SGU Episode 38

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SGU Episode 38
12th April 2006
Happyface mars small.jpg
SGU 37 SGU 39
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis


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Show Notes


Introduction[edit]

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, April 12, 2006. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me tonight are Bob Novella, ...

B: Hello, everyone.

S: ... Rebecca Watson, ...

R: Hey there.

S: ... Perry DeAngelis, ...

P: Hey, everybody.

S: ... and Jay Novella.

J: Hey, guys.

S: Welcome, everyone. How is everyone this evening?

J: Good.

B: Fine.

J: Good, Steve, thanks.

P: Spring is in the air, you know?

S: Yeah, the weather is finally looking up in New England.

R: It is. Seventy degrees today.

Announcements[edit]

New Website and SGU on iTunes(0:49)[edit]

S: We have a a brand-new website about to debut, thanks to our webmaster Jay. Jay, thanks for all the hard work you've done on the website. It's looking good.

P: Yayyyy! (clapping)

S: We have a new URL: theskepticsguide.org. We're keeping our old one, as well, so all the old links will still work, but we're going to duplicate our site on our new URL, and we're making inroads. We've been on iTunes now for a while. We have a couple of good reviews on there. You listeners out there, if any of you get to the Skeptics' Guide through iTunes, first, thanks for signing up and listening, and if you can, take the time, tell us what you think about our podcast. Give us a friendly review on iTunes. Help get our profile up. We're number 68 as of today. I took a look at it. Of the top 100 science podcasts on iTunes, we're up to 68.

R: Cool.

S: So we're at least on the radar. Also, we are listed with a lot of other podcast listing sites. If you find a podcast listing site that we're not on, please let us know, so that we can get the Skeptics' Guide on there. A lot of those sites do have mechanisms by which you can vote for your favorite podcast or you can rate podcasts or review them. So we ask for it whatever help you can give us in getting the profile of our podcast up. We'd like to get more listeners.

News Items[edit]

Bill Nye (2:19)[edit]

S: So, Rebecca, I was reading your blog, as I do every day.

R: Aw.

S: And you talked recently about Bill Nye, the Science Guy, getting into a little bit of controversy. Why don't you tell us about that.

R: Yeah, have you guys heard about this? I love Bill Nye, because who is sweeter and funnier and zanier than Bill Nye, The Science Guy. He is the Mr. Wizard of the current generation. For those of you who don't know, he had a show on PBS, I think it was where it was running, where he does crazy science tricks with kids. They used to show his videotapes in school and stuff when I was in school, at least. And recently he was in Texas, I think last week, and he was giving a lecture at a community college, and he happened to mention that according to the Bible, God made two great lights. There's the greater light to govern the day, the lesser light to govern the night, and he told the audience that despite what the Bible says, actually the sun, as opposed to being just one of two great lights, is just one of billions of stars, and also the moon is no light at all, but it's actually lit up by the sun. So, apparently some people in the audience didn't really like having the Bible pointed out as being inaccurate, and they kind of got up in a huff and left and said on the way out, one woman yelled "We believe in a God," which is just so random.

S: A non-sequiter, yeah.

P: Yeah.

S: All right. I'm happy for you.

R: Yeah, yeah, because apparently believing in a God, you can't also believe in reality, according to this woman. So it's kind of funny.

P: We've certainly been at conferences before where people have gotten up and walked out, haven't we Steve?

S: Oh, absolutely. If you're doing your job, you end up offending somebody, basically.

R: And if you're in Texas at a lecture and you're going to talk about how wrong the Bible is, you're probably looking for trouble, and I think he found it.

S: I think it's okay to do that, to put our current scientific view of the world into historical context. Again, I think Carl Sagan did that very eloquently. He was the best person at doing that that I have personally seen. So I don't know. I think you'd have to see exactly what Bill Nye said and how he said it.

R: Yeah.

S: Was it a gratuitous slap at the Bible, or was it just for historical context. This is what people used to — how they use to envision the universe, and now we discovered that the universe has a different structure. Which I think is important. How our ideas about the universe evolved over historical time is really an important thing to know.

R: Oh, yeah, totally, especially because — if you talk to Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, at badastronomy.com, he talks a lot about how the creationists have kind of — they're shifting their focus onto other disciplines, and they're attacking astronomy. So that's one of the things where we do have to kind of point out that, no, the Bible is not literally correct on this.

S: Well, it's not a scientific document. That's the bottom line.

J: Why would someone who wouldn't want to hear what Bill Nye is saying and be into it even show up at his lecture?

R: Well I think that it's one of those things that in your head you're thinking "Oh, it's fun — science, magic, tricks, whatever," but then when it's pointed out that this actually goes against what the Bible said, it kind of flips a switch for them. They can't really — then don't really think it through.

P: I think most probably they weren't thinking about anything, before they went. I'm serious. TV, it's fame. It's a name they recognize.

S: Who knows?

P: His name rhymes. That's enough.

R: Well, I don't know. I think that for a lot of people, though, you've got science and you've got religion, and they go in these parallel lines that don't cross, and they're okay with that, and then ...

S: People have no problem compartmentalizing their knowledge.

R: Right. Those two things bump into each other, and then boom! Some people don't like thinking about those things, and it can be a little shocking when they first (unintelligible)

P: If fact, you can be a fairly sound skeptic and have a religious ....

R: Oh, yeah.

S: Some sacred cow. It doesn't have to be religious.

P: Okay.

S: Even skeptics — religion is obviously a very common sacred cow, but I know skeptics who have pseudo-scientific sacred cows, you know, ...

B: Chiropractic.

S: ...and believe in some alternative medicine modality as almost with religious fervor, for example.

P: Yeah.

S: I know some skeptics who believe in Eastern philosophy, because to them it's not religion. It's just spirituality.

P: Or something crazy like nanotechnology.

B: Yeah! Right.

S: Or something like that.

B: Cryonics.

S: Whatever.

J: Get it right, pal.

R: I think that just goes to show you that skepticism — a skeptic isn't just a person. There's not some person you can just define a skeptic. It's just a way of thinking.

S: Yeah.

R: And some people apply it to everything. Some people can't.

S: Yeah, it's a method, and people are imperfect, and we get it wrong.

R: Yeah.

S: You know.

P: Quite right, quite right.

Tom Cruise (7:52)[edit]

S: Well Tom Cruise is back in the news, again. He's still on about his anti-psychiatry crusade. He's now warning people to think carefully before they take those bad drugs that the psychiatrists are giving them, and he also claims that he can get a heroin addict off of heroin in three days using the Scientology auditing methods.

B: Prove it.

S: It's interesting. You know, you read the blogs in response to Cruise's latest outburst. One of them very deftly pointed out that Dianetics and auditing was L. Ron Hubbard's attempt at snake oil salesman. This was just his quackery that he was trying to make a fast buck at, and the bottom line is that it didn't work, and the AMA and legitimate medical institutions went after him for trying to sell snake oil. So he said "This isn't working out too well. My methods don't work, and I'm running afoul of medicine, so let me turn it into a religion. That way I'll be safe from the scientific and medical establishments, and people will believe it, because it's a religion." And that's exactly what he did. So Dianetics became Scientology. And here we go, whatever, 50 years later, we have lunatics like Tom Cruise who believe in it. It's just really incredible.

P: Let's lock Tom in a room with a thousand people on these drugs, take your drugs away, and leave him in there for a couple of months.

S: Yeah, see how he does.

J: Perry, you're glib. You're glib.

P: See how he makes out.

S: But I hear that he and a Katie Holmes are preparing for their silent birth.

R: Aw.

S: You can't have any noise in the birthing room, because ...

J: So, Steve.

P: Huh!

S: ... it can cause trauma.

J: Bob and I were talking about this.

S: Yeah?

J: Maybe I'll be more accurate: I was tripping out about this, because every time I hear anything about this guy, I lose my mind, and Bob said something very, very intelligent. He said — which is rare for Bob, of course.

S: Hm, hm.

J: He said "Why don't they just say really nice things when the baby's born. Instead of being quiet, do the exact opposite of what they don't want, which is say nice positive things."

S: Like life-affirming phrases.

J: Yeah, and that should do — because what are they saying? They shouldn't say anything and have all that anxiety and tension in the air by what people are saying.

B: Apparently, there's a window when you're being born where the baby just absorbs all this negative energy and these words and things. Well, if that's true and that could happen, then say things that can have a positive influence in their life instead of negative, you know.

S: Yeah.

B: So if you got this opportunity, take advantage of it.

S: Let's not give them any ideas for the next book, right?

B: Right.

Chiropractic Time Travel (10:47)[edit]

S: So you guys know I'm a big fan of the chiropractic discipline, right?

R: Oh, yeah.

B: Yup.

S: I always love it when chiropractors embrace some other pseudoscience that has nothing to do with chiropractic or medicine. So, again, this is another one, Rebecca, that you wrote about this chiropractor who claims that he can heal people by going back in time and healing them in the past.

R: Now I have no idea exactly how going back in time really heals you, because he talks about being able to go back in time, and he talks about being able to heal random things that are wrong with you, aches and pains, things like that. But, he never actually marries the two concepts, because you don't really expect him to make sense, but ...

S: Yeah.

R: ... I at least want a decent explanation.

B: Yeah, this guy definitely seems certifiable. What his point seemed to be was that it's not so much going back in time, the other part of this article dealt with mainly him doing this distant healing. All it takes is a phone call! You don't have to go to his office. Just give him a buzz and BAM! he could heal you over the phone, kind of this distant healing, and that's what the article I read discussed.

R: He even has a magic word.

S: He has a magic word.

R: Yeah.

B: What's the word?

S: Bahlaqeem, I guess.

R: Bahlaqeem. Because, you see, it's meaningful because it has no meaning, and it has a soothing vibrational influence and contains the very special number of nine letters. So maybe while Katie Holmes is having her baby, she should just say "bahlaqeem" over and over again.

S: There you go.

J: Are you saying "ballet queen"?

S: That would work, too: "ballet queen".

E: Bahlaqeem.

P: Can he cure anything on the phone call?

S: Go to his website: "pain relief anytime, anywhere with a vibrational adjustment or manipulation."

J: Oh, I know what he's talking about.

S: For sixty bucks. Sixty bucks.

P: For pain relief ...

S: He'll cure you of anything over the Internet with his vibrations.

P: Well, wait a minute. Pain relief is not cure.

R: But he says ...

S: Pain relief is a really good thing for cracks to treat, because it's so subjective.

R: Right.

J: Steve, what's this whole time travel thing? How does he do it? What's his machine or what's he doing?

R: I think he just does it in his head.

P: Is it a wayback machine? The Peabody school?

S: It's all just part of the woo-woo philosophy that he couches his claims in.

R: Yeah, I don't think he has an actual machine or anything.

P: Okay.

R: Nothing that cool. I think quite literally it's in his head.

J: Oh, maybe he goes's back in time spiritually, do you know what I mean?

S: Yeah, something like that.

R: I think he has a DeLorean.

P: Maybe he's nuts.

J: He does?

S: He drives a DeLorean.

J: That means he's making bank.

B: She's joking.

S: "Back to the Future", Jay?

J: Oh, my God. Are you kidding me? I totally missed that one.

R: Oh, my God. That was too easy. Hey, when are you going to eat all that bacon, Jay?

J: I'll eat it. If you can get your hands on that specific bacon, if it doesn't taste like fish, I will eat it.

R: I am going to track down the healthy bacon pig, and I'm going to kill it myself, just so you can have ten pounds of bacon.

S: We're waiting on the FDA on that one.

J: Rebecca, listen. What person in their right mind wouldn't eat 10 pounds of healthy bacon.

R: Well, me, because I'm a vegetarian.

S: Ah, don't get me started.

J: What sane person in their right mind wouldn't want to eat ten pounds of healthy bacon?

P: You're a vegetarian?!

B: In one sitting?

P: Wait a minute, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! You're a vegetarian?

R: I knew that would get one of you.

P: You're a vegetarian?

R: I'm the worst kind.

J: You're not a vegan!

R: No, no, no. The other way.

P: You're a vegan?!

R: I mean I'm the worst kind in that can see a piece of fish and say "Oh that looks kind of good. That's basically a vegetable", and I'll eat it.

S: Are you a vegetarian for health reasons or for animal rights reasons.

R: Vegetarianism is my one weird quirk that I allow myself. It's the one thing that I just decided that I don't need to explain to people, and uh ...

S: It's your sacred cow.

R: It's my sacred cow. I don't get upset over it.

S: Ironically.

J: But Rebecca, Rebecca.

R: Yes.

J: Steak! Steak!

R: Yeah, not that into it.

S: It's good.

P: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You're a vegetarian?

S: Perry, denial is another episode. We'll cover denial another time.

R: Seriously, I make one of the best cheesesteaks you've ever had in your life. I used to make Philly cheesesteaks for a living when I was in high school.

J: You make no sense to me at all. You make no sense.

R: I know. I'm an enigma wrapped in a mystery, or something.

S: Covered with cheese.

R: And sprinkles.

Global Warming Intimidation (15:54)[edit]

S: All right, let's move one. Perry, this one's for you. "Climate of fear — global warming alarmists intimidate dissenting scientists into silence."

P: George Will recently wrote about this.

S: This one was written about — it's a Wall Street Journal editorial written by Richard Lindzen, who is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT. So this guy is a real scientist, an atmospheric scientist, so he probably knows what he's talking about. And what he's basically saying is in his editorial is that climatologists or climate scientists who have a dissenting opinion from the notion that global warming is a real and coming threat are being intimidated either by drying up of their research funds or being threatened to lose their jobs by the institutions and the people who hire them, etc. So, this is, I think, a very interesting debate that has been raging in the scientific community. It's a very interesting debate for skeptics, because there is a very real scientific controversy at the core of this, but swirling around that is the interaction of politics and science, and it gets very complicated, and this makes it even more complicated when you have an MIT atmospheric scientist basically dissenting from the consensus opinion and also accusing the consensus of trying to intimidate the minority report, if you will. We had on our show ...

P: (unintelligible)

S: ... months ago Steve Malloy, who is a fellow of the Cato Institute, who agrees with Richard Lindzen's position that global warming is bunk, and it's basically the sacred cow, if you will, of environmentalists, and there's basically a big intimidation conspiracy against people who disagree with it.

P: And I personally lean in that direction.

S: And I lean very much in the other direction. I think that there is a scientific consensus that there is man-made global warming, that the consensus is based upon 50 years of disagreement, and they basically hammered — this is how the scientific process works — people have different points of view, they hammer out their disagreements, they do the tests, they do the studies to answer the questions and the challenges from the other side, and slowly you build a consensus over time. And I think that that consensus has been built on very solid principles, on very solid evidence, so I think that at this point, we're pretty safe in saying that there is man-made global warming. What nobody can say, though, is what this means for the future, and I think that's where the anti-alarmists, if you will, have their strongest criticisms. We don't know what the implications are for the planet that there is man-made global warming, although there's a lot of reason, I think, to be concerned, because even though it may not change the climate for the objectively worse, meaning that as far as the planet Earth is concerned, a slight shift in the climate may not be a bad thing, but it may be a very bad thing for the economic institutions that we have set up on this world. If the bread basket of America turns into a desert, the Earth doesn't care. Animals will habitat-track, but we'll care if that happens. If sea levels rise a few inches, again, the environment won't really care, but cities on the coastline will care.

P: Steven, when my ear hears things like the breadbasket of America is going to be a desert, I mean it's crazy talk.

S: But Perry, that happens all the time, over historical time. The Sahara desert was a lush forest at one point. Climates change.

P: Yeah, that's right.

S: That's right.

P: And they changed before we got here.

S: They do, and no one is saying that the climate we have today will and should be the way it is forever, but it probably is not in our best interest to hasten a change in our climate, because that could shift things. We could, you know — the current deserts could start to have more rainfall, and current areas that are currently very productive, may become dry.

P: Well look, Steve, I agree with your analysis that it's not going to have a great of impact on the globe, but it will certainly on our economic institutions and ??? like that — a change in the climate. So will an overabundance of regulation and unnecessary rules and things along these lines. People overreact.

S: Absolutely. I wrote about this in my weird science column, and I basically came to the conclusion that there is reason for concern on both sides. Unwarranted hysteria and overregulation will also hurt us economically and can have unforeseen consequences. But what we need are rational measures. I disagree with this Steve Malloy end of the spectrum who are basically saying there's absolutely nothing to worry about, it may be a good thing for the Earth if we raise our temperature a couple of degrees, and that the scientific consensus is not legitimate. I disagree with that position. I think there is a legitimate scientific consensus that there is man-made global warming. I think that the difficulty is in extrapolating the implications of that into the future, but most of the models have serious reason for concern in terms of melting ice caps, raising sea levels, shifting rain falls, maybe the loss of what are currently productive areas for farming. So I think that common sense, reasonable measures not to systematically shift our environment or our climate in one direction, I think, is reasonable.

J: Steve, I read something — and tell me if this information is true. I read that the polar ice caps are shrinking, and they did a study from the 70s and they tracked it all the way up, I think, until the year 2000, and it said there was like a 20% decrease in the polar ice cap size, and that's raising ...

P: Twenty per cent!

J: ... the average sea level.

P: The polar ice caps have not shrunk twenty per cent since 1970.

J: Well that's what I'm trying to do is I read information and I'm trying to get a consensus, because I've read that, and that's disturbing. If that's true then there is — if that happened in 20-30 years, that's a problem.

S: That is, in fact, true in terms of even the melting back of glaciers and the polar ice caps. What we don't know is if this kind of shrinking and expansion just happens over historical time. We haven't been tracking it that carefully for long enough to really know that. If you want to deny that man-made global warming is happening or is a problem, you could say "This is just the natural fluctuation. This is just the trend."

P: Since 1970, 20%, one-fifth, of the ice in the polar caps has melted? Forget about it. The oceans would rise a great deal.

B: It depends. it depends which pole you're talking about, North or South. The North Pole wouldn't affect the sea level because it's already floating, but the South Pole would.

S: Only ice that's on land would actually raise the sea level. Ice that's floating won't raise the sea level because it's already floating.

B: Didn't I just say that?

P: So only one of the poles melted?

S: No, no. The implication of that much ice is not as severe as you might think to ocean levels, because only that portion of ice which is melting off of land into the oceans affects the sea level. Ice like icebergs, when they melt, the water they melt into exactly fills the space that the ice occupied, because the iceberg displaces its weight in water. When it melts into water, there's zero change in the sea level. So anyway, I don't know off the top my head if the 20% figure is accurate. I could check on that.

P: Yeah, so could I.

S: Every week there are new reports of the global warming trends. So there's multiple independent lines of evidence that are going in the same direction. But because sincere and good scientists can disagree on this issue, I think sincere and good skeptics can disagree on this issue. That's what makes it interesting to me. Most of the time, we're all on the same page. We all think that Bigfoot is bunk and there are no aliens visiting the Earth, and etc. But it's good to have an issue that we can disagree on.

R: Wait, Bigfoot is bunk?

S: Oh, yeah.

R: When did this happen? Crap! Sorry, go on.

J: Well, Steve, what's troubling about the temperature rising issue is that it seems like even though a lot of data has been collected, they really can't come to any solid conclusions, you know, because, like you were saying, it could say "Okay, the Earth is trending in a warmer direction one or two degrees." And then you hear people arguing.

S: Right.

J: Well, how accurate can we judge a average Earth temperature, and how much of a Herculean effort that is just to come up with some type of average number over ...

S: Yeah

J: ... a one year period. There seems to not be enough information about it to even really say is it happening.

S: Well, like many complex sciences, there's always room for doubt, just like when we had the conversation with Terry Smith about HIV causing AIDS. There's the same sort of complexity in that issue as well. There's lots of things we don't know about what HIV is actually doing and how it's actually causing AIDS, but that doesn't call into doubt the basic premise that AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, and I think it's the same thing, in my opinion, that the basic idea that there is man-made global warming is not called into question by these things on the fringes that we don't know. But I do see that some of the, again, the anti-global warming critics do use some denialist strategies in arguing against global warming. That's my perception based upon reading some of the arguments of Steve Malloy and even some of the arguments that George Will echoed in his article. I'm saying, for example, that in the 1950s we believed that the Earth was cooling, and now we think it's warming. That's classic. That's like what creationists do talking about the fossils that scientists got wrong 50 years ago. It's irrelevant to the consensus that has arisen 50 years later. That's a denialist strategy. So I think if the anti-global warming scientists want to be taken more seriously, they've got to clean up their rhetoric a little bit and not engage in some of the conspiracy arguments that they're making and not engage in some the denier strategy that they're using. That would be my advice for them. Not that they're wrong. I just think they need to clean up their strategy. But this is a topic I'm sure we will come back to, because this is not going to go away anytime soon, and it has very real and immediate implications for public policy.

Happy Face on Mars (27:14)[edit]

S: Let's go onto a lighter topic — a literally happier topic. NASA scientists have discovered a happy face on Mars. This was images that are being sent back by the latest Mars Explorer. This is funny, because these kind of things come back all the time, and it's helpful to put things like the Face on Mars into perspective. So here you have a nice round crater. There are one crater for an eye, a series of smaller craters positioned to be the other eye, and a smiley face, and, again, a series of small either mountains or craters that make a smile. It's in good enough position and proportion that it makes a very plausible smiley face, and it's obviously a natural formation.

R: So you're saying the aliens didn't build the smiley face?

S: Right. No aliens need be invoked to explain the smiley face, which is the same thing as the Face on Mars. You look at the early images of the face on Mars, and it was half in shadow, and it was really just an eye and half of a mouth. Actually, a lot of the early pictures also contained what appears to be a nostril, but the nostril was an artifact added — like it's added afterwards.

B: It's missing data. It's missing data.

S: Yeah, it wasn't an actual ...

B: Feature.

S: ... structure. It was just an absent pixel of data that just happened to be where the nostril would be, so that was completely artifactual. My favorite, though — have you guys seen Kermit the frog on Mars?

B: Yeah!

R: I didn't see that.

S: Kermit the frog is awesome. So obviously the ancient Martian aliens knew about Kermit. Maybe they worshiped him. Who knows?

R: Could have been.

P: Didn't they come down and plant us here, or something?

S: Yeah, a lot of people believe that.

P: Chariots or something.

S: There are a lot of these sort of UFO cult and pseudoscience belief systems built around the notion that humans were planted on Earth by our alien cousins, which is ...

B: All life, or just humans?

S: Just humans.

B: Well, that's ridiculous.

S: Which is a problem. They had to have planted all life here, because humans — we share our genetic code with all other life on Earth: bacteria, peas, petunias, so ...

B: Yeast.

S: That — and it's random. It would be an infinitesimal probability if it would happen by chance. Life that evolved on another planet would not have the same arbitrary genetic code that life on this Earth does. So if you believe that anything was planted here, you'd have to believe that all life was planted here. And, of course, that would contradict the evidence for evolution.

J: Plus, Steve, you know, think of it this way: they picked a smiley face and Kermit the frog as the images that they want to make us be able to view with a telescope.

R: Well, they're happy guys.

S: Right.

J: Who would pick a smiley face and Kermit the frog, other than like a four-year old.

R: I might.

P: That's right.

R: Granted, I would have gone with Gonzo.

S: The Ancient Martian believers say that this is all a NASA conspiracy to make fun of and discredit the Face on Mars believers.

R: Do we really need to make fun of them? Does NASA need to do that officially? Aren't they pretty much just making fun of themselves at this point?

S: Yeah, they do a pretty good job themselves.

B: You nailed it.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Evolution, the Promotion of Positive Science News (30:42)[edit]

S: Well with that, let's move on to some email questions. We actually received our first voicemail email.

R: Yay!

S: This is from Rich Ludwig from Hillsboro, West Virginia, and he responded to our request for people to send us, to actually record their voice speaking their question. So let's play that now.

Rich:

Hey guys at the NESS, I enjoy your podcast every week. I take every chance I can to spread the word about your show. I have two questions that I hope you could give me advice on. The first being about evolution. Where can I find good evolutionary information and reading? I'm a believer in evolution, yet I do not feel I can defend my position as well as I'd like. My limited background in evolution is in International Baccalaureate Biology 3-4 in high school, some time ago. I would like to do more research. Any recommendations as to books or websites would be greatly appreciated to further my knowledge about evolution. My second question is dealing with promoting critical thinking. I notice that skepticism deals mainly with bashing bad science. I was wondering why there isn't more promoting of good science? As I've looked through even your articles, few are about new discoveries such as Lucy or other findings. I'd like to see both on skeptical pages. Why is there not more?

S: Well thank you, Rich for sending in your voicemail. The first question, first you're absolutely right, and this is a good point, that believing in evolution and having a high school-ish education about evolution really isn't enough to stand toe-to-toe with a well-prepared creationist. You have to know really a lot of details about evolutionary theory, and you have to know a lot about argument styles of evolution deniers, of creationists, and intelligent design proponents.

R: Namely making stuff up as you go along.

S: Right, right. But they're good at it, they're really good at making stuff up.

R: They are, they're very, very good at it.

S: Their logical falacies can often be quite subtle, in fact they're my favorite example, my favorite textbook example of logical falacies because they make every single one that there is. They really do. The sources that I've used that I think are good: on the web I think that talkorigins.org, and of course this link will be on our notes page, is the best overall evolution site on the web, and also deals with creationism and intelligent design, so you'll see lots of resources, not just about evolution, but also about debating creationists.

B: Also, go to our logical fallacy page and read that until you're well versed in these fallacies, and you'll be amazed how often you find them crop up in debates with these guys.

S: Right. And then read creationist websites and just name all the logical fallacies. I also — I cut my teeth, even when I was in high school and college, proselytizers would come to my door to preach whatever their fundamentalist religion was, and I would immediately spark up a conversation with them about creationism. If they didn't want to talk about that, I'd send them packing. But if they wanted, I would talk to them for hours about evolution and creationism, not that I thought that I was going to change my mind, but just to hone my skills, and just to learn what kind of arguments they make.

R: Another good way to do that is to hit up some online forums, because you'll find people there debating things like that, and not only do you get to see the arguments that creationists are using, but you have some time to take the information, process it, google it, look into it before responding. You don't have to come up with something on the spot.

S: I looked at my bookshelf just to see what evolution books I have on there, and some of the ones that I have that I think are good: Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould is a great discussion of some evolutionary thinking. The Pattern of Evolution by Niles Eldredge. Of course On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, sometimes it's good.

P: That's a tough read.

S: It's a tough read, but you know what? It's worth going back to the source. Get through some of those chapters if you can. It really is worth it. It's amazing to me even now how much of evolutionary theory Darwin got right right at the beginning. He really spent decades working out a lot of the things. A lot of his solutions to some of the scientific problems of evolution are still the solutions today that we invoke.

P: It's really, really brilliant, and when you think about coming from almost nothing, nowhere, to conceive of and systematize evolution in his writing, it's amazing.

S: It was an incredible intellectual achievement. Also I have on my shelf Taking Wing by Pat Shipman who I actually studied under at Johns Hopkins. She's an excellent evolutionary biologist. All about the evolution of flight, again which is a topic which is frequently a target of creationists, and it is incredible how much we know about that. I also like reading about human evolution. The three books that I have on that are The Neanderthals, Lucy's Child, and The Hominid Gang. Although those are getting kind of dated, so there are probably some newer ones out there that would be worth reading. I probably need to update my library myself. So those are some resources I think that...

P: What about Sagan, Steve? Shadows?

S: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors — you know that's an interesting book. It's not really so much about evolution as about human psychology and what we might be able to learn about human psychology from examining our closest relatives, other primates basically.

Regarding the second question about promoting good science to balance our bashing of bad science, that definitely is a good point, and that is a subject that we have talked about amongst ourselves as well, that we have to make sure that we promote how cool and wonderful real science is, and that often the media promotes pseudo-science and bad science because they think it's cool and sensational, but they're really cheating the public, because real science is far more interesting and far more bizarre and cool than anything in fiction or science fiction.

R: Like Snipley the furry lobster.

S: Yeah, like Snipley the furry lobster or black holes or anything to do with quantum mechanics or cosmology. It's all really interesting bizarre stuff. It's great. We don't spend too much time just talking about ordinary science, because regular scientists do that, and there are plenty of other standard science outlets that do that. Our niche is skepticism. It is dealing with the fringe, the controversial science, weird science, pseudo-science. So we are going to always emphasize that, but we do need to balance it with promoting some good science, and I do think that we try to do that on the Skeptics' Guide. Maybe we need to do a little more of that as well. But thanks again Rich for sending in your question.

More on the Flood (37:36)[edit]

S: We got another email, again, coming back to the flood. So our listeners want to hear more about the flood. This one is from Huxley, who I believe has sent us at least one other email in the past. Thanks for writing again, Huxley. He writes:

When people claim the flood was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, what do you tell them? He are just a couple of websites that try to explain how the Bible talks about dinosaurs, how they lived with us thousands of years ago, and much more.

He gives a couple links which we'll have on our notes page

Please put to rest and air. Thanks, Huxley.

Well I wish I could put this to rest. I'm sure I can among rational-thinking people. It's beyond my power to put this issue to rest forever, because you can't reason someone out of an opinion they didn't reason himself into in first-place, right?

B: Good quote.

S: But it did bring up a point that I had thought about, and we didn't have a chance to really talk about it. Two weeks ago we talked about the satellite photos that some believe are of the Ark, which to me looked like the edge of the mountain. Then last week we talked about, in response to a listener's email, how many animals could have fit on the Ark. And even by conservative estimates, there's just far too many animals in existence than you could've possibly squeezed onto the Ark. But creationists who also believe in the Ark, many of them claim that all extinct animals, all animals that are now extinct, including ones that scientists believe lived millions of years ago, well they must've all lived on the Ark, too, because they must all be contemporary of Noah. So, in fact, I've seen creationist books and literature that literally has pictures of baby dinosaurs on the Ark. So when we're doing our calculations of how many animals have to be on the Ark, really we need to consider all of the extinct animals too, including all the dinosaurs. So that tremendously increases the burden that would've been placed on the Ark and on poor Noah and his family.

R: Wouldn't it be easier for the creationists to just say that the dinosaurs drowned in the flood?

S: Yeah, I don't know why. I don't know why they don't say that, except for the fact the Bible says that Noah had to collect all of the animals.

R: Yeah.

P: Right.

S: And one of the links that Huxley provides talks about the fact that dinosaurs lived only a few centuries after the flood, and I thought about the two. Why not just kill them off in the flood. Wouldn't that make it easier?

R: Yeah. If I was writing a book about creationism, I would've killed the dinosaurs off in the flood.

S: Right. That seems like the easier way to go, but I guess they wanted to avoid any apparent conflict with the literal truth of the Bible. They also tried to make a case for dinosaurs and humans coexisting, being coeval, by saying that biblical descriptions of the Behemoth are really a padasaurus, and biblical descriptions of the Leviathan are really Kronosaurus, which is — Kronosaurus is not a dinosaur, but a giant, aquatic lizard, contemporary to the dinosaurs, often compared to Godzilla. It's a giant, meat-eating, aquatic lizzard.

R: Neat.

S: It's quite a stretch.

R: Now was there a biblical equivalent to Mothra. Just wondering.

(laughter)

S: There should have been.

R: There should.

S: I bet you you could find some passage somewhere in Genesis that you could twist into Mothra, just as believably as they twisted those descriptions into padasaurus.

R: And, you know, I bet if I could do that, I would have a lot more people reading the Bible than currently do.

S: That's my challenge to you now, Rebecca. You need to find a Biblical reference of some cheesy Japanese monster like Mothra or Gamera or whatever.

R: Done.

S: I'll leave it open. You can have — I'll give you an open field. It could be any Chinese movie monster.

R: I'll have it ready for next week.

S: All right.

R: And if I do, Jay has to eat 10 more pounds of bacon. How's that?

S: Okay, it's a deal.

R: Excellent.

P: For those of you who follow the Sopranos, we heard about evolution this week on the show. There was an evangelical on there, and he said that evolution was Satan's plan to, what?, to destroy faith, I think it was.

S: Right. He also said that scientists have an agenda, and that's why.

P: That they have an agenda.

S: Yeah, like fundamentalists don't have an agenda? Here's our agenda, but don't believe scientists; they have an agenda. Okay.

P: Christopher also brought up the stupidity of it, because he said T. Rex in the Garden of Eden? Adam and Eve would be running around scared-shitless all the time, and the Bible said it was paradise.

S: T. Rex in the Garden of Eden. Come on! I guess he was a gentle T. Rex, back in Paradise.

P: I guess before he was corupted by sin.

B: He was like the T. Rex in Toy Story.

R: Ahh. I loved him.

Chicken or Egg? (42:37)[edit]

S: I also got — we got another email. Maybe this one came in a few days late for April Fools' Day. This one comes in from Roscoe, and Roscoe asks

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Well, Roscoe, that is definitely a burning, scientific question that has vexed skeptics for centuries, really. But I believe — now Rebecca, we were discussing this earlier, before we recorded, and you felt that you had the answer to this question.

R: Yes! The egg!

S: The egg.

R: Yeah, the egg. If you about it in evolutionary terms, I mean, there's an egg. Eggs existed before chickens, right?

S: But did chicken eggs exist before chickens?

R: Well, that wasn't the question.

P: No.

S: That's true.

B: Well, at some point, there was some mutation in this egg thing that just pushed it over the line and made it a chicken.

R: Exactly.

J: Yeah, right. There was a creature that was almost a chicken, that gave birth to a chicken.

R: Right, so the egg came first.

B: Right.

S: So an almost-chicken had to lay a chicken egg.

R: Yeah, if you were going to say "Which came first, an egg or an almost-chicken?", well, then I'd have to think about it.

S: Well, hold on. I follow your logic, but I found a press release dated today, April 12, 2006, from the University of Chicago Press Journals, and the title is Evolutionary Proof That The Chicken Came Before The Egg.

R: Oh, no!

S: So here we have an alternate hypothesis. There's a slight variation of this. The actual title is Evolutionary Proof That In Parentheses (Eating The Chicken Came Before The Egg), and what this guy says is that animals that are carnivorous will, through evolution, will develop a taste for an animal, and then later start eating that animals' eggs. So, animals that ate chickens, started eating the chickens and then developed a taste for eating the chicken eggs, later.

R: Hm.

S: So when it comes to evolution and carnivores, the chicken comes before the egg.

R: That's very clever, but I'm still right.

S: Yeah, you are. I was amazed that I found a press release that actually dealt with the chicken coming before the egg today.

R: It's kismet.

S: Coincidence? I think not.

P: (laughter)

Reasonable Threshold of Evidence for Cryptozoology (44:58)[edit]

S: All right, let's do one more email. We got — this one comes from Jeremy from Albany, New York. Jeremy writes

Dear Skeptics Guide. I love the podcast and listen every week. I'm a major skeptic and a science student in environmental science. One of the more common complaints against skeptics is that we reject everything out of hand, but I think the thing that's great about science and skepticism is it isn't rigid faith, and that we have a standard of evidence that once met will cause us to change our minds.

Absolutely agree.

I was wondering if you could devote a podcast, a webpage, or even direct me to a webpage that goes over the kinds of evidence that would be convincing. The best example I can think of is: cryptozoologists found a specimen living or dead that was available for scientific study. I also think that if any of this stuff does exist, it might increase the likelihood of finding it if the believers know what to look for. I also think we in the scientific and skeptical community need to be clear about what we are looking for in terms of evidence.

He asks another question, but let's answer this one first. It's hard to answer that across the board with every science. The reasonable threshold for evidence for believing any claim depends upon the claim. It depends on the prior probability. It depends upon alternate hypotheses. So it really is kind of a moving target and a judgment call for each thing. But I will refer you to some articles that we published on our website that deal with that kind of question. One is a paper I wrote on denial and skepticism, which talks about having a reasonable threshold of evidence, and also it cautions skeptics against the out-of-hand dismissal. I specifically used UFOs as an example. You don't want to engage — even though we know that aliens are not visiting the Earth, that's I think the scientific consensus, and we can confidently infer that from all the evidence, we still don't want to use that to justify making denialist sort of statements or dismissing evidence out of hand. We still have to give all the evidence a fair shake. So I'll refer you to those articles, and with respect to other other disciplines, it's basically an individual decision.

The Psychosomatic Effect and Stigmata (47:10)[edit]

S: He goes on to write:

On a different note, I saw a show that suggested that the psychosomatic effect is a possible explanation of stigmata. I don't think it is, but I'm curious about the scientific consensus regarding the existence and nature of the psychosomatic effect. Can a penny really produce a blister in a hypnotized-suggestible person, or are these experiments flawed? If you could direct me to some of the scientific literature on this topic, I would appreciate it. Thank you for your time.

The definition of a psychosomatic illness or psychosomatic symptom is one that is a physiological symptom, which is caused by a psychological cause. So somebody has anxiety or stress, and it manifests physically. That is well-established, but you have to separate out the different kinds of symptoms that can be caused. So, for example, there are some symptoms which are directly a result of psychological stress. Like high blood pressure can be caused by stress, and, by extension, heart disease. So you can have psychosomatic physiological symptoms due to — secondarily due to stress. There are many neurological symptoms that can be caused by psychological illness.

R: But can you make your hands bleed, that's what I want to know. Isn't that what stigmata is all about?

S: I was going to get to that at the end.

R: Ah, sorry.

S: The answer to that is "no". You can't cause your skin to break down and blood to start pouring out of your hand or your wrist ...

R: Darn it!

S: ... because you will it to. I have seen shows that tried to debunk the stigmata by citing that as a possible cause, but that's making it way too complicated. And that's also proposing a very unlikely mechanism to explain something that's much more simple. These people are simply cutting themselves, and they're doing it when no one is looking. I saw a show about a priest who claimed to have the stigmata, and the people described it as just appearing before their eyes. But on the video, that's not what happened at all. What happened was: he moved his hand over his palm, and then when he moved it away, the stigmata was there. It didn't actually appear before your eyes. It appeared while it was being hidden by his other hand, and what this guy does is he has a ring on his finger, which he can expose a sharp edge on it, and he just presses it against his skin and causes stigmata to appear. These things always occur on parts of the body that people can reach. People never have these kind of effects on parts of the body that they can't reach themselves, whether it's a rash or stigmata, and it always happens out of view. It always happens in a context where it could've occurred simply by cutting the skin with your fingernail, with a ring, with something hidden. So we don't have to invoke psychosomatic effect to explain stigmata. But, I'm a neurologist, and I have seen really profound psychosomatic presentations, like psychosomatic blindness, people who believe they can't see. And they really seem to believe that they can't see, but we can prove that they can see, pysiologically.

R: How do you prove it? Do you just throw something at them?

S: Well, you could do that. We actually do what's called the blink reflex, where you just flick your fingers in somebody's eyes. You have to be careful not to blow wind in their eyes, because then you'll get a blink response to the wind against their cornea — you get a corneal response. But if you just do a visual threat, and they blink, that's a visual response. You can also do what's called optical kinetic nystagmus. It's basically alternating bright and dark vertical strips, vertical lines, and you move that across their visual field, and your eyes will involuntarily track the moving vertical lines, and if your eyes do that, then your brain can see that strip, even though consciously you may be in denial about that.

R: Sorry, what do you think would happen if you threw something at somebody, because from their point of view, they can't see, but their brain says they can? So ...

S: Typically, when people have psychosomatic symptoms, they will still subtly protect themselves, and that's one of the tricks that we use to figure it out. Let me give you another — they probably would raise their arm or duck, ...

R: Okay.

S: ... and then have some rationalization for why that happened.

R: Right.

S: It would have to be, I think, prepared and pretty dedicated to not duck. People also have psychogenic weakness. They believe they're completely paralyzed in one arm, in both legs, or whatever. In fact, when they have complete and total weakness, they can't even flicker their muscles, that's often a sign that it's psychosomatic. Uusually with neurological weakness, it's not 100 percent. It can be. It depends on the cause, but with that, you need a pretty significant anatomical cause. But if your right arm were completely, flaccidly weak, and I held it over your face while you are lying down on your back say in a hospital bed, and I dropped her hand, your hand would fall right into your face and would hit you in the face. If you have psychosomatic weakness, the hand will still flop down, but it will just miss the face.

R: Right.

S: So they still will protect themselves if it's psychosomatic. But they don't have awareness that they're doing it.

B: So, Steve, is there such a thing is psychosomatic masochism? They would pass your test, wouldn't they.

S: Not that I know of.

R: Yeah, really.

S: Maybe if we find that, we can write a paper about it. What were you going to say, Rebecca?

R: I was just going to ask if you think that psychosomatic weakness is a good reason for calling out sick from work?

(laughter)

R: I mean, it's a disease, right, of some sort?

S: Yeah, it's just a mental illness, not a neurological one. So it's kind of in a gray zone there. Psychosomatic symptoms can be very dramatic, but not stigmata, because that requires actual physical breaking down of the skin, and it's a lot easier to explain that with just simple tricks.

Science or Fiction (53:33)[edit]

S: Well, we have just enough time for Science or Fiction, so let's move on to Science or Fiction.

(intro)

S: Every week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine, and one is fictitious. Then I challenge my esteemed panel of skeptics to see if they could tell which one is the fake. Now, I'm on a roll. The last two weeks I totally ran the table on you guys, as I got all of you for the last two weeks. So we'll see if you could break the trend. You ready?

R: Yep,

B: Bring it on.

J: I'm good.

S: All right, the loose theme this week is biology. These are all in the biological end of the spectrum. All right, item number one: new research shows that younger siblings are smarter on average than their older siblings. Item number two: scientists have discovered how to reverse the process of cell division. And item number three: researchers discover the "strongest glue in the world," produced by a river-dwelling bacteria.

R: Wow!

S: Perry, why don't you start us off.

P: Umm. Well. Being an expert parent like I am, I would say that the first one — I can't think of any reason why that should be so. The third one, and I always heard it was barnacles that made the strongest glue, not bacteria. And what was the middle one?

S: Scientists have discovered how to reverse the process of cell division.

P: That would be kind of neat. That one sounds a little far-fetched. For no particular reason I'll pick number three.

S: Okay.

P: I think that one's false.

S: All right, Jay?

J: Well of course I'm going to go with number one, because I'm your younger sibling, and I am your intellectual superior.

S: Well, then you would think that would be true, Jay.

J: I do. I totally agree with that.

S: Right, so which one's the fake one?

J: I'm agreeing with you. I'm telling you. I'm going with that one.

S: All right.

J: Steve, come on! Everybody knows the strongest glue in the world is made by barnacles.

S: Okay.

J: I disagree with number three.

S: So you are going on the barnacle hypothesis. You going to agree with Perry ...

J: Yes.

S: ... that the strongest glue in the world is fake?

J: Yes.

S: Is fiction. All right, Rebecca?

R: Gosh. The last two weeks I went along with everybody else, and they were all wrong, so I feel like I need to zig. The second one seems so outrageous that that seems like it would be huge, but I think I'm going to go with it, even though I really want to go with the first one, because I am the youngest sibling, I don't think it's true.

S: Okay.

R: So, I'm going to go with number two.

S: You're saying number two is fiction.

R: Oh, wait.

S: Or is number one fiction?

R: Oh, wait. So only one is fiction? I just got totally confused.

S: Yeah, so number one is: new research shows that younger siblings are smarter on average than their older siblings. So you think that that's fiction.

R: I think that's fiction, yeah.

S: Okay. Okay. Bob?

R: Because I'm not very bright.

S: Right, so anecdotal evidence.

R: Yes.

S: So you're going to forsake the argument from authority ...

R: That's right.

S: ... and go with anecdotal? All right.

R: Yes.

S: Bob?

B: Okay, younger siblings smarter — that sounds reasonable, which means it might be the actual answer. The glue from river bacteria — that sounds completely plausible. I mean nothing that bacteria do surprise me. Their metabolisms are just so diverse, it does not surprise me at all that they would produce a superstrong glue. The reverse mitosis cell division — that sounds whacked. I can't imagine — come on! I mean the DNA is going to split back up. I've got to go with that just out of principle. I'm probably wrong, because it's too obvious, so I'm going with two.

S: Okay.

P: We're all over the board.

S: You're split, so I can't run the table on you this week.

R: Hah!

S: We'll start with number three, since Jay and Perry both went with this one. Number three is science, is true. Scientists have discovered a river-dwelling bacteria that produces the strongest glue in the world. These bacteria use it to cling to stuff so they don't flow down the river. So now the next step, of course, would be to figure out a way to mass-produce it, which if bacteria create it, that shouldn't be a hard thing to do. Just make bacteria crank out the stuff. And they actually think it might have some applications as a medical adhesive, because bacteria use this to glue themselves to like leaves and other stuff, so maybe in a few years we'll be using bacterial glue.

R: Neat.

B: Bacteria rock!

S: Bacteria are cool. They are cool.

J: I guess scientists missed the Odd Couple episode where Felix Unger was trying to sell barnacle glue.

S: Barnacle glue? Barnacle glue is old-school, Jay. You've got to graduate to bacterial glue.

R: I think their onto horse glue right now, aren't they?

J: I'm an old-school guy. I like the old school stuff.

S: Who said number two was fiction? That was Bob?

B: Yeah.

P: Yeah.

S: So let's do number two. Scientists have discovered how to reverse the process of cell division. That is the most far out one of the three, this week. It also happens to be true. That is science.

B: Wow!

S: This is huge! This is a major breakthrough. Basically, the process of cell division is one cell splits into two. Obviously, there are implications for aging. There are implications for cancer. There are implications for regeneration.

B: Wow!

S: And they've actually figured out how to coerce a cell into stopping the process and in fact reversing it. But after a certain point, they can't do it. So there are still processes that are going on downstream that they haven't identified yet. Why this is huge is because it's teaching us a tremendous amount about the biochemical and genetic processes that the cells go through when they go through cell division, and learning about those processes will teach us about when it goes awry and lots of disease, like the most prominent one of course is cancer, where cells divide inappropriately or without limits. So, this is a basic science discovery. It's always hard to tell how it's going to apply clinically, but this is a major, huge advance.

P: Do you recall who published the discovery, Steve?

S: Yeah, this was discovered — this was published — this is going to come out in this week's issue of Nature, the most prestigious science journal.

P: Right, right.

S: The scientist is Gary Gorbski, a scientist with the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.

R: Cool.

P: It's from the US?

S: Yes. Published in the April 13 issue of Nature.

P: Extremely impressive.

S: We're probably going to hear about this over the next week or two. I think this will start to go the science news outlets. I picked it up on a press release. It's going to be published in tomorrow's issue of Nature.

R: Well, Steve, that is pretty amazing, but I think we should focus on the fact that I'm totally right this week.

S: Yes. Rebecca got this one right.

R: And I got it right by trusting in my own stupidity. Yes!

S: I thought I would get Jay on this one. So new research shows that younger siblings are smarter on average than their older siblings is fiction. That's false. In fact, however, their old research does show that. There are some papers that were published that suggests that perhaps younger siblings do have a higher IQ on average than their older siblings, and younger siblings are precocious in many ways, because they have their older siblings to learn from and to look up to. But now a new study, which — published by a Aaron Wickman, who's in the Psychology Department of Ohio State University — shows no difference by birth order. So this contradicts a previously held notion that birth order did make a difference in intelligence. This shows no difference. So, that one was fiction. So, Rebecca, you got it this week.

R: Woo-hoo!

S: Congratulations.

P: Yaaayyyy!

J: That's amazing.

E: Hm, hm.

S: Well, that is all the time we have for this week.

R: Ah.

S: Rebecca, gentleman, thanks again for joining me.

R: Thank you.

J: Thanks, Steve.

B: Good episode.

S: It's always fun.

P: See you all soon. See you all soon.

R: Good times.

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

Voiceover: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. 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 info@theskepticsguide.org. 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.


References[edit]


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