SGU Episode 361

From SGUTranscripts
Jump to: navigation, search
  Emblem-pen-orange.png This episode needs:  proof-reading,  'Today I Learned' list,  segment redirects. How to Contribute

SGU Episode 361
16th June 2012
SGU 360 SGU 362
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
Science does not aim at establishing immutable truths and eternal dogmas; its aim is to approach the truth by successive approximations, without claiming that at any stage final and complete accuracy has been achieved.
Bertrand Russell's "The ABC of Relativity" (4th revised edition)
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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 Monday June 11th 2012 and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella.

B: Hey Everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson.

R: Hello Everyone.

S: Jay Novella.

J: Hey guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Make it so!

This Day in Skepticism (0:26)[edit] Captain Picard Day

S: Why do you say that, Evan?

E: I don't know, why do I say that?

R: Well maybe because today is Captain Picard day, apparently.

B: For real!?

S: Captain Picard Day?

B: Who decided that?

R: Apparently someone on Evan's facebook page decided that.

B: Ah.

E: (laughs) They did. Sent me the link and everything.

J: Ensign Crusher.

E: Shut up Wesley.

R: Apparently there's a Star Trek episode and Captain Picard day is a thing on the episode and it was on stardate 47457.1 which apparently matches up with June 16th but apparently there are also other opinions about what that date would be, like November 4th or January 8th or January 10th so I see this a lot like the...

E: Throw a dart at a dart board.

R: ...a lot like how the creation of the universe happened on October 23rd, you know at exactly you know, which year that was. It depends on how you read the texts, basically. But apparently some geeks think today is Captain Picard day.

E: It's a geeky form of numerology.

S: Is there a specific formula for stardate conversion?

B: There can be, but it varies between various series and movies, so yeah just don't use it.

R: It depends if you're the people's front of the federation or the federation's front for the people.

J: (laughs) the front for the people of the federation.

R: Yeah, it depends which you subscribe to.

E: And you wonder why Leonard Nimoy isn't doing conventions any more. This is the stuff he gets.

S: Well what's supposed to happen on Captain Picard day?

R: Well, you talk about how awesome Captain Picard is.

J: You basically put on the British accent, telling people to engage, to disengage.

E: Make it so.

J: Wesley, you know, you just.

R: You tell Worf he's wrong.

S: But apparently in the Star Trek episode, the Next Gen episode, on Captain Picard day, you're supposed to host school children and show them what Starfleet is like. So we could turn this into a science/skepical thing and we could say on Captain Picard day we teach school children about science and skepticism.

R: We do that all the time though.

J: Yeah I mean we do that every week, Steve.

B: Every day is Captain Picard day.


E: It sort of is. School children though, you know, specifically.

News Items[edit]

LiDAR (2:52)[edit]

Fox news: Have lasers located lost city of gold sought by conquistadors in 1500s?

S: Well Jay, tell us about LiDAR and the city of gold.

J: Have you guys ever heard of Hernando Cortez?

E: Uh, Cortez, Cortez.

S: Um, not Juan Valdez.

J: No.

S: Hernando Cortez.

J: Does it make you think of anything, I mean does the last name Cortez remind you of gold maybe?

E: Cortez's gold from Pirates of the Caribbean.

B: Yeah.

J: Right, no...

R: Is that where our history of Spanish conquistadors comes from?


J: Yeah, you have to watch Pirates of the Caribbean.

B: Caribbean.

J: No, but this guy back in the 1500s, he was trying to locate this place where there was supposed to be a lot of gold, it was like an ancient ruin that he was looking for. And that ruin actually is in the Mosquitia region of Honduras, it's called the lost city of Ciudad Blanca. Wow.

S: The white city.

B: The white city.

J: The white city, right.

E: The white city, blanca.

J: Anybody that can speak Spanish will know that I pronounced that horribly wrong. So what happened was, I guess he was looking in the right continent, but he didn't know exactly where it was and the way that they were exploring back then, with the machete going through the woods, walking through the woods, well that's basically the same way that a lot of archaeologists would hunt around in areas like that today and of course that costs a ton of money, there's dangers involved, there's health dangers, there's physical dangers involved in doing that kind of leg work. So what happened was a company came out with a very interesting and a very effective way of being able to look at the terrain that is underneath all of the green growth that most of these regions are completely covered in. So the technique they used is called LiDAR and that means Light Detection and Ranging. The technology is being used to do things like, well they're saying that they would be able to use this technology to map disaster areas or track erosion that's under rivers and shallow parts of the ocean and of course the potential for military spying is there as well. For now though, the archaeologists have their hands on it and other than them, like I said, exploring with machetes and whatnot, this just is very fast and it's very safe to use of course they're flying over in an aeroplane and what they do is they shoot billions of lasers over whatever, like of course depending on the size of the acres they're covering they would be using a lot more but they shoot like I think about 100,000 laser beams a second at the ground.

E: Wow.

S: And you know Jay, they could use that technique to map underwater ruins and they could mount the lasers on the top of shark's heads.

E: (indrawn breath)

J: That's right, and these would actually be frikkin' laser beams.

S: They would be frikkin' laser beams.

J: On their heads, which would be awesome.

E: Be a dream come true.

J: So they shoot the laser beams at the ground and some of them, light bounces back and they can tell how, the distance by how long it takes, and you understand how that works. They can get it down to like about 4 inches or 10 centimetres which is really accurate for this type of technology, it's probably a lot more accurate than they need it to even be to get a good reading out of it. Now this isn't the first time that it's been used successfully, they also used it in 2009 when a team was working on Mayan ruins and they actually successfully used it in a proof of concept it worked very well, and now they're using it on this location, they actually think they've found the ruins and I guess now they send in a crew to get in there and do it on foot, but now they know exactly where they're going. So no gold has been found yet or anything, but proof of concept, it's a fantastic technology, it's very fast, I mean they took, I think they flew over the location for two days and very soon after that when they uploaded the data into the machine it was like yep and here's the ruins and here's the topography, very accurate, and incredibly cost effective, so they're going to be using this a lot more and they're actually, the company that's behind the whole thing is dumping a lot of time and energy into doing research in other areas like I mentioned before about other applications.

R: Interesting. You know, LiDAR is also the name for the animal that's a combination of a Lion and Tidar?

S: Lion and Tidar?

B: Oh boy.

E: Tidar?

R: That was a funnier joke in my head.

B: Yes.


B: One would hope.

R: I've been sitting on that joke for the last five minutes, giggling to myself, but it didn't live up to the hype once I said it out loud, sorry.

S: But you do always need to, when you use any kind of aerial mapping to identify potential locations, you do need to then confirm it on the ground. There's just no way around that.

E: That's true.

S: You don't have to be hunting through the jungle Indiana Jones-style with a whip and a couple of six-shooters.

R: That is the most stylish way to do it but...

S: Yeah.

R: ...lots of people die.

E: It is, yep and a full orchestra accompaniment.

S: Have you guys seen Prometheus yet, the Aliens prequel?

B: No.

E: No, I have not.

B: Did you?

J: Not yet, I want to see it.

R: No spoilers.

S: I did.

B: You did, how was it?

J: Tell us if it was good, come on.

E: I'm hearing mixed reviews.

S: It was all right. It was not epic.

E: Argh.

R: Well that's a huge disappointment.

S: The coolest thing about the movie was that it featured LiDAR, they had these little devices that would zip around shooting lasers all over the place and 3D mapping the place that they were exploring, it was LiDAR 100 years from now basically. That was the coolest thing in the whole movie.

B: Really?

R: That's sad that that is the coolest thing in the movie?

B: Isn't it that ship?

E: It is kind of sad, yeah well...

Extremophiles (8:30)[edit]

University of Colorado Bolder news: CU-Boulder-led team finds microbes in extreme environment on South American volcanoes

S: All right, well Bob, tell us about even more information now about even more extremophile bacteria.

B: (laughs)

R: Extremophile!

B: Extremophiles!

E: Sounds extreme.

R: We should have like a theme song for the extremophiles that's just electric guitars, ten electric guitars.

J: Ten?

R: Ten, at least.

E: At least?

R: One of our listeners will surely work on that.

B: It's got to be extreme.

R: Yeah.

E: Well, that is, yeah.

S: That would be a neat hard rock band. The Extremophiles.

R: Extremophiles? Yeah!

B: Ooh, ooh.

R: Hell yeah.

B: I like it.

J: I don't like it.

S: (laughs)

R: What are you talking about?

E: Well they can only play specific venues, they can't go everywhere.

R: Yeah, they only play on the rim of a volcano.

B: Does that remind anybody of the band from Douglas Adams' Hitchikers Guide? The ones, was it Blackheart Desiato? What was his name? He actually used nuclear reactors for his speaker system or something.


B: I mean if you weren't miles away when they were doing their sound-check, you would, literally your head would explode or something like that.

R: Anyway, what were we talking about?

B: OK well, yet again, lowly microbes show that they are in some ways cooler life forms than mere human beings. Scientists studying soil microbes in a desiccated inhospitable environment on the slopes on volcanoes have found a branch of life that inexplicably is able to survive. This of course begs the question, can they survive on Mars, a lot of people are talking about it or have similar organisms existed there in the past or even now? So what happened was, a team of scientists from the University of Colorado, Boulder, analysed the DNA found in soil samples on rocky volcanic slopes in South America and found microbes surviving where literally none other could. These aren't ordinary microbes or bacteria of course, these are extremophiles and they're representatives of one of the three top domains of life called archaea. So what the hell is that, you guys have played 20 questions, right? What's the first question, the inevitable?

S: Animal, vegetable or archaea?

B: (laughs) Right, animal, vegetable or mineral? So why do you ask that first? Well it's because those three things are the three top categories that kind of encompass everything or almost everything that you encounter or know about. From a purely biological point of view, if you asked that question a few decades ago, what you'd say is Monera, Protista, Fungi, Plantae or Animalia. I mean it's taking the animal and vegetable and kind of like, that's how biologists would look at it, those are the major categories. So they were the categories or kingdoms that covered every living thing, but that's considered wrong today. Monera, which was the first one I mentioned, that included single celled organisms with no cell nucleus, these are prokaryotes, you may have heard that term thrown around. So this includes regular bacteria and these bizarre guys called archaea. But once they really could start looking at the genes and really take a close look at these guys, they realised that diversity within this monera kingdom was just way too huge for just one group to encompass it. So microbiologist Carl Woese, I think that's how you pronounce his name, he took a step back and said wait, we've got to rearrange this stuff. He said that these archaea are fundamentally a different sort of life, so he created, instead of kingdoms, he took one step up and created these domains, so all life are encompassed by these three categories. You've got bacteria, which we know about, you've got the archaea and you've got the eukaryotes which is pretty much multicellular life, animals, everything else. So what makes these guys special, one of the things because there's lots of things that are very different about them, but they use a far greater range of sources of energy than any other organism. Most organisms use things like common sugar, but they, archaea can use things like ammonia, metal ions, or even hydrogen gas. They're even, and I didn't know this, archaea are found in plankton, they are considered by some to be the most abundant groups of organisms on the planet because of that. So when you take a close look at this environment that they found them it, it's pretty nasty, it's at a pretty high altitude, almost 20,000 feet. Because of that the UV levels are twice what you'd find in a typical dessert. It's been ice-free for 48,000 years, no ice at all. When it does snow, the snow sublimates right back into the atmosphere really fast, pretty much soon after it hits the ground, bam it's back, it's evaporated. And the soil nutrients are so depleted that when they tried to detect the nitrogen levels, they couldn't detect anything, it was below the level of detection, so no nitrogen in the soil, pretty incredible. And then the temperatures, while the scientists were there, the scientists took temperature readings and the temperature ranged from 14 degrees Fahrenheit one night and spiked to 133 degrees Fahrenheit the next day, so it's an amazing, amazing temperature range. And even, you know how there's organisms that can pretty much rain down in the atmosphere, even they think, don't they think that bacteria now can be nucleation sites for the formation of raindrops in clouds and things. You can have these organisms kind of raining down into your environment, and they don't even survive, if they rain down in this environment they like pretty much die immediately. So yeah, a pretty forbidding environment needless to say. So they looked at these guys and they said well how did they survive. They checked to see if they use photosynthesis, probably one of the first things you'd look at, and they don't have, they don't have what it takes to accomplish that. So we don't know yet actually how these guys, how they create energy, but the prevailing theory is that they must use some kind of, like a chemical reaction that pulls energy from this carbon monoxide and dimethylsulfide that the wind kind of blows in but they're still not sure exactly how they're doing it, and that theory might be totally wrong. But the one thing that all these news sites are talking about with this news item is the Mars tie-in, everyone's talking about it. These scientists are actually working with astrobiologists to compare the current and past climates on Mars to these volcanic environments. Professor Steve Schmidt said, if we know on Earth what the outer limits of life were, and they know what the palaeoclimates on Mars were like, we may have a better idea of what could have lived there. So by learning more about these organisms we could, it could actually give some insight into what could have or what may exist on Mars. So in the future with this discovery, the scientists, obviously they want to set up an incubator that duplicates the extreme environment that they evolved in, and who knows what they may learn in terms of an undiscovered method of energy conversion that we could potentially even tap into for our own nefarious purposes, but it's pretty cool, so check it out online if you want to get more details, it was very interesting stuff.

S: Is there any place on Earth that is as foreboding as Mars is right now, where if we found extremophiles living there we could say these critters could live on Mars?

B: You know, I didn't find any definitive statements, but this environment that I just talked about, if you think about it, it's got a thin atmosphere, it's got lots of UV, but it's got a lot of what Mars has, I mean I think this is actually the closest environment to Mars that exists on Earth, any natural environment, so I would guess that these organisms could stick it out on Mars if they can make it here, but yeah I don't think you'll find a closer analogue.

S: Yeah, that's cool.

Moral Behavior (16:04)[edit]

Wired: Dictators Turn Strangely Benevolent in Online Game

S: All right well we are going to move from these unicellular creatures to people so that Rebecca can tell us well, are we moral when our behaviour is anonymous.

R: Ah yes, there is a new study out I guess you'll be happy to know that researchers have in fact discovered and inarguable new truths about morality and the human condition. No, just kidding. There is though, a weird new study that a lot of people will probably interpret in whatever way they want as is common with these sorts of psych studies but this one is about the dictator game which is a well-loved study that we've probably talked about before on this show and that many of our listeners have probably read about in pop psychology books like Freakonomics. And in the dictator game there are two players, one gets an amount of money, say 50 cents and that person has the opportunity to give any amount of their money to the second player, and that's pretty much it, that's the basic idea of the dictator game.

J: Is it real money?

R: Yes, they always work with real money because they're looking to see how moral people are or how benevolent people are.

E: Right.

R: And a lot of these studies revolve around how benevolent people are whether they're being watched, whether they're in public, whether there's some sort of social expectation for them to be benevolent. So there are a lot of variations on that basic dictator game. For instance there's one popular one in which the second player has the opportunity to refuse the money which would mean both parties lose all their money, there's more complicated things like that, but the study we're talking about today is more like the original dictator game in which the second player has no say. And this study done by researchers at the University College, London and Switzerland's Université de Neuchâtel, I probably butchered that, sorry. This study was meant to replicate the findings of previous studies that showed that the first player is more likely to give a larger portion of money if they're being watched, and in fact they're more likely to give a larger portion of money even if they're only seeing a picture of eyes. So for instance, one past study...

E: Creepy.

R: Yeah, it's weird. One past study had people paying any price they wanted for a cup of coffee and there's no one else around and they found that people pay more money when there's just a picture of eyes posted on the coffee machine, as opposed to a picture of anything else. So this study was hoping to replicate, looking to replicate those findings but they were doing it online, they were using a service called Amazon's Mechanical Turk, which is an online market where people can do simple tasks for small payments. So they had people on this service represent the players in the dictator game and so the first player would get 50 cents and then they had the choice of sharing as much or as little of their 50 cents with a second player as they wanted and both players in this situation were completely anonymous, and what they found is people tended to be more generous online in general than they did in the previous studies that had been done in person. They also found that showing someone a pair of eyes in this test, so let me just sort of describe for you what it looked like. The first player gets to do, they see a little picture and beneath the picture it says I will keep the following amount, I will allocate the following amount to receiver, and they can fill in those blanks, and in some of the tests the picture was a pair of eyes and in other tests they were flowers and in other tests they were just like a solid colour or something like that. And so what they found was that the eyes in this case had no difference, people gave the same amount whether it was eyes or whether it was just a solid colour, though they did find that flowers had a positive impact on the amount of money that the first player gave. That's basically what the study found and from there, people are now taking that and extrapolating it in any way they please, and I really enjoyed, I read about this on Wired's site which is usually, Wired is usually quite good I find but...

B: Oh yeah.

R: This made me laugh, here we go. "In another interesting observation, Raihani and Bshary’s dictators gave away $0.19 when shown flowers on the decision screen, hinting at the possible generosity-nourishing effects of nature." Really? (laughs)

B: Oh wow.

E: Flowers in bowls yeah.

R: Hinted at the possible generosity-nourishing effect of nature. So at least it then ends with one of the researchers saying that we just don't know enough yet to say about anything.

E: Yeah, but Wired does.

R: Yeah (laughs)

E: Wired said it anyway.

S: I mean I think, looking at this whole area of research, we come away with a couple of conclusions. One is that it's really hard to interpret this research, there's just so many variables, I know we've talked about this before, that unless you're really triangulating among many many studies and you're really isolating a specific variable, it's hard to say, like yeah really? The nurturing effect of nature? You're going to make that massive leap from this one tiny bit of information?

R: Yeah.

S: But I do think though that one signal that is that is here in this type of research is that people have this sub-conscious moral calculus that we, apparently evolved to make that is really easily manipulated, you know like just having a picture of eyes there alters that calculus for us in a sub-conscious way. But what's interesting is that most people will cheat a little bit. Most people are in fact cheaters, but only a little bit. And it's as if the moral calculus is, I'm going to get away with a little bit so that I have an edge, but not so much that I'm going to sacrifice my standing in the community as an honest person.

E: Or get caught, yeah.

R: I want to mention that the idea that people give more when they see pictures of eyes wasn't really rebutted by this study, but because this study showed that there was no difference when people looked at a pair of eyes, but it might point towards the sort of dehumanising sort of anonymity of the internet having an effect on how much people give.

S: Right.

R: So again, they saw an effect but there's really, there's just not enough data to really draw a conclusion about what that means, but that's one possible interpretation. And also I wanted to say that I was looking at various dictator game studies and my favourite one that I found is titled The Dictator Game, Fairness and Ethnicity in Postwar Bosnia and researchers actually, it was very interesting, they used the dictator game as a way to determine whether or not people in a post-war region were able to overcome that sort of violence and separation in order to get back to a base level of benevolence between one another. And what this study showed was that they could, and they did study 681 Muslims, Croats and Serbs in Bosnia Herzegovina, and they found that they tended to be just as benevolent as people in other areas, so I found it interesting how far and wide this kind of study can be applied.

Neck Manipulation (24:28)[edit]

JREF: BMJ Articles Oppose Spinal Manipulation

S: All right well let's move on. There was a recent article published in the BMJ, the British Medical Journal, that warns people against spinal manipulation.

J: Awesome.

S: Yeah, I mean it's good to see some main stream article taking a look at a controversial "alternative" modality and concluding that it is not advisable. So for background, neck manipulation is done mostly by chiropractors, not entirely, some physical therapists or sports medicine practitioners or osteopaths will do some neck manipulation, and when we use the term manipulation, we're referring to some high-velocity manoeuvres of the neck, so not just any movement of the neck because there's also another term called neck mobilisation which is must gentler and is just an attempt to free maybe some locked or frozen joints in the neck, if the neck joints are in a bad position and it's stuck and it needs to mobilised, that's a different thing than a chiropractic neck manipulation which is a little more violent, and chiropractors do this for all sorts of incitations including neck pain and migraines and headache. The controversy that's been surrounding cervical manipulation or neck manipulation is that it appears to be a risk factor for arterial dissection or small tears in one of the arteries going to the brain, the vertebral or the carotid arteries, and when that occurs, blood clots can form on the tear, on the inside of the artery and then that blood clot can break off, go downstream, lodge and cause a stroke. There's no question in the literature in the studies that have been done, that there is a correlation between chiropractic neck manipulation, or just neck manipulation in general and the occurrence of strokes. The chiropractors however claim that well, yeah there's a correlation, but that doesn't prove causation and in fact what is happening is that people who are having neck pain because they already had a dissection are seeking out a chiropractor for treatment of that neck pain. The thing that's ironic about that is that, first of all they don't know that that's true, and that's hardly a defence because you shouldn't manipulate a neck that has a dissection, that's a counter-indication, so they're basically saying that we're misdiagnosing carotid dissection or arterial dissection and inappropriately treating it, hardly a defence. But in any case, it's also, what's not controversial is that the actual incidence of strokes is very low, no one is saying that this happens all the time, the estimated vertebral dissection resulting from neck manipulation is somewhere between 1 in 400,000 manipulations to 1 in 5.8 million manipulations, although that higher figure is certainly an underestimate because that's based on litigation records, so not clinical cases, not any kind of systematic survey, probably the 1 in 400,000 figure is a little bit closer to the truth and it may even be lower than that, again this is generally under-reported and under-appreciated, and because of the numbers involved. I mean you could never do an experimental study, you couldn't randomise people to getting neck manipulation or not getting manipulation and see how many get dissection. That's unethical and impractical so we have to go on epidemiological data which will tend to underestimate these numbers, but let's go with the 1 in 400,000 number. Also that's manipulations not patients, so if the average patient gets manipulated 10 times, that's 1 in 40,000 patients who get manipulated, just using the 1 in 10 as a representative figure. But the real question is, and I think the BMJ article did a good job of bringing this to the forefront, is how we think about things in medicine is risk versus benefit, I know I've said that before on the show. You can't just consider risk, you have to consider the risk versus the benefit. There are certainly lots of medical procedures that we recommend that have complication rates on the same order of magnitude or greater, but when the benefit is far greater still, then it justifies that risk, I often use chemotherapy as the example, chemotherapy is horribly toxic and causes damage but the benefits of chemotherapy in terms of improved survival outweigh the risks of the toxicity of the chemotherapy itself. So what the BMJ article did is that they reviewed the literature on the risk, it's low but it seems to be there, and there's evidence to show the causal effect, you know people who were fine and then very soon after getting their neck manipulated having a stroke from a dissection, so there's a pretty clear temporal sequence there. And also this can happen in otherwise young and healthy individuals, it's not like an 80 year-old who is at high risk for a stroke anyway, we're talking about a 30 year-old suddenly having a dissection and a stroke which could not only be neurologically devastating but could lead to death. So even though it's not uncommon, you have to consider that the outcome, stroke and death, is extremely bad and so we're much less tolerant of major or serious adverse events. So what's on the other side of the equation, what's the benefit of spinal manipulation for neck pain and headaches? Well, it turns out that it's not there at all, that there's really no evidence to support that cervical manipulation is superior to more benign or less invasive interventions like mobilisation that I mentioned or just massage, something really benign like a basic neck massage, not deep massage or anything that would be a risk also to damage to the delicate tissues of the neck but just a superficial massage. So it's not superior to, and it's much more risky than, these more benign procedures. That's pretty much it. That's the death-knell for any medical intervention. It's more dangerous and not better than some other alternative. Then what's the reason for using it instead of the other alternative? There isn't any. It becomes completely unethical. I don't even buy that there's really significant benefit from any of these things, I mean I think that most of the data is comparing them but not really comparing them to placebo, so they don't really establish that any of them are more effective than placebo, but they say that OK yeah, manipulation and mobilisation and massage are all about the same in terms of their effect. One study that I looked at recently compared it to kineseotaping which is essentially just applying this specific kind of tape to the affected muscles, that was as effective as neck manipulation, but again, neither compared to placebo so we don't know that either was effective at all, probably some mild temporary benefit, but there doesn't appear to be any increased benefit to doing this high-velocity more dangerous neck manipulation. So the BMJ article concluded and I completely agree with the conclusion that it's therefore inadvisable, I would go as far as to say that it's actually unethical, it doesn't make medical sense. Of course the chiropractors are responding defensively. Remember the British Chiropractic Association?

B: Oh yeah.

E: Oh sure.

S: The same association that went after Simon Singh for daring to say that their treatments don't have any evidentiary basis. So their comment was

The cherry-picking of poor quality research needlessly raises alarm in patients and does little to help the people suffering from neck pain and headaches to choose the most appropriate treatment.

S: So I just want to pick out a logical fallacy or two in there.

J: Yeah it's the logical fallacy of bullshit.

S: Well it's definitely bullshit. So there's a begging the question in there, because it says, it mentions "it does little to help people suffering from neck pain", that's sort of begging the question that they help people with neck pain or that this option that they're talking about of manipulation is of any benefit to neck pain, that has not been established. What's interesting as well is that they talk about cherry-picking when in fact the BMJ article reviewed systematic reviews, systematic reviews are the exact opposite of cherry-picking, right? They're systematic.

J&E: (laugh)

S: So it's fine, I mean it's fine that, what I notice a lot, just as a little aside, as a little skeptical aside, writing about these topics a lot, that the other side is starting to borrow and steal a lot of skeptical lingo.

E: Yeah.

S: You know, and then throwing it back at us. It's like they feel like if they just steal our language that they're putting themselves on equal footing.

R: That's par for the course.

E: Yeah, I don't remember them using the term cherry-picking much in the past.

S: Yeah, but I'm getting that thrown, oh you're cherry picking data, it's like hello, this is a systematic review. And I've had people accuse me of cherry-picking when I was citing, referencing systematic reviews.

J: Yeah, but they don't even know what that is, Steve, they're just using the words because they think it empowers them.

S: I think that they're parroting skeptical language because it's been out there so much on the internet, in a way it's a bit of a complement.

B: Oh yeah.

S: I honestly think that. But they don't understand how to actually use the critical thinking that's behind the terminology, they're just using it because it has the form of skeptical argument.

R: It's exactly like creationists using the term theory as if they know what it means.

S: Yeah, it is.

E: Right.

S: Interesting, so this is the same, the British Chiropractic Association is doing the same thing, but they're wrong. There have been several systematic reviews that show there's lack of superiority and there's growing evidence for risk, so some risk, no benefit. Not a good calculation. And the response of the chiropractic community, in my opinion, is a good example of why they are not a science based profession. Not that there's never any defensiveness or wrongness in how mainstream medicine responds to new information, there often is, but they're intransigent, I mean this has been going on for years, and they keep accusing anyone, rather than saying this is a very important issue, we need to study this carefully to make sure that we're not causing strokes in young people, rather than saying that, it's all defensiveness and this is an attack on chiropractic and this is bad for chiropractic, and they've been that way for years. So they're not really giving any ground, and that's because they're stuck in neutral, they're not science or evidence based. Science is a way to justify their profession, not to ask or answer the hard questions. But anyway, so good BMJ article, I was very happy to see that.

Ghost Train (35:39)[edit] Two teens killed in ghost legend game

S: Evan, on a lighter note, we're going to end the news segment on a lighter note, you're going to tell us about...

E: Oh.

S: It's not really a lighter note (laughs)

E: (laughs) not it's not.

S: It does involve some rather tragic deaths, but why don't you tell us about that?

E: Yeah.

B: Happy deaths.

E: Yep, science kills, paranormal can... well... I don't know.

J: Hey come on, you know?

E: Let's see. We talk quite a bit on the show about the very dangerous nature of pseudo-science and belief in the paranormal and in a lot of these cases we talk about how people become ill or die as a result of either being deceived by others or deceived by their own lack of critical thinking. And this week's particular case involves the death of two girls who died as a result of believing in ghosts based on a local urban legend. So last week, a group of high school kids from Poplar Bluff, Missouri packed into a Jeep Grand Cherokee one night and they drove off to a place called Wilcox Road in town where, and it's specifically where Wilcox Road intersects with the train tracks that run through town. And they were out playing a game called ghost train.

B: Oh boy.

E: The idea of this game is that you drive up and pull onto the train tracks and then you turn off the engine and you sit there and you let the windows fog up and it becomes very scary at night, the windows are fogged up, you can't quite see what's going on, you try your best to just scare the crap out of yourself in that situation because, well according to a website called, this particular ghost story in this town describes the tale of a train derailment that occurred right at that intersection, roughly 100 years ago which killed everyone on board[1].

B: Whoa.

E: And it was said that a man was decapitated, he became an acranate, Bob.

B: Hah.

E: But authorities never found his head. And another tale has it that a pregnant woman's body was recovered but the baby was missing from the womb.

J: What?

S: Sounds apocryphal.

E: Yeah, other people talk, people who have played this game report that they can hear a train whistle in the background and it gets louder and louder and then all of a sudden stops or they'll see a light when they're looking down the train tracks and suddenly it disappears.

R: It's funny that we had the exact same ghost story about the train tracks in my small town growing up.

S: Yeah.

E: Yeah.

S: It's a local urban...

E: Local urban legend, you have them all over towns. The danger, the obvious danger of this one is that you're putting yourself in the line of potentially a train coming along and unfortunately that's exactly what happened this night, and when the five kids inside finally realised that oh my gosh, there's a real train coming they panicked, they couldn't get the car started.

J: Yeah, we hear the ghost train! We hear the ghost train! It's coming! It's a real train you guys, get out!

E: You can see the light, here it comes! Uh, it's a real... So they couldn't get the car started, had electrical problems, whatever, so three of the kids managed to get out, but two of the girls, they panicked, they were still locked in their seatbelts, they were so upset that they couldn't get out in time and sure enough, they were in it, the train hit and they are dead.

B: Wow.

E: One of the other kids who did get out, they claimed to the authorities that they weren't there playing the game, that wasn't the reason, they said that the car just happened to stall out at that point and so forth, but other people who live in the area report that this happens a lot. The urban legend has caught on and other kids on a regular basis are seen out there doing this exact thing.

J: If anything, them getting killed would probably generate a lot of ghost stories.

E: Yes, a lot of ghost stories. And other people, it might lure, they're afraid it might lure other people out there to actually see if now, if they can contact maybe the spirits of these two dead girls now who have died there and so it's going to, it perpetuates the myth in a certain sense and the ironic thing guys, is that according to local authorities, that train derailment never happened 100 years ago, that itself is an entire myth.

B: Oh my god I'm not surprised.

E: Yeah, clearly about the guy and the decapitated head, and the woman's body and the pregnant and all of that, but there never was a train derailment there to begin with, so it's just totally, totally made up, just kids doing what kids do, telling ghost stories at night trying to scare themselves, but man!

S: I don't think Evan, that they're necessarily believed, the ghost story. We can't really conclude that, I mean this is the kind of games that teenagers do just as, on a dare, just something fun to do, to spook each other, even if they don't believe it, it's like playing with a Ouija board, you don't necessarily have to believe that the demons are moving the thing around, it's just sort of a fun game and you suspend disbelief. The tragedy of it is that it's just stupid to park on the train tracks and let the windows fog up, I mean just don't do that as part of your game, that was the tragic thing.

J: Somebody came up with the idea, yeah we're going to park our car on the train tracks and we're going to let the windows fog up and we're going to wait, I mean.

S: Yeah.

J: Really guys, that's your idea?

R: Our town had that one and also another one where there was an intersection in the middle of some woods and the woods are supposed to be haunted and you're supposed to go in your car as fast as you can at midnight and turn off your headlights and fly through the stop light, or the stop sign and if you do it you'll see a ghost and kids do it.

E: Yeah, you'll become one.

R: It's so ridiculous but I guess that's...

S: You always have to wonder, the origin of the story is it let's see if we could get some people to do things really stupid and dangerous.

R: Yeah, let's see if we can kill some teenagers, yeah.

Who's That Noisy? (41:37)[edit]

S: So Evan, it's time for Who's That Noisy!

E: Love this part of the show, Who's That Noisy. We get to play a little noise for you and you have to guess exactly who or what or whom made that noise.

S: Who, who made that noise.

E: Yes well, for those of us who are grammatically challenged, whom made that noise. (laughs) Which is me and two other people. So last week's Who's That Noisy is again as follows.

And what it is is as your, probably your readers know, is that the sun is made of plasma, it's a fourth state of matter so...

E: So is plasma really the fourth state of matter?

B: Yes. Yes.

E: There's a little argument on the message boards. About that.

B: Really!?

E: Well they're saying that, you know...

B: Ionised gas?

E: Yeah, ionised gas and therefore can you really call it a fourth state of matter.

S: Yes.

B: Yeah, I mean that's pretty, I mean I've encountered that phrase over and over and over for years and years so lots of people, lots of people that I think are, you know, know what they're talking about, consider it the fourth state of matter. And the fact that it's the fourth I guess is meaningless because you could name them any way you want but it's a distinct form of matter from what I could tell, I mean I don't know what arguments they were making but I'm kind of surprised that would be, there would be some controversy over that.

J: Even questioned, yeah.

E: Controversy then, OK, all right, just want to make sure I didn't miss something because that's what I understood it to be, the classic fourth state of matter, well since we've learned what plasma finally was, but who said that, I mean who's voice is that. Anyone know John Linnell?

J: Of course.

R: They Might Be Giants.

E: They Might Be Giants, one half of the ultimate alternative rock duo.

R: But he taught me that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas.

E: He did tell you that, and actually they borrowed that from a song prior to that, so they kind of remade that, yeah. Let's see how it went. The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a giant nuclear furnace where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions...

R: At a temperature of millions of degrees.

E: There you go, that's right.

R: The sun is hot, the sun is not a place where we can live. I'll stop.

E: And it goes on. But you know, they realised that, well they had an album back in 2009 called Here Comes Science and they wrote a bunch of songs and they, with the help of some scientists, they ran their lyrics past them to make sure that they were being correct and technical with the science as any good responsible patrons of science would be, and they decided that they have to make and amendment or they had to redo the song to correctly state that it's not gas, that it's plasma. So they came up with the revision of that song called Why Does the Sun Really Shine? The sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma, the sun's not simply made out of gas, no no no. The sun is a quagmire, it's not made of fire, forget what you've been told in the past. Very cool, as always you know.

R: Thank you, guys.

E: As always, it's one of the most clever bands in history, and they are wonderful, they are excellent stewards of science, popularising science to the masses and to children as well, through their music so I've been a fan, well for ever.

J: What was their song, Mr Worm, remember that one?

R: Uh, Dr. Worm. Sounds right.

E: Awesome. Now, we had a couple of people guess correctly, the first one to guess correctly, specifically with that name, was alh from the message boards who said that that was John Linnell from They Might Be Giants, and he even pulled out the exact interview that I pulled that clip from, it was in an interview with Astronomy Magazine as they were promoting their album.

S: Good work, good sleuthing.

E: Well done.

S: So what have you got for this week, Evan?

E: Without further delay, here we go with a brand new, fresh off the presses, Who's That Noisy?

(squeaking noises)

J: That's the noise people make when they get a puppy.


B: That's a little creepy actually.

J: All right, I'm going to make a guess that that is some type of non-humanoid animal making really funny cute noises, potentially maybe a bird.

E: Well you might be on to something, but you might not be or you may have you know, one or two little bits in there that are incorrect but we'll leave it to our listeners to come up...

J: One or two bits, I only had two bits!

E: (laughs) other than that, it was perfect. is our email address so go ahead and send us your answers there or you can post them right on our forums, on our message boards,, under podcast episodes, podcast episode 361 specifically, and good luck everyone.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Homeopathic Pharmacists(46:30)[edit]

S: Got an email here from Toni Michel from Stuttgart in Germany, sorry if I did not pronounce that correctly.

E: Stuttgart, awesome.

S: Stuttgart!

E: Is that where they make Porsches?

S: Is that right?

E: I think the Porsche factory is there if I'm not mistaken. Yeah! Oh I'd love to go there.

J: Oh yeah!

E: Baby.

S: He writes:

I want to address a topic of utmost importance: the medical credibility lend to non-physicians. Pretty much all German pharmacies sell homeopathic remedies. After gathering a relatively big amount of information about current studies and so on, I wanted to confront some local pharmacists, how to justify selling, what obviously doesn't work? The responses were unexpected, to say the least. I went to 4 pharmacies, stating that I'm "interested to learn about homeopathy", setting up a little trap, hoping to get the every-day response to a question like that. All 4 pharmacists I talked to, assured me (enthusiastically), that homeopathy certainly works and that it's a great way to go. They were clear that there is not the least(!) doubt about the effectiveness. (I was even told that homeopathy was, in fact, real medicine and shall not be confused with nutritional supplements. When confronted with the studies, they avoided to address any argument I made. Instead their responses became, ironically enough, some kind of liquid. I heard some arguments from ignorance, some false dichotomies and constantly moving the goalpost. I don't know about pharmacists in the US, but in Germany they have almost the same credibility as physicians. They sell a big variety of (non-homeopathic, actually real) medicine on own judgement and even tell people what dosage to take. Physicians usually only get consulted by Germans, if the state of health appears to be somewhat critical. Most medicine is sold purely on the pharmacists judgement. Today I discovered how full of crap they really are. I would love to hear your opinions on the topic. Especially regarding the potential risk of people selling medicine while basically believing in magic.

S: So, thank you Toni, that's very interesting. I wasn't aware that pharmacists had independent prescribing power.

B: Wow.

S: That's interesting.

J: That sounds dangerous, I mean think about it.

E: That's too powerful, yeah.

J: I don't know what their, the regulations are in Germany but pharmacists do of course get an education, but I don't know, they're not doctors and a very good argument could be made about how they're not really educated enough to make those types of called.

S: Well I'll tell you my personal opinion, this is pharmacists in the US. They're obviously very educated and knowledgeable about pharmacology, I mean I think your average pharmacologist may know more about pharmacology than your average doctor, and they're extremely useful, but knowing about the drugs is not the same as being able to practice clinical medicine, so there's an entire skill set that pharmacists are not taught, so that's why independently prescribing medication, you know it depends where you're drawing the line, if you think about it, we have over-the-counter medication, people could actually prescribe themselves medication as long as it's over-the-counter so could there be another layer of medications that can be purchased with a pharmacist's consultation, that doesn't require a medical consultation? That's not entirely unreasonable.

R: Well we kind of almost have that in the US because of plan B. Plan B is a medication that is technically sold over-the-counter but it's kept behind the pharmacist's desk and you have to ask them for it and a pharmacist in many states can refuse to give it to you based on religion.

S: Yeah but that's all based on the whole abortion controversy.

R: Yeah I mean, it's not, that's what I'm saying, we have it, but that's exactly what that is though.

S: But it creates the same situation, yeah.

R: Because of that, yeah, it's become, yeah, that's...

S: Yeah, it's behind-the-counter over-the-counter medications, you know. Where you need a consultation with the pharmacist and they'll tell you about dosage and how to use it and that's fine but you know, I think you have to stop short of actually practising medicine because again, that requires a knowledge and skill set that pharmacists don't have.

E: Right.

S: But the other question here is what about pharmacists in Germany prescribing homeopathic potions and saying that they're the greatest thing since sliced bread, I mean that is the disturbing bit here.

E: You're on the home turf of homeopathy.

S: The thing is this is cultural, it's interesting, you know homeopathy is very popular in Europe because it was invented there by Samuel Hahnemann but what's disappointing is that Germany has a long and proud tradition of science, especially in the area of chemistry and things like that, I mean they are a very rational people and yet just because of, again the cultural history, there's also a huge amount of popularity abject nonsense and magical potions. The compartmentalisation is just incredible, that these two things are existing side-by-side in the same culture.

R: Yeah, but what we see is that every culture has their particular brand of pseudo-science and unfortunately that's Germany's.

S: Yep, unfortunately. For those two listeners who don't know what homeopathy is, the quicky is, it's not, as Toni says, it's not herbal remedies or nutritional supplements, it's magic water. You take water, you take some fanciful ingredient that has nothing to do with anything, and you dilute it into non-existence so you end up with just the water you started with, and that's it. That's what homeopathy is, it's a completely...

E: The water has memory, Steve.

S: Yeah, it's a totally fake, magical potion and it's amazing that it exists in our modern world, it really is an embarrassment to our species that it's still around, but this is just a particularly egregious example of it and at least the United States isn't the worst at every pseudo-science, at least there are other parts of the country where that it can have...

E: World.

S: At least there are other parts of the world that have their own pseudo-science, but that's a small consolation. There is a PS to this email, Toni writes:

The reason I learned about this podcast is my older brother, Andreas Michel. He is a really great guy and a big fan of your show for quite some years now. It would be totally incredible, if you could greet him on the air. I probably wouldn't have to buy him birthday presents for the upcoming years.

S: Well, thank you Andreas for getting your little brother involved in skepticism and the SGU, we always appreciate that sort of thing.

E: Sehr gut.

R: You can forward those birthday presents that would have been purchased straight to us.

S: That's true, yes.

E: Yes.

J: (laughs)

Name That Logical Fallacy[edit]

Congruence Bias (53:19)[edit]

S: All right, hey do you guys know, we're going to do a name that local fallacy. Do you guys know what the Congruence Bias is?

R: Hmm.

J: No I don't.

R: No.

E: Why haven't I heard of it?

S: Yes. So this is a good one, this is one that even otherwise well informed skeptics may not be completely familiar with.

E: Clearly.

S: The congruence bias is the mistake of testing only your own theory for something. It can be very subtle and again, it can take even otherwise critical thinking by surprise. So in other words, you come up with some hypothesis, and we do this every day, and then you seek confirming evidence or that hypothesis, and when you find it you go aha, I was right. But what you don't do is test specifically to see if your hypothesis is wrong and specifically you don't test other possible hypotheses. So let me give you an example from my own practice, from medicine, because this, doctors can fall for this all the time. So let's say that I notice, hey you know, a lot of my patients who have migraines drink a lot of caffeine. So then I will ask the next you know, 20 patients that I see with migraines what their caffeine intake, and lo and behold, most of them of all of them drink a lot of caffeine. So then I say, aha, caffeine worsens migraine headaches. That would be congruence bias. What I really need to do is ask people who don't have migraines if they drink caffeine, and maybe they drink caffeine at the same rate as the patients with migraines or I need to ask migraine patients if they have other lifestyle factors and maybe there's something else, maybe they have poor sleep or they eat watermelons, I don't know, there's something else that they could be consuming also, at the same rate, maybe it's just that these are two things that are common in culture, you know, consuming caffeine and having migraines and that have no specific correlation between them. Although, for the record, I do think that caffeine worsens migraines, but just using this as an example. SO our natural tendency is to just test our own hypothesis, not competing hypotheses. So this leads to confirmation bias, right? So it's a form of confirmation bias in fact. But it's a very subtle one because you think that you're testing a hypothesis, the problem is that you're just not testing all of the plausible competing hypotheses. This is also related to something that Sherlock Holmes said, which is a really good quote I like. He said, this is actually a quote that they pulled into the recent, one of the recent Sherlock Holmes movies. He said:

It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts

J: How did Arthur Conan Doyle get it right in so many ways? I mean...

S: And yet...

R: And still get it wrong on fairies.

S: And yet he believed in fairies.

E: (laughs) And ghosts.

J: It just seemed that he was so credulous, that he didn't...

S: He understood critical thinking and reason, and yet didn't employ it himself, that's the...

E: Refused to employ it.

S: So Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes was taken in by the Cottingley Fairies, these two young girls who took pictures of cardboard cut-outs of fairies and you know what's really interesting? I was watching the Antique Roadshow the other day, this is the Antique Roadshow from I think Ireland, and the last bit they had on the show was two women, one fairly old and one middle-aged and they had pictures of the two girls with the Cottingley Fairies. And they were the original photographs because the older woman was her daughter, was the daughter of one of those girls and they had all these original Cottingley Fairy photographs, it was unbelievable.

R: That's really cool.

J: What were they worth?

E: Oh gosh, we've got to get our hands on...

S: Well you couldn't price it, how could you put a price on those, they're priceless.

R: That's the point of the show, Steve.

B: 500 bucks!

S: I know, but sometimes they do say listen, they're worth whatever somebody thinks they're worth, there's no comparison, they're unique historical items, you know? Sometimes they do say that, they might have thrown out a figure of 10 or 20 thousand pounds, I don't know, but it was unbelievable, but what's really funny is, now of course all of these photographs, they also had a camera that Arthur Conan Doyle gave to one of the girls to help them take more pictures of fairies.

E: Cool.

S: And of course, these photos were exposed as frauds but the woman, the older woman showed one photo and said, this photo is real. (laughs)

E: Oh no! Oh no!

J: (laughs)

S: Real fairies.

J: That's awesome.

S: They went back (laughs) and they really thought that they were real.

E: 100 years later, oh my god.

R: I wonder how that woman feels about raising such a credulous daughter.

S: (laughs)

R: Like how she would feel if she was still alive, like oh god really? You believed me when I told you that?

B: Imagine having such an iconic hoax in your family history, wouldn't that be really cool and kind of embarrassing at the same time.

R: It'd be awesome.

S: Well I guess that's how they rationalised it to themselves, that at the end they got a real picture of fairies, and she had some reason like, see how it looks a little different, that's because it's really, you know? Confirmation bias. A little congruence bias, she found a reason to find that the picture was real without testing other hypotheses. So yeah, it was fascinating, fascinating to watch that.

Science or Fiction (59:26)[edit]

S: All right, well let's move on to 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 I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. I know you're going to love this, we have a theme this week with four items. (laughs) Three of which of course are true, one is fake. The theme is Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens (pronounced strangely). (laughs)

J: What!?

R: (laughs) Wait a minute, there has to be a rule, if you can't say his name...

E: Hoigins?

S: It's Christiaan Huygens but actually his name, I listened to the pronunciation of his name online and if the internets is correct is Hur-hens.

R: All right...

B: What the hell.

E: Now I've heard it, no no no I've never heard it pronounced that way.

J: Remember on the Carol Burnett Show Steve, Lieutenant Huigens?

S: Lieutenant Huigens? Or Professor Huigens? Whatever, so yeah Christiaan Huygens, we'll Americanise it for the show, so yeah, from April 1629 to July 1695, the famous Dutch astronomer who discovered the, or investigated the rings of Saturn and discovered Saturn's largest moon Titan, but here are some other interesting facts about Christiaan Huygens, are you ready?

J: Yeah.

R: Yep.

S: OK. Item number one. He was the first to postulate, in 1678, the particle theory of light. Item number two. In 1695 he wrote a book expounding on his belief in extraterrestrial life. Item number three. He invented and patented the pendulum clock in 1657. And item number four. He designed a basic internal combustion engine fuelled by gunpowder. Rebecca, go first.

R: Might as well, because I don't have a damn clue.


R: Uuuuh, particle theory of light, 1678. Seems a little early, but OK. 1695, extraterrestrial life. I don't know, why not? Sure. I know there were a lot of theories of moon people and whatnot back then, why not write a whole book on it? Invented and patented the pendulum clock in 1657. That seems really late to me, to be inventing a pendulum clock. But what do I know about pendulum clocks? Answer: nothing.


R: Basic internal combustion engine fuelled by gunpowder? OK, why not? Sure, that's uuum, I mean that's well outside of what I would have thought his area or expertise is, but I don't know, I'm going with the clock thing, I don't know. You win, Steve, you win.


S: All right, Evan, go next. 1678, particle theory of light, well this guy, this guy, this Dutchman, well the Dutch in the 1600s were just the bomb as far as Western Civilisation goes, they were inventing all sorts of things during this time, they were, you know, the first republic I think since what, the fall of the Roman Empire, before Rome became an empire and fell I think, if memory serves, so they were at the head of the Enlightenment in lots of ways, they did navigation, they did seamanship, clocks were part of what they did...

R: Showing off.

E: Telescopes, tons and tons of stuff, but there were a lot of Dutch inventors, not just Huygens, there were several.

B: Huygens.

E: Huygens. H-man. And was the particle theory of light one of them? Perhaps, perhaps so. But in 1695 he wrote a book expounding on his belief in extraterrestrial life. I think that one could be true. You know, he might have been just questioning what if the surface of the moon had people like us on it or something to that effect, it's one thing to just question these things, so I don't think that's a problem. The pendulum clock in 16... I don't know if he invented it, ugh, himself, maybe perfected it, you might be onto something Rebecca. The internal combustion engine fuelled by gunpowder. Nice idea but kind of dangerous if you ask me, but I'm tending, I tend to think that he might have designed it, I don't know if it ever got anywhere, actually got a working model, you know you can make a design of just about anything, so I think that one's right, I think the extraterrestrial one is science, I think it comes down to the particle theory of light versus the clock. Yeah, I don't think he invented the clock. I think he did something to perfect it or make it more efficient or something to that effect so I'll agree with Rebecca, that one's fiction.

R: Woop.

S: OK, Bob.

B: Particle theory of light, it seems like so many people kind of had that idea, it wouldn't surprise me if he did. It does seem a little early but um, yeah it doesn't surprise me, nothing's jumping out at me on that one. The extraterrestrial life, I don't know, that sure, yeah I could totally buy that, kind of ringing a bell, but can't really trust that feeling but I don't have too much of a problem with that. And even the internal combustion engine fuelled by gunpowder, you know that seems a little bit early as well, to come up with that idea, but it is just a design, it's nothing beyond that so it could just be a very very basic, you even have the word basic in number four there, so that one doesn't strike me a crazy either, the one that's rubbing me the wrong way for some reason is the pendulum clock just like Rebecca and Evan, did he invent it? And I'm so pissed at myself because I actually looked this up like three months ago when I was doing a news item on clockwork, so I'm kind of pissed that I don't remember. So it's just rubbing me the wrong way that he invented it and patented it. I mean what kind of patent system did they even have back them. I'm not sure but that doesn't strike me as, I could be wrong but I'm not feeling right abut that either, so I'm just going to say that the pendulum is fiction as well.

R: Woop.

S: Jay.

J: Um.

B: (laughs)

E: (laughs) no pressure, Jay.

J: The first two are the two that bothered me. The particle of light and the extraterrestrial life are the two that I'm going to talk about. The fist one, he was the first to postulate, 1678, particle theory of light, that's damn, I don't know, I'm not exactly sure, did he make up, was he the first to really come up with that? I don't know. And then the second one about him saying that in 95 that he believed in extraterrestrial life, that seems really early for someone to be talking about that. I was going to pick the first one, so I'm going to go with the second one and say that he didn't think of aliens that early.

S: OK. You all agree that he designed a basic internal combustion engine fuelled by gunpowder, and that one is... science.

E: (sighs) (laughs)

J: Yeah. Knew somebody did.

S: He did in fact design a basic internal combustion engine.

B: Wow.

S: But he never managed to build it. So I did have to say design it, and it was basic, it wasn't obviously a sophisticated or later one. And it did help later, people who later did design and build the internal combustion engine.

B: They refer to it?

S: Yeah, there was apparently some continuity there.

B: Cool.

S: It wasn't like daVinci where he was sort of toiling by himself, Huygens was actually engaging with the scientific community, publishing, writing books, and people knew about his ideas. And he was incredibly influential, the guy was, well you'll see, we'll go through all the items. And really I did know about the guy, I didn't realise how many things he had is fingers in, it's unbelievable.

B: Yeah! If three quarters of these are true, it's interesting.

S: (laughs)

B: Oh, by definition they are!

E: (laughs)

S: Right. Imagine if he actually managed to build the combustion engine, maybe just...

B: Oh boy.

S: know, with help from an engineer or something. So let's go on to number one. You also all agree with this one, that he was the first to postulate in 1678 the particle theory of light, you all think this one is science and this one is the... fiction!

J: Aaah!

R: Aaah!

E: What!?

J: Damn! Damn! Damn!

S: This one is the fiction.

B: I knew it!

J: Daaah! Aaaah!

E: I knew it, I was going to say it.

B: Crap.

S: Because he was the first one to devise the wave theory of light.

R: Aaah, sneaky.

S: In 1678. Yeah, so he's the first one to come up with the idea that light travels in waves, the prevailing idea was, well I don't know that there really was a prevailing idea...

J: Now I hate that guy.

E: Yeah, he was a jerk.

S: He was contradicted later by Isaac Newton who really pushed the particle theory of light, who tried to explain, like when Newton was studying optics and refraction and all of that stuff, he was using, thinking of light in terms of particles whereas Huygens made observations of birefringence.

B: Wha?

S: Birefringence doing experiments, experimenting with double refraction in Icelandic crystals, or calcite, and in order to explain his results, he came up with the notion that light was travelling in waves, and he was exactly right, you know, light does travel as waves and that's why you do get those...

B: So was Newton!

S: ...those kind of things. And of course, you know Newton later came up with the notion that light travels as particles and then there was research showing that photons of light do behave like particles, like when they strike something else, when they impact with another particle, but eventually of course, this led to quantum theory and the notion that, the duality, the wave-particle of duality of light, it travels like a wave but then interacts like a particle, so they were both right, both Huygens and Isaac Newton were correct.

B: Ah, crap.

S: So that means that in 1695 he wrote a book expounding on his belief in extraterrestrial life is science, I did not know this, very interesting, right before his death, this was the last thing, I think the last book that he wrote, and he had some very interesting ideas, first of all, I think this was, I think maybe he published this at the end of his life because it was extremely heretical to say that there was life outside of the earth.

J: I hope I have something that kick-ass to say, like I'm dying and I'm like... ugh, aliens, oh, exist, oh. Right?

S: Right... his book was Cosmotheoros, discussed the notion of extraterrestrial life, now he had an interesting idea, he thought that water was essential for life and therefore if there was life on other planets there must be water on these planets as well, so he thought that the property of water varied from planet to planet, so in other words if there's life on Venus, there must be water on Venus, but Venus is closer to the sun so the water would just evaporate away, so the water must behave differently on Venus than it does on Earth, and if there's life on Jupiter, then that water on Jupiter must again, so that it's not frozen solid, it must behave differently on Jupiter, so kind of a, from a modern perspective...

J: Boy, he was stupid!


S: ...from a modern perspective it's kind of a fanciful notion, but this is just how, just thinking about how could life exist on these other bodies, and using his telescope he made observations of Mars and Jupiter and thought he saw light and dark spots which he interpreted as possibly being due to water, I think this was partly what led, it wasn't exactly the canals on Mars, but he did interestingly make low-res observations of Mars and included water and therefore life, an interesting similarity to later thought processes. Percival Lowell, a later astronomer just thought of the canals on Mars. So I thought that was kind of interesting, and he said that he knew that this was heretical and was going against what it said in the Bible, though he did argue that while the Bible doesn't mention life on other planets, neither does it specifically say there isn't life on other planets, so that was his justification for that. Yeah, interesting, extraterrestrials in 1695. How about that? Which means he invented and patented the pendulum clock in 1657.

E: He did.

S: He needed a more accurate time keeper for his astronomical observations so he invented one, and the pendulum clock was the most accurate form of time-keeping for centuries, until I think the early 20th century. So Jay, do you know what a Horologist is?

J: (laughs)

R: Oh, don't... don't.

J: Come on Steve, who are talking to about that?

R: Don't.

S: It's somebody who studies time-keeping devices.

E: Oh Horoscope, of course.

S: Yeah, like a horoscope. A mathematician, astronomer, physicist and horologist. He actually contributed to the modern form, nomenclature of calculus, he was the first to describe the centripetal force, obviously his observations of Saturn I think are what he's most famous for, and invented devices like the pendulum clock. He also described the idea pendulum, mathematically described the ideal pendulum with a massless cord. You know, that it's swinging from. It goes along with developing a timepiece based upon it. And he did do that, he did like to try to invent things based upon underlying scientific discoveries that he made. For example, he invented, he also by the way patented a pocket watch and he invented a 31 tone to the octave keyboard instrument that made use of his discovery of the 31 equal temperament, which is this part of his sound investigations.

J: Very cool.

E: He was no dummy.

S: No, this guy's a polymath, he was a Renaissance man.

J: Brilliant. He was one of several of that time too, I mean he wasn't the only one inventing and creating. The Dutch were incredible, it was an incredible century with the Dutch.

S: I had fun with that one (laughs).

R: Yeah I could tell.

E: I did too. Do you think we'll ever pronounce his name correctly though?

S: Christiaan Huygens.


S: Nah, it's, wrong country.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:50)[edit]

S: All right, well Jay, do you have a quote for us this week?

J: I have a quote from another renaissance man, named Bertrand Russell.

E: Perhaps the most quotable man on this show.


S: Bertie? Sure.

E: Every fifth you would quote him apparently.

J: I can't, I can't help it, I keep stumbling across these phenomenal quotes from the man.

S: And forgetting that you've used them before.

J: It's very likely that I've said this one before but it's so good that I'm going to say it again. This was sent in by a listener named Steven Rogers, this was a quote of Bertrand's from the book he wrote called The ABC of Relativity and this quote is:

Science does not aim at establishing immutable truths and eternal dogmas; its aim is to approach the truth by successive approximations, without claiming that at any stage final and complete accuracy has been achieved.

J: Thank you Bertrand for putting that so eloquently and so precisely.

S: Yeah, that's awesome.

R: Word.

S: Good job.

J: Mr. Russell.

E: His rap name would be B. Rus.

J: (laughs) B...

E: Big B. Rus.

R: B. Rus.

J: Bertrand Russell!

Announcements (1:16:00)[edit]

J: So guys, we have TAM coming up, that's July 12th, and at TAM this year we're doing a poker tournament on Saturday night and you can pre-register for that by going to Send me your name and make sure I have your current email address and we'll be in touch with you about the details.

S: Now I understand Jay, this isn't actually the first TAM poker event.

J: Yeah I there there has been six other Thursday night poker events that people were having before TAM and the organisers of that are not going to be there this year, from what I've come to find out today.

S: Yeah this is the first one that the SGU is going to make awesome.

J: Yeah, you know, we're bringing in other skeptics that are going to come in and sit at the tables and we're going to have prizes and we're doing our own version of this. Please do email us, let us know that you're coming. Saturday night at 11 o'clock.

S: All right, thanks Jay. And thank you all for joining me again this week.

J: Thanks, Steve.

R: Thank you Steve.

B: Surely.

E: Thanks, Doctor.

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.


  1. Wilcox Rd. Railroad Tracks on
Navi-previous.png Back to top of page Navi-next.png