SGU Episode 347

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SGU Episode 347
10th March 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 346                      SGU 348

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


SS: Scott Sigler

Quote of the Week

You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.

Captain James T. Kirk

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Thursday, March 8th 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: My skeptical friends, how are you?

S: We are fine

R: Good!

This Day in Skepticism (0:31)[edit]

R: Guess what today is?

J: 'I'm just a guy' day

R: Every day is 'I'm just a guy' day. No, on today, the day that this will go out, March 10th, in 1797, Thomas Jefferson presented a paper on the megalonyx to the American Philosophical Society. The paper was called "A Memoir on the Discovery of Certain Bones of a Quadruped of the Clawed Kind in the Western Parts of Virginia".[1] Not really a short title but-

S: Pithy

E: Doesn't really roll off the tongue exactly

R: No. It was one of the first, if not the first archeological paper presented in the US

E: Really?

R: By Thomas Jefferson

S: Yeah, some people give Jefferson credit for beginning paleontology in the United States.

R: Paleontology is what I meant to say. I said archeological (laughs)

S: See

E: Oh gosh

S: It's an easy mistake to make, vertebrate paleontology, I should say vertebrate paleontology.

R: Yeah, and he was vice-President at the time that he presented the paper. So, just imagine today's vice-President giving a paper at a scientific conference

S: Well, Al Gore invented the internet, Rebecca, and he was vice-President

R: That's true, yeah, we do still. We have politicians that are interested in the sciences. But there aren't very many out there that are actual scientists. So it's nice to remember that, once upon a time, there was a real serious, scientist President.

S: Do you know what megalonyx means?

R: Yes, I do, it means "big claw"and Jefferson thought that it was a lion, and, in fact, he thought it was a lion that still existed because Jefferson, like many people at the time, did not believe in the new-fangled theory of evolution. Specifically, he didn't believe that any species had ever gone extinct. And so to prove that, he was sure that the megalonyx would eventually be found living. And when Lewis and Clark went out on their expedition he asked them to keep an eye out for what he thought was this giant, clawed lion. Of course they did not find it, because it had long been extinct. and it was in fact a giant sloth, which is probably the most fearsome sloth that has ever lived, which isn't saying much. No, it wasn't even big by giant sloth standards, it was about a medium-sized giant sloth. But it apparently lived all over the US, and in 1822, well in 1799 Dr Caspar Wistar is the person who identified the remains as being from a giant sloth. And in 1822, he proposed naming it megalonyx jeffersonii, in honor of Jefferson. Who was wrong, about the extinction thing. and the lion thing.

S: He was wrong, yeah he believed in this 'completeness of nature' notion which is, I guess, that nature is complete. You know, it's just one cohesive fabric that all fits together intricately, and is static. Which kind of just went along with the view of the universe at the time, you know. People thought that the universe was static, that the world was static, and that nature was static. Very different to the view that we have today, which is very much evolutionary, that is almost a complete paradigm shift that has occurred in the way that we think of nature.

R: Yep

S: Very cool

News Items[edit]

Robot Cheetah (4:16)[edit]

BBC News: Robotic cheetah 'breaks speed record for legged robots'

S: Right, well let's move on to some news items, Bob, you're going to tell us about the robot cheetah

B: A few years ago, I remember seeing a CG ad in a magazine featuring this incredible robot cheetah, it was probably one of the coolest robot designs I had ever seen. But it seems now that such a beast is closer to reality than I actually thought. Researchers have now created a robot inspired by cheetahs, that is the fastest land robot ever, running at 18mph, or, for those metrically inclined, 29km/h. If you see the video, it's really cool, it actually seems like it's running much faster than 18mph. What's one of the unusual things about about the robot itself is that there is no real legs, the legs are kind of, they taper down to these points, it's kind of running on the back edge of these pointy legs. So it looks a bit unusual, not terribly cheetah like. But the people behind this future quadruped terminator, are DARPA, we've talked about them many times - the US government's advanced research agency, and one of my favorite companies, Boston Dynamics in Waltham, Massachusetts. I'm sure you guys have heard of them, we've talked about them a couple of times. They have developed two incredible robots, one of them is BigDog, which is now- they've created a bigger cousin of him called AlphaDog, and this one is the best, it's incredible, it can carry 400 lbs of military gear, it can climb 35&deg slopes. And the cool thing about this robot that Boston Dynamics makes, is that it can balance itself so well, that it looks actually animal-like as it does it, on slippery ice, or you could even- you have these guys running up and kicking it, and it moves it's leg in such a way that it maintains it's balance (youTube video). The first time I saw the video of that robot, I literally giggled like a little girl, it's soo amazing, and so lifelike.

S: (teasing) like a little girl


J: Wait a minute, Bob, seriously, you watched the robot and you were like (giggles like a little girl)


B: Well, I wouldn't say giggle, when I see something really cool like that, that takes my breath away, I wouldn't say I giggled, I let out an involuntary laugh, whatever (laughs). So, and more recently, they came out with PETMAN (youTube video) which is this bipedal, headless human-like robot that's designed like a soldier, so they can test military clothing and gear - or so they claim. But this latest bio-inspired robot is primarily designed to run really fast. And if you wanna be inspired by a fast land animal, there's obviously nothing better than a cheetah. Can you guys guess what primary feature they copied from the cheetah to help them achieve it's speed?

R: Spots.

E: It's skin?

J: It's shape?

S: It's flexible spine?

B: Yeah, very good, it's the flexible spine. If you watch a video of a cheetah running at top speed in slow motion, it's really dramatic. You can clearly see that its spine flexes to a tremendous degree. And by flexing it's spine with each step, it increases both it's stride and it's speed. And the spine also acts like a spring for the back legs, that's one of the key components that helps it run as fast as, what, 60 or 70mph. And this is exactly what the robot cheetah does. It's flexible spine helps it run faster than the average human. Now, of course, top athletes still run much faster, I think the fastest a human's been clocked at is about 28mph, so about 10mph faster, but really, how long could it be until no human could ever catch this thing in a race. I was trying to think what are they really going to use this thing for? What they're saying, is that they're trying to design it so that it can run zig-zags and chase and evade, that's one of the big things they're working on. They also want to use this as a tool for emergency response, so maybe looking through disaster sites for survivors and things like that. I think they'd have to make kitten-sized ones for that. But other options include fire-fighting and advanced agriculture, even vehicular travel - which doesn't sound very comfortable to me, although it could be fun for a little while-

S: Well, like a horse, a robotic horse.

B: I guess.

S: That would be kinda neat.

B: But if the spine is going up and down as much as a cheetah, I'm not sure how comfortable that would be.

E: You could get a cheetah saddle

R: Yeah, He-man had one of those


E: Exactly

J: or springs, like shock absorbers

S: When he rode Cheetara, is that what you're saying?

J: (laughs) oh my god, you remember the name

E: 'Give me the power'

R: (laughs) I'm sorry, but can we talk more about the fact that Steve just referenced He-man/Cheetara slash-fiction. I'm pretty sure that's what just happened

S: Yeah

J: We watched all that as kids

R: You know that Cheetara is ThunderCats[1], right? She's the girl ThunderCats. So He-man riding Cheetara is a sexual image. God, you guys!

E: Wow

R: Don't make me spell it out

J: Oh my god, that's awesome

E: I wanted to strangle that little wizard thing, that thing was annoying as hell.

B: Oh my god, right? it was Wizzo or something, right?


R: Snarf? no, that was the ThunderCats guy

E: Yeah, the 'Twinky' of He-man, right?

J: Twinky was so bad!

B: Horrible.

E: Terrible.

R: I'm sorry

S: Anywho,

B: In case you're wondering, for the immediate future, there's plans for a mid-2012 field-test for this guy, free-running though. Because, in the video, you'll see that the thing has an arm that connects a power-supply, and things like that. But they're going to have a free-running one this year, maybe in a few months, so I'd love to see a video of that.

Kony 2012 (9:48)[edit]

Kony 2012 video

S: so, Rebecca, tell us about this Kony character

R: Yeah, this has sort of taken the internet by storm this week. A 30-minute video was published by the charity 'Invisible Children' which encouraged people to join together to campaign to bring Joseph Kony to justice. Now, Kony is the leader of the 'Lord's Resistance Army' , which is a Christian extremist rebel group who have claimed that their goal is to obtain a theocracy in Uganda, and they would base everything on the ten commandments. Which, yeah, sounds like a great idea. Unfortunately there are- I was just being ironic there, before we get some angry emails

E: There's 15 commandments.

R: (laughs) They don't do so well at actually following any of the commandments, even the good ones. They are most notable for their sheer brutality, and particularly for their use of child soldiers as the bulk of their ranks. The children are kidnapped, and the boys are brainwashed, and the girls are used as sex-slaves. The child soldiers are then used to conduct terrorist activities throughout Uganda, and the surrounding areas. And this has been happening for more than 25 years. So, enter 'Invisible Children', with a very slick campaign that quickly went viral on Twitter and Facebook. The video describes Kony's actions, and claims that 'Invisible Children's goal is to make Kony famous so that he can't hide any longer. It's a really beautifully edited video, and they direct people to donate money to their cause and spread awareness, you can write in and get a kit that includes some trendy bracelets, you know, one for you, and one to give to a friend to spread the word and more info on how you can participate. They call out several celebrities and politicians that you can pressure for awareness and to take action.

It caught on so quickly, that by the time I woke up yesterday morning, I had several emails from people asking me to watch and learn and donate. I did watch, but while I was really impressed, and also moved, I was a little put-off. Because the entire video was very split in terms of race. For instance, black people were either the victims of horrible atrocities, or the monster - Joseph Kony. And white people were universally the saviors, nearly every person in every image shown to be helping the cause was a white person. But I was willing to set that aside, with the understanding that maybe was maybe those whiffs of colonialism and the 'white man's burden' were just a side-effect of a campaign that was aimed at raising awareness amongst a group that otherwise might not care much about the African people. But I did a little digging, and as the day wore on, my research got easier and easier, because as the video gained steam online, so did an equal and opposite skeptical response. So, by the end of the day, there were articles in the mainstream press that were very critical of the Kony 2012 effort and a response from 'Invisible Children', and it had already gone back and forth several times, and it was actually quite impressive to see such an immediate skeptical reaction. That is to- I'll just state outright that I'm not talking about a cynical reaction, but a true skeptical reaction that was critically looking at the claims of 'Invisible Children'.

So, I'll give you a quick overview of some of the criticisms. One of what I feel are the lesser criticisms, is how 'Invisible Children' operates as a charity. There are some who feel that not enough funds go to actually helping the children who are affected by Kony, and there are a lot of people that feel that 'Invisible Children' isn't trustworthy. And they link to Charity Navigator, which is great for evaluating a lot of non-profits, but Charity Navigator gives them three out of four stars, which is pretty good. They give them two stars for accountability and transparency, but 'Invisible Children' answered that by saying that's because they only have four independent board members out of five, and they're currently interviewing for a fifth. 'Invisible Children' are also accused of exaggeration and fact manipulation. Though it's hard to see how you could exaggerate the crimes of Kony, or if you were able to, what problem that would possibly be. But they are accused of exaggerating his crimes, even though he is admittedly, objectively, a monster. But there are facts that the video really down-plays or misrepresents that are important. Like the fact that Kony isn't even in Uganda any more, and he hasn't been there for six years. And there's also the fact that the Lord's Resistance Army is comprised of a few hundred soldiers, not 30,000 child soldiers as the video represents. That number comes from the estimated number of abducted children over the past 30 years, not what they have currently.

A much more important criticism, I think, is that 'Invisible Children' created a film that was 30 minutes long, but they still didn't manage to fully articulate what they are asking their Western audience to do. To most people who are caught up in the excitement of the campaign, they're just helping bring a war criminal to justice. Which is an action that I think we can all agree is good. But it's also overly simplistic. Particularly because the tactics you need in order to bring a war criminal to justice are not simple at all. 'Invisible Children' aren't just asking people to be aware of Kony, their goal is to creat enough demand for Kony's capture, that the US government is pressured into acting. They're very clear that they want US intervention in Uganda, with US forces supporting the Ugandan military's efforts to capture Kony. And that's not necessarily a great thing. For instance, supporting the Ugandan military means supporting a group that has also been known to rape and kill indiscriminately. They're not necessarily 'good guys' in the way that the video represents. While Kony's soldiers were kidnapping children soldiers, the Ugandan government was forcing northern Ugandan people into concentration camps with horrific living conditions, and failing to provide adequate protection against Kony.

S: So they're trying to manipulate the media to get the the US to intervene on one side in what's essentially a civil war? is that what you're saying?

R: er, yeah. That is a good way to put it. In the video, they name Kony as the sole bad guy, and they completely fail to place him into any kind of context and call the Ugandan government into account, particularly the President, who is Yoweri Museveni. He hasn't stopped Kony, despite being in power for more than 25 years now, which happens to be exactly as long as Kony has been waging this war. So, will sending in US troops to work with the Ugandan military be a good thing? Who knows? The video also glosses over the fact that Obama already sent troops to Uganda to do that very thing. In 2008, the US Africa command attempted to find and assassinate Kony, at his base in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But that plan was a complete disaster, and they didn't even come close. Kony had already left that base, long before they even got there. That mission and others have only resulted in more deadly counter-strikes from the LRA, as well as multiple ruined peace-talks. Despite that, Obama pledged 100 more troops to the region last year, due mostly to advocacy efforts like 'Invisible Children'. So, what happens if those new US advisors still aren't able to capture Kony? Will the next action involve military strikes? And what happens if they find Kony and he's surrounded by children holding guns. Does the US fire on them? There's a lot of really hard questions that are completely avoided.

There's a lot more to this story, and I've skipped some completely valid criticisms of 'Invisible Children' in order to make this as short as possible. I know it's already super-long. But hopefully that gives you some idea of how complicated these issues are, and how overly-simplified 'Invisible Children' has made it in order to get American's excited about a continued military intervention. Which is remarkable really, they're getting a huge amount of support from people who probably didn't support US intervention in other recent cases, because they make it seem like we're watching a genocide happen, like in Rwanda, but that this time we can stop it. If we only send troops. And just to briefly conclude, I'll say that a few people have written in in the last day specifically asking if 'Invisible Children' is running a scam. So I want to be really clear here. I don't think that they're running a scam, in fact I 'm confident that they're not. I think that they really believe in what they're doing, and that they believe that military intervention is necessary to capture Kony and bring about some kind of peace. Whether or not that's true, I think is up to each of you to do the research, go beyond the video that you watch, actually find out what's been happening in Uganda and surrounding areas, and then decide yourself whether this is something you want to support.

S: Right, but first, you need to be skeptical about the simplistic story that's being circulated on the internet, but it sounds like the real information was there as well.

R: Yeah, and the nice thing is, it happened pretty quickly, you know, within the day, there were mainstream publications that were responding with what I thought were very well thought-out criticisms, not just knee-jerk, like "oh, slacktivism, kids getting excited". No, they were true criticisms that I think helped to put everything into context.

Neuroprosthetics (20:00)[edit]

NeuroLogica Blog: Natural Feeling Neuroprosthetics

S: Let's move on to another news item, we have a couple more left. This one involves neuroprosthetics. We talk a lot about the path of future technology, which of course we cannot predict. But one thing that I've been following closely, and blogging about frequently is brain-machine interfaces, the ability to have our brains actually communicate with a computer chip. Once we can accomplish that, once we can have this sort of two-way communication between the machine and the brain, that opens up a whole new technology paradigm where we can be controlling prosthetic devices and machines in our environment and everything directly with our thinking, where we could actually have telepathy where, if I have a computer in my head, and you have a computer in your head, then they can be communicating to each other wirelessly, well that's telepathy. But one question is, how well will our brains adapt to these neuroprosthetics? These brain-machine interfaces. That still is an open question, and there's a new bit of research that does illuminate this question a little bit, but before I get to that, just for a little more background.

The question is, what are the limits of neuroplasticity? Plasticity is the ability of the brain to re-wire itself in response to new tasks, new requirements, or healing from injury. If you have a stroke, for example, that damages one part of your brain, other parts of your brain, over months and years, can actually re-wire itself in order to take over for that lost function. It's never quite as good though. There are limits to the degree to which our brains can re-wire themselves. Those limits increase with age, as we get older, neuroplasticity doesn't go away entirely, but it does attenuate. Infants are much more able to compensate for, or repair, damage than older adults, for example. So let's say, if you get your hand cut off in a lightsaber accident, and reattach a new artificial robotic hand, would your brain be able to adapt to and feel that artificial limb as if it's natural. Would it feel like it's part of you. What are the limits of neural plasticity? or let's take it one step further, what if you attached an extra arm to your body. Would your brain be able to mold itself, and adapt to actually map to an additional limb, something that never existed before, and not just replacing a part of the body that was there before.

R: So, like a Doc-Oc situation

S: Yeah, right. Exactly, but without the artificial intelligence intervening. Could your brain directly control those extra limbs. The optimistic view is, yes, because of neuroplasticity. The pessimitics view is: yeah, but that plasticity is limited, and may never feel natural control, may never be complete, and that could ultimately be a limitation on any sort of brain-machine interface. The recent study was really interesting, it doesn't answer this question for us, first of all, it's just one little bit of information that is encouraging. What researchers did, is they hooked up a machine to rat brains, and the machine created a tone that the rats were able to control by altering their brain waves, by thinking one way or another.[2] And through feedback, they were able to learn to either produce a high-pitched tone, or a low-pitched tone, and they were given rewards, they would either get a food reward, or a sugar-water reward based on which type of tone that they produced. The rats were able to quickly learn how to modulate their thoughts in order to produce the tone that they wanted in order to obtain either food or water. Now, obviously we can't know exactly what the rats wanted, but they were able to obtain food and water in a balanced way, in a way that would make sense in terms of what they needed. So it seemed as if they could control whether they were producing a high-pitched tone, or a low-pitched tone.

However, this is the specific answer that this was addressing: in previous studies when animals or subjects modulate their thoughts to control something external, to control a computer, to interface with a machine, there's also a physical movement involved, and the question is, is that physical movement necessary? What they did here is that the rats had to manipulate these tones, however, without twitching their whiskers. The machines were reading the neurons that are used to twitch the whiskers, but they had to activate those neurons without twitching their whiskers. So that makes sense, they were able to do it without the accompanying motor action. And that was the new bit that hasn't been established before. And this is encouraging in terms of the adaptability of vertebrate brains to these interfaces. So, it's not just a proxy for a brain control that's already in place, it's a new type of brain control that does not relate to something that's already existing.

B: That's awesome.

S: Yeah, it does make it seem- it is one little notch on the plasticity side of, yes, are brains would be able to adapt pretty well to brain-machine interfaces. It's not yet the Matrix, obviously we're no-where near that level of things. But it's one baby-step in that direction. This is one of those things, you know, I think, and I speculated about this in my blog, is this going to be the flying car that's always gonna be 20-years away?

(general sounds of agreement)

J: I was just thinking that

S: Or is this going to be the iphone, where one day we're going to turn around and go "wow! when did this happen? this is awesome. You know, suddenly-

E: A new ipad

S: yeah, suddenly we're controlling everything with out minds, you know, and... or the idea of being paralyzed becomes a thing of the past, you know, anyone that's paralyzed, you just slap on a neuroprosthetic and you can control those artificial limbs with your mind.

E: Steve, do you think, with the plasticity of the brain, and adults have, they can't really- they're stuck in certain- their brain can't adjust-

S: Well, it's limited

E: Yeah, limited. Do you think maybe they would put something in between the brain and the actual prosthetic to help them along. Like another artificial brain of some kind to help get those-

S: Well, yeah, almost by definition

E: -acts as a bridge

S: Well, yeah, that's almost by definition, Evan, yes. That's where there is a computer which is controlling the prosthetic and communicating to the brain.

E: so therefore, that seems to be, like, kind of the hinging point of most of this technology. And I think we might be able to make some predictions based on how sophisticated we can develop that technology.

S: Yeah, so certainly artificial intelligence plays a role here too. The greater the artificial intelligence, the more that would be able to compensate for any imperfections in the brain-machine interface itself. Does that make sense? So, you end up having not just your brain controlling a dumb machine, but almost a symbiotic relationship between your mind and a computer 'mind' that then interfaces with an external reality. Whether that's operating stuff, or controlling a prosthetic attached to your own body, or flying a ship, or driving a car, or typing with your thoughts alone, whatever it is.

E: I would tend to think that we had decent hopes for that.

S: Yeah

E: for that piece of the technology

S: Yeah, I think it's a matter of when, not if. And I think it's a matter of how it will feel, how natural it will be. You also could think about, you know, will we be fixing infants with neuroprosthetics or brain-machine interfaces

B: à la borg, baby borg

S: Yeah, you get youe brain-cap on there shortly after born, so that as your brain matures and develops, it matures with the brain-machine interface. That will definitely work a lot better and a lot easier than trying to put it on an adult brain which is already fully developed, unless we develop still other technologies that allow the adult brain to have the plasticity of an infant brain - stem cells, or something else.

J: Yeah, I was just thinking of that. But then there's also the problem of obsolete technology. I can't imagine getting technology in my body when I'm like a kid, and in 20 years, it would be like a model T. They would have to design it to some, you know, firm-ware upgrade or even easy hardware upgrades to a certain extent.

Quickie with Bob: QWERTY effect (29:28) [edit]

ScienceDaily: The Right Type of Words: Words Spelled On Right Side of Keyboards Lead to More Positive Emotions

E: I want a quickie with Bob this week

B: This week on your Quickie with Bob, I'm gong to talk about the QWERTY effect. Cognitive scientists at the University College London have concluded that a mundane, ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard can actually reshape the meanings of words. As we all know, the QWERTY keyboard got its name from the first six letters on the top row of the keyboard, and millions of people use it every day. But it's long been believed that the arrangement of the keys is very inefficient, since common words and letters often require either the left hand to type them, or the fingers to leave the 'home row'. So, it this supposed inefficiency that has perhaps caused this universal typewriter to affect the way we perceive the words that we type on them.

These researchers studied English, Spanish and Dutch words on typewriters, and how people perceive those words, and for all three languages, the perception of words that required more right-hand typing were more positive than words that needed mostly left-hand typing. This correlation was unrelated to the length of the word, repeated letters, or, and most surprisingly, whether you are left-handed or right-handed. The same effect is also seen for fictitious words like "glip", and it was more pronounced for abbreviations and new words, like LOL. Keep in mind, this is a fairly subtle effect, and how we feel about these words doesn't change quickly. It's a slow accumulation over time. It's not as far-fetched as it might seem. For most people, using your right hand to type is easier than the left, and obviously, what's easier is often seen more positively. And also, since the was you say a word can have a big impact on it's meaning, so why not how you type it. Especially as we seem to be texting and typing so much everyday. So when you name your kids or pets in the future, you might want to go for Molly or Kim, and not Rebecca.

R: I am insulted by that science.


E: I think about a third of our audience might not know what a typewriter is

S: You could say keyboard.

R: They should, typewriter is the longest word you can type with the top row of typewriter keys

J: Yes, that's right

Who's That Noisy? (31:30)[edit]

S: Well, Evan, it's time for Who's That Noisy! (WTN)

E: I will play for you last week's WTN, right now

(3 strange noises)

E: Alright, three noises all kinda mashed together there, any idea what those three things were?

S: Animacules?

E: Yes, animals, very good, Now, we're going for a theme

S: Animals that make noise

E; Animals that make noise, yes. But that's not the theme we were going for, no. Anyone else?

J: They're all flying, squeaky animals

E: Here's a handful of the guesses that listeners made as far as they thought it was. One person says that one thing all these noises have in common is they were all used in the Jumanji movie. That is incorrect, but I thought it was creative. Someone else wrote in "it's clearly three animals that are impatient with Bob during Science or Fiction". That is perhaps the closest guess but-

B: (laughs) that's it, isn't it?

E: And someone also guessed that they're three sounds of echolocation, the first sound being a whale, the second sound being a bat, and the third sound being a dolphin. That was perhaps the most creative of the guesses, however, not correct. These are the three noises of the first three types of animals that were shot into space. [2]

(sounds of surprise)

B: Oh god.

R: Was that the sound of them actual flying into space (terrified animal noise)

E: It could've been. It very well could have been. Although it was 1947, and I'm not sure they could've recorded fruit flies at that time. Did you know fruit flies were the first?

S: That makes sense

E: Launched on a V2 rocket, February 20th, 1947. The second sound was the sound of a rhesus monkey, June 14th 1949

J: a monkey

E: also launched in a V2 rocket, and then August 31st 1950, the US launched a mouse into space. Some people are under the impression that dogs were one, if not the first, animals launched into space, but that's not true.

S: Laika

E: Dogs came later, in 1951, The Soviet Union sent a little puppy into space

R: Aw

E: Three sounds of animals, first three types of animals launched into space, and I was able to stump the audience this week, so

S: Good job, Evan

E: Now, without further adieu, we have more of a classic version of WTN for this week, which I'm going to play for you right now.

(short tune - 34:02)

S: Alright, that's it?

E: That's it, and I tell you, I will predict that there will be more than one person with the correct answer this week.

B: Really?

E: Yes. You can send us your guess at, or log onto our forums. If you haven't already created a likeness there, please do so, that is And as I like to say every week - Good luck, my friends

S: Thank you, Evan

Questions and Emails (34:38)[edit]

Therapeutic Tattoos [edit]

S: Alright, we might actually get to some emails this week. The first one has to do with a discussion we had last week about the Iceman's tattoos. This email comes from Mark Crislip, you guys know Mark?

B,J: Yeah

R: Very well

E:(joking) erm, something about a quack...

S: The Quackcast podcast. Also a member of Science Based Medicine, and a good friend of ours

E: Right.

S: Mark says he comes from 'The Great Pacific NW', and he writes:

Given the number of acupuncture points, any tattoo is near an acupuncture point. Anytime a mummy has a tat, they seem to conclude it was for medicinal/acupuncture purposes. I wonder how many with tats today will have their corpses exhumed from some cravass and conclude the barb wire or Chinese glyph was for the same reason. All a spurious conclusion.

S: If you recall, we were talking about the Iceman, and the question of his tattoos came up, and I made the comment that they are believed to be therapeutic tattoos, and that they correspond to acupuncture points. And Mark had actually written an article about that, and he referred me to that, and he makes many good points (SBM article). And, looking deeper into it myself, in response, it turns out that conclusion is far shakier than I had previously assumed. Now, the tattoos are spread around the Iceman's body, they are on the back, on the legs, the knees and ankles. There are a total of 57 tattoos, many of them are parallel, short parallel straight lines. Do you know how the tattoos were made, by the way? this, we do know.

J: Like a bone needle dipped in ink or something?

S: No, no ink

E: Not in ink

(all speaking, garbled - ash or juice or something?)

J: Oh, it's ash

E: Right

R: Well that's kind of an ink. Don't they still use ash for inks? for tattoo inks?

S: I don't know

E: It's all carbon

S: But they had ash, just take it from the fire, type of thing.

E: Hold still, "argh" (laughs)

S: They probably made little incisions, and then just rubbed the ash in there

E: Huh, so maybe not acupuncture per se, but maybe there was some other medicinal idea behind these scars.

S: Yeah, so there's two claims here. One is, were these medicinal, two bits of evidence are given for that. First of all, I had assumed from the reading that I had done, I was left with the impression that this concept of medicinal tattoos, or therapeutic tattoos, was something that was known. That, like, still culturally persisted in locations, and was established. I didn't realize that that is just pure speculation, that we really have no conformation that anyone was ever doing therapeutic tattooing. Their line of reasoning is two-fold, that the tattoos were in a part of the body that are normally covered by clothes. And Mark correctly points out - "so what?", you know, there are lots of tattoos in places - he specifically brought up the 'tramp stamp', that are in places that are normally covered by clothes, so I think that's a kind of meaningless argument.


S: and the other part of the argument was that being on the back, knees and ankles, that they were near locations that would have been under a lot of stress, and been very symptomatic in a 40-something year-old person at this time. And again, it's like, wellOK, but, what parts of the body would you say weren't under stress or likely to have symptoms, it's kind of-

B: Calf.

E: Eyebrow.

S: Well, you could make an argument really for anything.

R: Ear.

S: So, I do thing that that's the better of the two arguments, and the fact that there's lots of little tattoos, sort of spread throughout the body could indicate that there was some utilitarian purpose to it, and it wasn't purely decorative. I think that it's speculative, but not an unreasonable hypothesis that they were utilitarian. However, there are many reasons other than therapeutic that they could have been utilitarian. Many tattoos even today throughout the world to day are part of rituals, so that there could have been religious, or ceremonial, or ritual purpose to these tattoos. Warding off evil spirits, some superstitious notion. Doesn't necessarily mean that because it wasn't decorative it was therapeutic or medicinal. So, we have no idea, we simply have zero idea about the cultural beliefs that this time, and what purpose that these tattoos might have had.

The second claim is that they are "near" acupuncture points. And Mark makes the very good point that given the number of acupuncture points, try to find a place on the body that isn't near an acupuncture point. So that could be again confirmation bias, or just, you know, forcing a match. Of course, the really traditional points, there were 365 of them - one for every day of the year, Today there's thousands, so it's harder today, you can't find a part on the body that, according to some system isn't part, or next to or even on some system's acupuncture point. But not as many in the real, first described, traditional acupuncture points. But even still, 365 is quite a lot. So, I take his point there as well, we really don't know, is the bottom line, whether these were therapeutic, and whether they have any cultural continuity with the later traditions of blood letting or acupuncture or whatever. They could be, but that's really purely speculative. In researching this, what I found was almost every reference to the notion of therapeutic tattooing ultimately led back to this one description of the Iceman. The Iceman is the case, that is the reference that everyone gives to support this notion. I couldn't find any other reference.

E: That's a red flag.

S: -any independent reference to the notion

E: You know who else had a little tattoo?

J: Oh my god

E: Mr Roarke?

J: I knew it

R: Who's Mr. Roarke?

J: Fantasy Island!

B: Where was his tattoo?


R: Is that the little person?

E: Exactly!

R: "The plane! The plane!"

E: Yes, yes.

J: aw, you got me!

B: My god!

E: Jay! I thought you'd be all over that!

J: "Boss, boss, the plane, the plane!"

S: Alright, we've got a very interesting interview coming up with Scott Sigler, so let's go to the interview now

Interview with Scott Sigler (41:19)[edit]


S: We are joined now by Scott Sigler. Scott, welcome to The Skeptics' Guide

SS: Thanks very much for having me, I'm thrilled to be here

S: and Scott is a New York Times best-selling novelist, author of 'Ancestor', 'Infected' and 'Contagious'. And now your new novel is 'Nocturnal', can you tell us a little bit about that.

SS: Sure. Nocturnal is a horror/thriller, it's a modern day story set in San Francisco. It is what I call a hard-science horror novel. So, it's horror without all of the supernatural woo we get in a lot of horror stories. And this one is about a cast of people that live in San Francisco and kind of prey on those who won't be missed, so bums, and indigens and anyone passing through, or immigrants who are afraid to declare themselves, or anybody who's on the outskirts of society. This group goes and removes them from society, which is about as much as I can say about the story without it being a spoiler. And our two protagonists are San Francisco homicide detectives, so this is a gritty, police procedural detective novel. But also an unabashed love letter to my fandom of 80s buddy-cop movies.

B: Scott, you mention hard-core science horror. I've never actually heard those words together, how, in what way- was it just that there's no supernatural element? or did you try and really inject some hard science into it that helped the plot along?

SS: Well, I've been on some panels before that are called 'stealth skepticism', and that kind of, without knowing what I was doing, I kind of summarized what the goal was. So, there's a lot of science in the book, a lot of real science. I am really fortunate to have two PhDs, and an MD that go through all my stuff and-

S: Oh, I thought you meant yourself you had two PhDs, and an MD!

E: That's what I thought!

S: and I thought 'wow, that's really impressive'!


B: I didn't think that.

SS: I do, I just don't use them very often


R: Very humble.

SS: Yes, I try to be humble. At any rate, I've got people who are very disciplined who go over everything for me. And we try and make everything as accurate as possible. So if I need this, for the purposes of the story, I need this guy to be able to jump off a three-story building and have no ill-effects, they will then go to work to say 'how could we make this scientifically plausible?', and how to work that into the story. So there's a lot of actual science in the book, but that is all in support of the real purpose of the book, which is story-telling, and to tell an entertaining tale. So sometimes you do have to take liberties with it, but we try to do whatever we can.

S: And again, you go along this theme of writing fiction, in this case a horror novel, that's hard-science. Does the reader- again, I don't want too many spoilers, but does the reader get lead to believe that they're in a supernatural world early on, only to learn through hard investigation that there's a science-y explanation for everything?

SS: Well I think that readers tend to lead themselves down the path that they typically expect. Like, early on, I think it becomes pretty clear that there is a rational explanation for all of the crazy things that seem to be happening. It's just a question of if the reader can guess that rational explanation.

S: and the detectives. It seems like they're kind of confused at first too. It's like how could they make sense of this? So, we're sort of following on their journey, but the reader is taking their own journey of trying to make sense of what you're presenting to them.

SS: Well the characters are a great vehicle that allow the reader to imprint themselves upon one or both of the characters, and they are detectives, so they are used to dealing with rational thinking and logic, and they're used to looking at, observing the data in front of them and then going on about their job, trying to take- trying to solve crimes. So as they start to observe data that is beyond the realm of what they find to be acceptable, a guy jumping off that building, for example, that totally should die, but is nowhere to be seen, they have to start trying to come up with explanations that fit what they have observed, and the funny part of the story is that one of the partners, and these guys get along great, but one of the partners is an atheist, and he's a skeptic, and is at odds with his father, who is religious, so there's one set of conflicts there. And then his partner, that skeptical character's name is Bryan Clauser, and his partner, “Pookie” Chang, is Christian and has faith, and believes in everything, but doesn't (laughs) when it gets to the crazy supernatural parts, he refuses to believe there could possibly be a supernatural explanation because he's a cop. So there's a dichotomy between the two, and thy approach things from a different perspective.

S: So, we get into this discussion every now and then about the relationship between science and skepticism, and fiction. We're all science-fiction fans, and even fantasy, you know, and we see no problem with that. But I also admit that I really love a good hard-core, like, hard-science novel, and I'm always rooting for the scientific explanation when I'm reading a book and I don't know which way it's going to go. Like, 'is this going to be supernatural? or is this all going to have science in the end'. I think, to me, it's more satisfying. Cos I think it's harder work on the part of the author to make everything make sense, than saying 'ah, it's all magic!', which is easy, and not as satisfying to me. So what do you think, you've obviously chosen to go the hard-science root yourself, but, as you said, story-telling is still, that's the first order of business here, so what's your thoughts on that relationship between the need to teach critical thinking and science, and impose a love for science, and just good story-telling?

SS: Well, I've often said in interviews that if I had this all to do over again, I would be writing paranormal romance, because-


SS: because it's a different skill-set, and when you can make things up as you go along, and you don't have to adhere to any kind of structure at all, yes, that's an easier task, and you can focus more on characters and relationships because you don't have to dedicate the pages to providing a rational explanation of how things really work. But since I have kind of gravitated towards that, because, like you, that's of interest to me, if I read a story, I want to see some kind of rational explanation, for the purpose of when it gets to the big reveal, and things start to happen, I feel, as a reader, I should be able to say 'I saw that coming' or 'wow, I guess I should have seen that coming'. And you can do that with paranormal no problem, I mean, the Sixth Sense is the greatest example of that that I can think of, where I missed the whole thing. I watched Sixth Sense and had no idea of what the big reveal was. But then I go back and watch it again, and he told us every step of the way what was going on - if you knew how to look at it. So I prefer to use real science, and some creators can do it very well with paranormal, what I don't do, is there's no 'all of a sudden the characters know how to teleport!' and you were never clued into that ever at any point in the story. So you can be very rational with fantasy fiction, but it's definitely possible to do, but I prefer the hard-science angle.

S: Yeah, there's an internal consistency, right?

SS: mm-hmm

S: In In terms of not throwing totally new elements at readers, the 'deus ex machina' sort of approach. But, with hard-science story-telling, there's an external validity that you try to keep to as well. You try to make things mesh with actual science.

SS: One of the reasons that I've gone that route, I mean, aside from the fact that I just love learning about all this stuff, is, it does provide an extra level of immersion for the reader. So if you've had science classes in high-school, or even got into any in college, or you're a fan of science, when you start to get in, as I disseminate little bits of information in the story, you start to say things 'oh, well I know about that', and then you'll get to something new you haven't heard before, but it fits everything else, it's sort of like being a drug-dealer in a way. I'm feeding you along a little bit, and every time I tell you something that you already know, that maybe not everybody else in the world knows, you start to feel a little bit of a connection, and it establishes credibility. So as I start to get to the really unbelievable stuff, most people have already allowed themselves to dive much farther into the rabbit hole, and allow themselves to be lost in the story, and just accept everything in the story as something that's really happening within the context of the read. So, what using real hard-science does, is it lets people go much deeper into the reading and entertainment experience, and gives them a much bigger thrill. Cos all of it feels real, all of it feels like it's really happening.

S: I wonder, though, if there's a trend of that becoming more popular, and I'm thinking of, you know, a couple of very popular recent series', Lost and Battlestar Galactica, started out where, again, the audience didn't know which way the story was going, hard-science or fantasy, and both of these series' had pretty unpopular endings, because they were- in my opinion, it was the 'out of the blue', magic, fantasy, anything-can-happen ending.

R: Please be careful with Battlestar Galactica because I'm on the last season now, and I haven't made it to the end yet.

E: Well here's how it ends

SS: Well, first of all, Rebecca, I can help you, I'm here to help you, it's what I do. You want to watch all the way up to the final episode, watch the first half of the final episode, and then just walk away.


S: Then make up the rest, and whatever you think up will be better.


S: In my opinion, what was disappointing about the ending of Lost and Battlestar, was that it was just, 'oh, it's just saying it was just magic in the end', and not tying it all together in a rigorous, rational way. And I'm wondering, is that just me and the people that I associate with, or is that more the general reaction. It seemed like the ending of Lost was pretty thoroughly criticized, it wasn't just our little sub-population. So does that suggest to you maybe that people are getting sick of the easy magic answers at the end of the long mystery?

SS: It's definitely possible, and people, myself included, were really disappointed in that, it could've very well been a magic ending to Lost, maybe Battlestar Galactica not as much. But what we were led to believe, was that the story-tellers had planned the whole thing out in advance and knew exactly what they were doing, and were pulling the same thing with the Sixth Sense, and they were like 'we showed you everything!'

S: Yeah.

SS: and the Lost guys were particularly at criminal at telling people that everything mattered, and everything contributed, and letting people go crazy online with all of the different physics and trying to figure out what was going on, when actually they were just telling a story, and, yup, they were just making it up as they went along, and they couldn't pull it off when they got to the end of it. So, I think, that's really why people were ticked off, I mean, with 'Nocturnal', I worked extremely hard to come up with an actual ending that's big and cinematic, it's pop-corn thriller, but it ties in all of the elements that are in the book, and it finishes up more along the lines of the first few seasons of Dexter, where you get to the end of the show, and, yes, all of the stuff the writers have shown you through the series actually matters, and it does all tie-up in the end.

S: Yeah.

SS: So I think that people do want the honest story-telling. The thing that Lost- if they had come out and said 'this is a fantasy', a magic-fantasy story, everyone would've loved the end, everyone would've been like 'oh, that's great, no problem', and they would've really enjoyed it. But that's not what they told us.

R: Yeah, you're right, they did specifically come out and say that everything had a purpose, and I saw admissions from the writers after the series ended, saying 'yeah, we did just make it up as we went along'.


R: and, yeah, it's laziness, and as a consumer, you feel ripped off, I guess.

SS: It's a lie is what is is! We, you know, I invested 120 hours of my life watching Lost, because I thought I was watching absolute genius, I was like 'when this is all tied together at the end, it's gonna be absolutely amazing'. But if I had ever known it was just- they were making it up as they were going along, that's fine, that's just not for me, I wouldn't have watched it.

R: You see similar complaints these days about Game of Thrones, which I haven't read the books,

J: You should

R: - but I've heard that they sort of string you along, like, you read the first one and you think it's great, and you think it's going to pay off, and then book after book after book comes with zero real, true payoff.

SS: I have read all of those, and they're awesome and fantastic, but I do think that George R. R. Martin, I'm not seeing how he can pull things off, he's got, what, two more books planned? Yeah, it's starting to look similar to Lost, in that you may think that you were able to pull all this off, but it doesn't seem like you have a definitive vision in you head of where you're going. And he admits that, according to him, there's two kinds of story-tellers, there's the architect and there's the gardener. The architect puts in a foundation, builds a framework, slowly put in walls and finishes the building because he knows how it's going to look at the end. And the gardener who just plants seeds and watches where things grow. And he's admitted that he's a gardener, and he lets things go, to figure out how he's going to pull all of this together at the end, I'll be interested to see if he can do it.

R: That's a very poetic way to put something that people find extremely infuriating.


SS: It's OK to be- it's great to be a gardener, some fantastic fiction is- it's just, if you don't know where things are going, just tell the reader that. Then they have no problem with it, and they will continue, knowing that all kinds of cray stuff could happen. But when you tell people that you have a definitive vision of how something ends and you don't, that's when people get upset.

S: It sounds like what you're saying, though, and I think Game of Thrones is a good example, for those who don't know, this Game of Thrones is a medieval-type fantasy in an alternate universe, it's very low magic, but there is magic. But, great characters, and I think a great society, great story-telling, and I'm trying to figure out for myself, I mean I love the ride, but it's like 'where is this going?' and I'm trying to figure out why I'm so frustrated by that series. And I think it's just because the expectations are being violated, it's almost like he's breaking the contract with the reader a little bit. You sort of have certain expectations at the beginning, like you, for example, if the readers think they're reading a horror story, then it's OK when everyone dies, and horrible things happen. If you think you're reading a heroic fantasy and suddenly, you're like half way through and you're like 'am I reading a heroic fantasy? or am I reading a horror story? I don't know!'


S: You know, I guess it's- if it were deliberate, if he were deliberately challenging my preconceptions of a genre, that would be cool. If he's just gardening, and has no idea what the hell's happening, you know, that's disappointing to me.

B: That's different, yeah.

R: I'm glad you mentioned the deliberate thing, because I was about to point out that as soon as you make up a rule about writing, you can find someone who is doing something amazing by breaking that rule. The first thing that popped into my head is 'Shaun of the Dead', you know


R: Which I got, thinking it was just a horror film, and I was completely blown away by the turns it took, as well as their follow-up 'Hot Fuzz', which started out as this police-buddy-drama-comedy thing and then, if you've seen them, you know it takes a complete left turn into horror, fantasy territory. So that sort of genre-crossing can be very good when it's done intentionally.

S: Yeah, or deconstructing a genre, I love stuff like that, but again, if it's deliberate and artistic, that's fine, but if it's just lazy and the author didn't really know what he was doing, like with 'Game of Thrones', I get the feeling like he got lost in his own world. You know, the joke is, in the first novel, it's like 'winter is coming', that's sort of the theme of the series, now, in book six, winter is still ff(cuts out) coming. Now, I-


E: Like the knight in Monty Python, keeps running across the field.

S: And there better be a damn good pay-off at the end, that's all I got to say.

SS: Well he, Martin, is also in a tricky area I think for writers, definitely an area I haven't reached yet, which is when you have sold so many friggin' books, that when the editors come back to you and say, 'yeah, I know this is a 1200 page book, but with the story you're telling, you could really tighten all of this up to 750-800 pages. You could lose a lot of the fat', and George R. R. Martin's on his book six, and he's like 'yeah, I think it's fine the way it is, and you're just going to publish it, so let's end this conversation and I'll get back to work'. And he's totally earned that right, he's earned the right to tell the story he wants to tell, but there are times editors serve a function to get that checks and balance which, going back to M. Night Shyamalan, is, you know, when he started out, maybe there was someone saying 'let's keep this story tight, let's keep this logical', and his later works, it seemed almost clear that if anyone was telling him the plot wasn't working, he didn't feel he had to listen, cos he was making an enormous amount of money every picture, so I really hope-

R: Also see George Lucas.

J: Yes, just thinking that.

E: Right

S: Alright, well, Scott, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a different kind of a discussion for our show, but I think a good one

SS: Great, well I thank you for having me everybody, and everybody should check out, there's tons and tons of free author-read audio on there, or if you want to learn more about me -

S: Alright, take care

R: Cool, thanks Scott

SS: Thanks

Science or Fiction (59:57 )[edit]


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

B: Yup

R: Yep

J: Yes

E: Ready

S: Ok, here we go: Item #1: A new study finds that married patients, both male and female, are more than three times more likely to survive for three months following coronary bypass surgery than are single patients. Item #2: A new analysis supports the theory that fashion trends are driven primarily by the desire to signal social status. And Item #3: An engineering team has created an entirely organic transistor out of human proteins. Bob, you're defending your 100% record so far in 2012, so-

B: I know, what is it? eight or nine or ten in a row. What's the record? I forget what the record is, I think I'm approaching it.

S: You're probably getting close.

R: Wow

S: So, why don't you go first.

E: Yeah,

B: (flatly) Thank you very much


B: A new study finds that married patients are more than three- three times! more likely to survive for three months, yeah, I mean, it seems obvious that it kinda makes sense. I remember reading that married people live longer than single people, but, I don’t know, let’s see… A new analysis supports the theory that fashion trends are driven primarily by the desire- yeah, I can kinda, I could see that how these trends would be moved on by the desire to signal status, but, I don’t know why, that one seems a little less likely to me than the first one. But the… let’s see, the third one: an engineering team has created an entirely organic transistor out of human proteins. Yeah, they seem to be making transistors out of lots of different things, yeah, I can see that. Human proteins, oh boy, I don’t know if they could do it entirely out of proteins. That’s pretty dramatic. Yeah, I’m gonna say that the … the fashion trends and social status is fiction.

S: Ok, Jay

J: It’s funny that you pick that one, Bob, cos that would’ve been the one that I think is the most obvioust true

B: That makes me feel good.

J: Doesn’t that make sense? You know, for people who want to show others their social status, I don’t know, it makes so much sense that that would be driven a lot by their clothing, and the expense of their clothing and everything. So I really think that that one is science. The one about married patients lasting longer than single people? I’ve heard other things like that many times, especially something about men living longer if they’re married, and if they have a sister. There’s lots of other stuff like that out there, so that makes sense. And this engineering one about the proteins and what-not, that’s the only one that I don’t have any previous information on, or I really can’t say one way or the other, but I think that making an organic transistor seems to be huge news, it’s a big deal, and this one seems less likely, so I’m gonna pick that one as the fiction.

S: Ok, Rebecca?

R: The one about married couples living longer following surgery, that does make the most sense of all three of them, to me. We’ve even talked about this on the show before, married couples are more likely to look out for each other, and to notify the other person if there’s something they notice that’s gone wrong, to bully them, so to speak, into going to the doctor when needed. So that makes sense. Transistors? I don’t know anything about transistors, so I don’t know. Bob says that they could make transistors entirely out of human proteins, then I guess I’ll go along with it, I don’t know. But that one, I’m on the fence about that one. The fashion trends one, I was originally thinking, like Jay, that that one was definitely true. But then the more I thought about it, it doesn’t seem right to say that fashion trends are driven primarily by the desire to signal social status, because that indicates that fashion trends are driven by the people that are buying the fashion, and I don’t think that’s true. I think that fashion trends are created in a more top-down manner, and spoon-fed to us. I think that people choose their clothing based on what personality they want to reflect to the world, so you could call that social status, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily driving the trends, I think that trends are by and large manufactured, so I’m going to say that one’s the fiction.

S: Evan?

E: The fashion trends is the one that, at fist glance, I did think was the fiction, and I’m tempted to stick with that. The engineering team entirely organic transistor out of human proteins, yes, how exactly they were able to do that, I’m trying to wrap my brain around, and how to get the human proteins to be able to have the properties of everything a transistor needs. But leave it to the engineering teams to be able to do that. As far as the married patients, Rebecca I think you hit on it, and I think we have spoken about it before. You know, perhaps part of it is that there is a stronger desire, a psychological effect, right? A desire to want to last longer due to one’s caring for your spouse. Perhaps that is part of the equation. The fashion trends, I know absolutely nothing about fashion and fashion trends, but signaling social status doesn’t equate to me. I’m with Rebecca and Bob on that.

S: Alright, so, you all agree that ‘A new study finds that married patients, both male and female, are more than three times more likely to survive for three months following coronary bypass surgery than are single patients’. You all think that is science, and that one is science!

R: (quietly) yay!

S: So you were all correct in that this has been described before, the advantage of being married specifically, but also having any social support structure in terms of good outcomes from medical illnesses. But what surprised me about this one, was the magnitude of the effect: greater than three times the survival following coronary bypass surgery. That, I thought, was surprising. The other thing that’s another interesting little tidbit in here was that the effect size was the same for males as females. So that means that the men were as good a caretaker of their wives, as the women were of their husbands.

J: That doesn’t make sense.

R: How does it not make sense?

S: Well, people think of women as being the better caretakers, you know-

R: Yeah, I think that’s kinds dated though.

S: Yeah, I think so, this data didn’t support that, just having a spouse. And you guys hit upon a lot of the reasons, your spouse is there to nag you into doing the right thing, and they did correlate that, that married patients had a higher incidence of quitting smoking and being more compliant with their diet, and everything. So, part of it is that you have somebody very close to you, that lives with you, that can keep you on the right path. But it’s also, if something happens they’re more likely to make you call the doctor, or call the doctor themselves, you know, whereas somebody by themselves could persist in denial, and there’s no-one there to keep them on- Yeah, so lots of easy explanations for why that is, but again, it was the magnitude of the effect thought was huge. So let’s go on with number two: ‘A new analysis supports the theory that fashion trends are driven primarily by the desire to signal social status’. Bob, Evan and Rebecca, you think this one is fiction, Jay, you think this one is science. And Jay saves me 2 weeks in a row from getting swept, Thanks, Jay.

R: Aw, man!

S: This one is the fiction!



E: Bob, you were scared for a second, I could tell

S: Sorry, Jay,

B: I rock


S: What the study showed was that- this is mathematically modeling fashion cycles, you know, how the providers affect consumers, but also how the consumers drive the cycles as well. So there’s a feedback loop, Rebecca, it’s not just all top-down.

R: Yeah

S: So, it’s kind of a co-evolution between these two forces, and they also found that it’s unpredictable. You can’t engineer or predict which things will take off, and which things will not, but the mathematical model they came up with fit the data fairly well. They also said it was incompatible with other theories that fashion cycles were driven primarily by either individuals signaling their social status, or from individuals randomly copying each other. Those two factors could not explain the empirical observations, but this more dynamic sort of feedback loop that was somewhat unpredictable in terms of which individual things would hit, did fit the data better. So it actually is incompatible with the social status hypothesis. Well, let’s move on to number three: ‘An engineering team has created an entirely organic transistor out of human proteins’. And this one is also science. And this is pretty neat as well, they actually used three different kinds of proteins that had different properties in order to, you know, together they make Voltron, right? They make the different properties necessary to make a transistor. So they used milk proteins, mucus proteins and blood proteins together-

J: mucus proteins, huh?

S: Yup, in order to get a working transistor


E: yummy

S: not a full, electronic device, you know, just a transistor. This is a team from Televiv University, actually, who did this. So this is part of a project where they’re trying to develop completely biodegradable devices, like display screens and electronics. Of course, the transistor, for a lot of things, is the key component. So it’s a huge step forward to be able to make that entirely out of proteins. Also, they didn’t talk about this in the article, specifically about this, it was mostly about it being biodegradable, and stuff, but this made me think about, you know, human-brain interfaces, or biological devices, or implantable devices, having them made entirely out of biological material is interesting, and it isn’t necessarily an advantage. It could provoke an immune response, you know, they could provide complications, but it’s interesting, you wonder how that will impact the implantability of these types of devices

R: Cool

S: So, good job guys

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:11:49)[edit]

S: Jay, I understand you have an interesting quote for us this week

J: Yes. A listener named Joseph Garvito, from Mexico, sent in a quote from one of my absolute favourite people, the quote is:

You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown– only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.

J: Rebecca, you wanna take a stab at it?

R: eeeeeeeer, Wink Martindale!


B: I wish I’d said that

J: That guy quoted everything! No, it was none other than Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Captain of the USS Enterprise

S: Excellent

B: Cool.

E: Admiral Kirk


S: Well thanks Jay.

Announcements (1:12:41)[edit]

S: So, we have a little announcement about NECSS 2012, April 21st-22nd. The SGU, obviously, will be there, we will be doing our typical live show, and we are repeating something that we did last year at DragonCon because it worked out so well, we are going to be recording a second live show, but it’s going to be a private recording. So essentially, we’ve called this recording in front of a live studio audience, it’s not really a live show, it’s a private recording as though we were recording a regular episode. But we will be selling tickets, $50 each to 20 individuals to be present with us while we record the show. So it’s kind of like a private recording. We did this at DragonCon, the people that came loved it. One of our listeners who attended our recording there said it was the best $50 he’d ever spent.

E: He did say that

S; He did say that, it was a lot of fun. It actually was a very interesting experience.

R: Yeah, good times.

S: It was very intimate, we definitely let our hair down and it was all the typical behind-the-scenes stuff during the recording of a show, because, again, it’s not in front of a full live audience

B: If I remember correctly, there was some porn and a lot of cursing

S: Yeah (laughs)

R: Did you say corn?

E: oh, and there was booze

J: wait, there was porn? I don’t remember that!

B & E together: Jay! You were the one!

B: Freaky video on your phone

E: Yeah, you handed it to Rebecca (in dumb voice) “Rebecca, look at this!”

J: I showed Rebecca some crazy shit on my phone?

B, E & S: Yes

E: You don’t remember that do you?

J: I don’t remember that.

E: Wow!

J: Well I don’t…

S: (laughs)

E: Trust us, it was awkward

J: It must not have been good porn then

E: It was very awkward, trust us

R: Anyway…(laughs)

E: Anywho

R: People should come, it will be fun

S: Yeah, definitely, it will be a lot of fun-

R: 18 plus

S: (laughs) Rebecca, tell our listeners how they can secure tickets

R: It’s easy! You can just go to scepticalrobot,com, and right there on the front page, there is a link that will take you to the page where you can order your tickets. You can pay by credit card or Paypal, and, just fill out your name, and give us your email, or a cell phone number you would like to be contacted by, and you will be able to download your ticket, and you will also get a message on the day of the show telling exactly where to go.

S: Telling you the super-secret recording location

R: Top secret!

E: shhhhhh! It’s a secret!

R: Yup, so

J: So, we’re gonna do that in a hotel suite, right?

S: Yeah, it’s going to be in a hotel suite, that’s right

R: and it’s going to be very sexy

E: Or a basement, one or the other

S: One more reason to-

J: And we’re going to supply beverages and what-not, right?

S: A light snack will be-

R: Light snacks will be provided, byob

S: Light refreshments, yeah

E: Will there be a vegetarian alternative to the light snack?

S: And vegan, and gluten-free, absolutely, no

E: And a kosher one too

B: Oh god, gluten-free is such bull


R: There are people who-

(inaudible silliness and laughter)

S: It’s 10pm, Saturday, I guess we should say, 10-12. So Jay, I understand you’re working on the SGU’s next amazing video project.

J: Yeah, I have a shoot coming up, it’s actually on the 24th of this month, and I need help.

S: March?

J: Yes, March 24th , Steve. And I need help! And the kind of help I need is, I actually need some extras this time. We have a really funny idea, and I need some bodies, so if you’re interested in helping, I’m not going to give all the details out on the show, but if you’d like to help and you’re going to be in the area, in the central-ish Connecticut area, or you’re willing to drive, I need people to come and basically park themselves in a seat for about 10 hours. But we’re gonna supply some food, and a lot of laughs, and you get to see us make one of our videos and hang-out and all that. So please, if you’re interested, just send us an email from our website:, with ‘SGU shoot’ in the subject line, then I’ll get that and get back to you.

S: We’re gonna take the first however many emails we get in terms of the number of people we need for the shoot, so if you’re available and you want to be in our next video, send us an email right away.

J: Thanks

S: Well, thanks for joining me this week, everyone

R: Thank you, Steve

E: Thank you doctor

J&B: Thanks, Steve

S: Until next week, this is your Skeptic’s 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]

  • On March 10th 1797, Thomas Jefferson presented a paper on the megalonyx (a giant ground sloth) to the American Philosophical Society, one of the first paleontology papers presented in the US
  • Words spelled on the right-hand side of keyboards are associated with more positive emotions, this is called the QWERTY effect (press release)
  • 'Typewriter' is the longest (common) word you can type using only the top row of the keyboard
  • Fruit flies were the first type of animal in space, launched on February 20th, 1947. They were followed by a Rhesus Monkey on June 14th, 1949, and a mouse on August 31st, 1950 (Wikipedia link)
  • Married patients are more than three times more likely to survive for three months following coronary bypass surgery than single patients, regardless of gender (medicalxpress article)
  • Fashion cycles are not determined by individuals signaling their social status, or from individuals randomly copying each other (PLoS article)
  • An engineering team in Tel Aviv has created an entirely organic transistor out of human proteins, including milk, mucus and blood proteins (AFTAU article)


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