SGU Episode 36

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SGU Episode 36
March 29th 2006
SGU 35 SGU 37
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
RR: Rick Ross
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Show Notes


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 29, 2006. This is your host, Stephen Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me tonight are Bob Novella ...

B: Hello, everyone.

S: ... Perry DeAngelis ...

P: Out like a lamb.

S: ... Jay Novella ...

J: Hi, all.

S: ... and we have a new addition to our panel of skeptics: Rebecca Watson. Rebecca, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

P: Yaaaaayyyyy!

R: Thanks. Hi, everybody.

B: Welcome.

R: Yay!

S: Rebecca was on our episode — a few episodes ago was on our show, and we thought she was bright and witty and lent a good addition to the team, so we asked her to join us, and she agreed to.

R: I did.

S: Rebecca is the Skepchick. She runs, publisher of the Skepchick Calendar.

B: She writes a great blog. I recommend it to everybody.

S: A great blog.

R: Thank you, very much.

S: So, we're happy to have you aboard.

R: Thank you. I'm very happy to be here.

News Items[edit]

Solar Eclipse (1:21)[edit]

S: Today, as many of you probably know, there was a total solar eclipse. It passed from Brazil heading northeast through Mongolia was the path that it took. It did not cross the United States, but there was crowds gathering along that path throughout the day to look at the solar eclipse, although, of course, not directly. Do you guys know, by the way, why you can't look directly at a solar eclipse?

J: That's how the aliens beam their information to us, isn't it?

S: That's right.

B: Because of the corona, right Steve?

S: Yeah, so the Moon does not quite entirely cover the Sun. There's a little sliver of Sun left even at total eclipse, and, of course, as the Moon's crossing, there's just the little crescent of the Sun that showing. What happens is — now normally, if there's too bright a light on your retina, it causes pain, and you will blink and turn away because of that pain. But when there's just a sliver of Sun showing, it's not enough to give you a pain reaction, but it still's enough to carve out a little crescent from your retina. So as your eyes are moving around, your just slicing up little bits of your retina, but never enough at any one time for you to cause pain for you to blink and turn away.

B: Cool!

P: So everything you looked at would have a crescent shadow in it from then forward?

S: Basically, although what happens is that people — they don't just carve out one crescent from their retinas, ...

B: Yeah

S: ... they carve out hundreds of crescents from their retinas and they ...

P: Ah.

S: ... they fry them.

B: Plus, when you look at something, your eye isn't perfectly steady, in order so that you could actually see things, because your eye becomes, as you looking at something, because of the visual processing, the photoreceptors become immune to the stimulus. So your eye is constantly moving just a little bit all the time in order to refresh those photoreceptors. So that's probably an effect, as well, where your eyes are moving all the time.

J: Steve, how long would it take to do damage?

S: Not long. Even just a few seconds will start to cause some damage. And, of course, the longer you look, the more of your retina you'll burn out. But I think most people know that by now, that you can't look at the eclipse.

B: Do you guys realize how lucky we are that we live in a time where our satellite, our only satellite just happens to almost exactly cover up our star. Think about it. There's probably not too many planets around that actually do that. And it's not going to stay that way forever, because the Moon is receding from us, so eventually it won't cover the Sun at all.

S: Right, right. In the past, it entirely covered up the sun, and in the future it will cover up less and less of the disk of the sun.

P: What are we talking two or three years?

B: No.

S: Hundreds of millions of years. It's interesting that you bring that up, Bob, because a lot of fundamentalists believe that the near exact correlation in ...

B: Right.

S: ... the angular size of the Moon and the Sun is a sign of the divine creation. That this is not just a cosmic coincidence, that ...

B: Ah.

S: ... it is in fact a sign of creation.

J: Another amazing coincidence, though, is the fact that they're both exactly round, too.

S: Right. I mean, what are the odds?

P: How so. It's a sign of divine creation because?

S: It's a coincidence, that's why.

B: There you go.

B: So, Steve ...

S: That's it.

P: Oh, boy.

B: What are our anscestors going to think when it doesn't quite cover it.

P: Oh, please.

S: Who cares?

P: They'll just rewrite like the Mormons are rewriting now.

J: Bob, the same thing the Heaven's Gate people are thinking right now.

B: Right.

P: They'll just rewrite.

S: They'll probably say it was perfect at the day of creation and then changed from that point forward. Who knows?

P: Sin beat it up or something.

R: I would say science is just screwing it all up.

B: Yeah, science.

P: That's it. That's it. Sin, science, whatever you want.

J: Pesky science!

B: Did you guys know that eventually the Moon is going to continue to recede, and eventually, the Earth-Moon system's going to be tidally locked, and both the Earth and the Moon will have one side facing each other and just like rotate around each other.

S: That's right.

B: So half of the Earth is never going to see the Moon.

S: That's right.

B: Never again.

P: That is terrible.

R: That's kind of sad. You know, I heard another interesting eclipse factoid. Did you know that you shouldn't drink milk after the eclipse because it will all spoil.

B: Oh, my God. Yeah, I think I heard that.


R: I think in India, the newspaper was reporting all sorts of random factoids like that — weird things about pregnancies and lots of superstitions that surround eclipses.[1]

P: Lunacy, of course.

B: Ha, ha, ha.

R: Of course.

S: There's a lot of superstition surrounding visible astronomical events, because ..

P: Right.

S: ... it's just correlation. An eclipse happens, and then in some undefined period following the eclipse, something bad happens, and it then becomes associated with the eclipse. Same thing is true of the appearance of comets. There's bound to be a war or a plague or a famine or something within a few years after a comet appearing, so they become the harbingers of disasters. That's actually where that word came from. It means "evil star," and it's actually a reference to comets.

J: Well, if you think about it, an eclipse is a very scary thing to people who don't know what it is.

B: My God, yeah.

J: It would be mind-blowing to see an object cover the sun out of cycle like that.

S: Right. It certainly seems like a heavenly event.

P: As I recall, it's how Commander McBragg escaped from the pygmies.

B: Ha, ha.

P: Remember that? He held a lighter above his head and he ran out of the jungle.

B: Nice! Very nice.

S: He was also the Connecticut Yankee in Walla Walla, Washington.

R: So you see, eclipses have actually saved numerous lives.

P: Absolutely!

B: Many cartoon characters.

Lewis, The Killer Cat (7:28)[edit]

S: Now Perry, I heard a report today. You live in Fairfield, Connecticut, right?

P: You going to talk about the crazy cat?

S: Apparently, there's this crazed cat that is terrorizing the citizens of Fairfield County.[2] Now, have you run afoul of this ferocious feline?

R: Perry, are you terrorized?

P: Not Fairfield County, Fairfield, the town of Fairfield.

S: The town of Fairfield! Even more specific.

P: His name is Lewis, and he apparently is a psycho cat. He has mauled people to the extent that they've had to go to some walk-in medical facility. One woman said she was bitten three times. The Avon lady was mauled. The Post-person was mauled. It's very ugly, and I believe there was some judicial action taken, wasn't there, Steve?

S: They didn't put the pussy down though. They just sort of put her under house arrest?

P: They did. They did. They put him under house arrest for a certain time. Now I did see a brief, and I mean brief, like 10 second interview with the owner, and she said "Wow" ...

S: Is she a crazy cat lady?

J: "He's the sweetest cat. He would never hurt anybody."

P: She. She said that people didn't treat Lewis right. They sprayed him with hoses and they kicked him and so forth. Of course I suppose that if the cat was mauling me I might ...

R: Obviously, Lewis is just misunderstood.

P: He may well be. Maybe we need an animal shrink in here. It's a situation (unintelligible)

R: You should get the pet psychic to come in and talk to Lewis. I'm sure that would make really good television.

S: "He's very angry at the way people have been treating him." A cold reading on a cat.

J: Did this article get national attention?

S: Yes.

P: It has gotten national television coverage, Jay.

P: We have people dying in Iraq, and there's news coverage about a cat swiping at a few people as they walk by?

B: Jay, people need their fluff.

S: They need their "fluffy," apparently, too.

B: Hah!

Wikipedia vs. Encyclopaedia Britannica (9:30)[edit]

S: All right. One follow-up piece from before. I think we mentioned the fact that the Wikipedia, which is the online encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to, was in a Nature article.[3] They compared 50 science entries in Wikipedia to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and they found that the number of errors was roughly equivalent. There were about the same number of errors in those entries. There was a few more in the Wikipedia, but not too many more.

Well now the Encyclopaedia Britannica is firing back. They have criticized the Nature article as "containing a pattern of sloppiness, indifference to basic scholarly standards, and flagrant errors so numerous they completely invalidated the results." Nature, however, says "we reject those accusations and are confident our comparisons are fair." So they're standing by their original article. Encyclopedia Britannica and the journal Nature, of course which is one of the most prestigious science journals in the world, are fighting over the accuracy of the comparison between the Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Have you guys ever contributed to the Wikipedia, by the way?

B: No.

P: No, I haven't contributed to it. It certainly comes up more and more frequently on my searches, though.

R: I've actually made one contribution to Wikipedia, and that was because somebody sent me a link to my own entry. It was an entry that somebody put in for Skepchicks, and they actually — I think they called my calendar lewd, and so I edited out that word.[4]

B: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

P: Really.

R: Yeah. It might not have been "lewd." It was otherwise a complimentary little article, but there was one word in it that I didn't like, so I went in and I edited it out.

S: Right.

P: There you go.

S: I started trolling it for skeptical entries as well as neurological ones, and you know what? Most of them are pretty good. I was actually fairly impressed by the content ...

B: Wow!

S: ... in there. There were some that actually linked back to some articles that we had on our website.

B: Yeah

S: I made sure they were updated and they all worked and everything, but I've actually been quite impressed. I've updated a few when I come across them. One of the points in the Nature article was to implore scientists to spend some time in their area of narrow specialty to review the entries and to make them as high quality as possible, because the Wikipedia is only as good as people make it. But, apparently people who know what they're talking about and who care to take the time are putting in fairly decent entries. It's interesting.

R: There's also a specific skeptic wiki that's been growing. It's not very big right now, but people are contributing to that. I think it's going to be a pretty decent resource when it's grown a bit. if you just ...

S: That sounds great. What's the name of that?

R: If you Google — okay, I'm looking it up now. It's just

S: Okay, we'll put it on our notes page.

R: Yeah

S: I'll have to check that out. Maybe we should start building that. Definitely, because we have a skeptical encyclopedia on our site. Some other groups have that. There of course is the Skeptic's Dictionary, but there is a community of skeptics, and a lot of duplicated effort, and something like that would be a very great resource and would make a lot of sense for us to pool all of our resources into one common resource.

R: Yeah. So we can stop reinventing the wheel every time.

S: Yeah. Right. Exactly, exactly. We also need, and maybe this could be a venue for that, we need a location where you could find resources, and I mean references. References. For example, oftentimes when I'm writing an article, I know there was some study some time that looked at the connection between like the lunar cycle and ER admissions, but I hate having to hunt down references like that every time I need them. Except I try to keep my own library, but sometimes I don't have everything in it. It would be great to have one location for all skeptical references.[5]

R: Right.

S: It would be such a boon for the mainstream media, as well as skeptical writers, to back up what you're saying, so you're not just talking off the cuff.

J: Hey Steve, do you think Encyclopaedia Britannica has taken a major hit due to Wikipedia?

S: Yeah, I think so. I think probably their response is an indication of that. The Encyclopedia Britannica has an online version, as well, but they charge for it, whereas the Wikipedia is free. So, if you had a service that you charged hundreds of dollars for, and it was compared to a free service, and they said basically there was no significant difference, that would be a major marketing concern.

P: It sure would.

J: Because I would think the Internet alone would serve a major hit to Britannica just for the sheer fact that people turn to the Internet before they turn to anything else nowadays.

S: Sure.

P: Of course.

S: For the print version. Who would have a bookshelf filled with static old books when you can get dynamic, updated information on the Internet?

P: It is. It's totally outdated now.

S: It's going to become obsolete.

P: When I was a kid, that's all there was.

J: Yeah, thats what we had.

P: That's it.

J: I gotta tell you, how many book reports I wrote out of the Encyclopedia Britannica?

P: I bet you teachers in that era got the same report over and over and over.

The Woman who Never Forgets (15:02)[edit]

S: Now, Rebecca, on your blog, just to change gears a little bit, you talked about a woman who never forgets. Why don't you tell us about that.

R: Yeah, it's really interesting. I think at University of California they are researching this woman who has a perfect memory. Literally, you ask her what happened on October 3, 1986, and she'll tell you what day of the week it was, what was in the news. She'll tell you what she had for breakfast. She literally has perfect memory, and so they're trying to figure out ...

P: During the span of her own lifetime?

R: It's actually even beyond that. Just things she picks up, things she reads, she apparently just keeps it all in her memory. I think they quizzed her on things that happened before her time, and, yeah, if she had heard of it, then she nailed it.

J: I'd want to know if it's debilitating.

R: Well that's the interesting thing is that apparently she gets along all right. She's not like the idiot savant sorts that you hear about who — they can tell you every detail of say their favorite baseball team, but they can't work a blender.

S: Hm, hm.

B: Right.

J: Yeah.

R: This woman has general knowledge of everything, but she seems to get along okay in life.

J: Rebecca, was it like a photographic memory, or did they describe it that way?

R: They didn't really go into detail into exactly what she's remembering and how she's doing it. They haven't really gotten very far. They've been doing these exhaustive tests on her, and just coming up with nothing, so far.

P: Is she like the national Trivial Pursuit champion?

R: Ha, ha, ha.

P: I would think so.

B: But, Jay, I think it goes beyond a photographic memory. It's also things that not only that she sees, but everything she pretty much experiences. I think it's called an eidetic memory.

S: That's right.

B: And I've read about guys like that. I read about one guy who supposedly had an extremely — one of the deepest memories that these researchers had ever seen. This guy was just unbelievable, but, like Jay said, this guy was literally debilitated. He couldn't carry on a conversation because he would be constantly assailed by these memories, because things reminded him of everything else, and he really was forced to do parlor tricks in a bar to earn money. It wasn't as helpful as you might think, at least for this guy, and I don't really remember if this guy had any savant characteristics.

S: That's interesting, because part of the reason why we don't remember everything is because not everything commands an equal amount of attention from us. In fact, one of the key functions of our brain is to make decisions from moment to moment as to what to pay attention to and what to remember and what to suppress so that we're not overwhelmed with irrelevant stimuli or memories. So it's interesting that this woman appears to be highly functional with this kind of memory. I'm definitely going to follow that research, and we'll keep you updated on that.

J: Steve, being a neurologist, which you are, I want to ask you a question. I'm sure that people have asked you before. Do we have any idea of what the upper limit of memory capacity is for the human brain?

S: Yeah, we can calculate that from a theoretical basis. We know how many neurons are in the brain. There are trillions, and roughly how many connections that they make, so we can make some kind of estimate as to bits of data. But the thing is what we don't know is the patterns by which the brain stores data, so one neuron may participate in multiple different memories or different patterns. So that may magnify the amount of information our brain can store by an unquantifiable amount. So ...

J: And I have another question. Do people's patterns that their brain makes, do they vary in size from person-to-person, or is it pretty much a general — it's all the same? Like in other words, if you looked at a slice of my brain versus somebody else's brain, are the neurons the same distance apart from each other? Do they all relatively occupy the same amount of space, or are some peoples' closer, and that's why their brain might work faster in certain things.

S: If you looked at the brain of a genius and the brain of a moron, and I mean that in a technical term, with someone with an IQ of the less than 60, generally you can't tell the difference. It's not in the size of their brain necessarily. It's not in anything that you could see about them pathologically or histologically, the way the cells look. It's in the pattern of connections that the cells make with each other, and we, right now, can't really evaluate that. We don't know how to decode, to tell what's a genius brain and what is the brain of somebody with a subaverage intelligence.

B: Didn't Einstein have more glial cells than the average person, or is that just apocryphal?

S: I think that's apocryphal. Plus, there actually was just a recent study published showing that the size of the brain does not really correlate well to intelligence, but that the rate at which the frontal lobe develops does correlate fairly well. So there are clearly other things going on other than sheer size that relates to intelligence within the human species. The other thing that does matter is the degree to which the brain is folded in on itself, the amount of folding, because it's the surface area of the brain that's really important, not necessarily it's volume.

R: So what you want is a good, lumpy brain.

S: Yes, but that is certainly true when you compare one species to another and over evolutionary history. I'm not sure that you can really make — that those comparisons are meaningful within the human species, that more subtle things are at work. But since you bring up that topic, I will mention it now. I'm going to be at the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting next week, which is in San Diego. We're still going to record the show. I'll record from San Diego, and during the show I will give you guys an update on the years' neurological research.

B: Cool!

S: So a bit of a neurology theme next week.

P: I guess next week's Science or Fiction will be about neurological issues, then.

S: You got it! That's right. I'll draw them all from the papers and posters that are being presented next week.

Questions and E-mails (21:51)[edit]

S: Let's move onto emails. We actually are getting a dramatic increase in the number of emails that we're getting. We certainly love hearing from you listeners out there, so keep sending them in. We greatly appreciate it. We are in the process of significantly upgrading our website and adding new ways to contact us. For example, we've been encouraging you in the past to send us pre-recorded questions. You can record in your own voice asking your question, and we will play that on our podcast. But also, you can email us a question and indicate that you want to ask the question "live" on the show, and we will make arrangements to call you, have you ask your question while we're recording the podcast, and discuss the answer with the panel of skeptics. So if you want to be on the Skeptics' Guide, send us a question, and indicate that you want to be on the podcast. Send us with a telephone number, and we'll make arrangements. Fortunately and unfortunately there are too many emails now for me to read every single one on the podcast. We'll be adding the ones we don't have time to read on the website. I'm going to read four from the last week.

Panspermia (23:07)[edit]

S: The first one is from Paul Irving in Wellington, New Zealand. Apparently, we have quite a following down under. He writes "Steve and team, a big gidday from Wellington, New Zealand, and a very avid listener. You have brought scepticism" — he spells it in the British way with an SC — "to life for me. Still, enough flattery" — no, actually, there's never enough flattery — but he goes on "I have a question for you after hearing your discussion about panspermia last week. Scientific American has a long article about the potential detrimental effects of gamma rays, etc., on long spaceflights on DNA. The article talks about having shields of up to 5 meters of water around the ship to protect its DNA-carrying content. So how could microbes survive 1 million years in deep space on small rocks between planets subject to the same radiation?"

B: Well that's — if you don't mind, I'll try to address that one, Steve.

S: Go ahead. He has another part to his question, but let's talk about this one first. Go ahead.

B: Okay. Microbes can survive in space for eons, basically, because they have the most diverse metabolisms of anything living on the planet. There's species of bacteria called extremophiles that thrive in environments that would kill humans instantly, and this also applies to the vacuum of space. Certain species of bacteria evolved proteins that can repair damage to DNA caused by radiation.

S: Hm, hm.

B: It's a amazing ability. They think that might have evolved from bacteria that can survive very dry, very arid environments, and that, somehow, there might be a connection between DNA repair and that type of survivability. The other tactic that they use is hibernation and desiccation. If a bacteria are put in a vacuum, they actually go into a hibernation state where their cell becomes completely desiccated, and the fact that there's no metabolism going on, because they're in hibernation, and the desiccation removes all the water, and that severely limits what kind of damage the radiation could do. So therefore you've got this bacteria that could be an asteroid that can survive for probably indefinitely until it lands in a suitable environment, and then it would kind of come out of hibernation.

S: Right.

B: And then repair the DNA damage and bam! It's not a perfect repair, and there still will be some mutation and death, but they can still do it.

S: It's also worth noting that bacteria have much less DNA than humans do.

B: Right.

S: We have this huge bloated DNA molecule, which can cause lots of damage and is difficult to repair. Bacteria have a much smaller amount of DNA. Also, Bob, recently ...

B: Yeah.

S: ... they've discovered a species of bacteria that has an optimally efficient DNA.

B: Yup.

S: You read about that? In other words there's no ...

B: I read. It's a very interesting story.

S: ... no exons. Nothing except for the genetic code itself. Most of our DNA is either so-called junk DNA or dormant genes, long repeated segments. They may serve some regulatory function, but they're not coding for proteins, which is what DNA does.

B: But it's great for evolution, though.

S: It is good for evolution, which is probably why most of us carry all this junk DNA around. Also because there's no evolutionary pressure to get rid of it, and it just tends to accumulate over time, but apparently there was some evolutionary pressure in the species to optimize the efficiency of its DNA.

J: Steve, he was saying like millions of years. That's a long time. Let's say you took some cells out of my body and took the microbes that you were talking about, is there such a difference between those two that the microbes would last millions of years and mine wouldn't?

S: Absolutely. But also the article that he is referring to in Scientific American made the point that we're extrapolating from high-intensity short duration exposure to radiation, and what we don't know is will that have the same detrimental effects if it was spread out over months or years. And perhaps our repair mechanisms might be able to keep pace with a slow, steady rate of damage, even though they can't keep pace with a short-term, intense exposure to radiation. So the same is true to even a greater extent with bacteria. Hopefully, one day we'll get to Titan, and imagine if we get there and we find bacteria thriving on Titan with the same basic DNA code as life on Earth. That would certainly be strong evidence that this theory is correct.

Hydrino Power (27:47)[edit]

S: Very quickly, he also asks "By the way, what do you know about something called hydrino power? Sounds like magic to me." Well, Paul, it is magic. Basically, Dr. Randell Mills, who was funded by a company called Blacklight Power, claimed they could get tons of energy out of hydrogen atoms by essentially forcing an electron, a single electron, single proton hydrogen atom. They force it into an energy state below what has previously been known to be the ground state. The ground state is the lowest energy state that an atom can be in. Electrons like to go to the ground state because it's — you know, water flows downhill — it's the lowest energy state. So he's saying that there's a state below the ground state, and if you force the electron down there, when that happens, you get all this energy out of the hydrogen atoms, and he could do this chemically. Unfortunately, for Dr. Mills and Blacklight Power, that violates the very well-established laws of quantum mechanics. There's also no evidence empirically to support those claims. So ...

B: Well, except for neutron stars.

S: You need gravity like you would find in a neutron star. That can force an electron, a negatively charged electron and a positively charged proton together. But he's saying he can chemically force it into this new lower energy state that there's no evidence exists, and, in fact, violates what so far are the laws of quantum mechanics. So don't invest in that company. That's my personal advice to you.

Bigfoot (29:26)[edit]

S: The second email comes from a gentleman called Kurt Nelson. Kurt writes "Hi, guys. Listened to one of your podcasts yesterday, the one in which you interviewed the guy from the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society.[6] Nice job generally, but I have one criticism for you. After you ended your conversation with the guy, you were talking among yourselves saying what you thought of what he'd said. One of you dismissed the dermal ridges in the cast tracks line of evidence out of hand. 'That's obviously bogus', or something to that effect. Maybe the one who said that had looked into it carefully and can say bogus, but I doubt it. I suspect it was more that it can't be true, so I'm saying it isn't. Maybe you heard some suggestion as to why the dermal ridges aren't real and so dismissed them because you like to latch onto whatever goes with what you'd like to think."

He writes in another paragraph comparing us to creationists, but basically the same line of reasoning there. He concludes "It seems like you did that with the dermal ridges thing which, from what I understand, is compelling evidence not easily explained away."

Well Kurt, it was me who made the dismissive comment. It was interesting that we got this email, because when I was doing postproduction and I heard myself make the comment, "Yup, that comes off as a little flippant." But I left it in. I was commenting about the hair analysis as well as the dermal ridges. It was, in fact, for that reason that I think it was either one or two episodes ago I did a follow-up on the Bigfoot hair analysis, because I wanted to go into that topic in more depth, basically to follow up on the curt comment, pardon the pun, that I made on the original episode.

The same is true of dermal ridges. Now, I have and had in my research prior to the Bigfoot episode read all I can get my hands on on the dermal ridges. So let's talk about that, since Kurt seems to believe that there's compelling evidence. Now what they're talking about is in foot casts of Bigfoot, on close examination of some of the casts you can see little ridges that look like, basically, fingerprints. But there's really only two guys who are promoting this. There's multiple problems with the dermal ridge evidence. In some of the casts even the fact that the dermal ridges are there cannot be independently verified. So there's probably a little bit of imagining going on the part of those who think that they're there.

The other problem is that the dermal ridges by the two scientists — I believe one is by the name of Krantz and the other is like a police officer fingerprint expert — the problem is that they have validated dermal ridges on casts that are known to be frauds. One was a cast that was specifically sent to Krantz to see if he could tell if it was a fake, and he could not. He validated it. He said it has all the features of a genuine Bigfoot cast, even the secret ones that I don't tell anybody about so that people can't fool me. So he 100% validated it, and the guy confessed that he completely faked it.

It's interesting reading the people who say "Oh, this is compelling evidence." The line of reasoning they use is that — it's basically the argument from personal incredulity. They say "I can't imagine how somebody could possibly fool me, so therefore no one is fooling me, and therefore this is legitimate." Or they can't imagine how somebody could have faked this evidence, therefore it's legitimate, without having a gold standard to compare it to, without having any way of validating that it's genuine, again, without going through that process of testing their hypothesis.

But always, it's a lot easier to fool people than it is to detect or to imagine how the fraud could be carried out. For example, this guy said he just placed the dermal — the fingerprints on the cast by sticking his thumb in the print. You could also just stick your thumb on the plaster before it dries. It's really easy to get dermal ridges onto those plaster casts. It doesn't say anything about the fact that they actually was a true transfer from the mud or whatever it was that the footprint was made of. And people do little things to lend authenticity to the footprints. Like he said, he put like a walnut shell or something crushed under the footprint in order to just make it seem realler, sort of as an afterthought. Or he put little toenail marks in the footprint just to make it look seem a little bit more real.

So, when people are creating hoaxes, they add those little details on purpose to make them more believable, and those little details should not in and of themselves make the evidence seem credible. In any case, the bottom line is the dermal ridge evidence is very low quality. It hasn't been validated. It's resting on two guys whose reputations are not sufficient to support this evidence and who have validated known hoaxes. So, in my opinion, that completely invalidates this line of evidence.

P: Seems easily dismissible.

S: Right. But the point is well taken in that we don't always have time to go into every little detail on the show. You do have to resist the temptation sometimes to be dismissive.

P: (unintelligible)

S: You may have a very elaborate justification for why something is crap.

P: I think people listening to our show know that we are not apriori skeptics.

S: They should know that by now. Hopefully, we've earned a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. But, there you go.

P: I would hope.

J: It's not beyond me to just offhandedly dismiss something, though.

S: As long as that is not the end of your investigation.

P: That's right.

R: There's a certain category of things that eventually you have to file away under "crap," because they just come up again and again and again.

B: Absolutely, absolutely.

R: You just have to be careful to always be ready to reevaluate what you are saying.

S: Yes. Absolutely. We say we are not apriori skeptics. That means we don't dismiss something prior to careful analysis, but once we've carefully analyzed the subject, we can safely categorize it as BS or nonsense until some newer, startling evidence comes at hand. So if someone's giving us the same old story, but we say "Ah, that's nonsense" because we looked at it.

J: I think my rule of thumb is: I really don't care what the truth is. I like to think that I have a pretty good idea of what the truth is, but I don't have an emotional connection to whatever the newest truth is. You can't.

S: Right.

J: You can't align yourself to having an emotional connection to things that you think are the truth.

S: But it's so amazing — in the emails that I get that are critical of my position, more based upon articles I've published on the Internet — people are so quick to assume that I have some vested interest in like not wanting to believe that Bigfoot exists. Who cares? Why would I possibly care whether or not Bigfoot exists. It would be really interesting if Bigfoot did exist.

J: It would be really cool. I would actually be really excited if they found a Bigfoot.

P: Of course.

J: But, let me say this: until some really compelling evidence comes out, to me it's total crap. There is just not a chance that there's a Bigfoot in my mind.

P: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Dermal ridges are not it.

Microwaves (37:05)[edit]

S: Let's do one more email, and then we have an interview, and then Science or Fiction coming up. This one is in regards to microwave ovens, and it's from a man who signs his email just as Huxley. Huxley writes, "Put this to rest. Are microwaves unsafe?" and he gives a link to an herbal healer website that has all this hysterical rantings about how microwaves are killing all of us. I've looked into the whole microwave oven thing, and, again, you have two kinds of articles out there. The sober scientific articles based upon actual logic and evidence, and then these absolutely ranting articles, which are complete with logical fallacies, these really inappropriate references, these vague references.

The FDA has a very complete article on microwaves, and we'll have the link on our notes page. Basically, microwaves themselves, of course, can damage tissue in high enough concentration, just like they cook meat in your microwave, they can cook your tissue, biological tissue. But the amount of radiation that you would be exposed to, that would leak out an approved microwave, is far below even conservative safety limits.

In addition, the microwaves fall off very quickly with distance. So, basically, the recommendations are: don't lean up against the microwave when it's running. If you're even 5 inches away from the microwave the intensity of the radiation is far below the safe limits. And if you want to be paranoid, and you go out to just a couple of feet, you're going to be by several orders of magnitude, you'll be below the safety limit.

J: Well, Steve, let's ask the basic questions. If I rigged my microwave to operate with no door or the door open, and I'm standing there right next to it or I put my hand inside the box, it's going to cook my hand just like it would cook any other piece of meat.

S: Sure. Sure. In fact, you shouldn't use the microwave if the door does not close all the way to seal.

J: But if the door was open or there was no door and it was operating, and you were standing a foot away from it, you probably would be almost perfectly safe.

S: A foot away, it drops off pretty quickly, but that might be getting more than the safe limit if the door were open, because the microwaves have shielding on them, and that's the primary protection from getting exposed to high levels of radiation. They can cause cataracts, for example, so if you have it at eye level, you shouldn't be staring at your food cooking in the microwave from 3 inches away.

R: Well, there goes my entertainment for tonight.

B: Aaahhh. What's on the microwave tonight?

R: Chicken again?

S: The other aspect of the hysteria is that even if you're not getting directly affected by the microwaves that it's poisoning your food. It's breaking down the chemicals in your food and ...

P: What?!

S: ... destroying it's nutritional value and making all these carcinogens and everything, and that's just based upon nothing. There's just no evidence, really, to support that. They always have something to base it on, but they have these references that are completely taken out of context. They don't tell the whole story. They're not giving complete information. They extrapolate wildly from very scant evidence. The bottom line is there's nothing to it. And of course, in order to justify why the FDA is saying that these devices are safe, it's of course because there's a huge conspiracy between the microwave oven industrial complex and the FDA are conspiring to poisonous us all.

P: (laughter)

S: They did mention again, and we had mentioned this on a previous podcast about the whole water exploding thing, and the reason for that being that you can superheat water if you have a very clean cup and there's nothing in there to agitate the water or to form as a nidus for the bubbles of gas, then the water can get superheated, basically heated beyond the boiling point, and then when you agitate a little bit like picking up the cup, it could then explode. It could boil away very, very, very quickly. So they said don't overheat liquids in the microwave was one of the cautions that they ...

J: The good news tonight is that we put the microwave conspiracy totally to bed. That's it. It's done.

B: Good night.

J: We never have to talk about microwaves again.

S: It's done.

R: Oh, but we should also mention that you should never, ever take drugs and put babies inside. I think we've all learned that from the internet.

P: That's right.

S: We previously recorded an interview with cult expert Rick Ross. Let's go to that interview now.

Interview with Rick Ross (42:01)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Rick Ross. Rick, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

RR: Thank you. Nice to be here.

S: Thanks for joining us. So, Rick is the head of the Rick Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups, and Movements. So you're basically a cult awareness or an anticult organization.

RR: Well, I think that's fair to say, but there are many groups that are included within the database that are simply controversial.

S: Hm, hm.

RR: Though some of the groups that are included have been called cults. There are probably somewhere between 200 and 300 subsections involving various groups, organizations, topics, movements, leaders. It's quite a large database.

S: I know this is inherently difficult if not impossible, but do you have a working definition of what makes a cult a cult?

RR: Sure. I think the best working definition was essentially devised by Robert Jay Lifton, a well-known psychiatrist and former instructor at Harvard Medical School. He offered three points or criteria to establish whether a group was a destructive cult, and I say destructive cult because there might be a benign cult, and, in fact, there are benign cults that might be bizarre, weird, but do no harm. So, one criteria is that the group does harm.

S: Hm, hm.

RR: That it hurts people, and this is a broad range. It could be anything from financial exploitation to violent sexual abuse, medical neglect. All groups are not the same; all groups are not destructive to the same degree. The two other criteria are one, and this is a very important one, that the group is personality driven and defined by a charismatic leader that essentially is authoritarian, has no meaningful accountability, and makes value judgments for the group. Then second, excuse me, third, would be that the group has a process of indoctrination that can be described as coercive persuasion or, as Lifton would say, "thought reform," or, as is commonly called, "brainwashing." Basically, the end result being that people are making decisions that are clearly not in their own best interest.

S: Hm, hm.

RR: And that might be, for example, drinking the Kool-Aid, poisoning your own children, not providing basic medical care for children resulting in their death.

S: Things that are generally not a good idea.

RR: Exactly.

P: I always thought that deception was a hallmark of the cultic groups, that they're not upfront about what they believe until they sort of have you deeper in their snares. Would that be accurate?

RR: I think that's accurate, that many cult groups are deceptive, but what I've given you is really three, I think, kind of bed rock criteria that are commonly agreed-upon. I think deception is common in cult groups, but not always. There are groups that are rather upfront to a large degree.

S: Right.

RR: For example, the followers of the man from France who calls himself Raël, the Raëlians, in Canada. I mean he doesn't pretend to be any more normal or mainstream than he announces himself.

S: Yeah, they're right upfront with their beliefs.

RR: Fairly upfront. I think the part of their belief that is largely below the surface is, according to some reports, that there's a lot of sexual carrying on that is happening at various conferences and get togethers, and that Raël is making out like a bandit in this situation.

S: I don't know if this rises to the level of being an actual criteria for being a cult, but I've certainly casually noticed that cults have a couple things in common: the guys at the top, the charismatic leader or leaders of a cult, always have two rules right up front. The first is you have to give me all of your money, and the second is I get to have sex with all the pretty girls I want.

RR: That's kind of a common perception, but you know I've run into groups where the leader doesn't really care about money. In fact, there was a group I ran into in Chicago where when members left they actually said that was one aspect of the group that they appreciated, that the leader did want devotion; he did want to be constantly praised and obeyed; but he didn't care about anybody's money, and when many of the people left, they left with large bank accounts and were able to proceed with their lives fairly well from a financial perspective.

S: Right. Now of course there's no criterion which is universal to all cults, and not all cults have every negative aspect that is typical of them. It's more of a spectrum from benign sort of pseudo-cults to the worst destructive cults. Would you agree with that spectrum characterization?

RR: I'd say that Lifton's three criteria that were defined in a paper he wrote in the 80s ...

S: Yeah

RR: ... called "Cult Formation", which listeners can actually see on the Ross Institute database under Mind Control and the subcategory Brainwashing, you can just punch up Lifton's criteria and there they are — his paper on cult formation, and then his paper on thought reform or, I should say, chapter 22 from his book "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism." You take those two papers together, and you really have a kind of universal description, ...

S: Right.

RR: ... in my opinion, of cults and how they operate.

S: But was it Elizabeth Loftus who wrote another --either it was an article or book about cults that had 20 criteria that, again, some cults will have most of those attributes, but not all cults will have all of those attributes. Are you familiar with what I'm talking about?

RR: Well, Loftus is more well known for her work in regards to false memories ...

S: That's right.

RR: ... or the nature of human memory. Actually, the preeminent cult expert of the 20th century was Margaret Singer, ...

P: Right.

RR: ... the professor of Psychology from UC Berkeley, and she wrote really a wonderful book that she more or less offered a synthesis of her work for decades, which was called — and is still in print — it's called "Cults In Our Midst."

P: Yeah, I read it. It's an excellent book.

RR: Yeah, in that book she really lays it out in a way that only someone with her vast experience could, and Margaret was really a good communicator, and I think the book is really quite good at conveying the information in a way that makes it very accessible.

P: Rick, what do you think of and have you ever been involved in any kind of exit counseling?

RR: Yes, the public knows this most commonly as "cult deprogramming."

P: Right.

RR: It started in the 70s. A guy by the name of Ted Patrick was the first deprogrammer when a relative of his, I believe it was a nephew, was caught up in a terrible group called the Children of God that actually believe that children should be sexualized beginning at the age of four, and sent out women in the group to become literally hookers for Christ. That's how they were known.

P: My God!.

RR: They gave the money back to Berg, who reportedly molested his own daughter and granddaughter. I actually met his daughter and granddaughter and was shocked at what they told me he had done to them. One of them had been held prisoner. But at any rate, Ted Patrick, in reaction to Children of God in California and their recruiting in his own family members' recruitment, he devised a means that became known as deprogramming to extricate people from cult groups.

It was done in the 70s, particularly in the latter 70s, by court order. Parents would get conservatorships, and they would come with the Sheriff and pick up their cult-involved family member, and involuntarily deprogram them at some secured setting. Later, this became known as exit counseling as professionals wanted to distance themselves from whatever negative connotations deprogramming had, largely through cult propaganda by the Unification Church, commonly called the Moonies, and Scientology. And now, I think people have a number of names for the same process, which is essentially presenting information in an effort to unravel the program instilled in a person's mind by a cult group and get them to start thinking independently again.

S: Hm, hm.

RR: So some people call it "cult intervention"; others call it "thought reform consultation" or "strategic intervention therapy", but the public largely continues to know it as deprogramming.

J: Rick, would you say that the number of people that follow a particular cult lessens its cult status.

RR: Oh, you mean if it's more popular it becomes less desirable.

J: Well, you talked about the definitions of a cult, and if we look at the big religions of the world, there's versions of all of them that could be considered cultish. So let's take, for example, Scientology, which happens to be ...

RR: All right.

J: Which happens to be the one that I dislike the most. How many people are involved in Scientology today versus 15 years ago, 20 years ago?

RR: Well I think it's shrinking. I think actually that's one of the things that David Miscavige, the current leader for life, apparently, of Scientology that succeeded L. Ron Hubbard, it's founder, can take credit for. He can say "Hey, Ron, L. Ron, I shrunk the church."

J: Yeah.

RR: Because even though he achieved tax-exempt status for Scientology in 1992, which was arguably quite an achievement, and he's kind of spinning the church into a gentler, kinder kind of Scientology with its various volunteer ministers and community outreach, I think that their numbers are probably no more than, and I would say this would be a high estimate, 200,000, but many people would argue that they're well below 100,000, and that represents a shift, a shrinking in the actual church in recent years.

J: Well, coming from you, that makes me very happy to hear that. But I want to focus a little bit on my point. Let's say over the next 10 years there happened to be an increase of 5 million members to Scientology. Would that in any way affect your opinion of it as being a cult?

RR: No. If it still continued to have the same dynamics as Lifton illustrates and the same criteria that he, I think, very well defined in his paper "Cult Formation," they would continue to be a destructive cult, but a very successful one, a very large one.

J: Right.

RR: There's a wonderful book. It's called "The True Believer," by Eric Hoffer, and Hoffer would argue that groups, when they become big, become satisfied. They become content, no longer frustrated, and not quite so ambitious, because they're part of the establishment. So I think, arguably, a group can evolve. It can begin as a cult, evolve into a religion, and may eventually become a fairly mainstream and benign religion, despite its early beginnings.

S: I think that if Scientology survives, I think it's headed generally in that direction. I think you would agree that cults are defined by their behavior, not their beliefs, generally. So, it almost doesn't matter how bizarre their beliefs are. All supernatural beliefs are, from one point of view, equally bizarre, because they're supernatural, and that's not how you define a cult, anyway. So if they do evolve into a more of a benign behavior pattern, then they are really indistinguishable from religion. Would you say that the Mormon church, for example, is an example of a church that started out as a cult, although I think it probably still has some cultish aspects to it, even today?

RR: I would say that Scientology, hopefully, will evolve into a more benign mainstream religion, but I don't see anything that compelling or convincing at this point, especially after the South Park debacle ...

S: Hm, hm.

RR: ... and what happened through that whole story. Talking about the Mormons, yeah, I would say that when they began, they essentially were defined by one man: Joseph Smith, who claimed that he had a revelation; he claimed that he had special powers; he could translate golden plates, that conveniently disappeared later.

S: Hm, hm.

RR: And, by the way, if you really want to see something really funny, watch South Park's sendup of Mormonism, which is hilarious. I also have that script in the database, and, unlike Scientologists, the Mormons — I guess they have a better sense of humor, because they didn't go to such extremes to try and have the show pulled or whatever.

But Mormonism began as a religion or a belief system defined by one individual, and that was Joseph Smith, and he had absolute authoritarian power. He made value judgments, and arguably exploited the group. He had a revelation, for example, that said that he could have any women that he wanted, and that he was a general of their army. He was the mayor of Nauvoo, their city. I mean he was the end-all and be-all of the Mormons, and then after his death Brigham Young largely continued that legacy, and had that kind of power, and had, I think it was reported, over 50 wives.

But eventually the Mormon church would change. It would evolve, and there would be the first Council of the Presidency, more power-sharing, and then it would go further, and they would have what they called the first quorum of the 70, second quorum of the 70, and today, though Mormonism still has a lot of it's baggage that can be seen as its cult baggage, it's basically a religion, though I think it's fair to say not a Christian religion.

S: Right.

E: Rick, I was going ask you about, because I've been reading a little bit lately about well things like the Heaven's Gate cult and you also mentioned obviously several places on your website you refer to Jonestown. These kinds of apocalyptic, these total destruction sort of cults, are there any out there right now that represent the same signs leading up to something tragic like this in which we're going to read in the headlines in the coming months or years that again a mass group of people decided to commit suicide based on the tenants of the cult?

S: Can you predict, I guess basically, which cult is going to self-destruct like that?

RR: Well, in 1999 there was a great deal of interest in this as the millennium approached, and actually the largest cult mass suicide may have occurred in 2000, exceeding Jonestown. It happened in Uganda. They were the followers of a man by the name of Joseph Kibweteere, and the movement was called the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, but because of the relative isolation of the group and the lack of proper technical teams to go out and recover the bodies, what happened was they only recovered 750 of the dead of the movement, and there may have been more than 1000.

So that was a millennialist group. Kibweteere had predicted that the end of the world would come in the year 2000. When it didn't, many of his followers wanted to leave, and, by the way, they wanted their money back. Kibweteere didn't quite see it that way, and he murdered quite a few of them, and, finally, 500 of them died in mass in a church that was set on fire with it's doors and windows chained shut.

E: Unbelievable.

RR: And in there was Joseph Kibweteere. There are many groups that are continued to be focused on the end of the world, like a group in Abilene, Texas called the House of Yahweh, which currently is making end-times predictions. They have a leader by the name of Yisrayl Hawkins. And then there is a group called, literally, Endtime Ministries, in Florida, led by a man by the name of Charles Mead, that not only denies medical care for its members due to their beliefs, including children, but is focused on the end of the world.

J: It's pretty morbid.

P: Yeah.

E: Is there no position authorities or anyone in a position of authority can take to try to break this, to do something about this to save these people's lives potentially? Like you said, their compass is pointing that direction. It does seem like they're going to do something drastic someday.

RR: Well, I think the government, increasingly, and local authorities are taking on the whole cult question on a case-by-case basis. So in other words when a group does something criminal, such as a child dies from medical neglect or they are beaten very badly, such as a group called The House of Prayer in Atlanta, their leader was jailed because of the beatings of children, or a group called the General Assembly and Church of the First Born, largely in Colorado and surrounding states. Many parents have been prosecuted because they denied their children basic medical care that could have saved their lives, and children died. So there have been a number of groups in the United States and Canada that have found themselves in the dock in court because of their behavior, but I think the government and the authorities take that on a case-by-case basis.

S: Is their a legal basis for going after the group as a whole or do they just go after the individuals in the group for the behavior?

RR: They go after the individual group members for their situations and their crimes as individuals, but in some cases they can go after the leader. For example, there was a group called Faith Assembly an Indiana and largely in the Midwest led by a man by the name of Hobart Freeman, and he was prosecuted. The group believed, like Endtime Ministries, that medical care should not be sought by any of its members, and over a hundred people died in Faith Assembly, and Hobart Freeman was eventually prosecuted in conjunction with that.

E: Good.

P: Rick, have you ever personally talked to anyone who let their child die through some abuse or lack of common sense medical care by one of these groups?

RR: Yes.

P: Is there ever repentance there, sorrow?

RR: Oh, deep, deep sorrow. I've talked to members of Endtime Ministries, Faith Assembly, I talked to a woman that was involved in the Children of God whose child died in an accident that would not have occurred if she was not with this group in a third world country in unsafe travel conditions. The child was literally knocked out of her arms in a truck on a rocky road, and the infant smashed its skull on a rock and died. And she carried enormous grief over what had happened. She left the group and felt terrible about her involvement, and what it had done to her life. And likewise I've sat and talked with mothers who just have wept and wept over the situation they were in and what they believed at that time and how they felt it was the right thing that ultimately lead to tragedy.

P: So tragedies of that magnitude can, what, bring people out of these cults?

RR: Well, I think that the tragedies that some of these people have experienced have brought them out, but with just incredible damage.

P: It's too late.

RR: Remorse and grief.

P: Right.

S: Do you have an opinion as to one cult that you would say is the most destructive or does the most harm?

RR: Well, you know ...

S: Anything stand out?

RR: Some of these small groups that are relatively unknown, and I can remember in 1990 sitting at a conference when people were discussing what groups are the worst in the country, and I mentioned the Waco Davidians, and people looked at me and said "Who are they?"

E: Oh, my.

S: Right.

RR: So that group was never more than maybe 200 people, but it became internationally known. There are groups today that are small. For example, there's a group called the Endeavor Academy in Wisconsin led by a man named Chuck Anderson, who largely bases his group on a book called "A Course in Miracles." This is a book that supposedly was channeled by a psychiatrist who was channeling Jesus of Nazareth, and wrote a book supposedly as a channel for that individual.

So Chuck Anderson has taken that book, which I regard essentially as benign, and it's used by many people in a rather benign way and study groups, and he has what can be seen as a cult following of people that he completely controls in Wisconsin, in an area called the Wisconsin Dells, and I find that group to be very troublesome, very scary group.

S: Do any of these groups ever come after you personally or financially or legally?

RR: These groups have sued me repeatedly. For example, there's an organization called Landmark Education. They were previously known as Erhard Seminars Training or EST. They have something called The Forum, which is a weekend seminar in which they supposedly bring you to a kind of philosophical epiphany about the world and life.

P: What do they charge people for that?

RR: I think it's around 500 bucks for that revelation. Anyway, Landmark was not happy that when you Google "landmark education", first comes their website and then comes the Ross Institute database, which is a very large archive of often critical articles historically documenting all the problems that Landmark has had and EST has had and its founder Werner Erhard, whose given name was Jack Rosenberg, has had historically.

So they sued me for a million bucks, and they went through a process that was ultimately very humiliating. A very large law firm, Lowenstein, Sandler in New Jersey took on my case pro bono. I suspect their strategy was as many of these groups when they file what I would consider harassment or SLAPP suits, that they will tear you apart by draining you financially ...

S: Hm, hm.

RR: ... through litigation and legal fees, costs etc.

E: Oh, yeah.

RR: What happened instead is the opposite. Lowenstein and Sandler, a huge law firm, took my case up, not charging me a penny, and the lead lawyer was Peter Skolnik, who also represents the intellectual property of The Show The Sopranos and the estate of Nabokov. He's quite a guy, and he beat 'em. Boy, did he beat 'em. He was in discovery with these guys, and rather than bring out the documents that were requested, they actually filed and dismissed their own lawsuit.

E: Wow!

J: Good for him.

P: Excellent.

RR: That was pretty bad for them. It was a South-Parkian experience.


P: Good for you, Rick.

J: I'm glad to hear that you appreciate South Park. You've mentioned them twice, and we also are fans of the show on our show. We think that the way that they represent cult religions, the way that they represent just mysticism in general is very, very funny and also very informative.

P: Those guys get it right. They get it right.

S: Yeah.

RR: And there is also an axiom or a moral to be learned for Scientology from the entire match off with South Park, and that is: never mud wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, the the pig gets dirty, but the pig has fun. Now I'm not saying that Matt and Trey are pigs, but I'm saying they had a lot of fun.

S: Absolutely. I think you got it right. Well, Rick, thanks for joining us. We certainly appreciate it. It was very informative, very interesting.

RR: All right, well thank you.

J: Thanks, Rick.

E: Thanks very much, Rick.

S: We hope to have you back again the next time there is a big destructive cult exploding. Maybe we'll get you back on the show.

RR: Hey, there you go.

S: All right. Keep up the good work.

RR: All right. Thank you.

S: Take care. Well, Rick Ross is an absolute font of cult information. That guy knows his stuff.

P: Absolutely.

J: I thought he was very interesting, and I'd love to have him on again.

P: If he wanted to, that guy could start a scintillating cult.

B: Ha, ha, ha.

P: He could.

S: He could.

J: Yeah. I forgot to ask him, but I wanted to see if he'd be interested in starting a religion with me.

P: Nice. That's right.

S: Well, you have his email, Jay.

J: Thats were the money is, come on!

Science or Fiction (1:09:29)[edit]

S: We're getting short on time, so let's move on to Science or Fiction.

(intro) It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine, one is fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to see if they can tell which one is fake. And, of course, I challenge you listeners at home as well. No theme this week, just three news items. Actually, I had so many to pick from, I was toying with the idea of maybe expanding to four items. Do you think that would be too many?

P: Take it easy.

S: I'll stick with three.

J: It's a magic number.

S: Are you guys ready?

J: Yeah, come on, let's go.

S: Alright. Item number one: Biologists have genetically engineered a pig to produce healthier bacon.[7]Healthy bacon. Item number two: Fossil evidence confirms that the Arctic polar region was once home to a lush tropical forest. And item number three: Scientists have produced gravitomagnetic fields in the laboratory 100 million trillion times larger than Einstein's general relativity predicts.[8] That's one times ten to the 20th power.

P: Right.

R: I have no idea what that means.

S: It means anti-gravity, baby. It's a gravitational field.

R: Okay.

P: Jeepers.

R: Okay.

P: Who's up first?

S: You are, Perry, since you spoke.

P: Me!

S: So, healthy bacon ...

P: Yup.

S: ... tropical forests in the north pole, or gravitometric fields.

P: Yeah, that's a big number, that last one there. What did you call it, a million trillion?

S: A hundred million trillion. One times ten to the 20th power times --the strength of the field is that much times stronger than was theoretically predicted by general relativity.

P: You telling me Einstein got it that wrong?

S: Apparently.

P: That's pretty serious. You know, that number's too big to contemplate. You know healthy bacon. Yeah, you know. They genetically modify so many things these days that I can go with healthy bacon. It's probably true. The second one — plants in the Arctic. It's pretty cold up there, but climate shifts and changes around and could conceive of global warming, in my opinion. I'm going to say the third one is false. I don't think Einstein got it that wrong.

S: All righty. Jay?

P: That's my opinion.

J: Well, healthy bacon, to me that's an impossibility, because bacon, first off, is unbelievably, unhealthy and incredibly delicious. I'l tell you now, if they make healthy bacon, I will eat it every single day till the day I die. I'm going to say that that is complete crap. But I do want to talk about the other two things, real quick. I would believe the forest in the polar region, and the gravitational field — my question regarding that would've been how incredibly small was Einstein's original idea, in other words ...?

S: Very tiny.

J: Yeah.

S: Very, very tiny.

J: So that one could be true if his thing was so insanely small that if even though it was that much larger, maybe it still is nothing. So I'm going to say that healthy bacon is bull.

S: Okay.

R: Jay, you should up the ante and if there is such a thing as healthy bacon, you should eat like an entire (unintelligible)

S: How about this: eat an entire adult pig.

J: If there is healthy bacon, and we will have to define what healthy is. Relatively not gonna kill me. I'll eat ten pounds of it in one day.

S: All right, you got it. Rebecca, why don't you go?

R: Awesome. Okay, well I know that they make healthy bacon because I read that.

J: Ooooooohhh.

R: So I can't wait. So that leaves the other two, and now I can't even concentrate because I'm picturing Jay eating ten pounds. How many pounds of bacon? Ten pounds of bacon. I'm going to go with the third one.

S: The big number.

P: That's a big number.

R: Yeah, that's a big number.

S: Bob?

B: Read the third one for me again, Steve, please.

S: Scientists have produced gravitomagnetic fields in a laboratory 100 million trillion times larger than Einstein's general relativity predicts.

B: That's crap. Come on. All right, the healthier bacon. Well, it doesn't seem that hard to me. Less fat, more lean meat. Done! Game over. There you go. Healthier bacon. Right there. And the lush forest ...

J: I'll kill all you guys.

B: I mean a lush forest in the Arctic. I mean that's no surprise. We got plate tectonics and the supposed ...

S: Lush, tropical forests.

B: So what? Gravitometric fields. To me, that's obvious crap. If you want to make a gravitational field, you need one thing. You need mass. That's it. You're not going to make it like on "I Dream of Genie" when you walk in the room, and they turn off gravity and stuff. We're not going to manipulate matter or gravity like that. If you want gravity, you need mass, period. So three's my choice.

S: Okay. So let's start with number one — biologists — because Rebecca gave it away. This was on every science news site I went to. I figured somebody had seen this. They did genetically engineer a pig that basically increases the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their fats. So, Bob, it's not just that there's less fat and it's leaner, the fat that they have, it's less of the omega-6, which is the bad fat, and it's more of the omega-3, which is the HDL, the good fat. So, these are really healthy pigs.

Now, there's two benefits to this. The first is that the pigs themselves are healthier, that they should live longer, which means that they would be more profitable, etc. The second is that eating the pigs would be healthier, and, in fact, could not only be more healthy could actually be like a health food, because it's like eating fish, right? You're getting the omega-3 fatty acids. No one has eaten these pigs, yet, because they're not FDA-approved for human consumption. More testing is required. My question is, and I guess were not going to figure this out until somebody eats one of these pigs, are these pigs going to taste like fish?

P: Heh, heh.

J: Yeah.

S: Because omega-3 fatty acids taste like fish.

J: Yeah, that is the fish taste.

S: That is the fish taste. So, Jay, I personally don't like that fish taste. You're going to eat ten pounds once the FDA approves this pig, Jay. You're going to eat ten pounds of fishy pig.

J: Now hold on. This is spiralling insanely out of control. Let's reel this back in. I will start by saying I am not eating bacon that tastes like fish.

R: You can have an egg with it if you want.

P: All twelve of them, Jay.

J: By the time this unbelievably delicious, healthy bacon gets to my plate, we won't event be doing this podcast anymore. So.

S: Right.

R: I don't care. I'll track you down.

P: This podcast will live for a thousand years.

J: All right, bring the bacon on and I'll eat it.

S: Let's go to — the rest of you said that number three was obviously bogus.

P: Of course.

S: Number three is in fact absolutely true.

P: What?!

S: Now.

P: That's not true.

S: The scientists who discovered this were, like yourselves, skeptical of their own results. They ran the experiments hundreds of times to confirm that it was, in fact, correct. So, what they did, Bob, is they have these superconducting discs, and they have to rotate them at a certain speed, and they produce these gravitomagnetic fields, which is basically the gravitational equivalent of a magnetic field.

It's still tiny. It's like a millionth the gravitational field as the earth, so it's small. But it was one times ten to the 20th power greater than what we would predict from general relativity. So this is a significant, significant result. This is probably an important step on the way towards having a quantum theory of gravity, which, of course, Einstein — it's the one thing that he never was able to solve or really to make any progress on.

Of course, the headlines are — whenever you talk about anything with physics to do with gravity, the headlines always say antigravity device or "can this produce antigravity?" It's just like every time you find a fossil, it's a missing link. Everytime we do an experiment on gravity it's like an antigravity breakthrough. But whether or not this will actually lead to any kind of antigravity device is unclear. But still a very important breakthrough. Now the second one is fiction — the fossil evidence for tropical forests in the polar region. It is true that in epochs in the past there were forests in the polar region.

B: Right.

S: But never, ever, ever tropical.

B: Ah!

S: There were trees that would have been similar to trees that you would find in Oregon or in Maine.

B: But not Brazil.

S: Not Brazil. Not even really subtropical, and certainly not tropical. In fact, I got this from the Science News website, and they were reprinting an article that was first print published in 1936. So this particular misconception was put to rest in 1936 in the pages of Science News.

R: I must have missed that issue.

S: Yeah, you missed that issue.

R: Otherwise I totally would have gotten that right.

S: But I think people still have this concept of polar rain forests and tropical forests. It's still kind of a — text books, I think, still carry that myth forward. But it has been put to rest.

B: Yeah, but couldn't through plate tectonics, couldn't a region near the equator have a lush, tropical forest, and then through plate tectonic movement just kind of migrate to the polar regions?

S: The article refers to some theoretical reasons why that is not possible.

B: Really?

S: But they didn't elaborate, but, also, the empirical evidence supports that there were never tropical forests in that region, only more temperate evergreen forests. So the physical evidence just says it never happened, and theoretically it's not supposed to have ever happened. So I got all of you guys this time.

B: Good job, Steve.

S: Well we are way out of time. Rebecca, it was a pleasure having you. Again, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

B: Great having you aboard, Rebecca.

S: It is great having you aboard.

R: Thanks, I had a blast.

S: And again next week at least for my part I'll be recording from San Diego, the American Academy of Neurology meeting, and we'll bring you some of the latest in neurological developments, and we'll have a neurology-themed Science or Fiction. So until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at New England Skeptical Society. You can send us questions, comments and suggestions to 'podcast @'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • This was Rebecca Watson's first appearance as a regular rogue on the show
  • Steve says he would like a resource that has links to all useful skeptical studies on various topics. A few years later, it looks like RationWiki is successfully doing just that.


  1. Wikipedia: Eclipse superstitions in India
  2. Lewis (cat)
  3. BBC: Wikipedia survives research test
  4. Rebecca edits out the word "Prude"
  5. RationalWiki: Lunar Effect – This article contains what Steve was looking for.
  6. Eric Altman interview
  7. NY Times: Healthy Bacon
  8. Times Higher Education: Gravitometric field
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