data, and that means that there's a lot more new stuff on the way that we're going to find out about him.

S: Did you know that the Iceman has tattoos on his body that correspond to acupuncture points?
(see discussion in episode 347)

B: Oh no!

R: That's why I mentioned that earlier.

S: Yeah, think about that. Think about that cultural contamination, though. This is a guy from Sardinia, found in the Alps with... a tradition that we now associate with the Far East. And this really implies that the whole notion of blood-letting versus acupuncture or whatever, these ideas were just floating around Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and they were all shared, and influenced each other. These weren't, you know, completely separate ideas that were formed independently in isolated cultures; they were really shared ideas among these cultures.

J: That is really cool. You know they found that, by studying pollen that they found on him, if you read some of the literature here, they were able to tell what time of year he died, and by the way, he was murdered, they found. I don't know if you guys knew that he was shot by an arrow.

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah.

E: Well, murdered, it could—it could be... aggravated manslaughter or something.

B: The funny thing is that they were trying to determine his cause of death for quite a long time, and then, just by accident, somebody just happened to notice: "oh look, there's an arrowhead in his back."


B: How did they miss that? They did all sorts of X-rays and MRIs and CAT—they did everything on him, and nobody notices an arrowhead stuck in his... latissimus dorsi

E: In his back, too.

S: It was funny.

J: So I will close this segment with Oetzi has chutzpah!

S: You think so?

B: (laughs)

S: We're gonna hear more stories about him; I mean, he's still—what an amazing find. And in 20 years of research, unraveling the information from this one find really is an important window into this bit of our past. All right. Well, let's move on.

FTL Neutrino Follow-up (12:26)[edit]

S: Bob, there's an important update about a story perhaps we thought was one of, if not the, news story of 2011: the alleged neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light[link needed]. Tell us what's going on.

B: So, yeah, we've got another important update on what I call one of the biggest and most unlikely to be true science stories of 2011. And I don't think this is the last we're gonna hear of this, but, you guys remember, of course, that whole "neutrinos traveling faster than light" hubbub from last fall. It was such a huge, huge item. It seems now that CERN may have uncovered a maximally mundane explanation for their results. Many online accounts, that I have read anyway, ascribe it to something as boring and apparently knuckle-headed as a loose wire. But, as we'll see, reality is much more interesting and complicated than that. Just real quickly, scientists at CERN last year revealed that they had spent three years shooting a ghostly beam of neutrinos through the Earth from Switzerland to Italy, and they surprisingly and consistently confirmed that the beam arrived 60 nanoseconds earlier than it should have, meaning that they were traveling faster than the speed of light. And, of course, this should not merely be hard, but downright impossible according to everything that physics tells us. And most of the scientists, including the CERN researchers themselves, knew this, and much of the scientific discourse on this topic was concerned with reasonable explanations for the anomaly.

Now, it turns out that CERN has continued to investigate this, and they may have hit upon the problem. What they recently revealed, however, is not as simple as a loose wire, as you have been led to believe if you were kinda perusing the news sites discussing this. That's actually an insulting description of what they uncovered, don't you think? I mean, don't you feel really stupid when you're messing around with an electrical device and you can't get it to work, and you discover that the plug wasn't all the way in. Or worse, it's not plugged in at all, right? It's something that happens to everybody every now and then. And that's kind of the image that many of the headlines and news reports are conjuring; it's like, "oh, these stupid scientists, they had a loose plug and they didn't even know it". But that's not really what happened at all. So in reality, it wasn't a loose plug, but a misaligned optical cable. This cable was really important; it sent critical timing signals to the master clock of the experimental set-up. Through extensive detective work, this wasn't easy at all; they realized that this timing signal would be delayed by minute fractions of a second if it weren't aligned perfectly. This delay would then cause a misreporting of the neutrino transit time, making them seem faster than they really are. Actually, they don't know what happened during the years that they were doing these experiments. They don't know if this optical cable was actually aligned perfectly or not, so they're not even sure how much of a factor this is.

But that wasn't even the only potential problem, though. The other was an oscillator that was in that same clock that kept time before and after these timing signals came in. So you'd have these timing signals coming in from the optical cable to make sure everything was synchronized right, and then you had the oscillator who was keeping time in between these timing signals that would occasionally come in from the optical cable. So the oscillator, unfortunately, seems not to have been the best of time-keepers; it was running a little fast. Now this would then make the neutrinos seem to take longer to reach their destination, slowing down their apparent speed. So what we have then are these two separate sources of potential error that are in opposition to each other. Also, they don't yet even know what the magnitude of these errors are. So the result then is that there's an uncertainty as to what the net effect was. You know, these two glitches could have perfectly cancelled each other out. It's possible, and that would mean that there must be yet another source of error, or the other possibility is that the neutrinos can really go faster than light. You know, guess which one is most likely. Pretty obvious, I think. So this could, of course, also mean that the net effect was to slow down, or speed up, the apparent speed of the neutrinos. So the point is that this anomaly has not yet been fully resolved, and there's definitely more work to be done to actually find out if these two potential problems actually caused this apparent increase in speed of neutrinos. So stay tuned yet again for more neutrino stuff coming down the pike later this year.

E: I imagine they're going to re-align, re-calibrate and re-test, and then come up with new results.

B: Yeah, that's what they're going to have to do. They've got to fix this, see what happens, and do more tests.

J: It's a good example of the scientific process, right?

E: Oh yeah.

B: Oh my God, it's a beautiful example.

J: They were aware that something weird was going on; they didn't just say, you know, "hey, look at this", and then start making products off of their find. You know, they decided that to retest, and then their testing was replicated in other places, and everything, and the truth comes out.

S: Yeah, the bottom line, to me, is now the error bars encompass the neutrinos going at the speed of light, right? The speed that we thought they were supposed to go. It's now just that it encompasses the right answer. And until those error bars are narrowed, this is now meaningless. The mystery's gone unless they fix everything, narrow those error bars, and the answer is outside of the range of what current physics can explain. But this essentially erases the claim of faster-than-light neutrinos.

E: Were they wrong to do the initial reporting?

B: No, I think they had vetted it to such a degree, you reach a point where you're like, "All right, we give up—not give up—but we've done a very reasonable amount of testing and verifying and rechecking and all that', and it was time to bring other people in and start a wider discussion. And that's fine.

S: Yeah, I think they handled it exactly as they should. They did everything they could that by themselves when they were exhausted what they could think of, they opened it up to the broader scientific community mainly with the notion of "help us figure out what we did wrong". And I've talked before about the fact that that this is what happens; this is the process of science. The only thing that's different now, if anything, is that the media is sort of peeking over the shoulder of the scientist and reporting on the process as it's happening. So now the public is seeing the sausage being made, right? It's seeing all the messiness, and they're being scandalized by the fact that scientists are people who make mistakes, and are wrong, and have incomplete knowledge, and all of that stuff. My hope is that eventually, you know, through the efforts of public education about science, and access to information over the Internet, that eventually the public will more completely get it. They'll get the notion that OK, this is what happens. And then the next time somebody announces some law-breaking, you know, law of science-breaking discovery, they'll be more mature in dealing with that news, and go "oh, OK, this probably didn't just break the laws of physics"; it has to be vetted, you know, it has to go through the ‘meat-grinder' of peer-review etc. etc. They'll be familiar with the process and they won't be so scandalized by it, or easily duped by it.

More on Anti-Climategate (19:44)[edit]

S: We have another follow up, talking about messy science. Rebecca, on last week's show, we talked about the Heartland Institute revelations. But we recorded that before some important revelations came to light. So get us up to date on that story.

R: Yeah, there have been a couple of new happenings, none of which changed the central theme of what we talked about last week, but they are important to the story. Just to bring everyone up to speed: what we talked about before was this huge leak of documents from the global warming denialist think-tank Heartland, and that showed their anti-science bent and they're focused on lobbying rather than any kind of education. The documents showed that most of the global warming denialism at Heartland was funded by a single anonymous donor, but there are also several large corporations listed as major donors as well, which I mentioned on the show. For instance, one was oil conglomerate Koch Industries, which makes sense, because they're well known for putting millions of dollars into lobbying in favor of anti-science legislation and the like, because it directly benefits them. But another company mentioned was Microsoft, which has a public stance on climate change that aligns with the scientific consensus. Microsoft has since issued a statement that the $60,000 that they contributed to Heartland were in the form of software licenses, which they give to any eligible non-profit organization. In the statement they released, Microsoft reaffirmed their support for, and I quote: "government action to create market-based mechanisms to address climate change." However, by saying that Heartland was eligible for the software licenses, Microsoft was apparently confirming that they, and I quote again: "have a mission to benefit the local community, which includes advancing education and preserving or restoring the environment." Neither of those is anywhere near to being in line with an organization that we now know funds people to spread anti-science talking points. But, that said, Microsoft is saying that it was just software licenses.

The other news—the bigger news that came out about the Heartland documents, is that the "leaker" of the documents came forward. Turns out it was Peter Gleick, who is a well known climate scientist, who many in our audience know because he's spoken at several skeptical conferences, like SkeptiCal. Gleick claimed that an anonymous person forwarded him the climate strategy memo, which I mentioned in my previous report. That's the one that I was talking about that Heartland claimed was the only one of the documents that was fake. I mentioned that it was the one with the most damning pull quotes. Though every fact in that document was verified by the other documents. Well, Gleick received that document and he wanted to verify it, so he emailed Heartland with an assumed name, and he got the other materials, which, as I mentioned, did in fact verify that document. He then sent the entire package to the various climate bloggers and that's when the whole "to-do" began. Gleick admitted that his actions in acquiring the documents were the result of a lapse of professional judgment and ethics, and just prior to his announcement, he resigned as chair of the American Geophysical Union Task Force on Scientific Ethics, and shortly after, he requested a leave of absence from Pacific Institute. Since then, scientists, journalists and science popularizers have been engaged in this seemingly never-ending discussion of whether or not the ends justify the means. Some say that Gleick has lost all credibility as a scientist and as a communicator because he used deception. And, for instance, Eugenie Scott's organization, NCSE reversed the decision to add Gleick to its board, because of what came to light. But others say that the damage Heartland was doing by secretly funding anti-science promoters whose express purpose is to create fake controversy surrounding established science justifies it. I mean, it appears, at this point, as though the bad press may actually inhibit Heartland's ability to promote pseudoscience. So, to give you an example of that line of thinking, in an article[2] in the Guardian this week, James Garvey argues that Gleick's actions are comparable to Ben Goldacre's use of deception to get his dead cat membership to a body of nutritional consultants. Garvey says that he thinks more climate scientists should stand up against people—andI'm quoting from him— "stand up against people who misrepresent climate science, just as evolutionists and medical doctors fight equally absurd claims in their domains." So, it's all up in the air at this point. So I'll throw it to you guys. Do you think that Gleick's actions were worth it?

S: Well, can I say first of all I think that it's actually irrelevant to the big issues, the bigger issue, which is: what does this—are these documents real? And what do they tell us about Heartland? How they were obtained is actually irrelevant to that point.

R: Well, that point is settled at this point.

S: Yeah

R: I mean, the documents are real, and you know, I think everybody pretty much agrees that they—maybe not everybody agrees, but, you know, everybody on the side of the science seems to agree that what we talked about in the last episode still stands. That these—

S: Yes.

R: —are damning documents that show a supposed think-tank that's actually spending all of its time and money on lobbying and promoting anti-science talking points.

S: Yeah, I agree, although if you read the comments to Skepticblog where we talked about it, certainly the other side is not accepting that; they're still claiming that that one document is fake, and using that to try to say that there's nothing going on here, like "ignore the man behind the curtain" kind of thing.

R: Right, but that, to me, is just ignoring facts because, you know, regardless of if that document is fake—and you know, and I said at the outset that that's the one that Heartland was saying is fake, but the facts of the matter are that every statement in that document, every fact in that document is supported by the other documents that we verified are true.

S: Yeah, exactly.

R: So, but, I think the problem is that with Gleick's admission that he used identity fraud in order to obtain the documents, I think that is an interesting question of ethics. You know, was he right to do it?

E: Is it kind of like the same as Randi going in to see the faith healer, but he's dressing up as someone else and pretending to be someone else in order to get, you know, the expected results. Is it, do you kind of equate it along those lines?

S: I think it's similar, but that one difference is, Randi is a magician, and Gleick is a scientist. And that's the issue, as in when you are a member of a profession that relies upon transparency and honesty, doing that kind of thing can compromise your integrity. He should have just not given in to the temptation to do that, and keep his hands clean.

R: Yeah, because I think the real damage here is that any future statement from Gleick, any promotion he does for the actual science behind climate change will be dismissed by people who feel that they can dismiss facts by saying, "well, but look what he did. He did this unethical thing, therefore we can't trust anything he says".

S: Right, right. This has come up—

R: And then he's damaged it.

S: This has come up with us doing investigations, you know, how much subterfuge can we use? And we've erred on the side of not doing dishonest things because we're worried that it will affect our reputation for honesty. Even though the ends are... they maybe have some benefit and, again, the documents are what they are. And you could argue that the public should have access to them. You know, it might have been better for him to just try to publicly persuade Heartland to release this kind of information. I don't know; maybe that would be kinda na&iumlve or pointless, but, it is tricky; it's unfortunate, but I think that, as a scientist, he shouldn't have done it, is the bottom line.

R: Yeah, I agree with that. But somebody had to do it.

S: Yeah, but somebody had to do it, right. (laughs)

E: (laughs) But nobody else did.

S: I'm certainly glad I have the information. You know? But that doesn't mean I agree with how it was obtained.

J: You know, in the future, if there's any scientists out there that need this type of work done, email me.


J: It will not hurt my reputation at all; I'm happy to do it, Thank you.

S: Let me give you another example: in my flood of emails one day I got an email from somebody claiming to be a member of the group Anonymous. This is a group of hackers who, you know, cause mischief in the name of what they consider to be good. And essentially this person said "Hey. Love the SGU. I'm a member of Anonymous, just tell me... what organization's website would you like to see taken down?"

B: oooh

E: Gosh. Great. The Internet mafia, in a sense, you're sort of dealing with at that point. (mafia-type voice) "You want, like, their website to kind of have an accident or something?"

R: Right. I think that's a really good example, Steve, because Anonymous did take down Westboro Baptist Church's website. I think we can all agree that WBC are horrific people—

S: Yeah

R: —but I don't agree with that at all. To me that's a form of censorship, and it shouldn't have been done.

B: Yeah. There's a good chance, Steve, that that was just a total set-up, just to see, and potentially publicize, that you might have acquiesced, and agreed to do it.

E: Gotcha!

B: And from that angle, it would have been really bad. And if that's what it is, then this guy, if you want, you can call me about it, and my number is 1800-EAT-SHIT.

S: Yeah (laughs). No, even if we assume that—you're right, Bob; it could have been a set up or a sting operation. But even if it was completely legitimate, I just don't think it's the kind of thing that we should have anything to do with.

B: Definitely not.

E: I agree.

R: Yeah, but in that case, though, I will say that it does differ, for me, from the Heartland case, because, to me, I don't even agree with the ends in that case.

S: Yeah, that's true.

R: You know, the means don't really matter at that point. But in the case of Heartland, yeah, I agree 100% with the ends.

Drug Testing (30:24)[edit]

ESPN: Braun's defense raises more questions

S: All right. Well, let's move on. Evan, there's been some news item recently about drug tests in sports, and you've been desperate to get any sports-related news item onto the show.

E: (laughs) I wasn't desperate

S: So, you managed to convince me to include this one, so tell us about it

E: (laughs) All right.

B: It'll be good.

E: There's been a big brouhaha in the world of professional baseball this past week. Ryan Braun is an outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team, and he also happens to be the reigning Most Valuable Player of the National League, so this is a big superstar in the sport. This past December, it was announced that Braun had tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. The penalty for first-time offenders in baseball is a 50-game suspension and subsequent suspension of pay along with that. Now a season's 162 games long; 50 games, that's roughly about 30% of the season and 30% of your salary. In Braun's case, seven million bucks for the 2012 season, so he stood to lose a lot of money by this. Certainly in his reputation and other things. Braun's urine samples, they were collected in October of 2011; this was during the play-offs; the Brewers were in the play-offs. And he tested positive for synthetic testosterone in his body.

J: Oh.

E: A normal adult male's testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio is about 1:1, and the rules of baseball allow that ratio to be as high as 4:1. But Ryan Braun's ratio tested at 20:1.

B&J: Ohhh

E: So he was waaay over the limit. Way over the limit. Now, doping and professional baseball, they've become somewhat synonymous in modern baseball times, which... it's proved be a big serious problem for the league, which has sort of gone beyond just the sport itself; it's made national and international headlines, you know; Senators and Congress people have been calling committee hearings and so forth, so this really is a big deal. And some of baseball's biggest players the last two decades have failed drug tests. They include Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, and they all hold all these sports records in the league, home-runs and so forth. I mean, these players are cheating, and to make things even worse, they're lying about it. They're lying under oath in fact, to judges, Congressional panels. But in 2005 baseball adopted the most current set of rules and regulations concerning illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Prior to that, prior to 2005, you got no suspension; all you would have to do is go receive treatment for your addiction, essentially, to these drugs. That was it. If you get a second positive test result in baseball, it's a 100-game suspension, and third time, you're out; you're thrown out of baseball forever.

Now, since the implementation of these new rules, every player that has tested positive has been afforded an appeals process, but in each instance, the appeals process has held up, and those players have been suspended. But in Ryan Braun's case, in this case, he's the first player that has tested positive for these illegal drugs and had the suspension overturned by appeal. So what happened here? So why did Ryan Braun's suspension get overruled? Well, it wasn't because his samples were incorrectly analyzed or anything; no, his suspension was overturned because two of the three arbiters on the arbitration panel deemed that the process by which the samples were collected did not follow standard protocol.

S: A technicality, essentially.

E: A technicality, basically. And, you know, it's a pretty standard—standard protocol is essential. Let's just run through this real quick. A professional collector from a sanctioned drug-testing facility is present at the time at collection, along with witnesses and chaperones. Lots of people involved in the process. The player pees in the jars; the jars are handed over to the collector; he seals them with tamper-resistant seals and puts an identification number on it; not the player's name, just a test number; the player signs a document then attesting that the sample's theirs, that the collection process was all in order and in compliance with the rules. The samples then are sealed in another package and then sealed in a cardboard box, all with the identifying marks and tamper-proof seals. So three times these things are sealed. And then they get shipped off to a testing facility in Montreal. So this particular collection with Ryan Braun took place Saturday afternoon. The collector could not get it to a FedEx location in time for the shipment, so he had to keep the samples with him until Monday morning, right? So that's the technicality that they called them out on. And even though, yes, technically, you're supposed to get the samples in, preferably the same day, but it's just that the timing of it all didn't work out.

So baseball training camps opened this past week, and Ryan Braun made a statement to the press concerning the overturning of his suspension, and he called the entire system of drug testing fatally flawed, with characteristics opposite the American judicial system. He claimed he won his appeal because the truth was on his side, and he was indicating, without specifically saying it, that he was somehow the victim; that he was the one who was cheated in this process. He's questioning, essentially, the scientific validity of the process. The science is solid behind it, and basically, Ryan Braun got caught. He basically got off on a technicality. But he's out there sort of running his mouth, saying the validity of this whole process is wrong. I think it's reasonable for—certainly fans of the game, and people in general, to take issue with Ryan Braun and his position on this entire issue.

S: But if you have a loyal enough fan base, all you need to give them is plausible deniability, and they'll still love you.

E: Yes they will. But not here. We'll call them out on it.

Your Deceptive Mind (36:02)[edit]

Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills

S: Let's move on. One more quick news item. This is a completely shameless plug for my next course for The Teaching Company. For those of you who are not aware, a couple of years ago, I produced a course for The Teaching Company. They have a series called The Great Courses, where they're essentially college-level courses; 12, 24, 36 or whatever 30-minute lectures, audio and video. I did one on "Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us". If you haven't seen that, check it out, and I'll have the link for this in the show notes as well as from my blog. And since then, they asked me to do a second course which is coming out March 2nd. So it will be out by the time this podcast is up. And that one is on... essentially, it's on skepticism. The title is "Your Deceptive Brain", and it's all about how—it's essentially the neuroscientific view of critical thinking. So in the first part of the course, I go over all the ways in which our brains are flawed and how our brains construct reality. That what we think of as the objective world around us is just this narrative that our brains construct for us—

E: Thank you, brain.

S: —that is flawed in many ways, based upon filtered perception, on lots of assumptions—

J: My brain's not flawed, it's reality's fault.

E: That's right, the world revolves—the universe revolves around you, Jay.

S: Right, and then we take all of that flawed perception and our flawed model of reality, and then we filter that through our hopes and desires and biases and everything. And lots of stuff that we talk about on this show. Then, of course, on the other end, I talk about how to use critical thinking skills in order to overcome and compensate for all of these flaws and biases. I go through it very systematically. There's a lot of material in there that I've never discussed on the SGU, so even if you're someone who's listened to a lot of episodes of the show, there's definitely new material there. The process that The Teaching Company goes through is very good; you know, I'm very impressed with the editing, and they really work with you to develop the material so that it's really the best version of your lectures that they could be. So, please check it out. I understand they make wonderful gifts. (laughs) If there's that person in your life that you would like to be more skeptical—

R: Subtle.

S: —this would be a really good introduction—not subtle at all; a shameless plug, totally shameless plug.


S: Honestly, I think it would be a very good introduction to why we are skeptics. It pretty much lays it out from beginning to end. You know, it's 24 30-minute lectures. You come out the other end of that, it's hard—in my opinion, it'd be hard to really absorb that information and not be even a little bit more skeptical.

E: Are you saying you don't get too technical? You don't, you know, get bogged down in the jargon of neurology and so much, Steve?

S: Oh no, it's definitely meant to be accessible; I assume no prior knowledge; no technical knowledge on the part of the listener, or viewer—it's both audio and video. And... I'm not talking to skeptics, I'm talking to a general audience; somebody, people I assume—I start from the beginning and I go through it systematically assuming no prior knowledge. I encourage you to check it out.

J: Where can they get it, Steve?

S: I will have the links to—if you look up The Great Courses and Steven Novella, you will find it. My two courses, "Medical Myths" and now "Your Deceptive Brain", but I'll have the links on the show notes, and on my NeuroLogica blog.

Interview with Gordon Maupin (39:56)[edit]


S: Joining us now is Gordon Maupin. Gordon, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

GM: Thanks. It's a pleasure to be here.

S: And Gordon, you are the director of the Wilderness Center, which is in—is that in Oklahoma?

GM: No, no, I worked in Oklahoma once; it's in Ohio.

S: OK, in Ohio, which is a nature centre and conservancy. And you are interested in the issue of fracking, which is the topic that we're going to be interviewing you about. So, why don't you just start off by telling us what your connection is with this issue of fracking, and what is fracking. Let's get our listeners up to speed on what we're talking about.

GM: OK, well, I'm interested in it only because it was thrust on me; this is not something I went out and looked for, believe me. But fracking is a technique for extracting natural gas and oil and other hydrocarbons from shale. And it's become quite controversial in a lot of areas of the country; there's a lot of it out there; there's big money on the line, and there are issues with it and it's one of these things, in a policy sense, that the country has to get right, and I certainly hope they do.

S: So—I can go over it, or you can go over it, but just technically, what fracking involves is injecting under high pressure some kind of a hydraulic fluid, which is mostly water, but there's other stuff in there, and that essentially extends, or increases the natural fissures or cracks in the rocks, allowing channels for the hydrocarbons to flow through.

GM: That's exactly right. They've been fracking on vertical wells for a long, long time, you know, 40-plus years. With, you know, success; I mean, it opens up the fissures and allows the gas to flow to the well-head much better. What has become the big issue with a lot of controversy is when they go deep into the shale formations, and then turn horizontal, because the economics of getting the gas from the shale is you've got to have a much longer contact with the formation that has the hydrocarbons so that you can get enough out of there to make it economical. And so they drill vertically, then turn horizontally, and go horizontally for up to 2 miles.

J: Wow.

GM: You know, it's a complicated technology, but then they essentially put usually water down at very, very, very high pressure to force open existing cracks in the shale. And in that water is what they call a proppant—it's often sand—that holds the cracks open when the pressure is released, and allows the gas to flow out. Obviously, there's a whole lot more to it than that.

J: How long have they been fracking?

GM: Well, they have been fracking—you know, one of the big things you hear about fracking from the industry side is "oh, we've been doing it for 40 years; there's nothing new about this". And that is a true statement. I don't dispute that, but I would also say it is equally a true statement to say that a rowboat and an aircraft carrier are both water craft.

S: (agreeing) mm-hmm.

GM: The horizontal fracking involves orders of magnitude more water, more pressure; you know, more opportunities for things to go wrong.

S: Why is fracking so controversial now? What are the environmental issues? And can you speak also to what science do we have to inform us as to how safe or unsafe is this procedure?

GM: Boy, you know, that's where the crux of it all comes, when you say "what science do we have?". You know, it's a relatively new technology. The issues, aside from burning more fossil fuels and, you know, putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, aside from that, water pollution is a big concern. Both ground water and surface water. The migration of frack water back to the surface, or communication of fracked wells with other wells or with the surface.

J: But Gordon, to get specific just on that one point: Are we concerned about chemicals that are used for fracking? Or is it just oily water that we're worried about?

GM: Essentially they're all stirred up together. The chemicals—I actually worry less about the chemicals that are used in fracking. A lot of noise is made about those chemicals, and what they are, and some of the companies' proprietary interests in not disclosing what their particular formula is. I actually worry a little bit less about some of those chemicals than I worry about the—what they call the produced water, which is after it's fracked, you have all the hydrocarbons coming up, which of course is what they're after. But, you know, those are pretty nasty sometimes. You know, all the hydrocarbons you get associated with petroleum, and that sort of thing, you know, benzene and toluene and that sort of stuff that comes back up. The frack chemicals they put down are fairly dilute, and a lot of them are commonly used chemicals for a lot of processes that we have a fair amount of experience with. That's not to say that they should be treated cavalierly... and one of the big issues is the water that is used, both the water that they put down, but equally important, or even more importantly, is the water that comes back up after they release the pressure. You get what they call produced water. Does that answer your question, there, Jay?

J: Yeah, it does. I guess, to clarify though... 'cause I was one of the people that thought the chemicals they used were the big secret and—you know, you were saying that their proprietary chemicals are famously known to be bad, but maybe that's not the issue; it's just there's a preponderance of water that comes out that's spoiled.

GM: Well, there's a lot of water that comes out, and then they have to do something with that water. You know, dumping it into a river or a lake or something like that is not acceptable. You know, then there's "well, what do you do with all this water?". Well, then there's injection wells; there are treatment systems for it, but it does become a problem. They temporarily store it in either tanks, which is the preferred option, or in open pits, which is not the preferred option. And if it's stored in these pits, there's a chance for the pits to overflow; there's a chance for the temporary piping that runs to the pits to leak; there's a chance for the pits themselves to leak. You know, with bad practices, that becomes risky.

R: Is it those leaks that are causing the problems with residents' ground water? Because it seems to be a major issue is people turning on their taps and having something horrible come out. Is that due to leaks from the wells holding that excess water?

GM: This is where it gets difficult, Rebecca. I mean, it really gets difficult to know where the factual information is. I don't want to shock you or anything, but sometimes there's things on the Internet that aren't 100% true.


R: (jokingly) What?

B: Come on.

J: Don't even joke around, man.

R: It's where we live, OK?

GM: And sometimes industry or environmentalists will produce movies and videos that aren't exactly 100% true as well. And so, there's a risk involved in this. When they drill the hole, the critical part of drilling one of these holes is the vertical section. And they drill this hole down over a mile underground. And after they drill it, then down through the aquifers, where ground water and surface water are going to be involved... well, the whole thing actually; they case it with steel. Well, the steel is not strong enough to hold the pressure that they put on these wells in order to force the rock apart a mile underground, and so then around the steel they put concrete, and the steel and the concrete together are not strong enough to support this pressure. The steel, the concrete, then that concrete has to bond to the steel, and has to bond to the bedrock in order for you to have something that's strong enough to hold all this pressure. And so, herein is an area where human failings, the vagaries of nature, the problems in the rock formation that you're drilling through, things that are unexpected can go wrong sometimes. And there's chances going wrong if best practices are not strictly adhered to; if people get in too big of a hurry; if things look like they're wrong and they just try to chance it out. And so when they put this high pressure on there, then it can break and if it breaks in the wrong place, then chemicals and frack water and produced water can then all spread horizontally into aquifers. Now, the industry will tell you this never happens. Environmentalists will have you think it happens with every single well. The truth is somewhere in between. It doesn't happen with every single well, but there have been significant incidences of contamination.

S: So I just tried to look into the literature myself, just to answer one question, and that is: is there evidence to show that fracking results in the contamination of ground water—the kind of water that eventually could end up in people's wells or in their homes. And I really couldn't find a definitive answer. It seems like there are a lot of studies which show that... for example, just to read you a few of the titles: "Hydraulic fracturing not responsible for methane migration", "methane contamination of drinking water caused by hydraulic fracturing remains unproven", and multiple studies with essentially the conclusion that we don't have the evidence right now to conclude that this is actually leading to water contamination. Although there are some studies which show, or at least purport to show, that there is evidence, at least in certain situations, where that is occurring; where wells, for example, are contaminated with methane, and the concentration of methane is proportional to their distance from a nearby well that's being fracked. So there seems to be conflicting evidence for this out there. The EPA essentially has said that—they link to a study saying that right now it seems that this is safe, and this was specifically looking at hydraulic fracturing of coal bed methane, which seems to be one of the concerns because it's closer to the surface. And that showed that it was safe. But the EPA is saying that they are in the middle of a big study looking into this question, as if "we really don't know the answer", and so it's just up in the air until at least, you know, the next bit of information we'll get will be the EPA completing this study. So, have you looked at the research? Do you get the same sense that I do, or what do you think about that?

GM: Steve, I largely get the same sense that you get, and... is that... if there is contamination of wells and ground water and that sort of stuff from these, you know, hydraulically fracked wells with the horizontal drilling and everything. If it does occur, it certainly does not occur with every single drilling incident. It gets complicated, like all this stuff does; it gets terribly, terribly complicated when you're dealing with individual wells, and the different geology and different places. One of the issues is, especially in our area in Ohio, they've been drilling for oil and gas at different formations for over a hundred years, and there's—in the early years there was very little regulation, and all around Ohio, holes have been poked in the ground that have not been properly plugged. And so it's possible, if things go wrong and the whole fracturing process—things happen that aren't foreseeable—that, deep down at some level below this really strong casing, that things will move and do what they call communicate with an old well hole that maybe no one even knew was there, and then suddenly the stuff is moving up through an uncased well. There have been cases of that happening in places. It certainly doesn't happen with every single well, as some people would have you believe, but it certainly doesn't never happen either. So it can happen, and it's going to depend on site-by-site things. The studies on particularly the methane contamination, where you have people that hold a match in front of their faucet and it flames—again, it gets very, very complicated because methane occurs naturally lots and lots of places—

S: Yeah.

GM: —and under lots and lots of circumstances. Essentially, when anything organic decomposes anaerobically, it's gonna produce methane. It gets very difficult to find that smoking gun. They actually have to look at isotopic ratios and everything to get the—no pun intended—the smoking gun of the flaming faucet. There's been cases where it's been—people have claimed that their flaming faucet is the result of fracking nearby, and it hasn't been borne out, but the people are not willing to accept that finding. You know, it's the same old, same old, with any controversy involving very complicated science.

S: Is the industry essentially saying "well, it's not that fracking is causing methane, it's just that there's methane where we're fracking, but that's why we're going there, because that's where the methane is"?

GM: Well, they're saying that, and probably in the majority of cases they're perfectly right. You know, because there's—methane is pervasive at some level, just anywhere where you have—when you see a bubble come up in a swamp, it's methane most of the time.

S: Yeah. Do you think that the EPA, in general, is being reasonable over this issue, or do you think they're under, like, political pressure to maybe downplay the risks? Or do you accept their assessment?

GM: There's always political pressure on something like this, especially when the stakes, the financial stakes are very, very high. So, I—you know, I would not discount the political pressure. I would like to think that the EPA is looking at it pretty hard. I don't think the science is complete yet. Of course, science is never really totally complete ever. And I think support for continued research and monitoring is essential.

J: Gordon, before, you were talking about regulation. And then that makes me think that there are people that are going to benefit from having little or no regulation.

GM: The states do most of the regulation. We're fortunate in Ohio in that we have a long history of oil and gas production—a long checkered history—and our regulatory situation isn't as bad. There are other states where this technology is new; they don't have a history of oil and gas, and they're scrambling. They—you know, they don't know what to do in the regulatory environment. I would say it is clearly not the time for any state to relax regulation. And it's probably very wise for a state to say "hold on; wait, we shouldn't be doing this until we have a solid regulatory system set up". That's the answer as far as regulation goes; it's state-by-state; it needs to be done; no state should be relaxing regulation, they should be stepping it up and doing whatever they can to ensure best practices when these wells are drilled. Because, regardless of what anybody claims, they are not risk-free; there is a strong element of risk. You know, if you just read the black and white things you're liable to see on the Internet, or in propaganda, or whatever, you're going to—depending on what side you're on, you're going to think that the industry people all have two-horns and a tail, or the environmentalists are all out to make us live in mud huts without lights and electricity. That's not the case. The industry people, they don't get up in the morning thinking "what can I do to go pollute the world?". The environmentalists don't wake up in the morning saying "what can I do to block any progress?". It gets to be complicated. Interestingly enough, I've learned more talking with industry people that are engineers, that work in drilling this stuff. Those guys, they generally want to do the right thing. The environmentalists, on their side, you know, they want to do the right thing too, which is to make sure that if we have to produce this stuff, it's produced in as safe a manner as possible.

So, to point at a bad guy, I would say the PR machines, I think, are probably bad guys because they distort, distort, distort from both directions. I would say the politician that takes the very short-term view of this, and the people that are just in it for money. A whole aspect we haven't even talked about yet is the legal side. Which is what was the reality check for me, is with old leases on our lands from the 1960s. We have virtually no say over what the oil and gas companies come on our land to do. And so, you know, we have had to try to come up with a very strong defensive strategy to make sure that things that happen on our land are not done in a way that we really don't wanna see happen.

S: Yeah, it's an interesting issue. Again, I think we cover a lot of issues where it is hard—the science is a little ambiguous, or maybe it's a lot ambiguous, but there seems to be a lot more misinformation on both sides because it's a political issue, and you just wanna say "can't we just see what the evidence shows and make a reasonable decision here?". But I guess it's not the way people operate; we're political animals and ideological animals.

GM: Well, what I would say is, since I've spoken in a way that's likely to offend both environmentalists and industry guys, I bet your message boards are going to really light up on this one.


R: Yeah, we'll forward you all the angry emails.

GM: Oh, you don't have to do that.

S: I find, though, when you piss off both sides, you probably have a reasonable position.

GM: (laughs)

R: Yeah.

GM: Well, let's hope!

B: Yeah, I agree with that.


S: All right; thanks a lot, Gordon; we appreciate it

E,B,J&R: Thanks Gordon.

GM: Bye-bye.

NECSS advert (1:00:04)[edit]

Jamy Ian Swiss: Come to NECSS! N-E-C-S-S, the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism. This is Jamy Ian Swiss, and I'll be your on-stage host Saturday and Sunday, April 21st and 22nd in New York City, at NECSS, where you'll meet smart science-minded folks just like yourself: Scientists, skeptics, journalists, raconteurs and more. NECSS means connection, and you'll connect with some familiar names and some new ones, but none you'll soon forget, and you'll also share the same air as the amazing skeptic himself, James Randi! All that and a little magic too, courtesy of yours truly, the Honest Liar. So come join us at the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism, April 21st and 22nd in New York City, and help make a little more sense of your world. Register now at NECSS! At the crossroads of science and skepticism.

Who's That Noisy? (1:00:52)[edit]

S: Evan!

E: Hey, Steve.

S: It's time for Who's That Noisy, and we have a couple of weeks to get caught up on.

E: It is; yes. Yes. We played for you the noisy from two weeks ago, and we announced that it was, in fact, the ice sheets on the Black Sea that were all sloshing around and crunching up against each other and making horrific noises. And the—but we said we would announce this week who guessed correctly first, and that was a listener by the name of Tamarillicent.

B: Cool.

E: From the message boards. I like that name.

B: It's a cool name.

E: Tamarillicent, very very cool; very clever. So they guessed first correctly, that that's exactly was that it was. So congratulations. That was from episode 344. Last week's episode, episode 345; let's go ahead and play that noisy:

That the best way to communicate an idea is to tell a story about it

E: Do you guys remember that voice? You should, because we interviewed this person, and I took that clip specifically from that interview.

J: (pensively) Ah...

B: Ooh.

E: Peter Sagal.

J: Oh yeah, Peter.

R: Ah.

E: Host of National Public Radio game show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me

R: Based on "Science or Fiction"; little-known fact.

S: That's right. He stole that idea from me five years before I ever had it.

E: Totally. totally. What a rip. He's also— he's also a playwright, a screenwriter; he's an actor and he's credited as co-writer of the movie Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights; that's a little thing I didn't know.

R: (surprised) What?

E: (laughs) That's what it says!

R: Huh. Good for him.

E: Also from the message boards, Splchief, in their very first posting to our message boards guessed correctly. Peter Sagal.

S: Good job.

E: So well done; congratulations. Are you ready to hear this week's?

S: I am.

E: We are looking for a theme this week. I'm going to play for you three very, very short clips. You might be able to guess on your own what they are, but we're looking for the theme. What do these three noisies have in common? And here they are:

(three strange noisies approximating a humming, scratching and screeching)

E: Hmm.

S: Interesting.

E: So once again, we're looking for the theme of those noisies. What do they have in common? Give it your best guess, and of course, good luck to everybody.

S; All right. Thanks Evan. Let's go on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:03:26)[edit]


S: Each week, I come up with three science or news items or facts, two real and one fictitious, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week; the theme is dinosaurs. So all three are dinosaur-related news items.

E: Rargh.

S: And here we go.

R: I like dinosaurs, but everything I know about them is fiction.

J: (laughs) It's all movie stuff.

S: OK.

R: Tyrannosaurus rex died out because it couldn't brush its teeth.

J: (laughs)

R: Tiny arms.

E: Really? Wow.

S: All right. Here we go.

R: That's all I got

S: Item #1: An analysis of Triceratops and Torosaurus skulls indicates that they were indeed two separate species, not young and adult forms of one species, as some paleontologists have suggested. Item #2: A new analysis concludes that T. rex had the strongest bite of any animal to have ever lived on the Earth. And item #3: A new species of dinosaur, Spinops, a cousin to Triceratops, was recently described and named in the literature, 95 years after the fossils were first discovered. Evan, your turn to go first.

E: So, Triceratops and Torosaurus skulls indicates that they were indeed two separate species. Boy, Steve, I remember we've talked about this before. A couple of years ago we went to the Peabody museum, and this particular topic came up. I don't quite exactly (chuckles) remember all the details that we spoke about that day, but it was definitely Triceratops and Torosaurus; I know that. Do you remember, Steve?

S: Oh yeah.

E: So this—I know this is—this particular topic interests you; I mean, dinosaurs always do, but specifically the Triceratops and Torosaurus I know you've talked about it before as an example.

S: I'll say, we in fact discussed this topic on the show and interviewed a paleontologist about it.[link needed]

E: So, I'm gonna—I'm leaning that that one is science. Because I think you do a good job keeping up to date with that, and I think it's a cool little, interesting further tidbit on the topic itself. T. rex had the strongest bite of any animal to have ever lived on Earth. So, yeah, they could do testing in some ways, I'm sure, to measure what the bite—the force behind the bite of extinct species are. I don't doubt that. My problem here is "of any animal to have ever lived on the Earth"; that's a big range of animals. If you think of the number of animals there have ever been that we know of. But the last one, the new species, Sss-Spinops—am I, Spinops? Am I saying that correctly? Why not? I don't see anything wrong with that. It's cool that they're able to do that—make that more accurate analysis of it, but I think, just because it's "95 years after the fossils were first discovered", I don't think that's a big deal at all. So "T. rex and the strongest bite of any animal"; I'm saying that one's the fiction.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: Yeah, that's the one I was leaning towards as well. Mostly because before I knew—heard what the options were, I was already thinking about T. rexes and teeth. So, there's something to that.

J: Coincidence? I don't think so

R: I don't—yeah, I don't believe in coincidences, OK? That leaves me with... the other two. That's pretty much all I have to go on. Yeah, I agree with Evan. The problem with that is, whether or not... not that, you know, it has a very strong bite; I'm sure it does, and I'm sure that scientists can conclude that, looking at possible musculature and size of the teeth and all that. But yeah, "to have ever lived on the Earth" is a huge claim that I'm not sure is supported. Triceratops and Torosaurus. Yeah, I suppose that could happen, because as far as I know—we talked about this before, about them being a young and adult form of the same species, but at the time, I don't think that was a conclusion; I think that was a theory; it was a hypothesis that had been put forward, and it's, as far as I know, it was still up in the air. So, that one, I can believe that. Spinops, "described and named in the literature 95 years after the fossils were first discovered". A good friend of mine showed me around her museum, the Natural History Museum in London. We looked at all of the specimens they have in their back rooms, and they have so much stuff that they haven't even got around to cataloguing it all. And there's recently a huge discovery; I think at that museum, of Darwin's specimens, or something, that nobody realized were just lying around. So I totally believe that there was a dinosaur—a new species of dinosaur—that was just sitting there for almost a century, waiting for somebody on their lunch break to be like "what's that?". So that one is—I'm pretty sure that one is science, so that leaves me with the other two. I'm gonna go with the—with the T.rex one, and my thinking is the same as Evan. You know, stronger than every animal to have ever lived on Earth is a huge claim, and I don't think it's supported.

S: OK. Bob?

B: OK, the Triceratops and Torosaurus skulls'. Yeah, I think it wasn't a real firm conclusion when that came out in the news, so I can definitely see somebody taking a close look and saying "yeah, well, no; it actually is 2 different species". The second one though, Steve, is ambiguous. When you say "to have ever lived on Earth", do you mean on land and water? Or do you just mean land?

S: Land and water.

B: Land and water.

S: Not terrestrial, just of any animal to have lived.

B: That's decisive for me because I could actually see a T.rex having the strongest bite of any land animal. I mean, the thing was truly huge. Land and water? That's where I think the downfall of that one is. So therefore the third one; yeah, I totally agree the dinosaur that they found almost a century later and identified; yeah, I've heard of examples, not this one specifically, but I have heard of other examples of new species found decades after it was just kind of like dug up and stuck in a drawer and nobody looked at it. So if you're including land and water for T. rex, right?

S: (in agreement) Mm-hmm

B: Then I'm going to say that that one is false.

S: OK. Jay?

J: I've been thinking about that one since the beginning, and to say that, first of all, even stronger than a shark? A great white? But at the same time, the T. rex was, in my recollection of dinosaurs, T. rex is as badass as you can get. Going to the first one about Triceratops and Torosaurus, I don't know; everything I've read about them has said they were the adult and child versions of the same species, and that's a pretty big turn-around. And then finally last one; the one about the new species of dinosaur, the Spinops. This is really difficult. I'll go with the one about the adult and child dinosaurs being separate as the fake.

S: So you all agree that "A new species of dinosaur, Spinops, a cousin to Triceratops, was recently described and named in the literature, 95 years after the fossils were first discovered". You all think that one is science, and that one is... science.

R&J: Yaaay!

S: And you guys hit on it. I mean, especially Rebecca; you're absolute correct. There's lots of fossils sitting in museum drawers; too many to be catalogued, let alone fully described. You could, you know, spend your career digging around in museums rather than digging around in the ground, and describe all kinds of new species. This is one where the fossils were discovered 95 years ago, and they were first described in a recent paper. A cool-looking creature; looks like a Triceratops, the same basic body type; four-legged herbivore; kind of a beaked mouth; a frill with horns. This has one horn on its nose; it has two horns going back from its frill, and then two hooks going forward from its frill. Which is a unique structure that hasn't been seen on any previous dinosaur before, these sort of forward-facing frill hooks. Not sure what they were all about, but cool. Let's go to number one: An analysis of Triceratops and Torosaurus skulls indicates that they were indeed two separate species, not young and adult forms of one species. Jay, you think this one is the fiction; the rest of you think this one is science, and this one is... science.

B: Yay!

R: Hooray!

E: Yeah.

S: This has been a controversy. There are those who said "No, listen, the Torosaurus is a big Triceratops", and others have said "Nope, they're just different species". The question is how much change would, or could, the horns and the frill, whatever; how much change, morphological change, can it undergo as part of getting older? Torosaurus is not just a big Triceratops; there are some differences in the bony structures. So, with some paleontologists saying "hey, there are examples in dinosaurs of really significant changes happening as part of the maturing process; this would be nothing new". But what the recent analysis shows—they looked at the sutures in the skulls of Triceratops and Torosaurus, and they found that, of the specimens analyzed, they found evidence that some Torosaurus skulls were immature, and some Triceratops skulls were adult. So that's incompatible with the notion that Triceratops are all immature and Torosaurus are all adult. So that seems to destroy the notion that they're both the same species. This was done by Nicholas Longrich at Yale, my university. And that's, Evan, as you say, they own the Peabody, they own the Torosaurus specimen there, and definitely been on the side of these are two different species; Torosaurus is its own species. So it's not surprising that it's coming from that camp, but still, if the analysis holds up to peer review, it seems that that would pretty much end that particular controversy, but we'll see. We'll see what the other side has to say.

R: Go team Torosaurus!


S&B: Which means—

S: —that "A new analysis concludes that T. rex had the strongest bite of any animal to have ever lived on the Earth" is fiction.

B: Yay!

S: Now, did any of you guys see this headline?

E: Nope, I did not.

R: No.

B: No.

S: Oh damn. I was hoping to get you all on the headline! All right. So there was an—this was—the whole basis of my strategy this week was that there was a—


S: There was a BBC article on this news item with a big picture of a T. rex on it. Come on.

E: (laughs) How did we miss that?

S: And they got it wrong! The story was wrong; I love that, 'cause then if you read that story—

R: You know, Steve...

S: —you'd get Science or Fiction wrong! (laughs)

R: You shouldn't love that science reporting just because you might score imaginary Internet points during your Science or Fiction game.

S: Yet, strangely, I do.


E: We're not so strange.

S: So they didn't qualify it; they just said the strongest bite ever, and then—but I always read around; check it out, 'cause that struck me as, like, "really? Really, of any animal ever? There are some other, some pretty big predators out there."

R: You're like the comic book guy at the front of the—


R: The, you know, William Shatner's on stage (using comic book guy voice) "well, what in about episode 235..."

S: Hey, I had the same reaction Bob just did. So I checked it out. And in fact we reported... a year ago or so, on Megalodon. You guys remember that guy?

R: Yes.

J: Yeah.

B: Yes.

E: Oh yes.

S: And he was supposed to have the biggest bite ever.

E: Right.

R: That's right.

S: So I checked, and, yeah, that guy has a bigger bite in terms of force—I had to do a conversion, because one article gave it in newtons, and the other article gave it in tons.

R: Newtons!

S: But when you do the conversion, the Megalodon has a—which is a shark ancestor—has a bite force of between 10.8 and 18.2 tons, and the new estimate of the T. rex bite force raises it from previous estimates of about 3 tons to now about 5.8-6 tons, so still only a third of Megalodon.

E: Jeez.

R: Go team Megalodon!


S: Now, I've read other reports of the same news story, and they said that T. rex has the most powerful bite of any living or extinct terrestrial animal. They did qualify. So, good job, everyone but Jay, and Jay, do you have a quote for us this week?

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:20)[edit]

J: This is a quote sent by Michael Acres, and this is a quote from French author (with American pronunciation) Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant.

E: (laughs) I love it!

B: Whoa.

R: I thought it was "gee".

E: I thought it was "onri".

R: And "onri".

J: Whatever.

S: "Gee onri"!


J: (shouting) This is my quote! My thing; I'm saying it the way I want.

E: Jay, I do have to—I do that as well. Love it.

J: I Americanize everything. I'm American!. The quote is:

How weak our mind is; how quickly it is terrified and unbalanced as soon as we are confronted with a small, incomprehensible fact. Instead of dismissing the problem with: "We do not understand because we cannot find the cause," we immediately imagine terrible mysteries and supernatural powers.


R: And "albear".

E: And his orchestra! (chuckles)

J: That's actually from the book "Le Horla".

S: Thank you, Jay. Jay, do you have an announcement this week?

Announcements (1:18:18)[edit]

J: So, Steve, as you would know, we're having NECSS this year April 21 and 22. I think we mentioned once before on the show that we're actually supporting a NECSS student sponsorship program, and we're looking for applicants. You need to get them in quickly, because the deadline is coming up very soon. The applicants must be between 16 and 24 years of age, and they must attend high school, college or graduate school. So for more information to find out if you qualify, and what you need to do in order to apply, go to

S: All right. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

J: Thanks Steve. Science or Fiction sucked.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Thanks, doctor.

J: See you next week!


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

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

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • There are 365.2422222 days in a year.
  • Sweden had a February 30th in 1712.
  • The Earth rotates on its axis 366 times in one year.
  • Europe's oldest natural human mummy, Oetzi the Iceman, lived about 5,300 years ago and is the first documented case of the Lyme disease bacterium.
  • Oetzi the Iceman's ancestors were likely to have migrated from the Middle East, however, analysis shows he is more closely related to modern inhabitants of Corsica or Sardinia
  • Analysis of the sutures in skulls of Triceratops and Torosaurus fossils indicates that they were indeed two separate species, not young and adult forms of one species as some paleontologists have suggested. (EurekAlert article)
  • A new analysis concludes that T. rex had the strongest bite of any terrestrial animal to have ever lived on the Earth. (BBC article)
  • A new species of dinosaur, Spinops, a cousin to Triceratops, was recently described and named in the literature - 95 years after the fossils were first discovered.(ScienceDaily article)
  • The Megalodon, a shark ancestor, has a bite force between 10.8 and 18.2 tons.
  • New estimates of the T. rex bite force raises it from about 3 tons to about 5.8-6 tons.


Navi-previous.png Back to top of page Navi-next.png