SGU Episode 349

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SGU Episode 349
24th March 2012

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SGU 348 SGU 350
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
Advances are made by answering questions. Discoveries are made by questioning answers.
Bernard Haisch
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Show Notes
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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 Wednesday, March 21st, 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: (Jewish accent) Vat is this? Pod-casting?


S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening ladies and gentleman. How's everyone?

J: Hola, Evan.

R: Super.

S: Good, fine and dandy.

E: Now this was some winter, huh?

J: Oh, crazy right?

S: This is my kind of winter.

E: We barely had any snow this year in New England. It was in the 50s for a large part of the winter in southern New England, which is unheard of.

S: I love the vernal equinox because it means the next six months the sun is in the upper half of its course through the sky.

B: I hope all of you have released your white owls.

S: Well anyway. Rebecca, what else is special about this day?

This day in skepticism (0:58)[edit]

R: Well, this day marks the anniversary of a quite horrific event. March 24th, 1989 was the day that the Exxon Valdez spilled oil into Prince William Sound.

S: You just can't let it go, can you, Rebecca?

R: No, no me and the otters...

S: (laughs) the otters.

R: ...are really pissed about it still.

E: One drunk sea captain, you know, guides the boat into the low—into the shoals and he pays for it for the rest of his life.

R: I think, apparently that's a... apparently that's a bit of a myth—the captain apparently was drunk but was not at the helm. The third mate was, and on the list of things—what went wrong, the biggest ones seems to be that the radar for detecting possible collisions had been broken for nearly a year. Also...

E: And the captain was too drunk to know it. Apparently.

S: We'll get to that eventually.

R: And apparently all of the crew was severely overworked and exhausted and had been for quite some time. So those were identified as being the main causes of why it ended up striking a reef and spilling up to possibly 750,000 barrels of oil. It's not, however...

E: Think of all the cars and furnaces that it would have provided heat and energy for. It's very sad.

R: Yeah, despite how devastating that oil spill was, it's not even in the top ten worst oil spills of all time. It was, though, the worst one in the US up until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. But yeah, it's kinda crazy to think that there are oil spills happening all the time and some of them are much much worse than the Exxon Valdez. Yeah, there's a happy thought for you. The ship itself was recently auctioned off, actually. Just the tanker. Just this week it was sold for scrap. So apparently, it was renamed the Oriental Nicety.

S: Mmm hmm?

B: For real?

R: I guess as some way to trick people into to thinking it was err...

E: Oh my gosh, you might as well call it the "Happy Ending". What the hell?

S: (laughing) The Oriental Nicety?! That's odd. I've a funny Exxon Valdez story. I was in Epcot Center in Disney World shortly after that oil spill and the dinosaur exhibit was, I guess, funded by Exxon and before you get to see the dinosaurs, there's essentially a big commercial for Exxon. At one point they have this aerial shot of an oil tanker going through a harbor and they go: "The beautiful Exxon Valdez..." 'Course everyone starts laughing 'cause this is like right after the disaster; they hadn't updated the ride yet. (laughs)

E: Time to update the rides...

R: That's a little embarrassing.

B: D'OH!

R: Here's my question: I've always heard people call it the Exxon Val-deeze but I don't understand why they pronounce it Val-deeze, when it's obviously Valdez.

S: I don't know I'm just slavishly following what I hear.

R: Yeah, I don't know. I think it's weird.

S: But at least we can have our superhero magical bracelets to make it all better. Right, Jay?

B: Nice segue.

R: That was a good segue, Steve.

S: You know, it kinda takes away from it when you say it's a good segue.

R: I know; that's why it's funny, and every single time, Steve, you will never be able to do a segue without us calling attention to it.

S: (laughs) OK.

R: This is your curse.

News Items (4:39)[edit]

Superhero Pseudoscience[edit]

J: Steve jumped right into it. I wanted to loosen up a little bit before we say bad things about Marvel, to say some good things about Marvel like, you know, I think that for their super hero movies they've done a great job. You know, for the most part I've liked all of them, and you know, the Avengers movie is coming out and I'm really psyched to see it; it's totally right in my sweet spot. I mean, I love super heroes; I love like, you know, science fiction-y stuff like that. So it really was disappointing to find out that Marvel—and probably even more involved is the production company that they're using, the marketing company that they've hired for the Avengers film—sadly has—is selling some crazy wacky merchandise. So they are selling a magic bracelet, a real magic bracelet, à la Powerband-type BS.

E: As opposed to that fake magic bracelet?

S: They're not a toy; they're making actual claims for it.

J: Yeah, they are. Here, I'll get into some of the details here. "The limited edition Magtitan Neo Legend has a carbon fibre surface finished with a coat of transparent resin that yields an attractive stylish design."

S: Oh, I thought you were going to say transparent aluminum. That would have been impressive.

J: A 100 mT (1000 Gauss) ferrite permanent magnets arranged in Colantotte's unique alternating north-south polarity orientation, which is—

B: Oooh.

E: (laughs) Unique!

J: They've trademarked A-N-S-P-O. ANSPO trademark.

S: So let me get this straight—

R: I'm holding out for the east-west polarity.

E: Yeah, I'm there too.

S: They're saying that because they have alternating strips of magnets with the north-south polarity alternating, and that's supposed to be unique to this. That's exactly how you make a refrigerator magnet.

E: Now wait a minute; what are you accusing them of?

S: That's how the refrigerator magnets have a very, you know, narrow—of depth but relatively strong for the power of the magnets used—attraction right? That's why, like when you pull a refrigerator magnet off of the refrigerator, it's really strong over a very short distance but it very quickly gives way—

J: Right, drops off.

S: That's because they have alternating strips of north and south, you know, poles in the magnet.

R: Yeah, but Steve, is a refrigerator magnet made of adamantium? I don't think so.

J: I don't think so; yeah, Steve; come on.

S: A really good refrigerator magnet.

J: Steve, you can say what you will, and put it down, but "each limited edition Magtite Neo Legend comes in a special limited edition package commemorating Marvel's The Avengers movie". So of course it works—it works, Steve; you gotta buy this thing.

S: Because the Avengers are real.

J: Now—I'm perusing the website and I have to admit, the design of it's pretty cool, but I'm going around the website and I was nosing around the SGU forums and they were chit-chatting about it and they came up with a couple of interesting things. Somebody on our forums said that this is basically proven to work in Japan; like, they have real medical benefit in Japan. I couldn’t find any proof of that, so if anybody does, I'd be interested to read it for myself. But what they do have on the website is, of course, they have first-hand comments by professional athletes.

S: Oh here we go.

J: "The Magtite Neo Legend is Colantotte's finest gear. The combination of pure titanium and carbon fibre is great, plus it's been created specifically to commemorate Marvel's Avengers movie"[1]. Two things! Two comments. Ready? One: That guy did not write that, he did not say that.

E: (gasps) No!

J: If that guy walks around talking like that, he needs help.

S: Don't you love it when anecdotes like that are written in ad copy?

J: Right.

S: It's so obviously written by some sales guy, and it's supposed to be a spontaneous endorsement or anecdote from somebody. You know what I mean? It's so transparent.

J: Steve, pretend I'm Rory McIlroy and ask me about that bracelet I'm wearing?

S: Hey, can you tell me about that bracelet you're wearing?

J: "The Magtight Neo Legend is Colantotte's finest gear. The combination of pure titanium and carbon fibre is great". Yeah, right.

R: That's really natural.

E: I think Rory has a Scottish accent, actually—

J: Don't even...

E: —if memory serves.

J: (attempting Scottish accent) "The Magtight Neo Legend is Colantotte's finest gear".

R: What? What was that?


E: (Scottish accent) I'll take swords for four hundred.

B: I think you just invented a new accent that's never been heard of before.

R: Yeah, it think it was just shouting. It was like a Klingon variant.


J: So anyway, the second thing from that guy's endorsement that makes me shudder is he says, "I can't wait to go see this movie with my mates to watch Colantotte's Magtite Neo Legend in action". Does this mean it's in the movie? Is it in the movie, Marvel?

E: Clearly.

J: Seriously.

B: Oh, God.

S: I guess so.

E: Someone had to pay for this movie.

S: You gotta give it to 'em; I mean, it's pretty brilliant, having a magic bracelet be on a superhero. I mean, right?

R: Yeaaah?

E: OK, yeah.

J: The marketing is good; the marketing idea is good, especially because most people will probably buy into it, even if it's just because it looks good. But you know, it's very—

R: It'll probably still better than those Green Lantern rings.

S: (laughs)

B: Ha!

E: I've got two of those.

J: It's a sad state of affairs when a company like Marvel, which is a company that produces fantasy, right? You know, they're actually—

E: Oh yeah.

B: They're still doing it.

J: —morphing into reality here; saying, you know, "let's cash in on the fact that we write about magic and sell magic."

E: Yep.

J: So, I'm a little twigged at Marvel right now.

S: What has this world come to.

E: Payin' the bills. It's payin' the bills.

B: Jay, on the website it shows a picture of the bracelet and underneath it says: "The superhero's secret"

J: Yeah.

B: Oh wow, really? That's their secret, huh? Two little magnets on their wrist? Yeah, that's what it does it.

R: I thought it was leaking radiation. We should try that.

E: Bob, that's a secret.

S: So you're saying it doesn't work, Jay?

E: Can we agree that DC maybe is taken a notch up due to this? And maybe...

J: Yeah absolutely,

E: ...and maybe Marvel have suffered a hit.

J: It comes out April first; I couldn't find any pricing; I bet you it's going to be in the 60 to 100 dollar range[2].

S: April 1st. Really?

E: April 1st? Hmmm.

J: Well, what do you think? Do you think the whole thing is a hoax?

E: Something hoaxy this way comes, no.

J: I don't think so and I'll tell you why. The company that produces the bracelet—I researched them; they make a lot of other BS stuff. The negative ion crap and all that stuff.

S: Yeah.

E: Of course.

High Altitude Skydiving (10:54)[edit]

BBC: Skydiver Felix Baumgartner on track for super jump

S: All right. Well, let's move on. We have a bit of a follow-up to a previous discussion; we had Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay on the show a few weeks ago; we talked about the upcoming attempted world-record-breaking high skydive—high altitude sky dive from Felix Baumgartner. And there's a discussion and bit of a news update. The news update is that he completed a test jump recently. He jumped from 71,500 feet or 22 kilometers above New Mexico, landing safely 8 minutes later. Although this is only a test jump, that puts him in the top three in terms of the highest altitude skydives ever. This is a preparation for his planned jump later this year in which he will break the world record. He's planning to jump from 120,000 feet. So the current record stands at 102,800 ft in 1960 by Joe Kittinger, who was a US Air Force colonel at the time. When we were talking about Baumgartner's planned jump on the last episode, we mentioned the fact that it's inherently dangerous to jump from such a high altitude because of the velocities involved and that Kittinger, during his jump in 1960, actually spun out of control, blacked out, and didn't regain consciousness until after his chute had automatically deployed. So when I was researching this for this piece, I found out that that's sorta true but one thing we didn't mention is that was—that occurred on the first of Kittinger's three jumps. This was the Excelsior mission, is what it was called; there was Excelsior I, II, and III.

J: Excelsior!

S: Yeah, the third one was the one where he you know, is the record still stands now at 102,800 feet. It was the first one, Excelsior I, where he spun out of control. The reason he spun out of control didn't have anything to do with the conditions of the jump—the aerodynamics or the thin atmosphere, or the velocity; it had to do with the fact that his pilot chute deployed too early. He, in releasing from the gondola, he had to yank on the cord a few times before it came loose but he actually started the timer on the first yank. So the timer was going before he jumped off the gondola and then his pilot chute deployed too early, so he wasn't going fast enough. Normally it'll only deploy after you get up sufficient speed that the aerodynamics are such that it will be pulled back away from you, but he was going too slow when it deployed and therefore it flopped around more than it should have and it actually wrapped around his neck. And this started him spinning. He basically got tangled up in the pilot chute; he started spinning out of control. They estimate, I think, 80 RPMs, and he blacked out. Then he fell all the way to 10,000 feet, when the barometric release triggered his reserve parachute and this didn't—this got tangled too. But they had installed a backup contingency, where the original chute would break away and that worked, allowing the reserve chute to inflate at about 6,000 feet. And he survived, obviously, and landed safely. So the spinning out itself was more of an equipment thing and didn't have anything to do with just the difficulty of dropping from such a high altitude. But this whole discussion started an email discussion with the listener who essentially said that... This is his point. He said: if you jump at a very high altitude, the experience for the skydiver is the same because you're going to reach terminal velocity—and terminal velocity is, by definition is the wind resistance is going to equal the acceleration due to gravity—and therefore it doesn't really matter if it's a thin atmosphere and a high velocity or a thicker atmosphere at a lower velocity. The net resistance against the sky diver is the same so it feels the same to the sky diver. So I totally get that, and I see no problems with that line of logic. But here was my counter point: The difference here is that when you jump from very high where the atmosphere is thin, terminal velocity is a lot faster. You're going to be going a lot faster and then you have to lose all of that extra velocity, so when you get down into the thicker atmosphere, you're not just approaching terminal velocity, you're already exceeding the terminal velocity of the lower-down denser atmosphere and therefore the wind resistance has to actually decelerate you; it has to slow you down.

E: Drag, yeah.

S: Yeah so therefore the drag is greater than if you jumped at the lower altitude and were just getting up to terminal velocity. But he didn't agree with that point. He thought, yeah but it depends on what the curve of the change in atmospheric density is, but I just don't buy it. For example, it's estimated that during Kittinger's record-breaking jump, he reached a maximum speed of 625 miles per hour. Terminal velocity at lower down—the normal altitudes that people sky dive from—is somewhere between 117 and 125 miles per hour, depending on, you know, your position and your size and whatnot, and in like a head-down bullet position, it's about 210 miles per hour. So you figure Kittinger had to lose about 500 miles per hour of velocity when he descended into the lower atmosphere. That's gotta be a lot of extra force from wind resistance that you wouldn't have on you if you were jumping from, you know, say, 10,000 feet. Right? I tried to find—that's just my reasoning. I don't know what the final answer is. I kinda propose it as an interesting physics question but no one has given me a real definitive answer, what do you guys think about all that?

J: Steve I agree with you. I think, you know, correct me where I'm wrong here, from what you're saying, if you're in a thinner atmosphere, terminal velocity is going to be faster.

S: Right. That we all agree on, yep.

J: Then the idea is that you will eventually stop accelerating and maintain a speed when you hit—enough air molecules basically get piled up underneath you that pretty much matches what it would be like, say, jumping at 10,000 feet, right?

S: Yeah. So it's thinner air but it's rushing past you faster and the net wind resistance is the same. That's right.

J: Oh, OK.

S: But the difference I'm saying is: yeah but then you descend into denser atmosphere where you have to—you're not just maintaining a terminal velocity, you're actually significantly slowing down because the terminal velocity is getting lower as you descend into the thicker atmosphere. The other point I raised, which no one's given me a good answer to is: all right, so I understand the wind resistance will be the same but you still are going faster; your velocity is greater. So if you do spin out at a higher velocity, would there be the potential for the RPMs to be greater? Will you spin out faster? And that's the real risk; that you'll spin out so fast that you'll black out, right?

J: Right. Yeah so, in other words, so if you do a spin out, at say, 70 or 80 thousand feet, you might actually be going so fast that, you know, your blood pressure goes totally crazy, where maybe...

S: If you're going 500 miles an hour, and you spin out, is that more dangerous than when you're going at 120 miles an hour? That's the question. It's interesting; I posed it on my blog, but nobody really gave me a good answer. You know, Jay and I have been chatting about this and we asked a physics friend of ours who didn't really add anything to what we just said. So I dunno; it's an interesting thought experiment and we'll put it out there to our listeners to further the conversation. I still—it still seems to me that it would be more difficult and more risky to do the high sky dive because—it's the deceleration and the absolute velocity; how that translates into spin; those are the two points that I'd like to hear discussed. But Baumgartner is going to be making his next jump later this year where he's going to try and break the record and his one observation—I mean, all the equipment tested out and worked fine but he said the cold was like really hard to handle. So before he goes...

B: His hands were actually sort of numb he couldn't use them.

S: Yeah. So before he goes up higher—So his test dive was from 71,500 feet. He's going to 120,000 feet; that's going to be a lot thinner, a lot colder. So yeah, I think they're going to have to tweak the spacesuit there that he has, if he's going to be able to tolerate the cold at that height.

B: So put those heat packets in the gloves. That's all.

J: Yeah.

R: Or those mittens that you put in the microwave.

S: There are those people who go into the minus 120 degree refrigerators for like ten seconds. You guys hear about that?

B: Yeah.

R: Why would you do that?

E: Wow.

S: 'Cause why do you think? Because it's supposed to have some magical health benefit.

R: Oh yeah.

B: I think I read it's supposed to be invigorating.

S: Invigorating! (laughs)

E: Invigorating? OK.

R: Yeah. You know what else is? A cold shower.

S: They used to throw cold, wet blankets on psychotic patients to calm them down.

J: Yeah. A very calming effect. It's a good—

S: It would shock them, you know? They would be having, you know whatever, they would be out of control, and that would shock them into just shutting down. Just that real sudden extreme cold.

J: Steve, aren't you really just supposed to slap someone silly when they freak out like that?

E: Oh you know, an electrode that uses real electricity to...

S: That's about as scientifically valid.

J: Yeah, according to like the 50s movies, all you got to do when someone's having a hissy fit you just smack 'em one and go, you know...

R: Get yourself together, man!

J: "Get a hold of yourself, woman!" You know, something like that, right?

E: "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about!"

J: (laughs)

Quickie with Bob: Designer Electrons (21:33)[edit]

ScienceDaily: Molecular Graphene Heralds New Era of 'Designer Electrons'

E: You know what I just read? Rebecca wants a quickie with Bob.

S: (knowingly) Oooh.

R: That's true. That's true; I do.

B: Oh sure, Rebecca, but will you hold me afterwards?

R: (thinking) Mehh..

B: Don't answer that question. OK, this week's Quickie with Bob—

R: I'm not into that cuddly shit.


B: For this week's Quickie with Bob I've got a new era of designer electrons. Researchers at Stanford and the S.L.A.C. national accelerator lab have learned how to control the behavior of electrons in such a way that we may see whole new classes of materials which in turn could comprise new and amazing electrical devices. Hari Manoharan, who is associate professor of physics at Stanford, who lead the research said: "The behavior of electrons in materials is at the heart of essentially all of today's technologies. We are now able to tune the fundamental properties of electrons so they behave in ways rarely seen in ordinary materials." So what they did was to use an STM, a scanning tunneling microscope to precisely position carbon monoxide molecules on a very, very smooth copper surface. So they did it in such a way so that electrons flowing over the surface are repelled by these molecules and they're forced into these patterns of flows that are identical to what their behaviors would be if there were a magnetic or electrical field present, even though there were no such fields present at the time. So one example that they pulled off was that they were able to produce a flow of electrons that acted as if they were under the influence of a magnetic field of 60 Tesla. This is incredible because this is 30 percent more powerful than any field ever sustained by science. So these electrons were behaving in ways that there's probably no other way to make them behave 'cause science isn't even up to the task of creating a field and sustaining it that long. So who knows what kind of materials and devices this may lead to? Perhaps video displays and mobile phones and a host of other devices that we would hardly believe today. Do a Google search for designer electrons if you wanna read more about this.

S: Thanks Bob.

R: That's very satisfying.

J: Thank you, Bob.

News items continued[edit]

New Hampshire Abortion Bill (23:31)[edit]

  • [1] (Link broken)

Women's Right to Know Act - January 3 2012

S: Rebecca.

R: Yo.

S: Tell us about the lovely science-based laws that are—bills that are being proposed up in our neighboring state, New Hampshire, or nearby state, I should say.

R: Well, it's very, very exciting time to be a lady in the United States. Our listeners may be aware that right now in state legislatures around the US, there's been this ongoing war on behalf of the religious right attempting to limit women's access to contraception, sexual health education and abortion in any way possible. And they can't just come out and make all that illegal, so, much like the creationists, they have employed a wedge strategy of making life as difficult as possible for women who want control of their own reproductive health. Some of the bills that have been passing in the US have included those mandating that women be unnecessarily penetrated with an ultrasound wand prior to getting an abortion; some are allowing pharmacists and doctors to refuse to provide contraception based on religious convictions. And there are even some politicians who are trying to mandate that women need a signed permission slip from a man before getting an abortion. So that's just to give you like a slight context for those of you who maybe aren't in the US or aren't paying attention. Last week, the New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a bill that would require physicians to give certain materials to any woman seeking an abortion. Those materials are provided under the auspices of "informed consent". You know, we need to make sure women have as much information as possible before getting an abortion. The problem is that those materials include statements such as: "It is scientifically undisputed that full-term pregnancy reduces a woman's lifetime risk of breast cancer. It is also undisputed that the earlier a woman has a first full-term pregnancy, the lower her risk of breast cancer becomes, because following a full term pregnancy the breast tissue exposed to estrogen through the menstrual cycle is more mature and cancer-resistant. In fact, for each year that a woman's first full-term pregnancy is delayed her risk of breast cancer rises three point five percent. The theory that there is a direct link between abortion and breast cancer builds upon this undisputed foundation."

E: Where do they pull that information from?

R: Their asses, actually.

E: (laughs) (Sarcastically) Oh, they're proctologists; I see.

R: (laughs) Yeah, this particular bit of pseudoscience, the idea that abortion increases a woman's chance of breast cancer, has been bandied about, particularly in anti-choice circles, for a number of years now. And in fact, up until the mid 1990s, there had only been a few small but heavily flawed studies that had been done on this particular topic, and a few of those studies did show that there might be a connection between breast cancer and abortions and miscarriages. However, in the past several decades, we've seen several large-scale studies conducted that show absolutely no connection at all. The organizations like the National Institutes of Health, American Cancer Society, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and even the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which is run by anti-choice fundamentalists, all stand by the fact that there's absolutely no link between abortion and breast cancer.

S: Yeah, I did my own literature search, just to see what—not reading political sites, just look at the literature and see what it shows. If you go back into the 1980s, it looks like there was, you know, some debate about it, actually; you could find articles that come to either conclusion. But then when you look at reviews that are written in the last few years, they all agree that there is absolutely no link between abortions and the risk of breast cancer.

R: Right. Those papers that were done in the 80s and early 90s were very small; very small sample sizes, and had a lot of flaws in them.

E: So a coordinated disinformation campaign is underway.

S: Exactly.

R: Well, yeah. Now, this is one of those things—another one I may have mentioned before on the show[link needed], definitely on Skepchick though[link needed], is the idea that—one is the idea that abortion leads to depression, which is another thing that is absolutely not supported by the scientific evidence. And the other is that... that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. This is a quote-unquote "fact" that is becoming commonplace in political discussions in the US these days and it's talked about as thought it's scientific fact, when in fact, it is not. The question of when a fetus can feel pain is actually still up for debate. And by no means is 20 weeks an actual medical diagnosis. This is something that they've gone with that specific number because these politicians have an agenda, and that agenda is to outlaw abortion, and so they're using the idea of fetuses feeling pain at 20 weeks to convince courts to outlaw abortion at 20 weeks, despite the fact that it's unconstitutional.

S: Yeah, and there's good reason to think that it's actually not possible for a fetus to perceive pain before 24 weeks of gestation, just in terms of the development of the nervous system.

R: Right.

S: So that's probably—that's a better guess at this point in time. Getting back—can I comment on the mental health aspect of it?

R: Yep.

S: 'Cause you guys—just again, looking at the literature just to see what it says. There's a lot of complexities, actually, to the mental health issue, because as you might imagine, you could look at studies in a lot of different ways. Retrospectively vs prospectively; you could pick out different sub-populations; for example, a correlation, obviously, just saying that women who are getting abortions are more depressed, for example. Well, probably something to do with their life situation that led them to the abortion that may have something to do with it. That's not the same thing as saying that abortion causes depression. And when you control for those factors, there really isn't any evidence that abortions are causally linked to any mental health problem at all. But again, they're cherry-picking and exploiting the complexities in that particular part of the research in order to make their case. And if you have your desired conclusion in mind, you know, there's enough studies out there, you can cherry-pick—you could support almost any position you want. But the systematic reviews out there done by researchers who are trying to get to the bottom of it and know how to control for different variables are all coming to the same conclusion that there is just no causal relationship between abortion and mental illness.

R: Right. And to get back to this particular bill in New Hampshire, the idea that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. So there's absolutely no evidence to suggest that's true. There is evidence to suggest that you—women who have children before the age of 30, do—they may have a decreased risk of breast cancer.

S: So there is a difference between the outcomes of prospective and retrospective studies. Retrospective basically means you take women who have breast cancer and you ask them if they have had an abortion, and prospective means you follow women who have had an abortion and then you see what their risk of—is of developing breast cancer compared to other women in the same cohort or who didn't have an abortion. The retrospective studies did show a higher correlation with having had an abortion but the prospective studies didn't, and the likely interpretation there is that women who had breast cancer may have been more willing to disclose their prior history of abortion. We're relying upon women to disclose that information. When you follow them going forward, prospectively, there's no correlation. So prospective data is always better; it's always more reliable, because there isn't this recall bias, or maybe this willing-to-disclose bias that could alter the data. So the current consensus is: no correlation.

R: Right. And despite this fact, this bill did pass through the House, and the way that the original bill passed was not just to declare that the doctors needed to give these particular pseudoscientific materials to women seeking abortions, but it also wrote down exactly how those doctors should be punished if they failed to follow through with that. And in the original bill, they recommended class A felonies for any doctor who didn't abide by the law and that came with up to 15 years in prison for a doctor.

E: Ouch.

S: For telling the truth.

R: Yeah, yeah, basically for telling the truth. And luckily, I guess, that original bill, though it passed through the House, was then reconsidered and went back through the House. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee just barely voted in favor of recommending the removal of the class A felony part. Even if that happens, though, the way this bill is written, doctors will still be open to malpractice lawsuits or disciplinary action by the New Hampshire state board of medicine if they do, in fact, tell women the truth about abortion and breast cancer.

S: Which means they can lose their license, basically.

R: Yeah. So, you know, for those of you in New Hampshire, you may want to contact your state representatives immediately. For those of you in the United States but not in New Hampshire, you can't rest so easy because there are similar pseudoscientific bills exactly like this in several other states, and this is basically the religious right's standard operating procedure is to introduce the same or very similar bills simultaneously in many different states at once. So Kansas and Oklahoma, you have similar measures that have been proposed. So no matter where you are, if you are in the US, it might be a good idea to contact your local representatives and just let them know that you support science and reason.

S: You know, the thing I feel obligated to say: it's not like—we're not taking a political position on this show regarding the abortion debate; I mean, this—you know, people have the right to come to different moral and ethical decisions, you know, obviously Rebecca, you have a certain position on that.

R: I do have a certain position.

S: But the point is you can't lie about the science—

R: Yeah.

E: Yes, right.

S: —in order to make your political position, and not only lying about the science by trying to pass a law mandating that physicians make the same lie and trying to punish them for not lying; that is such an abuse of not only professionalism but of science and reason, and that stands aside from the political debate about abortion.

R: Exactly. Yeah.

S: It's a completely separate issue. Yeah.

R: Yeah.

Nuclear Clock (34:53)[edit]

S: All right, well, let's move on. Bob, you got another item. Your full item to talk about has to do with nuclear clocks or atomic clocks.

B: Yeah, this one was... this one was pretty cool. Get ready for timekeeping that makes atomic clocks look like hourglasses. Scientists have demonstrated the potential of a nuclear clock that could gain or lose only a fraction of a second over—get this—fourteen billion years; the age of the universe.

E: Wow.

B: A team of researchers from the University of New South Wales, the University of Nevada, and Georgia Tech have thought up this—well, they didn't actually think this up, they actually... merely just demonstrated what it could actually do—of this super atomic clock of sorts that's based on the oscillations of neutrons instead of electrons. So to put this into perspective a bit, I think I'll just briefly go over some of the key clock technologies of the past few centuries that we're all familiar with, although you might not know some of the details. For example, pendulum clocks—the first appeared in the mid-1600s. Now, these clocks work because their consistent swing depends only on the length of the arm and not on the weight or the weight of the arm itself or the...or whatever weight there might be at the bottom of it or even the arc of its swing really doesn't really matter. They were revolutionary when they appeared because they improved the accuracy of timekeeping from about fifteen minutes a day to fifteen seconds, and that actually was probably the most dramatic improvement in clock technology for the average person that I think there ever was. I think it must have been very dramatic. The other thing that surprised me about pendulum clocks was the fact that they got so good that they would only drift by about a hundredth of a second a day, which is a lot more accurate than I thought. And actually, it is more accurate than a quartz clock, which was a surprise because this technology came afterwards. Now, they—the quartz clocks are probably the most common of all clocks if you add—I mean, so, everyone's got wristwatches.

S: Yeah, I think their big appeal, Bob, was not that they were just more accurate; they're just—they're cheap; yeah, they're cheap and portable.

B: Cheap and portability, right; they were huge.

E: Mine says "The Avengers" on it.

B: And as it turns out, you know, they only lose ten to twenty seconds a year. I mean, that's nothing. That's really nothing. Who cares? So you're at the point where it's just, for the average person, that level of accuracy is perfectly fine. And yeah, like you said, Steve, it's... you know, portability is a huge factor. Now, just real quickly, the quartz clocks, of course, depends on the piezoelectric effect. Essentially, electricity passing through would cause the crystal to vibrate very consistently, which then you could use as a basis for your timekeeping. Then, of course, you've got atomic clocks that are the current gold standard of timekeeping. Now, they're—they keep incredibly accurate time using the orbits of electrons, kind of like a pendulum. Depending on your source, they can lose one second in an amazing twenty to sixty million years, which, of course, is amazingly accurate.

J: Wow! That's awesome, man.

B: Isn't that—yeah, isn't that amazing? One second in many millions of years is incredible. But as awesome as that is, it's nothing compared to what the potential of nuclear clocks may be.

J: Don't even; you're scaring me now.

B: Yeah, right.

E: (chuckles)

B: This proposed method would use a UV laser to orient electrons of a thorium atom in a very specific way, and essentially what this does is it opens a door to tweak the energy state of the nucleus and use the resulting oscillations of a neutron to make a clock that's a hundred times more accurate than the best thing that we have today. Now, this potential revolution in accuracy is because the neutrons are denser and much more tightly packed than electrons. This makes them pretty much immune to electric fields and magnetic fields, which cause atomic clocks to drift by as much as they do over millions of years, and, I mean, they don't drift much, obviously, but they've even now figured out potentially a way to get rid of even that tiny drift. So while researching this, I found a lot of on-line commenters that—they really didn't understand what the big deal was, and they thought that this—an accuracy at this level is just total overkill. You know, what's the point? What possible advantage could nuclear clocks have over atomic clocks? But clocks with that level of accuracy—it's definitely not, you know, a superfluous improvement. Professor Victor Flambaum, who's the head of theoretical physics at the UNSW School of Physics, said that it would allow scientists to test fundamental physical theories at unprecedented levels of precision and provide an unmatched tool for applied physics research. We could also—this was interesting—we could also pair up an atomic and nuclear clock and potentially discover that some laws of physics are not constant in time. Now that would be an incredible discovery. You know, finding out that some of these laws that we think are constant and unchanging—if we could find even a tiny bit of change over, you know, expanses of time, that truly would be revolutionary. And, of course, we could also greatly improve the accuracy of GPS satellites so that your navigator in your car wouldn't tell you to take a left turn at the next lake. And I'm not sure—I couldn't, I couldn't find any... So when do you think that we're going to see this? When's it going to be real? And my answer is: who the hell knows? I don't know how long it's going to take. Although, they did have some surprising confidence in their ability to figure this out. The biggest hurdle, apparently, is finding the exact laser frequency. Now these lasers, they're using petahertz frequencies. They're using petahertz frequency lasers to do this—at least that's what they envision. And one scientist described this not as a needle in a haystack, but a needle in a million haystacks, trying to find that precise frequency that can achieve this result. Apparently, it could take some time.

S: Maybe they can use this to measure how long it takes for neutrinos to go from their source to the detector.

B: (laughs) Yeah.

S: (laughs) Right.

NDE and Lucid Dreaming (40:44)[edit]

S: So, Evan, tell us what you know about near-death experiences. We've chatted about these on the show before, but maybe we have some new information.

E: We have, and we've talked about the near-death experience and is it in fact a way of proving life after death? That's the... that's the main point.

S: I'm guessing no.

E: Well... (laughs)

S: (laughs)

E: Look, you can believe what you want to believe.

J: Come on, Steve, don't you have any faith? Come on, what are you talking about?

S: I'm guessing no.

E: (laughs) Well, there are folks that actually study lucid dreaming. You guys know what lucid dreaming is?

J: Absolutely.

R: Yeah.

B: Oh yeah, love it.

E: Love it too.

B: I love it!

E: A lucid dream is any dream in which, well, you are aware that you are dreaming. And in the lucid dream, you may be able to exert some degree of control over the participation within the dream; manipulate the images you see, manipulate—

S: The environment.

E: —manipulate the environment. And it's actually a scientifically well-established phenomenon that lucid dreaming does happen.

J: Sure!

E: Well, the folks who actually study lucid dreaming for a living rounded up some volunteers and conditioned them to dream about near-death experiences specifically, including the classic scenario of a near-death experience, which is the scenario in which you're flying or drifting towards a light at the end of a tunnel. And what the researchers are saying is that their experiments have demonstrated that these sorts of visions are likely the product of the human mind, rather than supernatural phenomenon, because they are able to condition these dreamers to dream about that very thing. These experiments were done at the Out-of-Body Experience Research Center in Los Angeles, in which they had groups of people—they're saying four groups of ten-to-twenty volunteers; I'm saying that's probably roughly sixty people—were trained to perform a series of mental steps upon awakening during the night that might lead them to have that out-of-body experience that—or near-death experience – that so many people have described. And they were conditioned to try and dream about floating through the tunnel to the bright light that you typically hear about. Eighteen of these volunteers were able to dream that exact experience, as described.

J: Just by prepping themselves before they went to sleep, like, you know, saying, "I want to think about this."

E: Exactly. Right. They were given essentially this target to go after, and they were able to achieve it. You know, near-death experiences have been widely reported. They often get big headlines, and... including famous people that have said they have had these sort of near-death experiences one way or the other, either from a tragic accident that they were involved with or undergoing a surgery—right?—in the hospital and they see themselves kind of floating up above the operating table, and they can talk about things that are in the room, and then, of course, the white light at the end of the tunnel. Eight million Americans are reported to have a near-death experience, and it could be even more than that; those are just the ones that have been reported. Neurologists believe that near-death experiences are generated by the same brain mechanisms that cause lucid dreams, so there is... there's overlap here.

S: Yeah, that was the hypothesis they were testing, basically. So, I mean, you can look at this a few ways. You know, there's lots of evidence to suggest that the near-death experience is a brain experience. All the elements can be produced by different physiological conditions: lack of oxygen, for example, or drugs or sometimes during seizures. So there's lots of reasons to think that this is a brain experience. This is one more bit of evidence that these types of experiences can be generated by the brain; in this case, by techniques that induce lucid dreaming. The one thing I found most compelling about this were those individuals who not only reported going through the tunnel, but actually got to the end of the tunnel and then had an experience where they were visiting with their dead relatives. So they actually confabulated the rest of, you know, the near-death experience, which just shows how easy it is for that to happen. But, of course, those who believe in... that that near-death experience is a spiritual experience and not a brain experience could always say that, "Well, OK, you're simulating a near-death experience by specifically training people to have a dream-like experience that just mimics the details or some of the features of a near-death experience," and that's a legitimate point.

J: Yeah, I agree with that.

S: I don't think this proves that it's not a brain experience.

E: Right.

S: I think you could say at best, it's consistent evidence to show that the brain can have these experiences, but it certainly doesn't prove that there aren't near-death experiences that are spiritual. I don't think there's any evidence that they are, but know, that's the limitation in terms of the implications of this experiment. It could just be a simulation and not actually producing the same experience. You know what I mean?

E: The researchers were quick to point that out, Steve, that this is by no means conclusive; it is one study; there should be more research done, more replication; it needs to pass the peer-review process. So they certainly did this and presented it in the correct context, and that was very good to hear.

S: Right. Yeah. And it'll be interesting to see how far they can take this paradigm; you know, this lucid dreaming in order to investigate the near-death experience and see what else we can learn from it, but it's—I think it's always going to be this one piece to a more complicated puzzle, but an interesting one.

E: When I'm lucid dreaming, I'm always—the first thing I typically think about is restraining myself to not expand the dream so much that I'm going to break the dream and wake up. There's that fine line of doing things that'll pop you out of it.

S: Yeah, but it always happens, doesn't it? It always happens.

E: Eventually it does, but you try to stay in there as long as you can.

B: I have found in my lucid dreaming experiences and from what I've read that the more excited you become, the greater the odds that you're going to fall out of it and wake up or potentially segue into another dream where you're not lucid. And one method that I've used and also read about, if you find yourself kind of losing your grasp on your lucidity in your dream, is look at your hands. For some reason, if you look at your hand when you feel the dream slipping away, it actually can re-anchor you into the lucid dream and maintain your, you know, your lucidity, which was a pretty cool little trick.

E: Yeah, but then you can't concentrate on moving the planets and the stars in the sky and all kinds of cool stuff.

B: Yeah, well, just do that after you look at your hands a little bit.

E: (laughs)

J: I always try to fly. That's like the default thing I do when I become conscious or slightly conscious in a dream.

S: You know what Freud said about that, Jay?

J: No, what do you...what does it mean, that I'm...

R: (Mock humiliation) Gay.

E: (laughs)

J: Yeah, gay.

S: Dreaming that you're flying is an expression of latent homosexuality.

B: Oh my god.

J: Really.

R: Freud thought—

E: "Latent?"

R: —everything was (laughs) an expression of latent homosexuality.

S: Times when I've lucid dreamed, I've marveled at how realistic it is. But the problem is I'm marveling with my dream brain, you know, which is not... doesn't have as much reality testing as my waking brain. So you're much more easy to impress, you know, when you're dreaming, in other words. But nevertheless—

B: To a certain... to a certain extent.

S: Yeah, it's, well, again, when you're lucid, it's partway, you know. It's like halfway between being awake and dreaming. When you're full-on dreaming, you have like almost no reality testing, so... you know, you'll take almost anything as real. That's what keeps you asleep. It keeps you from waking up because of the unreality of your dreams. The lucidity is a breakdown of that. When you have a little bit of reality testing, you're saying, "Hey, this doesn't make sense. This isn't real. I must be dreaming." But it's not enough to fully wake you up, but that's an inherently unstable state, which is why you eventually either, you know, either wake up for real or dream you wake up, which is another way of losing the lucidity. Although, I'll point out that the same is true when you're awake, in that you're assessing the reality of things with your brain, you know? Things feel real to your brain, but that's flawed and artifactual and constructed and biased and subject to illusions. It's just that we don't know any better. It's just—that's the most lucid state that we have. So we can compare different states, and we can say, "Oh yeah, when I'm dreaming, I'm not making sense," et cetera. The same may be true when you're awake; you just have nothing better to compare it to. It's all we know. It's still—in every state, it's still your brain assessing your own brain, and not... you're not assessing it with something outside of your brain that's objective, so you know, in a way, it kind of makes sense that it always seems real to you at the time.

J: Right, so your brain can actually be fooling you into thinking that you are more lucid than you may actually be.

S: Right. That's another way of saying it. That's exactly right.

E: That's a good point.

Who's That Noisy (49:43)[edit]

S: All right. Let's move on. Evan, it's time for Who's That Noisy.

E: It is time for who's that noisy. Each week I play a clip of noises—at least most weeks I do—and we ask the audience to guess exactly who or what was that noisy, and I'm going to play for you to remind you of last week's clip, and here he is.

The fuel supply will be plentiful, and it could, in this embodiment, be carried out, we think, in a very simple manner

E: He had a little Czechoslovakian accent there, so I'll read that to folks who don't know exactly what he said. "The fuel supply will be plentiful, and it could, in this embodiment, could be carried out, we think, in a very simple manner" on March 23rd in 1989; Pons and Fleischmann.

B: Oh.

E: Yes. Martin Fleischmann along with his buddy Stanley Pons had their famous news conference announcing they have achieved cold fusion. That was the voice of Martin Fleischmann in an interview that took place a few week after that announcement which rocked the scientific community, did it not?

B: Oh yeah.

S: For a very short peroid of time.

E: Fleischmann; he was born in Czechoslovakia and emigrated to Britain and is known for his work in electrochemistry and, of course, he came to public prominence through the announcement that he and his cohort had successfully made cold fusion using palladium.

J: Bullshit!

E: Cold fusion is a type of nuclear reaction which would occur at a relatively low temperatures as opposed to, say, the tens of millions of degrees in which fusion happens in the stars and the sun. Relatively very very low compared to that, and this new type of nuclear reaction was proposed to explain reports by experimenters anomalously high energy generation under certain laboratory conditions. But it has been rejected by the mainstream scientific community because the original experiment results—they couldn't be replicated consistently or reliably and there is no generally accepted model—there's no theoretical model of how cold fusion could possibly work.

J: Well, Evan, do you think this is something that we shouldn't persue?

E: I don't... you know, with private funds if someone wants to go for it, sure; but you know, what happens is that these folks wind up asking for grants from governments, other pubic sources of money and so forth, and I really don't think we should be throwing our money—public money down those rat holes. Private money; there's not much you can do about that. Yeah, I guess so, if someone wants to blow millions of dollars on something that doesn't have a theoretical model to it.

S: Yeah, this is playing the scientific lottery; it's a low probability but huge payoff. So how do we decide our research priorities? You can emphasise the huge payoff if you ever did get cold fusion to work, or you can emphasise the astonishing low probability since it doesn't seem like it should work, given what we know.

S: All right. Thanks, Evan, and who got that correct?

E: We did have a winner this week; the first person to answer correctly from the message boards, that's at, for those of you who don't know—klintistvud.

J: Heh.

E: (laughs) klintistvud.

J: Who is this guy?

E: Who is this guy? Who is this klint-ust-vud-yud-mis-ive-vist-ya-christian-fring-gensen? First one to guess correctly that that was in fact Martin Fleischmann. Congratulations; well done.

S: And what do ya got for this week?

E: For this week we are announcing another little contest in which we would like the listeners of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe to provide us with next week's Who's That Noisy and what do we want that Who's That Noisy to be next week? We want you, the listener, to find for us the most skeptical statement ever uttered by a cartoon character. Well, good luck everyone.

S: OK. That sounds interesting. Thanks, evan.

Questions and Emails: Here Comes the Metric System (53:49)[edit]

S: One question this week. This one comes from Liz in Scotland; Liz writes:

Just a quick question. I often wondered why America kept the Imperial system for measurements; miles, inches etc. Do you think it would be better (for science teaching in particular), if you switched to the metric system, and what problems do you think it would create? Thanks for the great show.

S: We often get asked that question by our international listeners, those outside of the United States, why we talk in feet and miles and... and such, yeah.

R: English.

E: Furlongs. Leagues.

S: Furlongs per fortnight. So... Yeah, I don't know. The short answer is: back in the 70s—you guys all remember this; this is before Rebecca's time, but the rest of us—there was the "Here Comes the Metric System." Right? We were all learning this; we were supposed to be totally switched over to the metric system by the end of the decade and I don't know what happened. The whole—it just fizzled out; it never happened.

R: It's, the same thing that happened with the dollar coin, and the second dollar coin.

S: Yeah. And the third dollar coin.

E: Nice idea but...

R: Third dollar coin.

E: Just didn't catch.

S: Culture's hard to chage, I guess.

R: Yeah, especially top down.

E: But we do technically do use both.

S: We do

E: Right? If you look on our containers of milk or juice and so forth, you have, yes, ounces but it'll also often convert it to liters.

S: Well, it's true but milk comes in gallons but our soda comes in liters; we buy two liters of coke and we don't think anything about it.

R: Yeah.

J: I never thought about that; you're right.

S: We have a hybrid system. We have no problem with 35mm cameras or... lots of things, you know. But there are certain things—some if it is industry, like retooling the dairy industry to deal in liters instead of gallons apparently would be a big deal. Others is just culture, you know. We—you get—you think your whole life in miles; you have a feel for it; it's hard to get people to convert, you know? The US would have to pass a law, and say "that's it, people; we're doing it. As of this date, no more English system; all roadsigns are gonna be changed; all cars that are sold in this country have to have only kilometers," and I guess just politically they were unwilling to impose that upon our society so we're still—

E: Yeah, I think people in this country wouldn't take too well to that sort of change.

S: Eh, it's like pulling off a bandage; just do it fast. Get it out of the way and then one generation it'll be like it was always that way.

E: Yeah, I mean, if you make a half-hearted effort to just sort of ask people to please—

S: Yeah

R: —start using metric and particularly if you teach it in terms of like—I remember when I was in grade school I was taught metric as a formula, so you know, there would be a very specific formula you'd use to convert, for instance, Farenheight to Celsius or you know, this for that, when in fact you know, that's not really how people learn to use things; you know, you learn things like that based on—OK, for instance, temperature. You know, instead of learning that 70° Farenheight equals whatever it is, 18° Celsius, is that right?

E: Roughly. Something about that.

R: You would learn that, you know, "oh, well, room temperature is 18° Celsius," you know? And you would learn what the boiling point is—I think it's—I guess it's more like 20° Celsius...

S: Yeah, you gotta live it, in other words.

R: Right. You know, people will learn it a lot faster if you relate it to your everyday life, as opposed to teaching people certain formulas for translating.

S: Yeah. All kids are taught metric in school. But you're right; it's sort of taught as—

R: Yeah. It just doesn't take.

S: It's just another thing they have to learn; it's not—they don't live it.

J: We just have to bite the bullet. You know, it's one of those deals. Let's do it; why are we waiting.

S: Yeah.

J: It's ridiculous we haven't done it yet.

E: And if we're gonna go that far, let's make time metric while we're at it. Let's get the whole thing done in one big fell swoop.

S: Let's not get crazy.


E: That is a little crazy.

S: Centon. Just hold on a centon there, Evan.

B: Frack that.

S: All right. So are we gonna make a commitment on the SGU to go all totally metric from now on?

E: Ohh, that's gonna be hard habit to break.

R: Well, and the problem is that we're... you know, in the business of educating people and being understood and I think what's most important is that the majority of our audience understands what we are saying when we say it.

S: Yeah.

R: And I think that maybe sometimes that means we use Imperial as well as metric.

S: We do try to use both.

B: We try to use both a lot.

J: Yeah, I do.

S: So I hope that answers your question, Liz.

Name That Logical Fallacy (58:32)[edit]

S: We have a Name That Logical Fallacy this week. This one comes from the comments to a blog post that I wrote. One of the commenters wrote the following:

Natural selection (or selection in general) explains how two horses can become all the different breeds we have today, including zebras. This is also how the finches of Darwin fame have longer beaks some years and shorter beaks other years. Everyone knows this happens. The question is this: does that explain how a single-celled life form could become an elephant? Some question that it does. This is called micro-evolution vs. macro-evolution, AKA the development of species or kinds vs. the development of breeds. To make an analogy, everyone knows you can make a ladder to the roof of the house. Does that mean you can make a ladder to the sun?

J: Well, it depends on what your building material is.

S: What's the major malfunction there?

B: Straw man.

S: What's the straw man?

B: Well, just the way that evolution is characterised; you know, evolution obviously isn't merely horses becoming different breeds. It's so much bigger than that; there's just so many interlocking theories that comprise evolution that are all consistent with each other, whether you look at it—you know, whether from the fossil evidence or the genetic evidece or just the biological evidence; even computer simulations. It's just such an unfair characterization of what evolution is.

S: Yeah, I agree, but I think the—in terms of that, in terms of saying, "Yeah horses can become other kinds of horses, even zebras," although horses did not evolve into zebras, but—but not cross over like one kind evolving into another kind. That's a fundamental misunderstanding that, in my experience, most people have and every single creationist I've ever spoken to has read has. Evolution does not—if you think about the process of evolution or the progress of evolution, it's like going down, branching down different channels, and once you've gone down a certain path, you're constrained by that path. Now, you can develop variations on the basic anatomical theme that you have so far, but you can't go back and make completely different devolpmental choices in order to look like something else, right? So yes, you're never gonna have a cat evolving into a crocodile. You know, they are down separate paths—evolutionary paths. Creationists just don't get that. But there's another massive logical fallacy in here; what's that?

B: The false analogy.

S: Yeah. He says, "to make an analogy," so I mean, that kind of suggests it. Yeah, it's a total false analogy at the end there.

B: Yeah, you're comparing—you know, building a ladder to the roof of your house and going—then going to the sun, which is ridiculous. I mean, that kind of extrapolation is kinda silly. I mean, you've got evolution, which is supported by so much evidence—you're not—you know, you're not actually breaking any laws of physics by evolving—by having animals evolve—

S: Yeah.

B: You know, when you're building a ladder to the sun, it's just clearly silly.

S: Yeah, I think that's the nub—

B: It's just not gonna happen.

S: It's a false analogy because building a ladder to the sun breaks the laws of physics and there's nothing in evolution that breaks the laws of physics—or any scienctific law or principle or anything. So, yeah, it's immediate—the analogy breaks down immediately. Let's go on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:02:08)[edit]

It's time for Science or Fiction

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. So Rebecca you missed it last week; Bob's record was broken; his streak was broken.

R: Oh, I'm so sorry I wasn't there to rub it in his face.

J: Yeah, don't worry, Rebecca; I did plenty for me and you.

B: Thank you so much, Rebecca.

R: Good. Good.

B: No more quickies with you.

R: I knew I could count on you.

B: It would have been so cool if I'd lasted like six months or, you know, four or five months. That would have been so awesome.

S: That would have defied the odds.

E: You win some, you lose one or two.

J: Bob, at least you had a streak. Well actually, I have a streak; I have a crap streak going on right now, man.

S: All right. Here we go. Item number 1: New measurements indicate that Venice continues to sink into the ocean, contradicting the prior conclusion that the city was stable. Item number 2: A new study finds that the whooping cough epidemic currently occurring in Australia is mostly due to a new strain of B. pertussis which is not well covered by the vaccine. And item number 3: A new survey finds that parents of children with cancer trust information they find on the Internet as much or more than information from their health care provider. Rebecca, since you were off last week, I'll allow you to go first this week.

R: (groans) OK, so "Venice is continuing to sink in the ocean, contradicting the prior conclusion that it was stable." This is mostly surprising to me because I don't recall a report that it was stable. Like, in my head, Venice was always continuing to sink. So, I dunno about that. Does that mean that's more likely to be science? Or does it mean it's more likely to be fiction? I don't know. "A new strain of B. pertussis, which is making a whooping cough outbreak in a Australia much worse." Yeah, that makes sense... There are a lot of difficult issues with whooping cough; it's not just the normal Jenny McCarthy, you know, anti-vaccine for babies thing. You know, we have a problem with getting adults to get their booster shots and also there is the fact that it can switch things up. "Parents of children with cancer trust info they find on the Internet much, as much or more than information from their health care provider." That is terrifying. The people that we most often see resorting to pseudoscience they find on the Internet are people in desperate circumstances, usually that they can't control, and what could be worse than having a child with cancer particularly if it's something that's... that they're not going to live through. Those parents, I think, would be the most at risk for getting sucked into pseudoscience or "all-natural" cures or basically any sort of alternative to facing the truth. So that, unfortunately, I find very believable. So I guess that I'm just going to go with the Venice one. That one smells weird to me. Mostly because I didn't realize that it was stable, so I dunno, maybe the finding is the opposite. Maybe it found that it's actually stable. So, I'm going to go with that one.

S: OK. Jay?

J: The one about Venice... actually sinking as opposed to not sinking—

S: (German accent) What are you sinking?[3]

E: What are you sinking about?

J: Love that. "We are sinking. We are sinking." "What are you sinking about?"

J: Anyhoo. So we got this situation here with Venice and the water and the sinking and all that stuff. I actually think it never stopped thinking that Venice was sinking. I mean, I've—I had the pleasure of going on my honeymoon on October there with my wife and there was definite signs of water problems and stuff like that that, from talking to people, yeah they have—it is still a problem and they still get flooding and you know, I guess it's happening more and more so I'm gonna really think—it seems to be that Venice is sinking. A study find that the whooping cough epidemic is from a new strain. I haven't ready anything about this but I wouldn't be surprised. Does that mean that a new vaccine would have to be made and the old vaccine wouldn't work any more or is pertussis one of those things like the flu where they are constantly changing the vaccine? I don't know the answer to that... but OK—but I don't think it's that big of a deal that there is a new strain out there, and that seems to make sense on the surface. And then the last one: a new study about the parents of children trust information they find on the Internet as much or more information as their health care provider. Yeah that's—I dunno about that one. That's interesting. I mean, I would—I'd like to think that parents, for the most part, are very particular about the information that they find. I mean, you know, how many people are out there that actually think that every BS thing they read about cures for cancer and everything, are they trusting it versus are they really trying to get serious medical treatment for their child. I would tend to think that most parents don't go the route of the BS stuff, especially early on in the treatment. Maybe if their child is in trouble and is at the end of—where they don't have much time left, they might dip into pseudoscience. But I dunno; I think—I don't believe that one; I think that one is the fake.

S: OK. Bob?

B: Yeah. Sinking Venice. Yeah, OK. Yeah, I've always heard that it's sinking and I actually missed, as well, the fact that the prior conclusion that it was stable but that doesn't bother me too much. I'm not sure even how log ago it was; I could have easily missed that so that kinda strikes me as science. The second one; the whooping cough epidemic. Yeah I mean—I can go both ways with this. Yeah, I can see a new strain; I really don't know much pertussis and how it works to really make an informed or a guess on this one. I think I'll tentatively say that that's science as well. Third one, though; the children with cancer. I was actually kind of surprised. I think Jay totally nailed this one.


B: Jay, I mean I... Jay, you nailed pretty much every point that I was going to say: that I could see parents being just so freaked out that their kids have cancer that they're just going to listen to whatever their doctor says. So I'm gonna say—I'm gonna say that that one is fiction as well.

S: Aaaand Evan.

E: OK. Venice continuing to sink into the ocean. I hadn't heard that there was any stability to that; I always thought that it was being measured as such and I dunno; what is it, like it's gotta be like an inch a year or something? I dunno..

B: Yeah It's private.

S: (laughs)

E: Wait, wait, metric system. 1.5 centimeters a year. So I don't know what to make of that; I was thinking maybe the same as Rebecca regarding that one a little bit. But the whooping cough epidemic; the second one. Sure, for the same reasons also Rebecca mentioned. Well I think that's the most believable of the three. The last one...

J: Yeah.

E: Parents of children with cancer trust information on the Internet "as much or more". I think maybe the trick here is the "as much or more." I have a hard time believing that 50 percent of parents are—would lean in that direction over their health care provider? I can't see that being true. I'm gonna have to say that that one is fiction too.

S: So lets start with number two. A new study finds—

J: Sure.

S: —that the whooping cough epidemic occurring in Australia mostly due to a new strain of B. pertussis, which is not well covered by the vaccine. You guys all think that one is science and that one is... science.

All: Science!

S: That is the Bordetella pertussis, for those of you who are interested. Australia is having...

J: So answer my questions, Steve.

S: I will. Is having a problem with the whooping cough epidemic, and a recent study showed that, of those people who are infected, 84 percent have a new strain, up from 31 percent 10 years ago. This strain is not well covered by the vaccine. It has some activity but the antibodies made by the current acellular vaccine doesn't create as much immunity as against this new strain and it wears off more quickly. A while ago the pertussis vaccine was changed. The whole cell vaccine contained hundreds of antigens and actually broader coverage. That was switched to the acellular vaccine, which only has a few antigens and has a narrower coverage. So the medical experts are now thinking about what to do at this point. One solution is just to do more frequent boosters, in order to keep the immunity higher and therefore more effective even against the strain, or they have to engineer a new vaccine that covers antigens in this new strain. Estimates are that for infants that contract whooping cough, one in two hundred die, so this is not a benign disease as the anti-vaccinationists would have you believe. This is a serious illness; it is something that we need to address as a serious health care issue and the vaccine is still the most effective treatment against it—prevention against it. But we need to tweak it, you know? The bug evolved, and we need to keep up with it. Damn evolution. Let's go back to number one. New measurements indicate that Venice continues to sink into the ocean, contradicting the prior conclusion that the city is stable. Rebecca, you think that this one is fiction, the guys think that this one is science.

R: I'm becoming less sure.

S: And this one is...

J: As you should.

S: Science... Sorry, Rebecca.

R: Bad for me; bad for Venice.

E: Yeah.

S: So Jay, here's the thing; it's like one of those things where you're right for the wrong reason, and I'm like chomping at the bit to correct you but it would obviously give away the game. The ocean levels have been rising, so some of the—what you're seeing could easily be explained as ocean levels rising. So there's two things happening at the same time. Is Venice actually sinking into the ocean versus the water level itself rising? It was believed that Venice was, in fact, stable. No longer sinking. But recent more accurate measurements, with GPS satellites and whatnot, we're able to do more accurate measurements—they find that Venice is sinking by two millimeters per year.

E: Wow.

S: Which is about the same rate that the water levels are rising, by about two millimeters per year. So it doesn't sound like a lot, but you think over ten years that's twenty millimeters; over the next hundred years, that's two hundred millimeters. So that—it's significant; it adds up. And of course, if the water levels continue to rise that adds to the problem as well. Yeah, Venice is also "tilting" a little bit, they found. It's not sinking symmetrically.

J: Wonder what they could do, you know?

E: It's like that island that's gonna capsize some day.


S: Yeah, that Senator said that island's gonna capsize.

E: Yeah. Hank Johnson.

B: Forgot about that one.

S: Yeah. What to do about it? Who knows. That's an engineering issue, I guess. I dunno if there is anything they can do about it with existing technology. All of this means that "a new survey finds that parents of children with cancer trust information they find on the Internet as much or more than information from their health care provider" is fiction. This—yeah, is one of those articles that I read. I'm like, "oh that's good." but we tend to be a little cynical, I guess, or pessimistic. We encounter so much of the other side so often that it's easy to get pessimistic when you are a skeptic, so I think Rebecca, you know, fell into that trap that I was sort of expecting. What this survey found—this is a survey by the University of Buffalo, so right in your neighborhood, Rebecca—that parents distrust information they see—they find on the Internet and that distrust increases with the severity of their child's cancer.

R: Hm!

S: So Jay and Bob, you pretty much hit it. As parents get more and more anxious for their kids, they get much more responsible and discriminating and skeptical of information that they see. They're less willing to trust information they find on the Internet, and when they do go on the Internet, they go to trusted websites, like university or professional websites. They are much more likely to trust personal information they get from their health care provider. All good! I mean, that's exactly what we would want. You know, I guess it brings into focus the fact that, you know, a lot of what we deal with in terms of alternative medicine and pseudoscience is a vocal minority, but we have to remember, it is actually still the minority. As vocal and disturbing as it is. It also means, I think, that people are getting savvy; they know that there's a lot of crap on the Internet. You can't just trust anything you read on the Internet. But, if there is one thing that's unfortunate in all of this is that parents—and this is kinda the take that the research were taking; they were looking at it more as, you know, the Internet can be a useful resource in educating patients and parents about their illness and it's unfortunate that the useful information is so diluted with nonsense and crap that it becomes weakened as a resource, that parents cant trust the information they find on the Internet. You know, you kind of lose the Internet as a practical source of information because it's just buried; the good information is just buried in all the nonsense, even though it is, you know, a minority of people who are promoting that.

R: Even though I lost I am happy.

E: Yeah, if you had to lose on one, that was the one do do it with.

S: Yeah, there are definitely times where there are items that you want to be true or you want to be false and...

R: What's the opposite of a Pyrrhic victory?

E/S: Um...

S: Hmmm... That's a good question. The opposite of a Pyrrhic victory.

E: A—

R: Well, whatever it is, that's what I'm experiencing.

S: Schadenfreude?

E: (laughs) What are you sinking about?

R: That's just a word I think you wanted to say.

S: Isn't that... I don't know; other foreign words like ennui? I don't know, is that—

R: No! None of these words are correct.

S: Maybe there's a Latin phrase I can throw out there?

R: Just stop! Just stop!

E: Luxus veritas?

S: Luxus veritas.


S: OK. All right. Jay, give us a quote.

E: We're geeking up the room here.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:26)[edit]

J: I got a quote sent in by a listener named Ashley Spolholla. Just so you know, I love it when people send me in quotes. I get to read a bunch of different ones, and you know, I get to pick the best one, but I still get to read a lot of cool quotes that our listeners have, so please do send me in those quotes. They let me cherry-pick the good ones so you guys can enjoy those. Saves me time as well, so thank you. This quote is from a scientist named Bernhard Haisch. And the quote is:

Advances are made by answering questions. Discoveries are made by questioning answers.

J: And Bernhard Haisch is a German-born American astrophysicist who has done research in solar, stellar astrophysics. And some other stuff about electrodynamics that I can't pronounce. Bernhard Haisch!

S: Thanks, Jay. Well, thanks for joining me this week, everyone.

E: Graceful ending, very nice.

R: Thank you Steve.

J: Thanks, Steve.

B: (unintelligible)

S: And until next week, this is your...

J: (muffled) Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: ...Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

E: (laughs)

B: (laughs)

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


  1. Rory McIlroy endorses Magtitan Neo Legend (Copy has since been removed)
  2. (Transcriber's note: $199 as of 29/5/2012. Colantotte links to for US purchases)
  3. Popular television advertisement promoting Berlitz
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