SGU Episode 358

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SGU Episode 358
26th May 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

SGU 357 SGU 359
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
JB: Joshie Berger
Quote of the Week
No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literacy or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.
Richard Feynman
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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 May 23rd 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: Good evening.

S: And we have a special guest this week, Joshie Berger. Joshie, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

JB: Shalom.

S: How are you doing, my friend?

E: Shalom, baby.

JB: Excellent. I'm so excited. TAM is right around the corner and I just can't wait to be a part of this all.

S: Well, we're bringing you on today, first because you're a friend and a fellow skeptic and doing good work out there, but also because you're going to... you came to us with an idea about how we could punch up TAM a little bit; add an extra event that seems entirely appropriate so why don't we... well, actually we're going to start off with This Day in Skepticism and then we're going to get to that; we're going to talk about your TAM idea. So Evan, Rebecca's not here because she's at a conference in Germany.

E: That's what I hear.

This Day in Skepticism (1:05)[edit]

May 26, 1676 Antonie van Leeuwenhoek applied his hobby of making microscopes from his own handmade lenses to observe some water running off a roof during a heavy rainstorm. He finds that it contains, in his words, "very little animalcules."

S: So you're going to do This Day in Skepticism today.

E: That's right. And I'll be doing this by doing this by reading from a diary entry that dates back to 1676 on May the 26th. Here it is:

It rained very hard. The rain abating somewhat, I took a clean glass and got rain water that came off the slate roof, fetched it in after the glass had first been swilled out two or three times with the rainwater. I then examined it, and therein discovered some very few little animals, and seeing them, I bethought me whether they may not have been bred in the leaden gutters in any water standing in them. The rain continued the whole day. I took a big porcelain dish and put it in my courtyard in the open air upon a wooden tub about a foot and a half high, considering that thus, no earthy particles would be splashed into the dish. With the water first caught, I swilled out the dish and the glass in which I meant to preserve the water, and then flung this water away then collected water anew. Upon examining it I could discover therein no living creatures but merely a lot of irregular earthly particles.

E: And there it was, in 1676 on this day, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek applied his hobby of making microscopes from his own handmade lenses to observe some water running off the roof and compared it to water he collected from the natural rains.

J: And what did he call those creatures, Evan?

B: Animacules?

E: "Animalcules".

S: Animalcules. Isn't that a cute little name?

J: Yeah, when I first heard that word, I actually thought that one of Steve's daughters came up with it; I didn't know like it was from history.

E: It is; it's like—it's such of like a Sesame Street sort of phrase, in a modern context, animalcules. It's like Garanimals or something.

S: Right.

B: He should have called them "nanomals".

S: Nanomals, yeah.

E: Well, you know.

J: Bob, the word "nano-" didn't even exist then.

S: And they weren't nano-, they were micro-. So micro...

B: Micranomals.

S: Micranamals?

J: I used to... do you guys—do you guys remember the Micronauts?

S: Oh yeah.

J: The kids, they were like kids', uh like you know, like it was for little boys like those little men and they had vehicles and stuff. Awesome shit.

JB: No.


S: Joshie, you didn't play with Micronauts when you were younger?

J: You were playing with the dreidel, Joshie, right?

JB: No no no no, to be really fair, my parents had to sign a paper before I went to Yeshiva that they didn't have a TV but they really did. My parents were like from the bullshitting type of Chasidim, and... but they had a lock on their TV in their room that we couldn't watch it. But when they would go out, me and my brother figured out how to open the lock actually and then we could constantly call them to find out when they were coming home because we knew that the back of the TV was getting hot and we had to go and put a pack of ice on it when they said they were like 20 minutes away because otherwise my mother would put her hand on it and say, "all right who was watching TV?" So we had to gauge it, but I was actually watching The A-Team and like things like that when I was like already 12, 13 years old. Ssh! Don't tell anyone. I hope this podcast is not like out there.

S: No, no.

B: Can you imagine Joshie at 12 or 13? Oh my god.

S: I imagine he was pretty much the same.


News Items[edit]

TAM Poker Tournament (4:15)[edit]

TAM 2012 S: So Joshie, tell us about your fabulous TAM idea. TAM, of course, is The Amaz!ng Meeting being held Las Vegas, Nevada July 12th to 15th.

JB: Awesome. But a lot of us come early and a lot of us stay late. But I've been going to a bunch of TAMs now and NECSS was just a few weeks ago and it was excellent, but it was just something to get you excited for TAM. And every TAM, I always say to myself, "how can I contribute here and how can this be even more..." I mean anyone that was there last year, it was by far, I think, the best TAM that I've attended and it was just so cool; all I was waiting for was the next TAM, I mean even Jay, you were saying, "I just can't wait till the next one". And I thought how much more awesome, the last segment I did on SGU was about lying and poker and bluffs and that whole thing and I said, "it is the perfect venue. Why don't we have an annual SGU poker event?" There could be so many awesome prizes, from JREF or from SGU or from TAM in general. Everyone could be sitting at table with skeptics; it could be a closed-off event at the end of TAM and it just makes so sense. I mean, the minute I spoke to Jay about it, it just—I mean we were so excited, we kept coming up with more ideas and more concepts; how we could build it and turn it into an annual event, and I just think that this is going to be something that is just going to be super fun for everyone involved with it.

J: Yeah, this is a no-brainer and it is a lot of fun. It's a very social thing; it seems to me like it's going to be off the hook. There's going to be an open bar and everything. We're really going to turn up the volume.

S: So yeah—well, TAM is in Las Vegas, we should mention, so it's a perfect venue for this. No problem getting tables and dealers, etc. Plus, within our community we know a lot of professional poker players and magicians and they could be teaching the crowd about how to—not only how to play poker but how to do magic and how to bluff and all that kind of stuff. A friend of ours that we've been working with actually like made his living playing poker for a while. So we have actually a lot of resources to draw upon. It should be a ton of fun.

JB: I just want to say a little story. Sklansky, David Sklansky is one of the greatest minds in poker. He's a brilliant guy; of course he's a Jew and he wrote some of the greatest books on poker. He has poker theory that I would recommend everyone reads. And every—during TAM actually, there is the biggest poker tournament in the world, called World Series of Poker; it takes place in Las Vegas the same time TAM does every year pretty much. And a very wealthy person came over to David and he said, "look, my daughter has been bugging me, she wants to play in the World Series of Poker. It's 10,000 dollars to enter. I don't have a problem with the money but the girl never played poker in her life. Is there any way in 24 hours that you can prime her and you can prep her so that she doesn't embarrass herself and get kicked out immediately?" And he started thinking and he devised a very, very simple strategy for her that would be very hard to kick her out with, even if you knew the strategy that she was employing. And he's expounded on that since then, but it was a brilliant strategy and everyone—there's tons of forums and poker sites that try to tackle how to play if a person's playing that strategy. And the reason I mention it is because a lot of people are probably going to want to sit at a table with Rebecca and Steve and George Hrab and Jamy Ian and a ton of skeptics. We're going to keep shuffling them around so that everyone gets a chance to hang out with all of them and play with them, and even if you get kicked out of the tournament you get to stick around; it'll be a private area with free drinks all night. But the question a lot of people will have is, "how can I learn to play poker?" I have no idea. I want to contribute to this and I want to be a part of it, and what I thought about is that throughout TAM there's a lot of free time, whether it is late night or during the lunch or times that don't correspond with other TAM events. I was thinking that I would put together—and the South Point casino agreed to allow us to have chips and a table and we're going to have exclusive, me and Jay are going to run Q&A sessions where we're going to teach poker and we're going to have a Q&A session; we're going to have a lot of fun. So when you sign up for this, not only will you be in the tournament and get to hang out and play and be part of something that's going to become a huge annual hit at TAM, but you're also going to get a good primer for poker; we're going to discuss the logic, the mathematics of it. It's going to be a lot of freaking fun.

B: Hey guys, I'm so excited about this. I can't wait to play strip poker at TAM. I'm just so excited about it.

J: Yeah, keep dreaming, Bob.

S: (laughs)

E: Yeah, Bob.

B: What!?

J: Yeah, Bob: you know we're doing reverse strip poker. Show up naked and then you win your clothes back.


B: That sounds fun.

J: You know I am very excited about—I agree with Joshie and I'm excited about TAM this year. Last year's TAM was my favourite; poker's fun even if you do suck at it; it's a great time. You know, it's going to be a good group of people to be in and we're going to have a lot of skeptics that you want to talk to. They're going to be there and I just imagine this getting really really crazy and fun.

JB: And I really hope that we can implement my thing that I want to do is every famous skeptic that's sitting at a table is going to sit with a T-shirt and when you knock them out, you get to wear that T-shirt that says "I knocked out Steve", or "I knocked out Jay". I mean, I think that would be awesome because there's only like—it's like a bounty; a lot of famous tournaments have a bounty on certain popular players, that if you knock them out you get a certain prize that's unassociated with the rest of the prize pool.

B: So it is like strip poker; you've got to take your shirt off and give it to somebody.

JB: Bob, you're just trying to get naked, just do it already. Why do you need the rules and regulations?


E: You don't need anybody telling you, Bob. You don't need a deck of cards for that.

S: So check the for details as they become available and to register for this special event at TAM.

JB: But it will sell out, because we are having a part of the casino privately with private waitresses; it's going to be full open bar all night; whatever you want to drink. I know myself that I can drink just easily more than whatever the cost of admission will be, but it's going to be worth it and it's going to sell out quickly, I have a good feeling it's going to sell out quickly.

SpaceX Launch (10:10)[edit]

Successful Launch Kicks Off SpaceX's Historic Mission

S: All right; well, let's move on to some news items. We're going to start with a quick follow-up on SpaceX, a private firm launching rocket ships into space. Jay, tell us about this.

J: So on Tuesday the 22nd of May, they finally launched their Falcon 9 and it had the Dragon spacecraft at the top and it's in orbit and next week it's going to be rendez-vousing with the International Space Station. And a very interesting fact here is that SpaceX is the only company to ever do this. The only other organisations or groups are basically governments that ever pulled this off have been massive economies. I mean, the fact that a single company was able to pull this off and it wasn't a government is fantastic. I mean, it's showing you now that the cost of technology is coming down and our ability to get space craft into outer space and that cost per pound is actually coming down. And I'm just so excited about this. You know, when you get multiple companies vying for this kind of business, they're going to be dumping a lot of money, a lot of new technology is going to come out and we're going to see a lot of more space activity, guys. The next 20 to 30 years are going to be very interesting.

S: Yeah, so this is actually the third successful Falcon 9 launch in a row and the fifth straight launch success for SpaceX, but this is the first one where they're launching a payload to the International Space Station, and if all goes well, their Dragon capsule will be docking with the station and leaving off supplies and picking up stuff to bring back down to the Earth. And absolutely, this I think, the beginning of private companies going into space.

J: It's an 1800-person company that produced this. I mean, that is phenomenal.

B: I tell ya Jay, if I had the money, I mean, I might not go on their first launch with people, but I did some research on this—on this rocket and I was very very impressed with their, that they stress so much the reliability and safety of this thing. It was really very impressive. The company actually studied launch failures between 1980 and 1999 and they determined that 91% of all of these failures really can be pinned to either the engine, the stage separation or, to a much lesser degree, avionics failures. So they really, really focussed on that and they have an amazing design. The architecture of the engine itself is patterned after the Saturn 5 and Saturn 1 rockets that were used for the Apollo program, and they had flawless flight records even though they lost engines on a number of missions, they still had a flawless flight record. And just a couple of things that they instituted were interesting like the "hold before release" system, which I had never heard of. They actually—one engine kicks off and there's nine of them I believe—once the first engine starts, the Falcon is held down and it's not released for flight at all until all of the propulsion and the vehicle's system have been shown to be operating normally. So the thing won't even take off unless everything is going and looking good.

J: Yeah, they are completely dedicated to safety. I keep reading that.

B: Oh my god. I have such a high level of confidence for this system. And even other things—that they've got triple redundant flight computers and inertial navigation. I mean, that—I really think this is going to have a long and successful number of missions. I can't wait.

E: How are they going to prepare private citizens to get ready for the experience of space flight and space travel? I mean are they going to have people go to a space camp or something for a week to brush up on what to do; what not to do?

J: Yeah, forget it. There's—in order to even be strapped into that thing, it's going to be months of training. You have to be physically fit, you have to be emotionally fit, and you also have to know what you're doing. They're not just going to send people up there... but Evan, if they're going to send people up on a real, just a trip, just the whole like let me be a visitor of outer space for an hour or several hours or whatever—you still have to—you're still going to need to meet physical requirements. There's just no way they're going to put you in a space capsule and give you—expose you to the amount of Gs that you're going to experience and all that. But I see where you're going. I mean, it's an interesting question because I love the question because it asks, "at what point is it going to be trivial to go into outer space?"

B: Quite a while, I think.

E: Yeah, this 2001-sort of picture of how space flight would be, you know, like an aeroplane but in outer space. That's it.

S: Yeah, it always seemed to me that the gentlest way to get into space would be to essentially have a very fast jet that could get up to as fast as you could go in the atmosphere.

B: A scramjet.

S: And then will transition to the upper atmosphere and then eventually to rockets. So rather than taking off from a stop, straight up; you know, with a rocket pushing you up. You know, the acceleration would be much more gentle; it would be more like just flying in a very very fast jet. But I don't know how technologically feasible essentially having a jet, then kick off with rockets and go into orbit, how...

B: Well, yeah; you would need multiple different types of engines, some air-breathing some not, and they've done lots of research on air and space planes and things and they just never seem to go the duration. Yeah, it's fiendishly complex to do that.

S: Yeah.

B: But I think it's totally doable; They're making such amazing progress in propulsion these days with rockets and jet engines and I think that SpaceX will actually just accelerate that technological evolution. Once you get private companies into it I think you're really going to see amazing advancements.

S: One quick update since we recorded this conversation: In the morning of May 26th, the Dragon Capsule not only successfully docked with the International Space Station, astronauts aboard the station were able to open the capsule and begin unloading its supplies.

Studying the Universe (16:04)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on. Bob, you're going to tell us about studying the ancient universe.

B: Work by Harvard theorist Avi Loeb seems to indicate that the more the universe evolves, the more information about the early universe is actually lost. Now this was an interesting story; it reminded me that there's lots of interesting, meaningless coincidences in astronomy and cosmology. They kind of make us feel lucky that we're alive at this point in cosmic history. And I just want to give a couple examples. One of them is the evolution of the Earth-Moon-Sun system, that the Moon is tiny compared to the sun. It's just a fraction of it, yet its changing orbital distance from the Earth makes it almost perfectly overlap the sun during a solar eclipse. That's obviously just a coincidence that it seems...

S: Although I had a born-again Christian argue to me that that was evidence for creation. Couldn't be a coincidence that the size of the Moon overlaps the apparent size of the sun.

B: OK. There you go.

E: Eh. It's probably one of the more cogent arguments for creationism, actually.

B: Yeah, I wonder what's more likely. Of course, the dramatic and rare example to that was the recent and very beautiful annular eclipse that was visible over some of North America last week where... because the Earth—I mean the moon does, you know, sometimes get closer, sometimes farther away, and it was actually at a relatively close point, so the moon did not actually eclipse the entire sun, so it was this beautiful ring.

S: It was a far point, you mean. The moon was at a far point, so it was smaller and did not eclipse the entire sun. Right. So it was an annular eclipse.

B: So a more dramatic example of this is the increasing expansion of the universe due to dark energy and this is another case where I think that we're kind of at a special point. As galaxies and clusters move beyond the event horizon of the universe, they're actually going to be so red-shifted—the light is going to be so red-shifted that you—future astronomers will never be able to detect them. And of course, with the expansion of the universe, they'll be expanding so fast away from us that light will never reach us, so there's actually going to be a lot that, in the deep future, that astronomers will never know about the universe because of that. So again, we're lucky that we live in a time where we can divine many fundamental and interesting things about the universe that we live in. This most current insight is of course yet another example. The idea here is similar to the example that I just gave, that as the universe expands and ages, there's less that we can determine about the state of the early universe. In Loeb's research he describes a situation as two competing processes. So imagine when the universe was young, the cosmic horizon was closer, so you see less of the universe, because there's been less time for all that light to get to you that you could actually observe. On the other hand, the older the universe is, matter coalesces into gravitationally bound objects and this actually destroys information about the early universe on small scales and that's kind of the crux of the problem here. So the young universe shows less of everything because there's not enough time and the old universe binds up matter, minimising what we can learn about the universe. So what Loeb did was he calculated, well, what was the ideal time in the history of the universe to study the cosmos? And he determined that it was actually 13 billion years ago; a long time ago. More than 500 million years after the Big Bang, if there were any astronomers, which there probably weren't at that time, that would have been the absolute ideal time. And it's not a coincidence that time is so special because that's when the first stars and galaxies started to form and that's when this information started being lost.

So the next question is, well, are we screwed? I mean, is this information forever lost because we're—you know, the universe is over 13.7 billion years old and the answer, fortunately, is no. We can view the early universe by looking at the famous 21cm line of hydrogen. Maybe some of you guys have heard of that. Well, I guess you're going to have to picture a hydrogen atom. You have an electron in a classic orbit around a proton. And it's always trying to maintain or reach its lowest energy state, when the electron and the proton are spinning in opposite directions. But sometimes a hydrogen atom can get knocked and they actually spin in the same direction, and that's not the lowest energy state and it wants to get back to this low energy state. And when—it could take millions of years for that to happen, but when it does happen it's a very special event because it releases this 21cm line radiation. And this radiation is very special because it can go through interstellar clouds of dust and gas that are opaque to visible light, so it's like a window into the very very young universe that lets us see some of this information that's lost in our time frame. So again, this is a special time in the history of the universe, as well, in which we overcome to a certain degree anyway, the disadvantage of living in an older universe and we can determine things like the distribution of matter in the early universe that will unfortunately be lost to future astronomers. So I feel a little sorry for those guys in the future because they will potentially never know a lot about the universe when it was really young. And I'll just end with a really funny quote that Loeb came out with. He said, "If we want to learn about the early universe, we'd better look now before it's too late."

S: Yeah.

B: So yeah, I think we've got about a billion years, but yeah. It's just interesting to know that in the future, things are going to be very different in terms of what we can divine or ascertain about the early universe.

E: So we need to write it down now is basically what you're saying.

What Is Consciousness (21:23)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on. This is an interesting item, not so much a news item, actually; it's kind of a special report. I've been having a bit of a blog debate over the last week that I wanted to discuss with you guys, and it has to do with the nature of consciousness.

E: Too bad nobody's been commenting on your blog post about this. It's a really shame.

S: Yeah (laughs). Well, that's why I kind of stuck with the comment, I'm getting, like, hundreds of comments.

B: Oh my God. I love some of those comments, Steve; they're actually, like, twice as long as your original blog post. It's like, guys, how about being pithy?

E: That's right (laughs).

S: (laughs) So, this started because another blogger by the name of Kastrup commented on some blog posts that I'd written. Now, he is what is called an idealist. There are essentially three philosophies in terms of what is consciousness. There is materialism, which posits that consciousness is purely a physical thing; the mind is what the brain does.

B: Duh!

S: That's my position; I am an unapologetic materialist, I think that the functioning of the brain entirely explains the phenomenon of consciousness. Then there are dualists. Dualists think that consciousness is something other than the physical functioning of the brain, whether it's some other property of the universe or whether it's actually like a spiritual thing. It's something that's outside of the physical brain. That's a serious philosophical position. Now of course, it also gets picked up by people just who have not-so-serious religious positions, in my opinion, but. Kastrup belongs to a third school, called idealists, who believe that there is in fact no physical universe, that the universe is entirely consciousness. He uses as an example an eddy or a little whirlpool in a stream. Let's say the stream is consciousness and that little eddy is a physical manifestation occurring within the stream of consciousness; it has a location; it has a size; it has some kind of physical structure to it, but it really is composed of consciousness.

J: But that's—there's nothing tangible there. I mean, that's all supposition.

JB: Yeah.

E: What's he basing it on?

S: Yeah, this is—yeah, right, exactly. He's basing it on nothing except mental masturbation, in my opinion.

E: (laughs) Sticky.

JB: But I know nothing about this, Steve; just one second. But to me, it always seemed like the rabbis that tried to argue that the world is 6,000 years old, and then when you tell them, "but wait, what about the fossils or the things that clearly exist before that?" and they say, "well, God created a universe that looked like that." And I think that Douglas Adams said in that case you can never have any arguments with you because I could just say that the world existed 10 seconds ago and everything you remember is just an implementation in your brain. These people literally remove themselves form any dialogue because it's not falsifiable.

S: Exactly.

E: Complete relativism.

S: Exactly. So—but they say that dualism or idealism is testable in that it makes different predictions from materialism. But from a practical point of view, they're really just making a "God of the gaps" and what I also call "anomaly hunting" argument. What they say is that if—in order for materialism to be true, then there needs to be a 100% absolutely tight correlation between brain function and mental function. So they're setting themselves up so that all they have to do is point to anything even remotely anomalous in terms of our ability to correlate brain function and mental function and they say, "ah hah! There's a difference there. It doesn't exactly line up. That's because the consciousness is not entirely material."

B: That's a limit of technology.

S: Well, of course.

B: It's not because... it's ridiculous, ugh.

J: And Steve, this also sounds exactly like when they do tests for... to see if somebody has psychic powers or whatnot. And they're looking for the tiniest little anomaly and that's the space that they hide in saying, "well there's your proof". It's that little glitch.

S: It's anomaly hunting; yeah.

JB: It would literally be like someone looking at a bird flying and say, "hah! You see? Gravity is not real."

S: Yeah, or it's the bumblebee argument, right? Saying, "oh well, we can't explain how bumblebees fly", which is not true. But let's say...

B: Yeah, it's not true!

E: Not any more.

S: I don't know that really it was ever true, but it was—whatever; some limited notion of aerodynamics couldn't account for bees flying so people concluding from that that there's magic in the world or that the bees are using something extra-physical, or whatever. So they're essentially trying to break the materialist paradigm of science because there is some temporary transient anomaly in our ability to perfectly map or model the universe. So creationists do this all the time. Like for example, they will comb through the evolution literature looking at some genetic study that doesn't precisely line up with morphological fossil evidence, then go "ah hah! See? It's a little different. It doesn't exactly match. That's because evolution's wrong."

E: Yeah, throw it all out.

S: And these guys—this guy Kastrup and the dualists and idealists are doing the same thing. They're looking at EEG and fMRI and PET scan studies and when it doesn't exactly fit our existing models of the horrifically complicated functioning of the brain, they go, "boop! The materialist paradigm is broken; it can't explain that distinction." This is what he's focussing in on and our whole debate got down to this one study, which, to me, it's so ridiculous.

E: It's a creationist tactic.

S: Absolutely, it's a God-of-the-gaps argument, which is a creationist tactic. There was a recent study of psilocybin, which is the active hallucinogenic chemical in mushrooms, right? And the question was, "how does this chemical create these really profound hallucinogenic symptoms?" Previous studies showed that there were increases in brain activity in certain parts of the brain under the effects of psilocybin. But now there's a newer fMRI study that was published that showed that there were certain parts of the brain that were inhibited, but no parts of the brain where the activity was increased. And to me, this makes perfect sense. In fact, to the neuroscientists who did the study. It's surprising only in that it's different than previous evidence, which may be just a difference in the techniques used; PET scanning vs fMRI scanning.

E: So we're saying instead of a heightening effect it's a dampening effect?

S: Well, yeah but, which makes perfect sense because... and again, I explained this multiple times, that the brain does a lot of complicated things. Different parts of the brain are interacting with each other, and one massive part of the human brain is involved with complicated higher cognitive functions, including reality testing. And if you take that reality testing away by inhibiting it, what's going to happen? You're going to have dream-like experiences where weird stuff happens and seems real to you because it's not being filtered out by the reality testing part of your brain. Kastrup says no, that is—that breaks the materialist paradigm because you have an increase in mental activity, the hallucinations, with a decrease in brain activity. But—and then he really makes, in my—completely invalid arguments in terms of trying to dismiss the neuroscientific explanations of that. And he doesn't do a very good job, and he just doesn't understand the explanation that... For example, if you inhibit the reality testing... and also, there's other parts of the brain that make you feel like you're inside your body, that make you feel like you're separate from the universe, so people might feel one with the universe and feel like they're floating outside their body and have these trippy experiences where really bizarre stuff happens. He says, "so all of that's happening in your brain all the time, and is just being suppressed?" What he doesn't seem to get is that our entire stream of consciousness is so constructed by our brains and there is so much subconscious activity going on that it makes perfect sense that you could have what seem to be emotionally intense experiences because your reality testing has broken down. You are confronting the constructed nature of your experience of reality head on. Of course, most people, when they have an experience, they're not aware of that; they're not saying, "oh, my frontal lobe is shutting down and I'm experiencing a breakdown in my brain's construction of reality!" They're just having a trip. They're just having really bizarre, weird stuff happening to them. And of course, throughout history, lots of cultures found hallucinogens in their environment and took them to have spiritual experiences because these seem to be very profoundly spiritual experiences, but we can understand them now in neuroscientific terms.

But let's say that we can't exactly explain why people are having those particular experiences or certain intensity of experiences with this one fMRI study showing only decreased brain activity. So what? This is a transient step in our understanding of the horrific complexity of the brain. But he's jumping on that and to go, "ah hah! There's an anomaly there! The materialists paradigm is dead and therefore my pet philosophy about there's only consciousness and no matter is correct." It's all nonsense. It's the creationists declaring every little inconsistency in the data to be evidence that evolution itself is wrong. And you know—when in fact, there is such overwhelming evidence that the mind is what the brain does. Again, just... but like, as a neurologist, you know, you see patients all the time—just my direct experience with patients in addition to reading the literature and reading cases. There doesn't seem to be any limit to the extent with which we can mess with your construction of reality, by messing with the meat inside your head. It's not just a correlation. I mean, we could make stuff happen by messing with your brain and in predictable ways. Not perfectly predictable, because we don't perfectly understand how the brain's wired up yet; you know, we're working on it; the gaps in our current knowledge doesn't mean that the bigger picture, the materialist notion that the brain causes the mind or probably more precise to say that the mind is the brain is correct.

B: Hah, yeah. I like that.

J: Steve, what do they say when you confront them with the idea that when you cut into somebody's brain, damage occurs and consciousness changes and things like that?

S: All right. So what they say is that the brain is like a "tuner" for consciousness. So that's what the dualists might say. The idealists say, "well, the consciousness is forming the brain and you're messing with that"; it's like you're putting your hand in the whirlpool and messing around with it. Doesn't work. Doesn't work on multiple levels. One example I give is the fairy in the light switch. So, when I turn the light switch on and off, that correlates with the light going on and off. That doesn't prove that the light switch causes the light to go on and off, or that the light going on and off is whatever is happening with the light switch. It's just a correlation, but certainly Occam's razor and the most elegant inference is that if I could reliably correlate flipping that switch with the light going on and off, that there's some kind of connection there; there's some kind of causal connection there. What they're saying is, "no, there's a light fairy. There's a light switch fairy. When you hit the switch, the light switch fairy turns the light on, and it does it in a way that it mimics exactly what would happen if the light switch were directly turning the light on". So they're just adding an unnecessary magical step that should just be eliminated by Occam's razor. The other thing that they're doing is they're saying that it's like a TV tuning a station. I don't think that that argument holds water because—so yeah; so by messing with the TV, I can mess with the colour and the sharpness of the picture and I could change stations but I can't change what the characters in a sitcom are doing. You know, I can't do that at the TV end. The relationship between consciousness and the brain is more like playing a video game on your computer where everything's happening in the computer and you can alter everything that happens on that monitor by messing with the software and the hardware of your computer. What you can't do when you're just receiving a signal—a TV signal that was coming from somewhere else. So I think that the evidence fits the analogy to the—playing a video game on your computer more than watching—tuning in a TV station that's coming from somewhere else.

JB: Is idealism dualism dressed in a tuxedo, the way that they say about intelligent design and creationism? What is the motivation behind—

S: It's one step more crazy. Not only is you're saying consciousness is magic...

JB: Oh, it's the other way around.

S: You're saying there's only magic and everything physical is just an illusion of some sort or it's just a manifestation of consciousness. But it's all consciousness; that's all there is.

JB: Oh wow, so it's the other way around.

S: Whereas dualists say—dualists say there's—in the universe there's the material universe then there's consciousness which is some separate thing—other thing.

JB: Right.

S: And the idealists says no, there's just consciousness and the physical thing is just a manifestation of that. Whereas the materialist says there's just the material universe and consciousness is just what the brain does.

JB: Well, I guess what evolution has only religion to stand behind for the creationists and intelligent design. Over here there's a whole other Deepak Chopra-type of crap that you can, you know, float around with which gives credence to these ideas.

S: Yes, so there's a lot of Indian philosophy in the idealist position, but there's a lot of, again, mainstream philosophers like David Chalmers who holds a dualist position. Although he's a property dualists, so he thinks that it's some other property of the universe, not something magical or spiritual. And then of course, there are creationists who like the dualism notion because that requires spirituality; you can't explain everything with your material science. They want the magic to be added on.

B: Steve, you think we would have—if it was the case that the brain was just tuning the information, you'd think we would have found something that could be like the antenna or the receiver, some sort of receptor that could potentially interpret—intercept and interpret this information.

S: The brain itself is the receiver.

B: Oh yeah, well.

J: Yeah but they're... but also the idea that, if we're going to actually take a scientific look at these claims, then we have to start asking questions like, "can we block the signal?" "Where's the energy transfer?" "Where's the energy come from?"

S: Exactly.

J: Wouldn't I be burning calories in order to transmit that energy?

S: Yeah.

J: How many calories is the brain burning? But we could see—

S: You're right; that's all unknown. What is consciousness? Don't know. How does it affect the brain? Don't know. You know, how does it—is it violating the laws of physics by creating the energy of the firing of the neurons? We don't know. How do these two things interact; it's all unknowns. It's a magical place-holder for their "God of the gaps" argument. That's what it is.

E: Yeah, and you can't devise tests. How do you devise any reliable test of this kind of philosophy?

S: Yeah, there's no evidence for consciousness separate from the brain. I also draw the analogy which I think is perfect. This is the...

E: You did draw it after all.

S: I did. Well, the dualism and idealism is to consciousness what vitalism was to life.

B: Oh yeah.

S: Right? So vitalism is the notion that there's some magic life force that makes living things different than dead things. And it turns out that was a "God of the gaps" place-holder, too; it was just a place-holder for our ignorance, as someone said. And eventually we figured out what makes life life, and it is just complicated chemistry. If you become complicated enough, you're life. So what's the difference between something that's conscious and not conscious? It's not some magic vitalistic consciousness separate from matter; it's just a complex information processing system, you know. It's our brains. That's all it is. And neuroscience is doing quite well with the purely materialistic paradigm explaining and developing models and predicting stuff. And of course there's going to be inconsistencies and anomalies and confusion along the way as we try to reverse engineer and reconstruct this, again, horrifically complicated machine, but that's just the—that's predicted; that's the nature of science. But yep, the dualists and idealists are standing on the sidelines not really understanding what neuroscientists are doing day to day and just hunting for anomalies so that they can declare materialism dead, but their pronouncements are premature.

B: They might have a better argument if the brain was actually composed of intricate patterns of mud or something similarly dead, you know? Instead no; the brain is made out of information processing units, you know; networks of neurons and it processes information. Hello? I mean it's just—I can't help but think of homeopathy and evolution denial. It's like these guys; they've got these blinders on; they're never going to change their mind; they're too emotionally invested in believing in this. And it just seems like I just don't want to give them any attention because it's just so crazy and out there that if they want to believe that crap, go right ahead, but I just hate that they influence other people.

S: But at the core there is, I believe, a very serious philosophical argument and there are serious philosophers like David Chalmers who—they're not neuroscientists but they're trying to make sense of what consciousness is and how can we describe it and how can we understand it. But I just think they're wrong; I just think that they get it wrong. Chalmers even went as far as to invoke quantum mechanics.

B: Oh, boy.

E: Oh, here you go.

B: Microtubules!

S: Yeah, that's how something like consciousness separate from the material universe can have a physical interaction or effect on the brain. But he got that wrong, too, in my opinion, so.

JB: There needs to be like a Godwin's law that when someone inserts "quantum" into anything, the conversation is over.

S: Yeah. (laughs)

B: Yeah, that's saying it.

E: Argument from quantum. Yeah. And these are materialism deniers as far as I'm concerned.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

Who's That Noisy? (40:09)[edit]

Answer to last week: Holocaust Deniers.

S: Well, Evan, it's time for Who's That Noisy.

E: Sure is. Let me go ahead and play for you last week's Who's That Noisy. Here we go.

First voice: I know that I'm disliked as an historian. I know that I'm hated by some people.

Second voice: (speaking Arabic)

Third voice: I don't think I can actually make a good decision until I'm allowed to read and hear every point of view. How can we know the truth about every point of view?

E: How can we know the truth about any point of view?

S: Sounds like a denier to me.

E: Yeah, some kind of denier. The first gentleman you heard, his name is David Irving. The second gentleman you heard, his name is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And the third one you heard is David Duke. Do you know what these three Chuckleheads have in common?

S: They're deniers?

B: They're chuckleheads?

E: Besides that. What are they denying exactly?

JB: That they're homosexuals?

E: Holocaust deniers.

S: Holocaust. Of course.

B: Ah, yeah.

JB: Ohhh.

S: They denied the Armenian holocaust. Right.

E: That's right (laughs). Denial of the Jewish holocaust.

S: Oh, the Jewish holo... yeah, that one. OK.

E: Yes, yes. That.

JB: Do you really think they believe that, Steve? Or do you just think they're saying that? Because I think that there's just no chance that these people actually believe that; they're way too smart. I could understand some idiots out there but these guys are actually not idiots.

S: I think that it's a mixture; I think that they probably know that they are bending the truth here and there but I think that they also have some core beliefs, like that the holocaust is exaggerated; that it's being used for political purposes and I think they really believe a lot of those core beliefs, but they know that they are being tricky with the facts when they need to be. Most of the time that question comes up—con-artist versus true believer, in my opinion, you never really know but I think most of the time the answer is both in some combination.

E: Some combination. Well, they're reductionists, right? They'll say, "aah it wasn't really as bad as you thought. It was only, you know, several thousand; it wasn't the millions of people."

S: Yeah, they keep trying—

E: Or the techniques used, right? "There were no gas chambers", you know... they say.

S: Or they were delousing chambers chambers. Well yeah; there were delousing chambers but they were also using it to kill people, you know.

J: Yeah, it blows my mind; you know it's one of the most insulting things to deny.

JB: And it's so recent. It's not like you're denying the Inquisition or something like that; this is literally something that my grandparents were in; I mean it's... that's why I guess I don't get as upset as other people do because to me it's just like, "OK, he's clearly bullshitting", like I think it would hurt me a lot more if I actually thought that intelligent, educated people really didn't believe in it.

S: I hear what you're saying. So what about all of the people—the survivors who give first-hand accounts of being in the concentration camps? They go, "well, we know all Jews are liars so we can just comfortably ignore all their testimony." That's literally what they say often.

E: There you go.

JB: Yeah. My first thing my grand parents did when they got to Israel is go to a tattoo parlour and put those numbers in their arms.

S: Yeah, right.

E: It was all the fashion at the time. Plenty of correct guessers on this one. William Chagnizi from Montreal, the first correct person to guess; the first person to guess correctly. Well done, William from Montreal.

S: Nicely done. What have you got for this week, Evan?

E: And now for this week, something entirely different. Well, I'll let you judge. Here you go:

Well, psychiatry has to do with the insane, and we have nothing to do with the insane whatsoever. They are—the insane... uh well, they're insane.

S: All right; that's an interesting one, Evan.

E: Yeah, yeah. I think we'll have some correct guesses on that one. That was a fun little one to come across, so is our email; is our forum. Check it out if you haven't already and of course, good luck everyone.

S: Thanks, Evan.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Speaking to Mediums (43:57)[edit]

S: All right we're going to do one email this week. This one comes from LuÃs Pratas from Lisbon, Portugal. Sorry if I butchered your name. And he writes:

I love your podcast. I've been listening to it for a couple a months and I'm pleased to say that I am "converted" to Skepticism.

S: Awesome.

Did you know that in Portugal our dead speak English? We have a TV show here called "Depois da Vida", that means "Life after Life". On each week the medium Janet Parker allegedly listens to dead people related to a guest celebrity. The person hosting the show does the translations between the two. Since the medium apparently doesn't speak Portuguese, we may conclude that the dead related to our Portuguese celebrities have to speak English to the medium. She then speaks in English to the host; the host translates it to the guest. Continue with your great work. Regards LuÃs Pratas Lisbon, Portugal.

S: So yeah.

E: Clearly that's how it works.

S: Right, yeah. That's very convenient for mediums, especially ones who aspire to be an international medium as Ms. Parker does, that ghosts will always speak in your native language. That's very convenient.

E: It's part of the powers, you see.

JB: But to play devil's advocate, if I had to take her position right now, I'd say that it's not that we hear any language at all; we hear something and we feel what they're saying and we relate it to you. You don't understand because you don't have this power, so for you it's simple haha English, Spanish, Portuguese, but it's more complex than that.

S: Yeah, you can always make the hand-waving explanation to make it all work. It's like, you know, the Star Trek apologists who will make any techno-gaffe work in retrospect. Humans are very good at retrofitting, at making something make sense after the fact. We're very good at that. So sure, no doubt, if you confronted her with this she would say something, "oh, that's how the spirit realm works. They're communicating to me in—you know, in ideas and images."

JB: I expected a skeptic like you to say that.

S: Yeah.

E: That happened to us, Steve.

S: Yeah. Oh yeah, yeah. This is a little bit different—Evan and I investigated a channeler and—I love this story. So she was channeling a 700-year-old spirit from Nepal and this spirit, when he took over her body, spoke English in an Indian accent. Didn't speak Nepalese.


E: Oh Steve, you asked—do you know any... oh well, first of all, the spirit was able to communicate the word "Namaste".

S: Yep, that was the only word, apparently, that it remembered. Yep.

E: And you asked, you said, "well, can you speak any other words in Nepalese or other languages?"

S: (Indian accent) Nooo.

E: Nooo. (laughs)

S: Nooo.

E: That was the answer. Nooo.

J: Nooo.

S: So yeah. So she explained, again, had the hand-waving in retrospect explanation. The spirit acquires the language of the person that's channeling them, for some unknown reason. And yet also for some unknown reason held onto their accent.

E: (laughs)

S: And forgot their native language.

J: Yeah, except for one word that is a very obvious word that signifies that they know the language.

S: Yes. The joke I made at the time was like channeling King Kamehameha and the only thing you could say in Hawaiian is, "Aloha! I'm King Kamehameha!"


S: You know, come on.

E: Steve, the other people in that room were convinced.

S: Apparently.

E: There were four other true believers sitting there just buying this. It was embarrassing.

S: It was funny. Love that.

E: It was.

JB: Was there in the background (imitates Indian music) Did they have that?

S: No.

JB: Or they didn't do any Indian schtick?

S: The music?

E: No, no. They didn't embellish it that way; no.

J: But what's so blatantly ridiculous and obvious about this whole thing... like, if the person were actually doing that, the things that they would able to say and pull off—the proof would be so obvious and tangible. You know, it's not just talking; there's so many other things, you know, when you're downloading somebody's consciousness into your body.

S: Yeah.

J: It would be like, you could prove it so fast and so easily.

S: Right, if it were real.

JB: Of course.

S: But it happens to manifest in such a way that it provides absolutely no proof or evidence. Right. Just happens to work that way. So same thing with the dead; it just happens to work in a way that you don't have to speak the language of the person that you're channelling. They're not going to be speaking to you in Portuguese, and the medium is saying, "all right, they're saying this" and then, like, mimicking the Portuguese and having somebody translate it to her. That would be a little bit more impressive, although she could easily do that by memorising a few phrases in Portuguese.

B: Right? That's all. Do your homework, charlatan.

E: Try a little bit, yeah.

J: Yeah, there's no excuse today either with Google. Like, you don't even have to go to a library. Just sit in your frigging living room; do some research for an hour; go in there and be a thousand times more convincing.

S: They don't have to.

J: But they don't have to. That's the big joke is... learn one word in a stupid accent and you're charging people 25 bucks to buy a ticket to come to hear you talk.

S: I believe that mediums and psychics, whatever, the rank and file have utter contempt for their marks, for the people they're performing for. Utter contempt.

E: Oh yeah. They view them as saps.

S: Yeah, they're suckers.

JB: It's one of the things I've never been able to relate to. Even when I was religious, I remember when my mother would tell me about people that could perform things and predict things and things like that. I never fell for it, and I still can't understand why someone doesn't go to a psychic when they say, "oh he's in the room now", they don't cover their eyes and say, "OK, tell them to tell you how many fingers I'm holding up" or just like simple questions, just like two things that can right away establish if you're bullshitting or saying the truth. Why wouldn't everyone, even if you believe in it 100%, just do those things?

S: Right.

J: Yep.

S: Because it doesn't work that way, Joshie. It works in a way that you don't have to provide any proof.

J: (laughs) Yeah.

E: They'll always come up with an excuse; no doubt about it.

J: Yeah with authority, they say to you, "that's just not the way that it works." It works, just by coincidence, in the precise manner where it could also be identical to complete bullshit.

S: Yes. That's right. The time machine works so that you come back naked so that you have no artefacts from the future to prove that you came through the time machine.

B: Unless you're a cyborg with an exoskeleton.

J: Therefore the termitor [sic] is real, yes.

E: Therefore, take off your clothes and shut your eyes.

J: Yeah, unless it's surrounded by flesh. Right, Bob; I agree.

Swindler's List - Hearing Aids (50:13)[edit]

S: All right, let's move on. Jay, you have an instalment of Swindler's List for us. You haven't had one in a while.

J: I haven't had one in a while, I agree and it's partly because I'm working on so many other—

S: Lazy? (laughs)

J: Uh, excuse me. I was talking. I'm working on so many other projects for the SGU that my research time has been limited. But this one I admit, this fell in my lap. I had a listener named Erica Blanchard email me with something that really upset me; it's really serious and this is quite a big scam and the scam is being pulled off by the biggest health care provider in the United States, United Healthcare. Here's the background. Hearing aids are used as a part of what they call a management strategy for hearing loss. So go to an audiologist; they're going to not just be testing your hearing but they're also going to check your inner ear. As a matter of fact, the routine is that they check your inner ear first. They're going to check your physical ear before they're actually going to get to a hearing test. The array could be as simple as you have an ear-wax build-up which they could put a fluid in your ear, loosen it up and get the ear wax out. You could have fluid in your middle ear like if you had an infection or some swelling in your inner ear and there's a fluid build-up and what that does is it mutes your ability to hear things. And this spectrum goes all the way to you could have tumours. So now they do the physical exam and now they get to the point where they're going to put you into a sound-proof room; they're going to put on a high-end headset or some ear plugs that go into your ears and, you know, like I said, this equipment is good equipment that's been tested that they know can produce the sounds that it needs to produce. And then they do—at a bare minimum they'll do a four frequency test, and the best-case scenario is that they could test you up to eight frequencies, or eight octaves worth of sounds. And if you've ever had a test with an audiologist, it's called an audiogram and what they're basically doing is they're asking you to raise your hand when you hear a tone that they make. And the tones get really high and really low; there's a very broad spectrum of sound and it's interesting, and they're really faint and what's very funny, if you've ever experienced it you'll know what I'm talking about, but sometimes you actually think you're hearing the sound that they're playing and they may not even be playing the sound. Your brain—it's so soft that your brain could be playing tricks on you. That's the spectrum that they're giving you in that test. The next step is—let's say that they find out that you're missing or your having trouble hearing in one or more of these frequency ranges. The doctor is, of course—the audiologist is going to write down all of the different things that happen in the test and where you're having trouble hearing and then also they're going to interview and ask you what type of environments are you usually in; are you in a work where there's a lot of chatter or are you in a very quiet environment. And what they do is they order your hearing aids that they could custom-mould to your ear; typically they make a custom mould and everything and it's unique to you; it's going to fit you perfectly. They order the type of hearing aid that you need; they get it and then they program it at the office to fit your specific requirements and they invite you back into the doctor's office, then they fit them into you, then they test them on you. They're testing you not just for fit and for volume and all that, but they're actually testing the hearing aid itself and they're getting feedback from the patient. The patient's saying, "I can hear that; I can't hear that", you know. Now you get where I'm going with this. It's a very complicated, very important series of events that a trained professional has to perform in order to get to the point where they're going to bear fruit from all of that work that they've done.

Now what is actually happening is United Healthcare created a company that makes and distributes hearing aids and the way that you do the test is you download software, put on your headphones and take the audio test in your house. Now how many holes can we shoot in that? One: you're using some headset that you have. And you have all of the imperfections of you putting on your own headset and doing the test and you determining what the answers are to all of these questions. Well, the fact is that the test only tests two frequencies that they give. Not four, not eight but only two. And it's trouble-prone and mistake-prone from the beginning. And then you answer a bunch of questions and then they send you this pre-made hearing aid that who knows how well it's been set up at the factory. It doesn't custom fit you; it's a very—it isn't anywhere near the quality of a professional hearing aid. And that is what this insurance company has decided should be the optimal way that they're people that they're providing insurance for should get their hearing aids. And you know, when you can't hear properly and you can't see properly, it isolates you; it's a very profound experience for someone to go through that. They can't hear well. It takes you out of the conversation; it takes you away from your friends and family. You feel alone and it's a horrible experience to go through.

S: Well, you know, Jay, looking at their website, I think prior to 2009 they didn't provide any hearing aids except in states where that coverage was mandated. They simply were not covered. So you wonder if this was part of their solution to that, of essentially a low-cost alternative to having no coverage for hearing aids and also covering themselves in states where it was mandated by law. It doesn't mean that it works—that this is good. I mean, I think that they should—if they're going to try to come up with a low-cost alternative, they should do the studies to show that it produces a reasonable result. And have they done that? Have they published anything to show that this alternative functions and does what they claim it does? I do see some preliminary studies published that show that it's in fact reasonable, although it needs more study.

J: In fact, the FDA told them that they can't allow people to take the exam in their home and what the response that the company had was—and the way that they—the language that they used in the email was so deceptive. They said that they worked with the FDA to get to this new level where the tests are going to be done in the doctor's office now. So doctors who are subjects of the insurance companies are now setting up this jenky system in their offices to let people go in there and take this same exact test in their office instead of doing it in their home. What's the difference?

S: Yeah but it's—put this into a bigger context and let me play devil's advocate a little bit. That—this is happening in the context of a health-care crisis in which we can't afford to deliver the care that we have the technology to deliver. So there's another way to look at this whole issue. I mean, I understand what you're saying, Jay; that they're substituting a system that hasn't been properly tested, probably doesn't work; obviously there's a lot of flaws with how they're executing this, but you could also ask the question, "well, what's the other alternative?" Do we continue to spend ourselves into oblivion with high-tech health care or do we sometimes settle for something less if it can be a lot cheaper?

J: I don't agree with that at all, Steve. First of all, like I said, this isn't a problem of price or cost. I'm sure that a lot of treatments are, but I don't think—

S: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Let's just examine that premise. What do you mean, it's not a problem of cost? The individual people may decide that it's worth the cost for them, but now we're talking about, you know—it's still adding to the cost of the health care system. Cost is the issue here.

JB: Yeah, but it's the way they went about in a phony way to pretend like they give a damn. It's one thing for them to say straight up that we think that it's not cost-effective, and this shouldn't be. But the whole bullshit way of sending people to their homes. I mean, it's the way they went about it.

S: Yeah I agree with that. It's rationing health care through the back door and trying desperately to avoid admitting that that's what we're doing. That that's what the insurance company is doing. It's trying to ration care and provide less care because it's just too expensive. But rather than saying that, they're pretending that they have an alternative that works. I get very concerned about that, especially with the pressures of alternative medicine, insurance companies are going to think, "oh yeah, this is great, we're going to do this low-cost alternative that people believe in". And they don't care the the science shows that it's all nonsense, because people want it; it's all the placebo effect. Sure, they'll give people a cheap placebo effect rather than the expensive real treatment any day.

E: You bet they will.

S: Yeah. So I think that is a problem, but we do have to recognise the pressures that are leading to this. And again, I'm not putting myself in a position where I'm defending insurance companies at all. They do a lot of things that I disagree with; I fight with them all the time, believe me. I'm no fan of how they're functioning. But I do recognise that the system is under incredible financial pressures and we are going to be living, in the next 30 years or so, through a time of this kind of thing happening more and more. You have to face the facts that we are going to be rationing health care big time. This is the tip of the iceberg. This is not going to be an isolated incident.

J: I have to—my gut response to that is: I don't care. We have to do a better job; we have to take care of our people; we have to give people the absolute best health care that we can. And sure, there may be people can only afford certain levels and everything. But you know, once again, technology is taking off like crazy and we have the ability to give people such a wonderful thing.

E: Someone's got to pay for it.

S: Then we've got to pay for it. Right; that's exactly right.

E: Gotta pay.

S: And you know, a lot of people sort of feel like Jay does, in that they say, "I don't care what it costs". And of course, when it's your family member who's in an ICU or whatever, who needs an organ transplant or anything, you think, "cost is no object", of course, people—they have a right to this; everyone should have top-notch best health care. And of course, I wish we could give the top technology, best health care to everybody. But we are getting—the reason we're having a crisis is we literally can't afford it any more, and either we have to have a massive chunk of our GDP go to health care just to provide all of the health care and the high technology that's continuing to advance and that everyone wants and thinks that everybody should have, or we have to find ways of reducing costs.

Science or Fiction (1:01:17)[edit]

S: Well let's move on with Science or Fiction.

Voiceover: 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 then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. This week there's only one news item.

J: It's impossible.

B: In three parts.

S: In four parts, actually; four parts.

E: (laughs)

S: This is the top ten new species discovered in 2011.

B: (sighs)

S: This is published by the International Institution for Species Exploration. Their top ten list of species discovered in 2011. So, three of these are real species that were discovered and one is a fake one.

E: Their motto is, "species, the final frontier."

S: Right. So you have to tell me which one of these one is fake. Are you ready?

J: All right. So wait. What you're saying is one of these animals is fake?

S: Yeah. The other three are real species that were discovered last year.

J: Got it.

E: All right.

S: OK. Item number one: An iridescent blue tarantula. Item number two: A cactus that can "walk" short distances across the desert in search of water. Item number three: A fungus that looks and behaves so much like a sponge it was named Spongiforma squarepantsii. And item number four: A snub-nosed monkey from Myanmar that sneezes every time it rains.

JB: Oh my god. Well, at least I'm excited. Last time I was on, you had questions about things I had no clue what the hell you were talking about 'cause I went to Yeshiva.

S: (laughs)

E: As opposed to this week, yeah.

JB: And I kept saying if you do that again I was just going to beg for some new species; a monkey or something. And I got screwed; I got a new species of monkey or something.

S: (laughs)

JB: Well, I'm tempted, obviously, to go the monkey. I remember that joke from when I was very little with the guy that used to jack off in the shower all the time that whenever it rained he would get a hard-on. So I'm somewhat tempted to go with the monkey, but... well obviously the cactus one is true because it seems the most ridiculous, but I guess you're playing with the word "walk" here and I'm assuming it angles itself somewhere and the word "short distances"; we don't know what that could mean. That could mean a millimetre; it could have been a nanometre—is that a word, Bob?

B: (laughs) Yeah.

JB: So we don't know what that mean. So I'm assuming that cactus is for sure real. The tarantula, who gives a... it's a tarantula; I guess it's real or not. It's between the fungus and the monkey. You know what? I remember someone talking about this name; this spongifa—you know what? I could see a geeky scientist discovering something and naming it something like that just to be awesome to his daughter. Steve, you would do something like that—

S: Oh yeah.

JB: —if your daughter was in to something. So I could see that. So you know what? I'm going with my freakin' monkey. It's all about monkeys.

S: OK. Bob?

B: Hoo. Let's see. Spongiforma squarepantsii? Oh my god; that's just too awesome not to be true; it's got to be true; I'm hoping it's true. That would just be fantastic. So based on that alone I'm saying that's true. Um... iridescent blue tarantula. Oh, that's kind of awesome as well, iridescent. Sure. Yeah, I could see the hairs of the tarantula somehow exhibiting thin-film interference. Yeah, that would be awesome. Yeah, it's feasible; sure. I could see that. And the monkey that sneezes ever time that it rains. It could be something about the rain that somehow induces it. I mean do we even know specifically why people sneeze anyway? I mean, I've read lots of theories but I'm not sure if they actually know as much as we perhaps think we should know about it. The one that's getting me, though—yeah, the cactus that can walk. A moving plant like that that could actually not just move its body, but I mean—or its trunk or whatever—its stem, but actually move across the land. I just think it would just take too many changes. It's a little unrealistic to think that would actually... I mean, sure, it's feasible but it's just too out there I think for me to accept it. So I'm going to have to say that that one is fiction.

S: OK, Evan.

E: Blue tarantula—iridescent blue tarantula. I don't see why that wouldn't be true. How did it get iridescent blue, though? It's interesting; it must be its environment—from where it lives has a big influence on that. I imagine that's correct. Cactus walking short distances. I notice you put "walk" in quotation marks there so we might be able to—it's perceived as walking but it may not actually be walking; maybe something that is like a walk. I'm having a feeling that that one is going to turn out to be true. That leaves us with the fungus called Spongiforma squarepantsi?

S: Squarepantsii.

E: Squarepantsii. Someone with a sense of humour in science. I like that a lot. The last one is the snub-nosed monkey sneezing every time it rains. So these monkeys would have to be sneezing their heads off if it sneezed every time it rains. I mean, how could it otherwise, you know, have survived this long? Isn't that a big disadvantage if all you're doing is spending all your time either sneezing or having to deal with sneezing, recovering from sneezing; it might interfere with your sex life, with your eating habits, with a lot of other things. I think that one is the flimsiest of the four, so I'll say the monkey is fiction.

S: OK.

JB: Yeah, l'chaim, have some Manischewitz, sit over here.

S: Jay?

J: OK, well, the iridescent blue tarantula. I see no reason why a tarantula couldn't have evolved to be that colour. And Evan, I think of course, hit it on the head there, like, depending on its environment there would be a reason for it to have that colour probably... something is tickling the back of my mind here, like maybe birds or something will leave it alone or it's invisible because of that colour or whatever and I would just imagine how interesting it would look. So I'll say yes on that one. The next one about a cactus that can "walk" and he put it in quotes which means it's not, you know, digging itself up and going like, "hmm, I'm going to go over here now". It's not going to do that.

E: Let's mosey on over.

B: A cactus wouldn't sound like that.

J: It's probably like scrunching itself over, you know, slowly over a long period of time type of deal. Absolutely. Plants do lots of amazing things and I don't see any reason why a plant couldn't, say, be attracted to water and try to get its way over there over a long period of time. Why not?

B: Heh.

J: The fungus that looks and behaves like a sponge. It was named Spongiforma squarepants... pantisi.

S: Squarepantsii.

J: Pantisi.

B: Squarepantsii.

J: Campantsi.

S: (laughs)

J: I love this. I absolutely love this. I could see a scientist doing that for fun and it's fantastic to think that someone would give SpongeBob a nod like that but I'll get back to that one in a second. The snub-nose monkey that sneezes when it rains; absolutely. I could see the monkey making a very cute high-pitched, like "catchoo" thing like when the rain comes down. Snub-nose—it doesn't have a big honker there, Ev, so it's going to be like a cute little thing. Maybe it sneezed so much maybe that's why they don't have noses any more. I don't know. I'm not that kind of scientist. I can't give you those answers, Evan. I want to, I just can't. But I'm going to actually say that nobody named a fungus after SpongeBob. I think that one's the fake.

S: OK. So, a pretty good distribution; three out of four, but you all agree with the first one, an iridescent blue tarantula. Sazima Tarantula, that is the common name. Yes, an iridescent blue tarantula. Actually not the first blue tarantula, but this one is perhaps the prettiest. The pictures of it are gorgeous. Found in Brazil; Brazil's tropical Andes. It is found only in a very limited distribution; a so-called ecological island. And of course they are afraid that it's at risk; that it might actually be an endangered species. Very, very pretty.

E: Do you think it's poisonous?

B: But is it iridescent?

S: It's iridescent blue. It's really very pretty.

B: So science.

S: Science. That one is science.

E: Science.

S: We'll take these in order.

J: Science!

S: Two: a cactus that can walk short distances across the desert in search of water. Bob, you think this one is fiction; everyone else thinks this one is science, and this one is... the fiction. Good work, Bob.

B: Yeah, baby.

E: Aaaow.

JB: Ohhh.

S: The name of the species that I got this one from is called Diania cactiformis and its common name is Walking Cactus. But it's not a cactus; it's a fossil of an extinct group known as the armoured lobopodia and this is a weird-looking critter. The only living lobopodians are the Onychophora or the velvet worms, so that's, I guess, it's... well, it's not clear if that is its closest living relative. They think, based upon this new specimen, this adds weight to the argument that these things were closely related to arthropods, insects, spiders those sorts of things, because it's segmented. They show the fossils and then they show a reconstruction what the thing looked like; really bizarre. It's essentially one long central worm-like spine and then these similarly size and shaped pairs of legs coming off the sides. And it would walk, you know, on those big spiky legs. Very cool; found in the Chenyeng deposit in South West China in Cambrian deposits about 520 million years old. The walking cactus, but not an actual cactus. Number three: a fungus that looks and behaves so much like a sponge that it was named Spongiforma squarepantsii; absolutely science. That one is true.

B: That's awesome.

JB: Yeah.

S: Now, when the scientists submitted this for publication in a journal, it was rejected because the name was "frivolous".

JB: Douchebags.

B: Oh, come on.

J: What!?

S: The journal editors rejected the name but the authors persisted and as a result of their persistence, the name was eventually accepted and brought a lot of attention to this species that it otherwise would not have gotten; the Spongebob Squarepants mushroom is what it's called, or Spongiforma squarepantsii.

B: That's awesome. Yeah, like who OKed the strange quark and charmed quark? Come on.

S: (laughs)

B: Go with it, people.

E: Come on.

JB: As a skeptic I actually think that they loved it but they said if we're going to reject it and you guys put up a stink, we'll get a lot of publicity for it.

S: Maybe.

B: (laughs)

S: But the mushroom has a fruity smell to it, and SpongeBob lives in a pineapple, so that's another—yeah.

B: Pineapple!

S: Under the sea. Yeah.

E: Under the sea.

J: I love that. I'm happy I'm wrong because that is so... there's something about that...

B: Come on, Jay.

J: It kind of brings together all the things I love about being a fan of science, and being someone that puts a lot of time and energy into critical thinking. Like look, you know what? Science is serious but science is also fun and we have to enjoy it. Kids will get something out of that. And look, I'm actually going to talk to Bob after the show about that news item for about 15 minutes.

S: Yeah. I showed it to my daughter Julia and she loved it; she had a grin from ear to ear.

E: There's a new miniature horse species called Mylittleponius.


S: All right, number four. A snub-nosed monkey from Myanmar that sneezes every time it rains; that is science. The name of the species is Rhinopithecus strykeri and the Sneezing Monkey is the common name. So it's rare to find a large mammal; it's rare to find a new primate unknown to science, so this was interesting. It has a really snub nose; I mean you look at the picture of it; its nose almost looks like a skeletal nose, where you just see an opening with no exterior nose.

B: Or Michael Jackson's nose.

E: Oh, like a Voldemort, kind of.

S: And every time it rains they—despite their best efforts, they get water up their nose and they have to sneeze. In fact, the scientists found the monkey because they were told by the locals in Myanmar that if you want to find the monkey, just wait for it to rain and listen for the sneezing in the trees. And they did that and it led them right to the monkey.

JB: How does this happen? I mean, part of the reason that I thought that this is the bullshit one—I mean fiction—is because, like you said, it's a big animal; it's not like a little cactus or something. How in the year 2012 do we still not know about monkeys living in the trees?

S: It's in the jungle. It's a monkey living up in the trees in the jungle.

J: Monkey man.

JB: But look at this thing; it looks like a little rabbi.


JB: How did we not know about this?

S: It does. Uh, yeah. I mean, there's lots of dense parts of the jungle with animals with a limited range. You know, we're discovering animals all the time in these remote jungles.

JB: Amazing.

S: Yeah, interesting. So good job, Bob.

B: Thank you.

S: I thought this was a fun one.

B: Yeah, it was.

E: It was until you did the reveal.

J: Steve, I thought—it's so pathetic man, like I swear I read an article that said that this cactus can walk.

S: Well I as hoping to get people. If you just read the walking cactus and didn't read deeper into that that you might get snubbed by that.

J: Yeah, that's what happened.

E: Snub-nosed.

JB: Yeah, I just plugged it in and right away it showed up as the walking cactus, like Steve said it didn't explain that it's not a real cactus; just looks like one.

S: Right, right.

B: Jay, that's Steve's favourite ploy, you know.

S: (laughs)

B: You misinterpret the title; the misleading title totally screws you over.

E: Bait and switch.

S: Yeah. Right.

J: Whatever.

S: It's my little scam.

J: Enjoy yourself.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:20)[edit]

J: Steve, I have a quote.

S: Yeah, Jay (laughing) tell me your quote.

J: But before the quote, I'm going to do an impersonation of Joshie. ready?

S: OK.

E: Mmhmm.

JB: Oh my.

J: (nasal voice) Look at the girl!

JB: Noes! Little girl!

J: Little girl!

E: You should say—

JB: It wasn't "look at the girl".

E: —say shiksa instead of girl.

JB: Right.

J: Oh, look at the girl!

JB: Gezundheit.

J: (normal voice) So, anyway. Um. This was a quote sent in by Daryl Ekhart from Halifax, Canada and this is a fantastic quote by Richard Feynman.

No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literacy or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.

Richard Feynman!

E: Yeah he's basically telling government to get the hell out of the way so that the scientists can do what they do; the artists can do what they do and stop interfering.

S: Yeah, that's right. There are some things that the government needs to get out of the way of. Yeah.

JB: And we could get our damn hearing aids.

E: No I get you. Right.

Announcements (1:16:45)[edit]

J: Steve, I would like to remind our listeners that we have a YouTube channel and we put up a new video about a month ago. And we are actually in production of our TAM video that will be showing at TAM and you can also, if you enjoy the videos and enjoy the show, please help us make these shows by donating as little or as much as you'd like, but we appreciate any amount that you can afford to give us, because we work very hard to make this show every week and we need your help.

S: That's right. So, thanks for joining me everyone this week. It was a lot of fun. Joshie, thanks for joining us.

JB: Yeah, oh my god this is so much fun I just want to give quick shout out to all my OTD people; my skeptics and science fans that used to be religious that helped us demonstrate against the... that helped us demonstrate at Citi Field this week[1]. I'm really proud of you guys; we're making a difference in our community and I love you guys.

S: Thanks a lot. And thanks for joining me, guys.

B: Surely.

J: Later, Steve.

E: Yes, doctor, thank you.

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

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.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • Antonie von Leeuwenhoek referred to the microscopic creatures he discovered as animalcules.
  • Bob really wants to play strip poker at TAM.
  • The expansion of the universe may result in astronomers in the far future being unable to observe distant galaxies and objects.
  • Materialists believe that the physical brain can entirely explain consciousness; dualists believe that consciousness exists somewhere outside the brain; idealists suggest that the physical world and brain is somehow a manifestation of consciousness.


  1. New York Times: Ultra-Orthodox Jews Rally to Discuss Risks of Internet, 21 May 2012
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