SGU Episode 366

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SGU Episode 366
21st July 2012
Feathers 1.jpg
SGU 365 SGU 367
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
RS: Richard Saunders
GH: George Hrab
RD: Rachael Dunlop
Quote of the Week
Sometimes, even by accident, the universe makes beauty, and we can stand back in awe of it. Even better – we can figure out why. Science! I love this stuff.
Phil Plait
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

GH: Let's get started. Some of my most favourite people in the world. Please welcome the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.


S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. Today is Friday July 13th 2012 and this is your host Stephen Novella. Joining me today are Bob Novella.

B: Hey everybody.

S: Evan Burnstein

E: Hello everyone.

S: Jay Novella

J: Hey guys.

S: And, we have a special guest rogue with us onstage today all the way from Australia, Richard Saunders. As you can see, Rebecca is not joining us this year at TAM, but we have a great show for you so let's get started.

This Day in Skepticism (0:59)[edit]

  • July 21, 2012 Nibiru Strike Earth
  • July 21, 1620 Jean Picard born - French Astronomer

S: So what we're gonna start with, this day in skepticism. Um actually this show was going to be going up on July 21st, so we're gonna be talking about what's happened on this day in skepticism in July 21st. Actually Evan before you get to your items-

E: Yep.

S: I read in that esteemed journal, the weekly World News..

E: Oooh!

S: That the earth is going to collide with Nibiru on July 21st, in a week, we have a week to live!

E: Wow.

S: So do you guys know what Nibiru is?

GH: What's that third planet that's there? Oh that's just July 21st, I'm sorry. OK I thought that was...

S: Thanks George. George we've started the show now.

E: Thanks Geo.

S: So.. thanks.


Audience: Awwww.

E: You've seen him all conference, but anyway...

S: Nibiru is the 12th planet. You guys didn't know about Nibiru the 12th planet?

E: The 12th planet?

S: That's right. The sun is the first.

J: Aah

E: Duh. Stupid.

J: Then Vulcan, planet Vulcan is next?

S: No let's not get crazy. And then there's Venus, Earth, then Luna. The moon is the fourth planet. And then, worse than all that is they also continue to include Pluto as a planet, the 11th planet and then Nibiru is the 12th planet after Pluto. Apparently it's hurtling towards Earth and will soon collide with the Earth and kill everybody.

J: That makes the Prometheus movie, fact checking look stellar compared with that.

E: What the hell.

S: But there's a few things interesting that actually happened on July 21st in the past. The Scopes monkey trial ends, and John Scopes was found guilty and fined for $100. So a hundred dollar fine apparently was more than the statute allowed for, so when the trial was appealed and the goal was to appeal the trial to higher and higher courts, get all the way to the state supreme court, maybe even the supreme court the federal supreme court, and then knock down the anti-evolution law. But what happened was, in the lower court, um, they decided that, they found that the hundred dollar fine exceeded the statute and therefore it was thrown out on a technicality. And the whole purpose of the trial failed.

E: Which effected evolution education for generations after that.

S: Right. A generation of textbook companies would not include the E-word in their evolution teaching. Also on July 21st Captain Virgil Gus Grissom became the second American in space with a sub-orbital flight aboard the Liberty Bell 7. That was after Alan Sheppard and before John Glenn actually orbited the Earth. Grissom also was one of the three American astronauts who died during the first Apollo test mission when it caught fire, and last year we talked about the fact that the space shuttle Atlantis landed at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21st, just last year. But, uh Evan you have one other item, also, tell us about-

E: Yeah anyone ever heard of Jean Picard, who was born on July 21st in 1620. French astronomer, cartographer and hydraulic engineer who is regarded as the founder of modern astronomy in France. Bonjour.

GH: See now that guy's even sexier, just cause of the curls.

E: This is not weird at all George.


S: Alright thanks George.

E: Thanks for the water.

S: Um-

(Audience awwws)

S: Don't encourage him.

E: I know, I just get..


S: So Richard you're gonna tell us about this fabulous high tech device.

News Items[edit]

Fake Bomb Detector Maker Charged (4:30)[edit]

BBC: 'Bomb detector' maker Jim McCormick faces fraud charges

RS: Wow this is the amazing- I wonder if people probably would have heard about these things. It's the bomb detectors that work on the dowsing principle, alright?

E: Ouch.

RS: You can see that particular one there, and there are many different variations of them. They go under names like the ADE561, I don't know where they get these letters and numbers from. Well my favourite is called the Sniffix, Sniffix like it sniffs out things. The idea is, as you can see on the picture there, people walk along, especially at checkpoints where cars may have bombs hidden underneath the tyres or in the tyres or in the trunk or wherever it is. And this device if the operator walks by the car, the rod will swing and indicate the presence of explosives, or if you change the chip in the device it will then find narcotics.

S: Can you just like write something on the outside?

RS: It's just as effective.

S: And then it will find that? Like Bugs Bunny, remember that one?


J: Yeah but you know that, Steve that's not even a joke because the government did buy bomb detectors where the guy actually had illustrations of the thing that they put inside the device. We talked about that.

S: Yeah or they Xerox a picture of it, yeah.

RS: So, there is money in them thar scams, and these things were selling for about 60,000 bucks a pop. Depending on the model. Now just recently a man by the name of James McCormick.. It's interesting when you read about people who've been arrested, they always give their age, have you noticed that? Why? He's 55. Oh OK. That's.. that's nice to know. James McCormick, 55, has been charged now with six counts of fraud relating to selling these devices, and six other people, five other people sorry, have also been charged. Now these devices pop up in countries such as Kenya, Georgia in the former Soviet Union there, Bahrain, Belgium. Anywhere where these people can get away by selling them. Now the whole thing of course works on the idiomotor action. People who were at TAM a number of years ago, my first TAM, back in the Flamingo may have seen me demonstrate this whole water divining, water dowsing thing with the divining rods and the way they swing back and forth. It's the same idea involved. The operator walks along with this device. It's got a rod that comes out, there it is. And the slightest muscle twitch of the hand will make the rod swing back and forth. Of course, we know what's going on but we have to remember that people out there aren't educated in these matters like we are, so it can be very easy for somebody to be fooled by this device seeming to react to a bomb. And when they're demonstrating it what they'll do is they'll get some real explosives, put them over there, walk past and show the military officials or whoever that the thing actually swings towards where the bomb is, and won't swing towards the dummy. Of course they never do it truly double blind. This is particularly, particularly bad folks because you can imagine the checkpoint, somebody drives up, there's a bomb in that car, along comes the soldier, whoever it is with this fake bomb detector, and of course they're not going to find the bomb. Driver goes through and who knows who gets killed. So this is a really important message, an important win for science and reason that these people are being brought to justice, and I really hope that the book gets thrown at them. So this is a great example

B: Can you imagine, that you're at a checkpoint and you're using dowsing rods to look for bombs?

J: Yeah imagine if you were a skeptic and you see them using a dowsing rod, somebody that knows, and they're out there I mean there are definitely skeptics in the military, I would.. I'd lose my mind!

S: Or um.. I wonder what the terrorists thought of that. I mean did they know?


S: They're using dowsing rods at the checkpoints?

RS: (terrorist voice) Oh no it's a dowsing rod I'm.. turning back.


S: Or were they as fooled as everybody else?

RS: Do terrorists sound like that? I don't know.


RS: It's a terrible thing. It really is a terrible thing but at least some action has been taken. But I tell you what. Ten minutes with us, you know these military officials we could have taken them aside and said look, here's how it really works, uh, maybe would have saved some lives, I don't know.

S: Well we should point out that there are a lot of skeptics involved in debunking this device and bringing it to the attention of the authorities so this is something that as a community we can take credit for, at least partially. Bringing this to attention. Bringing it to this point now where the CEO of the company is being charged with fraud, and hopefully will spend the rest of his life in jail.


Debating an Antivaccinationist (9:20)[edit]

Science-based Medicine: Steve Novella vs. Julian Whitaker on vaccines at FreedomFest

S: I was invited at the last minute to go to the freedom fest across town, which is a liberter- a big libertarian convention. So this is, this guy is Doctor Whitaker, who is an actual MD. He was giving, uh, it was supposed to be part of a debate on vaccines, are vaccines safe, and a uh regular physician was gonna be his opposite end but he recently had surgery and couldn't make it so they asked me to fill in at the last minute, even though I only had.. I had no time to prep and it was Thursday, it was in the middle of TAM, and so I wasn't busy at all. (sarcastically)


S: So, but I said *fine*, I can't let this guy go unopposed, so I sat down across from him cold, but it was alright. So Dr Whitaker, most famous for being the personal physician of Suzanne Summers.

B: (sings) Come and knock on our door.

S: So, it's a typical, guru, everything mainstream medicine is wrong, everything alternative medicine is good, buy my suppliments you know. So we kind of knew what we were in for when he opens up with this graph.


S: So you see this graph. This is his projection of autism incidents into the future based upon the last 20 years, and you can see by 2040 everybody's going to be autistic!


Can't argue with that.

S: One hundred per- It actually peaks a little bit over 100% but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt.


S: And he did say in his (garbled) yeah 100% yeah he said it in words, it's not just you're misinterpreting the graph. So, you know we thought it would be interesting to find out how exactly he extrapolated those trends into the future. I don't know, he must have some sophisticated mathematical model. But he said, I mean everything he said, literally everything he said was a distortion. He did a little bit of the gish gallop but not so much that I couldn't, you know, pick the things that were important, and this was I think, you know other than that stupid graph, the other most egregious thing that he said. Fortunately Michael Schirmer brought me over there and David Gorski came along, and David and I were looking at his newsletter and with this graph on it, and we looked at each other like "Really, he's pulling this out?".

Yeah like why would he show a graph of your sex life over the years.


I mean he must hate you Steve.

S: How did he know I was gonna be there? It was so last minute. Um. (laugh) So, we exchanged looks like "OK, this is where he's going". So we had him. We knew that we had him. So this is a graph of measles mortality rate over the 20th century starting at 1900 and through, and then you could see the line, the vertical line there is where the measles vaccine is introduced, so we should-

GH: I actually I have a song about this graph.



S: You wrote a song about anti-vaccination

GH: About that particular graph, yeah.

S: George seriously we have a tight show, we don't have time. Maybe we'll have you play it after our show outside or something.

Audience: Awwww.

J: Oh my god.

B: Did he do this for anybody else?


S: So mortality ra- He said- So here's a graph of mortality , measles mortality, and mortality is incidence, so this shows that measles is already almost on the way out before the vaccine was even introduced so maybe it helped a tiny little bit but really insignificant. So did you catch the lie? In his little spiel there? Mortality is incidence. No, it's not incidence. This is telling. This graph represents how much better we are able to treat people who are acutely ill with measles over the years, you know.. During this time things like the ventilator was invented. You know, basic medical care so we got really good at keeping people with measles alive, but this graph tells a very different story from an actual incidence graph, which you can see that measles was chugging along until the vaccine was introduced and then it plummets down to almost nothing. The second arrow is when the second dose was introduced into the schedule and then there's a little pull out graph you can see, it goes down even further.

It shows you got laid in 1984 on there.

S: Right. Still remember that one. Uh...


S: So, two completely different stories. The mortality graph and the incidence graph. He showed the mortality graph. I completely nailed him on it. I said that graph is an absolute deception, and he had no response. He just went on to some other point. So you know, he had him dead to rights. At one point he was so bad he was like polling the audience "How many people know autistic children?". It was so bad that Michael Schirmer couldn't contain himself and started shouting from the audience.


S: And the moderator had to say "Please could the audience please control themselves" I was like "Sit down Michael, I got it".


S: It was funny. But, we were interviewing Doctor Rachie yesterday, you know Dr Rachie Dunlop from Australia, and she is very active in the anti-vaccination movement down under, so we had our camera rolling, we just- Ok great let's just talk talk to her a little bit about how she's dealing with the anti-vaccine movement and if she had any experience debating anti-vaccinationists. My debate went very well in fact even though it was a non-skeptical libertarian audience, many of them came up to me afterwards and said "You know I came into this not knowing what to think but it was obvious over the course of this debate that you had the science and this guy was a quack". So I thought it was a good outcome.


S: We're sitting here now with Dr Rachel Dunlop, Dr Rachie thanks for joining us today.

RD: Thanks Steve, hi Jay.

J: Hey.

S: We wanted to talk to you briefly about the anti-vaccine movement because you know we're talking about my recent debate with Dr Whittaker, but you've had quite a bit of success in Australia combatting the anti-vaccine movement, why don't you tell us little bit about that.

RD: Yeah we've had big success Steve, and mainly by just dealing with the media and letting them know what the anti-vaxers are really talking about and that way they've decided that they're probably not a reliable source of information so they don't speak to them as much any more.

S: But despite being invited to do so you've chosen not to directly debate with the anti-vaxers. Why is that?

RD: Yeah because they don't abide by the rules of debate, you know. They tend to gish gallop, which means they throw a whole lot of information into the pool that we're unable to deal with immediately. So it makes us look foolish. And they just tend to make stuff up.

J: Isn't it though a good idea to debate them when you have a chance because ultimately, you know... Not to interrupt, but just, I think it's important to ...

S: George, what are you doing?

J: Seriously.

GH: I just.. I just want to add something to the show.

S: Alright if you want to that much why don't you just sit with us.

GH: Really?

S: Yes, you can join us for the show


S: Alright?


GH: You're so niiice.

S: George Hrab everybody.

GH: What are we talking about?

S: So after, just to finish up the debate topic. In addition to Michael Schirmer's outburst in the middle of the talk, after the debate David Gorski who also writes on science based medicine couldn't contain himself either so he went right up to Dr Whitaker and got in his face. Dave promised.. Apparently they didn't video tape it which is unfortunate, but Dave was gonna blog for it on science based medicine on Monday, so you'll get the full blow by blow at that time, so thanks Dave.

Feathered Dinosaurs (17:11)[edit]

American Museum of Natural History: Newly Discovered Dinosaur Implies Greater Prevalence of Feathers

J: How cute. S: It is cute isn't it. Isn't this a cute dinosaur. J: Was. S: Was yeah. So this is a- When I first saw this picture it almost looks like a cartoon. The lines are kind of perfect. J: Specially the head. Something about the head is too.

Well yeah I mean who dies with their mouth open like that you know? (laugh)

S: But this is the classic position of a fossil dinosaur because of the-

The rigor right?

S: The rigor pulls the neck back and pulls the tail into that configuration so we always find them this way, but this is a juvenile dinosaur that was recently discovered in the limestone of northern Bavaria, so the limestone because of it's constitution is a great medium for preserving fossils in great detail. So that's why the bones and the outline are so exquisitely preserved. This dinosaur was named... I hate this name... Sciurumimus albersdoerferi. The first name, the genus name Sciurumimus means squirrel mimic. I'll tell you why in a second, and the second name is after the private collector who found this and turned it over to the scientists. This is in the um, it's a megalosaur, which is a branch of the theropod dinosaurs, and that branch is interesting because that's the branch of dinosaurs from which birds evolved, and as you might have guessed by now, this is a feathered dinosaur. If you look very closely, you can see little striations from filamentous feathers...

(Trumpet music - Superman theme)

What the hell?



S: So... As I was saying there are filamentous feathers in the tail of this particular dinosaur, and this is a juvenile. These are probably like downy like feathers. This is a ultraviolet illuminated fossil where you could see skin and the feathers pretty well. So now why is this interesting. This is about 150 million years old.

It doesn't look like feathers to me.

S: Well it's not a fully formed modern feather, yeah, it's just a filamentous feather-like proto-feather like adaptation.

So what do you think the feathers, the proto-like feather-like adaptations were for?

S: Well since it's in a juvenile-

Insulation? Mating? Lots of possibilites.

S: Probably not for mating in a juvenile. So we don't know, but it could have just been probably for thermo regulation. You know it's a small.. this is 28 inches, this is pretty small. They get big. These types of creatures eventually get very big. This is about 150 million all years old and prior to this all therapod feathered dinosaurs were in one subgroup of the theropods called the Celeosoars. That includes velociraptor, T – Rex, but also Archaeopteryx, the iconic feathered dinosaur. But that's one small subgroup. What is interesting and what's got the palaeontologists excited about this fossil is that this is a Megalosaur, so it's much more basal, its much farther back in the branching relatedness of the uh… Of this group of…

What was that that you just had there?
That was cool.
that is so – that looks like a Demon.

S: you think so?

That's exactly what that is.
That is so cool.

S: that is… You want to know what that is?

I said I think it's a demon.

(laughter) S: That is my favourite fossil. The Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica.

It's only because you can pronounce that one.

S: That's a little bit easier to pronounce. So, this was discovered about 150 years ago, right about the time that Darwin was publishing the origin of species, and the creationists at the time and still, still 150 years later, make the claim that there are major groups that lack connections between them, and of course Darwin says "well we'll find them. will find fossils that connect the major groups of animals like birds and reptiles" and then lo and behold, almost made to order, which is something else that creationists were quick to point out, the Berlin specimen, and is also the London specimen right before this, although was presented later, of Archaeopteryx. A beautifully preserved fossil, again in limestone, with clear obvious now more modern looking, actually fully modern looking flight feathers, so this thing clearly flew. It has the asymmetrical shaft, which is an adaptation for flight.

Steve it looks like its hooves are on fire.

S: That's the wings.

That thing is really cool man.

S: And you can see the neck is in the same position you know as the other dinosaur.

That looks painful that position.
Now do you think that thing could flap its wings and takeoff, like it was a modern bird and everything?

S: Yes. Not like a modern bird. It lacks the adaptation, the sternal adaptation for taking off from a standing position, so it had to either run or drop from a branch. So it could fly but not as well as modern half bird, perfect transitional fossil, just love it.

Could it be just a glider?

S: umm no it's more than a glider. It definitely could do full flapping flight but not as well as a modern bird. But this was 150 years ago and for a long time that was the only feathered pre- you know bird dinosaur connection we had. And then from the 1980s we've been digging up tons of feathered dinosaurs in China, really showing that – and also specimens of like T – Rex and velociraptor – showing feathers and proto-feathers and now – that whole group of theropods were feathered. And now we're pushing it back much farther to almost the base of the theropods. So it's possible that may be all theropods were feathered and maybe even farther back than that, some palaeontologists suspect that it may go back to very close to the base of dinosaurs as a group but you know we don't know yet, that's still speculation, but they say we wouldn't be surprised. Again it's always hard to know like what the oldest first thing is. It's always dependent on your specimens and in probably you know things go back further than the fossil evidence indicates to us, so if anything it's at least this far back if not father. So I wrote about this recently on my blog and I always love to write about feathered dinosaurs because it's, it really is a home run. It's a home run for evolution because down predicted we're gonna see connections between major groups and we did and the creationists said that's just weird bird or that's just weird dinosaur. You know they would say one of the other and now where fleshing out the whole feathered dinosaur thing, they said there is no transitional feather; there is a transitional feather. climbing every time the creationists said there's a gap, there's no this, you know as we're finding more fossils, we're finding more fossils, we're finding – its exactly what evolutionary theory predicted, that there should be this group of feathered dinosaurs showing a clear sort of connection between birds and dinosaurs and now the connection I think is even a little bit stronger. So I wrote about this, and then, someone else blogged a response, writing in direct response to my blog, but evolution, in quotes, Novella means Darwinism. No I meant evolution... Predicted none of this. I challenge novella to cite references from evolutionary biologists during the past 150 years predicting that birds rather than reptiles will be found to be related to dinosaurs based on Darwinian principle of heritable variation and natural selection and common descent. Does anyone want to take a guess who wrote that?

It wasn't me.

S: Michael Egnor.

of course.

S: on his blog, Egnorance, umm... (laughter) S: he kind of took our pet name for him and made it his own. so again, I always marvel at how many misconceptions they can pack into one paragraph or one sentence. Evolution doesn't predict, just the basic fact of evolutionary theory that, you know, common descent, things are related through common descent, doesn't predict any specific connection. Darwin didn't predict "we're going to find out that birds are related to theropod dinosaurs", or not even necessarily dinosaurs although, even at that time TH Huxley thought yes it's going to be dinosaurs. That was an early theory Of where the connection would be made. He also – I mean doesn't seem to get the basic facts of what we're talking about. He says that dinosaurs would be related to reptiles. Dinosaurs are reptiles. they're not related to reptiles. I mean he just doesn't get even the basic facts of what he's talking about here. Dinosaurs are reptiles and birds evolved from reptiles and then it turns out they evolved from theropod dinosaurs. were revolutionary theory predicts is that we would find a connection to some other group, not a particular path but that's a misconception that creationists used all the time to say that evolution can't make predictions because it can't predict and didn't predict the specific tree of life, the specific connections that existed. sometimes it does in terms of morphology we say well okay this creature has a particular morphology therefore they're probably related to these other groups and then that can later be confirmed with genetic information for example. So it's not entirely true but in this case we could have found that birds were related to other types of reptiles, something more basal than dinosaurs. Some people thought even up until now that there were more closely related to crocodiles based on lung anatomy and stuff. But if that were true, evolution would still be true. Again it doesn't need or require predict a specific pathway in evolution

New Moon for Pluto (27:53)[edit]

BBC: Hubble discovers new Pluto moon

Higgs Discovery Announced (36:22)[edit]

Science News: Higgs found - Last particle in physics's standard model falls into place

Sex Myths (43:56)[edit]

  • 7 common myths about sex

Sapphire Hard Drive (51:50)[edit]

Science Magazine: A Million-Year Hard Disk

Science or Fiction (58:40)[edit]

Item #1: Scientists have isolated a new kind of fat cell in humans known as beige fat. Item #2: Scientists have "resurrected" a 500 million year old bacteria (E. coli) by reproducing its genome. Item #3: A Cochrane review finds no evidence that electric fans are useful in a heat wave.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:13)[edit]

Sometimes, even by accident, the universe makes beauty, and we can stand back in awe of it. Even better - we can figure out why. Science! I love this stuff.

Phil Plait

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.


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