SGU Episode 348

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SGU Episode 348
17th March 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 347                      SGU 349

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


RS: Richard Saunders

Quote of the Week

Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgements can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.

Richard Feynman

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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 15th 2012 and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella

B: Hey everybody

S: Jay Novella

J: Hey guys

S: Evan Bernstein

E: Hello everyone

S: and we have a special guest Rogue with us this evening all the way from Australia, Richard Saunders

RS: Hello Rogues, I hardly know what country I'm in, I've just flown back from the UK, in fact, only 2 days ago. So I'm still not sure about time zones and all that.

S: Yeah, you are definitely an international jet-setter.


E: an international skeptic of mystery.

B: do people still use that phrase? Jet-setter?

RS: As long as you guys use that phrase, that's OK.

S: It's coming back.

J: So what were you doing in the UK, you said?

RS: I was, I had a wonderful time as a guest of the people at QED: Question, Explore, Discover, the convention in Manchester that was on a couple of weeks ago, and what a great convention it was. It was sort of like being in a bizarro-world of being at a TAM, but being in the UK, which wasn't a TAM. But it was just that good, it was fantastic.

S: Yeah, I went last year, those guys did a great job.

B: I've been dying to go, I've gotta find the time to get out there. But, you know how it is, Richard, it's much harder for you, you've got to take a lot of time off, you can't just pop over. You've got to take days off to get there.

RS: I love travel, but I would travel twice as far as I have to go to something like QED in Manchester, they put on such a great convention. Good to catch up wit some old friends, like D.J Grothe and Joe Nickell, of course.

S: Well let's get started, we actually have a lot of news items to get through. Evan, you're going to start us off with This Day in Skepticism, covering for Rebecca, which I should mention, if you haven't figured it out by now, Rebecca is off this week. So Evan you're back in your old role.

This Day in Skepticism (2:03)[edit]

E: ooh, I'm gonna get comfy. It still fits, this is good, this is good. I'm comfortable. Alright, March 17 1958 - the Vanguard 1 satellite was successfully launched into Earth orbit. So, what was special about this particular satellite? It was the fourth artificial satellite launched into space, but the first to be solar-powered.

S: Really.

E: It is still up there.

S: Is it still working?

E: er, not still working. They kinda lost functional communication with it back in 1964.

S: So it's a hunk of metal orbiting the Earth now?

E: Yeah, it wasn't always that, it evolved into just a hunk of metal

S: It's space junk

J: It still operated longer than they thought, I mean, for a solar-panel Steve, come on

S: Yeah, that's good, it's great

E: They say it's going to stay in orbit well into the 22nd century. This thing was built to last. Except for the, you know...

S: Not necessarily to function, but to last

E: and part of the Vanguard project, which served lots of different functions, it's primary function was to obtain accurate measurements of the Earth through orbit analysis, and they determined it's precise shape, and sort of for the first time we knew it had these bulges

B: Lop-sided, oblate spheroid.

E: Exactly, so we learned some good stuff, and if you look at a picture of it, it certainly reminds you of Sputnik. You know, that sort of image, with the ball and the thin arms protruding from it. So, it has that sort of retro satellite sort of look and feel to it.

RS: A 'retro satellite look', isn't that a funny expression


E: Who ever thought we'd be able to say that?

S: Yeah, we're at a point where satellites can look retro


J: Like a 'retro laser pistol'

S: Well, laser pistols have always been retro

B: Right, and they don't even really exist

RS: When they finally invent them, do you think they'll look like phasers? like the old things on TV?

J: Yeah, I hope so.

B: Yeah, if you figure that the aesthetic doesn't really matter that much, if they have to put a little cool casing on it or whatever, they better damn well make it look like a phaser from Star Trek, or something from Star Wars, I mean, come on.

J: But a cool one, not a lame one

RS: Lost in Space rifles

J: Aw, those were bad

S: Alright, well thanks Evan

News Items[edit]

Oldest Skeleton (4:32)[edit]

PhysOrg: Oldest Organism With Skeleton Discovered in Australia

S: The first news item, this is just a quickie, but it's really neat.

B: Quickie? Quickie?

S: Not that kind of quickie. But, scientists have discovered the oldest skeleton on the earth . You guys hear this?

B: Yeah, this is pretty cool, it's like a cordate, worm-like-

S: It's not a human skeleton, obviously, it's the oldest skeleton of any kind of creature, and this species is Coronacollina acula. This is a pre-cambrian animal from the Ediacaran era, so they date it to between 560 million and 550 million years ago. The Cambrian explosion occurred around 542 million years ago. This creature lived on the ocean floor, like attached to the floor. It looks like a little thimble with at least 4 long spicules coming out from it. They don't know what the purpose of those structures was, they could have been just to stabilize it on the ocean floor. And originally, do you know where this fossil was found?

RS: I certainly do! It was in my backyard, it was just extraordinary. No, it was found in South Australia, and you know what? It really does look sort of like Sputnik.

S: It does!

E: It does

S: A thimble Sputnik, instead of a ... grapefruit Sputnik. But, yeah, the 4 spicules look kinda like the antennae

RS: It does, it's very strange, but there is certainly a wealth of very, very old fossils in Australia, but this one is a bit of a surprise, this one's really old

S: Yeah, this is cool for a lot of reasons. So, a quick background, the Cambrian Explosion is when we first start to see multicellular animals in the fossil records, with hard parts. Now there are some fossils of Ediacaran fauna from before the Cambrian, but they are mainly soft-bodied, like flat type of creatures. And one question is, well what happened to the Ediacaran fauna? and where did the Cambrian fauna come from? One hypothesis was that Ediacaran fauna essentially dies out right before the Cambrian explosion. But the other possibility is that animals and plants, or whatever, creatures that are present in the Cambrian explosion were around, they existed in the pre-Cambrian, they just hadn't developed hard parts yet that fossilized, so we don't see them. So, the Cambrian explosion, in part, is an artifact of the fossil record. It may actually represent a dramatic, rapid increase in the number of animals in the world. But it's also that when animals start to develop hard parts they will suddenly appear in the fossil record, even if they had a much longer history.

Well this creature actually has some structures in common with Cambrian sponges, and that suggests that this creature is an ancestor to certain animals that existed in the Cambrian and therefore, not all the Ediacaran fauna went extinct, and Cambrian creatures' ancestors were around in the pre-Cambrian. So that sort of supports that there was a long lead-up to the Cambrian explosion, and it was partly, or mostly, an artifact of developing hard parts that the "explosion" occurred. So this is actually a really important fossil find in terms of our understanding of this period of time on the Earth and the evolution of life. And it is also, in a way, an important evolutionary prediction that there would have been antecedents to the Cambrian fauna, you know, these creatures would not have come out of nowhere, they had to have ancestors, and now we've found one. It also makes sense that we would find the first creature to develop hard parts. Maybe there are others out there that are waiting to be discovered, and you're right, Richard, Australia is a very rich location for this period of time. The oldest living things that we're finding on the Earth are being discovered in Australia.

RS: Yes, and I'm one of them

E: Not quite there yet.

RS: But it's interesting, the way you put this, as the explosion where it may have been an explosion before, but we don't know about it. But I guess you could still classify it, if these skeletons came along, then it's an "explosion" of this form of life, the ones that adapted skeletons, something which could fossilize. So I guess it's an explosion no matter how you look at it.

S: Yeah. Of course, the creationists try to present it as a 'sudden creation', but that's not what we're talking about at all. And sudden meaning over several millions of years.

RS: Yes, we've got to be careful about the way we express ourselves here, it's sudden but it's like in slow motion of course. I guess it's just the way we're used to using the word when we' speak about the fossil record.

S: It's geologically sudden, but it's still a long period of time.

Red Deer Cave People (10:05)[edit]

BBC News: Human Fossils Hint at New Species

S: Let's move on, Jay, we have another sort of archeology, or paleontology, related item. Paleontologists have, in other skeleton news, discovered perhaps a new species of human living not that long ago.

J: In other skeleton news, I like that.


J: A team of scientists have been studying bones of five or maybe more individuals that date between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago, and this collection of bones have been named after one of the sites where the bones were found and that's why they are called...what are these people called?

S: Red Deer cave people.

J: Right, cos one of the sites was called Red Deer cave, but it wasn't the sole site, there were actually several sites that they were finding the bones. So the bulk of the skeletal remains have been in a Chinese collection, or one or more Chinese collections, but recently the collection has been under extensive investigation, and they're finding a lot of really, really interesting things about this. Skulls and teeth from 2 locations are very similar, and this most likely means that they're from the same population, and they also found that they have a mix of archaic and modern characteristics, the features are considered distinct from modern humans. And some of the descriptors that they gave were thick skull bones, short and flat faces, broad noses, rounded brain cases, prominent brow ridges, and the jaws also jut forward, but lack a modern human-like chin. They had modern frontal lobes, but quite archaic-looking anterior or parietal lobes. Steve, what does that actually mean?

S: Well, those are the lobes of the brain. So you have the frontal lobes which are at the front, temporal, which is like by you temple, the parietal lobe would be behind that, and then the occipital lobe in the very back.

J: Cool, so those parts of their brains weren't as developed as much as a modern human

B: Right, so they're just going from the shape of the skull to infer the size of the various parts of the brain

S: Sure, that's a pretty good indication.

B: One thing that struck me about this when I was reading about it was it said the skeletons and the skulls were like a mish-mash of archaic and modern features, and the first thing I thought of was like, oh boy, Piltdown man, how do they know that this isn't a hoax, and what steps have they taken to make sure that this is a legitimate thing. And I was just wondering if it struck you guys the way it struck me when I read about it. And it's weird, cos even the fact that it was found in China made me think, well, are they just trying to get some notoriety and are they making this stuff up?

J: Well, I'll tell you why I think it seems more legitimate. First of all, they're not making any claims of anything definite, they're saying a lot of maybes and I'm going to talk about that a little bit later, cos I've got a lot more information to give you guys. They had a few ideas about the origin and all that, but they're very openly saying that they need to do a lot more investigation, they're actually trying to do DNA testing to get some more information about them, and plus, Bob, this isn't just some random skull.

S: There are five individuals, Bob, and for me that's the biggest hedge against this not being a hoax I agree, you know, China has a history of fossil fraud, of selling fake fossils to make money. So you've always got to be curious, but it looks like they're coming under scrutiny, and we obviously have to wait for these to be really evaluated by the scientific community. But it sounds like they're starting to be evaluated, and I think with multiple individuals- I think that this fits quite well with what we've been discovering over the last ten years or so, that Neanderthals, and Homo-sapiens and other sub-species were...

E: They were gettin it on


S: There were lots of sub-populations, with different features, so seeing one sub-population living in that area that had some persistent, you know, Neanderthal mixture of older and more modern features makes perfect sense compared to what we've been seeing.

J: Hey, Bob, I have a quote here, one of the study co-leaders, Darren Curnoe from the University of New South Wales, Australia - hey Richard, do you know this guy?

RS: Oh sure, he just lives down the street


RS: No, I don't

E: Across the desert

J: This is a quote from him, he says:

We're trying to be very careful at this stage about definitely classifying them...One of the reasons for that is that in the science of human evolution or palaeoanthropology, we presently don't have a generally agreed, biological definition for our own species, believe it or not. And so this is a highly contentious area,

J: So, that's a little reassuring that one of the lead study members is basically casting doubt on any of the conclusions that they might be finding

RS: It seems to me that they're taking a very reasonable approach to this, just being very cautious about it. But when I see those dates, I'm just amazed to think that there were other species of humans running around only 11,000-odd years ago, it's insane.

J: Yes, it's very weird

B: That's nothing

E: So you think about the mammoth also that was running around about the same time, and that's hard to grasp

B: For mammoths, you're going back 4, 5, 6,000 years ago, even more recent

RS: We missed it by that much


J: So, Steve, I wanted to hear about a few of the theories that they're throwing around. So, they've discussed, Dr Curnoe and his team have two scenarios, and other scientists that were following the research have a third scenario, and I'm curious to hear what you guys have to say. So, the team have speculated that the findings might mark a very early migration of a very primitive homo sapien that lived separately from other forms in Asia before dying out. And the second idea they had was that they were indeed a distinct homo species that evolved in Asia, and lived alongside our own kind until remarkably recently. Then other scientists, as I said, have said that these are just hybrids.

S: Those are the theories, they're just saying all the possible ways to fit that data, I think that's it. I don't think that at this point they have any particular reason to think of any one or the other. They could be hybrids, they could just be, as you said, a sub-population lingering in this region. I think we're gonna be seeing more and more of that as we discover more and more human fossils throughout Europe and Asia. Remember, there was that other population found in Siberia, remember 'homo floresiensis', the 'hobbit' on the island of Flores. Evolution is a messy, branching bush, and we're just finding more and more twigs all over the place. Alright, thanks Jay.

Neutrino Communication (17:17)[edit]

Neurologica: Neutrino Communication

S: Bob, are we going to have neutrino-based cell phones any time soon?


B: You know, I couldn't believe it, neutrinos are back in the news again, can you believe it?

E: You can't get rid of these damn things

B: I wouldn't even be talking about them if Steve wasn't making me do it ... I'm only kidding, I love neutrinos, and this a pretty cool news item. Researchers have done something new with them that's much more reasonable than supposedly making them travel faster than light. They actually sent and deciphered a message through 780 feet of rock using a beam of neutrinos. Now this seem odd, if you're familiar with neutrinos, since they're mainly mass-less and neutral, they therefore ignore the magnetic force, and they only weakly interact with gravity and this means, essentially, that neutrinos can go through literally light-years of lead like it was a vacuum.

S: Although, the mean free path is a little over one year, but they could theoretically go through many, many light years

B: Yeah, that's still 26 quadrillion miles? I forget how many miles in a light year


S: I think it's a gajillion or something?

B: Yeah, yeah. So then how do you actually receive a message if it's made up of neutrinos. Well, it takes a lot of money, takes a lot of mass, and you also need a lot of neutrinos to do it. But it is do-able, apparently. These researchers used a particle accelerator at the FERMI national accelerator lab in Batavia, Illinois, the Fermilab, to make the neutrino, so you need a particle accelerator, hello? I mean, I don't think we're gonna be seeing a particle accelerator in our iphones any time soon. And they did this, they used the accelerator to essentially accelerate protons to high speeds and then slam them into carbon atoms and, bam, you've got a bunch of neutrinos. And then you need a detector, and to detect the neutrinos they used a five-ton particle detector called MINERvA which consists of layers of different materials like carbon, lead and iron.

But even if you have something really sophisticated like MINERvA, it still takes about 10 billion neutrinos before it can even detect just one of them. So it's hit rate is very low, but you could still just produce millions and billions of neutrinos so you can slit out enough of them to send a message that's detectable by something like MINERvA. They probably used trillions of neutrinos, and they put them into a binary code,which is pretty cool, they did it by sending a bunch of them, and the fact that they're there constitutes a binary 'one', and when there's nothing being sent, that's your 'zero', and from there you can just kinda build up any message that you want. And using this scheme, they were able to actually achieve a bit-rate of 0.1 bits-per-second, which kinda reminds me of my bandwidth at my house over here. It took two hours to send the whole, one-word message, do you guys know what the message was?

S: Neutrino

J: Send more Chuck Berry!


S: Send more Chuck Berry!

B: Jay, I was thinking the same thing. Kind of unimaginative, but whatever. So I calculated that at that rate, it would take 272 years to transmit the first four Game of Thrones books, and actually I think that's how long it took Martin to write it. Didn't it take him that long?

J: Bob, think of how long it would take to download one picture of porn, you know, I mean, what the hell?


B: Yeah, you wouldn't be interested by the time it got there. Yeah, so this is pretty cool. Steve, you mentioned cell phones, and yeah, at least as of right now, in the foreseeable future, you need a lot of money and lots of big equipment to even think about producing this kind of stuff, but it is pretty awesome that you can actually send a message using neutrinos. So what can we do with this kind of thing, is it just some kind of mind-game of 'can we do it?', but it actually could have some utility at some point in the future. The first thing I thought of was submarine communication.

S: Yeah

B: Because, when subs go really deep, it's essentially impossible and very impractical to communicate with them. I think one of the main reasons is the electro-conductivity of the sea-water prevents the wave-lengths from penetrating very deeply. But if you could communicate using this method, they wouldn't have to surface, they wouldn't have to risk themselves to send or receive any information.

S: Bob, how about a Moon-base on the far side of the Moon?

B: Yeah, right, you wouldn't need satellites around the Moon, or any stations on the Moon to communicate, just go right through, right through the Moon. That would be cool, yeah, that's another one. I like it

S: Alright

RS: You say it won't be available for the iphone, surely there's an app for that, isn't there?


B: an app with an algorithmic accelerator

S: This was, though, a proof of concept - Can we theoretically do it? But, yeah, this is not gonna happen any time soon. Cos you need a multi-million dollar accelerator at one end, and a massive neutrino detector at the other end.

B: And not just that, if you wanted to actually communicate to the other side of the planet, you would need an incredibly dense beam of neutrinos, cos they do attenuate pretty quickly.

S: Alright, cool

Defending Science in Australia (22:44)[edit]

Sydney Morning Herald: Crackdown on Homeopathic Medicine

S: Richard, we've been hearing a lot of news coming out of Australia in terms of alternative medicine. I've been blogging about it, obviously this is a topic that I following very closely. It seems you guys have a big problem with alternative medicine in Australia, but there's a big back-lash against it. So, why don't you get us up to date on that.

RS: This is very interesting indeed. This is the FSM, and I don't mean the flying spaghetti monster, which is unfortunate, but there you go. I mean the 'Friends of Science in Medicine', and this is a very new group, only put together in late last year, so it is very new indeed. And this was put together by a very concerned group of scientists and citizens, really, about the ongoing waste of time, money and resources as exhibited by some of our top universities in perpetuating courses in what we can call nonsense. And I don't use that term lightly, when I'm talking about nonsense, I'm talking about hardcore nonsense like iridology, homeopathy, reiki, reflexology, that sort of thing. So the group was put together, now straight away I just clicked on their website[1] which is absolutely worth visiting because it's a wealth of information, and you can find out who's behind it, why they're so important, and why this group has come about. Also, we are supporting this in 'Australian Skeptics' [2] financially, we think it's a wonderful idea, and it's important to know that these people are separate from 'Australian Skeptics'. We always get people accusing us of being behind these new groups, or whatever it is, I mean, we're all going to be accused of being sponsored by big pharma anyway, that's unavoidable. But they always do that. So we are separate, but we are supporting them, we are absolutely supporting them. One of the major people behind it is Prof. John Dwyer, who is a very respected professor here in Sydney at the University of New South Wales, and he, as a matter of fact for our Sydney listeners, he is going to be speaking at Australian Skeptics' dinner on the 31st of March, so go to to book your ticket. A little plug for that talk there.

But what an important initiative it is, and, man, haven't the opposition, the quacks, been quacking loudly about this. There's been press releases, people from outside have been on the radio, Prof John Dwyer and others, in the media. And invariably what will happen is, if it's a radio show they'll have Prof John Dwyer on the line and in the studio, or on another line, they'll have someone representing alternative medicine. And for some reason, the media have focused on homeopaths, which is one of the big things about this Friends of Science in Medicine, complaining against homeopathy. I've heard a couple of interviews on television and radio, and it's so formulaic, we have the representative from our side, and we have the representative from the other side to give what we know is false balance

S: Right

RS: you know, it's as if someone would come in to defend the flat Earth theory well they've got a homeopaths to defend homeopathy. And they all seem to be reading from the same sort of script. And it goes something like this: John Dwyer, or the person representing our point of view will have their say, say why this group was set up. And then they'll turn to the other guest, the homeopath, and say "well, homeopath, what do you think about what this person says?", and invariably the script will go something like "Well, listen, homeopathy is a natural system of medicine that works with the body in its own healing mechanisms. It's been scientifically proven for hundreds of years, and it's supported by doctors and scientists all over the world. More and more governments are including homeopathy as part of their health system, and studies have shown again and again how effective it is."

S: So they lie

E: What's that, about eight logical fallacies in that one, right?

RS: and this is what we call, and you probably know the term, 'Gish-galloping', right? It's when you bombard your opponent with so many statements and things like that, now, the person representing our side - you cannot address those points easily and quickly, there are so many points that have been put out there. But the real killer will come once they've had a real to-and-fro if it's on the radio, then they're gonna have a call-in, right? and who's going to get on the line, incensed? the fans of homeopathy

S: Yeah

RS: And the caller will say, and this is paraphrasing a caller I heard just yesterday on the radio: "I couldn't wait to ring up, I'm so angry, look, 20 years ago when I had my baby and I had mastitis, the doctors couldn't help me, I was taking antibiotics. The only thing that helped me was homeopathy, how can this Dr, this Dr Dwyer tell me that it doesn't work?". Again, this puts the person representing our side in a very difficult position, because you cannot turn around and say "well, look madam, in this situation, this is exactly what happened to you", it's impossible. But it is interesting to see that the media are picking up on this. It really is a fantastic movement as far as I'm concerned, I'm loving every moment of it, because a lot of people are now learning homeopathy, in particular, homeopathy's dirty secret.

S: Yeah, what it is, that's its secret.

RS: There's nothing in it. That's the secret. And most people, even defenders don't know that.

S: Right

RS: and it's so important that people realize that what you're buying from the pharmacy, sadly, from the pharmacy, has no ingredients, it's a lie, it's a sham, it's a scam, if it were any other product, it would be illegal to do this. Why homeopathy gets a free pass is beyond me, and we are doing everything in this country to end that situation.

S: Yeah, and the situation surrounds... and what really kicked it off in Australia was the issue about teaching this in universities. It's not just more of the same selling nonsense, it's why is this being taught and supported as if it were legitimate in universities, and it becomes an issue of academic standards, and also the responsibility of universities to- essentially if they're teaching a course, they're lending their seal of legitimacy to that topic.

RS: They're failing to uphold the standards of science for which they-

S: Yeah, absolutely

RS: - should be held to, I think for the rest of society. The reason these courses have snuck in, it's been stealth, you know, bit by bit by bit over the years, these things are becoming more widely accepted in the general community. And so to have a group like this stand up more or less suddenly and say "No, this is wrong, stop it", well all the vested interests who are making scads of money, especially the homeopaths who make money out of selling nothing but sugar and water, they're defending not only their belief system, but their income. So I can understand why they'd be so strident in their defense, but, you know what? too bad. What they're defending is demonstrably wrong.

S: It is stealth, you're right, I've seen that in action myself, I think it's deliberately so, it's not just that it's not getting the attention it deserves, the proponents are trying to slip it in, in the dead of night, without much public discussion. And I think the best thing about what's happening in Australia, you know, at least in the English-speaking world, it really is kicking off another round of 'let's talk about exactly what this stuff is'. You know, cos that's all we're saying, let's have an open, honest conversation about what it actually is, about what the evidence shows, and just stop the stealth promotion of nonsense. And it really is sad, I mean it really is a shame that universities are failing in this way. It's happening in the United States as well, but not as bad as what has already happened in Australia, but they're being very successful.

In the UK, I have to say, we're already past the peak, in that David Colquhoun has already been successful in reversing this trend, in getting alternative medicine out of UK universities. And he's doing it by doing exactly what I'm saying, by simply exposing what's being taught. He has found the single most effective method is just to send the curricula to the board of trustees, saying did you know that this is what they're teaching in your university? and that's enough to shame them into shutting down the programs, because it is showing this is utter, pseudoscientific nonsense that your university is teaching. and your summary of what the proponents say is right on, they just lie.

RS: Well, you always have to be careful, you know. I don't mind calling homeopathy a sham and a scam, it is. There are certainly a lot of people who sincerely believe in it.

S: They may believe it, it doesn't make it any less of a lie in that it's wrong. They haven't been intellectually, er, they haven't done their intellectual due diligence. You know, if you're going to advocate something like that, it's your job to make sure that what you're saying is intellectually honest and accurate. And the failure to do that, is the failure to do that, and at some point there ceases to become a meaningful distinction between actual lying, and lying just because of intellectual laziness or not caring. Or, again, you have so much of a vested interest in selling your nonsense that you'll be taken in by the nonsense, so it doesn't matter, you're still responsible for saying things that are wrong.

RS: and we do reach the stage where we meet people, just like the psychics out there and the water diviners who will believe in it, be it reiki, or homeopathy or iridology, and that's the end of the story, there's no getting through to them. So what this group hopes to do is hit it on the head by stopping it in universities. Now, they're at pains, this group, FSM, utter pains, to make sure that people realize that they are not against testing of alternative claims, or looking for new medicines, or in seeing the validity in this, that or the other. That's a vital part of scientific research, and that's how we discover more and more. What their thrust is, is saying, look, it's the 21st century, we can now say these things don't work, and consign them to history. It's OK, we can all move on as a society. Alright, it was worth a shot when they didn't know better, but we now know better, It is wrong to promote them, it is wrong to have them in universities, and that's what this group is doing, and, like I said, the 'Australian Skeptics' are so pleased about this that we are supporting them, and I advise listeners all round the world if they want some ideas, to visit and find out more.

S: I have to point out that one of the go-to people on the other side, Prof. Iain Graham from Southern Cross University, who is essentially defending his university's teaching of this, has made two main points, and like a lot of issues that we deal with, like creationism or whatever, it's the same fallacious points over and over and over again. One point was, and this is a quote from him "the use of alternative therapy, such as homeopathy can be traced back as far as ancient Greece".[3]

RS: What?


S: Well, homeopathy was invented 200 years ago, he's off by an order of magnitude

B: Keep trying, pal

E: and who cares? it's the argument from antiquity

S: It's the argument from antiquity, but it's always nice to have a logical fallacy that is also factually incorrect.


S: When I wrote about it, I thought, oh my god, what does he think about blood-letting and trepanation?

E: It's all good

RS: It's a very interesting point you brought up, Steven, and it harks back to what I was saying about when these people get on the radio, not only will they gish-gallop, but they use what we know straight away are logical fallacies, like the argument from antiquity, and 99 times out of 100, the reporter doing the interview doesn't know about the logical fallacy of the argument from antiquity. And it's a hard battle when you're on, and believe me, I've had experience of being on the media and talking to these people.

S: We're almost playing a game of name that logical fallacy now, but here's his next statement, which is his other go-to point. "82% of Australians seek alternative therapies, obviously, orthodox medicine is not working for everyone"

E: popularity

S: Right, so there are actually several problems in here. Evan, you're right, this is an argument from popularity, which is not valid. Universities should teach what is scientifically rigorous and legitimate despite what is popular. That's the whole point of academic integrity. So using popularity to defend academic integrity is an oxymoron. Second, the 80% figure-

B: It's the argument from stupidity, don't forget that one

S: that figure has got to be grossly inflated, and we know from many surveys and whatnot, that CAM inflates the numbers massively by including all sorts of things into the alternative medicine category, taking vitamins, dieting, massage-

RS: Yes, yes

S: anything they can say is alternative, anything nutritionally-based, or whatever, boom, and that inflates the numbers. But, if you look at how many people are using homeopathy in the US, it's still hovering around 3%, acupuncture, 6-7%. It's still tiny numbers. But then they inflate the populate of homeopathy by including things like vitamins and massage. So it's deceptive, not intellectually honest. Then he makes a false assumption, that people are using alternative therapies because orthodox medicine is not working for them. Guess what? that's not true! People use alternative medicines because they're ideologically predisposed to- or because they were told it works. They rarely cite, it's very much a minority, single-digits, that they were unsatisfied with orthodox medicine, or their physician or mainstream medicine. That's not why people are using it when they are. It's because it's what people are doing, it fits their naturalistic world-view or whatever. Or they were told good things about it. That's why people use it.

RS: Or, as I hate to see, and I see it every time I go to the pharmacy, it's right there on the shelves

S: It's available

E: Right next to the real medicine too, you can almost not distinguish between the two at times

RS: When I was in the UK last week, I went to Boots pharmacy, because I've seen it so many times on the internet, and, yes, I bought myself 5.5 pounds, or whatever it was, of belladonna, 30c. (shakes bag) there it is,

E: So you don't have to worry about werewolves, huh?

RS: I don't have to worry about werewolves. So, I might just keep that on the shelf as a souvenir. So thank you for letting me have my rant all the way from Sydney


Failure to Replicate Bem's Psi Research (39:08)[edit]

JREF: What We Have Here is a Failure to Replicate
PLoS ONE: Failing the Future: Three Unsuccessful Attempts to Replicate Bem's ‘Retroactive Facilitation of Recall’ Effect

S: Well, there was one more news item I wanted to get to because this was published this week and we have to mention it. Do you guys remember Darryl Bemm's psi research? This is the guy who a year ago published a series of 9 studies in a prestigious psychology journal where he claims that the future can influence the past[4]. He essentially reversed the sequence of events of standard psychological experiments, showing that influences can reach back in time and influence the outcome of performance of subjects before the influence occurs. Obviously, we were very skeptical of these results for various reasons. There were some methodological issues, the magnitude of the effects was very small, and they were not faring very well in early replication. You might also recall that Richard Wiseman had done a replication, and was having a hard time getting it published. He had done a replication, but the same journal that had published Bem's research refused to publish it because they 'don't publish replications'.Which is kind of a separate issue.

So, now Wiseman and some of his colleagues were able to publish three replications of one of the nine studies. This was the one with the largest magnitude effect, and it was the ninth study, and the study design was- the subjects would get a list of words, one after the other, and then they would have five minutes to recall as many of the words as possible. Then, the computer would randomly select half of those words and run the subjects through a couple of practice sessions where they had to group the words etc. So they would be exposed to half of the words over time through one of these practice sessions. And Bem claimed in his study, in his results, that people were better at recalling words that they would later practice. Now there have been three very precise replications by Stuart Ritchie, Richard Wiseman and Chris French. Short story is, they're all dead negative. Together they have a lot of power, they were very careful to use the same program provided by Bem, the same computer program. They used the same number of subjects. They had to change some of the words to make them into the UK- cos these were UK researchers, so they wanted to use UK versions of certain words. So there were trivial changes like that, but otherwise they were pretty exact the same replications. And there's also a fourth replication that was done by somebody else and published in a different journal that was also negative. This brings up a lot of issues to point out. I was willing to say, just from looking at Bem's studies, well, if you do a research looking for effect that's impossible and you find a positive result, you did something wrong. And that's the default explanaition, unless and until we see a high quality study with a statistically significant effect, with a high signal-to-noise ratio, and independent replication. Show me those things, and I'll begin to take it seriously. Now we have replications which are dead negative, which is, sort of, the story with paranormal psychology, right?

RS: Yeah

S: Whenever people get around to replicating any research paradigm, the effects fade away. 'It's the decline effect', right? So now we can say with more confidence, well, both empirical and theoretical, that Bem's research results were almost certainly wrong. There's a lot of things about this that we could talk about, but the one I want to focus on is: how do we explain that? or what does this tell us about how to interpret future research, or the next time a study comes along that looks pretty good on paper. There were quibbles about a lot of the statistical analysis and some of the methods that he used. And Bem was able to argue that that didn't affect the outcome of the research. Like, one thing he did was multiple comparisons without adjusting for that. He also, this is actually a big no-no, he actually peeked at the data as it was coming in.

J: Hey, what the hell?

E: So much for double-blind

RS: Well, well

S: and that could have had an influence, because there's also some evidence that maybe some optional stopping was involved. Specifically, the fewer the subjects in any given trial of his research, the greater the effect. Which sort of suggests that he was stopping when the data looked good. Also, in the study I described, when subjects misspelled a word, they had to be corrected manually, and the people who were correcting the misspelling errors manually knew which words were the target words, and which words were the control words, so that created a huge opportunity to introduce bias into the results. So, Bem argues that if you eliminate those words, it still comes out positive. But here's a very important point. There's a lot of choices that researchers make in doing a study, you know, how to do the statistical, which specific analysis to use, how many subjects to use, like, when to stop collecting data etc. etc. And those are what are called researcher degrees of freedom [5]. And we've talked about this before, right? This sort of recent study, that just by exploiting the researcher degrees of freedom, you can produce positive results even from a hypothesis that we know is wrong, and the result of the data is zero. The results are negative, but you can make them positive just by the wiggle room that we researchers have. So even though Bem can defend each tiny criticism, you add them all up together and it gives you a false-positive result. Which is exactly what he did. They way to know that, or at least strongly implies that, if you do an exact replication, where you make all of the same choices, so in other words, all of the choices have already been made for you, so you're not making them as you go along in order to massage the data, then if the effect's real, then the outcome should still be positive, and if it was a false-positive because you were exploiting these choices, then the effect should go away. Well, the effect went away. This strongly implies, in my opinion, that Bem, whether consciously or subconsciously, was just, you know, exploiting the wiggle-room, exploiting the degrees of freedom to generate a false-positive result, and that's why they haven't survived replication. But, you know, this is why skeptics are skeptics, right? Because we recognize this. So the next time a study comes around purporting to show that the impossible is true, and we'll look at it and go, well, sure, when this happens 10 times, then I'll be interested.

E: Well, what's Bem's excuse, why doesn't he get that? how can he not see the skeptical angle to it?

S: I think he's a true believer, I mean, he's actually a respected psychologist, but, I don't know, it goes to show you can compartmentalize. You can be, technically, a good researcher, but he's missing the boat on this. Do you remember we also interviewed another psychologist Wagenmakers (podcast 294)? Who was very familiar with Bem, and said, if you read his textbook on psychological research, he basically outlines how to generate false-positive data. Like, as his recommendation, like, 'this is a good was to do psychological research. You should look at the data one way, and if it's not positive, well then just look at it another way".


S: and, see if you can extract a result from it, just to see if there's anything to your hypothesis

B: Steve, that reminds me, if you want good ghost photographs, really, you know, have a really bright flash so you can see those ghost globules

J: That's right, actually, that would help

E: yeah, and a little mist in the air

S: Well, it's not a mystery, actually, if you read his own book on how to do psychological research. He basically outlines how to manufacture false-positive results. Not a surprise. So, yet another parapsychological paradigm goes down in flames. It's tiring being right all the time, isn't it guys?


RS: That's a good point, Steve, and it crosses my mind occasionally, I'm thinking to myself, you know, the modern skeptical movement has been going since what, 1975 or whenever it was-

S: Yeah

RS: and what huge things have we had to say where we were completely wrong? But when you think about it, the skepticism isn't about making definite statements, it's about keeping our options open, and looking at the best evidence for something.

S: Exactly. But even, as I've said before, if your position is the method following rigorous methodology, then you'll always be right. So that's what I was saying as tongue-in-cheek. But the other thing I said is a legitimate observation to make about the skeptical movement is that we do spend a lot of time picking easy targets, because a lot of the proponents of the paranormal and pseudoscience make themselves easy targets, and we're there showing that, no, if you actually shine the light of legitimate scientific methodology, logic and critical thinking on to this, you can see that this is pretty blatant pseudoscience. One, it's a good teaching opportunity for the public, and, two, it's actually an interesting psychological study of pathological science - how do researchers like Bem do put out research like this. But, because we're picking easy calls from a scientific point of view, it's easy to be right most of the time. It's not like we're picking winners in closely contested legitimate scientific controversies.

RS: and we're not the ones making far-out statements.

S: Right.

E: That's for sure.

RS: Now, if homeopathy one day down the track turns out to be correct, then that would be an example of, well, we got it wrong

S: Yeah!

RS: But I'm not losing any sleep over that.

S: No, we're going with the high-probability, mainstream consensus of opinions of things. The whole point is 'what's the most likely thing to be true', right? that's the whole point of taking a scientific approach. So it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that it's gonna turn out that way.

Who's That Noisy? (50:26)[edit]

S: Evan,

E: Hey, Doc

S: We had quite a few responses to the Who's That Noisy (WTN) last week

E: One or two, right? So I guess we should play it and remind everyone of exactly last week's WTN, so...

(Plays clip of tune)

RS: That is familiar, I've heard that before. That's really haunting me actually.

E: You ever heard of a tune called 'The Lincolnshire Poacher'?

RS: No

E: Well, that's it. It's the first couple of bars

RS: (laughing) I see

E: A traditional English folk song, supposedly composed in the 1700s. That's been around for a while. It's associated with the country [read county] of Lincolnshire, and it deals with the joys of poaching . All the joys of taking other people's crops and animals and other things that go along with that. It's considered the unofficial country [read county] anthem of Lincolnshire, and it was also the regimental quick march of the 10th Regiment of Foot and its successors the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment and 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment. God save the queen.

RS: God save the queen.


E: Now, however, there's a little bit more to it. It is the prelude, or the introduction of a transmission that is sent out by a numbers station of the same name and fame

RS: Yes, yes, now it's making sense, yup

E: I would never have guessed at how popular this particular numbers station would be to our audience. and I'm not quite sure what- does this mean that so many of our listeners were tuning into short-wave radio signals, prior to the world of podcasting, which came along in 2005? I don't know. It was a torrent. I don't think we've had that many responses to a WTN, ever

J: and everybody got it right. That's what was so funny about it


E: That is true! and we are going to say that everybody wins WTN this week, because there was that many people

RS: Because, our good friend Brian Dunning from does a public talk, and in one of his talks he mentions these numbers stations. Maybe that's why I heard that

S: He also did an episode on it on Skeptoid

RS: Right!

E: But, real quick, I'll give you a bit of background on what a numbers station is in case you don't know what we're talking about. They are radio transmitters and radio transmissions that transmit short-wave radio signals which contain, among other things, supposedly secretly encoded messages. These coded messages come in the forms of numbers, sets of five numbers at a time. Of course, this is all speculation, in the sense that nobody really admits, as far as governments go, that these numbers stations actually exist. So, what's the big mystery? Why wouldn't you admit to something like this, that these short-wave signals are being transmitted?

Well, the most commonly held belief is that these numbers stations are used by governments to transmit signals to spies and spy networks all around the world. And that's one of the beautiful things about using short-wave, because under ideal conditions, a short-wave radio signal can travel around the world, and you can pick it up-

S: Is it neutrino-based?

E: Not yet


S: But do you know how that happens? how you can make a radio signal around the Earth?

B: Bounce it off the atmosphere

S: Yeah, it bounces back off the atmosphere

J: Well, aren't you guys smart! (in teasing voice) "bounce it off the atmosphere"


E: A little more on this. These radio transmissions are one-way transmissions, you really can't answer back. But the beauty about numbers stations' transmissions is that the encryption system used to decode the messages, which is known as a one-time pad, is an unbreakable system. So in the system, how it works, is both the sender and the recipient have a code pad. The code pad has several columns of numbers which seem to be at random. The received numbers are added or subtracted from the ones on the one-time pad being used, and the results are compared to a master-code key list. Each number block usually represents a complete word or phrase, rather than a sequence of characters. And after each page is gone through or used up, that's gone, that's it, it's the end of the code. And, if used correctly, it is said that this system is unbreakable. Even modern computers, algorithms, 21st century technology cannot compare with the effectiveness of this code system, which has apparently been used, reportedly since just after world war one. So we're approaching about a hundred years' worth of having used this system.

S: Yeah, I think it's one of those semi-conspiracy theories that would be plausible. It would be a good way for governments to communicate with spies in the field. If this is a government secret, then it's pretty poorly kept. It's like one of those secrets that everybody knows so would they continue to do that despite widespread belief and knowledge of these specific numbers stations? But I guess, the counter-argument is, as you say, it doesn't really matter, if it's an unbreakable piece of code and you need the sheet of paper, you need the physical object, then tapping into the radio station doesn't help.

E: It does you no good.

S: So, yeah, I could kinda make sense of that either way. Another thing I have trouble with, is, if these are not governments communicating with spies in the field, what are they?

E: Some people believe that it's used to transmit signals to, say, drug dealers and other illegal activity going on. Was that really being used you know so many years ago, maybe that's a more just modern conception, or more modern idea. Now, someone else online suggests that another alternative is that these stations are nothing more than the transmission of grid coordinates by radar surveillance stations tracking aircraft. Now, that's more mundane, I suppose

S: Well, wouldn't that be just public knowledge?

E: Yeah, why then all the coded messages? in that sense, does it really need to go through all this machination to get the information across. I don't know.

S: Alright, Ev, what have you got for this week?

E: This week we've got something pulled out of the vault, I've had this one on ice for quite a while so...

The fuel supply would be plentiful. And it could, in this embodiment, be carried out, we think, in a very simple manner

J: ooh

S: Thanks, Evan

Questions and Emails (57:26)[edit]

S: We're gonna to do one email question this week. This is an audio question. Now, we have asked in the past for listeners who are interested, and they want us to answer a question on this show, to actually record them saying the question. But we don't get too many of them, and unfortunately, we always have to have a combination of good audio quality, which is pretty uncommon, and a question about something we actually want to discuss. But we finally got one. I think it's the first in a while. This one is from Alex Bouchet from Australia, so I had to use it this week, Richard, he's a countryman of yours. Let's hear his question

Hi there, skeptics, I'm Alex from Australia. Let me preface this question by saying that my mother, although having no background in science made the decision not to get me vaccinated as a child. I have recently made enquiries with my local general practitioner as to how I should best go about catching up on the vaccination schedule. My question to you is a scientific one. Now, by not having these vaccinations as a child, will I now be less able to receive the same level of immunity as I would have if I had been vaccinated at the appropriate age? I love the show, and look forward to your answer

S: Well thank you Alex, that's a great question. The short answer is no, they will not be less effective. vaccines essentially work by exposing your immune system to antigens, to proteins, or sometimes parts of viruses or bacteria, or whatever, that then trigger an immune response. Your immune system then responds to those proteins as if they are an infection, and it mounts an immune response. But one of the wonderful things about our immune system is that they have a memory. They remember whatever they've been exposed to, whatever they've mounted a response to in the past, they actually generate memory cells which can then produce antibodies much more quickly in the future.

It's interesting, because the immune system has a very evolutionary model to it, you guys know this? Essentially, our immune system uses the 'gunshot' approach, it makes antibodies to everything but those antibodies don't have a lot of specificity to anything specifically, so they're just blanketing the possible antigens out there in the world, and then when it responds to infection or any kind of invading organism, part of that response is to fine-tune the antibodies to that specific protein or organism. So, not only does it remember how to make antibodies against an infection, those antibodies have a much greater ability to bind to the invading organism, it's much more specific to them. That's how vaccines work, they train your immune system to respond to a very specific antigen, virus or bacteria. That happens no matter what age you are, as long as your immune system is healthy. If you're physically run-down, you won't mount as good a response. You know, the geriatric population, the older generation, they have a less robust immune response. And if you're already fighting another illness, then your immune system is being used up, it's using up it's resources to fight another infection, then you won't mount as much of a response to a challenge.

But, you know, a healthy adult will mount a response, and have the full response to a vaccine that a child does. The timing of the vaccines is mainly about giving them early enough to prevent the diseases that they're geared against. So, we give them as early as it's safe to give them so they cover a period of vulnerability when a child is likely to be exposed, or is vulnerable to those infections. So It's more about getting the protection as early as possible, but not about the ability to mount an immune response.

RS: That's a terrific question from Alex, a really, really thoughtful question that has probably crossed the minds of a lot of people, and as an adult myself, I've had pertussis boosters a number of years back. I didn't keel over and die, strangely enough, and I'm doing ok. But, yeah, a wonderful question, and maybe it will give some adults out there some pause for thought to run off to the doctors and make sure if they haven't been vaccinated, well, now's the time.

S: Right, so let's move on to Science or Fiction

Science or Fiction (1:02:14)[edit]

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine, and one fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Richard, Bob has 100% record so far this year.

J: He's been wrong every week.


S: There's a lot of pressure, let's see how long he can maintain it. Right, here we go, item number one: A recent survey finds that cashews are the most common nut allergy, affecting almost 2% of school age children. Item number two: A new analysis suggests that early feathered dinosaurs may have developed their feathers for display. And item number three: A new report exposes a vast illegal market in transplant organs from live donors, including kidneys, parts of livers, and corneas. Richard, as our guest, you get to go first.

RS: So, number one, 'a recent survey finds that cashews are the most common nut allergy, affecting almost 2% of school age children'. I find this a bit strange, because all I hear about in this country are peanuts, everyone goes mad about peanuts, 'does your food have any peanuts', 'children aren't allowed to eat peanuts, or peanut-butter sandwiches', you can't take them to school.

J: Poor kids

RS: Poor kids, yeah, I love peanut butter. Yeah, I'm going to have to think about that one. So we have our old friends the feathered dinosaurs, who may have developed their feathers for display. I'd totally buy that. Yeah, why not? Evolution works in strange ways. As we know, evolution doesn't have an end-game in mind. Things sort of progress, and flight was not in any thought, out there in the ether when feathers came along. And 'a new report exposes a vast illegal market in transplant organs from live donors, including kidneys, parts of livers, and corneas. Mmm, that would be pretty dire if that was happening, wouldn't it? I'm gonna pick number two, about the feathered dinosaurs, as being science, am I allowed one or two science?

S: Two science, one fiction

RS: Damn! Then I'm going to have to go for, although I haven't heard about it, I think- I've got serious doubts about the nut one. I'm going to go for number three about the organs as science as well. So, two and three, leaving one as the fiction.

S: The nut one is the fiction, is what you're saying

RS: Yeah

S: OK, Jay?

J: er... the one about cashews are the most common nut allergy, first off I was thinking that nut allergies in general would be less than 2%. I was just talking to people- Bob, you and I were just talking about nut allergies not too long ago

B: Yeah

J: and we were saying, what is it, cashew, the actual casing of a cashew is really dangerous. The nut itself is not, but the shell, people can have an allergy to. But you're not talking about that, Steve, but that's interesting. Moving down the list, the one about the analysis suggesting that early feathered dinosaurs may have developed their feathers for display. Well, OK, this is a good and interesting thing to talk about. Feathers are definitely used for show, and used for insulation, and used for flight in some animals and there's a lot of really interesting, good things that feathers do. But I really do get the idea that the whole thing that feathers first came about for show. And I can see someone making a very strong argument for that, and the last one about the report exposing a vast illegal market in transplant organs. Come on! We covered this a million times, unless this has recently changed, there is no vast and illegal market where people are ... donating? what is this, transplanting live organs, kidneys? all that? No, that one is on the list, absolutely, so I'm going to put that on the maybe list right now. Right, I'm going to do a Costanza this week, my gut is telling me to go with the one about the organ donor situation, so I am actually going to go with the first one, the nut allergy, as the fake.

S: OK, Evan?

E: Oh, the nut allergy. So, cashews, how many school-age children are eating cashews? it's not the most popular nut, certainly peanuts are the first nut that comes to mind. But cashews? I dont' know. The feathered dinosaur one's the one I have most confidence in of the three, this one's science. And the last one, the vast illegal market in transplant organs from live donors, including kidneys, livers, parts of livers, and corneas. parts of livers, that's interesting.

S: Well, if you donate your whole liver, you're no longer a living donor

E: I get that, yes. But I didn't know you could donate part of your liver. I'm tempted to say that this one's the fiction. It's between the nuts and the organs...

RS: (laughs)

E: Which food group am I going to go with? well, I'm leaning towards the organs one being fiction.

RS: oooh

E: Hang on, I'm not ready to take my finger off the chess piece yet, Steve, hang on

S: Your nuts are hangin?

E: I'll stick with it, I'll live or die by it - hah - and stick with the organs being the fiction

S; OK, Bob?

B: The fact that, in order for this to work- I mean, this isn't somebody make making bootleg booze in their basement, or growing marijuana in their backyard. I mean you're taking kidneys and livers and corneas out. Very specialized work, you're not going to really be doing it yourself, you're going to include a lot of people. It would take a lot of specialized talent and equipment to actually pull this off. To me, that makes it less likely. But the word that gets to me is the word 'vast'. But I could see other countries where $50 could basically feed your family for a month, type of thing, yeah, you might wanna let go of a kidney. So that sorta weakens my argument a little bit. But I can't seem to get away from that, that it would be so hard to have so many people. The dinosaur one, the feathered dinosaur one, yeah, that's almost too easy, I'd say, I think. And the cashews, yeah I don't know what to make of that. 2%? Yeah, I don't know, that does seem to be a little bit high. And cashews? I never would have thought cashews, but, still, there's this vast illegal market in transplant organs, so I'm going to go with that one and say that one is fiction. Ah- I'm scared


S: So, we got an even split, Jay and Richard think that the nuts is the fiction, Bob and Evan think that the illegal transplant market is the fiction. You all agree, amazingly, that 'a new analysis suggests that early feathered dinosaurs may have developed their feathers for display'-

E: Uh-oh

RS: I'm worried now

S: you guys all think that one is science. And that one is science.

(cheers and laughter)

E: Don't do that

S: Yeah, so you guys hit on that, it was kind of an easy one. But it's a very cool news item. Are you guys familiar with microraptor?

B: Yeah

E: Oh, sure!

B: The little guy, sure

S; Four wings

J: Four?

S: Yeah, arms and legs

J: Awesome!

E: Do two of them have one purpose, and two have another purpose?

S: Well, new analysis of- er, researchers have been figuring out ways to find out what the color of feathers were, based upon the proteins. So, they had iridescent wings, similar to a modern crow or a grackle. Grackles are actually more iridescent than crows. And also, they had these elongated tail feathers. So a new reconstruction makes it look much more like these were elaborate display organs, and that they're not really optimized for flight. Not that they couldn't fly, but that these long tail feathers were for display, and they hypothesize that it's possible that one of the pre-adaptations - what feathers were for before they were for flight, because Richard is right, feathers must have developed before flight. Because, you know, they would have had to develop for a while before they would have been really useful as flight feathers. So one hypothesis is that feathers were for warmth, for thermo-regulation, display, and this organism supports that, in at least some lineages, that display was an early adaptation for feathers. Another one is that they were maybe useful for for catching insects, for trapping small prey. I don't know how popular that one is. And the other one is gliding, which could either have been, maybe just prolonging the distance of a predatory pounce, you know, if you jump on prey, you can sort of glide a few extra feet, and jump on it from a greater distance. And then, maybe later, descending, gliding down from branches, and eventually to full feathered flight. Once you get any aerodynamic pressure on it, then you're on the short-path to flight.

So, let's go to number one, 'A recent survey finds that cashews are the most common nut allergy, affecting almost 2% of school age children'. I'm going to torture you a little bit longer with this one before I give you the answer

J: (groans)

E: (laughs)

B: You bastard!

S: What if I told you-

E: Stop! I can't take it!

S: -that peanuts are not nuts, they're legumes

B: they're legumes!

RS: Oh, dammit!

E: oh, that's right, I always forget that.

S: What if I further told you that cashews contain the same allergic-creating protein that poison-ivy does.

J: Oh my

RS: What?

S: Did you guys know that?

E: I just ate a bunch of cashews today, and they were good.

RS: I just ate a bunch of poison-ivy

S: Urushiol, it's a resin that can create significant allergic skin rashes. But still, that one is the fiction.

B: OH! it was a good run.

RS: Aaah! (laughs)

E: Wow

J: Wait, wait. Did I win and Bob lose?

S: Yes, amazing as that sounds

B: Yeah, Jay, it happens once every few months

J: excuse me, did I do a clean sweep?

B: Yeah, cos you had to use the Costanza gambit


J: What happened, Bob? I'm sorry that I was the vessel to break your 100%, I'm sorry.

B: That' s right

S: Well, Jay, you're taking credit for this now? I finally trick Bob and you're taking credit?


S: Alright, I actually toyed with the idea of using the 'peanuts are not nuts' gambit to make something, to trick you guys, but I figured that would be too cruel

E: Yeah, it would've been

S: So the total percentage of nut allergies, including peanuts and tree-nuts, is about 1.3-1.4%. Peanuts comprise 1%, so that's mostly peanut allergies. Although there are a lot of crossovers, a lot of the same proteins, between peanuts and tree-nuts, and therefore people that have allergies to one, often have cross-over allergies to the others, so it's not like a clean category. And it is true that cashews do contain the same allergic resin that's in poison ivy. But, they're heat-treated to take it out of cashews. So, even if you buy raw cashews in the store, they're not truly raw. They have been steamed or boiled, or heat-treated in some way to remove that resin so that they are safe to eat.

The news item that inspired me to concoct that was interesting in and of itself. what they did was, it was a survey of adults and children, looking at their ability to identify different nuts on sight. What they wanted to know is do children, or do parents of children who have allergies, are they better able to identify the different nuts on sight, than children or parents who do not have allergies. OK, what do you think the answer was?

E: nope

B: I don't care

S: Nope, they were no better - Bob's still in mourning. He's mourning the passing of his record


E: Bob's ready to say goodnight

S: So, adults got about 58% correct, of the 19 nuts they were asked to identify. Children did worse than that, they got about 30-something percent, and older adults did better. So basically the older you were, the better you did. Healthcare professionals did no better than the general population. Parents with kids with allergies did no better than parents of kids without. So, this was in a pediatric journal, and the point was, we need to do a better job of educating people with allergies to identify the nuts they're allergic to. And also, I've read in their and other sources, when I was doing some background research for this piece, that pediatricians basically- if you have a peanut allergy, they just say just don't eat any nuts. Because they don't want to trust the patient to be able to identify one nut from another. So it's easier to just say 'avoid all nuts', and because of the issue I brought up about cross-over allergies, and these can really be rapidly fatal, anaphylactic reactions. So, it is a serious health problem if you have a peanut allergy.

RS: That's what we say in the 'Australian Skeptics' - avoid all nuts

S: avoid all nuts, that's right

E: At all costs

RS: Thank you, goodnight.

S: All this means that 'a new report exposes a vast illegal market in transplant organs from live donors, including kidneys, parts of livers, and corneas' is - science. And Bob, I agree with you, this is a tough one, I might've got taken in on this one too. Because, how could you-

B: you definitely would've


S: - carry out a vast black market. But, a researcher did an undercover investigation and was able to expose this network. Of course, it's in Bangladesh, I didn't say it was in any particular country, but it does cross over into neighboring countries like India etc. And this is how, essentially, it works: the brokers - the people who are making all the money, hook-up rich individuals who need an organ with a poor prospective donor. They promise to pay the poor donor a lot of money. Oftentimes, these donors don't even know what they're getting into, you know, one guy they reported didn't even know what his liver was. They're offered an amount of money that, to them, seems like a massive- you were right there, Bob, they're living on $2 a day, and they're being offered the equivalent of $2,000 that's huge. They think they're going to become, by their standards, rich, so they're willing to go through with this. So, their documents are forged, saying that they are related, and that the organ is being donated, you know, free of will. And then the hospitals, the doctors, the insurance companies kinda all know what's going on is shady, but they look the other way because they make money off of the whole process as well. So everybody kind of looks the other way and then- it's illegal, it's illegal to buy organs, so it's an illegal network, but the fraud is just in pretending that they're family members. And then, a lot of times, the poor donors are shafted, they're paid very little compared to what they were promised. They're really hurt by the surgery, you know, some of them are not able to work afterwards, they're in chronic pain. Even corneas, to think people are willing to sacrifice an eye in order to feed their family! So, they're being exploited, it's a human rights violation, it's illegal, and it's happening and people are sort of letting it happen and looking the other way because, it's not necessary, but it's keeping the whole operation going.
So, good job, Richard, you went first, and you pulled it out. You sniffed out that cashew allergy like no problem

RS: Well, it was a toss-up. It wasn't quite the Costanza method I used, but yeah


Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:20:00)[edit]

S: Jay, do you have a quote this week?

J: I have a quote, this quote was sent in by a listener named Mark Schindler, from Honolulu, Hawaii. And this quote is:

Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgements can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.

J: Any guesses?

E: Sarah Palin?


E: I think not

J: One of my all-time favorites (shouting) Richard Feynman

(surprise and cheers)

S: Ah, that's a good one

E: You can never go wrong with Feynman

S: He was a fine man.

Announcements (1:20:47)[edit]

S: Jay, you have a couple of announcements this week

J: I have two very important announcements this week. So, on March 29th, two listeners of this show are getting married, and the cool thing about this wedding is it's a non-traditional wedding with a skeptical twist.

S: Wow, a skeptically-themed wedding?

J: Yeah, well, my wedding had a skeptical theme, and I think Wayne may have heard me talking about it on the show. And he came up with a really cool idea. So the first thing is, Wayne, his full name is Wayne Freeman, is surprising his soon-to-be bride Tisha Harrington with the entire wedding. Which I've never heard of before, and, Wayne, I really hope that you pulled it off and that you know what you're doing. Wayne planned this secular service, and it's being performed by a friend of his, who is an English Lord, and there will be skeptically-themed readings including something Wayne wrote called the galaxy song. He's naming the tables after scientific and skeptical heroes, and each of the tables are going to have quotes on the tables from this person. So the guests can sit there and they'll know who the table is named after, and they'll read quotes from them, and talk about that. You know, add to the mood of the entire event, which is really cool, I mean, for somebody like me, that would be awesome, that's like the perfect wedding. The reason I wanted to mention this, not only did Wayne come up with something very romantic and cool, especially for something for geeks like us, but I think it's a really good example for our listeners about how critical thinkers can have a romantic and intellectually honest celebration that's about their lives together. Wayne also asked me to find him a quote that had critical thinking, skepticism and romance woven together, and you know what, Wayne, I looked and I couldn't find anything, so I wrote you something. I thought that this would be better because I'm writing it specifically for what you requested, as opposed to me trying to find something that fits in. So, my quote is:

Love does not come from our heart, but from our mind, which is a far more wonderful, and profound origin. Because only in your mind can love, passion and the pursuit of truth and honesty all intertwine and act as one.

J: Good luck guys

S: That was very nice, Jay, and congratulations you guys, good luck with everything. Well, Richard, it's wonderful having you on the show, have you got anything coming up soon that you should tell people about?

RS: Well, just generally speaking, for those listeners in Australia to find out more about what's happening in Australia should be your first port of call and if you want to listen to an Australian-sounding podcast, from a skeptical angle, the And if you want skepticism into your school, check out Thank you!

S: All awesome outlets of critical thinking and skepticism. Well, thanks again for joining me this week everyone.

RS,B,J,E: Thanks, Steve

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]

  • The Vanguard 1 was the first solar-powered satellite, launched into space on March 17th 1958.
  • Researchers have sent and deciphered a message through 780 feet of rock using a beam of neutrinos Neurologica article
  • A one-time pad is a type of encryption used since the first world war that is considered to be impossible to crack if used correctly
  • Vaccines are effective at any age, provided that the recipient has a healthy immune system
  • A new analysis suggests that early feathered dinosaurs may have developed their feathers for display (press release)
  • The total percentage of nut allergies, including peanuts and tree-nuts, is about 1.3-1.4%. Peanuts comprise 1%.
  • Researchers found that, when asked to identify 19 types of nuts, adults, including healthcare specialists and parents of children with nut allergies scored less than 60%. Children were worse, at around 30% (researchnews article)
  • A report has exposed a vast illegal market in Bangladesh for transplant organs from live donors, including kidneys, parts of livers, and corneas (MSU News article)


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