SGU Episode 382

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SGU Episode 382
10th November 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 381                      SGU 383

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

[Space exploration] is in financial trouble. Yet by many standards, such missions are inexpensive. Mariner Jupiter/Saturn costs about the same as the American aircraft shot down in Vietnam in the week in which I am writing these words (Christmas 1972). The Viking mission itself costs about a fortnight of the Vietnam war. I find these comparisons particularly poignant: life versus death, hope versus fear. Space exploration and the highly mechanized destruction of people use similar technology and manufacturers, and similar human qualities of organization and daring. Can we not make the transition from automated aerospace killing to automated aerospace exploration of the solar system in which we live?

Carl Sagan

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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, November 7, 2012 and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson,

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey, guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. How's everyone tonight?

B: Tired of the winter already.

R: Aww, you guys only just got your first snowfall.

S: It was bad.

R: I'm really jealous.

E: Really bad.

J: The timing was bad.

E: We have ice underneath everything.

J: It really sucked being at work and then having it hit like around noon. You know, you can't call in and say you're not going into work.

R: I thought you meant the timing in terms of coming on the heels of the hurricane, 'cause

S: Well, that too.

E: Well, yeah.

R: Yeah, I feel terrible for the people without electricity still.

E: That hurricane. Ooof!

S: Yeah, like right on the heels of CSICon.

B: Superstorm Sunday!

S: We had to drive seventeen hours to get home because our flights were cancelled.

E: We just beat it, too.

B: Eighteen hours.

E: Just beat it.

J: Oh, that's right. We didn't even talk about that on the show.

R: Eighteen hours with a pregnant woman.

E: Yes.

R: I did not envy her.

B: Who had to pee less that some of the guys.


S: There was a point, though, where Jay demanded that his wife pee in the woods.

J: That's right.

B: That's true, that's true.

R: You forced your pregnant wife to pee in the woods during a hurricane? Is that what you're telling me?

J: I have many skills, and one of them is driving late at night in and around the border of New York City, like if you're driving, you know, say, over by the airports or whatever. I have very good instincts on what exits to get off of to get gas. And I was arguing with everyone in the car about like "Look, we don't get off at this exit because I can't see an open gas station from the road!" So you don't go like, hunting around for a gas station.

S: So, yes, Rebecca, he made his pregnant wife pee in the woods during a hurricane.


R: To get back to the crux. Wow, I am so glad that I did not have to take that van with you guys!

E: Yeah.

J: It was good, up until like the last four hours. We were good. We had a lot of fun. We were on Twitter with a lot of people that were following the ride and we were throwing a bunch of trivia out and you know, just having a good time with them.

R: Good.

S: We made the best of it.

E: Yeah, trying to keep our spirits up, trying to deal with the hurricane. Yup.

This Day in Skepticism (2:24)[edit]

  • November 10, 1793 A Goddess of Reason is proclaimed by the French Convention at the suggestion of Chaumette.

R: Hey! Guess what today is.

B: It's the, uh, the week after Halloween.

R: Today is November 10th, and on November 10, 1793, a goddess of reason was placed on a high altar at Notre Dame in Paris.

E: A real goddess! That's a first.

J: What does that mean? I don't even know what that

R: Okay. So. All of this was a part of the Cult of Reason's Festival of Reason.

E: Well, there you go, "cult," so.

R: Yeah. Well, no, it's "cult" in the French sense, which, in the French translation sense, which is just, just . . . it was a political sort of religion. It sprung up during the French Revolution and it was an atheistic sort of movement that started out as a replacement for Christianity. And the purpose of it, though, wasn't just to be atheist, but to literally worship liberty, reason and truth.

E: Oh, I like that.

R: Yeah. As ideals, I should mention, but specifically not as idols. They were very concerned with accidentally personifying liberty, reason and truth and then creating actual gods to worship. So the goddess

S: So they made a goddess of reason?

R: Yeah, well they, you know

E: Was it like, was it with tongue in cheek?

R: They had her represented as, she was a living woman, for it to not be idolatry. Yeah, I imagine that there was a bit of tongue in cheek involved, but literally they did want people to worship liberty, reason and truth. Like, as a congregation, like getting together on Sunday and worshipping

S: So they were humanists.

R: No. I'd say uni, one of the Unitarian, Universal Unitarians. Yeah. It think that's, that's probably closer.

E: Not deists, though.

S: No, actually, it was stopped by Robespierre, who was a deist.

R: Correct.

S: And he instituted the Cult of the Supreme Being, as the follow-up to the Cult of Reason.

R: Yes. And, of course, both of them were eventually banned by Napoleon.

E: Yup. Napoleon came along and took care of all that.


R: But not before everybody in the Cult of Reason was beheaded. The year after the festival, so

S: Yeah, this was the Reign of Terror, yeah. The Cult of Reason was followed by the Reign of Terror.


R: But, it did seem to have a helluva lot of sway. I mean, the festival sounds like it was huge. According to some unconfirmed reports there was some amount of depravity going on.

E: Well, it was France, you know.

R: Sexy depravity.

S: I've read some accounts that described the Goddess of Reason as being a famous actress of the time. But other reports call her a whore. I don't know if they're mutually exclusive.

R: No, I think the two things were interchangeable, actually. At one point.

E: Actually a compliment at the time.

S: The Whore of Reason.


E: You reason whore!

R: Nothing wrong with that.

E: Well, if you're gonna be a whore of something, it might as well be reason.

R: Yeah, the festival was pretty huge, though. So you had your goddess of reason sitting up on an altar, in Notre Dame. All of Notre Dame, that was the center of everything.

E: Wonder what the Hunchback thought.

R: They actually dismantled a Christian altar and replaced it with an altar to liberty. And they carved the words "To Philosophy" over the front door, to Notre Dame. Which is kind of funny. Yeah, so it was a big deal.

S: Those were crazy times, crazy times.

R: Yeah. Shame that everybody was beheaded.

J: I mean that's a pretty bad-ass party. Everyone ends up getting their head cut off at the end of it. I mean, that's one helluva celebration.

R: Yeah, I mean if you're gonna go out, go out in style.

News Items[edit]

Life in the Universe (6:27)[edit]

Neurologica: How Common Is Life in the Universe

S: So, Bob, tell us why scientists are being more pessimistic about the prospect of life elsewhere in the universe.

B: Well. It kind of depends on how you look at it, but you know, guys, I'm getting, I don't know if you are, I'm getting tired of these news items. It seems like every week they say, "Oh, life in the universe is more prevalent that we thought," and then the next week they're saying "Oh, well, sorry. Now it's less common." It just seems like they keep bouncing back and forth. So I find it a little bit annoying, but still, it's still a pretty interesting theory that these guys came up with. So what these scientists are saying is that asteroid belts are not just potential harbingers of death that people often think they are. They may actually be a vital ingredient, not only for life to exist, but also to endure in the solar system. Now this theory was put together by astronomers Rebecca Martin, who is, get this, a NASA Sagan Fellow, from the University of Colorado in Boulder. I thought that was really cool, I didn't even know . . .

J: Who gives that title?

B: Oh, well, NASA. And her partner Mario Livio, who's a Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, astronomer. They developed these models of these accretion disks that are in orbit around stars and they saw, they kind of tested what would happen if they placed a Jupiter-sized planet, a Jovian planet, in various locations in this system. And then they took those observations and they built up their theory. And they looked at 90 stars that had specific infrared signatures. That could possibly mean that there's actually asteroid belts around those stars. And I think they're fairly confident that that's exactly what it means. And they also looked at about 520 solar systems that had confirmed Jovian planets in orbit around it. And what they found was that only four percent of the solar systems had asteroids, had asteroids belts past the so-called snow line. Now the snow line, it's kind of like this border of sorts between the inner and the outer solar system. If you're beyond it, then the volatiles that are there, like water, ice, will stay in tact, which is a good thing, because you want, if they're in tact then they could actually be transported elsewhere in the solar system, as you'll see. So, the key though is that the asteroids are crucial. You know, 'cause when you think of these asteroids, you're thinking well they just occasionally hit the Earth and cause mass extinctions, right? Maybe. But there's also a really good upside to these asteroids. They deliver these huge payloads of water, organic molecules, heavy metals – all things that are pretty essential to life . So these things didn't necessarily exist on Earth de novo. I mean they weren't there from the beginning necessarily. The other cool thing is that these impacts, they sound nasty and they can be, but they also, according to these scientists, they think that they can give us a really great boost to evolution by preventing species from remaining static with your environment. So they talked a lot about punctuated equilibrium, which kind of fits well into that. Oh, they also mentioned that asteroids may have created the moon, right? I mean, the planet-sized, or Mars-sized, I guess it would have to be a planet, but it could have come from the asteroid belt, hit the Earth, created a moon, and the moon offers a tremendous amount of stability to our seasons. Without the moon, it's doubtful that life could have gotten such a huge foothold that it did billions of years ago. So you've got the asteroids. But the relationship between these asteroids and Jupiter, or a Jovian-size planet, turns out to be really critical to give life a start in a solar system, according to their theory. So, if you think about it, if you have a Jovian and an asteroid belt, you've got three different scenarios that could potentially happen. The Jovian planet passes through the entire belt, it just goes right through and becomes, what we've discovered to be what's called hot Jupiters. There are Jupiter-size planets that are in very, very close orbit around their parent star. Even closer than Mercury.

E: Whoa.

B: Yeah. If that happens, what it would do is it would just disburse all the asteroids. Imagine this gargantuan planet plowing through even a sparsely populated asteroid field, the gravitational pull would just send them all careening everywhere. They would all go their own way. So, that's one scenario. The other scenario is that the Jovian kind of just doesn't interact at all with the asteroids. So imagine Jupiter, many millions of miles farther out, farther away from the sun, and so it has very, very negligible gravitational impact, or influence, on the asteroid field. That means that the asteroid field would get huge. It would stay incredibly dense. If you look at our asteroid field, it's only about one percent of its original mass. So about 99 percent of the mass that used to be there has just gotten, I guess through gravitational interaction with Jupiter,

E: Disbursed?

B: Yeah, it's been disbursed. And that's a good thing, because if you have a really dense, super-dense asteroid field, then it could potentially be pelting the Earth over and over and over

E: It's cool; it's like pollenization, in a way.

B: Right. Imagine getting, imagine a mass extinction every ten million years, or five million years, not very hospitable. So that clearly would be, not be good for life. So the third way to look at the interaction between a Jovian planet and asteroids is what we have here in our solar system. There's a relatively mild influence on the asteroids and it keeps them sparsely populated, so that there's only occasional impacts on Earth, but there's enough to give us plenty of water and the squishy molecules of life. So that pretty much their theory. Now, I think there's a few ways to look at this, and it's really fun to see all the different takes that the science news reporters have. Some of them are very pessimistic; some of them are very optimistic. Some are saying that this is really good, because now we know more specifically where to look for life. And if this is correct, then, yeah, that would, it would be true. We would know, all right, let's find solar systems where there's a Jovian just outside the snow line and right next to an asteroid field, and you might find complex life there. So that's one way to look at it, kind of optimistically. The pessimistic way to look at it, like Steve was saying at the beginning, is that, oh, crap, life is much less likely than we thought. Because the kind of relationship that Jupiter has with an asteroid belt is very rare. And if it's that rare, and if life critically depends on it, then life would be very rare, much more rare than we think it is. I'm taking another point of view, though. I just think there's not enough information to really be super optimistic or pessimistic about this. Right? I mean, how many, we know of life in one place in the entire universe. On Earth. Just one stupid little data point, and it's really hard; you can't extrapolate. You have no idea what it's gonna take to make life stable in other solar systems. There's just way too much that's not known. And there's so many factors that could affect stability. Who knows what else might be important. So, yeah, this is a really interesting theory, and if it's true, it's good in the sense that we might increase our odds of finding life, but it also would kind of stink because life might be much less common than we think it is.

E: We'd have to throw out a whole bunch of systems, basically. We wouldn't waste our time looking at certain systems that don't meet certain criteria.

B: Yeah, but only if we had extremely high competence in this theory, and I don't know how we're gonna get that much competence. There's too many unknowns. I think we should just keep on looking.

S: It seems that the notion that hot Jupiters migrate in from the outside and they kick out a lot of planets is increasingly well established. Surveys have found that only ten percent of systems that have hot Jupiters in them have other planets nearby.

B: That we can detect.

S: That we can detect.

B: And that's another limitation. Our detection equipment. Who knows what we're missing with our level of technology, and of course, it will get better.

S: But very few systems have hot Jupiters in them. So that doesn't get rid of that many systems out there. So, again, we should say, we need more data. Now, just from a logical point of view, it seems that if you look at the conditions necessary in order to have the conditions that we're familiar with on Earth, that resulted in life on Earth as we know it, and every time you look at something you go wow, you know, the stabilizing effect of the moon, and

B: The Goldilocks zone.

S: Yeah, we're in the right

B: the asteroid belt.

S: Yeah, there's so many different things. We've had just the right number of bombardments. Whatever. But, I think it's all just retrospective, or post hoc, reasoning. It's a bit of the lottery fallacy, you know, like what are the odds that all of these things would come together and they all seem to be necessary, but, again it's 'cause we're looking at one of the winners. But how do we know that life can't arise in all kinds of other different situations? Life arose and has adapted to the situation that exists here, but if other situations exist, life would adapt to those situations. So I think we may be artificially narrow in terms of our thinking about the range of conditions in which life can occur. But, you could also say, well, if we're interested in finding any kind of life, even if it's very different from what we recognize as life here, then sure, there may be a broad range of conditions. But is we're interested in planets that we could inhabit, then we do have to stick with the more of a narrower criteria.

B: Yeah, but, what do we care if we could inhabit it? I think all that matters is can we all, well, just detect it, first of all, just knowing it and then not knowing really much of anything else, would still be awesome. But I think the potential for communication, I think, is what would be awesome. I don't care if it's a Horta, silicon-based life, hydrogen, whatever, if we can somehow communicate with them, mathematics or whatever, or intercept their signals and interpret them, then I don't care what they're made of.

J: I always thought it would be really cool to capture a bunch of really large asteroids, I mean of course this is science fiction-y, what I'm about to say, but you amass enough matter where it equals the size of the Earth, you put one like every quarter turn on our orbit around the sun, hopefully not screwing up orbits and whatnot, which I don't know what effect it would have. But then

E: You'd have two planets in the same orbit?

J: Yeah, we'd have four planets that are on the same trajectory, or you put it in a different orbit. Okay. Whatever. You put it in a different orbit where the planet will have the relative same gravity, relatively the same seasons and temperature ranges and all that stuff. But yet you've created a planet in your own solar system that you could populate.

B: But I think it's, though, even if we harvested every asteroid in the asteroid belt, it wouldn't be enough mass.

S: Yeah, we'd be better off terraforming Venus or Mars.

B: Yeah, Venus and Mars are just waiting for that. I mean eventually we'll be able to do that.

E: Ooo, the Genesis Project, I like that.

UFOlogy Dying (17:07)[edit]

Telegraph: UFO enthusiasts admit the truth may not be out there after all

S: Well, speaking of life elsewhere in the universe, Jay, some UFO enthusiasts have been speculating that the future of UFOlogy is in question.

J: Yup. We might be seeing a real decline in the number of people that are interested in actually studying UFOs and going to conferences. So, it's also reported that there are dozens of UFO-related groups that are closing due to a lack of interest. Dave Wood, who's the chairman of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, also known as ASSAP, announced that a meeting has been called to go over the future of UFO study and research.

S: Jay, did they call the meeting ASAP?

J: (Jay laughs) We have to have an ASAP ASSAP. So Dave Wood said,

It is certainly a possibility that in ten years' time it will be a dead subject. We look at these things on the balance of probabilities and this area of study has been ongoing for many decades. The lack of compelling evidence beyond the pure anecdotal suggests that on the balanced of probabilities that nothing is out there. I think that any UFO researcher would tell you that 98 percent of the sightings that happen are very easily explainable. One of the conclusions to draw from that is that perhaps there isn't anything there. The days of compelling eyewitness sightings seem to be over.

E: There's never been compelling eyewitness sightings. That's a flaw in that reasoning.

J: Well, I'll tell you, what I think he's specifically talking about is the two incidents that are the big bookend incidents for UFO research and exploration, and one of them was the Roswell incident from 1947, which talks about a UFO crashing in New Mexico in the United States and the subsequent government cover-up, and another incident called the Rendlesham incident, which happened in 1980 which had similar storylines like the Roswell situation, which was like a UFO landed and the government covered that up as well. So what he's saying is those two incidents are the two big things that all the people that study UFOs go back to. And there isn't anything new happening. So, interest is waning, and, for obvious reasons, he's saying that the internet actually coincides with the decline in interest of UFO study. And why do you think that is?

R: Well, because we're solving more mysteries. It's easier for people to find information about whether or not something's the moon or not.

E: It's also easier to spread disinformation and prove that it's disinformation.

S: Yeah, it's interesting. So there's a couple ways to look at this. UFOlogy has waxed and waned over the years and it could just be that we're in a lull, and in ten years it'll be back again. And it's just a cycle. Like interest in Bigfoot's gonna come and go over the years, or the Loch Ness monster, right? So it's too early to say that this is a real trend as opposed to just the normal ebb and flow of beliefs in stuff like this. One generation sort of gets disaffected with it but then the next generation will rediscover this, the same thing. The allure of believing in alien visitation is not gonna go away. The other way to look at it is that the internet really has changed the nature of things. And that's what some of them are speculating about, the notion that things don't remain mysterious long enough to get out there. The hoaxes are exposed very quickly on the internet. Misidentified Chinese lanterns are identified very quickly by somebody, so the internet is basically chewing up these reports too quickly for them to take root. And that's causing, it's starving the UFO community of cases, basically, to talk about. But, so, I don't know. We'll know in five or ten years if this is a real effect or just the normal cycle.

R: I kind of feel like we're gonna see that happening with everything, though. I mean, a lot of this stuff just relies on ignorance and lack of access to information and I think with the internet, and just in general. I mean we don't really get miracles anymore. And for the same reason we're not gonna really get any interesting alien visitations anymore. And the only thing, in my mind, the only thing that could possibly revive interest again would be Hollywood.

E: Oh, yeah. They're good for that.

R: We see people get more interested in ghosts, for instance, when Paranormal Activity comes out, and things like that. And the big wave of alien stuff came after Close Encounters I think, right?

S: Yeah. Absolutely.

E: Big time. Yeah, I don't thing the desire for people to want to believe in these things are gonna change much just by evidence or lack thereof. People are still gonna want, or have the need, to believe in these sorts of things.

J: Sure.

S: Will it turn into something else, or will some version of UFO belief come back? They did make one interesting point, which is something that we've pointed out previously, was that, now that everyone is carrying a camera and basically a video around with them in their smart phone, you would expect that if these things were really out there, we'd start to see some, an increasing number of genuine and compelling videos, but we're not. And the only conclusion that you could really draw from that that's reasonable, is 'cause maybe there's nothing out there.

R: Or it's because they're shy.

J: Yeah.

R: Camera-shy.

S: That's why I said that it's reasonable.

R: I consider that reasonable.

J: So the summit's happening at the University of Worcester on November 17, and if anybody listening to this show can go to that event and report to us on what they see and hear, I would love, absolutely love, to relate that to everybody else. I'd report it on this show. All right, check this out, guys. I found this very funny. David Clark, a Sheffield

E: Dave Clark Five.

J: A Sheffield Hallam University academic and the UFO advisor to the National Archives said: "The subject is dead in that no one is seeing anything evidential." And then, as Steve stated, he goes on to make all of these very skeptical claims, like the guy actually says things like "The classic cases like Roswell are only classic cases because they were not investigated properly." And "the reason why nothing is going on is because of the internet. If something happens now the internet is there to help people get to the bottom of it and find an explanation." I just found that very encouraging that somebody that is an enthusiast of UFOs and everything is using some hardcore critical thinking here. Oh, maybe not hardcore, but at least using some armchair critical thinking to come to these very intelligent conclusions about one of his biggest interests. Also, one last thing. The current president of that organization, Lionel Fanthorpe, claimed in the journal that that organization puts out that King Arthur was an alien who came to Earth to save humans from invading extraterrestrials.

S: Um hmm.

R: Yeah, no, that sounds legit.

E: True.

Chelation Therapy (24:14)[edit]

Science Based Medicine: The result of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT): As underwhelming as expected

S: Are you guys familiar with chelation therapy?

R: Yeah.

E: Uh, it cures cancer in . . . not really.

S: Chelation therapy is a legitimate treatment for heavy metal poisoning. A chelating agent is something that will bind to heavy metal and precipitate it out of the blood, remove it from the blood. These treatments are often given intravenously although you can give oral chelating agents that you then pee out the heavy metals. For about the last sixty years, there has been a group, a subgroup of physicians and other practitioners practicing on the fringe who believe that chelation therapy is an effective treatment for heart disease. That it by pulling calcium or some other metal out of the plaques that build up in the arteries, it dissolves the plaque, and opens up the arteries like a quote unquote roto rooter treatment for the arteries and that this would replace angioplasty and CABG if it were widely used. Whether or not you think it had merit sixty years ago, it was tested, the proposed mechanisms by which it would work were all tested and the bottom line is that it doesn't work that way. It doesn't have effect on the plaques, it doesn't affect cardiovascular disease. It doesn't work. But a number of practitioners didn't want to give up on it just because the evidence showed that it didn't work. And they've been happily doing it out on the fringe for the last half a century. Now we're in the midst of interest in quote unquote alternative medicine, just a rebranding of fraudulent or unscientific medicine in my opinion, and part of that is the political advance of their goals such as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or the NCCAM, and they funded a study called "TACT" or a study to assess chelation therapy for heart disease. This has been going on now for a number of years, I think it started in 2003, actually underway. And the results of this study were just published. Now, my colleagues and I at Science-Based Medicine have been criticizing this study the whole time, because it's, we felt it was unethical. Essentially you're exposing subjects to a treatment which is not without risks for which there is already sufficient evidence of lack of efficacy. So we, you would not ordinarily do this. It's only through the Bizzaro-world double standard of the NCCAM of all quote unquote alternative medicine that such a trial would be even considered. But they did it. They funded the trial, they wasted the money, and now the results are in, and the results are . . . .

E: (fanfare) Duh duh da dah!

S: Inconclusive.

R: That's a bit of a let-down.

S: Yeah.

E: Inconclusive.

R: After that whole big to-do. With the trumpets and everything.

S: It's inconclusive because of shenanigans. Because of the weaknesses in the trial. If you look at subjects in the trial who do not have diabetes, which is most of the subjects in the trial, the results were dead negative. But if you pull out diabetics as a sub-group, they, there was a slight decrease in the number of cardiovascular events in that group versus placebo.

E: More than just noise?

S: Well, probably not. It probably is just noise. There's lots of sources of potential noise in the trial, which is why, worse than doing an unethical trial is doing an unethical trial that's not iron-clad, that's not really tight. Because then you're gonna get the statistical noise and nothing's gonna change. So at the end of the day, skeptics are still skeptics and believers are still believers, and this achieved absolutely nothing. Some big problems with the trial. One is that it had a very high dropout rate, and the dropout rate was asymmetrical. So that's always a big red flag in a study because if people are dropping out of the study at all, and anything above five percent or so, you get concerned because you're wondering well why are they dropping out, and their dropout is self-selective, it's not random, so that could be biasing the outcome of the study in some way. And this study, as many as one in five of the subjects withdrew their consent from the trial. Only 65 percent of the subjects finished all of the infusions, only 65 percent.

E: So at what point do you stop and say, okay, this is no longer valid, we have to stop this and throw it out and start over or something like that?

S: Yeah, they should have done it years ago when we said they should have done it. And, there were sixty more people dropped out from the placebo group than from the treatment group. That's odd. Because usually, if anything, you have a higher dropout rate from the treatment group because of side effects. So you have to wonder why people were dropping out of the placebo group.

E: Placebo side effects.

S: Well, no. (Evan laughs) Probably not. Not impossible, but what you get concerned about is that they were unblinded. People drop out of the placebo when they find out they're in the placebo group.

E: Ahh.

S: And they don't wanna waste their time getting these infusions every week when it's just placebo. Because it's a pretty grueling treatment.

E: Kind of smart that way.

S: Yeah. So that is a big red flag. A huge red flag. Also, they lumped together a bunch of end-points. When you look at them all individually they were negative. Like death, heart attack, stroke, hospitalization for angina. If you look at each of those individually they were negative, but if you lump them together, and only among diabetics do you get this barely statistically significant result. So it does by all accounts look like noise. This study, you have to account for more noise than even a typical trial because of the dropout rate. There have been questions about the blinding all along. A lot of the centers that were participating in the trial were not academic centers, but kind of dodgy alternative medicine practices that were doing other dodgy things in addition to chelation therapy.

E: How much did this study cost?

S: Millions; but, I don't know the exact figure.

R: Steve, is it really called angina? (When Steve pronounced the word, he put the accent on the first syllable, as did Rebecca in this question.)

B: I was gonna say the same thing.

J: Yeah, like what's with that? Did you say that just to mess with us?

R: As long as I'm not the only one that's been saying anGIna.


S: I've heard it both ways, but I say ANgina. I think it sounds better.

J: But why would you say it in a way that most people don't say it?

R: Yeah, do most people say, maybe I just haven't heard it. I don't know.

S: There's a very good and obvious reason for that. I'm a physician. And when I say it differently, people assume I'm just smarter than they are and I feel better.


R: You asshole.

S: Admit it, you all thought that I had to be right because I said it differently than you.

R: Yeah. I almost wasn't gonna bring it up.

B: I was just waiting for a pause to bring it up.

E: You often do that.

S: Anyway, so, worthless trial. Unethical. Crappy results. And now it's, doesn't change a thing.

E: Waste of money.

S: Yup. Absolutely.

E: Burned a bunch of dollars. I want my money back.

S: Absolutely. Terrible.

J: I want my money back, money back.

S: That is the legacy of the NCCAM. When we were at the NCCAM talking to Josephine Briggs, we brought this up as one of our major beefs, and she was very quick to distance NCCAM from this trial, because it essentially was turned over to another center within the NIH that deals with heart disease. And she said, "Oh, no, they're dealing with that now." She really was like almost embarrassed by it.

E: Convenient.

S: Yeah, was trying to distance herself. But you know, this study would not have happened were it not for the NCCAM. That's the bottom line. Terrible. But this is what happens when you have a double standard. Not that there aren't any crappy studies in mainstream medicine or equivocal trials, et cetera, but this is one we saw coming a mile away. It was just a waste. Oh, I think, the figure that I'm reading here is $30 million for this trial.

E: 30 million dollars.

J: Oh, is that all?

S: That's good work, boys.

E: Yeah, thanks.

Psychic Medium Fail (32:17)[edit]

DailyMail: Two professional mediums fail test to demonstrate their psychic powers under laboratory conditions

S: All right, Evan.

E: Steve.

S: Tell us about a recent study to test mediums. I'm really just dying of anticipation to hear how they did.

E: Well, (laughing) let's not delay and let's get right to it. But here's the headline, 'cause it was reported in The Daily Mail the other day. Here's how the headline reads: "Two Professional Mediums Fail Test to Demonstrate Their Psychic Powers Under Laboratory Conditions." So is anybody surprised at all by that headline?

R: I totally saw it coming.

S: Yeah. Well, you know, a well done medium is rare.

E: If that were the first time I'd heard that . . .

S: The sad thing is I didn't even invent that joke. Yeah, that's, I totally stole that from somebody else.

E: These professional mediums' names are Patricia Putt and Kim Whitton. Ever heard of them? Of course not, because, you haven't heard of them because they suck. And they were unable to demonstrate their psychic powers in a test under laboratory conditions at Goldsmiths University. They had accepted the challenge set up by the scientists at the University as a fair test of their abilities. So they agreed ahead of time that this protocol was fair. Right?

S: Um hmm.

E: Went into it, and they said "no shenanigans here, we're gonna do this." The test was designed by our friend, Professor Chris French, who's the head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths. And the experiment asked these pair of psychics to identify characteristics of five randomly selected people, and these people would sit behind a screen so they could not see them. The subjects remained entirely silent while the psychics were asked to write notes relating to them. With the sitters they asked if they could identify themselves from their readings. And so how did these self-proclaimed psychics score? Five subjects. Anyone wanna guess?

S: Chance.

B: Crappy.

R: 20 percent?

E: One in five. Twenty percent. Random chance as pure statistics predicts. Right?

S: They thought that was good! They thought they did well.

E: (laughing) Exactly.

J: Wow, Steve, they thought twenty percent was good?

S: They got one right.

J: Oh, my god.

E: That's the equivalent of being fascinated when you roll a six-sided die and you get a six, you know, wow! What were the odds?


S: Yeah, right.

R: You can tell a true nerd, because he's the one who describes that the die was six-sided.


S: Right, a six-sided die. As opposed to all those other dice.

J: If he said "D6" then you'd really know.

R: That's true.

B: Funny, I didn't even pick that up.

S: I know. Me neither.


B: It seemed totally normal to me.


E: I think it's probably Rebecca. No, these psychics, they did not have a moment of clarity about all this. They did not have a moment of self-evaluation or an appreciation for the scientific method that was at hand. No. They special pleaded and rationalized it all the way. For example, Miss Whitton said, I quote:

I have always wanted to be involved in a test like this as I would like to bridge the gap between psychic energy and science. I felt very comfortable about the test. I know what I do is very real and it's easy for me. I'm glad one of the sitters could recognize so many details about herself.

So there she is, very impressed.

S: Focusing on the positive. There you go.

E: She also said that

Skeptics need to realize you cannot see, hear, feel everything as solid matter with the human eye, ear and body. Psychics and mediums use a whole other part of the brain which is underdeveloped in the average man.

Now, Steve . . .

S: Um hmm.

E: Steve. Could you explain, perhaps, how we have underdeveloped part of our brain?

S: Well, you see, Evan, you only use ten percent of your brain.

R: Ahh, yeah.

E: Uh huh.

S: The other ninety percent is there just soaking up resources and not doing much.

R: Makes sense.

E: So it's kind of a mostly useless organ, sounds like what you're saying.

S: Well, for ordinary people like you, yeah.

E: Right, for the average man.

R: Not for the uber-men, like, Brenda, or, whatever.

S: But Einstein, Jay, used twelve percent of his brain.

J: Einstein?

S: Einstein.

E: Most of it ended up in a jar, and went on a cross-country trip.

S: That's true.


E: Miss Putt, the other so-called psychic said:

I am sorry that I appear to have failed, but I'm not really surprised. What I would like to point out is that the work I do is always done face-to-face. Working blind is extremely daunting for the medium.

S: Um hmm.

E: Yeah.

J: Wait a minute, what the hell does that mean, now?

E: Oh, working blind . . .

S: She was, they couldn't see the person, the subject.

E: Right.

R: Of course, before the test began though, she agreed to everything and said she could do it that way.

E: Exactly. Everything's fair. Right? It's a good test of their abilities, but now, oh, well, this is hard, now.

B: I can't believe she said "working blind." That's the whole point of being psychic is that you're working blind. Compared to conventional people. Hel-lo!


E: We all know who Simon Singh is, right?

S: Yeah.

E: One of our most favorite science writers of all time. He helped design and conduct these tests. He said that

Pat and Kim clearly felt that they were receiving psychic messages and their regular clients are convinced that they have psychic powers, but the test showed no such supernatural power. Instead, I suspect that people like Pat and Kim are intuitive and are subconsciously picking up on subtle hints, such as body language, verbal cues and so on. This provides the illusion of psychic power.

S: Um hmm.

E: And I wholly agree with that description. Good work to our friend.

S: It's being charitable but, yeah.

R: Yeah. It's much nicer than just saying they're full of shit.

E: Well, right, yes, they were very cordial.

R: But also less actionable, so. . .And if anybody knows how to mind his p's and q's it's Simon.

E: Our friends at the Merseyside Skeptics Society helped organize this test as well, so very good job to our friends at the Merseyside Skeptics Society. Look them up online. Did you guys know that I had a recent run-in with a bunch of psychics?

S: How'd that work out for you?

E: Oh, gosh, that was an incredible experience. So, we were invited to appear on a television show called The Tricia Show. Have you ever heard of The Tricia Show?

S: Nope.

E: Of course you haven't. Because it's on at like nine in the morning, like right before, you know, it's basically the Oprah crowd who can't make it in the afternoon, they turn this on. And this was back in October and they were looking for some skeptics to come on to their Halloween Special show. I was available to go, so I told them I'd go. This was about now 30 minutes before the show started, and one of the producers comes back and talks to me and says "Hey. We have an idea. We'd like you to do a cold reading." Or what you call a cold reading, "We'd like you to do a psychic reading on the audience as well." And I told them, like, errr, I'm not really prepared to do that, and I've actually never done psychic reading, cold reading, on someone before. So I told them, you know, it's not a bad idea had I known before I might have been able to prepare something. I don't think we should do that. And they said, all right, well, just go, and do what you were gonna do. Now, how the show works is that they have these segments, they invite the psychics on, one per segment, then they bring them all on in the end. They do some psychic readings for people in the audience and then they're gonna have me stand up and ask the questions and basically be the token skeptic to go to. Fine. I'm cool with all that. So we're into the show, right? We're about ten minutes before the end of the show, basically, when they're gonna have me on. And one of the producers comes over to me in my seat in the audience and says "Hey, Evan, we'd like you to do that cold reading, by the way." And I'm like, aw, crap. I'm not really ready to do that. I said, "Fine, I'm gonna do it." I'm gonna do it. So they kind of lured me in in a sense.

S: Um hmmm.

E: And then kind of changed the script on me in a sense. So I really was not prepared. And I said, I'm gonna just do it, I'm just gonna roll with it. So it comes to be my time, and they come over to me, and what they told me to do is they said "Just stand up and start giving a cold reading to someone next to you in the audience." And I said, all right, I'll do that. But I didn't do that. So they came over to me, it was my time to go. And they say "Hi, we'd like to introduce you to Evan, and he's a psychic, he has psychic abilities. He'd like to do a reading. So I said, "Yes I would, but I work much better from the stage." So I run up onto the stage, basically, right? So, you know, because, think about it. The psychics are up there. They've had basically their hour to talk about all the crap that they're talking about and their cold readings and stuff. I'm not gonna be sitting in the audience, right, as the token skeptic, kind of. It was lame. So I go up on stage. I'm standing right in front of those psychics, basically, with my butt to them while they're sitting on the couch. And I'm addressing the audience. I start to do a cold reading. About 20 seconds into my cold reading the psychics say "No! No! You're a fraud. You're a fake." You're not doing, you know, "You're not psychic." And the whole conversation started up at that point basically. Like, "oh, okay, how do you know this?" Right? They say, "Oh, you know." And they start pointing out some things that basically skeptics would say about them. The said "you're just guessing. This is a guessing game." "You don't know really what's going on here." You're just taking shots in the dark, basically. Well, so we went back and forth for roughly about five minutes or so. And I brought up the James Randi Educational Foundation Million Dollar Challenge. And they got all hot under the collar about that. They said, well, James Randi's a fraud. And one of the psychics accused James Randi of having been thrown in jail recently, and so forth. I had to correct them on all this stuff. And basically at that point the show kind of came to an end, so we wrapped up with me. Come October 31, the show airs, and guess what. They cut my segment entirely, out of the entire show.

S: Yeah, oh, god.

R: No-o-o-o-o.

E: They totally cut me. Now, they explained to me, afterwards, 'cause I asked them. I said "Look, you guys cut me." I said, "What happened?" They said, "Look, it wasn't your performance, " they said "We really like what you did and what you brought to the show, it was just a matter of time. We were over time and we just felt that that was the easiest segment to edit out." Okay, right. That's their excuse. I think it was because, and Steve, you had the same feeling,

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah, me too.

E: I was basically too, very effective, and I pissed these psychics off and got them out of their, basically their demeanor, and their stage presence, which is very friendly and kind and caring and compassionate. And I turned them into, like, foaming at the mouth, angry people on stage. And sort of knocked them off their game and I don't think the psychics liked that very much and they probably had some things to say to the show people, you know, like "we don't want that to air." So, that could be another reason why.

R: They can't handle the truth.

E: Basically couldn't handle the truth. They said they're gonna invite us back for more segments in the future. We will see.

S: Naw, they always say everything. I told, before you went on, Evan, because I've had enough experience with these kind of TV shows. They're always gonna pretend like they're on your side. They're not gonna be honest with you. Everything's gonna be great. And then, they'll do what they wanna do in the end.

E: Yeah.

S: Anything they say doesn't mean a thing.

E: Right. Right. I'm not upset that I did it, right?

S: No, it's good experience.

E: I don't feel it was a waste of time. It was a really good experience. It was absolutely great experience. It got me to brush up on a bunch of stuff.

J: Evan, any chance of them sending you the footage, so you could see yourself?

E: I, I will request it. I'm not gonna hold my breath on that one.

S: Yeah, they're not gonna bother.

E: Yeah, you know. But, it's not a bad idea, Jay. I think I will ask them.

J: Or next time any one of us gets invited, we could just tell them beforehand, okay, but I want the raw footage of my appearance.

Who's That Noisy? (43:23)[edit]

S: All right. Well, Evan, get us up to date on Who's That Noisy?

E: A couple weeks ago we played the Who's That Noisy which aired on episode number 379, if you remember, we played the landslide sound effect, and we mentioned that that was the correct answer but we didn't know who the winner was at the time. So, we have that now, and the winner's no one. No one was able to detect the landslide. There were some other guesses.

S: No one has won several times now.

R: Mmm.

E: Yeah, it's been a few times. I wonder if they're getting a little too tricky, in a sense.

S: No. Keep 'em tough.

E: I think so. And then episode 380. So

(Music in the background, and a bass voice singing "dum dum dum dum," etc.) A man's voice: Suddenly, mitosis takes place. The DNA strand separates in a dazzling display of color. "Hi, Prophase." "Hi, Anaphase."

E: Do you guys remember that?

S: And that was?

E: That was our dear friend Crow T. Robot. Remember Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater?

S: MST3000.

R: Crow T. Robot is a friend of mine, actually.

E: You are chummy with some of the people who work on MST3K, right, Rebecca?

R: Yeah, it turns out a lot of the MST3K guys are skeptics and through one venue or another I've met a whole lot of them and, yeah, we get along really well. And one of the Crows is Bill Corbett, who, yeah, is a good friend of mine.

S: Yeah. You introduced us at DragonCon last year.

E: Now, there was an email that we received back on October 15 that actually inspired me to create this one as a Who's That Noisy. I'll read it to you real quick. It's from Mike Lupo in Michigan, who wrote:

Love the show. Just wanted to thank you all and say you guys do a wonderful job. I just have one question for you guys. Did Evan do the voice for Crow T. Robot on Mystery Science Theater 3000?

R: Did you? Did you secretly do that?

E: (laughing) You know what, that struck me as really incredible.

R: Did you sit in?

E: I, I, look. I don't think I sound like the voice of Crow T. Robot. That's just me talking, but

S: Yeah, but I did do the voice of Manny on Ice Age.

R: That's true. I thought it was Madagascar.

E: No, it was the Ice Age one. Right?

S: Yeah, the mammoth on Ice Age.

J: Who actually . . .

E: Either he or Ray Romano. Not sure.

S: Ray Romano. Yeah.

E: That was a very high compliment from Mike Lupo in Michigan. So, thank you, Mike. I really do appreciate that.

S: Did anybody get that correct?

E: Yes. There were a couple correct answers to that. Magnus M. from the message board was the first one to guess correctly. So, well done, Magnus M.

S: And what've you got for this week?

E: I've got a good one for this week. Jay, you're gonna like this one.

A humming sound, then a pressurized spraying sound. Someone exclaims "Holy Shit!"

J: What the hell was that? (laughs) Evan, if you said that that was actually a recording of me 20 years ago, doing something stupid with you guys, I would believe it.


R: Or last week, probably.

E: Twenty years ago, last week, yeah. Much difference? Oh, so. I'm not looking for a name, obviously. I'm not looking for name of a person who's involved in that, but there's some clues in there as to kind of what's going on. And so, give us your best description as to what you think's going on in that particular Noisy. And you can send your answer to or, join our forums and post your reply there. Good luck, everyone.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Universe Rotating (46:59)[edit]

S: Thank, Ev. We're gonna do one quick email. This one comes from Ian Redmond from Zimbabwe. Is this our first email from Zimbabwe?

R: I think so.

S: And Ian asks:

Simple question so a simple answer, (I hope.) Why does everything go round, rotate I mean and not just when your drunk! Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and maybe the whole Universe? Why, how did they get going. And, how come when I take off the front wheel of my bike and hold the axle on one side doesn't it fall down when it's spinning. Bending gravity? I know about precession but I'm still confused. Thanks Guys and remember take care out there.

So, yeah. Why is everything in the universe rotating and spinning and revolving?

B: It's really all about gravity. Spinning and everything that spins in the universe; it's really all about gravity. Which of course dominates the universe, which is kind of weird when you think that gravity is the weakest force by far. It's so much weaker than any of the other forces, but the reason why it's so dominant is because it's always attractive; there's no negative gravity to cancel it out. So it affects everything. And things in the universe will collapse because of this gravity and if there's any asymmetry at all in this collapse, it's gonna start spinning. And one thing you know from watching, what's that, the iconic image of a spinning ice skater as the arms come in. So it spins faster and faster and the next thing you know you've got this more dense object, whether it's a solar system or a galaxy or a planet that's spinning faster and faster and that's pretty much the answer on that. It's just really all about gravity and asymmetrical collapse.

S: But, Bob, one question is

B: But Bob


S: But Bob, there's the conservation of angular momentum and some people

B: Right.

S: Okay, well, the universe, after the big bang, where did the angular momentum come from? Why isn't there net zero angular momentum? One answer is that, well, there could be net zero angular momentum in the universe, things spinning in opposite direction will cancel each other out, and as you said, things would have to be perfectly stable without any angular momentum in order for them not to be spinning now. So it's just impossible for it to be that perfect. However, I did find an article, from just a year ago. This is a study looking at about 15,000 galaxies, noting the spin, the axis of rotation of each of those galaxies. This was research led by Michael Longo from the University of Michigan, and he found that there was an excess of about seven percent angular momentum in the counterclockwise direction when you look at 15,000 galaxies in one direction. He says that this could mean there's a net angular momentum to the universe, therefore, which means that the universe could have begun spinning. The whole universe could have had some net angular momentum right at the point of the big bang.

E: Hm. Sure. Why not?

S: Yeah. But I think we would need more surveys to confirm this result. But that's interesting. So we don't know. We don't know if there's net angular momentum to the universe or not. This one suggests that there might be.

B: And what about his other question about the spinning wheel?

S: That's a deceptively complicated question.

B: Is it? I mean, I thought that was pretty much conservation of angular momentum as well, 'cause if you think about it, all the particles that the wheel is composed of are moving in a particular direction and they want to keep going in that direction. So you'd have to apply a extra force to make it deviate from that path.

S: Yeah, well, it's also the, if you do the calculations, the vector of forces, you know, any lateral force on a spinning object like that gets translated into a precession force, so instead of going over it goes around.

B: Right, right.

S: And that's what he meant, he knows about precession. But you know about the whole, the why a bicycle stays upright question? 'Cause I thought that classically that was the answer, it was all about the forces involved with

B: Right.

S: a rapidly rotating object but it's more complicated than that.

B: Spinning wheels.

S: It's actually a lot more complicated than that. And I read a number of articles about it and the bottom line of it all was that physicists don't really know exactly why the forward momentum of a bicycle keeps it upright.

R: It's a miracle.

E: They haven't been able to crunch their number, huh?

S: Yeah. The physics of it are deceptively complicated.

B: Hmm. Interesting. I didn't know it was even partially unknown.

E: Bumblebees shouldn't be able to fly.

B: Oh, god, don't get me started.

E: Bicycles shouldn't be able to stay upright.

B: Steve,

S: No, it's not that they shouldn't be able to, we're just not sure exactly what all the forces involved are.

B: Yeah. Steve, do you remember when that phenomenon was first demonstrated? Was it in Mr. Coffin's class in physics in high school? I remember he had a wheel you could hold on to the axis and the wheel was spinning

S: Yeah.

B: And trying to move it was incredibly difficult, it's so counterintuitive it just seemed bizarre.

S: But also, sitting in a

B: Yes. In a chair.

S: In a chair that would spin around, yeah, so when he would rotate the wheel you would spin around.

B: Yeah.

S: Showing the translation of forces, yeah.

B: Mr. Coffin.

E: Mr. Coffin.

B: He was awesome.

E: C-O-F-F-I-N?

B: Yeah. He just had the driest sense of humor.

E: Oh, by the way, that's not our first email from Zimbabwe. I found one from April 4th of this year.

S: Oh, good job, Evan.

R: Way to debunk that.


E: The first line from that email from April 4th: "Aside from Rebecca having the sexiest voice in podcast world" and he goes on to say something about vaccines.

R: So, see, we all have notable voices, except for Bob and Jay.

S: Well, they're notable for sounding like each other.

B: So we are notable. Nyah.

Science or Fiction (53:01)[edit]

It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious and I challenge of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Is everybody ready for this week?

B: Yup.

R: Um hmm.

E: Si.

S: No theme, just three news items. Item number one. Curiosity's atmospheric analyzer has confirmed the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere, keeping the hope of Martian life alive. Item number two. A new computer model supports the grandmother hypothesis - that grandmothers provide a fertility advantage to their daughters, thereby driving the evolution of longevity. And item number three. Physicists have created a device with a refractive index of zero, meaning that the phase velocity of light within the device is effectively infinite. Rebecca, go first.

R: So, confirmed the presence of methane on Mars. That doesn't sound right to me. Right off the bat. That one sounds like, I don't know, methane is a big deal, and I think that this has been up in the air for awhile, so to speak. And I feel like it'd be a big deal if they actually found methane, so I feel like I would have heard that. So I'm not sure about that one. Grandmothers provide a fertility advantage to their daughters. Gross. What? Genetic? Do you mean genetic, Steve, or do you mean they're giving them dating advice? Are they setting up their daughters, and why, I don't understand. Grandmothers, their daughters, oh, okay, so their daughters have kids. Okay, and that makes them grandmothers. Okay, so maybe they pass along something genetically, or maybe, you know how grandmothers are with setting up granddaughters on dates. You know, they meet a sexy plumber and they're like, oh, are you dating anybody? You should meet my granddaughter. So maybe that's what that means? Oh, but this is about longevity, not necessarily just fertility. So I guess it would be grandmothers living longer and their daughters live long . . . I don't understand. Longevity and fertility; this one just confuses me. There's too much happening that I don't understand. The same can be said with the last one, because I don't know what a refractive index is; I don't know what the phase velocity of light is. (She laughs.) Yeah, that's really confusing to me. I know what refraction is, I know what velocity . . . I know what each of these words means on its own, but when it's combined, I'm frankly baffled. But luckily I'm skeptical enough of the presence of methane on Mars that I feel pretty confident saying that that one is the fiction. So I'm just gonna go with that even though I don't fully understand the last two.

S: Okay. Bob?

B: Start with three. I know you can have a refractive index less than one. But there's a lot of misconceptions about that. I'm gonna have to go with the idea that there's some little quirk in here that I'm not getting that would kind of make this correct. It's just too weird to be the fiction. The grandmother hypothesis, whatever. I'm gonna go with one. Curiosity's been looking for methane. I know other experiments have found it, but, just historically, it hasn't found it. So that's why this is a big thing, 'cause now it's found it. But I just, I don't think it's found it yet. For some reason I just think that one's the fiction, so I'm gonna go with it.

S: All right. Jay?

J: Yeah, I agree with Rebecca on that one about the refractive index of zero and the phase velocity of light. You know, without going into detailed explanation on all of these, I think that one's the fake.

S: You're going with the light one?

J: Yeah, 'cause everyone's

R: That's not what I said, though.


R: You said you agreed with me.

J: I agreed that I understand the pieces but not the whole. You know, I understand the definition of those words and all that, but I just, you know. That one's bullshit, you know it.

S: All right. Evan?

E: Yeah, I'm having trouble there with the refractive index of zero and, you know. This device and all that. A little beyond my pay grade I must admit. So I'm moving on to the other one about the grandmother hypothesis. And that computer model. There's a child-rearing aspect to this, I'm certain, that comes into play here about perhaps how grandmothers take a part in the family of some sort. And somehow they add to that longevity, I believe. The one about Mars and the, Curiosity's atmospheric analyzer, boy, methane, there's been so much speculation as to, if there's methane, they think they've detected methane in the past, what was the source of the methane. But confirming the presence of methane? So big. 'Cause it's been talked about so much. We've been talking about that as long as we've been doing this show, if not longer. Methane on Mars, and if that was confirmed, that's the kind of thing I know I keep an eye out for. I haven't seen anything on that. I think that one's the fiction.

S: All right. So you all agree that a new computer model supports the grandmother hypothesis that grandmothers provide a fertility advantage to their daughters thereby driving the evolution of longevity. And that one is . . .science. This idea's been around for a little while. The idea here is that women surviving beyond menopause, you think okay, well, they can't have kids, so what is the evolutionary Darwinian advantage to longevity beyond menopause? Well, as grandmothers they participate in, as Evan was saying, in the care of their grandchildren, thereby freeing up their daughters to have more kids. And that creates an evolutionary pressure for longevity and that longevity in our species in general is driven by this selective pressure for having grandmothers around to help raise kids. So that their daughters will have more kids. And they did a computer model looking at primates and it showed that yes, that this, that it all works out that way. So it supported the grandmother hypothesis. Let's go to number one. Curiosity's atmospheric analyzer has confirmed the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere keeping hope of Martian life alive. There has been, as Bob was saying, there has been this question in the news, you know, Curiosity sniffing the Martian atmosphere, and it was very recently reported, Bob, that after four analyses, with 95 percent competence, they could say that the Martian atmosphere has as much as five parts per billion of methane

R: What?

S: But as little as zero. So the range is between zero and five, so they cannot confirm the presence of methane.

B: Yeah.

E: Cannot, right.

S: They're not sure.

R: Umm hmm.

S: Didn't get you on that, huh?

E: Too big.

S: Which is interesting because they seem to pretty clearly have detected a pulse of methane in the Martian atmosphere previously.

B: Yeah, so this is really annoying and upsetting. Crap, 'cause that was a huge find. It was in the news like a year, a year or two ago. They were really hyping it up 'cause methane is destroyed very quickly in the atmosphere, so if it's in the atmosphere it means it was created recently, which means that, and life is, you know, it's one of the byproducts of life. There's lots of other ones but life is one.

E: That's one of the signatures.

S: So, yeah, one of possibilities is that the methane that was detected previously was essentially belched out from some geological process. But it's not a continuous release of methane from life in the soil.

R: Rock farts.

S: A rock fart, yeah, it was a rock fart. As opposed to a Martian fart. Disappointing if that's the final result. Still holding out for little Martian microbes cranking out methane, but it's not looking good so far. All right, let's go on to the last one.

B: Which means . . .

S: Which means that physicists have created a device with a refractive index of zero meaning that the phase velocity of light within the device is effectively infinite is science.

B: Explain this one.

S: The headline really caught my eye. The headline is even worse: I couldn't use it fairly.

B: Worse than that?

S: Nano scale device makes light travel infinitely fast. That's the headline.

B: Oh, Jesus.

S: From triple A-S. Science magazine. And of course that caught my, just, "light travel infinitely fast." So, the refractive index is essentially the speed at which light travels through a substance compared to the velocity of light that it travels through a vacuum, which is about 300 million meters per second. A refractive index of less than one indicates that the light travels faster than the speed of light in the vacuum in that substance. And a refractive index of zero means that it travels infinitely fast. So how could that be? Well, it has to do with the phase velocity of light. I thought it was only fair that I threw that in there to give you a clue that we're not talking about the real speed of light.

B: Yeah, that's what made me think it was likely, as opposed to group velocity, right?

S: Exactly.

B: I mean, that's another type of velocity.

S: Yeah, so the group velocity is the velocity that has to obey the law of relativity that the ultimate speed of light. In fact, even with this device, where you have, essentially, the peaks and troughs of the waves of light can exist at every position along the beam at the same time. So like the wave velocity can exist. It's traveling infinitely fast, so it's basically everywhere at once. But the group velocity is the one that would control, for example, the transmission of information. So information still cannot be transferred at faster than the speed of light.

B: A good analogy, Steve, is if you're looking at a wave in the water, like on a lake or in the ocean. And sometimes you'll see a big wave, but you also see these little, kind of undulations or waves on top of that wave. So those little undulations on the main wave is the phase velocity and they can go faster than the wave is traveling. But the speed of that wave would be the group velocity, and that's not gonna go faster than whatever limit

S: Than the ultimate limit.

B: You might impose, yeah.

S: Right. But I guess the refractive index is based upon the phase velocity, not the group velocity, according to this. Which is why you can have that paradoxical substances with a refractive index of less than one.

B: And also, Steve, the refractive index would determine how much the light is bent, as it enters the new medium.

S: Yes. Exactly. They do think that this little nano device that they made that has this property could be used in electronics in some way. But it wouldn't allow for, like, say, optical computers with instantaneous transfer of information. It would not allow for that. Unfortunately. So, you know, we'll see if it's physic curiosity or if it will have some practical application, we'll see.

B: But still a phase velocity that's effectively infinite, that's interesting.

S: Yeah, it's interesting. It's hard to imagine what's actually happening, but yeah.

B: It sure is.

S: All right, well, good work guys; sorry, Jay.

J: What?


E: Phase velocity. Zero.

J: Did you expect me to win? I mean, (he laughs)

S: No, I was just, passing it along.

In Memoriam: Mike Lacelle (1:04:33)[edit]

  • The Rogues remember Mike Lacelle - the 7th Rogue, who died on November 6th

S: All right. We do have to end the show, unfortunately, on a sad note. A dear friend of the SGU, Mike Lacelle, died two days ago as we're recording this, just after midnight on November 6. Mike was sick for a long time. The quick medical facts are that Mike was born with a heart defect. His heart was reversed, among other things. And he underwent four surgeries in his lifetime, I think starting in infancy, to get his heart to function at all. Just to get the blood to be pumping in the right direction. But his right ventricle was doing the work of his left ventricle and vice versa, and the heart just doesn't have much longevity when it's functioning that way. So we knew this, obviously, about Mike the whole time that we knew him. Mike never really had a lot of endurance because his heart functioned, while fine for everyday activity, he could never do anything athletic and he definitely was limited in his endurance. And the expectation was that when the time came, when his heart started to give out, that he would be put on the transplant list, he would get a heart transplant. So earlier this year Mike really started to become sick. He really started going downhill fast. And again, the expectation was, okay, it's time for the heart transplant, you know, let's get things going. But then his cardiologist essentially told him that he wasn't a candidate, for various reasons. That he wouldn't really take the transplant very well. He had a lot of scar tissue from his previous surgeries; he had antibodies that would increase his risk of rejection. We went around for a while with this, but that was the ultimate conclusion, was that he couldn't get a heart transplant. And then there were other potential options that didn't pan out either, so that in the end, all they could really do for him was medication just to try to eke a last bit of function out of his heart. And unfortunately his heart function just deteriorated and deteriorated, and unfortunately finally gave out.

J: When we first were contacted by Mike, he sent us an email and told us about a fan page that he had started, called SGU Fans. And it just quickly became one of our favorite things to do here at the SGU, which would be to read the quotes that Mike pulled out from last week's show. And it was just funny to read them for some reason, as opposed to hear them, it just added a different dimension to it. And then, we just started to chit-chat with Mike more and more over email, and then we got on Skype with him. Mike and I developed a friendship instantaneously. But things didn't really start to, we didn't really start to consider Mike to be a close friend until he came down for Perry's memorial. And that was it, I mean, after that, those couple of days with Mike we realized that not only was he just a good person, but that we had a lot in common and that we just felt a huge friendship with him.

S: Yeah, a super nice guy. Definitely one of those people who's like the nicest guy you'll ever meet.

R: Very Canadian.

J: And then very quickly, as the years scrolled by, but very quickly after that time that we met him, Mike just started working with us very closely on all of the things that we do here at the SGU and when I tell you that Mike, he did an enormous amount of work for us.

S: He did.

J: And, he did it, never asking for anything. He never asked us for anything. Just wanted to help, believed in our project, believed in what we were trying to do with the SGU. You know, he loved all of us and just wanted to be a part of this in any way that he could, and then, you know, we gave it to him because he kept on asking for more responsibility and we kept on giving him more responsibility and it got to the point where he was doing post-production on 5x5, he was managing all of our software and blogs. He was doing research for us. He was involved in everything that we did in some way or another, he got involved. He came to our live events with us and acted as our manager at some of the events, just to help us stay organized and stay on point. But much more importantly than our association with Mike on the SGU, Mike became one of my best friends. Even though I knew this was coming, and Mike and I had talked about it and then, even a month and a half ago, Steve and I had a very serious talk with Mike, and just said to him, we wanted him to tell us if there was anything you want us to do, is there anything you want us to say. We'd even have you come on the show and everything, and Mike was so humble and so, I don't know how to describe it. When you meet someone like Mike, everything about him is to make you feel good and to make you laugh and to put you in the right mood. Not to put him in the right mood, he was just so selfless. And he said, you know I don't really have anything to say, and I know if I were in opposite positions with Mike and I was dying, I would have so much to say to so many people about so many things, but I think Mike was just content with what he had going on in his head. Like it just was, he didn't need to do those things. He wasn't that kind of a person; he didn't have to yell at anyone or speak ill or in angry words or anything. He just, just was a giver.

S: He was very brave throughout the whole thing. He, very surprising amount of just acceptance and maturity. The weirdest thing was like, up until a few weeks ago, talking to him on Skype or on the phone, sounded perfectly normal. Like Jay, he and I had this perfectly normal conversation with him, yet with the knowledge that he was going to die very soon. But he sounded perfectly healthy and perfectly fine, just talking on the phone. But he, Mike totally understood what was coming. He was not in denial at all; he totally got it. But he was just like, a degree of acceptance that I found very amazing.

E: Yeah, very amazing, 'cause you don't know, you have no idea how you're gonna react when thrown in that position, being in that position. I likened it to how, sort of, Perry went, as well. In that Perry definitely saw what, the handwriting on the wall and what was coming, and he also faced it with a certain bravery that Mike also faced it with. And, also like Perry, Mike didn't revert to wondering about should he be getting on a knee and praying or something or someone. He had no inklings to do anything like that, in which, it's understandable that people can kind of start to drift towards that end of the spectrum, right, when, really, life and death is on the line, here. And he stayed true and brave, and so admirable in the way that he faced this. It's just so inspiring to me.

J: All I can say is I was absolutely honored to be his friend, and, you know, I've been crying all week and I can't seem to have it make much sense other than this is going to happen to all of us and in a strange way it's the only comfort I can take from it is that we're all gonna end up in the same place. But, he was one of the best, best people I ever met in my life.

S: Yeah, he was a great guy. Became one of our, he was one of the group, one of our friends. He will be missed. His contributions will be missed. Most listeners of the show will know Mike from the end-of-the-year episodes. It sort of became a regular thing to invite Mike onto the year-end wrap-up show with us.

J: I have a couple of audio clips of Mike, so people might remember who he was.

S: Mike, you're gonna give us the science or fiction stats so far this year.

J: Oh, god!
M: (he laughs) Are you guys ready for this?
J: No. Definitely my worst year of all time.

M: Actually, yeah.

M: I mean, there's some funny conversation between Rebecca and Steve about birds. Early on in the year.

S: Could you be more specific? (laughter)
M: I know. It was about bird jizz or something like that.
S: You mean when we were talking about bird jizz?

M: Yeah, you know that time, you were talking about birds? That's, that time.

R: It's gonna be really hard to do the wrap-up show.

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah.

R: And not just because Mike did all of the work preparing for it.

S: He did, yeah.

J: Yeah. The one thing that I learned from this experience that was so profound was that it was the first time in my life . . . you know when Perry died I didn't have the moment that Steve had where he was with him and they both knew it was coming. Mike and I knew this was coming, and there is nothing you can possibly say to comfort someone. You know, there's no religion, there's no, that's it. You know, from an agnostic or an atheist perspective, it was so much more real. It wasn't like you can say "Okay, I'll see you" or whatever, like, there is none of that.

S: Yeah, it's interesting. You have to like really confront your feelings and the reality and what the loss means. You can't just whitewash over it with some comforting notions about an afterlife or...

R: We don't have any platitudes.

S: Right.

J: And I was thinking as on the 8-hour drive home my wife and I barely spoke to each other just 'cause we were so floored by everything. We just could not talk. It just wasn't happening. And I was in my head the whole way and I just was thinking to myself that I wouldn't want it any other way. I wouldn't want to be able to give myself excuses and things like a lullaby to make me feel better. Like, I wanted that moment was so real and it was, it was raw. And that's what I think it should be. I mean, that's, you know you can't live your life with your head full of things that take away the pain. The pain is part of life and we have to learn to live with it and work through it.

S: Well, you will be missed, Mike.

J: Yup. Mike, I, you know, I did tell Mike this. I told him how much I loved him. I told him how much he means to me and I told him that the work that he did is joined with the work that we do and hopefully it'll live on past all of our time.

S: Well, he certainly will always be remembered on this show.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:10)[edit]

S: Jay, you gonna close us out with a quote?

J: Yes, I am. I picked this quote fore Mike. I knew that Mike was a huge fan of Carl Sagan, and this quote was sent in by a listener, and I save all the quotes that people save me and I just go through them and I try to find one that has meaning for that show, if I can. And I stumbled on this one, and I do remember actually, I don't remember the first time I read it, but I do remember reading this before, but I thought that Mike would really like this. This is about space exploration. So Carl Sagan starts by saying that

[Space exploration] is in financial trouble. Yet by many standards, such missions are inexpensive. Mariner Jupiter/Saturn costs about the same as the American aircraft shot down in Vietnam in the week in which I am writing these words (Christmas 1972). The Viking mission itself costs about a fortnight of the Vietnam war. I find these comparisons particularly poignant: life versus death, hope versus fear. Space exploration and the highly mechanized destruction of people use similar technology and manufacturers, and similar human qualities of organization and daring. Can we not make the transition from automated aerospace killing to automated aerospace exploration of the solar system in which we live?

J: Carl Sagan.

S: Thanks, Jay. Thanks everyone for joining me this week.

R: Thanks, Steve.

B: Thank you.

E: Thanks, doc.

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

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


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