SGU Episode 37

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SGU Episode 37
April 6th 2006
SGU 36 SGU 38
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis

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Show Notes


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Thursday, April 6, 2006. This is your host, Stephen Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me today are Bob Novella ...

B: Hello, everyone.

S: ... Rebecca Watson, ...

R: Hey, everybody.

S: ... Perry DeAngelis, ...

P: It's April.

S: ... and Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello, everyone.

S: How's everyone doing tonight?

B: Good.

R: Super.

E: Very well.

S: I'm joining the podcast tonight from beautiful San Diego, California. I'm attending the American Academy of Neurology meeting out here. Very pretty city. Very cute.

P: How's the conference going, Steve.

S: It's good. The conference is always good.

R: We had snow yesterday.

S: Oh, my goodness!

B: Could not believe it! Could not believe it.

P: Really! Wow!

S: It's funny. We had a little rain out here, like what we would consider a rain shower, but the San Diego news was covering it like a major winter snowstorm.

B: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

S: It was hilarious. It was almost surreal. They were interviewing people in the street saying "Yeah, the rain was coming down, and I got soaking wet!" Who cares?

E: Uh, huh.

S: It was almost comical.

B: It's relative, though, Steve.

S: It's all relative.

B: Up north, they laugh at us. "What, two feet of snow? Are you ridiculous? Is that all?"

S: Flatlanders!

P: True. It's true.

James Randi Recovering (1:44)[edit]

S: Well, James Randi Skyped me the other day. I know I told you guys this. He just wanted to say that he is recovering nicely from his surgery. He told me that he had the best day that he had had since leaving the hospital. For those who may not know, Randi had to have some emergency bypass surgery a few weeks ago, and it was pretty rough. They had to restart his heart twice, apparently, during the acute phase of the hospitalization.

P: Wow!

S: But he is now doing very well. He's getting stronger every day. He's not back to his full schedule, of course. He's still recovering, but seems well on the road to recovery.

P: How is his aromatherapy regime going?

S: Very nice, very nice, I think. Rigorous.

B: Do you know why he had a good day?

S: No.

B: I do.

S: Why?

P: Why?

B: Because I stopped praying for him.

S: Ah, that's right. You're getting a little ahead of us, Bob.

E: You're tipping our hand, Bob.

S: But anyway, we are going to talk about prayer and healing in just a moment. Also coming up in the show is Science or Fiction, as usual. We are going to have a special neurology addition of Science or Fiction today, some evolution talk, and answering your emails. But we all certainly wish James Randi a speedy recovery. We all wish him well. We miss him.

E: Hear, hear.

S: We certainly want to see him back to his bright self.

R: And he is still accepting presents, just so everyone out there knows.

S: He is.

R: He likes presents.

E: Bottles of Chivas Regal and other good presents.

R: I already gave him a Jesus bobblehead, so don't send him that.

E: I'll give him the Buddha bobblehead.

S: You can't have too many prophet bobbleheads.

R: That's a good point.

News Items[edit]

Fish Evolution (3:34)[edit]

S: A couple of news items this week. Paleontologists have discovered a fossil fish pretty much caught in the process of evolving into a land vertebrate. So, obviously, we knew that fish evolved into land animals, and there are some fossils to document that, but there really was a fairly large gap in the fossil record for this connection. And now scientists have discovered a crocodile-like animal called Tiktaalik roseae. It was described ...

P: Nice name.

S: ... described in the journal Nature this week, and it is a major gap-bridging fossil.

P: Steve, you know, so was Archaeopteryx ...

S: Absolutely.

P: ... and the fools were not impressed with that.

R: Yeah, I'm pretty sure that this is just another way that God is testing us.

S: Right.

R: I'm not sure, but ...

B: Yeah, but there's a big problem, though. It fills a gap, fine. But now we've got two little gaps on either side.

S: We've doubled our number of gaps.

B: Twice as many gaps.

P: True. The moving goalposts. It's not going to impress them.

S: From a scientific point of view what's interesting is that it reinforces the notion that fish evolved first into shallow water species. So they evolved their ability to walk by walking in very shallow water, and once they evolved that ability, then they ventured out onto dry land. So they didn't go straight from being fish to walking out on dry land, which makes a lot of sense. Now ...

P: Wait a minute! I've seen Gish's slide. Didn't it happen in like three steps?

E: The cow with the duck feet?

R: Can I read you Gish's quote, his response to this story?

P: To this?

S: To this? Let's hear it.

E: Sure.

R: It is hilarious. Okay, he says "this alleged transitional fish will have to be evaluated carefully." And then he goes on to say that he still finds evolution "questionable, because paleontologists have yet to discover any transitional fossils between complex invertebrates and fish, and this destroys the whole evolutionary story."

S: Right.

R: That's it! It's just destroyed. It's gone. We might as well pack it in.

P: Brilliant.

B: Well, that's it. That one bit of evidence. That one fact. It's a house of cards. It just ...

R: Right.

B: ... falls apart because of that one thing.

R: Exactly, there's one thing missing, and so obviously ...

P: Why don't you tell our audience who Gish is.

S: Duane Gish is a creationist who has made a career of debating evolutionists and paleontologists. He is a polished debater, and his style is what we call the "Gish Gallop." He just throws out tremendous numbers of misconceptions and mis-statements of facts, and you can't possibly get to all of them. It takes about 20 seconds to knock off a really good misconception, and it would take you about 10 minutes to correct it by giving all the background information, explaining why it's not exactly correct, so you can't possibly counter him in an open-ended debate, which usually catches paleontologists who are not experienced with this offguard. And they get crushed.

P: You have to be studied in his gallop in order to have a reasonable chance of countering him.

E: But hearing him in a debate is one thing. Listening to him being interviewed is a totally another thing.

S: Yes.

E: He is very unimpressive when he is interviewed one-on-one.

S: If you can control the content, then you can totally destroy him, because ...

P: Right.

S: ... he does well in open-ended debate where he can say whatever he wants and go wherever he wants, but you focus him on specific questions, and it's easy to trip him up.

R: It's like Mark Twain said, "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has put on it's shoes."

S: That's right.

P: That's right. It's accurate.

E: Good remark.

S: Now, it does occur to me that we talk a lot about the fossil evidence, and in the ID creation evolution debate there's a lot of focusing on the fossil evidence. And, of course, the fossil evidence is a slam dunk for evolution, but I was listening to another podcast recently called "Evolution 101", an excellent podcast by the way if you've never heard it, and the guy was reviewing the molecular evidence for evolution, which I was familiar with, but he threw some statistics behind it. The bottom line is — you should listen to the podcast — but the bottom line is that the molecular genetic evidence for evolution is orders of magnitude more robust than the fossil evidence for evolution. Let me just give you — just if I can encapsulate a quick example. There are — because of redundancy in the DNA code for amino acids, which make proteins, any complex protein, like say the hemoglobin protein, will have, even without a single change in the amino acid sequence, there are many, many different possible DNA sequences that can equal that protein sequence, that amino acid sequence. For example, for a molecule the size of hemoglobin or cytochrome-C, which is one of the examples used in the podcast, there are one times ten to the 40th or 50th ...

B: What?

S: ... or 60th power combinations. That's right, Bob.

B: Viable combinations?

S: Yes. That many different DNA combinations that would result in the same exact amino acid sequence. There's also even more combinations of amino acid sequences that would result in the same functional protein. But let's not even worry about that for now.

B: Wow!

S: Just talk about DNA sequences. And there's absolutely zero biological reason why two different species would have any relationship between their DNA sequences ...

B: Right.

S: ... for the same protein. There's no reason why two species biologically should be the same. The only possible relationship is a hereditary one. So, if you look at the different proteins between humans and chimps, many proteins that are highly conserved, in other words, there's a reason in terms their function for them to be the same between humans and chimps, have essentially no differences between the proteins. If you look at the DNA differences, they're all less than 3%. They're less than 3% because that's about how much variability could have arisen in 5 million years due to random mutations. No one — and that's true for every single protein you look at between humans and chimps — no one has ever found a protein that has more than 3% difference. The probability of just a single protein having a less than a 3% difference in their DNA sequences is like one times ten to the 50th power, on that order of magnitude. And the same is true of every single protein that you compare between humans and chimps. So if you follow a creation hypothesis, well why wouldn't there either be zero relationship, or why wouldn't they be identical? If God was following a blueprint, you could say well, he made them exactly the same. Why would he make them all with somewhere between a one and three percent difference?

P: Works in mysterious ways.

R: To test us?

B: Ha, ha, ha.

S: The only way you can make any sense out of that is that God made it look like an evolutionary pattern for whatever reason, which, of course, is a non-falsifiable hypothesis, i.e., outside the realm of science. And it's even stronger than that, because if you look at humans and horses, there's a bigger difference, but it's still far less than would occur by chance. In other words, the probability of the DNA sequences between any two proteins looking as similar as they do would be one times ten to the 30th power. And the farther away you get, the bigger a difference there is, but still the probability is miniscule. It's still one times ten to the 30th, the 20th power. The probability of this pattern existing is so infinitesimal, if it occurred by chance. It's basically one times ten to the hundreds of orders of magnitude, which is more than the number of elementary particles in the known universe. So this pattern could not have occurred at random. It exists in an exquisitely evolutionary pattern, and the only alternate hypothesis to a hereditary relationship is that it was created deliberately to exactly mimic an evolutionary relationship, which is absurd and also nonscientific. That and you never hear intelligent design guys or creationists talk about it, because they have zero to say about it. There's nothing you could say about it.

P: Because they don't even know about it!

E: Of course not.

S: That's largely true, but I think even ...

E: They can barely comprehend it.

S: I think like Michael Behe and those guys, they know about this. They have to know about this.

P: Okay, a few guys at the top.

S: Those are the ones that we care about, though, right? Not the rank-and-file morons. We're concerned about the guys at the top.

R: Not necessarily. I mean, the rank-and-file are the ones who are getting this message, and they're the ones who are supporting the people as they attack our schools.

P: Joining school boards.

S: It is the thought leaders, though, who are pushing this through and putting this on the national agenda. I agree, we're concerned about everybody, but we're not going to convince the 150 million rank-and-file believers or however many there are.

P: 150 million! Take it easy, champ.

S: Well, it depends upon what survey you believe and how you asked the question. By most account it's like 51% of Americans.

B: If you had a debate with one of those guys, and you brought that subject up, and their answer was either nonexistent or completely lame, that would go a long way to hopefully making these fence-sitters think "Well, he can't answer that. Maybe science is right!"

S: Yeah, you have to have a format though where you can put their back to the wall.

B: Right.

S: And I have never come across a response to this from an IDer or creationist.

B: I'm sure they're working on it. I'm sure they're working on it.

S: I'm sure they have something. They must say something, but I've never heard anything cogent that you would have to actually respond to, which is interesting. They focus a lot on the fossil evidence, because it's easy. You know there's gaps, there's things that we don't know, but the molecular evidence is overwhelming. It is absolutely, unbelievably overwhelming.

P: Maybe they'll pray to fill the gaps like they've been praying for heart patients.

Prayer in Medicine (14:130[edit]

S: Right. Well, that's a nice segue to our next news item, Perry. Thanks.

R: Good job, Perry.

S: Item number two: A very large study looking at the effects of intercessory prayer on outcomes following cardiac surgery was just published, and the bottom line is the study showed no effect for patients who did not know that they were being prayed for. Interestingly, in a subgroup analysis of patients who did know that they were being prayed for, they did worse than the people who were not being prayed for.

P: That's funny.

E: I guess they were praying to the wrong god, and the other god got angry.

R: I think that this is just proof that God exists and he hates us.

S: That's right.

R: I mean, do you need anything more?

P: A spiteful and vengeful deity.

E: Malevolent deity.

S: Or he's indifferent.

B: You know, I was praying for result like that. I'm just so happy.


S: Now, obviously, this is not that interesting a study from a scientific point of view, because the prior probability and the design and the hypothesis are all really silly, but what is ...

P: It's interesting that they spent $2.4 million on it.

S: That is very interesting, although it's a monumental waste of money, although it is from the Templeton Foundation, so that money was going to get wasted no matter what. This is a foundation whose purpose is to scientifically study religion and spirituality. So it seems to me that the whole thing is based upon a false premise.

B: That's a great use of their money, then.

S: Right. The interesting thing is how the believers responded to this study. So Dr. Harold Koenig, who is the director of the Center of Spirituality and Theology and Health at Duke University, said that "science is not designed to study the supernatural." Oh, well, thank you. So he just said, basically, acknowledging that he wasted $2.4 million. The highly anticipated study, this is now a quote from Dr. Charles Bethea, who's a co-author and cardiologist at the Integris Baptist medical Center in Oklahoma City said "This study did not move us forward or backward. Intercessory prayer under our restricted format had a neutral affect."

R: You see, that's just it. It's a no-lose study for them, and they knew that going in. If it turns out that God hates us and will hurt us if we pray for our heart patients, well then we'll just say that "You can't really study it."

S: Right.

R: If they'd gotten the opposite result, they would have been trumpeting it everywhere.

B: What a lame response that is. "I don't agree with the results, therefore, we didn't go forward or back."

R: Yeah.

B: Come on!

S: Guys!

P: I disagree. I think the study is negative for them.

S: Right, right.

B: Well, absolutely.

P: Even without a response.

B: We move forward in that now we have a better idea of the effectiveness of prayer. That's how we move forward in my estimation, but he disagrees with it, so he's like "We moved sideways. We didn't move forward or back." Come on!

S: Guys, this pattern is the pattern that we see in all of "alternative medicine", or studies involving either spiritual concepts or healing energy or, basically, ...

B: Right.

S: ... prescientific notions of health or energy that this is exactly what they do every single time. When a study is positive, no matter how poorly designed it was, no matter how wishy-washy the results were, they trump that as the be-all and end-all proof of all of their concepts, not just the narrow claims of the study. When the study's negative, it's like either they say "Well, this just shows that this needs more study, so give us more money" or they say "Well, science can't penetrate this arcane modality. You can't treat patients like numbers, and it's not amenable to the kind of rigorous scientific study that they were doing."

E: Special pleading.

S: So absolutely, it's total special pleading.

B: Good, Evan.

S: And they absolutely refuse to acknowledge that you can ever prove that something doesn't work. None of them acknowledge that, and that's basically what most of modern scientific medicine is based upon, is proving what doesn't work. That's almost more important than proving what does work. We have to stop doing what doesn't work.

R: It's going to be pretty damn difficult to actually test how God would respond to a prayer. I think in this case all they did was insult Christians by basically presuming that God is some magical genie who's just sitting around waiting to answer your prayers. Maybe he was busy with the final four.

S: Yeah.

R: There's a lot of people praying for Florida.

P: That's true. That's a good point. He did a terrible job, by the way.

R: Yeah, if I were a Christian I would be insulted by this.

S: The whole endeavor of research into intercessory prayer is misguided, because you can't control who is praying for whom. You can't control for all the theological variables. One study — I don't know if it ever was completed — but they literally had like different subgroups where in one group the prayers are praying to a Christian God, in another group they were praying to Buddha, in another group they were praying to Islam.

B: Who won?

S: So, what, are we going to compare to try to prove which religion is correct or what's the better religion?

R: My god can beat up your god.

S: It's absurd. And again, if a negative — if this was an absolutely dead definitive negative study, it doesn't get better than this in terms of proving the null hypothesis: no effect, and if they're not going to accept this, and they have no real legitimate analysis or criticism of the study as to why they shouldn't accept this negative results, then they're never going to accept negative results, which means the research is totally pointless and a waste of time.

R: You think they would've learned after the previous two studies that happened last year and then one in 2003, both of which also said that there was no effect from prayer, ...

S: That's right.

R: ... that they would take that and figure out how to make a new study.

S: The prior cardiac or CCU studies, although they were really negative if you look at them carefully, they were presented as positive by the researchers and in the media. The problem was they looked at lots of variables. Most of the variables were negative, but they picked the one variable that was positive. The real key is — and that's not legitimate.

B: No.

S: That's a way of cheating, because if you look at enough variables, by chance something will ...

B: Right.

S: ... be favorable.

B: What's that called, Steve. I think there's a term for that.

E: Cherry picking.

S: Well, it's cherry picking within a study as opposed to between studies, but, yeah, you're right, Bob, there is a statistical name for that and I can't remember what it is. There's ways to control for that in the statistics, which they didn't do, and also the primary outcome measure was negative, and it was the secondary outcome measures that were positive. Usually, if the primary outcome measure and the secondary outcome measures don't agree, that's a negative study. The other thing is was that the outcome that improved in the second study was different than the outcome that improved in the first study. So the studies actually invalidated each other. They did not support each other. So if you look at those two studies taken together, they were negative. This study was basically an attempt at designing a definitive study that was much bigger, that fixed any of the perceived problems of the earlier studies, and it was dead negative. If this were anything else, it would be gone. It would be on the trash heap of medical history. It's over. Drugs or conventional therapies don't survive negative studies of this magnitude.

E: But it's only a matter of time before the next study, just like this one, will occur.

S: Well, hopefully, at least this study will prevent intercessory prayer studies from getting real research dollars.

P: Yeah.

E: (unintelligible)

S: I don't care if it comes from the Templeton Foundation, but as long as it's not coming from money being diverted from money that could be spent on real medical research.

P: Does the Templeton Foundation deserve a note, a single note of credit for releasing this study, even though it was negative?

S: I don't know if they had any choice, because it was too well known that the study was ongoing. I think we had talked about this in an earlier podcast, that, in fact, there's a big problem with the file drawer effect, which is the notion that if you do a study under the radar and its negative, you don't publish it. You put it in a file drawer.

P: Right.

S: So the studies that get published are all biased towards positive studies. That's a serious problem in the scientific literature, not just in controversial things, but just in mainstream medical literature. We need to see all the negative studies, too, because that's important data that we need to see. If you do a meta-analysis, you look at a bunch of studies to see what's the net effect, and you're looking at only the positive ones that got published, of course there's going to be an effect. So that has generated the notion that when pharmaceutical companies apply for, basically, a license to do a clinical study on people, that they have to register their study, and that the data has to be made public. That they can't hide the data if they don't like it.

E: Did Merc run into some trouble recently with that?

S: Well, Merc was accused of not showing studies that may have suggested earlier on that there was a problem with vioxx and an increased risk of heart attacks among people who had risk factors. So, I agree with the idea that research on people — if you're given the privileges of doing medical research on people, one of the criteria is that your results eventually have to be put in the public domain. You have to register your study. You cannot hide the results because you don't like them. And journals need to do a better job of publishing negative studies, and not just always wanting to publish the breakthrough positive study that's going to get all the press. They have to do their job and publish the negative ones, as well.

Questions and E-mails (24:07)[edit]

Well, let's move on to your e-mail. We did get a usual crop of e-mail — actually, we get an increasing number of e-mail every week, so thanks for sending them in. We're going to talk about a few this week.

Noah's Ark (24:18)[edit]

The first one is from Keith Bentrip, who writes:

Hi guys, I love your show. I've listened to every one by now. I have a couple of thoughts about the Noah's Ark segment from 3/22. I couldn't verify the comment about two of each predator and seven of the rest, although I did find references to seven of the clean and two of the unclean.

Actually, I think it was — I looked it up myself; it was two of the clean and seven of the unclean, I believe, and that's what I was referring to, and in other translations it was seven of the domesticated animals. So there would've been seven cows and seven sheep and seven pigs. But only two lions and two tigers and two giraffes.

Also, would any of you

Oh, he wrote "would" twice.

Would any of you care to hypothesize just how big the Ark would have to be to house two of each species today? How much food would they have to carry for the duration; how much is the minimal amount of space they would need, etc.? It'd be an interesting thought experiment. Also, any insight into the geological evidence that we would expect to find for a mass extinction of that size? It would be interesting to hear some off-the-cuff remarks. Or if you know some on-line resources that already does this, I'd be grateful if you could point that out.

So... well, Keith, there are on-line reviews of that very question on talkorigins, and we'll have that link on our Notes page, of course. And in the Skeptic's Dictionary were two that I quickly found. They go through calculations as to how many species, how many individuals animals would've been on the Ark. There are, by the way, ten million species that have been identified. The number would be higher because there are some that are not identified. But if you eliminate all of the swimming animals, you know, that wouldn't have to go on the Ark, it's a lot less. Even if you just count birds and reptiles and mammals and amphibians, it's still tens of thousands of species, so a tremendous, tremendous number of individual animals would've had to have been on the Ark. The Ark was not big enough, frankly, to hold all those animals.

R: Steve?

S: Yeah?

R: Steve, sorry. Are you sure it's ten million identified species? I thought we were only at, like, two million, but we assume that we could go up to ten.

S: Actually, you are correct. The total number of named species is right now around 1.7, 1.8 million. The ten million figure is an average estimate for the total number of species in the world. Estimates range from about 5 to 20 million, although some people advocate a much higher number. Even if you take an average estimate, it's about ten million, which is, of course a more relevant figure for the Noah's Ark question, rather than the number that we've just happened to name by this point in time.

R: OK. Wow.

P: That's a lot of species.

S: It's a lot. But even if you — even a much smaller number would be far too — although most of those are insects. In fact, most of those are beetles.

R: Right.

S: But even if you eliminate all of those, it's still quite a few, quite a few species. Also there's a problem with feeding them. They all have different kinds of food. Where would the pandas have gotten the bamboo shoots, etc. What did all the carnivores eat? They would've had to eat the other animals, right?

P: Right.

B: Not to mention excrement. Hello!

S: Well, yeah, they would've had to have a massive effort just to keep the ship from sinking under its own weight in excrement.

R: Well, you know, actually, I crunched a few numbers on that, if you want to hear some of them.

S: Sure.

R: It's kind of funny. I found out that the volume of the Ark was about 45,000 cubic meters. And if you only considered a million animal species going onto the Ark, that would leave about 5% of one cubic meter per animal. And to kind of compare that, a human takes up about 20% of a cubic meter. So, for just a million animals, you'd basically be packed in there like a clown car, basically.

S: A million animals averaging in size, like, a rabbit or something.

R: Yeah.

S: Or maybe a small dog.

R: Yeah... instead of like, clowns, it's sort of like a tiger, you know? (laughs)

E: Fold them up. Fold them up neat.

R: You'd have to be really comfortable with other species. And so, that's just space-wise. If you looked at weight, I found a source that said that the Ark could probably hold about 50 million kilograms. And I found another source that said — they gave an average weight of an animal — they guessed about a horse, about 450 kilograms. This is very un-scientific, ...

E: Sounds wrong.

R: ... but that's the best I could find. And if you only went with 1.5 million species, that would end up at 675 million kilograms. So to hold all of the species, if you just went with 1 and a half million species, the Ark would've had to have been about 13 times larger than what the Bible says it was.

S: Right.

R: It would have to have been about 6,000 feet long, 1,000 feet wide by 600 feet tall.

E: Can you express that in cubits, please?


R: Um, no. (laughs)

P: Ye of little faith. Remember the mysterious ways back in the other segment? Same thing here. Mysterious ways.

S: Right, right.

R: To contrast it, the largest ship in the world that's currently being constructed is about three quarters of that size, that the Ark would have needed to be. And that ship hasn't even — that's still in the conceptual stage. They might not even be able to make it.

E: I hope we're building it.

P: Perhaps God dehydrated the animals, and they were in powdered form.

R: That's a good point, actually.

E: Freeze-dried. Just add water.

R: Just little jars of animals.

P: You don't know. You don't know!


R: Where's your science now?

S: In terms of geological evidence, there is no evidence of a worldwide flood ten thousand or whatever years ago. And the other thing is, even if you could somehow get all those animals onto the Ark, survive the flood, release them, you still have a huge problem of that's not enough time for all of the genetic diversity to re-establish itself. You know, if you have only two, a male and female of a species, the probability that that species will even survive is pretty low. It's less than 50-50.

B: Yeah, Steve, you can't produce a viable community of animals with just two. It's impossible!

S: It's not impossible, Bob. It's not impossible. It's very difficult.

B: Two? Starting with two?

R: Adam and Eve did it.

S: You'd have to get very lucky. It is theoretically possible with just two species, but the big problem is that you have so little genetic diversity. And if they happen to match up a lot of recessive genes for bad things, they're not going to survive. And their children would have to be consanguineous, and that's where you get into the problems. It depends on how different the two individuals are to start with, and how many recessive genes there are for genetic disorders, etc. But it's a long shot. It's a long shot. In fact, the ...

B: It's a long shot for one species, I guess.

S: For each species. That would be for every single species.

B: Right. Multiply that by all those species and you're talking...

S: And once the lions started eating the zebras, I mean, they would be gone. What did they eat? It would take multiple, multiple generations to re-establish a herd. So it's completely, completely implausible. What I was going to say was that it is estimated that in order to have a stable breeding population, you need about 2,000 individuals.

B: Right, that's what I heard.

S: Two is tough. Not impossible, but very, very tough. So, we'll have a couple of links on our website, but that's the nuts and bolts for you.

P: The whole thing is bananas.

S: Basically.

R: Scientifically speaking, yes.

S: Don't get technical on us, Perry.

E: Speaking of bananas...

EVP (32:07)[edit]

S: All right, let's go to email number two — is about EVP. You guys all know what EVP is, right?

P: Of course.

E: Oh, yes.

S: Electronic voice phenomena. Of course, if you put it in an acronym, it makes it sound pseudo-scientific, right? This is from — didn't sign their name, but their email moniker was shewells — writes

I just saw this awful movie called White Noise. It is about a man who record EVPs to communicate with his dead wife and, of course, lets the bad ghosts get through. Cliched, poorly-acted, and boring, yes, but I really got angry when there was a disclaimer at the end of the film, which said that of the whatever many EVPs recorded each year, 1 out of 12 is overtly threatening. This film is taking itself seriously. When I did some research on the Internet, I found that there is a whole society dedicated to recording EVPs, and even a website where you can buy special recording devices and receive helpful advice about the best way to pick up an EVP. Help! I would love to hear what you guys think about this.

Well, we have with us tonight. Go ahead, Bob.

B: You probably didn't recognize the email, but that's Cheryl.

S: I wondered if that was Cheryl.

B: Yes.

S: That is some one we personally know — Cheryl Wells.

B: Hi, Cheryl.

P: Hi, Cheryl

S: Hi, Cheryl. Sign your email next time! Alright. But we do have with us tonight a recording equipment expert, or at least somebody who has access to recording equipment experts. Evan!

E: That's me.

S: Tell us what you learned about recording white noise.

E: Well, recording white noise. It does occur. It occurs often. It has happened to both amateurs and professionals, and it's merely a matter of identifying exactly what you have there that you have recorded. Well, the folks, the proponents of EVP who believe that these voices that occur in recordings, mostly audio cassette recordings, they believe that they are people who have passed on, the dead speaking to us through a telekinetic means of communication, which you otherwise can't hear while you are recording whatever it is you are trying to record. You only hear it on playback of the tape afterwards.

P: Very much like ghost photographs.

S: Right.

E: Right, exactly. You don't see the ghost there, but when you go and have your film developed, voila! there's balls of light and camera straps and other things. In any case, with EVP, what is going on here is that different things. The most common cause of these phenomenon are radio frequencies, known as RF, and also electromagnetic fields, EMFs, as long as we're talking about initials and sounding scientific here. So radio frequencies, for instance, radio stations, especially when these people are out there doing these recordings. If they're using any kind of wireless device in their process of recording, a wireless microphone or even a wireless recorder, those instruments can pick up randomly occurring radio frequency signals, and it will go on to the tape.

S: Hm, hm.

E: The actual machine will wind up recording that, and you may not have heard it in your headphones while you were listening at the time, you go back and hear it and all of a sudden you hear somebody talking. Well, it was most likely radio frequency.

S: Hm, hm.

E: Now in some cases, people aren't using wireless systems, they're using hardwired systems, that is a hardwired microphone going into a recording device which is either battery-operated or plugged into a wall, and although that eliminates, for the most part, radio frequencies and electromagnetic fields, there are other ways that these noises are getting onto the tapes. For instance, in fact, I asked some people at work — we have several various engineers at work, and I went and spoke to them today about this very thing and got some opinions and some examples of their encounters with this sort of phenomenon. In one case, they attributed it to a broken cable. They had a microphone going to an audio mixer and then feeding a tape recorder, and they were listening to it at the audio mixer, and they were not hearing anything out of the ordinary. But you go ahead and listen to it on the tape deck when they had their headphones plugged in there, and they were hearing noise like a radio station. What they attributed it to was a bad cable that was connected between the audio mixer and the recorder. The cable was frayed or there was a bad shield inside the cable, which brought down what would normally be protecting the cable from outside interference, and voila!, it was picking up the radio station and it came out on tape.

P: Well, Evan, these things might explain, might ... explain, how some of these noises get onto these tapes, you still can't explain why one out of twelve of them is overtly threatening.

E: Ah. Well, overtly threatening.

P: I'd like an explanation, please, Mr. Skeptic.

R: I've heard that 1 out of 12 unicorns are evil, but, you know, it hasn't been confirmed.

P: Don't confuse the issue. We're talking about ghosts ...

R: Oh, I'm sorry.

P: ... and not ridiculous unicorns.

E: Well, it's a good thing our friends at the Skeptic Dictionary online does a very good job of explaining that.

R: Is it kind of like — what's it called? Pareidolia?

E: Pareidolia. An audio form ...

B: Pareidolia.

R: Audio, right.

E: ... of pareidolia.

P: Pareidolia of the ears.

E: Voices are most likely people creating meaning out of random noise.

P: There you go.

S: So, certainly that is the case. Now I've gone online and I've listened to some samples of EVPs and what the proponents are saying are people talking from the dead, and I tell you what. It just seems so obvious to me that what they have picked up are radio frequencies of other things like baby monitors. There are cases in which people have been picking up the baby monitor ...

S: Right.

E: ... next door on the recording, and it's quite obvious that that's the case. And in other cases, there's just this sort of this electronic clicking that absolutely is random and has no pattern to it whatsoever, and they are somehow translating that into actual words that they think someone is talking to them. So, you know, the human mind here is being tricked.

S: Right, so even without all the technical problems, even if you have a basically a pretty good recording with nothing extraneous, and it's just white noise, these people listen to it for hours with their headphones on and interpret any little popping click ...

E: Right.

S: ... that might sound like a snatch of words as a ghost saying something.

B: Like playing a record backwards. Similar.

S: Right, so their imagination is the ultimate mishap here, not necessarily anything technical. But it's helped along by all the things that you're talking about.

R: I wonder if they've considered taking up golfing or something.

S: Something. These people just need a good hobby. They do. They need to do something more productive.

R: Yeah. I think that the number of ghost sightings would go down drastically if only we could get more people doing fun stuff like golfing.

P: Playing golf?

E: And I don't think anybody should really be surprised that white noise and other movies and television shows coming out of the Hollywood part of the world totally fall for these things hook, line, and sinker. They believe in it because they need their product to succeed, basically. They don't care.

S: I don't think they believe it. I think they say it because they think it's going to sell the movie more. I don't think they care one way or the other if it's real.

P: That's right. All they're concerned about is selling products.

S: Right. They put a little disclaimer at the end, just to give movie some more appeal. Anyway, it's kind of like Signs, the crop circle movie.

P: Yeah.

E: Right.

S: It's similar. I remember when Disney had their Atlantis movie come out, the animated movie on Atlantis, they created this pseudo-documentary about Atlantis that was just a really thinly veiled promotion for the movie.

P: Which happened to stink, by the way.

S: Which happened — it did stink. The modern crop of Disney animated movies have all been excellent, but that was one clunker, and I'm kind of happy about that, because ...

B: I don't know.

S: They did promote the movie by making it seem like there was real evidence for Atlantis.

B: Well, yeah, that's baloney, but the movie was okay. It was enjoyable.

P: Steve, edit that comment from Bob. (unintelligible)

B: It was no Lion King.

S: It was no Lion King, all right.

R: What's wrong with you guys?

E: Okay, but they didn't try to interview lion tamers. (unintelligible) This could've possibly happened.

S: Is it possible that animals really do talk to each other?

R: You know, Steve has kids. What's your excuse, the rest of you?

P: For watching these movies?

E: Bob has a daughter. I have a daughter. Perry's the only one here.

P: That's right. I might have a daughter one day. I have to prepare myself.

S: Perry, you might have one out there now that we don't know about.

P: That's right, for all I know.

B: Rebecca, I love it.

P: How old are you, Rebecca?

B: I love animation.

R: Okay, I'm just ...

P: Of course.

R: I like good animation, too. but I don't bicker over Disney movies.

P: Well.

S: Listen, the best part of having kids if that you have an excuse to see all these cool, animated movies.

R: Okay.

S: All right. Let's move on.

P: I knew there was a reason to have kids.

More on the Solar Eclipse (41:55)[edit]

S: Email number three: a quick follow-up on the solar eclipse bit that we did. This one comes from Brian Milsap. He writes

I was somewhat surprised to hear your assertion that even during totality of solar eclipses, it's not safe to look at because a crescent of the sun is still visible, or something along those lines, and that most people now know it's not safe looking at an eclipse. I'm not an astronomer, but I'm pretty sure this is incorrect. During totality the entire photosphere is blocked by the moon. Thus the term 'totality'. At this time, it is in fact safe to look. Every reference I could find on the NASA eclipse website seems to confirm this. I'd be interested to hear your source for the opposite position.

Well, I did look into this further and went back and forth with Brian a little bit on this, and Brian is absolutely correct. Just to get a little more detail that we gave on the previous show, there are a few different kinds of solar eclipses. There's a partial eclipse where the moon is not directly in front of the sun ...

B: Annular is another one.

S: An annular eclipse is when the moon is in front of the sun, but the moon is smaller than the son, and a total eclipse is when the moon is in front of the sun, but the moon is bigger than the sun. Now the reason why there's that difference is because the distance of the moon to the earth varies a little bit, so the moon changes in size, in its apparent or angular size, and the Earth's distance from the sun also changes during the year, so that the apparent size of the sun is also a little variable, and those size ranges for the moon and the sun, those apparent angular size ranges, overlap, which is why at certain times it's possible for the moon to be the exact same size of the sun, and in other times the moon can be bigger than the sun, while at yet other times the sun can be bigger than the moon. The recent solar eclipse that we were talking about was in fact a total eclipse, so the moon was bigger than the sun. It did completely block out the sun. During an annular eclipse, there would be still be a little rim of sun showing through and you shouldn't look at it. It is safe to look at the eclipse during that moment of totality, but you have to be sure to look away before even the diamond affect, the diamond ring effect occurs. If you can see that diamond ring effective, you've done damage to your retina. So you still have to use extreme caution and know what you're doing if you're going to glance at totality.

P: So Brian was right?

S: Brian was right. He was right.

P: I'd like to congratulate him for winning our "Are you actually listening" contenst.

S: That's right. You picked up on it. He was the only one, so he gets the ...

P: He was the only one. For that he gets a laurel and hardy handshake.

S: He gets to download our podcast for free ...

E: Woah!

S: ... as much as he wants.

R: Lucky dog.

P: Good man.

Big Bang and Conservation (45:00)[edit]

S: Let's go on to the next e-mail. This is from "Frank the Skeptic". Frank has a few questions, which are all good, typical questions, so we wanted to address them. Frank writes,

I discovered your podcast a couple of months ago and have listened to most of them. Thanks for the great shows. They are fabulous.

Well, thank you, Frank. Let me get on — he talks about some other things, but let me go on to his questions. He says,

In the meantime, I'll propose some tidbits to stimulate debate amongst yourselves and give a chance to flex your big brains.

Yes, we always love the chance to flex our big brains.

Number one: The law of conservation of energy and matter says that energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed, but only changes form. Scientists believe the universe began with a Big Bang, which is essentially a theory that states that the universe exploded outward from an infinitesimally point at a specific point in history. If you assume that the universe is not oscillating, a point on which most cosmologists are now in agreement, then you must conclude that the universe was created out of nothing 14 billion years ago. Therefore, current scientific theory is an inconsistent belief set.


B: Steve, I'll take this one.

S: All right, Bob, you take the first shot. Go ahead.

B: OK. He is correct that, essentially, it seems that it came from nothing, and it might seem like, well, how is that possible? How does that — doesn't that violate the law of conservation of energy? But it was created out of nothing. It really seems like it was created out of nothing, but energy conservation remains intact because we're still essentially nothing right now. This is because of two things, and it's kind of interesting that all the positive energy of the universe, like matter and antimatter and photons is exactly balanced by the negative energy of the universe, namely gravity. Therefore, the total net energy of the universe is zero. The universe is the biggest free lunch imaginable, and that's how you kinda get around that issue is that everything balances out, so the net energy of the universe is exactly zero. So there is no problem with conservation of energy.

S: That's right. It's also — point out that when you're talking about cosmology, especially beyond the known universe, both temporally and physically, it's hard to know if the laws that we've described in the known universe hold true. We don't know if conservation laws hold true inside a black hole or at the singularity before the Big Bang. In fact, we don't know if it's really even meaningful to say "before the Big Bang". And in fact, some cosmologists have postulated that although the universe is temporally bound, meaning that it is finite in its life span, it did not always exist, that it may not have had a beginning. I'm not going to attempt to give you an explanation of why that is true. If you want to know about that, then read Stephen Hawking. But there didn't necessarily have to be a beginning to the universe in time, and therefore a "before the Big Bang".

B: Yeah, that makes sense to me because one problem I have with things happening before the Big Bang, when the Big Bang happened, it wasn't like a firecracker going off and an explosion.

S: Right.

B: It's an expansion of space and time. So before the Big Bang, space and time did not exist, so if time didn't exist, how could anything happen?

S: Right. Exactly. So you can't really — it's not a meaningful question.

B: Right. It is; it's meaningless.

S: And saying, "where did the matter and energy of the universe come from?" is not a meaningful question either. We don't have ...

B: Well, there's an answer for that.

S: There kind of is, but we don't have a language really to even ask or answer that question.

B: Right.

S: You know, is the bottom line.

B: I agree. Yeah, I've read a little bit about this, and one guy was saying that, at, was saying that all that would be required is just a tiny bit of energy to get the whole thing started, but that's ...

S: Fluctuation.

B: Yeah, it's quantum fluctuations and things analogous to virtual particles, but I don't know where that would've come from, but it's interesting.

S: But there's no violation of conservation of mass implied in the Big Bang is the bottom line there. I would also point out (this is a total tangent), but creationists have also liked to point out that the scientific model requires that there has been a decrease in the amount of energy in the universe because the universe began as a uniform cloud of hydrogen gas, and now we have people, and doesn't that represent a decrease in total entropy? The laws of thermodynamics say that entropy should be increasing with time. In other words, disorder. Actually, "disorder" is a very bad analogy to entropy. It's actually not correct. But that's sort of the misconception that they make. But the bottom line is, they argue that the increase in complexity of life and, in fact, matter that scientists and cosmologists propose happened violates thermodynamics because it represents a decrease in entropy when entropy should be increasing over time. Well, in fact, the modern cosmological model does represent an increase in entropy. Entropy is increasing over time, even given the evolution of life on Earth and the development of stars and planets, etc. Because when suns burn hydrogen to make helium, and then eventually heavier elements, they are dramatically increasing the entropy of the universe, and the evolution of life on Earth represents only a tiny reversal of that entropy. We're just recovering a little bit of that energy to carry on the processes of life, one of which is evolution. So, it kinda reminded me that it's similar. It's like entropy is increasing as time goes by, inevitably, and nothing that happens, or that scientists believe happens, or has happened over the last 14 billion years, violates that. So, the laws of the universe are still well in place.

R: Thank God.

Detecting Altered Photos (50:38)[edit]

S: Question number two:

Can experts tell with 100% accuracy if a photo has been digitally altered? Can they tell with 100% accuracy if a photo has been doctored in any way? Everyone thinks they can spot a toupee, but it's only the bad ones they spot. The good ones aren't even noticed. Could you use this argument here?

S: That is a very good bit of logic. If your criteria for saying that something exists — you noticing it, then all you're really seeing are noticeable things. You can't rule out the un-noticeable phenomena with that criteria. But regarding photographs, the short answer is: yeah, pretty much. And the reason is that any technique you can use to alter a photograph, an expert can use that same technique to detect the alteration. As far as I know, and I have not been able to find any documentation that it's possible to alter a photograph significantly without leaving a tell-tale sign behind. You can do, for example, statistical analyses on the subtle shades or colors in a photo, and they should follow the laws of randomness and statistics, and any manipulation that you do to that photograph is going to leave a non-random signature behind, a statistical sort of signature behind. So, if you have the techniques to look at a photograph in that way, basically do a statistical analysis of the pixels, you can detect any manipulation, is the bottom line. But that doesn't apply to filters and things like that; I mean, you're talking about like cropping out a picture and moving it over or actually altering the content of the photo. There are also ways of detecting filters and things like that, but that's not as easy, but it's also doesn't affect the content of the photo. Just maybe the ways the colors look or how saturated they are or washed out, for example.

Placebo Effect (52:38)[edit]

S: Question number three:

Could the placebo effect be evidence of a mind-body connection? From my understanding, a new drug need only to be proven slightly better than the placebo for it to be deemed useful. Given the proven and real effects of the placebo for a wide range of health problems, why don't doctors prescribe them? If New Agers call it spontaneous healing, the power of positive thinking or whatever, and skeptics call it the placebo effect, isn't it just a difference in labeling?

S: Well, that is a very common misconception of the placebo effect. The placebo effect is, in fact, not evidence of any unusual mind-body connection, beyond the obvious, that the mind is the body, right? I mean, the mind is a phenomenon of the biological functioning of the brain. And there is a connection between the brain and other systems in the body. For example, there is a neuroendocrine system. The psychological stress releases hormones which can have physiological effects on your body, for example. So, beyond physiological connections between the brain and the rest of the body that are well established, there is no sort of spiritual mind-body connection implied by the placebo effect, nor is there any sort of mind-over-matter phenomenon implied by the placebo effect. What the placebo effect actually is is anything other than a physiological response to the intervention. In most cases, it's a pharmacological effect from a drug, for example. It's all other effects in a study. And the reason why we design studies that way is that we can take the physiological effect, subtract out all the other effects, i.e. the placebo, and then we can calculate what the effect of the drug itself is, if you basically control for all the other things. But it includes lots of variables; it includes the fact that when someone's in a study, they are paying more attention to their own health. When someone's in a study, they are more compliant with their medications. They're more likely to take their medications as they should, on schedule, because they think that they're under the microscope. There's a physician that's keeping close tabs on them, for example. They're just more mindful of their health. They're also getting more frequent exams by a physician. So, their health problems are not going to be potentially neglected.

There may be endocrine benefits to a positive outlook; being hopeful, for example. So, there's lots of secondary effects to being in a study, to being observed. There may be secondary effects in terms of the mood and the outlook of the individual. And those all get rolled into the placebo effect. So even without any mind-over-body effect, there is still a sizable placebo effect. The reason why we don't prescribe placebos is because, well first of all, they're unethical to do that because it's deceptive. And second, because that much of an effect is not worth it. You know, you can get, or you should get a placebo effect just from having a positive therapeutic relationship with a patient, and for doing any intervention. Having no actual effect is not justifiable. You can't justify an intervention without any effect just because there's an intervention, just because there's a non-specific benefit to the therapeutic relationship itself. So we'll talk about that some more in later podcasts, because the idea of the placebo effect comes up quite a bit when dealing with health-related claims.

E: Could do a whole episode just on just the placebo effect.

S: We could. We could. It's very interesting. Well, that's all the time for e-mail this week. Let's move on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (56:31)[edit]

S: So, every week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two of them are real, and one I make up. Then I will challenge my esteemed panel of skeptics to figure out which one is fake, and, of course, listeners are encouraged to play along. See if you can do better than our panel of skeptics.

P: Unlikely!

S: I don't know. I got all of you last week, if you recall. The theme for this week is: these are all presentations at this year's American Academy of Neurology meeting. So as I was walking up and down the aisles looking at posters, attending seminars, and presentations, I was keeping tabs on what would be good ones to present to you guys in Science or Fiction this week. The challenge was finding presentations that weren't so hopelessly obscure and technical that I could translate them into something meaningful to a non-neurologist, but I did manage to find a few. So are you guys ready?

E: Yes.

R: Of course.

S: Okay, here we go. Item number one — again, two are real, one is fake. Item number one: "Effects Of Auditory Stimulation With Popular Music On Visual Motor Integration, Rapid Alternating Movement, And Gait In Parkinson's Disease". So I'm going to translate that for you and give you the bottom line.

R: Yeah, I thought you were going to give us the dumbed-down version.

S: That was the title of the paper, right?. The title of the paper.

B: Could you say that one more time. Could you say the title one more time?

S: Here's the title: "Effects of Auditory Stimulation with Popular Music on Visual Motor Integration, Rapid Alternating Movement, and Gait in Parkinson's Disease." Here's the bottom line: listening to pop music improves motor function in patients who have Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's diseases is a movement disorder. It's what Mohammed Ali has, and what ...

E: Michael J. Fox.

S: ... Michael J. Fox has, and also the former Attorney General under Clinton. What was her name? She was Attorney General ...

E: Reno.

B: Reno!

S: Attorney General Janet Reno.

P: Reno. Reno, Waco. Got it.

S: So they're stiff and they shake and they can't walk. So listening to pop music improves their motor function. That was number one. Number two, number two, little easier: the title is "Does a Birthday Predispose To Stroke Transient Ischemic Attack And Myocardial Infarction?" Bottom line of this paper was: people are more likely to have strokes and heart attacks on their birthday.

P: All right.

S: Item number three: "Efficacy Of Environmental Color Manipulation On The Reduction Of Seizure Frequency And Primary Generalized Epilepsy." The bottom line of this paper was that people living in an environment that are colored towards the blue end of the color spectrum, like if your walls are colored blue, have fewer seizures than those living in an environment colored towards the red end of the spectrum. So if you have primary generalized epilepsy you want your walls to be blue, not red.

P: Okay.

S: There we go. Evan, why don't you hit it off.

E: Very interesting. My father passed away in the year 2000, and he suffered a series of heart attacks leading up to his passing. He actually had one of those heart attack episodes on my sister's birthday, so I think you phrased the question that the strokes and heart attacks on their birthday, meaning the person who has it, right? But not on birthday parties or that sort of thing, in general. So I just found that interesting. So maybe that one I might say is false. The first one sounds very plausible: pop music helps patients with what was it, epilepsy? Not epilepsy ...

S: Parkinson's disease.

P: Parkinson.

E: Parkinson's disease.

S: A movement disorder, right.

E: Movement disorder. I could see how that might bear some fruit, and I think the last one is correct, as well. People who are prone to seizures and so forth should have a blue environment instead of a red environment. Don't know, that one just seems to make almost common sense to me. So I'll say number two is the incorrect one.

S: Okay. Rebecca?

R: I'm actually going to agree, for all the same reasons. One and three sound very plausible. Not that number two doesn't, necessarily, but, yeah, I'm going to go with number two being the false one.

S: All right. Perry?

P: Yeah, it's obviously number two. Number two doesn't make any sense. I mean, what, are people getting drunk or something? I mean crazy parties.

R: Well, now it makes sense. You have the parties and ...

P: Driving themselves?

R: ... you get a little excited.

P: Madness and disease? I doubt it. First one, you know, is getting down with the groove to move around. That's obvious. The second one was practically on South Park. It was video games, colors, ...

S: You mean number three.

P: Number three, whatever. Don't get me confused. Yeah, two is clearly the correct answer.

S: So, three votes that the birthday causing strokes and heart attacks is false.

P: Of course. It's madness.

S: And the other two are correct. Bob? Are you going to make it unanimous?

B: Let's see, now. Steve, what kind of improvement was the music showing on motor function?

S: That they had improvements in their ability to move quickly, especially in alternating fashion, that their walking improved, and they had better what's called visual motor integration. So basically hand-eye coordination.

B: Yeah, but how temporary was it?

P: Excuse me.

R: This isn't twenty questions!

S: It was during ...

P: (unintelligible)

B: This is important.

S: I'll clarify. It was during...

B: Are you claiming that it was reversing Parkinson's, or are you saying ...

S: No.

B: ... it had a temporary effect.

E: He said it helps.

S: It was the effects of auditory stimulation, so it was while the music was playing in the background, they performed better on these tasks than while there wasn't music in the background.

B: Okay. Well, that's definitely more plausible than changing the course of the disease.

S: They did not reverse their disease in any way.

B: Okay.

S: It was just while the music was playing.

P: Did he say that it did?

B: I just wanted to clarify that, Perry.

S: I'll clarify that.

B: I'll go back to my decision.

P: I understand. I understand entirely.

B: Okay. All right, the blue environment seems like, I mean we've all heard of visual stimulation can affect things like that. So that's plausible unless you reversed the blue and red on us. Something like that.

E: What if people are color blind?

S: Would I do that?

B: Yeah, right? The heart attack — the heart attack on the birthday doesn't seem completely crazy to me, either. I mean, you've got a lot of crazy stuff happening on your birthday. Surprise! You know, people jumping out.


B: Right?

R: What kind of scary-ass parties do you have?

P: Really.

S: You should see Bob's parties. They're frightening.

B: Hey, if I'm going to have a heart attack, it will probably be on my birthday. Volleyball, frisbee, swimming, that's when I'll probably have a heart attack. Crap!

P: I can hear all the 65-year-olds out there.

S: So you like all of them. They're all good.

B: Nothing's totally jumping out.

S: So put your nickel down. Come on!

B: All right. I'll go with two. I go with the pack.

S: Make it unanimous. All right. Let's go to number one first. You all agree that listening to pop music will improve motor function in patients with movement disorder. That was an actual paper, and it showed, again, while if you have popular music playing in the background that these functions did improve, and it does kind of make sense that it is providing a stimulus, a rythmic sort of stimulus, and patients with Parkinson's disease, in particular, have difficulty initiating movement. So that auditory stimulus may also get them over their hesitation, their inability to initiate their movement. So that one was true. Let's go to number three: efficacy of environmental color manipulation on the reduction of seizure frequency. Basically, fewer seizures if you're surrounded by blue than if you're surrounded by red. That one is completely fiction. I made that one up out of whole cloth.

R: Aaaaahhhhh.

E: Wooooowwwwww.

S: Now, yes, there is some plausibility to it in that certain visual stimulation can provoke seizures, but not color. And what kind of visual stimulation can do that is like a strobe effect definitely does that. They can drive certain neurons in the brain and cause them to fire synchronously, even in normal people, and if you have epilepsy, it can drive your seizures. But there's no color effect on that. I just made it up.

R: I call shenagins. I think he stumbled across something that's true.

E: Can I change my answer?

P: Exactly, exactly.

S: Now number two, that was absolutely true. This is a paper that was presented the other day. Does a birthday predispose to stroke transient ischemic attack, which is a brief, reversible stroke, and myocardial infarction? So what they showed was that there was a 27% increase in the risk of having any of these events on your birthday.

P: Why?

S: And it correlated well to having an increased blood pressure. So just the stress of the whole birthday event increases people's blood pressure, and that increases their risk for heart attacks and strokes. There was ...

P: So did they have even a higher risk on Thanksgiving?

S: There is a generic holiday effect, and they also did talk about other people's birthdays, and their risk was higher on other people's birthdays, as well. But one's own birthday had the most measurable effect. So, beware of your birthday and of holidays.

B: So, basically, don't skip your blood pressure medicine on your birthday.

S: Especially don't skip your blood pressure medicine on your birthday, that's right.

R: And don't go paragliding.

P: It's crazy talk.

R: Bungee-jumping.

S: Right, right.

E: Right.

P: Crazy talk.

S: Well, guys, this was fun, but we're out of time.

P: Crazy talk.

B: Oooohhhhh.

E: Stumped us all.

S: We did. Two weeks in a row. I got you all two weeks in a row.

R: I still say there's some truth to it. You just didn't realize it. I'm going to Google it as soon as we're done here.

S: Go ahead. Keep in mind the theme was these were papers presented at the AAN this week.

R: Oh, I don't care.

S: There was no paper presented on color this week.

R: You're not going to get off on a technicality.

S: But, hey, Rebecca, go for it. If you can find paper showing that you have fewer seizures in blue rooms, go right ahead.

R: Okay, I will.

S: and ...

P: We're going to teach these neurologists what 'fer.

R: That's right. If I don't find one, I'll write one.

P: That's right.

E: Exactly. There you go.

S: Well, thanks guys for joining us. It's always a pleasure.

R: Thanks.

E: Thank you.

B: Have fun on the West Coast, Steve.

S: I will. I'll have fun. I'll enjoy the rest of my conference. I'm going to the San Diego Zoo tomorrow.

B: Cool!

S: The San Diego Zoo is a world-class zoo. We're going to take the girls there.

B: I think I'd love it.

E: Just make sure you take them out when you're done.

S: Well, all right. Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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


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