SGU Episode 365

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SGU Episode 365
14th July 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 364                      SGU 366

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


D: Daniel Beauley

Quote of the Week

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death--however mutable man may be able to make them--our existence as a species can have a genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

Stanley Kubrick

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Show Notes
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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Monday, July 2nd 2012, and this is your host, Steve Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella.

B: Hey everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson.

R: Hello everyone.

S: Jay Novella.

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, folks.

S: And, we have a special guest rogue this week: Daniel Beauley. Daniel, welcome to The Skeptics' Guide.

D: That's very hospitable of you. Thanks a lot.

B: Our pleasure, Dan.

S: Dan, you were kind enough to bid on the guest rogue spot at TAM9 last year, and it only took us one year to hook up with you.


S: To get you on the show. And we're getting it in just under the wire; this is the show that will come out during TAM while we're hopefully auctioning off the slot for next year. But thanks for joining us.

D: Yeah.

S: So, Dan, tell us a little bit about yourself.

D: Yeah, well, you've had many guest rogues and a couple of the auction winners; a lawyer[1] and author, or I guess, doctor, Ray[2]. And, I'm a working stiff, essentially. I'm one of those telecom guys that might install your phone or Internet service copper or fiber optic.

E: We'll have to talk after the show.

D: Oh yeah? (chuckles)

E: (unintelligible)

S: Yeah, can you hook us up or what?


D: Wrong state.

E: It's not what you know, it's who you know, right?

S: How is fiber optic doing, I mean, do people actually get fiber optic into their house yet?

D: Oh, well, without naming too many companies, I've -- I'm in an area where fiber optic Internet and telephone is available, and meh... there were, of course, some first adopters -- really enthusiastic, and then television on fiber came along and really seemed to push the saleability, and I haven't really kept tabs on all the areas with fiber optic. But, you know, it's popular. It's certainly bandwidth-intensive; you can really put some great speeds on the fiber optic without even taxing the medium.

S: Well, that's what we want.

D: (chuckles) Yeah, exactly. That's what you're --

S: We want bandwidth, baby!

D: Yup, yup.

B: Dan, do you know off-hand what kind of megabit per second you can get download with fiber optic -- I forget what that number is; do you know off the top of your head?

D: Well -- keep in mind that I twist a screwdriver for a living, by and large; you know, crawl under mobile homes and stuff, but as some of the specs that -- as from what I understand it, we use single-mode fiber, so it's a frequency-specific type of fiber; there's a couple of frequencies that travel long and other frequencies of light are attenuated greatly. And so, the frequencies we use can, properly spliced, provide about 2.3 gigabits per second.

S: Aaah!

D: Right?

J: Wow.

B: Oh my God. That's awesome.

D: To a single -- right. And that, of course, is split up somewhat to deliver the typical residential service. So our typical packages go up to about 30 meg on download and 15-30 meg on upload.

B: OK. I'm getting one kilobit a second. So that would be very nice. (unintelligible) I am not kidding!

D: Oh gosh.

J: Dan, one more question about fiber optic: Is it true that you have to limit the bend that you put in a fiber optic cable?

D: Well, yeah, you have to limit it; I mean, that's a relative assessment, but -- I'm a 15-year tech; we've been working with fiber optic for about six years, and even in that time, the bend radius has been going down and down. You could take your typical ballpoint pen and wrap the fiber around it and lose very little -- you'll have very little light loss. Now, fiber likes to be relaxed, so of course we have whatever, you know, 4-inch trays to put the bending fiber in, and that usually keeps it at a very nice radius, but you can really wrap it.

J: That's interesting. Yeah, I guess I'm pulling from very old information then that I have tucked away in my head, that I picked up somewhere, I guess in earlier days, there was a maximum bend that you could do without data loss and all that stuff, but I'm not surprised to hear today that you could just basically do what you need to do with it.

D: Yeah, and there may be some differences in the single- and multi-mode types of fiber, but I'm not aware of what.

This Day in Skepticism (4:38)[edit]

  • July 14, 1960 - Jane Goodall arrives at the Gombe Stream Reserve in present-day Tanzania to begin her famous study of chimpanzees in the wild.

S: Well, Rebecca, get us started with This Day in Skepticism.

R: Sure. Yeah, this is the anniversary – July 14, 1960, Jane Goodall showed up in the Gombe Stream Reserve, which is in Tanzania, and that's when she started studying chimps in the wild. And one of her biggest discoveries that people will probably still remember is the fact that chimpanzees can use tools, which prior to her research, common knowledge was that only humans could construct and use tools and –

B: The ants on a stick, right?

R: – that chimps were vegetarians. Yeah, but she observed a chimp going to a termite mound and sticking stalks of grass into the termite holes and then pulling them out and eating the delicious, delicious termites all over the twigs.

D: Yum, yum.

S: Termites.


J: Did you guys know that when she went on her first expedition, that it was only funded for six months; it was amazingly poorly funded, and her mother was with her during that time.

B: Huh, wow.

D: Nice vacation.

S: Humble beginnings.

J: They stayed – they stayed in like a really crappy army pup-tent-type of deal, and it wasn't like today's tents; like, they were canvas tents; they weren't very resistant to the weather and all that and … That was the very, very beginning, and for some reason, like... I've always been a fan of hers, just on the sheer fact of – originally realizing that she got to spend so much time with those animals, but... you know, her fricking story is amazing; I mean, she is an amazing person; she's done an enormous amount of things for not only this kind of research, but... she's inspired a lot of people to do more of that level of research, that really in-depth full-submersion-type stuff, which is pretty much what it takes to get that level of information out of. And she was a pioneer; she really made a big difference.

R: Yeah, she was awesome; she was always a big idol of mine growing up, because I was... you know, both a tomboy and really into nature and biology and science and I just loved the fact... like, she was a rigorous scientist, but she carried this amazing love for the animals she was studying and what she was doing. Well, she still does; she's really great. And, she has a good sense of humor. Do you guys… ever see that Far Side cartoon about the two chimps grooming each other, and the female finds a blond hair on the male, and she goes, "conduct a little more research with that Jane Goodall tramp?" Apparently the Jane Goodall Institute had their lawyers contact Gary Larson, and asked him to pull it, but Goodall herself saw the cartoon and thought it was hilarious, so she stopped the lawyers from pursuing them. And, that cartoon now appears on T-shirts, and apparently, all sales from those T-shirts go to the Goodall Institute. Awesome.

S: Cool.

E: Hear, hear.

D: Yes, one of the first times I remember... I've always had this vision of... when I would see those documentaries about the chimps, how they would oh, appear so human, and have the expressions and all that, and then I started reversing that, and I would watch as I would people-watch, I could see – I could almost see the resemblance backwards, and I just view us as kind of the apes – you know, this kind of Skinnerian view where I'm watching the behavior and I'm not really thinking about what they're thinking about.

S: Anyone here read The Uplift Wars?

B: Oh yeah, baby.

S: The uplifted chimps in that series –

B: Brin. David Brin.

S: – would use Goodall as an expletive; like, they would say "oh, Goodall" like we would say "oh, God".


B: I forgot about that! Holy crap.

J: That is awesome.

R: That's great.

J: She had to learn to adopt the nonchalant chimp behavior in order to get out of danger, which was very interesting. So she had to figure out what do chimps do when they're just kind of doing nothing, like digging a hole or picking up leaves and looking at them and stuff. So whenever she got into a tight spot, like where some chimp got angry at her or there was some aggression going on, even if it wasn't completely directed at her, she had to like, get down and just pretend like she's doing nothing and she's totally not involved in – it was a really big protective measure for her to take. But I think that's so fascinating that she really had to observe them and go, "OK, that's what a chimp is doing when they're not doing anything" and then copy it.

D: She probably had – she probably had, of course, some occasions where yeah, she really might have been threatened or during a confrontation amongst the group, a group of chimps she was observing, that she had to… yeah. Be inconspicuous.

B: Must have been scary. They're so strong.

S: The instinct would be for her to closely observe what was going on, but staring is definitely a primate threat. So, if she was just observing two chimpanzees fighting, they would probably just interpret that as her getting involved and being threatening. So yeah, she had to make a conscious effort to not do that, too.

News Items[edit]

UFOs on National Geo (10:13)[edit]

National Geographic: Five Good Reasons to Believe in UFOs

S: All right, Jay, tell us about National Geographic's foray into UFOlogy.

B: Oh my God.

J: I was so disappointed – I've been so disappointed in National Geographic, like for some reason I thought National Geographic really had their stuff together, and it turns out that National Geographic, just like any other company, wants to make money, so therefore they're writing crap to attract more readers and just squeeze money out of these ridiculous posts that they have and news items. I don't know, I would like to do a deep study on what happened to this organization, but my opinion of them now is pretty poor. And here's a really good example of why they suck: "Five good reasons to believe in UFOs", right on their website. The author's tone was "oh, I'm coming from a very scientific place, because 90% of all UFO sightings" – we've all heard this one before – "those aren't actually UFO sightings, you know, those are weather balloons and planets and astronomical things that people mistake for – but the other 10%" – we actually heard, remember guys, Michio Kaku was on TV and he said the same thing.

B: Oh my God.

J: Such a major disappointment.

B: My jaw dropped.

S: And hang on – and for clarification, we're saying believe in UFOs, what we're talking about is believing that UFOs are something other than just simple mis-identifications that they're not just unidentified –

R: Or un-identifications.

S: – they are something like alien spacecraft. That's what they're talking about.

J: That's right. Yeah.

B: I call 'em ETC: Extraterrestrial Craft.

J: The subtext here definitely is alien spacecraft; visitors from other planets. So they start the article with what would constitute proof, and they mention a few different things here. Does the UFO have to land at the river entrance to the Pentagon near the Joint Chiefs of Staff's offices? Well, that's –

R: A little specific.

J: That's pretty specific, but that's – yeah, if a UFO landed near a government building that's heavily watched and videotaped and everything and then you know, if that information were to be analyzed by the government, I think that that would be pretty worthy as evidence, at least to the government, 'cause they know that they shot the video.

S: What they're saying is, "do we need smoking gun evidence?" And the answer is, "yes!"

J: Yes.


B: Sorry! Yes, we do.

J: Now the next two kinds of proof that they list are the kinds that they're implying – well, not implying, but very explicitly saying – these types of proof exist, and these should be good enough, so here are their examples: "Or is it proof enough when a ground radar station detects a UFO, sends a jet to intercept it, the jet pilot sees it, and locks on with his radar, only to have the UFO streak away at a phenomenal speed?", which is – that's happened many times and they think, according to the angle that this article is going in, that that's it, that the proof that you need. And here's another example: "is it proof when a jet pilot fires at a UFO and sticks to his story, even under the threat of court martial?" Yeah, well, that pilot does believe that he shot at a UFO/alien spacecraft; even though he or she may be mistaken doesn't mean that because that person is holding onto that belief and they really do believe it deep down, that it's real. The level of somebody's belief does not dictate reality.

R: Yeah, they've made a false assumption that you either have to – either you're lying or you're telling the truth and you actually saw something, as opposed to – yeah, maybe you're telling the truth that you saw something but you're wrong about what you saw.

B: Yeah, it's a false dichotomy.

S: Yeah, and the other fallacy there is the implication that all fighter pilot is so well-trained – is a trained observer, that they would know what they are looking at, but that's simply not true. The human visual system is the same for a pilot or anyone else, and there are many documented cases of experienced pilots, whether civilian or military, mis-interpreting all kinds of things; completely getting their references off and thinking that an object is large and far away when it's small and close-up; mis-identifying Mylar balloons, the planet Venus, you know, pilots “locking on” the planet Venus and engaging it; that's happened multiple times.

B: Yeah.

E: They missed, by the way.

B: Yeah, this article really plays the "trained observer" card hard, and it's really annoying. The bottom line is, if you're human, you can mis-identify. Period! It doesn't matter.

J: The thing that actually bothers me is you don't hear these fighter pilots saying, "well, I've been trained to know that even when I think I see something, it might not be it because of illusions that can happen and my brain playing tricks on me." I've never read a fighter saying along those lines.

S: Well, I have, but you don't typically read that in UFO articles – in pro-UFO articles. Unfortunately I don't have a reference off the top of my head, but you know, we've gotten emails from pilots who say "this happens all the time; this is no big deal." You learn about all the different ways you can mis-identify what's going on there and how easy it is and how easy it is to be tricked by the horizon and poor visual viewing conditions, all those things. This is implicit in pilot training. But that always gets weeded out of these articles, and they create this fiction that pilots are somehow magical observers who can't get tricked by all the illusions that the rest of us are susceptible to.

D: Your point is taken, I mean, if such a statement appears in a periodical or a rag, it probably is a very abbreviated version of what might appear in an official report. And of course, it sells more papers if it sounds like a real occurrence.

J: Yeah.

S: Absolutely.

E: Or a television show.

J: Yeah, you're right, Dan. That's the thing; you always have to watch out, you have to insert that now as a component of, you know, is there a money-making angle to that perspective. It can sometimes make you question the things that you're reading even a little bit further. So, to continue down now – I haven't even gotten to the list of five yet; we're just talking about the set-up here. So here's the first one: "The long, documented history of sightings." and the article goes on to give examples of sighting from over 100 years ago, as if these were proof of anything other than people made mistakes back then too, right? Like, OK, so what you're basically saying is, people made mistakes 100 years ago, just like they're making mistakes today.

R: Yeah, and of course, prior to 100 years ago, were there no aliens visiting? Oh no, you know what it was, is everyone was attributing them to angels instead of aliens. So does that mean that this is also solid proof for angels?

S: They also mention specifically the airships of the 1800s –

B: Yeah, nice.

E: We talked about that.[link needed]

S: – so people were attributing their sightings to – oh, somebody, some lone genius invented an airship – you know, an airplane, and their description of it were like antiquated notions, pre-Wright Brother notions of what an airship might look like from the fiction of their day, not flying saucers. They thought they saw stuff and they interpreted them according to the fiction of the day. That actually is evidence against an external phenomenon.

B: It shows you it's cultural.

S: It's cultural, right.

J: I would tend to believe people less the further back you go in history. I really do believe that we're more savvy today; we understand things a little bit more clearly, obviously because of scientific advancement and some of us actually, you know, have critical thinking skills, which when applied correctly, can help us vet out a lot of different things and understand things a lot better, but in this case, you know, people from the 1800s, seeing a phenomenon that they can't describe, and now UFO-ologists are going back and saying, "yeah, they saw UFOs; they didn't even know it was a UFO back then, but that was a UFO sighting."

R: I don't know, though, like, allow me to defend the people of centuries ago –

J: Yesteryear?

D: Because they can't defend themselves?

R: You know, they were just as good at critical thinking then as we are now, you know, and I think what you're seeing is the same thing that happens now: a few individual gullible credulous reports get trumped up by news sources or just by word of mouth, and that's what ends up surviving through the years are these stories, not the thousands of other people who scoff and say, “come on, there's no such thing as an airship” or whatever.

E: Sells newspapers.

R: I think you'll see that happening in – well, we won't see it, but in several centuries' time, people will be looking back at us like, "oh, what a bunch of rubes," you know?

S: Yeah, but we are a bunch of rubes.

R: Yeah, that's what I'm saying; we are.

S: Culture in general. I agree with you, Rebecca –

R: We're just as much rubes as they were back then.

S: I think the only difference is that we have more technological savvy now, according to what we are exposed to. But that just changes how we – how people interpret what they think they see. As I said, people seeing unknown things in the sky imagining what they might see interpret it according to the culture of the day, so it seems quaint to us, looking back hundreds of years. But I think – I suspect a couple hundred years from now, the notion of a "flying saucer" will probably seem just as quaint and silly, you know what I mean? A 20th-century phenomenon; "oh yeah, that's what" – if you saw a UFO –

D: Well, we'll be folding space by then, so you know –

S: Yeah, if you saw a UFO in the 20th century, you would see a "flying saucer". How quaint.

J: In the future, Steve, they're going to have flying vampires that they'll believe in.


D: Sooner than you think. These heritage reports, just a couple of comments on that is – well, back then, people were used to seeing – well, a more limited variety of things in the sky, obviously, with our age of air travel, all kinds of things are up there, with remote-controlled toy planes and jets and all that. And another thing is: has the incidence increased, like, let's say linearly with population? I mean, do we have a handful of reports, or at least – you could claim that some of these incidences never survived; they were never written down or reported enough for us to have a record of them, so maybe there are more reports than we have accounted for, but – you know, the one example of was it, 1670s or so, something like that, noted in the article, well... are there reams of these, or do these reports increase a lot with the new air age?

R: Yeah, that's a good point.

S: They do; they increase with the increase in actual artifacts in space and in the sky, and they also increase dramatically with any cultural report, or any – so you have UFO flaps, where there's some triggering event and then suddenly you have a spike in reports, and then it calms down to the background level. But that background level is proportional to the amount of stuff that we are putting up in the sky, absolutely.

J: But I would also like to point out, and this is just a gut belief that I have, that there are more skeptics, more critical thinkers out there today per capita than there were 200 years ago.

D: Eh, just blowing on your own horn.

S: 200 years is the Age of Enlightenment, Jay; I wouldn't be so sure.

J: Eh, what do you know.

S: And it's also –


J: Let me continue on here: "Numerous modern sightings by credible, well-trained, professional observers." We covered this one.

B: Here we go.

E: Yeah, we talked about that.

J: I have some – couple of quick examples just to point out: "a pilot of an Air Force F-86 fighter jet who was scrambled to track a UFO and got within 1,000 yards of a saucer-shaped object that abruptly flew away from him in a burst of speed after he fired upon it." After he fired – I love how he fires upon it.

S: Wow.

J: "I don't know what it is, but I'm going to kill it!" Yeah. "1948: UFO encounter in which two airline pilots got to within 700 feet of a UFO" – now get this – "and saw two rows of windows with bright lights."

D: 700 feet? That's pretty darn close in the air.

B: Pareidolia.

J: Yeah, but Dan, what else has two rows of windows with bright lights that flies in the air?

D: Hmm.

E: In 1948?

B: A nice big 747?

D & J: Yeah.

J: Objects that we build.

E: A time-travelling –

J: That they may have flown have that. Thank you. I will continue. "Consistencies in the description of purported alien ships." OK, so witnesses who have seen UFOs have shown remarkably consistent shapes and other characteristics of the objects that they've described and here's what they see: "flyings discs or saucers; cigar- or torpedo-shaped craft without wings or fins; spherical or balloon-shaped objects that were capable of hovering or flying at high speed and balls of light with no apparent physical form that were similarly maneuverable." That's a lot of different shapes!

D: Right. That's not as consistent.

B: Not very consistent.

E: Not consistent. But it is consistent with the drawings and covers of, you know, books and magazines and pulp fiction and other things of the time that you would see about space stories and –

S: So, those are the two hypotheses for any consistency of reports: that they're seeing the same thing as an external phenomenon or that it's a psychological and cultural phenomenon and that there's cultural contamination, which is the far better explanation, because you can track, again, the details of the reports to, as Evan was saying, the existence of these things in popular culture, in popular media, in the movies. You know, when UF – when flying saucers start making their appearance in the movies, that's when the reports start to converge on that concept, on that design.

J: Yeah, I mean when Close Encounters came out, that put so much UFO information into all of our heads that we – that was just running around in there, and you damn well know that that movie influenced a generation of people to see those objects in the sky.

D: We all wanted to by Roy Neary and Jillian and see these amazing things.

J: So one thing that was interesting – you know, I'll remind you that this report that we're talking about came from National Geographic – they actually said, "one caveat is that in recent years, reports of wedge-shaped UFOs, which bear a similarity to the latest terrestrial military aircraft, have begun to supplant some of the traditional shapes." So right there, they say it, and I question whether or not the author picked up on the fact that they undid the previous paragraph with that one sentence; that kind of explains it right there.

B: The author's his own worst enemy.

J: And it makes me sad to think that the author could even write that and not quite pick up on what it really means.

D: Well, writing for National Geographic can – yeah, obviously gave some lip service initially – a little bit of lip service to, oh, the skeptical viewpoint; you know, what constitutes good proof? Well, and later on, does this same thing.

J: Yeah, it's almost like – you know, like Steve on any TV show; it's 90% B.S. and then you have a little bit of a thing here for the critical thinking, just to make sure they're covering their bases. Whatever; you're not going good so far, pal. The next one: "possible physical evidence of encounters with alien spacecraft". "Possible physical evidence"?

E: "Possible".

J: Why even write that sentence, it's ridiculous!

E: Yeah, it's ridiculous.

D: Big bucket for unexplained evidence, yeah.

B: This is the meat of it, Jay; for me, this one trumps all these other four. You know, you would think, after generations of all this supposed evidence and proof that UFOs exist – the physical evidence, you would think, there would be something, something, even one thing, or even one completely kick-ass video that nobody can say, "yes, this has... been manipulated on a computer".

J: Bob, but come on, man, men in black. Men in black! It is out there, and they come and take it away; they take away the physical evidence, they cut & dash; they don't let people walk close to where the alien spacecraft were landing.

R: Wait, you mean the men in black? Is that what you were talking about?

J: Ser – seriously! I'm serious! I'm dead serious!

D: First you sequester all weapons and armaments, yes.

E: (inaudible) shade of gray than black, but yeah.

J: Rebecca, you speak – you speak to people who believe in this stuff and a lot of them believe that the huge government cover-up where you are in the right place at the right time, and you will meet the men in black who are pushing you to the borders. Absolutely.

R: Yeah, I think a lot of people don't realize that the movie is based on a long-running urban legend about, yeah, government agents hiding evidence of UFOs.

J: So check this out: so now they say, "OK, so here's the physical – possible physical evidence: Areas where soil, grass, and other and vegetation had been claimed by witnesses to have been flattened, burned, broken off, or blown away by a UFO."

B: Ooh. How compelling.

J: The key thing in there is: "had been claimed by witnesses to have been", which – that's not physical evidence! "Things that had been claimed by witnesses to have been". That's not physical evidence – I don't see the physical evidence.

E: None of this is; none of it.

S: Jay, there are claims of evidence. There's claims of physical evidence.

E: But never the evidence itself.

J: Right. They didn't put the word "claims" in the title here. So then they said, "samples of plants taken from a purported UFO landing site in France in 1981", so now we're talking about a specific encounter here. "French researchers found that they leaves had undergone unusual chemical changes of the sort that could have been caused by powerful microwave radiation, which was even more difficult to explain, considering that they found no trace of radioactivity at the site."

B: Ding ding ding ding ding ding. That jumped out at me; that totally jumped out at me, because it – I totally called bullshit on that, because wait, you're linking microwaves and radioactivity?

J: Yeah.

B: That doesn't really work. Microwave radiation's non-ionizing; there's no emission of alpha, gamma or beta particles; it's non-radioactive radiation. When you shut – when you stop microwaves, there's no radiation there to detect. So, to me –

E: Right, otherwise, how could you open your microwave door to take out your goodies, you know, your popcorn?

D: You're not even talking ionization; you're talking nuclear effects for radiation.

B: I know! This was – this was the biggest fact-checking fail that I'd – that I saw in this article. You know, this is National Geographic, I mean, at least have somebody, a scientist, run through that because to me, that was a joke. It's like, really? Radioactivity?

E: Yeah. Have the folks at Prometheus look at this, yeah.

J: That's what I thought, Bob; I thought total non-science-based or scientifically minded author here is writing about something and didn't even realize that one sentence should have set off some serious alarms; it would've set off alarms in someone that had a baseline of scientific understanding. At least ask somebody who may know more about it than themselves.

E: Like Ridley Scott.

J: Or they don't care. And here's the last one: "physiological effects on UFO witnesses". This is the one that for some reason boiled my blood more than the rest of them. "Various symptoms reported by individuals who had encountered UFOs ranging from burns, temporary deafness, to persistent nausea and memory loss." So basically, people bring their wash of symptoms to someone that's investigating UFO sightings or a parapsychologist or whatever, and they say, "I don't feel well; I'm dizzy; I had burns; I'm scared; I don't sleep as well as I used to; I feel weird; I have a funny sunburn" or whatever, and they're saying, this is UFOs; these are alien spacecraft visiting the Earth. You know, it's the idea here that people would come – like, when you go to Steve as a neurologist and say "I'm dizzy", the first thing Steve says is "that tells me nothing". There's a million reasons why you would be dizzy. Just like all of these symptoms. You can't say that temporary deafness was caused by aliens. You just can't say that; there's no correlation, it's just –

S: Well, the other thing here, Jay, is that –

D: You can say that, but –

S: Yeah. A lot of these cases have a lot of the – have a lot of signs for a psychogenic illness. I mean, these people are either – they're self-inflicting these symptoms or they're psychosomatic and this happens to be the focus of their delusion. Again, this is a well-documented phenomenon; it manifests in many ways; these cases are very typical for that, and… in order to say that it's a specific external phenomenon, you need evidence of that, and that's what's lacking here, so it's just another example of people with weird, probably self-inflicted or psychosomatic symptoms that are latching on to some bizarre notion that is causing it.

E: Did it mention why this article is even happening? So they could – so National Geographic could promote their show "Chasing UFOs"?

D: Don't look up so this'll all go away.

E: Which is all part of this campaign – the show's been advertised all over the radio, on television… they're running polls of people; 36% of the people polled believe in UFOs; they run articles like this.

J: Yeah. It's really sad. It's sad to see it be so pervasive; it's... I mean, National Geographic; these are the people – their magazines were inspiring to me as a kid, I mean those were the ones –

S: Oh yeah, we know what you were inspired by, Jay.


J: Seriously, people in our age group, we'd pick up these magazines; you'd see places you never saw before; they have such a collection of phenomenal photography and there's a history in this magazine of incredible photojournalism. Very respected history and beginning to this magazine and now this is what you're doing? Really.

S: Yeah, it's disappointing. Bob, tell us about a new technology for seeing inside tissue.

Seeing Inside Tissue (32:32)[edit]

ScienceDaily: Seeing Inside Tissue for No-Cut Surgeries

B: So how's this for a science-fiction medical technology, guys: surgery that doesn't require any incisions. No cutting through skin at all. That really caught my attention. That's just one of the potential benefits that Caltech engineers envision, using a technique to focus light inside biological tissues. This is a fascinating story; like much of science, this latest development builds on previous work, and in this case, it's the work that this team itself had done working on focusing light through tissue. Now this is really hard, of course, because light scatters when it goes through skin and the deeper tissues; it's really easy to imagine how that would happen. Now to get around this, they recorded the scattered light on a holographic plate. So, they would shine light through tissue, and the scattered light, some of it would get through, they would record it on a holographic plate, which lets them know precisely how the light bounced around. By reversing this process, they could, in essence, send that precisely scattered light through the skin and have a nice crisp image appear when it comes back out. So that was kind of work that they had done recently, which kind of set the foundation for what was to come. But this was only – that was only a minor milestone, though, because as you could imagine, medical applications really become apparent if you could focus light onto the object in the tissue itself, not just through the tissue. So to do this, the Caltech engineers were inspired by yet another group of scientists from Washington University in St. Louis, and what they did was really interesting. They figured out how to focus light using ultrasound. Now, ultrasound is very special for two reasons: it does not scatter in tissue, and if you think about it, it's obvious. That's why ultrasound is used for imaging fetuses and a lot of people have had ultrasound procedures done. But the other thing that ultrasound does that you might not be aware of is that it changes slightly the color of light that it interacts with, and that turns out to be a key fact. So the process then works like this: you focus ultrasound onto a small area inside a biological tissue, say a tumor. So you shine the ultrasound in there, you focus it precisely on where – what you want to examine, and then you shine light through the tissue, and this is where the previous work comes in. But the light that went through that area where the ultrasound was focused is color shifted, and that color shift is what they're detecting when it comes back out. And that was really key, because now that they used their earlier research, they took that scattered light and they sent it back through the tissue, but they only used the color-shifted light, and because they used the color-shifted light, they sent it right back to where it came from, so what you're doing is you're like incredibly illuminating what the ultrasound was focusing. So you got this really intense illumination that no other team has been able to match before. The big breakthrough thought was that the Cal Tech team could fire off a beam of light as powerful as they want; as I said, the scientists at Washington University could only dimly illuminate the interior of the tissue, which was a real drawback. This new technique lets them focus light twice as deep into tissue as the previous record. Now when I read what the record was, it kind of lost a little bit of its luster for me. The previous record was one millimeter. So, that means they could do about two and a half millimeters, which was like, "well, OK, two and a half millimeters? That's really nothing". It really isn't much, but the thing is, they estimate that once they really fine-tune this thing, they'll be able to get it as deep as four inches, which is really good, because – especially when you consider that that's about as deep as ultrasound goes. So four inches, if they can really get to that level, then I think we might really see some interesting things.

S: Now, Bob, when I read that, my reaction was – I read that so many times with these science news items.

B: Read what?

S: There's some fatal limitation to the technology, and they say, "but we're confident that we're going to crack this fatal limitation". Meanwhile, that's the whole friggin' game right there.

B: Oh no, absolutely.

S: So two millimeters, that's almost worthless. But, you know –

R: They could probably give a tattoo or something.


D: Awesome, new tattoo technology.

E: Very, very small one.

R: Painless tattoo.

S: It's like all the batteries – it's like, "and all we have to do is figure out how to overcome this completely fatal limitation", and this – you know, "all we have to do is increase the capacity a hundredfold and we have something really workable here."

B: Yeah.

S: Talk to me when you've done that. Talk to me when you've actually solved the limitation that makes it worthless, and then you have something. So they have a proof of concept here, but they haven't cracked what they need to make it useful in the ways that are being – maybe it'll be useful for something else, but in terms of like deep – imaging deep into tissue or doing surgery without cutting through the skin, you know, not with a two-millimeter depth, no way, and I don't think that's a trivial hurdle they're talking about.

D: And it didn't really – and it used the term "tissue", which, you know, they didn't get more specific in the article and I'm not blaming them for that, but essentially it just occurs to me, OK you know, epidermis, dermis, fat cells, muscle fibers, is there a difference; are they going to have to overcome something in that?

B: Yeah, they clearly have a lot of hurdles ahead of them. You know, all right, they doubled the record and – doubling any record, even if it's a tiny record, is good, but yeah, Steve, I totally agree. If they could break through that hurdle, then yeah, then talk to us, but... and I don't know how hard it would be to actually... I mean, maybe they the article – the articles that I read were kind of vague on what's it going to take to go from two and a half millimeters to four inches. I don't know; they didn't say how difficult these hurdles are or how difficult they anticipate them being. One thing that I was reading this for is this whole idea of the scalp-less surgery and even that was a little bit kind of weird to me because... you know, it's obviously the most fantastic application of this technology, and that's what all the headlines were going on about and – because if you can focus light inside your body, then – and if you're not limited by the power of the light, then you can, I guess, use it like a laser inside the body if you could focus it properly without cutting through the skin, but – see, even that though, I'm not sure how that – how would that really work? Steve, maybe you have some insight. I mean, you could, say, obliterate something inside, like maybe a gallstone by focusing the light into a – with laser-like intensity and then you're done. But if it's like conventional surgery, once you cut or slice through something, you generally need to suture or you take something out, which is going to require cutting the skin to do that, so I'm not sure where they're really going with this idea.

D: You burn it like that, you're going to have to remove the embers or something, you know...

S: Yeah, I agree; I think – you have to think through exactly what you're going to be doing. Just the ability to cut into tissue without going through the skin is nice, but that's not a surgical procedure. But there are things, like as you brought up a good one, like obliterating gallstones, where you just need to liquefy something inside the body. A cancer, you know, for example; if you could really liquefy the tissue and then you don't have to remove it, the body will clean it up itself. Removing blood clots; liquefying blood clots, so there's – there are applications I can imagine where you don't have to sew something up or remove something from the body that it could be useful.

GOP Opposes Critical Thinking (39:46)[edit]

Neurologica: Anti-Science as a Political Platform

S: Have any of you guys seen the GOP, the Republican Party platform for Texas?

E: Well, not allowed to vote there, but no.

S: So, you know, each state in the United States – the major parties will come out with their platform, their list of things that they believe in and they promote, that they will try to do if you elect people from their party. They're usually more radical than the national platform; you know, where the rough edges get smoothed out and they tend to move to the center a little bit because they know they have to if they're going to elect a President, for example, you have to appeal to more than just the lunatic fringe of society. But the states tend to be a little bit more radical and raw in their platform. So reading through the Republican Party platform of Texas was interesting. Now, as a caveat, we're not a political podcast; we're going to try not to – we're not talking about this to express our personal political opinions, but we do talk about the intersection of politics with science and education and ... The platform states – get this – "we oppose teaching of higher-order thinking skills, critical thinking skills, and similar programs that are simply a re-labeling of outcome-based education, which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."

E: (groaning) Maybe it's a series of typos. A hundred of them.

D: A series of unfortunate typos.

S: So, I did some background research because there's some hints in that statement that there's a back-story there. 'Cause when somebody comes out and says something like, "we oppose teaching students critical thinking skills," you have to wonder what the real – there's gotta be some deeper story there. It doesn't make it any less brain-dead to actually come out and with a straight face say "we oppose" – you know, to write it in the platform of your party, "we oppose teaching critical thinking skills". But here's the thing – and I found articles dating back a long time, to the 1990s, for example, from Texas Republicans like Phyllis Schlafly, you guys remember her?

E: Oh, yeah, I know Schlafly.

S: Talking about the terms "higher-order thinking skills" and "critical thinking skills" and essentially complaining that those were – that those buzzwords were used to conceal a liberal agenda of teaching liberal morality or liberal – relativistic liberal morality in the public school system.

E: Yeah, they think it's a code.

S: It's a bait and switch. They think, oh yeah – when they're talking about teaching critical thinking, they're really just talking about pushing liberal values onto our kids, or undermining traditional – quote-unquote "traditional moral values". So, that doesn't make the position any better, but it explains where they're coming from. It doesn't mean that they oppose critical thinking per se, but unfortunately, that becomes the effect of that position, because they end up opposing things like teaching evolution. Right? Or an accurate accounting of American history, like including things like the separation of church and state. Or anything to do with climate change. So you take it one more step, they go "oh, that's just liberal code for teaching – undermining traditional values like by teaching evolution and climate change". So it still comes back to they're opposing teaching science. The second half of that statement I actually found to be much more problematic, because it's more direct, and it isn't complicated by what they're claiming is a play on words. When they say "they're opposed to the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority". So, challenging the student's fixed beliefs should be the exact goal of a good public school education. Right?

D: My thoughts exactly.

S: And that's not conservative or liberal, that's teaching students to think for themselves, and you know what? A necessary consequence of that is challenging authority. You just have to suck that one up. You can't have it both ways; you can't have children who are completely obsequious before any authority and also have a child that has the ability to think critically for themselves. You have to pick one. You know, you can have a reasonable healthy balance for authority, but you have to – if you have critical thinking skills, you are going to question authority. And that's OK; you have to live with that a little bit. But, the conservative mindset does tend to be – and Chris Mooney, in response to what I wrote about this, he emailed me to point this out – that that's sort of perfectly in line with the authoritarian culture of conservatism. You know, this respect for authority over individual thinking, which is crazy!

E: Unfortunate at best and detrimental on a very, very practical level.

S: I mean, I think it's a losing strategy to make this part of your political identity.

E: Yeah, not sure who they're appealing to with this sort of language.

S: Yes, you are. You know exactly who they're appealing to. Let's face it, we know who they're – they're appealing to people who don't believe in evolution, you know, or don't believe in teaching science accurately towards –

E: Uneducated masses.

S: Or the incorrectly educated masses. The mis-educated masses.

B: Well, Steve, historically, what kind of impa— what kind of influence would say, the Texas platform have on the national platform?

S: Well, as I said, there's 50 states; they all – the Republican Party – each of the 50 states has their platform and they're variations of each other; you know, they do vary by the regional differences, and Texas is you know … probably as bad as it gets in terms of being in the Bible Belt and having the religious right influence on the conservative party. But the national party certainly incorporates a lot of the platforms from the various states, but they tend to be a little bit more mainstream, you know, and not quite as radical as a southern state's Republican Party platform would be. But, Texas isn't the only state to flat-out say promoting the teaching of creationism is a plank in the party platform. It's painful to see that as a platform of one of the major parties in our country. And again, this is not to suggest that there's no shenanigans going on on the left; there's plenty. But this, I think – anti-critical-thinking, anti-individualistic-thinking, pro-authoritarian thing definitely seems to be a feature of the politcal right. You know, the irony there is that, in many other ways, the Republican Party tries to be the party of the individual, you know, against the collectivism that they perceive on the left. And yet – but not thinking individually, right? So isn't that a self-contradiction? If they're the party of the rugged individual, doesn't that also mean being a little self-sufficient and critical thinking and anti-authoritarian? You know, I don't know what else to say; it's just shocking.

E: It's unfortunate. I know to say –

D: It's so overt a statement, like those.

E: There are 49 other states with 49 other platforms, so hopefully none of them have this sort of language in there.

S: But they do.

E: Not all of them.

D: Several of them.

S: – it's not an isolated –

D: Close.

Alternative Chocolate (47:39)[edit]

unfiltered perception: Xoçai – the nasty tale of a Norwegian chocolate mafia

S: Well, let's move on to a little bit more positive news – it's actually not that positive. Rebecca, you're going to tell us –

(all laughing)

D: Chocolate's very nice, but –

R: Not the first time you've done an intro for me like that: "Let's move on to posi— oh wait, I mean super-depressing news."

S: But it is about chocolate; that's what got – it is alternative chocolate.

E: How could chocolate be bad news? I don't get it.

R: It is about chocolate. Yes, it is about chocolate, particularly about a chocolate called Xoçai, which is a chocolate product sold by MXI Corp. using what we call "multi-level marketing", MLM, which we've talked about before[3]. Basically, it means that you have to pay to become a distributor; you get a percentage of the sales of any friends that you recruit and any friends they recruit, and it's basically – it's based on ye old pyramid scheme. If you don't get in at the top, you eventually run out of friends who want to actually buy your product or sell your product for you, and you maybe go broke or you end up with pounds and pounds of chocolate in your garage. It's kind of like Amway, but unlike Amway, Xoçai tends to appeal more to upper class; that's what they sort of go for is the upper-class urbanites, because they're selling healthy chocolate, which is marketed as being higher in anti-oxidants than regular chocolate, which the sellers claim means that it help you strengthen your immune system, help skin disease, prevent cancer, stabilize blood pressure, help depression, and the ever-popular "cleanse the body of toxins", whatever those may be. An independent lab does actually claim that Xoçai is higher in anti-oxidants than other chocolates, but a spokesperson for that lab pointed out that doesn't actually mean anything substantial from a scientific standpoint, and that the marketing for Xoçai far exceeds the evidence that any of it works. It's also marketed as "sugar free", which struck me immediately as being absurd, because sugar-free chocolate sounds disgusting. I looked it up, and that too is a lie: the nuggets they sell are 25% sugar and the power squares are 39% sugar. The sugar is fructose instead of glucose, which is apparently why they feel they can make that claim of it being sugar-free. It's still sugar.

S: But Rebecca, they say it's beneficial for diabetics.

R: Yeah, that – which makes it very dangerous that they're selling something that is literally a quarter sugar to diabetics, that's…

S: Now Rebecca, it says here, too – it says, "ORAC and Kosher certified". Really?


S: From Respectful Insolence?

D: He's always liked chocolate.

S: I've gotta talk to him about that.

R: Yeah. Actually, for those viewers – listeners who are interested – ORAC does – it is – it's weird to say "ORAC-certified", but ORAC stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, and it's how labs test for the presence of anti-oxidants. So, that's all that means. And, like I said, this lab – this independent lab did actually say that there are – there's a higher ORAC level in this than in other chocolates, but it really doesn't actually mean anything.

S: It's irrelevant.

R: The marketing works, despite the fact that – you know, it's – a lot of our listeners will immediately spot it as typical B.S. I'd like to read to you from a 2009 New York Times article that I found very funny and telling. This is just one bit of the article:

One early convert was Robin Cofer, an ordained swami and ballet dancer who lives on the 90th floor of Trump World Tower. She signed up in August and said she has about 20 executives – high-volume sellers – working beneath her. One of the friends she signed was Jill Zarin, one of the stars of the show Real Housewives of New York City.
"Robin is a very holistic light person", said Ms. Zarin, a former Avon lady. "She says, 'Jill, I have to tell you about this thing I found, this chocolate. It's unbelievable, and not only that, you can make money.' I said, 'You know what, Robin? Here's my credit card; you're my friend; I trust you; sign me up.'"[4]

R: It's perfect; how could this chocolate possibly fail? Well, I'm going to tell you how they're going to fail, and it's a little something we call the Streisand Effect. So, several years ago, a Norwegian blogger wrote a post critical of Xoçai, particularly the health claims they make as well as the way it's sold via MLM. Another blogger guest-posted on the same site another piece about those claims. There were some contentious comments, but nothing actually came of it until just this past April, when the blogger, who remains anonymous for his own protection (as you'll soon find out why) received a letter from, and I apologize to our Norwegian listeners, but from Sjokoservice Norge – OK, I probably butchered that, but you get the idea. They're a member association for Xoçai sellers in Norway, and this organization was angry that when Norwegians Googled Xoçai, the blogger's critical post was at the top of the rankings. So, they threatened him with, and I quote, "a seven-figure lawsuit" – they didn't actually specify which seven figures – and they also contacted his employer, saying that "it appears that most of his posts go up between 8 AM and 4 PM, so they should know what he's up to." It gets worse, though. Sjokoservice Norge also updated their website with a photo of the blogger, his name, his employer, his home address, his telephone number and his email address, and encouraged their members to contact him personally. The next day, the blogger got another email from the organization that included attachments such as a family tree, including photos, names, occupations, birthrates, and addresses of the blogger's parents, siblings and wife, and also included a Google map showing his exact residence. And the email that accompanied it read in part: "The last weeks the organization has received several e-mails from Norwegian Xoçai members, with the following attachments. From what we’ve been told this information is being sent out to 9,000 members in Norway alone, as well as your co-workers at –" and they name his workplace. "It’s obvious someone has put a lot of effort in gathering this data. Who is responsible, and why information concerning your family and home address has been sent out to our members all around Norway is something on which we don’t wish to speculate, but in the light of the information we have received we assume the probability of you receiving quite a few inquiries from Norwegian Xoçai members is high." That's the English translation, I should mention, which comes via Marcus Glenton Prescott, and it's posted on the blog "unfiltered perception" by Gunnar Roland Tjomlid; again, sorry if I butchered your names. Now, the anonymous blogger responded and politely asked the organization to provide specifics about which of his statements they felt were incorrect; it's actually a very polite letter he sent back. The letter he received back from Sjokoservice Norge is astonishing, but it's a bit long, so I won't read it all to you. I will give you a few choice quotes, though. Here we go. "In a closed group on Facebook your blog and person is currently the subject of heated discussion, where creative ideas are being put forth to stop your attack on the product Xoçai, the company MXI Corp. and the representatives of the company – once and for all." They also say, "Some also wish to gather a group of people to visit you at" – and they give his address – "to discuss your blog face to face. We have of course discouraged such action, but it’s out of our hands." Now, at this point, the blogger's employers were understandably worried, and they asked him to remove the blog posts, and he did. So, that would be the end of it, if only this weren't 2012, and we weren't talking about the Internet. And so what ended up happening is what – a similar thing to what happened a few months ago (I think we talked about on the show) with Stanislaw Burzynski. What happened was this blogger, Gunnar Roland Tjomlid has re-posted the two deleted posts while continuing to protect the identity of the original blogger and this story has now gone viral in Norway, making the leap from blogs to mainstream new articles. So now, as far as I know, Tjomlid has yet to receive any concrete threats from Sjokoservice Norge besides one verbal threat on the phone. They said that if he published all this information, he'd be sued for more than what the anonymous blogger was threatened with. So, I assume eight figures; I don't know. But luckily, it wasn't enough to stop him, and good on him. So now it's a huge story and more and more people are picking it up, so hopefully now – I don't know, people in Norway can try this out – hopefully when you Google Xoçai – by the way, it's X-O-C-A-I – hopefully when you Google that now, the critical post will again appear at the top of the listings.

S: That was like mob-style thuggery intimidation tactics.

D: Make no mistake.

S: (imitating mobster) "Oh, you know, accidents happen all the time."

E: "People die of all kinds of things."

D: "That's a very nice young family you have there; shame if anything happened to it."

R: I think that's the title of the unfiltered perception blog's post on this, which is something like "the Norwegian chocolate mafia", which is just a really great image. But yeah, I mean, maybe that stuff would've worked a couple of years ago, but not so much in the days of viral blog posts.

S: And, this product is snake oil!

R: Oh yeah! Through and through.

S: It's crap! It's like just – you could cut and paste, almost, any fruit-juice super-food fruit-juice product going around here, just now it's in a chocolate bar form.

R: Uh yeah, look at açai berry; it's the exact same verbiage that they use.

D: Hadn't even occurred to me.

S: It is; exactly the same.

R: I'm going to start marketing açai-Xoçai bars.


R: I'm going to be a gazillionaire; nobody'll know how to pronounce it but everybody's going to want it.

Who's That Noisy? (57:58)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Victor Zammit

S: Well, Evan, get us up to date about Who's That Noisy.

E: First thing we're going to do is tell you who gave the correct answer to the prior week's Who's That Noisy. Remember we talked about the beautiful music we were hearing, which was the interpretation of the gamma ray burst from a video put together by the folks at NASA called the Symphony of the Universe, and we did have a correct answer on that. Asaf Elan from Israel was the first one to guess correctly. So, congratulations, Asaf, well done. Now I will play for you last week's Who's That Noisy.

Some open-minded skeptics, as I am, and others, who are closed-minded skeptics, those who don't accept the afterlife

OK, so who we have there is none other than Victor Zammit.

S: Victor Zammit, yeah.

E: Victor Zammit is a lawyer from Australia who's been a thorn in the side of organizations like the James -- the JREF, James Randi, and he has, well let's just say he has a strong, strong belief in the afterlife, and there's nothing wrong with that. But, he goes a bit further. Not only does he trash skeptics on a regular basis for having their skeptical viewpoints of things, he has a $1,000,000 afterlife challenge. Are you familiar with the afterlife challenge?

S: Do you have to collect it in the afterlife?

R: The first ghost to show up and ask for it, he'll get it?

E: Wouldn't that be easy. (chuckles) He has a one -- he says $1,000,000 is offered to any closed-minded skeptic who can rebut the existing evidence for life after death. Yes. He goes on and, you know, he attacks the likes certainly of Randi and he has some choice words to say about Richard Dawkins and I think even Steve might be mentioned in here, in one of his tirades on his website, which is very difficult to navigate and, let's face it, ugly. Victor Zammit.

S: It's not quite Time Cube, but you know, it's getting close.

E: It's getting close, so.

S: His website design, yeah.

E: Next week we will reveal who guessed correctly that that was Victor Zammit.

S: And what do you got for this week?

E: Here we go. Brand new Who's That Noisy; let's get it done.

(scraping sound)

S: Interesting, interesting.

E: It's an interesting one; we'll see who comes up with the correct answer. is our email address, as you must know by now.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Space Mining (1:00:27)[edit]

S: All right, thanks Evan. We're going to do one email this week; this one comes from Charlie from Frantorp, Sweden.

E: Charlie.

S: Now, he gives his last name, but honestly, I think he's pulling our leg here with these characters. I mean, these are not real letters, right? Charlie K., and he writes:

I listened with interest to your interview about future possible mining of asteroids. There was however a question left unanswered. Perhaps it it something you could talk a little about on the SGU? What is the legal status for space mining? Is it a free-for-all? Can anybody with a rocket and a shovel mine any celestial body? Take for example the hypothetical platimum-asteroid. If a US company landed on one side of the asteroid and began mining and a chinese company (or government) landed on the other side, what would be the legal situation? And let's not forget the american flag that was put on the moon in '69. Does that prohibit the swiss from going there to mine all that cheese that Jay talked about? best regards Charlie

S: Dan, you looked into this a little bit for us.

D: Yeah. Well, I found a couple of articles; in fact, this question is quite timely because there's been a lot of developments lately in the space exploration and private industry... So, there aren't a lot of legal precedents. There is a U.N. treaty; it's an older one, it's 1967. So the 1967 Outer Space Treaty through the U.N. -- and it, I believe, it's been signed -- there are several countries that are signatories -- the space-faring countries are signatories of that treaty, but they're probably signatories, in my opinion, because it doesn't mean much. It is, at best, ambiguous; it both allows basically for unfettered and undiscriminated harvesting of space resources while also saying that you really can't own anything out there -- perhaps you can own the ore if you do mine it, and that is about as far as you can go.

S: Well, there was -- I did find reference to a 1979 Moon Treaty, which forbids private ownership of extraterrestrial real estate. However, that's only been ratified by 13 countries, which is not much at all. So it doesn't really -- and none of them are major space-faring nations. So, none of the people who could actually get into space have agreed that they can't own space -- own extraterrestrial real estate. So, I think it's ambiguous. Probably not going to be an issue for a while, I think... if you can get to an asteroid and mine it, good luck; you have the right to it. It's not like people are going to by vying for the same asteroid, at least not any time soon.

Science or Fiction (1:03:09)[edit]

It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. We have another theme this week!

R: God dammit!

(others cheering)

S: This theme is "the oldest". So, three news items about discovering the oldest of something.

D: Phyllis Diller. Sorry.

S: All right, here we go.

R: Well, he's locked in, so...

S: Item number one: Archaeologists have discovered the oldest example of cave art, dating back 40,800 years before present. Item number two: The earliest evidence of copper smelting was recently discovered in Eastern Serbia and dates to 7,000 years before present. And item number three: Archaeologists have discovered the oldest evidence of archery, a yew bow dating back 7,400 years before present. Well, Dan, as our guest, you get the privilege of going first.

D: OK, these are straightforward. Item number one about oldest cave art, 40,800 years before present. That's old. Obviously, caves can – especially art on stone, can persist, and so I don't doubt that necessarily on the basis of medium. I really have no compelling reason to doubt that, but that is old, that is… So number two, the earliest evidence of copper smelting was recently discovered in Eastern Serbia and dates to 7,000 years before present. Well, OK, I'll leave that one for a second. And then number three, the archaeologists have discovered the oldest evidence of archery, a yew bow dating back 7,400 years before present. Now archery was Asian in origin, and that falls well within, far as I understand it, the populating of that area. I think I would have to go with the fiction being the earliest evidence of copper smelting. That's the only one that gives me a little bit of a false feeling. So, that's what I'll go, number two.

S: All righty. Rebecca?

R: Yeah, for me it's between the copper and the archery. The cave art, yeah I get that, maybe 40,000 – yeah, why not. They were doing cultural things back then and they could certainly last that long. Copper smelting or archery; archery really, really big right now, so maybe – and Steve, I know you kid likes archery, so maybe archery was on your mind and you decided to make something up about archery. Or maybe that's what you want me to think. You know, I don't care; I'm going to go with the archery one, just... yeah, just because. I think you made it up because I think you like archery.

S: OK. Bob?

B: (exhales) Well, the cave art; I could buy that; that's not striking me as being way out, and like Rebecca, I have a problem with the second two, the copper smelting and the archery.

S: (affected voice) The shmelting.


B: The shmelting. The archery I could see somebody stumbling upon that idea and running with it. Less so the copper smelting though, that just seems a little too far back for me to buy, so I'll... I just think the copper is just too far back; I'll have to go with that as fiction.

S: OK. Jay?

J: Dan, which one did you pick?

D: The copper smelting.

J: And how do you typically do at Science or Fiction?


D: I'll tell you later.

J: See, the guy's almost done with his first show with us and he's already busting my balls.

R: He learns quickly.

D: You got a target on you, brother.

J: (chuckles) All right, so... yeah, the cave painting; I would be shocked if that one is fiction. I remember reading something; I don't know – like, I actually have something in my head that I recently saw, which is the – you know, the red – what were they, I forget what they were using to make their early, early paintings, but they were doing it over their hands; you see all the human hands and all that stuff. The shmelting is... now, does this include a pancake, Steve?


E: Blintz.

J: 7,000 years, huh? Yeah, I mean, why wouldn't they be able to be smelting 7,000 years ago? And the third one, also found evidence of archery dating back 7,400 years; smelting is a lot more advanced than archery. I'll take (affected voice) the von shmelting for 1,000, Alex.

S: All right. Evan.

E: Well, the cave art 40,800 years B.P. Mmm, I agree with everyone else; I think that of the three is the most plausible one. Copper shmelting or archery. Sorry Rebecca, I'm going to go with the copper smelting one as the fiction.

S: OK.

J: Oh!

D: Oh well.

J: That means you're wrong!

R: I'm not liking my chances here.

S: All right. Well, you all agree with number one, so we'll start there. Archaeologists have discovered the oldest example of cave art, dating back 40,800 years before present. You guys all think that one is science and that one is... science.

E: Oh, thank God.

B: 50-50 now.

S: It was actually 40,700 years. That is – and Jay, I think you did probably read the item. Do you know what the art consisted of?

R: Penises.

S: Close.

J: I just remember it being etchings –

D: It was bunny rabbits.

J: It was really shitty; it was –

S: They were red dots.

J: Oh yeah, yeah!

D: No, no, no!

E: Red dots?

D: Five?

B: Planets. Planets, obviously.

J: They were among other things.

S: It was a star system. It was a star map. Yeah, they were –


S: If you look at the picture –

E: This means something.

S: – it's lots of red dots in kind of a pattern; it's obviously not a natural thing, you know, this cave painting. But the key is, it was using the same red pigment and the same blowing technique that Jay – of the pictures of hands that Jay was referring to. You put your hand on the wall, you blow the paint around it, take your hand away and you got a picture of your hand. So they figured out how to do that 40,000 years ago. This does beat the previous oldest cave art by about 4,000 years, so it does push it back a bit. This was found in Spanish locations, so in Spain.

E: There are caves in France that had very old –

S: Yeah, there's a lot of famous caves in France as well, but this is … same basic –

D: So, this doesn't – this is not like, a startling push-back of the early –

S: Nah, it really isn't.

D: But – yeah.

S: It was 4,000 years.

D: Talk about a long time ago – make-up, or something like that.

S: Yeah, the clam shells with the pigment.

D: Yeah.

S: Yeah, this wasn't surprising, but I had to find three items all about oldest stuff, so. But the other two are the tricky ones. So let's – we'll take them in order. The earliest evidence of copper smelting was recently discovered in eastern Serbia and dates to 7,000 years before present. All of the men think this one is fiction; Rebecca, you think this one is science, and this one is... science!

R: Wooo! Suck it!

S: Good job, Rebecca.

J: Good job.

B: Nice job, Rebecca.

R: Suck it. Suck it. Psychology wins again.

S: You got lucky.

R: It was not luck. It was not luck, sir. It's induction.

B: It's not "Science or Psychology"; it's "Science or Fiction".

R: Psychology is a science, Bob.

S: Once again, you were right for the wrong reason; we're getting there, though. All right, so the oldest example of copper smelting dates back to 7,000 years ago. They found evidence of copper slag, which is what's left behind after you heat up the ore and remove the copper. Ore is an artifact; they also found cast copper objects, so copper was probably – the evidence is that was probably the earliest metal that was smelted. It has a very low oxidation potential, which makes it easy to separate from the ore, so it's easy to smelt, comparatively. Lead, tin, and iron are more difficult; iron, of those metals, is the most difficult. Interestingly, gold has such a low oxidation potential –

J: I love gold!

S: – that it occurs naturally in its metallic form. It's probably true that people were finding and working gold as a metal before the other metals because you don't have to smelt it; you find it as metallic gold. But once you get up to copper, lead, tin, and iron, those exist in ore form – they're bound to other minerals and you have to smelt them in order to get the purified metal out. Copper's pretty good as a tool, certainly better than stone tools for blunt work, but it doesn't hold an edge. Does not hold an edge, so it's not really good for making – well, you can, but it's not really – it's a poor material for like, an axe or a knife. So they eventually discovered how to add tin to copper, creating...

E: Bronze.

S: Interestingly, it was thought – it was previously thought before this find, that the Europeans learned how to smelt copper from the Middle East; that it actually originated in the Middle East and then spread from there. But now the oldest find is in Eastern Europe, so that kind of moves the locus of where it started. It could have been discovered independently, of course, in the Middle East and in Europe, and also, of course, the oldest of anything is always determined by the oldest example that we have of it, which is probably not the true origin of it. You know, just the first example that we've discovered. Which means, going on to number three, archaeologists have discovered the oldest evidence of archery, a yew bow dating back 7,400 years before present. Now I admit this one was a little tricky, because archaeologists did find a 7,000-year-old yew bow, and that was the article that I was basing this on. And they –

B: What the hell?

S: And it is the –

B: You got some 'splaining to do.

S: – oldest Neolithic bow discovered in Europe. It's just not, by a long shot, the oldest example of archery. That's what made that fiction.

J: Oh, OK.

S: In fact, it's not even the oldest bow.

E: What?

S: Yeah, the Holmegaard bow is a couple of thousand years older. That dates to 8-9,000 years before present, and those were – those are actually – The oldest bows that we've discovered are pretty well-designed and pretty functional; yew is actually a really good wood to make bows out of; it has a lot of good properties for a bow. The Holmegaard bow has a very efficient design; it's a good bow; you could use it today as a reasonably designed bow, and could be made out of a lot of different types of wood that were easily available. Yeah, this was just the oldest Neolithic bow found in Europe, but not the oldest bow, and also, there are other lines of evidence for archery; for example, a cave painting of an archer.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: So that's a painting of a guy holding – obviously holding a bow in front of him, pointing it at an animal.

D: Yeah, it's iconic.

J: Unless the artist was psychic and he predicted the creation of the bow.

B: It was a science fiction cave painting. Come on.

S: And, the oldest evidence, however, which I admit, is not smoking-gun evidence, but the oldest evidence that possibly pointing towards use of a bow, goes back 50,000 years –

B: Holy crap.

S: And that is stone arrowheads. Now, the reason why that's not smoking-gun evidence of a bow is that they could have used like an atlatl to throw the arrows and not –

J: Atlatl.

E: Now you're making up words.

D: Like that Jay, huh?

S: They could have used some other – but they look like they're the size of arrowheads. You know, they're not spearheads, they're arrowheads. But still – that's somewhat indirect evidence. But still other lines of evidence that go back far, like arrowheads buried in the pelvic bone that really probably needed the force of a bow to get buried in there dating back up to 18,000 years ago, evidence of gluing feathers to shafts around 20,000 years ago.

J: Yeah, but don't do that at home.

B: (laughing) Nice, Jay.

S: Right.

R: Well, the important thing to remember is that I won.

D: Yes.

S: The salient fact – the salient fact of this item is that Rebecca won.

R: (blows raspberry)

S: I will point out again, for the wrong reasons.

R: Yep.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:07)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, what do you got for a quote this week?

J: I have a very awesome quote here and I want you, Steve, to guess who this is. But I will say that this quote was sent in by Ole Hjolmersen. Ole's from Sweden, and he sent in this kick-ass quote and I'm testing my brother Steve with this quote.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death--however mutable man may be able to make them--our existence as a species can have a genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

S: Yeah, the two people that it makes me think of -- one is Carl Sagan, it's kind of the way he writes. But I think Isaac Asimov comes to mind as well.

J: You know, not bad guesses but you're not quite there. STANLEY KUBRICK!

S: Oh, Stanley Kubrick. Cool!

E: Whoa!

J: That actually was a quote taken from a Playboy interview; he did it in Playboy magazine.

E: So, let's compare 2001 to Prometheus.

(all laughing)

J: Not -- Don't even. Hey, Dan, thanks for joining us. It was a really good time, man.

R: Yeah, thanks, Dan. You did well.

B: Great job!

D: Real pleasure.

J: Dan, I gotta ask you: was it worth it?

D: Oh, yeah. Are you kidding? Ohh. Great.


D: Was it Michael? Yeah, and he said something about the thrill of watching the sausage being made. Yeah.


R: You know, you can tell no one, Dan. No one. How the sausage gets made. They'll vomit, OK?

S: A secret you'll have to take to your grave.

D: Nope; that's the thrill of secrets.

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

R & J: Thank you, Steve.

E: Doctor.

B: You're welcome.

S: And until next week, which will be our TAM episode, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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


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