SGU Episode 381

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SGU Episode 381
3rd November 2012

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SGU 380 SGU 382
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
RW: Richard Wiseman
Quote of the Week
Skepticism is essential to the quest for knowledge, for it is in the seedbed of puzzlement that genuine inquiry takes root. Without skepticism, we may remain mired in unexamined belief systems that are accepted as sacrosanct yet have no factual basis in reality.
Paul Kurtz
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

RW: – a live edition of my favorite podcast and radio show. So, we're going to have Steven Novella, Bob Novella, Jay Novella, Even Bernstein, and—and a woman—


RW: —join us. It's the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe!


S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.


S: Today is Thursday, October 25th, 2012, and we are live from CSICon 2012.


Joining me, as always, are Bob Novella...

B: Hey everybody!


S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone!


audience member: I love you, Rebecca!

R: I love you, too!

S: —Jay Novella...Jay Novella...

J: Wooooo! Rebecca, yeah!


R: I love you, Jay!

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello, Nashville!


S: So, how're you guys doing? How do you like Nashville?

J: It's awesome. I didn't—I thought people were going to literally be playing guitar when I got off the airplane.

B: Oh, come on, Jay.

S: Yeah, in the airport, you know?

J: Yeah.

This Day in Skepticism (1:28)[edit]

  • November 3, 1957: Sputnik 2 launched

S: So, Rebecca, you always start us off with a This Day in Science and Skepticism. This show will be going up on November 3rd. So, did anything happen that day?

R: Nope.


B: Ever?

R: Oh, all right. One thing happened. One thing happened! Sputnik 2 happened.

S: Sputnik 2: The Revenge.


R: Son of Sputnik.

J: Son of Sputnik!

R: That's right. Sputnik 2 you might know as "the one that killed the puppy".


R: No? Aww, that's weird, 'cause I really thought that this would go over well at a live event! Yeah, Sputnik 2 is the craft that took Laika into orbit; Laika being the Soviet space dog who became the first animal in orbit. For about, like, 10 minutes, before she died.

E: Well, you know—

S: A couple of hours. It was a couple of hours. They thought he was going to survive for about ten days—

R: I think she's a "she".

S: —she was going to survive—

E: Eh.

R: Get it right, Steve!

S: You know, asexual Russian names; I mean, come on. But, they thought that Laika was going to survive for about ten days, but then they had a little mishap with the cooling system, and—

E: Oops.

S: Yeah. Got a little hot in the capsule—104 degrees, they said in—

E: That'd be a hot dog. Yep.


B: Oh, come on. My god.

E: Thank you. I'll be here all the weekend.

R: How—can we just take a moment, just to take a poll of the audience: How are our dead dog jokes doing? Good?

J: Yes!


R: OK. All right. Yeah.

J: You know what? I didn't know until we researched this item that it was a one-way mission.

R: Yeah.

E: Mm-hmm.

J: That's really nasty.

S: Well, the capsule returned.


E: Yeah, well—

S: About 162 days later, it burned up in the atmosphere. But, yeah; they never intended to bring Laika back.

J: No, they actually were going to euthanize her with poison food after the tenth day, I think, right?

R: This is seriously the worst item ever. What was I thinking when I picked it?

S: There—there's Laika.

E: Aww. Aww.

R: Oh yeah! I didn't pick it! Steve forced me to!

E: But, we'd never know who this dog was if it didn't go on Sputnik 2, right? I mean, this would be an otherwise—another animal.

R: No, yeah, and I'm sure Laika appreciates the fame she gets from beyond the grave.

E: She got her fifteen minutes.

In Memoriam[edit]

Paul Kurtz (3:45)[edit]

  • 1925-2012

S: Well, we are going to start the new segment of the show with an "in memoriam". We do like to, on the Skeptics' Guide, pause to remember those members of the skeptical community who have passed, and Paul Kurtz died several days ago, just the day before the organizers were coming down to the conference. He died on Sunday. He was 85 years old. It was 1925 to 2012, so that is 86. I can do math. (audience laughter) You'll know why i was confused in a moment.

R: 'Cause you're terrible at math?

S: Yes. So, before we get the show started, Ron Lindsay and Ken Frazier talked about Paul Kurtz. You know, he was one of the giants of the skeptical movement, of the skeptical community. You know, he was largely responsible for organizing the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, founding Prometheus Books, CFI, Secular Humanism. He was an academic, a philosopher. He really gave a lot of weight to the movement early on. He made it to that—he broke it to that next level. It wasn't that, you know, before he came on board. So he has to be remembered for that. We did have some interactions with Paul along the years. The first year that we started—(audience cooing)

R: Baby Steve!

E: Aww.

S: I was a little younger back then.

R: He's three years old there.

B: He's only half-grey there.

S: (laughing) I'm only half-grey!

E: A little less grey, yep.

S: You can mark my age by my greyness up until about ten years ago, when i went totally grey. Right when we got started, in 1996, you know, CSICOP, now CSI, you know, they were the big national skeptical organization. They'd definitely—They took us under their wing, you know, gave us their support, their local membership list, so that we could get our movement going. And I remember meeting Paul at the first World Skeptics Conference, and he was immediately like, you know, your grandfather; like, you know, very, very comfortably took on that air of being a mentor. It's like, "Yeah, this is great. You're welcome to the skeptical movement." So I definitely remember him fondly in that way. A few years later, Paul organized a meeting of the local skeptical groups. In the picture here you can see me again with Bob, Perry, and Evan. The four of us came up together—

J: Now, if I remember correctly, Rebecca, you and I were off being badass somewhere else, right?

R: I think that's what was happening, yeah.

S: —and, I think, in the foreground, that's Colonel Joe Nickell, isn't it?

E: Colonel.

S: Yeah, he had broke his leg in Spain, or something?

R: Round of applause for Colonel Joe Nickell!

E: I remember that.


S: Joe actually is going to come up, and he's going to read a poem that he wrote, I believe, about Paul.

JN: Paul was a great supporter of the arts, and I hope he would have liked this. The poem is called "Book of Seasons: An Elegy". (Uncertain re: permission to reproduce poem)

S: Thank you, Joe.

Leon Jaroff (7:34)[edit]

  • 1926-2012

S: This same weekend, Saturday before the show, Leon Jaroff also died. He was 85, hence my confusion. So, Leon Jaroff, not a big name in the skeptical community recently, and if you ask, you know, people at conventions like this if they knew who he was—I mean, in fact, right before the show Rebecca said to me, "Who's Leon Jaroff?"

R: (indignant gasp)

S: Sorry, Rebecca.

(audience laughter)

S: But he was perhaps one of the most skeptical journalists that we have had.

B: Yeah.

S: He was the science columnist for Time Magazine. It was he who said, "You know, popularizing science is important, you know, we should start a science-dedicated magazine." And that was Discover Magazine. That was him. He was not afraid to be a hard-nosed skeptic when writing about scientific issues. So, for example, when writing about chiropractors, he wrote,

Chiropractors also employ a bewildering variety of weird practices to diagnose their patients. Some use applied kinesiology, a muscle test that supposedly can diagnose allergies and diseased organs. Hair analysis and iris reading are commonplace in the profession. Even sillier are many of the treatments that chiropractors use and recommend: homeopathic potions, colon irrigation, magnetic therapy, enzyme pills, colored-light therapy, and something called "balancing body energy," among other mystical procedures with undocumented effects.[1]

S: That's from a mainstream journalist writing in Time Magazine. Do we see this kind of thing today? I don't think so.

B: Nope.

(audience applause)

S: So, you know, we do have to, I think, also note the support that Jaroff gave to such a good science journalism, and that kind of hard-nosed skeptical science journalism is definitely something we miss. That's a void that, I think, that we in the skeptical community have to fill, but, unfortunately, it is a void.

News Items[edit]

Big Bang Conference at CERN (9:31)[edit]

BBC: Big Bang and religion mixed in CERN debate

S: Rebecca!

R: Yes!

S: This is a different quote. It's not as good a quote. "Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas."

R: Mm-hmm.

S: Who said that?

R: That was said by Andrew Pinsent at the Ramsey Center for Science and Religion. What I particularly like about this quote is that it is completely reversed. It is the exact opposite of what I would have suggested.

S: Mm-hmm.

R: I would say that science is actually really good at ideas, but in order to produce stuff, you have to add something else. You know, like, they might be able to figure out lasers, but to make a CD player you need a marketing executive.

S: Or death ray.

R: Thank you. Yeah, of course. Why didn't I go there first?


R: Yeah, so, this quote comes from a recent article that the BBC produced: "Big Bang and Religion Mixed in CERN Debates". Apparently, there was a conference recently that CERN held—you remember CERN, you know, the guys who, apparently, may have found –

J: Higgs!

R: —the Higgs boson.

S: A boson with Higgs-like properties.

R: A Higgs-like thing.

S: Boson, yeah.

R: A Higgish. I like "Higgish"—

E: "Higgish"?

R: —a little bit.

J: (laughing) "A little bit!"

B: "Higgy"?

E: (singing) Higgy again...

R: So, yes. Apparently, I don't know the purpose—I don't know what—who dreamt this up, but what I'm thinking is that someone was concerned that they may have found a particle that many people know as the "God particle", and so they're concerned that they're going to be excommunicated or, you know, that people will rebel—religious people will rebel against science. Basically, we'll have some sort of Dark Ages–esque thing happening, and so, maybe somebody at CERN thought, "Well, we should have this conference where we talk about how religious people should be OK with the Higgs boson."

B: Mm-hmm.

R: So, those are the good intentions that I'm assuming are behind this conference that has speakers such as this. The quotes in here are pretty fun, and none of them have any amount of intelligence to them. Steve, you're the one who brought this one to my attention here.

S: Yes.

R: I'm interested in what—we've talked a little bit before about things like the Templeton Foundation, which is an organization that gives out a prize—gives out prizes to people who can explore science in a religious context, basically. And I'm a bit opposed to it. I feel like it's muddying the waters. I think we don't need to bring religion into what people are doing at CERN.

S: Mm-hmm.

R: I think those two things are happily separated, but I'm interested in knowing your feelings on this.

S: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think trying to introduce theology into science is misguided. You know, this conference was specifically about the origin of the universe. So, it's not just about scientific issues in particular. I think the thinking, at least on the part of the theologians who were quoted about this conference, is that, well, you're talking about the origin of the universe. That's a really big question, and religion is about answering the really big questions, not science. Science is narrow and reductionist, and makes stuff, but can't really grapple with the big questions of our origins. And that's exactly incorrect, as you were saying. That's a complete knock to science. I mean, science is, in fact, the only human intellectual endeavor that can answer any empirical question about the origin of the universe.

R: Yeah.

J: So, was the conference, though, the scientists trying to appease religious people? The saying that—

R: Well, you know, apparently, this was—the conference was done on the part of CERN, according to BBC, and that's what I find troubling. I'm totally OK with a conference that religious people host, you know, and the topic might be "How do we..." you know, "How do we consider our theology now that we know X, Y, and Z—now that science has discovered this? What does that mean to our belief system?" And I think that's fine, but, you know, apparently, the theologians who were there seem to think that this was a chance to debate the scientists.

J: Yeah.

E: Yeah.

R: And no! Why would you do that? Debate is completely the opposite direction of where you want to go.

S: It also—I mean, the quotes seem to me like a desperate grasp at relevance; trying to make it seem like they're—you know, that theology is still relevant to questions about origins of the universe, when, in fact, science has completely displaced it from that endeavor.

J: So, did it end up with, like, a fistfight? Like, what happened?


E: Science won.

R: I haven't found any evidence of any arrests, so, apparently not.

S: There were no fisticuffs?

J: That really must've been awkward as hell, though, right? Like, they're like, sitting there, like, after a whole day, and they're like, "Uh, OK, it's over now."

E: Something tells me they're not going to be doing this again. They're going to learn from this.

S: I don't know.

R: Well, I mean, it's actually not even—like, I wish it had been that exciting. But, instead, it just seems like it was really boring

E: Yeah.

R: —and nobody came to any conclusions. Because you can't, you know?

S: Yeah.

R: You're just having a discussion of, like, "Well, you know, but what don't we know?"

Italian Earthquake Scientists Convicted (14:57)[edit]

Reuters: Italian scientists convicted over earthquake warning

S: Now, we're trying to keep—we like to keep our live shows really light...


E: So far, so good.

S: So, we thought we'd talk about a horrible earthquake that killed over three hundred people.

E: Yeah, let's go there.

R: Good intro. Good intro there.

S: But there's actually a better story embedded in that. There were six Italian scientists who were recently convicted for manslaughter—

B: Yeah.

S: —for failure to properly communicate the warnings about the upcoming L'Aquila earthquake in 2009. Yeah, we've been following this story, you know, since it happened. The quick version is that there were a number of small tremors in this very earthquake-prone part of Italy, and the geologists—the local geologists, you know, were following it. And their opinion was that, well, these tremors are very common. Most such tremors are not followed by major quakes. Most major quakes are not preceded by these kinds of tremors. So, the probability of a major quake occurring is not particularly higher, you know, now, just because of these tremors, than at any time, and therefore, there's no cause for alarm. Now, they were specifically asked during a press conference, "Should we panic?" You know, "Should we evacuate?" And they said "No. There's no reason to evacuate. Stay at home and drink a glass of wine."

B: Steve, was this about a year ago that we covered this?

S: 2009. 2009.

B: Oh, wow. (inaudible)

S: —so, was the quake, and then the court trial started about a year ago, and now the decision came down that the six scientists were convicted to six years—I think six years in prison and something like, you know, millions of dollars in damages for manslaughter, for the deaths of the people who didn't evacuate because they—of their reassurances that there was nothing to be worried about.

R: That's horrific.

J: Well, I, you know, to play devil's advocate real quick, if there was true negligence—like, if they didn't follow through with things that they needed to do, if they did a terrible job at analyzing the data, in a fashion that—where the data could have been analyzed better, or they actually weren't asking their peers for the information—I can understand if there was extreme negligence.

S: Right.

J: But, even still, like, that's very hard to prove, and I just don't understand—

S: Well, I mean, not really. The question is, was their opinion within the standard for their profession? That's—in my opinion, that's the only real question here. You can't be blamed for being wrong, right? You can't be blamed for a bad outcome if you were following the standard. Now, of course, scientists can't predict earthquakes. You can't predict when an earthquake is going to occur. That's the bottom line. What—every statement they said was truthful; you know, every factual statement. "These tremors do not necessarily mean that there's an earthquake coming, and they are not a reason to evacuate. We don't evacuate every city whenever there's tremors because there might be a major quake, because it's not that predictive." So, that was not negligence. No, and they weren't really being accused of negligence. They were basically being accused of poorly communicating to the public. It seems to be based on a lot of false premises about what scientists can know; what an expert about, you know, an earthquake, a geologist, expert can know.

R: Yeah, they've been convicted for not using a magical power they don't have.

S: Yeah.

R: They might as well have convicted all the psychics in Italy for not accurately predicting this earthquake.

J: I think we need to be careful—I don't disagree, of course; I don't think that these men should be going to jail for this at all, but it is an important thing to state that, I think, people should go to prison, or get in trouble legally, if they are misrepresenting science or—right? So you see where I'm going with this.

S: Well, yeah. If you are—

J: If you're setting that premise; if you're saying, "Hey, these guys screwed up; they didn't do what they were supposed to do; they didn't communicate to us the real possible outcomes here", whatever, and like—

S: Yeah.

J: —I'll reiterate, I don't think that they should be going to jail—

B: Well, I don't agree—

J: —but, I do think, though, that that standard that that court set needs to be applied all the way down the ladder.

B: Yeah, but, Jay, like, someone saying that "I have a cure for cancer and it's scientifically proven" but it's a sham?

J: Exactly, right? So, if they're going to actually take those scientists out and say, "You're done. You're not performing science anymore and you're going to jail for that bad decision or information you gave", well, hello! Then, you know, all of a sudden, a million lawsuits need to be filed.

S: But, it wasn't—to clarify, though, it wasn't bad, it was just unlucky. I mean, doctors encounter this all the time, you know. You are asked to decide, you know, what tests to order, what diagnoses a patient might have. There's a whole lot of liability involved with that. You can't be convicted of malpractice just because of a bad outcome if what you did was within the standard of care.

B: Right.

S: So, was the information they were giving to the public within the standard for the profession? If the answer is "yes", the fact that there was a low-probability earthquake the next week is not their fault.

E: Right.

S: It doesn't change the fact—you know, if they're saying there's a 99% chance that there's not going to be an earthquake, and then the 1% thing happens, they were still right—

J: Yeah.

S: —in saying that it was unlikely.

R: Yeah.

E: Didn't the evidence show, basically, that they performed correctly, essentially? They did not—

S: That's the consensus. I mean, so, there's worldwide outrage, especially among the scientific community—

B: This has got to be shot down in a higher court.

S: Yeah.

B: This can't—can't possibly stand.

E: I hope so.

S: Well, there's two appeals left. There's two appeals, and they will stay out of prison before those appeals. So, the United States National Academy of Science, the Royal Academy of Science—the Royal Society, rather—issued a joint statement saying that "that is why we must protest the verdict in Italy. If it becomes a precedent in law, it could lead to a situation in which scientists will be afraid to give expert opinion[...][2]"

J: Yeah, that's devastating.

E: Mm-hmm.

S: So, it would have a chilling effect. What—you know, what geologist is going to, you know, talk to the public in Italy now, if you could wind up in jail and, you know, financially devastated, and your career devastated, because you can't predict the future; you know, because you don't have a crystal ball? It's insane. It's insane.

J: Yeah. To think that they're going after these scientists, and they're not going after the rampant quackery throughout—

S: Well, there's that, too.

E: I wonder how much pressure they came under from, like, the families, the survivors, of this terrible, terrible devastation—

J: Oh yeah, they had to hang someone.

E: —and I imagine they put a lot of pressure on politicians and other people in order to hold somebody accountable.

J: They have to. They had to send someone down the river for that.

B: Did they have a trial?

S: Yeah.

B: Did they have witnesses and experts coming in?

S: Yeah. Yep.

B: I'd love to know the details of what exactly happened, because how could—


S: So, we'll see if the worldwide backlash has an effect. I mean, again, they do have two appeals left, so we'll definitely follow it.

Whale Makes Human Sounds (21:35)[edit]

BBC: Beluga whale 'makes human-like sounds'

S: All right, Rebecca, so, we have a cute animal—

R: Thank you.

S: —we're going to talk about now.

J: This is a happy one!

R: Just tell me this narwhal or whatever is alive.

S: It's a whale.

E: It's alive and well.

S: It's a beluga whale.

B: It sort of looks like a narwhal.

R: Tell me this beluga is alive!

E: That's NOC the beluga. They're very much alive.

R: It's not a beluga?

E: "NOC". N-O-C.

S: "NOC". NOC the beluga.

R: Oh! "That's NOC."


R: I was about to say, "No, that is a beluga."

S: Sounds like a children's song.

E: It does sound like a children's—

S: Evan, sing it.

E: No.

S: OK.

J: Don't change it! Please don't—

E: If my daughter was here, maybe. But no. So what's important about NOC the beluga? Well, OK, so, picture this: You are part of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, OK, and you're in the tank, swimming around with the whales and stuff, and all of a sudden, you hear somebody—you hear a voice call your name. Something to the effect that—"Get out of the water! Get out of the water!" So, you're in the tank and you come up and you say, "OK, who told me to get out of the water? Who told me to get out of the water?" And the other scientists and people are looking around you like, "Nobody? What the heck are you talking about?" And, he's like, "Well, I definitely heard that!" Well, what did he actually hear? Well, apparently, NOC the beluga made some noises very reminiscent of human noises. Beluga whales are, you know, incredible creatures. Their calls—They're known as the canaries of the sea. They have a very high-frequency, high-pitched tone to their noises that they make, but they make lots of different kinds of noises. They can emit up to eleven different kinds of sounds: crackles, whistles, trills, squawks; all sorts of things. But it's been rumored that these whales can emit noises that sound like humans talking. And for the first time, they've actually recorded NOC the whale making these noises, and they have it on tape. And we have it on tape.

R: Nah.

(NOC makes unnervingly human-sounding noises)

R: Did he maybe just swallow a kazoo?


J: Everybody has a drunk neighbor that makes those noises.


E: Oh, gosh. Who knows what the heck he was saying? You know, dolphins have been taught to mimic noises that kind of sound like human voices, but... before this, there's been no record of an animal spontaneously coming up and making these kinds of noises. This is the first evidence—the first hard evidence we have of it.

R: Here's – I have a theory. I have a theory. I have a theory that—so, whales, in general, are incredibly intelligent.

E: Oh yeah.

R: Possibly as smart as us, but they don't have thumbs, or any way to talk to us—

E: Or fire.

R: —and I feel like they basically—That's true. No, I saw SquarePants Spongebob once. There was fire under the sea. I think it can be done.

S: Yep, but they don't have nanotechnology, though.

R: They don't. So, my theory is that whales are basically like—they have—it's like they have locked-in syndrome, you know? Where they're just—

J: Oh, no.

R: —super-intelligent, and there's all these people around them, and they're just messing with them—

J: So, he was screaming, actually.

R: Yeah! And, so, he's been like, his whole life, he's been in this stupid little—like, he's in captivity, right? So, he's been in this stupid little aquarium, and he's just, like, "I hate all of you! And I'm going to will myself to tell you, because you're too stupid to understand!"

E: So, basically, what's going on here is, the whale has learned to change—rapidly change pressure within its navel cavity in order to create these sounds. And, it hasn't—the whale is able to over-inflate what's known as its vestibular sac in its blowhole, which is normally—acts to stop water from basically coming in. So, the whale is going through a lot of, you know, effort, essentially, to try to make these noises. And I'm sure they're going to be trying to figure out exactly, you know, basically, why is the whale doing this?

S: Well, he just—this whale was—did spend his life in captivity—

E: Yeah.

S: —so, he did hear human speech a lot, and maybe he's just, to some extent, mimicking the sounds that he grew up hearing his whole life.

J: It's definitely—it definitely has a human sound to it, in the cadence and everything.

S: Yeah.

J: I mean, he's intelligent enough to mimic a human, which is really cool.

R: Yeah.

J: And, then, you always think, you know, if he can mimic a human—if his brain is advanced that much—you know, maybe he—

B: Mm-hmm.

S: But, is he mimicking humans or making fun of humans? You know, like people make fun of other languages?

R: Yeah, he's just like "Weh! Weh! Weh! This is what you sound like!"

E: Yeah. You stupid bald monkey and (inaudible)! Get out of here!

B: Sounds like a false dichotomy.

PANDAS Controversy (26:18)[edit]

Science Based Medicine: A PANDAS Story

S: So, we're going to talk about—going from talking about beluga whales to talking about PANDAS! Except, we're not talking about pandas, because we're talking about—

E: Wait.

R: Stop toying with my emotions, Steve!

S: I had to put a cute picture of a panda up there for you, Rebecca. We are talking about pediatric autoimmune—

R: It makes sense.

S: —neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infection—

E: I didn't know PANDA was an acronym. Cool!

R: Steve, I miss the panda.

S: —or PANDAS. See? There's a panda.

(laughter, cooing)

E: Aww!

R: Yay.

S: We're talking about PANDAS—

E: Aww.

R: Boo.

J: Oh.

E: That's worse.

S: —which is a legitimately controversial medical diagnosis! So, essentially, what happens is children suddenly develop tics, like Tourette syndrome and psychiatric disorders—obsessive–compulsive disorder—and it is thought that, in some cases, that it is actually—the inciting event is an infection—bacteria—streptococcal infection. Now, of course, it's always difficult to establish the reality of a new disease. Unless you get all your ducks in a row, and all the, you know, pathology all adds up, it's sometimes difficult to identify a legitimate new syndrome and to prove that—cause and effect. So, correlation is one thing. As we know, correlation is not necessarily causation. And so, the syndrome exists. There are—the number of physicians who have identified the sudden onset psychiatric—neuropsychiatric disorder, and in some cases it is temporally associated with a streptococcal infection. But that's not the same thing as saying that the strep infection caused the neuropsychiatric syndrome. So, that's—and there's the controversy. Now, of course, we live in the modern Internet age. So, as soon as a scientist says, "I think that there's this syndrome—I want to call it PANDAS—and—sort of, you know, a psychiatric syndrome provoked by a bacterial infection", of course, there are now support groups, and there's groups on the Internet, and there's patient groups supporting this diagnosis before the science is even settled. And then, of course, once that happens, when you try to do more science, or have any kind of discussion about whether or not this is a real syndrome, you have parents and patient groups and advocacy groups, you know, calling you all kinds of nasty names and saying there's a conspiracy against people with PANDAS; it's all the insurance companies and Big Pharma and evil doctors or whatever. So, that's the situation that we're in the middle of right now, unfortunately, is that before the science is settled, you know, there's the scientific controversy, then there's the public controversy. This came to the media attention recently because of a 16-year-old girl called Elizabeth Wray. She developed, you know, a syndrome like PANDAS with tics and psychological disorders, was diagnosed by a physician with PANDAS, and then was transferred to Boston's Children Hospital for—presumably for further treatment of PANDAS. Now, the story that is going around the PANDAS community is that once she got to Boston University—or Boston Children's Hospital—she was told—the parents were told, "We don't believe that PANDAS is real, that it exists", and then they essentially admitted their daughter to the psychiatric unit and started treating her with psychiatric medications. Now, I don't know if that's true, because the doctors and the hospital are not telling their side of the story because of patient confidentiality. So, we don't know what their side of the story is. We only know the parents' side of the story, filtered through the PANDAS community. Unfortunately, now there's—this story has taken on a life of its own. There's a Free Elizabeth Wray movement going on within the PANDAS community; they're telling all kinds of horror stories about Boston Children's Hospital, and, you know, we can't verify any of it. What's interesting in reading about it is that each side has their narrative—and I wrote about this on Science-Based Medicine, because one of the things that—the ideas that we're wrestling with in the skeptical community is that—well, all right, we have, I think, a good approach to critical thinking, we understand a lot about self-deception, about the nature of science and pseudoscience, but we don't always have a good story to tell the public, or we have a hard time convincing mainstream outlets that we have—that our story is an interesting and good one. You know, we have to really market our narrative—the skeptical narrative. When you read about stories like this, the PANDAS proponents have a really compelling emotional narrative. It may be total B.S., I don't know, but it's very compelling. They have a story of a child suffering from an unusual disease, parents who just want to do what's right for her—I believe all those things are correct—and then they are, essentially, being abused by a dismissive and skeptical medical establishment who doesn't believe in this disease, and that is treating their child with perhaps harmful, you know, psychiatric medications. They even—this went to court. Apparently, the hospital thought that the parents were being negligent in not allowing them to give proper standard of care, psychiatric treatment, to their child, and they wanted to have custody taken away from the parents, and they wanted to admit Elizabeth to a locked psychiatric ward—again, not sure, I can't verify those from the hospital's side of things. A judge—a Massachusetts judge essentially made her a ward of the state while they sorted out what was going on, but they did not grant the hospital their request to treat her in the way that they wanted to. So, they essentially just—the state took her out of everybody's hands for a moment—for the moment. So, it's interesting. Of course, the PANDAS community, again, is up in arms, you know. The court essentially took custody away from these parents that are only trying to do what's right for their daughter. But, of course, you could see the other narrative. You know, let's assume that the physicians think that—even if you think—whether or not you think PANDAS really exists, they think that she has a psychiatric illness; the parents are in denial; they're pursuing this false diagnosis, and they're, you know, refusing standard medical care. That's a story, too.

B: What if you just pulled out the whole strep association, and just treat it like a "pandisorder"? Is their beef that it's associated with strep, and they don't think there's any association? Why don't they just treat it like a neuropsychiatric disorder—

S: Yeah.

B: —and forget about the whole strep association?

S: Well, because the strep association would lead you to treat with things like antibiotics. So, that's the question: Should you treat it with antibiotics, or should you treat her like a psychiatric presentation?

J: Why not both? I mean, why wouldn't you...

S: Well, she has had at least one round of antibiotics. You can also treat it like an autoimmune disease, with, like, intravenous immune globulin, for example. So, I mean, these are real medical questions. Do we treat it like an infection? Do we treat it like a post-infectious auto-immune disease, or do we treat it like a psychiatric disorder? Those are real questions.

J: Steve, are you saying pandas don't exist? Let me just get this straight.


S: So, well, I did—to give a serious answer to your sarcastic question, I did—

R: My favorite kind.

S: —take the opportunity—I'm good that way. I'm good that way. I did take the opportunity just to familiarize myself with the PANDAS literature. Again, I always emphasize, I'm no an expert in this, but I can read the literature and give my opinion like a science journalist—I think it's genuinely controversial. When I read the research, there's lots of—the ducks are not in a row. So, when you do things like treat kids who apparently have PANDAS with antibiotics in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, they don't necessarily improve. And, if you look for the antibodies that are supposed to be there, they don't necessarily correlate with the disease onset or with the existence of strep. So—

B: So, this is clearly not like autism and vaccines. It's just more complicated than that.

S: So, no. So, right. So, autism and vaccines, like, I would say, that's been studied enough to say that autism's—that autism is not caused by vaccines. We can say that. We can make the negative statement. I cannot make the negative statement that PANDAS does not exist, only that the research so far has not reached the threshold where we can agree that it does exist and that there is some actual negative data—there's some positive data, too, so it's legitimately controversial. It did remind me, though, of the chronic Lyme disease controversy—

R: Yeah.

S: —which is very common in New England—again, where they think that a number of symptoms, including neurological symptoms, can be caused by a bacterial infection and treated with antibiotics. And the same—there's a lot of overlap in those two communities, you know.

J: Steve, are you saying that the public has unrealistic expectations?

S: Well, I think—it's partly that. I mean, I think the public is uncomfortable with the uncertainty, and they like this sort of hero–villain narrative, so they paint the medical community as the villains, and—except for those maverick physicians who understand. They're Lyme-literate, or they understand PANDAS, so they're the heroes—and then, the insurance companies don't want to pay for, you know, over-and-over recurrent courses of IV antibiotics, so they're the villains, you know. They're not—I'm not defending insurance companies, but sometimes they actually—sometimes they're right. They don't want to pay for things that are not science-based or evidence-based. So, it's complicated. And, you know, how do we—so, how do we deal with a child with this disorder when we don't know what the best scientific answer is? We don't know if it's autoimmune, infectious, or psychiatric? We just have to, you know, do the best we can, and there may be different physicians who would take different approaches. But to portray it as "PANDAS definitely exists. If you don't believe in it, you're dismissive and you're mean and evil, or you're protecting some kind of Big Pharma grant that you're getting"—they always bring that up—rather than saying, "You know, we really want to know the right answer, but we just haven't found it yet." It's still—it's legitimately controversial.

J: Yeah, I think what you're saying does confirm what I was thinking, is that the public wants an answer; science is not yet done figuring this one out, and—

S: Yeah. Like the earthquake one, right?

J: Yeah.

S: Sometimes the answer is, "We don't know yet", you know. "We need to do more research". In medicine, we have to make decisions with imperfect, you know, information, so, you know.

J: Wouldn't it be typical, too, like, let's say that this is happening over and over again—

S: Yeah.

J: —like, at some point, some doctors are going to come up with different ideas, they're going to try it out, you know. The trial-and-error process happens, and I hate to say it, but this girl is probably going to be one of the people that gets tested on with new ideas.

S: Well, I mean—well, if you're really testing then you should be doing a research protocol. If you're just applying the best knowledge that we have to an individual patient, that's—a certain amount of trial and error with that that's not really experimentation. So, there is a difference there. So, I don't know. The other interesting question that I'm kind of alluding to is: "what role do the patient or the advocacy groups play?" I think, a lot of times, that they are helpful in raising awareness for a disease or a disorder and raising funding in advocating for patients. You know, I've seen—I think there's a lot of very effective, very good patient advocacy groups out there. But, sometimes, they put their nickel down on a specific scientific answer, and that's not their job.

J: Yeah.

S: It's not their job to predict or demand that science give them the answer they want. And, you know, unfortunately, some people want the answer to be "an infection", not "genes", not, you know, "We don't know".

J: Yeah. It's curable. That's the one they want.

S: Of course, who—that's the answer I would want to have! "It's something outside that is, you know, foreign, that can be cured, and that can reverse my child to the way that they were". Who—every parent wants that to be the answer, but sometimes you—you know, you have to step back from what you want and listen to the evidence. That's the—that's the scientist's—that's the physician's job, you know. You should just let them do their job, you know.

J: All right, so, I want to bring up a quick side point on this.

S: Yeah.

J: So, as an example, let's say, fifty years ago, let's say this was happening. What stance do you think the public would have differently than what we're seeing today?

S: It's the same, and this did happen fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, you know, she would be diagnosed with neurosyphilis. Maybe not somebody who was sixteen, but that was the stand-in for what we now would, you know, the same subculture would diagnose with chronic Lyme. There were believers in that. There were physicians who believed in treatments like chelation therapy, you know, and science proved it wrong, and they said, "Well, we don't care, we're going to still do it. We're going to come up with—We're just going to keep coming up with special pleading and alternate theories, and form our own societies and our own—and just keep doing it, and say that it's all a conspiracy."

J: Mm-hmm.

S: So, but, I think that it's just the turnaround time is so much faster because of the Internet. Like, another example: CCSVI, right? The alleged blockage in the veins that drain blood from the brain, causing Multiple Sclerosis. It's that—that whole process of Dr. Zamboni proposing this entity and a treatment, to it being researched, to it being refuted, to, you know, patient advocacy groups springing up and calling for conspiracies and calling for research and demanding that science give them the answer that they want—all has taken place within a few years. We've seen that cycle happen right before our eyes. So, the Internet is just making it happen a lot quicker and a lot bigger, I think. But it's always been this way.

J: So do you have any ideas on what we could do? Could the skeptical community do anything to help this—

S: Well, I think what we do is, we discuss the issue from a science, logical, critical thinking point of view, you know. We point out the role of science in this, and we, I think, we try to bring the public discourse to a level that can deal with it in a more productive way, rather than the conspiracy mongering, sort of lowest common denominator that it would otherwise sink to.

J: Yeah.

Reporting Ghost Stories (39:44)[edit]

University of Delaware: Study Examines Influence of Media Messages on Perceptions of Paranormal Investigators' Credibility

S: Well, let's move on. Jay, we're talking about how the media presents stories about paranormal activities.

J: Yeah, this is interesting. So, a professor decided to—Professor Brewer decided that because what we're seeing over the years is a very obvious interest in the general public to news articles, and to TV shows, that talk about ghosts—and, you know, we've all seen the Ghost Hunter TV show—and, to people like us, at best, we watch it, and it's fun, right? 'Cause it's ridiculous and entertaining, and we like to see people from our perspective—a skeptical perspective—they're acting foolishly. But, there are a lot of people that are watching this and they're riveted. Like, they really love it and they think a lot of it's real, and, I'm sure, to a certain degree, I can't say everyone that watches it and thinks everything about it is real, but, in the end, there's a huge entertainment factor there, and unfortunately, to us skeptics, we feel like there's a lot of people that simply believe it, and that's their favorite entertainment. And I know a lot of people—I'm friends with a lot of people that literally have active discussions on Facebook all the time, that I dip into, that are talking about the latest TAPS show. It would be be, "Can you believe it?" and "I knew that place was haunted!", and they're like, you know, getting whooped up.

S: I don't get it. I just don't get it. Nothing happens!

J: Yeah.


R: That's not true! That's not true.

E: Like Seinfeld, yeah.

S: But, I mean, but they never find a ghost.

R: Steve, Steve. Did you feel that?


R: That happens! That happens all the time.


R: They feel so much.

J: The thing is, you know—

S: I want to see a full, floating torso drift across the camera lens. Then I'll be impressed.

B: I still won't believe it.

S: No, but at least it'll be entertaining.

J: A lot of the shows, though, they're all right on the cusp, you know, of the noise, right? They're always right on that cusp. They're always just seeing something, or something falls over, you know? Or there's a noise from upstairs, or whatever, and it's never—they never give you that, you know? You don't get that.

R: This, actually—this came up—tomorrow I'll be talking about the paranormal road trip that I just went on with Jon Ronson and Richard Wiseman that got us here, and, at one of the stops we were at a—we did talk to someone in a "haunted museum", and she was telling us that "the ghost hunters were there, and it was very exciting because there was a noise in the attic, and there were steps (step sounds) even though nobody was up there, and so the ghost hunter ran over and climbed up the ladder and looked into the attic, and just then, a lady dressed all in white, came flying at him, and he shrieked in horror and fell down the ladder, and it was all really dramatic", and we were just completely blown away, obviously. We were riveted—

E: Yeah, well.

R: —and we said, "We cannot wait to see that footage!"


R: —and she said, "Actually, I mean, it was so good, they didn't actually get that on camera."

E: Darn it!

R: No, all the cameras were down in another room somewhere.

J: Yeah, of course.

E: Well.

S: That was like—

R: There's literally no evidence of it, though. Yeah.

S: —Ed Warren. We were investigating Ed Warren. He told us this story of being in a haunted house, and they had a local news crew over there, and, like, for two hours, they videotaped things flying around the room, you know, like, I say, really impressive, you know, smoking-gun evidence of paranormal activity. We're like, "Great! Can we see that footage?"

E: Sure!

J: "Yeah!"

S: "You know what? They taped over it for the news segment later that night."


S: Go figure. Stupid news crew.

J: So, I—I'm going to ask a couple of questions that I want you guys to not answer right now, but just think about it, 'cause these are pretty obvious questions, but I think they're interesting. "Why do people believe, or like to believe, in the paranormal? What's the attraction?" It's an interesting question if you think about it. There are people that really seek it out and love it. And there's something exciting about it. There's something kind of visceral about it. To my mind, to a skeptical mind, I don't have a connection to it. I just don't see what that allure is, other than maybe—because I do like horror movies, and I do like to get scared. I love being actually scared sitting in a movie theater. It doesn't happen that often, but when it does happen it's very thrilling, and maybe they're just having a lot of those thrilling moments. It's easier for them to get scared.

R: But, also, I mean, don't you think, maybe, it's got something to do with the fact that, maybe, we're not going to rot in the ground and die and never see our loved ones again...? Maybe?

J: Maybe? It's—you know, I'm not going to say no, but when I think about it, there's something thrilling about it. I'm not thinking, as I'm being thrilled in a horror movie, "Oh, I'm defying death by being thrilled right now!" That's not happening. I'm just—there is something—it's like, you know, eating something really spicy that hurts.

S: Yeah, but to—

J: It hurts, but it's good at the same time, right?

E: Uh.

S: To a lot of people, definitely, you know, evidence of ghosts is evidence of the afterlife. That's the appeal.

R: Yeah, and when we talk to people who describe their own experiences often, they're talking about Grandma and Grandpa and whatnot coming back to them and telling them that it's all OK. You know, and they're very comforting messages—

E: Yeah, which is why—

S: They want a narrative.

E: Which is why they watch these shows. It reinforces these positions that these people have, you know, and they derive a certain, you know, need out of it.

J: I wonder, though, because those shows are so bad! They're so bad. Can they really be, you know?

R: I mean, there's a lot of—No, no, no! Personally, I would derive a lot of happiness from knowing that my dearly beloved grandmother, who I adored when I was young—she died when I was young—I would get so much happiness knowing that she was just screwing around with asshole ghost hunters on TV. Just, like, brushing past them and then disappearing whenever the cameras come out you know? That would give me a lot of satisfaction, knowing that.

J: Well, maybe the skeptical version of it is watching a YouTube video of Hitchens just tearing some moron apart, right? That's our version of that?

E: That releases endorphins, yeah.

J: 'Cause that makes me believe in something, right?

E: Yeah.

J: It gives me a thrill, but—OK, anyways. So, there is an article we're talking about here. So, Dr. Paul Brewer, who is—teaches at the University of Delaware, developed a study that was recently published in the journal Science Communication that examines the influence of the media on the public's perception of the paranormal. So, here is his test: He took four news articles that were similar to each other, but they had significant differences in some of the details. The essence of it was, he had an article on one end of the spectrum that described a paranormal effect with a paranormal investigator, and they were using instruments to measure things, or whatever. And, then, as you go down to the fourth article, the fourth article gets very descriptive about using, you know, faux scientific language to make the paranormal investigators sound scientifically-minded, and using scientific tools. And what he found was, the more of the faux science that was in the article, the more that the people believed that the paranormal accounts were true. You know, it's kind of a kick in the gut for us skeptics, because—and for us scientists—because they're using our lingo, and our vernacular, and the way that we go about presenting data, and they're fooling people with it. Because, I think, the general public is trained to a certain degree to recognize scientific language and recognize the formality of science, and they're using that, and I don't know how deliberate it is. Maybe they figured it out for the TV shows, that, you know, "hey, the more we B.S. this, the more we make this meter look cool and we throw in, you know, technical jargon, the more people that are going to be interested in our TV show".

B: I think they also believe it themselves, Jay. They think they're being scientific.

J: Yeah.

E: That's right, yeah.

B: That's a big part of it as well.

E: You bet they do.

J: So, Brewer said it wasn't just any story about paranormal investigators that made people believe in ghosts and haunted houses. It was a story about how they were scientific. So, he puts a big emphasis on the science there. And, the good news was that he said that they might look at this and say, "Well, all it takes is this sprinkle of some acronyms in there, and wave around a cool-looking thing that beeps, and suddenly people believe in ghosts and haunted houses." Now, the one cool thing about his research was, he also found that if, at the end of the article, there was a skeptical disclaimer that said "This is the skeptical perspective. This is why that investigation was wrong. This is the mistakes that they made and this is why these instruments are bogus."—if they threw that in there, it actually made the people believe in the claims a lot less.

R: What?

J: Yeah, it actually worked.

R: The thing that we're always complaining about: that, like, one sentence that presents—

S: The token skeptic?

E: The token skeptic, yeah.

R: —the entirety of skeptical opinion—that actually does make a difference?

J: Well, I don't want to—I don't want to say that the token skeptic 30-second B.S. blurb that they cut on most of the TV shows that we see works. The way that he presented it, it seemed a little bit like it had more teeth. It wasn't a quick thing. I think it was a little bit more of a takedown.

S: So, there was a series of studies about ten years ago, where they looked at the same thing, at the presentation of pseudoscience in a documentary and its effect on people's belief in the subject matter, like belief in UFOs or alien visitation, and they found some similar things in that, when it was presented scientifically, that absolutely increased belief. They also found that if, at any point in time, it was said—there was any kind of disclaimer saying "the following claims are true", or that "the following claims may or may not be true", or whatever—anything positive or negative reduced belief, or reduced the increase in belief, following the segment. So, anything that triggered people's questioning about "is it true or is it not true" was actually a good thing. But they found the opposite in that the token skepticism at the end: a scientist coming in at the end and saying, you know, "We've evaluated this, and it's not true", increased belief in the thing, because it lent legitimacy to the whole enterprise—the very fact that a scientist was spending their time and giving their attention to it.

J: Oh, yeah.

S: So—

B: Is that a cultural change—

S: Well, maybe—

B: —or is it the study?

S: Well, all right. I don't know. I don't know what the answer to that is. But, one possible interpretation may be that the token ineffective skepticism actually has a negative effect in raising belief in the paranormal because it's lending false legitimacy, but if you give effective, you know, analysis—

B: Yeah.

S: —effective skeptical analysis, maybe you could reverse that and bring it back down.

J: Yeah, from from what the article said, it was, I think, an equal paragraph on the skeptical perspective—

S: Yes.

J: —and, specifically—

S: We really do have to argue for equal time and for getting the skeptical position—

J: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

S: —not the talking head blurb token skepticism may not—may still be counterproductive.

J: And the thing that he said was that there—the article, the paragraph, did a takedown of the people that were claiming to be scientists.

S: Mm-hmm.

J: So, it stripped their expertise away, in essence.

S: Yeah. Yeah.

J: So, you know, I think it's interesting. I think that we're hard-wired for these things. I find, unfortunately, more and more TV programs—hey, you guys noticing, what's with the reality TV? Like, why is reality TV taking over television? Have you asked yourself that question?

S: 'Cause it's cheap.

E: It's cheap.

S: It's cheap, yeah.


Live Q&A (51:06)[edit]

  • Questions from the CSICon audience

S: OK, we do have a few minutes for some Q&A. If you want to ask us a question, you can ask us anything. We won't necessarily answer, but you can ask.

Tim Farley: Rebecca, I hate to break this to you, but NOC the beluga died five years ago.

R: God damn it!

J: Aww.


R: God damn it, Tim Farley!

J: Tim Farley!

Q1: On a more serious note: Jay, apropos of what you said, I'm waiting for the skeptics community to have some reaction to the television show The Long Island Medium

J: Oh.

S: Yeah.

Q1: —especially when she has kids on the program and she's telling them that, you know, she's talking to their dead parent.

J: Yeah, yeah. It's pathetic.

R: Oh. What a sick line.

S: I haven't brought myself to watch it yet. You know, I know it's out there. At some point, I think we probably should bite the bullet and then do an actual review, but I—the reports that I heard are, as you say, really abusive—

E: Yeah.

S: —very exploitative, not just that it's totally gullible nonsense. It's really exploitative. Yep.

Q2: Love your podcast; listen a lot. Always wondered whose voice says, "And now it's time for Science or Fiction".

J: That's changed over the years. The—

S: The current voice is...

R: It's Iszi.

S: Iszi. Iszi.

J: Iszi Lawrence, yeah.

R: Iszi Lawrence. She has a podcast called "Sundays Supplement". She's a skeptic and a stand-up comedian in England. She's a good friend of ours.

S: So that's a genuine British accent, unlike some of the previous people who have said this.

J: Yeah.


S: Yes?

Q3: Yeah, with this—the Italian decision about the geologists and the—not predicting the volcano, or the earthquakes—there could—there's, like, a silver lining here. This could be a boon to the insurance industry, because maybe geologists and seismologists need to take out malpractice insurance.

J: Mm-hmm.

R: That's your "silver lining"?! The insurance companies? Like, "Well, with all of this, I was really worried about the HMOs, but it looks like I'll be all right."

Q4: All right. Hi, guys! I love the podcast and I love everything you guys do. I'm—

S: Really? Everything we do? You don't know half the stuff that we do.

J: Yeah!

R: You don't want to know.

Q4: Certainly everything I'm aware that you guys do—

S: Oh, OK.

Q4: —and assume you do, which is really (inaudible)

S: Good caveat.

J: He hasn't seen "Occ: The Skeptical Caveman" yet, so—

Q4: Oh, I certainly have!

J: Oh, and you like it?

Q4: Yeah, it's really good stuff!

R: Don't sound so surprised, Jay.

J: Just kidding.

Q4: Anyway. I'm a teaching assistant, and I help teach a lot of science courses—a lot of basic science courses, and we teach the scientific method, and most people understand the scientific method, but there's this other part that never gets explicitly put in there, like, this honesty and integrity built into it, like you need to make sure that the effect that you're trying to explain is really there, and that kind of stuff. Have you guys come up with a really good way to explain that part of science to people?

S: You mean that you just have to be ethical? Or you have to really care about the truth, I guess, is what you're saying?

Q4: Yes.

S: Yeah. I mean, I think—you're right, that is sort of implicit in the scientific process, that, you know, you're trying to find the actual answer, not just work backwards to the answer that you want to have. So, I think that's also implicit in scientific skepticism. I mean, that's part of—you know, one of our core values is we want to know what's really really true, not just what seems to be true, and sometimes you have to dig really, really hard, and you have to be skeptical of your own conclusions. I mean, that is skepticism, I think, what you're saying. So, I think—combine that with the scientific method and you have scientific skepticism.

J: Yeah, but I think he was asking more about teaching the idea that you—we want to know the truth and be passionate about the truth—

S: Yeah.

J: —and I—it's a hard thing to teach, I think. I think that, you know, we're all kind of freakish in the idea that we're into skepticism. It's—it is something that you could teach your kids, absolutely. But, you know, how do you teach an adult to get into the truth, and get rid of all the garbage that's in their heads? It's hard, as, you know, as people get older, it's hard for them to learn that, I think. But I do agree with you. I think we need to inspire kids to—first off, teach them skepticism. Let's just start with that. I think that the caring will come with that.

Science or Fiction (55:19)[edit]

It's time for Science or Fiction

S: "Science or Fiction". I'm going to read you three items—two are real, one is fiction—and then we'll poll the audience. We'll see which one you think is the fiction. So, here we go. Item number one: "A new study finds that astronauts who have spent more than one month in microgravity have a 35% increased risk of heart attacks and strokes."

J: Whoa.

S: Number two: "Scientists have discovered the first feathered dinosaur in the western hemisphere, and also adds another dinosaur group known to have feathers." And item number three: "Researchers find that, at the molecular level, evolutionary changes can be highly predictable." All right. So, let's start by polling the audience. Applaud for the one that you think is the fiction. How many people here think that the one about astronauts and heart attacks is the fiction?


S: OK. How many think the feathered dinosaur is the fiction?

(very limited applause)

S: OK.

E: Oh.

S: And how many think that the evolution-is-predictable is the fiction?


S: OK. I think that was 3–1–2.

R: Hmm.

S: Let's start at this end, Evan. Why don't you tell us what you think?

E: OK.

S: And, I'd like to remind my co-hosts, this is a live show. Keep it quick.

E: "New study finds that astronauts who have spent more than one month in microgravity have a 35% chance of—increased risk of heart attack and strokes." OK, so, hmm. What would be the trick here? "More than one month in microgravity. That is a long time, essentially, but 35%—I don't know. That seems like kind of a high number. A lot of things do happen to people in space—microgravity and so forth, and they do carefully study that and the effects on astronauts and so forth, so perhaps that one is true. Second one: "First feathered dinosaurs, western hemisphere, and also adds another dinosaur group known to have feathers." I have no idea about that one. Not a clue. Not a clue. I'll jump to the third one. "Researchers find that, at the molecular level, evolutionary changes can be highly predictable. At the molecular level. That's fascinating. Now, the audience said that that one was going to be most likely the fiction.

S: You're trying to convince them.

J: Yeah.


E: Well, you know, I think they convinced me more than I'm going to convince them of that one, right? I think—at the molecular level. I don't see it. I just can't see it happening at that level. "Evolutionary change is highly predictable." There's a bit of a vagary there in regards to the highly predictable at that level. I'll say that that one is fiction. I agree with the audience.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: Yeah, I found the audience's argument very convincing as well.


R: I have heard about health problems associated with low gravity—zero gravity—"35% increased"—it's the specifics that I'm not sure about. That doesn't seem ridiculous to me, that 35% increase, relatively speaking, I—you know, that doesn't sound too crazy to me. I feel like that could be—easily be science, knowing what I know about other health risks in zero gravity. I do think that there was recently a feathered dinosaur discovered. My problem here is that I believe it—I could be completely wrong about this, but I believe it was discovered in North America, and I do believe it was the first one in North America. Those are my thoughts. But, is that the first one in the western hemisphere? I don't know. So now I'm trying to think if there had been one discovered in South America before, because that's still the western hemisphere.

S: Last time I checked, yeah.

R: So, but, would you be that niggling? I'm not sure. And so that leaves us with the idea that evolutionary changes are highly—

S: "Predictable."

R: —predictable—thank you—on the molecular level. Yeah, that does seem way out there to me, 'cause it's written in such a way that makes me think that you have reversed that. But maybe that's what you're trying to make me think. So, for me, it's between the first and the third one, because—and, I should say that I question the first one simply because it doesn't seem out of the ordinary to me, and so you might be trying to, uh, to switch it up—so I'm staring deep into your eyes, 'cause I don't normally get this chance.

E: Yeah, it's like a poker read here, yeah.

R: This is like—yeah, this is like a game of poker.

E: Poker.

R: You just look bored.

(audience laughter)

R: That's what I'm getting from you right now, is an intense feeling of—

S: What, are you trying to cold read me now?

R: —boredom. I'm seeing an "M".

J: (in unison) I'm seeing an "M".

E: I see the number "3".

R: "Mmmmurder you if you don't get me the answer." That's what I'm getting from you.

E: "Mmmmurder".

R: So I'm going to go with the audience. I'm going to say that the evolutionary change is...

S: Evolutionary predictable. OK.

R: Yeah.

S: Bob?

B: OK, live show. The astronaut one, number one. 35% seems high to me. I know there's some major issues for extended stays in microgravity. They've gotta exercise, like, hours a day just to maintain what—you know, some muscle tone. But a month doesn't seem long enough, and 35% seems a little bit too much. 'Cause, I know that, when they come back, yeah, things can be tough in 1 g, but they get it back fairly quickly. So let's look at the other ones here. "First feathered dinosaur"? Yeah. Would it be the first? I know there—they discovered so many in China, but they could be the first one in the western hemisphere. "Another dinosaur group." You would think it would be another dinosaur group if it was the first in the western hemisphere. The third one? Yeah, this one's a little sketchy, but, I don't know, there could be some pattern—there could be some pattern that they detected at the molecular level. "Highly predictable." "Highly" is bothering me. It's... what do you mean by "highly"? Yeah, it's between one and three.

S: And therefore...

B: And therefore, all right. I'm going to go with the microgravity. 35% just seems like too much.

S: OK.

E: Oooh.

R: It's all right. Hedge your bets.

J: Well, OK. Number two I have no reason to doubt—the one about the feathered dinosaurs. The one about the evolutionary changes can be highly predictable? I'm curious what you mean by "evolutionary changes". I mean, are you saying that they can predict—and I know you're not going to answer this, but I'm questioning—can they predict that a mutation is going to occur, or are they predicting what the evolutionary change is going to be? Am I crazy in asking that question?

S: No. I'm not going to answer it, but you can ask.


J: So, I think that they can predict that there's going to be a mutation. I don't think that they can predict what that mutation is going to be. And I think that that's vague, and I'm not going to take that one. I'm going to go with the one about the astronauts as being the fake for a couple of reasons: One, 35% does seem like an awful lot. I think that that would mean that some heart—some astronauts would have had heart attacks, and I've never heard of an astronaut having a heart attack.

R: Really?

J: Have you?

R: I don't really look into it that much.

J: Well, there you go. That's it. I'm done.

S: All right. So, very quickly, let's see if they changed your mind. Who in the audience—again, applaud again—who thinks the astronauts is the fiction?


R: Definitely more.

S: Feathered dinosaurs?

(two or three people applaud)

S: Thank you. And, evolution being predictable?


E: Ooh.

J: We've had a major swing, Steve.

R: I'd say it's split!

E: Might be a little—

S: I think we swung them to number one!

R: Yeah.

S: But I can't convince anybody that this feathered dinosaur thing is fiction.

J: These two people here!

S: "Scientists have discovered the first feathered dinosaur—

R: You got these guys! What are they, chopped liver?

S: They're nobody.


S: —in the western hemisphere, and also adds another dinosaur group known to have feathers." And that one is science.


S: Sorry. I do appreciate it, but that was science.

J: Boring! Who cares?

R: So you guys do suck, though.


R: No, I'm kidding! I'm kidding.

S: No, they were brave. They were willing to go out there and give it a chance.

J: Right, did you really even have to read that one? Just come on.

S: Imagine if they were right! All right—

E: Yeah, right?

S: —so, the scientist is Darla Zelenitsky. She discovered—and her team—an Ornithomimus dinosaur—which is in the group the ornithomimids, and that is a group of theropods, and it is the first feathered dinosaur in that group, and it was discovered in Alberta, Canada, so it's the first western hemisphere feathered dinosaur. Found three specimens, an adult and two juveniles. The juveniles have just downy feathers all over their body. The adult has the downy feathers but also has, you know, mature feathers and some partially-developed wings. So, it seems like the adults developed these proto-wings, probably not having anything to do with flight, probably—

B: Mating.

S: —something that adults do that children don't do. Maybe something to do with mating, for example. And remarkably well-preserved. So, it increases also the number of different kinds of sediments in which feathered dinosaurs—the evidence of feathers can be found. So it's the first one in the western hemisphere, first of this kind of fossil find, and the first ornithomimid with feathers. Very interesting finding. All right. Let's go on to—I guess we'll go to number one: "A new study finds that astronauts who have spent more than one month in microgravity have a 35% increased risk of heart attacks and strokes." Bob and Jay think this is the fiction, and they convinced a lot of the audience, and this one is... the fiction.


S: All right.

J: Thank you.

R: Good job. Good job.

S: So, I made that up.


E: The whole thing?

S: The real news item that inspired that is only tangentially related. What the study found was the explanation, or an explanation for why astronauts who spend time in microgravity develop a condition known as orthostatic hypotension. What that means is that when you go from, say, lying down to a sitting or a standing position, normally your blood vessels would contract, would raise your blood pressure, maintain your blood pressure so that you don't pass out; you don't get lightheaded. But if you have orthostatic hypotension then, upon standing, your vessels don't contract to compensate, your blood pressure drops—

B: You get lightheaded.

S: —profusion to the brain decreases, you can get lightheaded or even to the point of passing out. Astronauts develop this very commonly after a short stay in microgravity, and almost always if they've been in microgravity for a long time. The explanation for this is that spending time in microgravity impairs the ability of the vessels to contract, apparently because they don't have to, so they just sort of get lazy, and they—whatever feedback mechanism is there to tell those blood vessels to contract, you know, doesn't function for a while, and then—almost like the body has to relearn that reflex once they're back in gravity. So, didn't seem that surprising a finding, but that's what they found. All right, number three: "Researchers find that, at the molecular level, evolutionary changes can be highly predictable." And that one is science. That was definitely the ringer. What the scientists showed—they looked at different insect species, but in many different groups of insects. So, insects separated by three hundred million years of evolutionary history. Insects have been around for a long time. And what they found was that insects which eat a certain kind of plant that produces a certain kind of poison all evolved one of a very few number of possible molecular solutions to eating that poison, even though they were completely separated along different evolutionary paths. And what they said is, essentially, if there is a limited number of solutions to a problem at the molecular level, that one of those changes will occur in an evolutionary line is actually—becomes highly predictable, that you could predict that, even if they're completely separated evolutionarily on different branches, separated by hundreds of millions of years of evolution, they're going to evolve the exact same mutation in the same protein that gives them the same ability to tolerate that toxin. So, the—at least on that level, the evolutionary changes become predictable. And they said—they thought that it was predictable to a surprising degree, is how the scientists characterized that. So, that was interesting, but, you know, it does make sense, if there's only so many solutions to a problem, evolution's probably going to hit upon one of those solutions independently, over and over again, in multiple different lines. We do see that type of convergent evolution. They were just talking about it on the molecular level. So, good work, Bob and Jay. You did a good job.

J: Thank you.

R: Well done.


S: And well done to much of the audience.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:08:11)[edit]

S: And, Jay, you have a quote to close out the show for us?

J: All right. So, this is a quote sent in by a listener named Timo from Taiwan, and I think it's really cool that someone from Taiwan is into the person whose quote this is. And the quote is,

Skepticism is essential to the quest for knowledge, for it is in the seedbed of puzzlement that genuine inquiry takes root. Without skepticism, we may remain mired in unexamined belief systems that are accepted as sacrosanct yet have no factual basis in reality.

J: Who said that?

Audience: Paul Kurtz!

J: Paul Kurtz! A skeptic of some note.

E: Yes.


S: Thank you, everyone! And thanks for coming to CSICon 2012!

RW: "The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe"! Let's hear it!

(whistling and applause)

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


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