SGU Episode 383

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SGU Episode 383
17th November 2012
UFO Denver 2012b.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 382                      SGU 384

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


BH: Bruce Hood

Quote of the Week

I'm a scientist and I know what constitutes proof. But the reason I call myself by my childhood name is to remind myself that a scientist must also be absolutely like a child. If he sees a thing, he must say that he sees it, whether it was what he thought he was going to see or not. See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you were expecting. Most scientists forget that.

Wonko the Sane from Douglas Adams's So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish

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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 Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, November 14, 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: Hey, boys and girls. How's everyone?

S: Good. How are you, Evan?

B: Pretty good.

E: Very fine, thank you.

This Day in Skepticism (0:29)[edit]

S: Rebecca, I understand you have an uplifting This Day In Skepticism for us today.

R: Yeah. I was trying to find a fun one, but there was one big news story that jumped up – jumped out at me for this week. November 18th, 1978, more than nine hundred people died due to the mass murder–suicides of the People's Temple cult, which was led by Jim Jones, better-known as the Jonestown Massacre. We have talked about this in the past, but there's one fact that I wanted to call out—which might make this slightly uplifting, even though it's still kind of not—but I wanted to highlight one particular person, and that's Congressperson Leo J. Ryan, who was one of the victims, but he's the only U.S. Congressperson to have died in the line of duty. Ryan was a representative in San Francisco, and he was very vocally critical of all kinds of cults, including Scientology and the Unification Church, which was Reverend Moon's church. He started getting these reports from his constituents, who were worried about friends and family members who were getting involved in the People's Temple, which was headquartered in San Francisco but had locations all around California, and, in 1974, of course, the cult began moving to a farm in Guyana, now known as Jonestown, and that was to escape growing media scrutiny. And Ryan heard from these constituents who were telling him that people were being held at Jonestown against their will. So he asked Congress for permission to investigate the cult, but he faced this – just a load of red tape, basically. Despite that, he was eventually able to fly to Guyana to see what was going on. And he went over there with several aides and a number of journalists who wanted to come along for the ride. When he got to Jonestown, several cult members told him and his entourage that they desperately wanted help escaping, and Ryan's crew took the defectors to the nearby airstrip to get them to safety, but they were intercepted by cult members who opened fire on them, killing Ryan, three journalists, and one of the defectors. Ryan was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for being possibly the greatest, most badass Congressperson to have ever served. I mean, can you imagine your present-day Congressperson flying to another continent in order to make sure that you were safe? It beggars belief. But he did it.

E: Mm-hmm.

R: And he paid the ultimate price for it, unfortunately.

E: Yeah, he did.

News Items[edit]

Denver UFO (3:03)[edit]

Neurologica: Bugged by UFOs

S: Well, Jay, tell us about the latest UFO over Denver.

J: Fox 31 out of Denver, in the United States, did a TV report titled "Mile High mystery: UFO sightings in sky over Denver". So, an investigative reporter named Heidi Hemmat led the report, and she said on air that she was skeptical the first time she heard about the mysterious objects taking off and landing in a populated area over Denver—which I found very ironic, that she used that word, "skeptical", that she used it as if, you know, she was skeptical. Which she isn't. So, anyway, her source of the video is a man who also did not want to be identified, which I found unsettling. The UFOs that this guy captured on the camera—on his digital video camera—can't be seen unless you slow down the footage, because, according to him, they were moving so fast that the human eye couldn't pick up on them until you slowed the video down. So, they slow the video down, and the TV station—and a photojournalist at the TV station—actually brought an expensive camera to the location, which was like a turned-over field—it looked like a farming field—and they put their camera there, and they videotaped the same area of Denver, around the same time that this guy taped his, and they found the same thing. They captured the same exact type of stuff—which, you know, was is it? What are these things? That are in a field, out, you know, in the middle of nowhere? Zipping past the camera, or, you know, far away. What could they possibly be, guys? What could they –

S: Or, "buzzing around the camera"?

J: Yeah, right?

E: Hmm.

J: You look at the video that's – that'll be on the link to the show, and the absolute very first thing—a nanosecond after your brain registers what it's seeing—the first thing your brain says is, "It's a fly! It's an insect!" It looks like an insect. It moves like an insect. It buzzes around like an insect. And, you know what? It's not far away. It's right up on the camera. It's, like, probably a foot in front of the camera.

E: Yeah, we've seen evidence of this before. This is common, and we have talked about it before on the show, and these turn out to be bugs!

J: It's amazing. It's amazing.

B: I know, Jay. A lot of those people just really just didn't quite understand, one: somebody just said that, "Oh wait, these – this is a bug. We're looking at bugs." And this other guy said, "It can't be bugs, 'cause bugs don't fly higher than the clouds." Like, wait a second, dude. Whoa, really?


J: They brought in an aviation expert named Steve Cowell, and he's a former commercial pilot, and—this is so entertaining it blows my mind—he's an instructor, a flight instructor, and an FAA Accident Prevention Counselor. And, very convincingly, he argued that there is just no explanation for this. And then the news reporter, at the end of the newscast, said, "Oh, and it's not bugs. It's not bugs. They guy said it's not bugs."

E: "The guy says", yeah.

J: Oh, OK. So the guy says it's not bugs, so therefore it cannot, absolutely, be bugs. But it is bugs!

R: Well, you know, I mean, why would that guy lie? Come on, Jay. Come on.

J: It just boils my blood. Like, you're on TV. Your job is to report the news—information, unbiased, and as logically as you can. FAIL. No good. You can't do your job.

S: It was 100% failure. It was a total failure.

E: And no (inaudible)

S: And, she said, like, four times, "It's not a bug. Stop saying it's a bug. It's not a bug." I wonder why so many people are telling you it's a bug? 'Cause it's a damn bug.

B: Yeah.

S: It was so obvious. There's a couple of other things—not that you need anything more—but, from the illusory perspective, you know, of the guy who did the film, who thinks that he's looking at spacecraft, he thought, "Oh, it must be landing somewhere at these crossroads", and, of course, there's nothing but residential houses there. Oh, OK, so these ships are taking off and landing every day in a residential area, and nobody sees them. 'Cause they're moving so fast, I guess.

E: Or hears them, yep.

J: Yep.

S: Or hears them. And nothing got picked up on radar. I guess they just haven't (inaudible) radar technology.

B: Nothing on radar.

E: Yeah, they called NORAD or something.

B: And they found some way, obviously, to suppress the sonic booms, right?

J: Yeah.

E: Ha.

B: I mean, didn't that – didn't that guy say that this thing must've been travelling at multiple-mach speeds? OK. No sonic booms? Nothing that – not even that. Even, you know, if you're landing in an area like that, just the disturbance to the air of something moving so fast –

S: Right.

B: – that it's not visible to the naked eye –

J: Bob, you can't question future technology. Come on.

B: Oh my god.

J: The guy who, for some reason, doesn't want the public to know who he is, who's capturing all this incredible footage, at one point, like, you know, the—and I'm just going to very proudly call this a fly, 'cause it was a fly, OK?—so the fly –

S: Jay, it might have been a bee.

J: Whatever. The fly –

E: What kind of fly?

J: You know, you ever see a fly, and their – up close, and their skin is kind of shiny?

S: Yeah.

J: Like, they actually look like there's a rainbow effect going on?

B: Iridescence, yeah.

J: Exactly. So, the fly changes direction, and he freezes the frame, and he goes, "Rocket booster", you know? No.


E: Oh, yeah.

R: Yeah, right.

J: No.

E: Or the after – yeah, "the afterburners".

J: No, that – see, that is called – the afterburner is actually the Sun, like, bouncing off of the fly's body.

B: Jay, I think this guy was actually smart. This guy was smart in not to reveal his name, because when it does come out that this was a bug, he just saved himself years of people going up to him with fake bugs, flying them around his face, and saying, "Look! A UFO! Look! A UFO!"

E: Oh, god.

B: And I think somebody's gotta get down there with a real camera, with the right settings—high definition, high frame rate—so that you could actually see what this thing is, because you could focus in on it. It's blurry. You can't see what it is. You could see the glinting, Jay, that you mentioned, but you can't really make out any structure at all. But if you film it properly, you can do it –

J: Of course, Bob, but –

B: – especially if you film it. And somebody's gotta do that. It's such an obvious next step, just to completely put this to bed.

E: It would be an easy test to devise to make sure it's an insect.

S: There's a couple of things you could easily do, and the comments to the article have multiple suggestions. Interestingly, this guy's been doing this for a month—like every day, almost, for a month, he's been seeing this—and he hasn't done even basic techniques to try to challenge or question his assumption. So, here's two things that were proposed in the comments that would be very easy. One is, hang a sheet ten feet away from the camera. If they're bugs, you'll see the bugs in front of the sheet.

B: Yeah, very good. That's a good one.

E: So much for the – yeah, far off in the distance.

S: Yeah. Number two, just put a second camera up and triangulate.

E: Yeah.

S: You could triangulate far away, you could triangulate close-up. Let's see which one captures the thing at the same time. My money's on the close-up triangulation.

B: Yeah, you're right, Steve. Those are great suggestions. But they don't even see that. They can't even imagine that. 'Cause, to them, this has got to be a big object, far away, moving fast, and they can't get past that illusion. They can't get past that. It doesn't even occur to them.

S: Well, but that's the point. They didn't do a scientific test to try to challenge their assumptions, or to test alternate hypotheses. They just are, you know, imagining that it's a flying saucer –

J: They don't want to.

S: – fitting the interpretation into it.

J: They don't want to.

E: And it – this doesn't –

S: All right, and here's the final thing that he said: "They seem to be most active between noon and one."

B: Interesting.

S: Do you know what else is most active in the middle of the day, when it's warmest?

E: Bugs?

R: Bees.

S: Bees, yeah.

E: Bees.

J: It was a fly.

E: Or a bee.

S: I think it was a bee. I think we blew this one wide open. All right. That was our fish in a barrel segment for this week.


Math Hurts (10:32)[edit]

NBC: Fear of math makes your brain hurt, study confirms

S: But, Rebecca, you're going to explain to us why, for some people, math physically hurts.

R: That's – yeah, that's what the headlines are announcing, due to a study by psychologists at University of Chicago and Western University in Ontario, Canada. They have apparently found that doing math literally makes your brain hurt, sort of, but not really.

S: Sort of, but not really, yeah.

R: What happened was, they looked – they took fourteen adults who said that they, in general, are very anxious about math, and they had these people do math problems while in an fMRI, which is obviously the best way to help people with math anxiety. You know, you strap them to a gurney, you put their head in a tiny cage, put them through an enormous whirring magnet, and then make them solve math problems. Anxiety gone.

E: Cool.

R: The researchers say that they found that, when the told the subjects they were about to get a math question, the subject's brain showed activity in the part of the brain that registers real, physical pain, and that went away once they actually started working on the problem. Now, this is being reported with headlines saying that, you know, math makes your brain hurt, but the subjects didn't actually feel pain. It's just that their brains were reacting as though they were feeling pain. The researchers point out that the brain reacting as though the body's in pain could contribute to people with math anxiety actually doing worse on math tests, which can feed back into the anxiety. This isn't just out of nowhere. There are a lot of studies that show that your ability to score on math tests does vary, depending on how anxious you are about taking the test. For instance, there are a few very famous studies showing that female mathematicians who are reminded about the stereotype of women being bad at math tend to express more negative emotions and anxiety, and then do worse on subsequent tests.

E: Like that Barbie doll that said "Math class is hard!"

R: Yeah, that Barbie doll obviously had a lot of math anxiety. So, yeah, that's the study. There are a couple of issues that I saw straight out. Number one is that the study doesn't show that this is something unique to math. It only shows that the brain freaks out when people are upset and anxious about something. Number two, also, they might not have found the brain reacting as though it was in pain. The authors in the study actually note that it might be just the brain reacting to a threat, which is already how we categorize a lot of anxiety—like, if you have to give a speech, and you experience this rush of adrenaline, and that old flight-or-fight response, you know – because our brains have evolved to deal with stress by assuming that there's a lion about to eat us. That's the common knowledge, at least. But, at the same time, it's kind of interesting that our dumb human brains can't figure out the difference between a serious bodily threat and a math problem, you know.

S: I don't think we can even say that, Rebecca –

R: Yeah?

S: – because different parts of the brain will participate in different networks, and you can't necessarily conclude that, because the same part of the brain is lighting up, that it's serving the same function that it is in other situations that also make it light up. It's not that simple. And so, you know, that part of the brain may be contributing to a negative emotion or experience about, you know, the math anxiety, but it doesn't imply even that it's analogous to physical pain or other forms of anxiety. It could be serving a completely different function, right? So, you can't even assume that analogy, that the brain is responding to math anxiety as it does to other threats, or to physical threats, or to pain. That is a huge assumption not justified by the evidence.

R: Hmm. I don't know. You're the brain doctor. OK, so now we're at the point where the study shows nothing, basically. The study showed nothing, everybody. It's not interesting.


S: No, you know, it's the kind of thing where, you know, these one-off fMRI studies are really hard to interpret. Even assuming that the results are reliable—which, for small studies, is a coin-flip, in my opinion, to be generous—even if you –

R: Now, I mean, there were fourteen adults.

S: Yeah. Even if you buy that, there's – the interpretation is extremely complicated, and this kind of straightforward interpretation is almost silly, in my opinion. Maybe if, you know, they do four, five, or six other fMRI studies, as you said, looking at other effects, altering variables, we might get a better idea of what's actually going on here. It's – I don't think this one study's really interpretable.

Communicating with the Vegetative (15:11)[edit]

Neurologica: Communicating with the Vegetative

S. The next news item is similar, in that we're talking about FMRIs, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which is a technique of looking at blood flow to the brain and inferring brain activity from that. In this case, researchers have used FMRI scans to study the brains of people who are comatose. This is research that's been going on for a few years, and in fact the study that I'm talking about was published in 2010, but it's in the news again because of a documentary that's coming about this technique in some of these patients. And I had to talk about it because this was the most emailed item of the week. Dozens of our listeners sent me emails saying "What does Steve think about this study?" So I did write about it for Neurologica, so you can read a detailed analysis of it, but quickly, what the researchers did is they looked at 54 patients who were in either a persistent vegetative state or a minimally conscious state. These are similar conditions, they're chronic conditions following some kind of a brain injury where the person cannot become conscious. In a persistent vegetative state, by definition, there is no interaction with the environment, and there are no signs of conscious awareness on the exam. If the patient displays conscious awareness or that they are responding to external stimuli in any way, then, by definition they're not persistent vegetative. Then we would categorize them, if they had minimal signs of consciousness, then they're minimally conscious, a minimally conscious state. Not much of a difference between these two things. There's a slight difference in prognosis. If you're persistent vegetative, your prognosis is zero, essentially. If you're minimally conscious, it's almost zero, but it's, it's very very low, but there's a chance that you may improve over time. To the, it's not like the movies where you're in a vegetative state and then one day you wake up and then a week later you're neurologically normal. Right, like in that movie Dead Zone, you guys remember that movie Dead Zone?

E: Oh, yeah.

B: Yeah.

E: Christoher Walken.

S: With Christopher Walken, yeah, like five years later he just wakes up.

E; No.

S: It doesn't happen that way.

E: Or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.

J: Yeah, Steve. Isn't it true that the longer you're unconscious, the more screwed up you're gonna be if you ever do come back?

S: Yeah, so time is everything. So, the farther out you are, the longer you've been in a coma, the probability of ever having a meaningful neurological recovery, plummets, I mean it just drops asymptotically to zero. And if you are in a minimally conscious state and you do eke over to being a little bit more conscious, some patients have done that, where they could look around and they could make eye contact and maybe even participate in their feeding, but that's like as good as it gets. They're still profoundly neurologically impaired, they just sort of, their brain improved beyond the point where they have a little bit more functionality. But they never return to any semblance of a normal life. But, you know, it is very important for families to know what the prognosis is, what the state is. Some families have this very deep-seated belief that their loved one is in there, you know they just can't communicate with them. The neurological exam has been shown in the last four or five years to be very imperfect. So we could talk about the routine neurological exam, even like the routine neurological coma exam, the exam that's designed to assess people who are in a coma and look for signs of consciousness, versus an enhanced, or really detailed, coma exam, and what researchers have shown is if you do the enhanced exam you pick up about 40% of people who were thought to be persistent vegetative or actually in a minimally conscious state.

B: Forty? No, not forty

S: 40%. 40%. Yeah.

B: I thought it was lower than that.

J: What are they actually experiencing?

S: Well we don't know what the people are experiencing. That's a good question, and we don't know. We don't know if they're forming memories; we don't know, they're just, something's happening in their brains that's allowing that processing to interact with the environment, but, we don't know what they're experiencing. They're not awake. They're not normally conscious.

E: Quality of life is . . .

S: Again, we have no idea. We could also describe another category called locked in, which, in which patients . . .

E: That's the worst.

S: Yeah, that's the worst. Where they are conscious, but they're unable to move, to show any outward signs of their consciousness. Maybe they're blind and deaf, maybe their language area is gone, but they're in there somewhere. They are in there, they're locked in. Enter, now, functional MRI scan. Also, EEG analysis can be used in the same way, where we can look at brain function and use that as an additional tool to try to sort out these patients. And what we're finding is that, indeed, with this technique some people who were clinically persistent vegetative do show some signs of consciousness. I know we talked about the study from a few years ago, where, in one patients, they asked them, who was in a coma, they asked them, imagine yourself walking around the house, which engages the visual-spatial part of the brain. And they said, imagine yourself playing tennis, which engages the premotor cortex. And that shows two very distinct and healthy neurologically intact controls that shows two very distinct patterns of activation on FMRI scan. And they were able to show that in somebody who appeared to be in a persistent vegetative state, they actually were able to reliably show one or the other pattern on FMRI when commanded to do, to imagine themselves either walking around the house or playing tennis. Now, this current study with 54 patients they applied the same technique, They found that five out of the 54 patients were able to show the differences in the FMRI patterns when asked to do one of those two cognitive tasks. That of course means that 49 weren't, so, still you have a very small minority of these patients who appear to be minimally conscious, are showing that maybe they have some more consciousness than we, than is demonstrable on exam.

B: Although it is possible that some of those other 49, some of them could have been deaf, and minimally conscious, but they just didn't hear the question, the command.

R: That's a good point, yeah.

B: . . . scary, too.

S: Yeah, or a

E: Very.

S: or aphasic.

B: Right.

S: Or their language area wasn't working. Exactly. I found it interesting, and I don't know how blinded the evaluators were to this, but assuming they were, that all five of the patients were in a coma as a result of

E: Trauma.

S: physical trauma. As opposed to anoxia. So when you have anoxia, we call it anoxic ischemic injury, the whole brain gets wiped out. The whole brain lacks oxygen, all the brain cells are damaged. Patients, that's the worst prognosis 'cause nothing is working, everything is impaired to some degree. With trauma, though, maybe some parts of the brain are damaged and other parts of the brain are working relatively better. There's patchy damage. And it makes more sense that that's the kind of patient where maybe there's more consciousness than is evident because of things like blindness, deafness, paralysis, and there could be parts of the brain that are relatively intact and able to generate some conscious awareness. That lends it a little bit of credibility in my book.

B: I don't know, I think it's, probably still have a decent amount of credibility. These, and I know there's a lot of art to interpretation of FMRI, but still, I mean, the patterns are distinct.

S: For healthy controls, it's dramatic, but if you look at the five subjects and their patterns, and also they were asked questions, and they were supposed to imagine themselves doing one thing for a yes and the other thing for a no,

B: Right.

S: So they were able to answer yes or no questions. The patterns are kind of all over the place.

B: Oh.

S: And the overlap in the error bars is huge. So, I don't know. The researchers seemed to think that the results were fairly robust and reproducible. If that's the case, it's plausible. I buy it. I just don't know how rigorously blinded it was and if there was any data mining going on or selectivity. I think it's plausible, it's believable, it's possible, but, I'm also, I'm not ready to sign off on it and say this is absolutely the case, and let's move forward. I think it needs to be reproduced independently. Because there's just too many opportunities in this kind of study for confirmation bias and data mining, et cetera.

B: If you could have fruitful conversation or interaction with somebody like that, it would really go a long way to, I mean, at least making their care more tolerable. Like, hey, you know, they could find out if they're in pain, or what decisions they want to make.

S: Yeah, exactly. That's the utility here. First of all, I think it's just helpful for the family to know, if

B: That's key, yeah.

S: And actually it's, for 49 of those patients the answer was no, there's nobody home. They're not able to show any sign that they're able to modulate their brain activity based upon command. So that could help families let go, or perhaps forego aggressive therapy or prolonging the inevitable, et cetera. So either way I think it's useful information to have, and of course the ultimate potential benefit would be to allow a patient to communicate and to direct some of their own care and that might help their quality of life.

Nearby Rogue Planet (24:34)[edit]

BBC: 'Rogue planet' spotted 100 light-years away

S. Let's move on. Evan, you're gonna tell us about a new planet that has been discovered recently.

E: Yeah. So the BBC has reported that astronomers have discovered a rogue planet, and that's such a cool term for these kinds of things. (Bob laughs)

S: Yeah.

E: Rogue.

? Rogue.

E: Let's face it. So astronomers have discovered a rogue planet that is a paltry one hundred light years away from us and our system. And, we've talked about rogue planets before on the show, they are planets which wander the vastness of space and are not in orbit around any star or other large object. These planets have either been ejected from their former solar systems or they were never gravitationally bound to a star or other large mass object in space in the first place.

S: It's a failed star, in other words.

E: Essentially, yes; brown dwarf category – similar to that, perhaps.

S: Although this is too small to even be a brown dwarf.

E: Too small to be a brown dwarf, but still, big, as far a planets go. They say it has a mass of about four to seven times that of Jupiter.

B: Wow.

R: Thank god because there was a lot of negging going on earlier and I was starting to feel really bad for this star. (laughter)

E: I agree.

R: "Failed star," "Not even big enough to be a brown dwarf."

E: No wonder it's out there by itself.

R: Seriously

E: It feels so lonely.

S: But as a planet it's huge. So it just depends on your reference, frame of reference, I guess.

E: Huge planet.

B: But it's clearly a planet from the research. And also, I think it's important to remind people, we've talked about this before, that there's a lot of these rogue planets out there. A lot. Maybe more than there are stars. Remember it was like some crazy number. It's like "That many?"

E: Estimates are as high as 100,000 times more than the number of stars in our Milky Way.

S: That would be cool.

E: I don't think we should be so surprised, based on the number of these things, that we found one so relatively close to us. And there are probably others that we just haven't discovered yet, but with microlensing, the technique by which astronomers are able to measure when a planetary-size object passes in front of a background star in its gravitational field, causes a momentary increase in the visible brightness of the background star. That's how they're able to find a lot of these things. That's one of the common techniques used.

S: But for this planet, though, it seems like they weren't using microlensing. They directly observed it in the infrared spectrum, so even though it's not a star, it's still putting out a lot of infrared radiation.

B: Even Jupiter itself emits more energy than it absorbs from any other way. So, especially one many times the size of Jupiter

S: Yeah.

B: I could see, there's

S: This is putting out a lot of infrared light.

B: Yeah.

E: Astronomers were surveying a clot of stars,

B: A clot. I love that. A clot of stars, that's awesome.

E: Clot of stars, is its term, which were about 75 light years away from earth, and this is courtesy of Phil Plait who did a little discussion on his blog post. The cluster is called AB Doradus and it's a group of about thirty stars that are believed to have formed together and they're kind of still drifting through space together, like this little swarm of bugs or a flock of birds, essentially. They were using various measurements of the stars themselves, right, and they were able to determine that this one in particular had the characteristics of a rogue planet. Not that old, either. Estimates are only 50 million to 120 million years old, which is

S: That's young.

E: Pretty young. But happy birthday, nonetheless, to the rogue planet; which is dubbed CFBDSIR2149-0403. And they named it that because it rolls off the tongue.

S and B: Yeah.

J: Why can't I name a planet?

S: Go ahead, Jay, name this planet.

R: . . . start with the reasons.

B: Kevin! (laughter)

S; (laughing) Kevin.

E: There's bill . . . Kevin, Kevin 1.

J: Almost anything would be better than that, right? Like it's, that's not sexy or fun or interesting or intriguing, provocative – nothing. It's just a stupid number.

R: Well, they give it a number at first and then, like it's different for each planetary body, 'cause sometimes there's rules, like you have to name it after, like a dead astronomer or you have to name it after a mythological being, or something.

J: So, are they waiting for Phil to die or something? (laughter)

S: You can call it Phil.

R: Yeah, Phil's a nice name.

J: All right, I dub thee . . . Phil.

Twisted Light (29:17)[edit]

'Twisted light' data-boosting idea sparks heated debate

S: All right. Thanks, Evan. Bob, you're gonna tell us about the twisted light controversy.

B: Yeah. We covered this a while back. Jay, I think you talked about this back, before the summer, was it? This was a method of wireless data transmission that seemed truly revolutionary. It was really amazing if it pans out or, if it'll pan out. There was talk of transfer speeds of up to 2.5 terabits per second, which is pretty amazing. That's about, many, many times faster than what you're capable, are gonna be able to do at home, if you're doing about 30 megabits per second. Another great analogy was it's like downloading 70 DVD movies onto your mobile device in a second. Just one second. Bam, there, you've got 70 movies.

E: Oh, ho.

B: The theory to pull this off was put forth by researchers and physicists from the Universities of Southern California and universities in China, Pakistan and Israel. What these guys are theorizing is that by twisting many beams of laser light of the same frequency, you can apparently encode a separate stream of information into each twisted beam of light. Each beam is essentially a zero or a one. Now this kind of broadband boost would be gold for telecommunications firms, right? I mean, they're having a very difficult time trying to find new space to use in the electromagnetic spectrum. So this would be fantastic if they could take just any given frequency and bam! Many, many, you know, orders of magnitude more information in that same one frequency. Some researchers call this encoding many channels on the same frequency through radio vorticity, which I kind of like, because it's very descriptive.

E: vorticity

B: The most pithy name that has stuck is simply "twisted light." And everybody's throwing those two words together. If you want to get a little more technical, I found this interesting. What they're doing, or what they're proposing is that they want to exploit the angular momentum of photons to encode more data. And when you think of momentum, one way to think of it is just the energy of motion. And there's two types of this angular momentum. One is spin angular momentum, and a good analogy for that is the earth spinning around its axis. We take advantage of that by using polarized sunglasses, in terms of photons. Sunglasses will filter out certain polarizations of light. Even 3-D glasses exploit it as well. But this isn't what we're talking about. We're talking about a different type of angular momentum. This is orbital angular momentum. Now a good analogy with that is the orbit of the earth around the sun. And this is where the twisting of light comes in. So that's kind of where we were for the past few months about this. But an increasing number of researchers, especially electrical engineers, they think that this idea is misguided and it's never gonna work. I've got a good quote from Bob Nevels, he's, of the Texas A&M University. He's a former president of the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society. He said: "This would be worth a Nobel Prize if they're right. Can you imagine if all communications could be done on one frequency? If they've got such a great thing, why isn't everyone jumping up and down? Because we know it won't work." The proponents of this theory did a small public demonstration earlier this year, in Venice, I believe. They sent data across a lagoon in Venice using, they used multiple antennas for transmission and reception to, kind of like a proof of concept. And the opponents argued, though, that since they used, they used multiple antennas, so they had basically two modes, two modes of communication of data transfer, and that really is no different than conventional theory. Like they, they liken it to this MIMO, M-I-M-O setup, which stands for Multiple Input, Multiple Output, which is a method, like I described using multiple antennas to receive and transmit to make a better signal, to make a more redundant signal and various things like that. And they're saying that their demonstration doesn't really show anything. It just, you don't need to resort to some esoteric theory of incredible bandwidth when you're just really, just using, really, conventional theories to do what you did during your demonstration. So, right now, it really seems hard for me to pick a winner in this race. I kind of, I have a bias towards physicists, of course. But other discussions kind of boil down to, a physicist will say stuff like "You don't understand. You're not a physicist." And the engineers will say, "Well your demonstration can be explained by conventional theories." And then the physicists will say: "Well, our theory, it's really just a subset of a very well understood and accepted phenomenon." And so on. It goes back and forth. It kind of reminds me of the quantum computer hubbub that was in the news the past couple years. I think the company was D-Wave. They said they had a quantum computer, and it was kind of hard to figure out how they were doing it. You know, is it really a quantum computer or is it just a conventional computer that's kind of organized in a really unusual way? So the company did these proof of concept, they did these, they ran some algorithms and they solved some equations, but the big complaint was that, hey, a regular computer can do that. You have to do a demonstration that no other conventional computer could do, and that would be much, much more compelling. So, it's not a perfect analogy, but there's a lot of similarities between what's going on here. So I think to really resolve this to most people's satisfaction, it's gonna require some pudding, as in proof is in the pudding. The researchers really, they need to pull off what they say they can do. Namely, they need to encode information using not two different modes of data transfer, but tens or hundreds of these possible modes. And if they could pull off something like that, I think more people will believe it and maybe it'll convince the opponents of this theory. But I think we're just gonna have to wait to really see what happens with this. And I hope they're right, because it really would be a revolution in data transmission. But we've gotta wait.

S: But that's why it's good that there are different specialties. You know, different disciplines within science.

B: Yes.

S: We see this in medicine all the time, too. We have different specialties and completely different expertise, fund of knowledge and perspective on things, and they often disagree with each other 'cause they're coming at a question from a different angle. And I agree with you, Bob, that the proof here is gonna be, if the physicists are right, which I hope they are, 'cause the practical applications, they have to build a device that exploits this principle they say exists.

Who's That Noisy? (35:46)[edit]

S: All right, well, Evan. It's time for Who's That Noisy?

E: And we had, well, quite a who's that noisy from last week, so I'm gonna play it for you right now, as a reminder for those of you who have forgotten. Last week's "Who's That Noisy?" Here we go.

(whirring, then hissing, then a man exclaims "Holy Shit!")

E: Right.

S: Yup, it was some kind of electrical doohickey.

E: Something with electricity and a holy something or other. Yes. Lots of different guesses on this one, a whole host of them. I wanna review just a couple of them. Obviously electricity was one of the main thrusts of the answers here, and here are some of them. So, Ormark from the message board says this was a car hit by lightning. Adam Bellows believes that this was a battery put into a microwave oven. Patrick McComb believes this was a Tesla coil, along with Nick from the UK and Vivian Levy, also a listener, Tesla coil. Ronald in Virginia: "Microwaving a grape cut in a certain way that it generates plasma." (laughter) Certainly one of the more creative answers. But I think, for the most creative answer, it has to go to our listener Darryl Gilliam, who suggested that this is the sound that an MRI makes as it sucks a chair apart during dismantling.

R: A chair?

E: A chair. Somewhere out there there's apparently a video of an MRI pulling a chair to pieces. This was part of the, yeah. So very, very, very funny answers. Very good answers. And a lot of them. A lot of people got that it was a microwave, obviously from the beep and the handle and the door opening. So, but what was actually inside there? Well, what was in there was a jar of argon gas. That's what happens when you put argon gas in the microwave.

J: Well, what happened?

R: That's why you should always heat up your argon gas on the stovetop.

E: It heats up the gas, supercharges it, and it turns into a nice blue shocks of electricity within the container in which the gas resides. It's a very neat looking effect, but as they said in the description of the video, "Only test this with your friend's microwave."

S: Yeah. Don't try this at home.

E: And don't use your own.

S: Now, for this week, we're gonna go back to doing a puzzle rather than a noise.

E: We are, yes. This is a good puzzle.

Three people are interviewing for a job, and are given a test. The first person to solve the test gets the job. Each person is given a hat that is either black or red. They must put the hat on and cannot look at the hat or use any method to directly discover its color. The three applicants are then put in the same room, and each is further instructed to raise their hand if at least one of the other two applicants is wearing a black hat. The task is to figure out the color of the hat that they are wearing. One applicant sees that the other two applicants are wearing black hats and both have their arms raised. After a moment the applicant states they have solved the puzzle and that they are wearing a black hat. So how did they solve the riddle?

This puzzle was provided to us from listener James Powell.

S: Thank you, James.

R: Thanks, James.

E: Do your best, think it through. It's a good logic puzzle. And let us know what you come up with. It'll be interesting to read your answers, and we'll talk about it some more next week.

S: All right. Thank, Evan, and thanks, James.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Phase velocity vs group velocity (39:24)[edit]

S: We're gonna do one question this week. Actually, we're gonna do a quick correction followed by another follow-up from last week. The quick correction is we were talking about phase velocity and group velocity of light. And if you recall I said that the study showed that the phase velocity could be, in this one experiment, could be essentially infinite. That doesn't violate relativity or the speed of light because the group velocity still is limited by c, but actually that is wrong. The group velocity, in certain situations, can, as was pointed out to me, also exceed c, or the speed of light. But it is only the information velocity that can't exceed c and must obey Einstein's speed limit there. So thanks for that correction.

Bicycle Physics (40:13)[edit]

R: What about the correction on the bike tires? Because, it's like, everybody hated that.

S: Yes, that's the next thing.

E: Yeah, nobody –

R: You guys got that so wrong –

E: Oh, gosh.

R: – and I can tell how wrong you were based on the haughtiness of the emails we got in response.

S: And this is, you know, some on email, some on our own forums. The guys on our forum are usually very good at giving us technical feedback and correcting our errors, like with the group velocity thing, but in this one, I don't think they did a good job. So, last week we were answering a question by a listener who wanted to know why everything in the universe goes around. But he tacked on the end of that question the question about, like, how do bicycles stay up, how are they so stable, and all I did was say, "It's not the obvious answer most people think it is. It's actually very complicated, and physicists aren't 100% sure" and I left it at that.

E: Hmm.

R: Damn you.

S: I actually thought it might be a good problem for people to investigate on their own. But what we got, though, were a lot of people who were like, "Good grief! It's obviously due to the caster effect" or "It's due to the gyroscopic effect" or "It's the person riding the bike that steering it that's creating the balance", and really dumping on me for mystery mongering about saying that physicists don't understand it. So – but they were all wrong! And the whole point is that all of those answers that people think are the answer are not the most signi– are not really the answer to the question, of how are bikes self-stable. So that's the term that physicists use. If you take a bicycle and you run alongside of it—you get it up to ten or fifteen miles per hour or whatever—

E: Wow.

S: —and then you push it and let it go, it will – it'll stay upright with no rider, for a long time—until it slows down or hits something that's too bumpy—but if you're on a flat surface, the bike will stay upright and riderless for a considerable amount of time. And the question is, what process of physics is at work here to create this self-stability? The classic answers are that it's a combination of the gyroscopic effect; the rotation of the wheels, which—you know, this is what we were talking about last week—that rotation does, in fact, cause a little bit of a gyroscopic effect and, you know, because of angular momentum and the forces at work there, that when the bicycle gets tilted over to the side, it actually creates a force that will push it back—or that it will create a force that will turn the wheel, that will tend to right the bicycle. However, that force is actually quite small, and is not sufficient to explain self-stability.

E: Hmm.

S: Further, engineers have built a bike with no gyroscopic effect. It has two wheels—you know, in place of each wheel are two wheels, one above the one that's touching the ground that moves in the opposite direction, right? So you have a cancellation effect.

B: Ah, cool.

S: You have two wheels spinning in opposite directions –

E: I'll be.

S: – so, yeah, so the gyroscopic effect exactly cancels itself out, so there's zero gyroscopic effect, and you can create a bike with that that is still self-stable. The other effect is the caster effect. Most people are familiar with this from shopping carts. The wheels are designed so that, no matter what direction you move the cart in, the wheel aligns itself with the direction of movement because of the – the point of contact on the floor is a little bit behind the angle of connection, like, where the axis is. So, that causes the wheel to trail behind and self-align itself. Physicists have also created a bicycle—the same one—you know, the bicycle that has the – that takes out the gyroscopic effect has the point of contact a little bit in front of, instead of a little bit behind, where it's anchored, so that – it eliminates the caster effect. So, with no caster effect and no gyroscopic effect, the bicycle is still self-stable. So other forces must be at work.

E: Unidentified forces?

S: No, no. So, that's where we get into, like, how to talk about this. And, what some people were criticizing me for was maybe overemphasizing the mystery of what forces are at work. But, you know, I did a lot of reading before. I wasn't speaking off the cuff there. I had read many, many articles about it, and, in the last week, I've read many, many more, and watched videos of engineering professors discussing, and they all say the same thing—that we're not really sure, or they think that this is the answer, and the math gets really complicated, you know? But there doesn't seem to be one consensus, clear-cut answer to the question of what is the factor that's at work that's causing the bike to be self-stable. There's multiple possible things that are contributing to the self-stability of the bicycle. It really is just – it's a ferociously complicated problem. It doesn't mean that we have no idea what's going on, or that it's a mystery, or that the bike can't be self-stable, or that it defies physics. None of that. It just means that it's really complicated, there are multiple effects at work, it's not the simple ones that people think it is, but it does – One thing that we can say for sure is that it is dependent upon steering. If you lock the wheel of a bike, the self-stability goes away—if you lock the handlebars so it can't move.

E: Right.

S: The bike has to be able to steer. So, when the bike tilts to one side, the wheel moves in such a way that it pushes the bike back to the upright. So, no matter which way the bike wobbles, it's always getting pushed back toward the center. But the question is, exactly what is it that's causing the bike to steer in just the right way that it pushes itself back to the midline. So, but it was amusing, the number of people who were like, "Yeah, come on. It's the gyroscopic effect. What are you talking about?" It's like, nope. That's not it. It's not significant. While it does contribute to bike stability, it's not significant, and it's not necessary.

Interview with Bruce Hood (46:21)[edit]

S: We are sitting here at TAM 2012 with Professor Bruce Hood. Bruce, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

BH: Well, hi there, how're you doing?

S: So, I wanna talk to you about a couple of things. You gave a talk just before at TAM. So tell us about your talk, and then I'm gonna ask you about your new book. But, start with the talk.

BH: Okay. So, the talk was called "The Self Illusion" and I originally thought about doing a sort of summary of the book. So it was about the issue of, is the self really, you know, what is the self. And what is it we experience, and to what extent is this subjective notion of a unique coherent individual actually more of an illusion in the sense it's not what it seems. And that's what I try to unfold. And so, I was coming at it from, it's an old philosophical issue. I mean, I'm not the first person, I'm amongst many to sort of approach this topic. But I was coming at it at a kind of developmental perspective. My interest is child development and I was trying to talk about the idea that the self can be conceptualized in different ways, and that the development of self that we experience as an adult is one which must be built up through experiences and influences.

S: Um-hmm. So tell us, in what ways is our subjective sense of self an illusion?

BH: I draw the same distinction that William James did, between the sense of the momentary, you know, the conscious awareness of the current point in time, which is the "I" experience, and the sense of self which is the identity of who you think you are based on your history. So the momentary, in the moment, experience of self is of coherence, isn't it? I mean, if you think about the visual world, it seems seamless, it seems rich, it seems detailed. But we've known for quite a while now that actually you are only ever processing a small fraction of the world and the rest of it is being basically confabulated by the brain. You know, you don't have the color vision in your peripheral vision, it's blurred. You've got two black holes the size of fists which correspond to the blind spots. And this is the one I think people find most remarkable is that every time you move your eyes, you're effectively blind, because the vision system shuts off the information.

E: Wow.

S: Um hmm.

BH: And it works out about two-and-a-half hours of every waking day you don't see anything. But you would never be aware of that. And you can always try this out, maybe your listeners want to try this: if you look in a mirror and look at your left eye and then you right eye and try to see them moving, you can never see your eyes move.

E: I used to do that as a kid. I would stare into a mirror and try to do different things about how do I see myself here and how, you can never quite catch yourself.

BH: Yeah, you can never see your own eye movements.

E: Right.

BH: And that's because of saccadic suppression, which is the principle. We think it's to stop the world blurring every time you shift your eyes.

E: Um hmm.

S: Um hmm. Yes, our brains evolved to be useful, not necessarily accurate.

BH: Exactly. Yeah, the brain is a, it's evolved to process information. I mean, I think the brain, and I'm not the first person to say this, that the brain, you find them only in organisms which need to navigate around the world in meaningful ways. So there're many living things which don't have brains, but the ones with nervous systems are basically trying to keep track of where they are in the world. And then build up a model of that world to use for future reference.

S: Um hmm.

BH: So I think brains are fit for purpose. So they don't necessarily have to be vertical (veritical?) representations of the external world. They're just a very good adaptation which has a specific task which is to try and get us about.

S: Um hmm. Okay, so, the perceptual stream

BH: Yuh.

S: is largely confabulated and constructed.

BH: Yeah.

S: Et cetera, and that's part of our self. What other aspects of the self are constructed that way, are illusory?

BH: Well, I mean, same with the I moment, which is the momentary notion of willful action or volition. I mean, there again, other examples, not my labs, but other people have worked on this sense of initiating actions. We always feel that we're, you know, you just picked up your cup of water, you felt the urge to do so, you felt that that followed on from that mental thought. But we do know that in many instances such motor actions, the point at which you feel you're actually making the decision sometimes afterwards. In other words there's a whole series of unconscious processes which are actually initiating that and then you become aware of it and then you link that together. Dan Wegner I think has written one of the best books on this, this is The Illusion of Conscious Will, makes the point is that you need to keep track of all the unconscious elements which are feeding and shaping your behaviors, and this is what he thinks that consciousness is about. It's giving you the authorship of action, as it were. So, many aspects of this self in the present moment are constructed.

S: Um hmm.

BH: 'Cause there are many things which are shaping your decisions and your behaviors. But the remainder, the other side of the self, the "me," and that's the personal identity, that comes from the way that you construct this sense, character in many ways, which represents everything which has influenced you in the past. And so this is the narrative of who you are. And we all have a sense of who we are in terms of our idealized notion, and very often, you know, what we try to present to other people. But in many ways that is shaped and influenced by what we think other people think about us. So we try to project to other people a reflected self, and that's this idealized notion.

E: Is that we think 'cause that's an idealistic way to look at the world, basically through our eyes, and therefore we kind of project it onto other people?

BH: Yes. So, I mean, obviously there are events which are, that you can't question, there's about where you born. There's reality in the world. But then that is brought together into a framework. And then you have other aspects, well, I'm a good person, a bad person, I was dissed at this occasion, I was cheated on that occasion, you know. So you do have these examples of all the events which are interpreted in a framework. And also, the thing about memory, as we well know, it's not vertical, it's always changing, it's fluid. So your memory's always being updated and shifted. You know, people like Elizabeth Loftus have demonstrated very effectively, you just reinterpret events.

S: Right.

B: Even talking to people about an event will change that memory.

BH: Exactly.

B: Just relating it to people.

BH: Well, that's right. That's why false memories and eyewitness testimonies are notoriously malleable by the way that you question someone about it. You'll integrate a question and make it become part of the memory. So, we're not aware of that, because obviously, that's part of the whole process of the self-illusion. But other aspects, for example, the work on cognitive dissonance and attribution errors, the way that we interpret events, we frame them from certain perspectives, and so we don't have that objectivity that we think we have. So we're always viewing and interpreting events from a characterization. So, in other words, the input, which eventually become the memories, it is itself also distorted.

S: Yeah.

BH: Or, it's not necessarily distorted, it's just not necessarily a true reflection of the real complexity. Your brain is always abstracting information all the time. Trying to fit it to a framework. And that's what it does, it seeks pattern and structure all the time.

S: Right. So consciousness is a, just a narrative that the brain is constructing from all these various things: memories and sensory streams and cognitive biases and

BH: Yes. Well, it's more than that, of course. There's a whole subjectivity of consciousness which is the qualia question that everyone keeps coming back to.

S: Right.

BH: But I think the phrase was Steve Pinker's phrase that consciousness isn't so much the master-in-chief, but the spin doctor of experience. And I like that because

B: That's nice, I like it.

BH: Yeah, you know, typical Pinker, he's actually spot-on and sharp as a knife. Yeah, yeah, exactly. You're always kind of trying to, you're living in the past in many ways, you know, you're trying to make sense of everything.

E: Are there exercises we can do to help improve on this sort of, you know, get a little better grasp of reality, if everything is this illusion that

B: Not if you want to stay human.

BH: No. I think, you know, I don't meditate myself but this resonates with a lot of Buddhists, talk about these ideas. Because the doctrine of Buddhism is that if you reach a stage of self-awareness you can get rid of the self. And eventually, that's the sense of what is called anatta. I'm not a Buddhist, but it apparently claims that that would be the state of enlightenment. When you shed off all the perceptual experience and you get down to the basics, and then you can get rid of the self, and then you've become enlightened. Well, I don't know about that. I mean, one of the things about this particular illusion, as I demonstrated in the talk, is that even when you know how to, that something is an illusion, you can't escape it. That's the beauty of it, because you are your brain. And if your brain is constrained to see the world a particular way, you can't step outside your brain.

E: But how do we know our brain isn't fooling us to a point which it becomes sort of dangerous, you know, we're making bad decisions as opposed to good decisions?

BH: Oh, absolutely, yeah, and this is, of course, is a preoccupation with, for example, behavioral economics, you know, your decision-making and probability reasoning. Yeah, I mean, we're making bad decisions a lot of the time, but, in general we make good decisions, and that's the way it's evolved. It's been pretty accurate most of the time, but we take that brain which evolved in the savannas and then try to put it into economic situations, which it's not used to sort of thinking about. You know, probabilities, and that, you know, economic reasoning.

E: Right.

BH: Then it makes lots of consistent biases and errors. So, yeah.

S: So you mentioned qualia before, which is a term that refers to, like, the subjective experience of something

BH: That's right.

S: Philosophers, especially dualists often refer to that as well. That's the one thing that we can't explain with neuroscience, and therefore there must be something else, so what is your feeling on that?

BH: Exactly. It's called the hard problem by philosophers, in the sense that we know that consciousness is sort of, it's an emergent property of all the unconscious processes and we can play around with it and show that you don't notice things and you get all the perception stuff. But you still have this real fundamental problem, which is how do you get this subjective experience of the bitterness of a lemon, or the sweetness of a strawberry? You know, that in-the-moment experience. How can you explain that in terms of just neural firings? It's something which is, it's an elusive type of, kind of problem. It's not even clear how you could ever actually really even investigate it. That's part of the issue. Some people just dismiss it and say well, just forget about it. That's just an epiphenomenon, you don't have to worry about trying to explain it.

S: Right.

BH: I've thought about it. I don't believe I have any insight over and beyond others, but my late colleague, Richard Gregory, we had the discussion once, and I thought . . . he hit on something which I think has merit. At least, considering. That he thinks that the qualia of the consciousness is somehow flagging in the brain that you're in the present moment in time. And from then it just disappears, as all the information fades. So you, if you think about it, you're always only sampling everything. And he thinks, well, he thought, he said well maybe it's something to do with just the brain being aware of the present moment in time and knowing that it's not actually hallucinating or drawing on a memory. You know, there's a qualitative difference between a memory or a dream and, he would argue, the quality of full consciousness. And some people say well that's not true, you know, I've had dreams which are very vivid, you don't know you're dreaming, but I'm not sure, I mean, personally I've not had that. I mean, in my dreams I know when I'm dreaming or I know I'm in a kind of a dream, but sitting here now in front of you guys, this is a very different real experience, to that kind of dream experience.

B: I've thought of that specific experience. If you, all of a sudden, woke up in bed right now,

BH: Yeah.

B: In the next moment. I think people could convince themselves that this was a dream. Because, it would have to be a dream, because you woke up in bed, so therefore your mind would say, it had to be . . .

S: I don't know.

B: No? I don't . . .

S: No, I don't know. 'Cause when you do wake up from a dream it's a very different experience than if I suddenly transitioned now to waking up. I've never had this, the thing is when you're dreaming, some people say,oh, I had a vivid dream, it seemed real to me at the time, but that was not your waking self evaluating that experience, it was your dreaming self,

BH: Right. Exactly. Exactly.

S: which is a different subset of the brain,

BH: Yup.

S: and so it's not a fair comparison. Your waking self would have recognized that as a dream.

BH: That's what I think, yeah.

S: Yeah.

BH: But of course we can never know what other people's experiences are. So that's a problem.

S: Right. But that's what lucid dreaming is, right, when you sort of tip over a little bit and you start evaluating your dream state from a waking kind of perspective and you go, oh, this is dreamlike, I must be dreaming.

BH: Yeah. But, if you alter the brain, you change the mind. That's the basic point. And anyone who wants to kind of believe in woo and spirits and souls, well, you know, whatever. But the truth of the matter is that, you know, the evidence strongly supports the idea that it's a materialist system.

S: Right.

BH: And that's what it is. And, you know, well they say, well that means you can make, you might be able to make a sentient robot. Well, yeah.

S: Yeah.

BH: (laughing) Yeah. What's your problem? (laughter)

S: Yeah. When I've written about that I focus on the fact that they're confusing the question of "Does the brain cause the mind" or "Is the brain the mind" with "How does the brain manifest . . ."

BH: Exactly.

S: We don't know how but we know that it does. Because, every way you look at it, changing the brain changes the mind.

BH: Exactly, yeah.

S: In a tight enough correlation that there's no, really no other viable hypothesis.

E: Does that mean we'll never have the answer or it's just not important to know that answer; it just is, and it doesn't matter.

S: Well, I'm interested in your discussion about the hard problem, because, you know, Daniel Dennett says essentially it's a non-problem.

BH: Yeah, it's a non-problem, yeah.

S: I kind of agree with him in that, once you solve all the little problems of what the brain's doing, I do think you've basically solved the hard problem because consciousness, it just is, it is the summation of all of the things the brain is doing. It's interesting. Maybe there isn't something else that's happening. Maybe it's just the summation. I think that's Daniel Dennett's essential answer to it.

BH: Yeah.

S: So, what do you think about that?

BH: Well, I think, you know, I think it's all too easy to say it's not a problem. The truth of the matter is that is anyone, a layperson comes to this, they want to know, you know, what is this, what's creating this subjectivity. You know, so I think it's, I don't think anyone's going to be satisfied by saying it's not a problem.

S: Yeah.

BH: It's always going to be a problem. Now, I don't think it's necessarily a solvable problem. I don't think we have the, I don't even know how you would go about solving it, that's the common issue.

S: Yeah.

E: Hmmmm.

BH: You know, what is the, how– because you'd never have the capability to interrogate another system's output to get their view on the world, their subjectivity. So I don't see any feasible way of actually empirically testing that.

B: What about an artificial intelligence testing that you can get and look at the code and see, and could somehow see it

S: No. You wouldn't know if the artificial intelligence is just behaving as if it's self-aware or if it actually is experiencing its own self awareness. That's the thing. The only reason why I know you're really conscious is because I'm conscious, and you're a person like I am so I'm assuming that you have the same experience that I do, but there's no objective way to really know.

BH: Yeah, you could be a very, it's called the philosophical zombie, you know, you could be very

B:  ?

E: He likes that.

BH: You'd just be a very sophisticated automaton.

S: In fact the p-zombie question is a really interesting, the philosophical zombie of, somebody, a system that acts in every way like a conscious being but doesn't have any qualia, you know, subjective experience.

BH: Yes.

S: And there are those who even think that p-zombies are impossible.

BH: Yeah. Dennett thinks so.

S: Yeah, if you have a system that's doing everything you need to do to behave exactly like a conscious being, you're conscious.

E: Right.

BH: Exactly.

E: Right.

S: But, yeah, I don't know how to resolve that question, too, that's what the philosophers, I think, are discussing, 'cause I don't know of any empirical way to test these kind of questions.

BH: No, I, and I agree with Dennett on that. If it is indistinguishable from the human, then it has consciousness.

B: Walks like a duck and quacks like a duck.

E: Yeah.

BH: I becomes a non-question then.

S: Right. And again, I think it's a non-problem, Again, my interpretation, what he's really saying is, not that it's not a problem, just that the solution's kind of already there and that it's just an emergent property of everything that we can say. If we could break down each little thing that the brain does, when you finish doing that at the end of the day the, what emerges out of that is consciousness. There isn't a separate thing. Although I'm still open to the notion that there may be some kind of circuit or system in the brain that we haven't really zeroed in on yet that is playing some important role in conscious, like maybe, like what you said. I've never heard that one before. I'm gonna add that to my list of why we have to be, have qualia or be conscious, to distinguish a memory from an experience.

BH: Yes.

S: That's interesting. So maybe that's, whatever part of the brain is doing that, that's necessary for consciousness.

BH: And from then on everything is abstract, so if you think about the volume of information coming in in the present moment, through the sensations and everything, that has to be abstracted. It has to be sieved for the relevant information to be stored.

S: Right.

BH: You can't process all of it, it'd just be overwhelming, so that flood of information coming in is part of the qualia. And then from then on it becomes a fading memory and your moment of awareness lasts for two seconds, three seconds, roughly. And then it just fades. And it's gone. So you're living in this window of time which is shifting, just sampling the richness.

S: All right, well, Bruce, always fascinating to speak with you.

BH: Great. Thank you very much.

S; Thanks for sitting down with us.

BH: Thank you a lot.

E: Thank you, Bruce.

B: Thank you.

Science or Fiction (1:02:56)[edit]

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious. I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. There is a theme this week.

R: uuu

S: The theme is Thanksgiving.

B: Oh, I should have known.

S: This is the last show to come out before Thanksgiving. (laughing) I think I did this before, but I'm sure I did not use these items.

R: Does it even matter though? We probably wouldn't remember.

S: Just three items. Just three items, even though it's a special one. Here we go. Item #1: While corn is native to the Americas, the innovation of heating corn until it pops was introduced by the English colonists in the 17th century. Item #2: The modern celebration of Thanksgiving in America began 200 years after the Plymouth celebration, when a letter that had been lost, by the Plymouth colony leader describing the event was rediscovered and publicized. Item #3: Wild turkeys can run up to 20 miles per hour and fly up to 55 miles per hour. Evan, go first.

E: Okay. Corn is native to the Americas. Well, there were English colonists in the 17th century in the Americas, so, the innovation, well, so did they figure it out? Heating it up until it pops. I don't see why they couldn't have. I'm sure they were throwing all sorts of stuff in the fires and into the kettles to see what, what was going on, so that's entirely plausible. The next one about Thanksgiving in America began 200 years after the Plymouth celebration. 1620 was the Plymouth landing, was it not? 200 years after, 1820? The modern celebration of Thanksgiving. Hmmmm. I don't know about that. Certainly there'd be something wrong with the timeline there if this one's gonna be wrong. I think the components of this are perhaps correct but maybe the timeline is off a bit. The last one, wild turkeys can run up to 20 miles an hour and fly up to 55 miles an hour. I could, I could believe 20 mile-an-hour run; I'm having a hard time with 55 miles per hour flying. Seems fast, but a bird that big, you'd have to kind of really get going fast in order to be able to take flight. I think it's either between the turkey or the document. I'll go with the document one. Uhhhhh. Yeah. Something's wrong there. (laughter)

S: All right. All right, Bob.

B: At first I was like, what? They found out about popping corn that long ago? But , yeah, how long would it take before you, you know, you would actually just throw some stuff on there and see what happened. So, I can kind of buy that one. And also the turkey one, I could buy that, too. We have wild turkeys at work and every now and then I see one outside, and they are not small, they are tall, surprisingly tall. And as I get close to them to try to take a picture or whatever, they scurry away pretty fast. I could see them being able to run at top speed, perhaps 20 miles an hour. And I can even buy them flying up to 55 miles an hour. It always amazes me how fast any bird can fly, most birds can fly. It just seems like, I don't quite understand how they could fly so fast, and they're just flapping their damn wings. I mean, I don't know how they generate so much forward momentum just by this up and down motion.

S: It's a mystery.

B: Yes. (laughter) The tide goes in, it comes out,

E: Bill O'Reilly, thank you very much.

B: So, yeah.

S: And don't even get me started on magnets. (laughter)

B: Oh, I can, I can explain that. So, I can buy that, too. And the second one, about Thanksgiving, 200 years, and this letter. I don't know exactly what happened, but I just have this memory of it not being a letter. It was something else that was quirky that caused it, so that's the best I can go on. Of course I did not prepare for this. (laughter) But, I will, so I will go with the Thanksgiving letter thingy.


S: You'll rely upon your logic and keen analysis.

E: The rare GWE.

S: All right, Jay?

J: The one here about the, Thanksgiving in America began 200 years after the Plymouth celebration. I think that one is correct. I swear to God, like I'm remembering, like, the paper cutout from when I was a kid in grammar school and the teacher like decorates the wall with like the holiday stuff and remember like they take construction paper and they build like pilgrims and Indians and stuff out of it. You don't remember that? Your teachers ever do that?

S: Sure.

J: And something about that memory is making me think that this one is correct. So, I'm gonna trust my teacher from many many moons ago. The last one is absolutely correct, about the turkeys that can run 20 miles per hour, fly up to 55 miles per hour. That's a fact. Second one, no. I mean, yes. The middle one, sure. Remember the, nursery school, the whole bit? Yes, okay, memory good. The first one, false. This whole popcorn thing, English, that is 100 percent wrong, and I know a lot about popcorn. (laughter)

S: You sound pretty serious up there, Jay.

J: Yup. Thank you.

S: All right, Rebecca.

R: Well. Jay speaks truth, I think. I do think turkeys can run and fly quite fast, although coming from an area where there are a lot of turkeys, a very rural area, I can say that normally I only observed turkeys walking at, you know, about .00004 miles an hour across a road, while there's a long line of cars waiting. But I know that when it comes down to it, yeah, they can move quickly. The idea that the modern celebration of Thanksgiving took place 200 years after the Plymouth celebration doesn't strike me at all surprising like, it's not like anybody thinks that this was something that was celebrated annually from the first time it was done, right, because that would be so awkward. Like, oh, it's time to once again celebrate the coming together of two peoples, one of whom butchered the other just last week. Like, that wouldn't happen, unless a good couple of centuries had allowed time for children to forget.

E: The horrors.

R: The horrible things had been done.

E: of early colonists.

R: to one party. So yeah, that makes total sense to me. So the popcorn thing, I can't believe that native Americans were here for several millennia surrounded by corn and were like, they just never, it never occurred to them to put it on the fire and then Europeans showed up and were immediately like, what's that, corn? Hey, have you tried putting it over here? Holy shit! Popcorn! (laughter). So I'm with Jay on that one, that one seems like the obvious fake to me.

S: Okay. So we have a rare Jay-Rebecca alliance this week.

R: Yeah, and you know that's the most terrifying alliance you can have.

S: Umm, terrifying.

(talking at once)

J: It's either gonna be magnanimously correct or horribly wrong.

R: That's all right, we go down together.

S: Okay. Let's take, let's start with number three, since you all agree with that one. Wild turkeys can run up to 20 miles per hour and fly up to 55 miles per hour. You all buy that one, and that one is . . .

J: science.

S: Science! It is science, yes. Wild turkeys are quite spry. They can't sustain 55 miles per hour, but they can fly in bursts of speed up to 55 miles per hour, it is reported. And they can book. They can run pretty darn fast. Did you know that wild turkeys were almost, they were on the brink, they were almost extinct in North America. Their numbers were down into the tens of thousands, which

E: Yeesh.

S: is very endangered. That is on the brink. But they were reintroduced and protected. And over time they rebounded, and now they're back up into the millions.

B: Millions, wow.

E: Yeah, they're all over Connecticut, that's for sure.

J: Steve, wasn't the turkey going to be chosen as the national bird?

R: It was Ben Franklin's choice.

S: Well, not really, Ben Franklin made his choice public, that he wanted the wild turkey. I don't know how seriously it was ever considered, but that was his choice.

R: So then everybody was like, Ben, you've been drinking.

J: Yeah, he didn't mean that wild turkey. (laughter)

S: Yeah, now there are turkeys all over the place. In my house I'm mostly surrounded by woods, and flocks of turkeys through all the time, until I got a big dog, and now he pretty much keeps them at bay. You can hear them gobbling in the woods, but every now and then they will encroach upon the yard and I absolutely see how fast they can move when my dog is chasing after them. They are fast little buggers. The domestic turkey cannot fly. All right, let's move on to number two, the modern celebration of Thanksgiving in America began 200 years after the Plymouth celebration when a letter than had been lost, by the leader of the Plymouth colony describing the event was rediscovered and publicized. Bob and Evan think that one is the fiction. Jay and Rebecca think this one is science, and this one is . . . science.

J: Yes!!

R: Jay!

S: Good job, guys.

J: Thank you, thank you construction paper people! (laughter)

E: Construction paper people.

S: This was, the original celebration, was probably never meant to be an annual affair. It was probably more of a harvest celebration than a thanksgiving. Traditionally at that time days of thanksgiving were days of fasting and sacrifice. This was more of a harvest celebration with feasting.

B: Gluttony!

E: Feasting, no fasting.

S: And of course there's always a lot of discussion about what did they eat at that celebration. They probably did eat, there is reports in the letter describing the thing that they, the colonists hunted wild fowl, some of which may have been turkey. They were eating seasonal vegetables, probably lots of pumpkin and squash. The Indians contributed a lot as well. Corn, of course. Succotash. I didn't realize succotash was an Indian dish.

E: Succotash.

S: Succotash, always fun to say. The Wampanoag, Wampanoag Indians, they did reportedly kill five deer for the feast, so there was venison there as well.

J: I just realized that I think I have a lot of Thanksgiving trivia in my head. 'Cause I knew that.

S: Yeah, the Wampanoag? You knew that?

J: Yup, I did know that.

S; Yeah, so it was not until the 1800s that the letter was rediscovered describing that event. The idea was kind of popularized and developed into our modern concept of Thanksgiving. And do you know which president made it an official national holiday?

J: Abraham Lincoln.

S: Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, yup.

E: Ooohh.

J: Oh, my god, I know a lot about Thanksgiving!! (laughter)

S: And Jay, which president

E: The skeptics' guide to Thanksgiving.

S: When and which president solidified the date as the fourth Thursday in November? I'll be impressed if you can get this one.

R: Come on, Jay, you can do it.

E: Come on, Jay.

J: Was it FDR?

S: YES!!! (laughter)

J: Oh my god! Oh my god! I'm serious!

S: It was FDR.

E: Part of the New Deal, I heard.

J: What's tomorrow's lottery numbers? Quick, ask, ask. (laughter)

E: Sorry, it has nothing to do with Thanksgiving.

R: Jay is the best at fifth grade social studies.

E: Every day is Thanksgiving.

S: Right.

R: It's just lurking.

J: It's so weird.

R: Somewhere in his brain.

J: Well, Steve, is this what it feels like to be you? (laughter)

S: All right. What was the name of the leader of the Plymouth colony whose letter inspired the eventual holiday?

J: I don't know, John Smith.

S: Edward Winslow.

J: Close, I was close.

R: That was very close.

S: You were very close.

E: Yeah, yeah, you were close.

S: All right, all of this means that while corn is native to the Americas, the innovation of heating corn until it pops was introduced by English colonists in the 17th century is fiction.

R: Obviously.

S: Bob, it was interesting. You were thinking that maybe it was too far in the past for popcorn.

R: Bob was just thinking, well, microwaves weren't invented until (laughter). . . movies.

E: Movie theaters weren't around.

B: Yeah, I've just never come across popcorn in history.

S: Yeah, the history of popcorn, you know. It's been around for millennia, as Rebecca said. And in fact that may have been the most common use of corn. Initially. So, the Aztecs used popcorn quite a bit. They used it as food, but also, as decoration. Kind of like what we do, some people do at Christmas, they string popcorn on a thread and use that as garland around the tree.

J: It's old. People have been popping popcorn for, I think over a thousand years.

E: Okay, professor.

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah. Jay, why do you know so much about popcorn?

J: I stumbled on popcorn trivia and I just read it for 30 minutes, and I just picked up a lot of popcorn info one time.

R: In Seattle there's a Hostess factory, and it looks like the most depressing place on the planet. And so my friends and I wanted to go get a tour of it. I was on line trying to figure out if I could get a tour of it, which it turns out I couldn't. When I found on Hostess's website, like, Twinkie facts, and one of the Twinkie facts was that the first Twinkie was banana-flavored. And I noted it and immediately moved on to do something else with my day, and that night I was at pub trivia, which I did like every Wednesday night, and that was a question. They were like, what was the first flavor of Twinkie? And I'm like "Guys, it's banana." And they're all arguing, and I'm like "Guys. It was banana. Trust me. I'm a Twinkie expert. And they were blown away. Blown away.

E: The Twinker.

S: You see, it's those kind of things that magicians and psychics exploit. What are the odds that that little factoid happened to be relevant later in the same day? And you were an opportunist. And you presented yourself as a Twinkie expert because you just happened to have that little fact in your head. But seriously, but like psychics would do the same thing. They'll come across a little bit of information by chance and then the opportunity will strike later, and they'll be able to demonstrate some amazing knowledge that they couldn't possibly have had, to convince people that they're psychic. It's the same thing.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:28)[edit]

S: All right, Jay. Give us a quote, please.

J: This is a quote sent in by a listener name Clay Caviness from Jersey City, New Jersey. And this is a quote from someone that we all, did not know personally, but someone that we thought was really funny. I'll give you a hint. I'm gonna read the quote. You ready?

I'm a scientist and I know what constitutes proof. But the reason I call myself by my childhood name is to remind myself that a scientist must also be absolutely like a child. If he sees a thing, he must say that he sees it, whether it was what he thought he was going to see or not. See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you were expecting. Most scientists forget that.

R: That was Alfalfa from The Little Rascals.

J: No, but that was a good guess. It's Wonko the Sane. Who's the author, Bob?

B: Adams!

J: Douglas Adams. It's from a book called So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

Announcements (1:18:27)[edit]

R: Hey, I have an announcement. I'm gonna be at the Australian Skeptics National Convention in Melbourne, Australia. It's gonna be a lot of fun. It's November 30 until December 2 of this year. It's in Melbourne. You can find out more by going to I don't know, just, you know what, just Google "Australian Skeptics" and you'll find it.

S: All right, well, have a good time there, Rebecca.

R: Thank you.

S: We do wish we could be coming along with you.

R: Me, too.

S: And thank you all for joining me this week.

J: Thanks, Steve.

E: Doctor!

R: Thank you, Steve.

S: And 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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