SGU Episode 384

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SGU Episode 384
24th November 2012
SGU 383 SGU 385
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
RW: Richard Wiseman
Quote of the Week
The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom but to set a limit to infinite error.
Bertolt Brecht
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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 Saturday October 27th 2012 and this is your host Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella.

B: Hey everybody.

S: Jay Novella.

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

S: And we have a special guest this week, Richard Wiseman, Richard welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

RW: Bonjour, ça va?

S: You are the host, the MC of CSICon two thousand and twelve.

RW: Yes.

B: Twenty twelve.

S: Twenty twelve, and you're doing and excellent job, we're enjoying it very much and thanks again for joining us on the show.

Special Report: Richard Wiseman on his Dream Research (0:44)[edit]

  • Richard updates us on his dream research and the iPhone app - Dream:ON

S: So, we were chatting a while ago about your recent work that you've been doing, you're working on something to do with dreams.

RW: I am, I'm working on Dream:ON which is an iPhone app which everyone can download because it's free, and it's an idea that came to me I guess about a year and a half ago when I looked at some very bizarre research from I think it's the early '70s from Stanford I think it was, and it was a guy who was waiting until people were in dream states, he was a sleep researcher.

B: Mr. LaBerge? Stephen LaBerge?

RW: No.

B: No?

R: No, no no. It's William Dement.

S: And we should mention before we go on that you are a psychologist.

RW: We should mention that.

S: Yes.

RW: Yes. Shall we?

S: Yes.

J: (laughs)

RW: Let's mention that. I'm a psychologist.

S: And author of several books, we'd like to...

RW: Oooh the books, Paranormality. That's very good, they were very kind, they gave me a little prize for that at this very conference.

S: Is that right?

RW: It was very nice.

S: A very prestigious prize I understand.

RW: Very prestigious prize, the Robert Bales critical thinking.

S: Yeah, you're following in the footsteps of some very prestigious recipients.

RW: I understand the previous recipient is not very far from me now.

S: That's right.


RW: Did it change your life?

S: Oh tremendously, yes. It altered the trajectory of my life in numerous ways.

RW: But I tell you what's nice is the money that comes with it. Ten thousand dollars, lovely.


E: Dollars or Euros, or Lira? Yen?

RW: So yes, I'm a psychologist, and I got interested in dreaming because of Paranormality actually, there's a chapter on precognitive dreams, so I got into the work of a guy called William Dement and he did this great experiment, best experiment ever, so in a sleep research lab, he waited until people were in dream state, showing REM, Rapid Eye Movement, and then he played in audio sounds, as audio uh, sounds...

S: As opposed to non-audio sounds.

RW: As opposed to those audio-visual images... of things like a steam train for about 20 seconds, and then he woke people up and they were dreaming about, they'd incorporated the sound into their dream.

S: Yeah.

RW: And about 50% of people he got this effect on. So I read about that and I thought, "wouldn't it be great if we could take that and roll it out on the iPhone and influence the whole world's dreams?" So I went to an iPhone company and they said, "that's insanely difficult" but they were prepared to try it, and we worked for a year and basically you take your iPhone at night, before you go to bed, you decide what time you want to wake up and then you put it on your matress next to you and it monitors movement in the half an hour, 30 minutes, before you wake up, it monitors movement very very closely and when it feels that you are very maximally still, i.e. dreaming because you're paralized in your dream, it plays in the sound scape of your choice, could be walking on a beach, could be out in nature, could be on an aeroplane, and that influences your dream, it wakes you up in a nice gentle way and then you're asked to report your dream into our dream bank, called the dream catcher.

S: The dream catcher.

J: Oh, that's very clever.

E: Yeah.

RW: It's good hey?

J: Yeah, that's good.

RW: So we rolled that out and currently, I just checked last week, we currently have 10 million dream reports.

J: Oh my god, wow.

RW: Isn't that scary? And the main finding is that when people wake up in the mornings, they can't spell.


RW: But it's lovely, and it doesn't work with everyone by any means, we're still changing the algorithms on it, because we can do that remotely, it's very scary what you can do on iPhones, over time you log on your iPhone, we send you a different algorithm but you don't know it and we get the data back and so on. And for some people it works very very well so we have people who are almost adicted to it, there's one woman whose dreams I read actually, almost every morning because she's having a long-term affair with George Clooney in her dreams.

S: Mmhmm. In her dreams.

RW: And she met him in Walmart, not for real, in her dream, about a month ago and now she dreams about him every night using the dreamscapes.

J: So really, this whole app was launced because you're just a really creepy voyeur.

RW: Pretty much, or that's also true, but it's incidental.


RW: But! But, but, but. So we've got a new dreamscape coming out this very week, I've completely lost track of time so I think it's coming out either the next couple of days or the couple of days after that, because we ask people what dream would you most like to have? And we ask guys and the answer was, we want to be part of a zombie attack.

B: Really? Wow, awesome!

S: Really?

E: Surprising.

J: Which side of the fence though?

RW: Oh, as a human.

J: OK.

B: Living human.

RW: Yep. So we have a well known news reader who is reading out this sort of news and suddenly there's a zombie attack and he takes you how to kill zombies, so that's the latest dreamscape. And then we're going to premium dreamscapes later on in the year which basically are sexually oriented. So you can have intercourse, as I refer to it as a psychologist...


RW: With celebrities. Yep.

J: How, how is your app going to make people dream those things?

RW: Voiceover artists.

J: So it's going to be basically like, "hey, this is J.Lo, we're gettin' it on."

S&E: (laughs)

RW: Yep. I'm doing the Elvis one.

J: Awesome.


S: Are you doing all dead celebrities, so you can avoid the...

RW: Precisely.

S: Aaah.

RW: Very good. Here we go: Uh huh huh.


E: Wow.

B: Nailed it.

E: I'll tell you.

S: I'm getting a little hard.

E: I'm in Nashville.


J: So that's the first thing that Elvis says. And then five minutes later he goes, "oh, oh."

RW: (laughs) No he only goes, "Uh huh huh" because that's all I can do.

J: Oh, OK (laughs)

RW: So that's the full extent of it. So it is a rather limited sexual dream. So yeah, so that's what I'm doing at the minute. I love it. I love messing around with all of these things.

J: That's cool.

B: Richard, that reminds me, I remember reading research, I think it was Stephen LaBerge, who was studying lucid dreaming and how to induce lucid dreams, he came up with the dream light which created these visual images having to do with sight, as opposed to the ones that don't.


B: So basically it determines when you're in REM sleep, it produces a light and if you're going to sleep you know that if you see a blue light then that means you're dreaming, so you will actually see the blue light in the dream, then you know this is a dream and then hopefully become lucid and then get some sort of control.

S: Well you could probably easily add a lucid track to say, "you are dreaming".

RW: Correct, we do have those.

B: Awesome.

RW: But lucid dreaming is so hard to do, but if you use the tracks a lot then the gentle voice whispers, "you're now dreaming" and you take control of it.

B: Oh, I'm going to try that.

RW: Um, we had a bit to do with Stephen, who is a big lucid dreamer, trying to develop these things, and I didn't know this about lucid dreams, it's so real to them that they have to do things to see whether or not they're lucid...

B: Yes. Reality testing, yeah.

RW: Reality testing. One of the things is looking into a mirror.

B: Really?

RW: Because if you look into a mirror you won't see your own reflection in a lucid dream, I think because the cognitive architecture to produce an image is too much for the brain, so that seems to be their number 1 test, you look into a mirror.

B: I'm familiar with two other ones.

S: To clarify, when they're awake?

RW: Yep.

S: They do these things to make sure they're not lucid dreaming?

RW: No, when they're dreaming, because they can't tell the difference. So yes, that's right. So when they're awake they'd do it, because they think, "oh I might be dreaming" and then see their reflection and think, "no this is reality I'd better not jump out of the building".

S: That's odd.

B: No it's not.

J: No it's not.

S: I mean I could see not knowing, if you're dreaming not knowing if you're dreaming or not, but when you're awake, really? They can't tell if they're awake?

J: No Steve, you're training yourself because if you do it enough, it becomes a habit and then you'll do it in your dream.

B: Right, that's the whole idea.

J: You're conditioning yourself.

S: No I get that. That's what I was trying to clarify. They're not looking in the mirror when they're awake to make sure that they're really awake.

RW: Well they would be because otherwise if they knew that they were dreaming, there'd be no point in looking in the mirror.

S: Yeah, so they're talking about something different from what you're talking about.


S: They're talking about training yourself to do something when you're awake so that you'll do it in your dream and that will enable you to achieve a lucid state.

RW: No.

S: You're talking about, when they're awake, they're like "hey, am I really awake, or is this a lucid dream?"

RW: Correct.

S: And they'll look in the mirror to check themselves.

RW: That's correct.

J: OK.

S: Now that seems amazing to me.

B: What I've learned with lucid dreaming is that you get in the habit of asking yourself, "am I awake or am I dreaming right now? How do I know I'm not?". And the two ways that I read about, one is to read, open a book, read anything and invariably in a dream if you read something and look away and look back, the words will have changed and be jumbled up and I've done it many times and for me it works every time, the words always change. The other way to test it is to test physics really, you jump up in the air and you try to extend your fall and if you extend it even a fraction of a second, you know you're dreaming or in some kind of microgravity.

J: There's the rub though, because your detection of reality is compromised is dreaming, right? That's the whole thing.

B: But you're not going to read words and then look away and then read back and then you're going to see the same words, they will change.

J: No I agree with you, but what I'm saying is that when you're dreaming, for the most part all these crazy things are happening, and it's not occurring to you that you're dreaming because your brain is not fully functioning.

B: Right, you need a certain level of lucidity just to think about doing that, and people who have good dream recall in general can kind of get into that state more often than people that can't do it because they never really reach a level of lucidity where they can question reality.

RW: That's right, I mean what was quite funny with the Dream:ON app is, because I was actually the main pilot for it, and it's a very difficult thing, the algorithms, the movement, the volume, so the thing is that as you start to move, it lowers the volume in the dreamscape and so on. Anyway, so I'm testing all of this stuff, and so I'm sleeping with Caroline, my partner, who is a very light sleeper, and so I put this iPhone down one night and say, "oh, we're doing a test tonight" and she'd go, "oh, fine" and stuff, and then about you know, 3 am it would zip on with, "you are currently asleep!"

E: Oh gosh.


RW: "You are currently asleep and you can control..." and she was furious! And so I used to wake up with the iPhone in very interesting places. But um...


RW: But I'm quite a heavy sleeper, so I slept through the whole thing.

B: There's an app for that.

RW: Yes. So she had a very tough time with it, but we think we've got it right now, it's not bad.

J: OK, so what's your ultimate goal here?

RW: Well I'll tell you what it is. One is there's loads of research showing the mood that you're in for the day is often set by your final dream, so you have a rough dream and then you're in a bad mood. So trying to change that. The other thing is I really got in to the literature on depression and dreaming, I didn't realise that there's such a strong tie-up. So depressives dream about five times as much as normal people as it were, non-depressives. And then in their dreams they're doing the same as they do in real life, which is ruminating, they're going over their problems time and again. So the idea of kind of going in and giving them a more positive dream experience is sort of an interesting one, it's quite curious.

J: Yeah.

S: Mmhmm. Are you controlling for medication with that? I know medications for depression can give you very vivid dreams.

RW: I don't know the literature well enough to answer that question.

B: Do they dream five times as much or do they have five times better recall?

RW: Well this would be coming from sleep labs, so I would think that it would be about five times as much time in the classic...

S: in the REM...

RW: ... in the REM state.

B: That's amazing.

RW: There's also illusory insomniacs. So these are people who think that they're having a rough night's sleep and in fact you put them into a sleep lab and they're having a perfectly normal night's sleep, but they're dreaming about being awake.

B: Oh, awesome.

RW: It's the weirdest thing. So I've really got into dreaming and sleep, I think it's fascinating.

J: So a couple more questions because I'm totally blown away by people who think that they're not sleeping well. What about people, they think that they don't sleep well and they're also feeling tired during the day, but can you're, is there something about the quality of your dreaming that can affect your wakefulness.

RW: Well part of it is the emotional tone of the dream, so if you're having anxiety dreams, particularly if you wake up from them, you just feel pretty bad, so I just like the idea of trying to sort of tinker with it, and it's not my area or expertise so I know the literature a little bit but not especially well, so I guess what I bring to the party is the mass participation thing, I'm not afraid to roll this out to half a million people and to take risks. I'm sure a lot of sleep and dream researchers would go, "Well, that's all very fringey and weird" but I think you know, let's try it, let's see what happens. And let's just be honest about the results, if it doesn't work, what's it matter? We've all had fun with it.

S: Yeah that's cool, that's interesting. I just, just getting that many data points, you said millions of people, I mean something's got to emerge from that, it's interesting.

RW: Over time, I love the fact that we can change the algorithms, we can change the dreamscapes, getting real-time reports back, and we may develop something, who knows?

S: You know the term dream catcher, you know that was a reference an Indian art form where they make these dream catchers that you.

RW: Precisely, to stop bad dreams coming through the window, yeah. So we had that and we developed a new app which spins off of the one which I can't talk about but it's a big thing at the moment, it's taking up a lot of my time.

S: Cool.

E: Very neat.

S: Good to have a hobby (laughs).

RW: I think so, yeah. It's good to have something you're interested in, other than pornography.


S: Well before we go on to other news items...

RW: Uh huh huh.

This Day in Skepticism (13:34)[edit]

  • November 24, 1859: On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, is published

S: Well before we on to other news items, or do news items, we're going to do This Day in Skepticism, Evan you're taking over since Rebecca's not with us today.

E: Yep. Yep. So this show's going to air on November 24th, on November 24th in 1859, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin's ground-breaking book was published in England, are you familiar with that Richard?

RW: England, yes. I've heard of it.

E: Yes, once or twice. The British naturalist Charles Darwin detailed the scientific evidence he had collected during his voyage on the Beagle in the 1930s (sic) and he presented his idea that species are the result of gradual biological evolution in which nature encourages, through natural selection, the propagation of those species best suited to the environment, or their environemtns I should say. He'd been prompted to publish it at the time by Charles Lyell and he was the one who advised them that Alfred Russel Wallace, who was also a naturalist, he was approaching the same conclusions and he was about to get ready to publish his own results and he said to Charles, "hey you'd better get on the stick here, you're going to wind up in second place in this contest."

S: Yeah, well what happened was Wallace, being a younger, maybe naive, researcher sent his manuscript to Darwin to say, "hey, am I on to something here? Am I crazy? What do you think about this?" and Darwin was like, "uh, duh, this is, I'm just..." he saw that this guy was ready to scoop him on the thing he's been working for decades on, and it was his friends who said, "do it" so they presented both papers at I think it was the Royal Society and they made sure that Darwin's paper went first.

E: Yep, and on day 1 of the publication, they printed as many copies as they did and it sold out immediately, it was an instant success and hit and the rest is history from there, the controversy, creationism and all that.

S: Yeah, it's amazing how much Darwin got right. He, such a huge idea, evolution through natural selection, and if you read back, and you can actually now, you can get the whole book online for free, so if you want to read any part of The Origin of Species, you can get to it[1][2]. He really thought through a lot of different things about the evolutionary process and it was, I mean obviously he didn't get everything right, we've come a long way since Darwin in terms of evolutionary theory, but he gave a huge start to that field. Usually you have these fledgling, like a new scientific discipline will start out with just some ideas and it's very preliminary, but he did spend a lot of time developing his theories to a pretty advanced degree before then publishing it, so the whole evolution through natural selection thing hit the ground running in a way, it's interesting.

E: Hit the ground running, definitely, definitely did.

RW: He also did a lot of work on facial expressions of course, as well. It was he who put electrical currents into an alcoholic's face to contort his face into various expressions and take photos and then when people would come around to visit him at his house, he would show them the photos and they had to guess the expression, he was looking at reliability of facial expressions. Apparently it really hurts to have electrical current applied to your face.

J: Yeah, right?


RW: It's true! Tha's why he used an alcoholic, because he couldn't feel the pain.

B: Did you make that up?

RW: It's absolutely true, it's absolutely true. Yeah. I found out some trivia, do you want some David Hume trivia?

S: Yes. sure.

E: Oh.

RW: So David Hume, the sort of founder, in some ways skepticism and humanism and so on...

S: We quote him frequently on the show.

RW: Oh, OK. Right, so I live in Edinburgh for a lot of the time and Hume was in Edinburgh two streets away from where I live and so I thought I'd go and see his house, so I went round and his house is there, and the funny thing is that the part of Edinburgh it's in is called New Town, which was built in the Enlightenment, so all of the streets have very kind of modern names as it were, there's no old names like Saint whatever, except the street that he's in which is Saint David's Street. So what the council did, because they didn't like him because he was an athiest, when he moved into the street, they renamed the street Saint David's Street after him, as in Saint David Hume, so every time he had to give the address he had to write Saint David. So they actually renamed the whole street just to annoy him. I think that's great!


E: A badge of honour.

RW: Yeah. How annoyed would you be though if you moved in as an athiest and so on and they rename the whole street after you but give you a sainthood. So there we are. That's my little bit of trivia, it's not much but it's something.

E: Fascinating.

S: All right, well the first news item we're going to talk about is...

RW: I've got a dead dog in my garden.


RW: I've got a dead dog in my garden. I moved into this house...


S: Now you're just f-ing with us.


RW: No! I'm not! I haven't got my... I haven't got my iPhone with me, otherwise I'd show you, well not the dog. So I moved into this house, we moved into this house, we had to move out of the old house because Caroline wasn't sleeping very well there...


E: Something to do with an iPhone app or something.

RW: Every single morning! So, and it comes with a little bit of garden which is very unusual right in the middle of town, and it's covered in ivy. So I go out to cut down the ivy, being the manly chap that I am, and it's very difficult, have you ever tried to cut ivy and get rid of it?

S: No.

E: You need a machete or something.

RW: It's hard work, it grows into the ground and everything. So I'm working away and I hit my foot on something, I look down and it's a gravestone for a dog! I've got a dead dog in my garden.

E: Wait, how did you know it was a gravestone for a dog and not something else?

RW: So it said on it.

E: "This is a gravestone for a dog"

RW: Yeah.

E: Well there you go.

RW: Yeah.

J: So did you dig it up?

RW: I'm not going to dig up a dead dog!

E: Why not?

RW: It's 200 years old.

S: Oh that's cool.

RW: The gravestone's 200 years old.

J&S: Oh that's awesome.

RW: So I've got a dead dog that is 200 years old in my garden.

J: That is so English.


RW: It's Scottish. Believe me...


J: It is? OK.

RW: You don't want to make that mistake. Yeah, it's very Scottish, so yes. So I've got a dead dog in my garden.

S: I have a dead dog story too. So I was visiting my wife's mother with my two daughters for some holiday a few years ago and we were exploring in the back yard because they have lots of shale and every now and then you can find a little fossil leaf or something in the shale, and we came across a skull of some kind of animal, and then over there was a rib, and over here was something else, so we gathered all of the bones, it took us like an hour to find as many bones as we can, we laid them all out together and I started going through pictures to figure out what it was and I eventually figured out that it was a dog, then I...

RW: You laid out the bones.

S: Well I put them into the position, you know.

RW: How old are your daughters?

S: She was like 10 at the time, 9 or 10. They're good with that.


S: My daughters have had...

E: They're palaeontologists, right?

S: They're all nerded out and they're good with that whole macabre thing.

RW: It's not nerded up, it's strange.

S: My younger daughter loves her uncle Bob, loves Halloween, her favourite colours are orange and black.

B: Awesome.

S: She already has picked out her favourite weapon for in case of a zombie apocalypse, she's good.

B: (laughs)

RW: It's like living in another world.


S: Love it. So anyway, we figured out it was a dog, and it was the exact size of a dog that my mother-in-law owned.

RW: Oh!

S: That had died, like twenty years previously, fifteen years previously.

J: So you dug up your family's dead dog.

S: I didn't dig it up, this is what happened. The dog just vanished one night and they never found it, and it was sick. I think the thing just went away to die, but it was like right over the hill in the back yard, so they didn't realise that the dog had died like 50 feet from the house.

J: Oh my god, talk about lazy, like they didn't explore the woods right around the house?

S: It was in the woods right outside the house.

J: That's pathetic.

S: So I solved that mystery for them, I solved that twenty year old lost-dog mystery.

RW: So your daughters would have gone to school and they would say "what did you do at the weekend" and they'd say "daddy reassembled a dead dog."


S: Yes.

E: They didn't reanimate it or anything, you know, just...

RW: Well this brings me to one of the biggest mysteries. There are two things, my dead dog joke, this won't work except here. So a man's driving along and he knocks over a dog and he thinks "well that's terrible" so he goes and knocks on a house nearby and he says "I think I've just knocked over your dog" and they said "well what did it look like?" and the guy goes "well it's kind of"...


RW: And the person said "no I meant before you knocked it over" and so so the guy goes "well I think it was kind of"...


RW: So anyway, what I'm wondering...

S: Those are great visual jokes for a podcast.


RW: I realise now the error of my ways. Yes.


RW: But you can tell from the laughter in the room just how good that joke was.

E: It's playing well.

RW: So, I occasionally go into the countryside, I don't really like the countryside but I occasionally go out there. It's full of animals. Where are all their bones? Where are all the cow bones, the fox bones? Where? They're big boned animals.

S: They're there.

RW: They're not!

J: They get eaten?

E: Dragged away?

RW: No it's a genuine question, I haven't got an answer. Like you take a horse, that's a big boned animal, it would take years for that thing to degrade or whatever it does.

S: Scavengers do break up the bones and eat the bones.

B: Marrow, the bone marrow.

RW: Scavengers, you mean people like Steve who goes along and assembles...


RW: "Hey kids, stop! There's a horse over there, it'll take some time but I'll put it all right!" Scavengers? Foxes?

S: I don't know if foxes are scavengers are they? Don't they hunt like...

RW: Well what's a scavenger then?

S: In England? What's a scavenger in England? Well, probably vultures...

J: Wolves...

RW: There aren't any vultures!

E: Wolves, Irishmen, I don't know.


RW: Oooooh! Don't come and visit! Not after that line! Irishmen! Fantastic.

E: The day I cracked Richard up.

J: No, it is a good question though.

RW: There aren't any vultures.

J: OK. But let's start with the logical idea that something is happening to them, because you're right, they're not piled up high, knee-high in the woods.

RW: I have never seen the skeleton of a cow or a horse in the countryside.

E: Yeah, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen.

S: I saw the skeleton of a deer once when I was walking through the woods, more than once.


J: Yeah, but OK but.

S: For what it's worth.

RW: But not hundreds of them. You see hundreds of deer.

S: Not hundreds, yeah.

J: I've gone hiking in dozens and dozens of times in very heavily populated woods as far as animals are concerned, and very, very infrequently will I find a scull of something or whatever, you'd figure yeah there'd be a lot of bones kicking around. Nobody, I'm sure that people aren't picking them up.

S: Do you look? Do you like really make a concerted effort to look?

RW: It could be like your dog. Maybe they go and hide 50 meters from where they were last seen.

S: 20 years, 50 feet, not even meters, and they didn't find it.

RW: Feet. That's just weird.

S: Well it was kind of over a little hill, it was probably in the bushes.

J: Whatever Steve.

E: We measure things in feet.

S: I'm was surprised, I'm not defending it. But yeah, so I think it was partly, bones don't last for long in the wild.

RW: No they do, you can dig up a human skeleton a couple of hundred years later and it's still...

S: Yeah but that's not out in the open, that's under the ground, that's a big difference.

RW: No, if you put a horse skeleton in a field, it would be there for must be tens of years.

E: Many wild horses in England?

RW: Yeah, they're furious a lot of them.

B: Really?

RW: They are. Yeah. No we have horses, we have deer, we have cattle, I have never seen like, you know a skeleton of one. Something odd is happening.

S: You're saying this is a genuine mystery.

E: What fallacy is that, Steve?

RW: It's a genuine mystery which we need... it could be the Irishmen, that's the only...

E: See?

S: The conventional answer that I'm familiar with is that it's scavengers. I don't know what scavengers are in England, we could look that up.

RW: Crows?

S: Crows... yeah.

E: Birds.

RW: A horse is a big thing.

S: Some scavengers eat bones, I mean they actually break up the bones and get the marrow and destroy it but I don't know again which ones would still be extant in England.

B: Maybe animals bury their dead and we're just not aware of it?

S: No.

B: Is that possible?

J: Maybe invisible, psychic, teleporting bigfoot take care of the bones.

S: Yeah.

E: That's an explanation, all right.

S: But that argument comes up with bigfoot because then we say "well why don't we find any bigfoot remains?" And people say "well you don't find remains of animals out in the wilderness." And to an extent that's correct.

E: Yeah.

J: OK, well why don't we do some research and we'll revisit this one.

S: OK, well we are going to move on to some news items.

RW: What?

E: Any other non sequeters Richard you'd like?

S: Yeah, any other interjections or ejaculations you want to get out?

J: Well the other application that Richard was developing that he didn't want to mention is called the Porn Catcher.

S: The Porn Catcher?

E: Yes.

S: He's working on that with you is he?

E: What it is, it's an app that asks people to send him the link to their favourite porn.

S: Yeah.

E: And he analyses all of this. Psychologist.

B: Over and over.

RW: I'm just chatting.


RW: If you don't want me to chat...

News Items[edit]

Aspartame Study (26:30)[edit]

S: So there was a, there was a recent study published on aspertame. Aspertame is an artificial sweetener. It's been very controversial, since the internet, because people believe that aspertame is to blame for all sorts of horrible things because it ain't natural, right? But it's been widely studied, hundreds of published studies about it, and, in fact, it's perfectly safe. Not just the FDA, but multiple organizations, the WHO, and certainly in the UK and in Europe, have reviewed the data on aspertame and have concluded that there are no health risks when the product is consumed as intended, they always say. Which means, I guess, you're not eating buckets and buckets of it, but you're just using it as a sweetener. But there was a recent study looking at the incidence of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women drinking sugary sodas versus artificially sweetened drinks, and the study concluded that it was a slightly increased risk, risk in men only but not women who drank soft drinks sweetened with aspertame for leukemia and lymphoma. The Brigham and Women's Hospital put out a press release, the title of the press release was "The Truth Isn't Sweet When It Comes to Artificial Sweeteners" (an irresistible pun, right?), promoting the study. Just a couple days later they retracted their press release. They essentially said to the media, this is actually a rather weak study; we apologize for wasting your time. Please ignore our previous press release.

B: Is that unprecedented?

S: I don't know if it's unprecedented. It's good that they did it.

E: It's good that they retracted it.

B: Surprisingly good.

E: Had the damage been done, though?

S: Yeah, the damage is done. But it's, I mean, what happened was the press office was looking for news to put out and, so, one of their researchers was involved with this study and they put out the press release. But, we've talked about this before, the notion that there's always a lot of this research going on in the background, biomedical research and every field, most of it's crap, or preliminary, or the kind of data that's only interesting to other researchers in terms of an area perhaps of further research. And really, you have no business promoting the results of this study to the public. Not that you're trying to hide it from the public, but it does not rise to that level of public interest. It's just too preliminary. And essentially, they were called on this and they acknowledged that, yup, this is not the kind of study that should be getting a press release to the public, because the data was exceedingly weak. And I looked over it, and it is an extremely weak study. The correlation was very small. Easily the kind of thing that could be due to chance alone. It is not in line with other research which shows that there is no increased risk from any of these things, from consuming diet soda. It was only in certain subgroups, only when you're looking at the data in a certain way. So it was not robust at all.

RW: You've also got a correlation-causation issue, even if it is. . .

S: Yeah. Even if the correlation is true, it doesn't show you that there's a causation there. But it's interesting, because this is the kind of thing that often, like we do all the time, is you get either a press release or something that's in the news cycle, but it's a really preliminary, crappy study, and it is getting blown out of proportion or over-hyped, or scare mongering, in this case. So it's interesting that they did it to themselves. Where they sort of withdraw and say, whoops, we really shouldn't have done that, sorry. This was not an appropriate . . . I wonder, I wonder what the back story is on that. How that really happened.

E: Yeah, yeah.

J: Like, you mean, that they didn't do it with good intentions; maybe they were forced to do it?

S: I bet , I think, I don't know, I'm just inferring, you know, something, it's possible that the researcher himself contacted the press office and said "What the hell are you doing? This is not the kind of study that we wanna go shouting around to the public. This is a preliminary study with very soft findings. It's not worth it. Maybe he was worried that he would get embarrassed by it or something. But, it's interesting. I wonder how much of this kind of things is due to the internet. The web. Because there's this news cycle, and then there's often a blogging cycle immediately after that where you have a lot of science bloggers who know what they're talking about criticizing the media for misrepresenting studies. And the media's paying attention to that. I get contacted all the time by journalists or outlets who are responding to the backlash to the original horrible reporting about stories.

J: If that's true, Steve, then why aren't things getting better?

S: Yeah, well, you know, it, certainly subjectively it seems that way. I mean, I don't know if we're actually tracking it in any kind of objective way, but I think there are bright spots. But overall, the media reporting is getting worse it seems. And I think the conventional wisdom is that it's the, essentially the collapse of the business model of journalism because of the internet.

J: Um hmm.

S: But there are good reporters out there, and I do think that they're increasingly getting onto the idea that scientists can directly bypass them and write to the public and write blogs, et cetera. And that if they want to be relevant, remain relevant, they've gotta stay on board with that. Otherwise they're just gonna be blog fodder, you know, for scientists who are blogging directly.

J: Um hmm.

S: Interesting, but you know, the asptertame thing comes up frequently. I don't think we've really tackled it thoroughly on the show before, but still it's one of those urban legends, the idea that aspertame causes all of these horrible things. The primary thing they claim about aspertame now is the whole formaldehyde angle. Have you ever heard about this, Richard? One of the breakdown products of aspertame is formaldehyde and they sort of link formaldehyde to all kinds of horrible diseases and outcomes. But . . .

J: So wait, Steve, to clarify, when you digest aspertame, part of the digestion process converts it to formaldehyde, or parts of it to formaldehyde.

S: Yes.

E: Part of it.

S: Yeah, it's one of the metabolic breakdown products. But it just, like a lot of things, you know, a lot of foods that we eat, it gets broken down in to formaldehyde along the way to its ultimate breakdown products. But it insignificantly contributes to the amount of formaldehyde in your body and doesn't have any harm associated with it.

B: It's normal and natural.

S: Yeah, it's part of normal metabolism. But you tell people, aspertame gets broken down into this horrible, dangerous, scary sounding chemical, then the fear mongering goes from there.

Being a Psychopath (32:57)[edit]

S: So Jay, you're going to tell us next about why it's fun to be a psychopath.

J: Yeah, it's not just why it's fun to be a psychopath. It's more examining aspects of what psychopaths have at their disposal and how maybe the average person can learn something from it. But they did, this was written in a playful way. So we have a British psychologist at the University of Oxford named Kevin Dutton, and he asks the question, would we be better off as psychopaths, right?

S: Do you know guy?

RW: Oh, I know Kevin, yeah.

S: You do.

J: I don't think that he's actually saying, he was not being, like, honest, saying yes, I think we're gonna be better off as psychopaths. He's just using it playfully to start a talking point here.

RW: Well, he's got a new book out, doesn't he? Called The Wisdom of Psychopaths.

J: Yeah, he does.

RW: That might be behind his question. (laughter)

E: Ya think?

RW: Remarkable coincidence.

S: Psychologists promoting their own books?

RW: It is disgusting.

B: I thought there was only one.

J: So he states, and this was funny, this article that we're referencing, the actor that plays Dexter. Anthony

E: Michael C. Hall?

J: Michael C. Hall? Yeah, I always confuse him with that other actor

S: Anthony Michael Hall (laughter and talking)

J: They were interviewing the author of the book named Dutton, and the actor, and they were chit-chatting about it, and it was interesting to hear some of the things that the guy that plays Dexter was saying about what it's like to play that character and everything. What Kevin Dutton is saying here is that someone, a psychopath, they lack empathy, they lack compassion, they don't really have a conscience, and these are the things that direct most of our actions, right? So we're limited by the social constructs in our head. Very interestingly he said that dumb, extremely impulsive psychopaths often end up dead or in prison. However, he said that the other psychopaths can thrive if they're smart and if they're disciplined. Which is a very interesting thing to observe. In the end he mentions that being a psychopath is on, the spectrum is like autism. There's extremely psychopathic all the way to normal people, right? And there's all these infinite shades of gray in there.

S: You can't say normal, Jay.

J: Aw, Christ. Okay. So he's saying that the spectrum is there from an extremely psychopathic person

S: Psycho typical.

J: Psycho typical. Want me to start over or

S: No. Semi-joking.

J: Okay.

S: But there's the neurotypical movement, in terms of talking about things like autism and neurological, recognized neurological disorders. As an aside, it's kind of a huge aside, maybe Richard can tell me what he thinks about this. This is also happening in the UK. The notion that it's very hard to say in terms of human psychology and behavior, and even just how our brains are hardwired, what's quote unquote normal, as if anything outside of those parameters are abnormal. Sometimes we talk about healthy and unhealthy. Or we talk about people who have disorders, defined as something that's causing a definable problem. You know, there are people who very seriously advocate, they, saying things like "Well, autism is not a disorder, it's just, they're just different" than the neurotypical arrangement of neurons. So I was just sort of playing off of that. I wonder if people would get upset at saying that psychopaths are abnormal or unhealthy. Maybe we should call non- psychopaths psycho typical.

J: Whatever.

(Several people talking at once)

S: Does this kind of political crisis occur in your . . .

J: It's bullshit.

RW: Before we get to that, I should point out, so that your listener can join in, if they search for "sexy goat" (laughter) they will get a sheep wearing women's clothing. Which is what I just did a few moments ago on your iPad. Where do I stand on the normal thing? I find that I actually did it earlier on in the podcast actually. 'Cause I said "depressives and normal people" and then I changed it to "non-depressives." I think it depends. You know if you've got somebody who's deeply strange, is a proper psychopath, genocide, murdered millions of people and doesn't give a monkey's, I'm happy to call them abnormal.

S: Um hmm.

J: Yeah.

RW: And then you, so I, I, I don't know. It's political correctness gone mad.

S: Yeah.

RW: I remember the days when you used to use the words "guinea pigs," now you have to call everyone "participants." (laughter)

E: Why, did the guinea pigs get upset by that?

RW: They did. They did. They sued. It was a class action. Who knew? I was nearly sued by a gorilla.

E: The one that walked through with the basketball?

RW: No. No, no, no, I was writing Quirkology and Coco the gorilla can sign language. And so she was the first gorilla to take part in an AOL live chat. Inter-species chat. So people put questions, and Coco signed the answers. And I quoted some of the chat in my book. I didn't clear the copyright. And so, I was approached by Coco's representatives, who said that "you hadn't cleared it." I said, Hold on a second, you don't own that copyright, Coco does. And so if she wants to sue me, I'd be happy to go to court . . .

E: That's right!

RW: about it. 'Cause I wanted to be sued by a gorilla. (laughter)

E: Have her hire an oranguan.

RW: It would have been the best thing ever to be sued by a gorilla, because I thought the judge may sort of give two bunches of bananas in damages. (laughter) But

E: Now that's not politically correct.

RW: I don't know, do they even eat bananas, gorillas?

S: I think so. They're vegetarians. Sure.

RW: That reminds me about panda branding. I had this idea. I think I mentioned this. Is that zoos, Edinburgh have got pandas, and financially are struggling. And I had the idea of using the white space on the panda as kind of advertising space.

? A billboard. Billboards, yeah.

RW: And you could spray on something. Beet juice or something and the Nike, kind of logo or whatever, and that would be advertising space. But oooohhhhh no. (laughter)

J: Allright, so I'm going to agree with Richard, I'm going to agree with Richard on the whole, like, you know, there are people that have mental disorders, and some of them are called psychopaths. And then there are people that we consider to be normal.

S: Non-psychopaths.

J: No, but why is the word "normal" bad? That's ridiculous.

S: It's just very hard to define.

J: The average person, I would, okay.

S: Typical

(several people talking at once)

J: Typical. Yeah, okay. And every kid wins in a war. Nobody…. Yeah, whatever.

S: I know, Jay, I know it's tough. It's a slippery slope.

J: Yeah. I'm not a scientist or a doctor, and I can be stupid.

E: We know it's lame.

J: . . . just not as educated as you. So anyway, the, I don't even remember where the f--- I was, now. (laughter) So Dutton is describing psychopaths, and he says that they tend to be fearless, ruthless, capable of extraordinary focus. They're cool and decisive under high-pressure situations that non-psychopaths would tend to be anxious

S: So they're like Animal Mother in Full Metal Jacket. They're great in a war. And like what do they say? All they need is for somebody to throw grenades at him for the rest of his life. But in a normal society

J: No, no, no. Hold on. Hold on. This is very, that's interesting. And he continues to say that they're very good at reading other people's facial expressions and manipulating people's emotions and taking advantage of things they perceive about that person. They have a better than average ability to detect when people are lying and where they're emotionally vulnerable.

S: Yeah.

J: You know I'm not sure how accurate this is, but it sounds very interesting.

RW: How'd he find that out?

J: How did he find that out?

RW: Yeah.

J: It's in his book. I don't know, he read his book.

RW: But you need a group of psychopaths and a group of non-psychopaths. And then give them a lie detection task.

J: I think you're. . . and I don't even trust lie detection. I don't think those lie detector machines are that accurate.

RW: Well, no, but even if you're just showing them videos and saying "spot the liars." It seems a bit strange study, has that been done?

J: Apparently he did do some studying on this.

RW: Really.

J: So then he goes on to say that there are psychopathic traits found in CEOs, lawyers, media personalities, special forces soldiers, and surgeons. It's a pretty impressive list, a very accomplished list, a list where you would think the people are intelligent. And he's making a claim that they have some psychopathic traits, and he thinks that those traits are the things that make them, give them the ability to be successful in these areas. I found that to be a little disturbing. But it also is very provocative. If you think about it, if our sanity is on a spectrum, if we have all these levels that we can measure ourselves by, and you put being a psychopath in there and say, okay, how psychopathic is someone? Maybe the first five percent of it isn't so bad for you.

S: Well that's probably true of most things, psychologically, is that there's a survival advantage to certain traits, and they still exist, you know, the more extreme ones still exist because the milder versions are adaptive. And certainly the ability to be cool and fearless and ruthless when necessary, it seems pretty obvious how that could have a survival advantage. And in order to keep the genes for those traits around, every now and then you're gonna have a psychopath. You know what I mean? Evolution is messy.

RW: What worries me, and I like Kevin a lot, I'm sure the book's great, but worries me about this whole thing is that it seems to be you get a best seller, a popular book, by simply taking common sense and just arguing the opposite. So you think, well, being a psychopath is bad, and now he's saying that it's good. But, that just seems to me the formula for a best seller or a popular book. Say if you took Buddhism, the book could be Why Buddhism Will Kill You

S: Yeah.

E: Yeah, right.

RW: And so it's just a very well worked formula. Which is why it's a good talking point, is that it turns out it's the exact opposite. How Puppies Are Evil.


J; Well, it's like Kevin Trudeau, you know. Everything that the government doesn't want you to know, you know like that type of . .

S: What Your Doctors Won't Tell You

E: Yeah.

J: I would hope that the title of the book, or the provocative entry point that the author has created isn't rampant throughout the book. Maybe that's just the eye catcher that gets people to buy it.

S: The hook.

J: But it is an interesting idea. To me it's a thought experiment. "What do you thing about that?" You know, there are, being that these types of conditions, it's all subjective, well, maybe that's not the right term. How do you gauge these things? Like, how psychopathic is someone?

S: There's a psychopath test.

J: Right. Kind of like the test

S: Remember we talked about it with Jon Ronson, who wrote a whole book about it.

J: That's right, yeah.

S: And he said, like, get a number. You're a 28, you know, or whatever. You're over a certain number and you go to prison for the rest of your life.


B: Cool.

E: Yeesh.

J: What do you mean, if you get . . .

S: If you are arrested for committing a crime and they give you the psychopath test and you score over a certain number, the you get in the booby-hatch for the rest of your life. 'Cause you are deemed a danger to society, and good luck ever getting out again.

J: Wow, I didn't know that. I didn't remember that.

S: You should read Jon Ronson's book.

J: I probably should. It's probably a good book.

RW: The most psychopathic group I've worked with are stand-up comedians.

S: Is that right?

RW: I think they're a bunch of psychopaths. I mean, if you listen to the language they use when they talk about their audiences, "I killed tonight, I slayed them." Really aggressive language. They don't give a monkey's about anyone.

S: Is that right?

RW: Yeah. There you go. It's official. If a stand-up comedian ever kills, they should be locked up for the rest of their lives. (laughter)

J: Richard, do you think that part of their ability to be funny comes from that?

RW: What, mine?

E: Clearly, yes.

RW: No, I'm a very caring person, and not particularly funny. But if you actually meet somebody who is funny . . . No, I think it is, I think there's a ruthlessness to comedy, stand-up comedy.

S: Yeah.

RW: And we shouldn't get into the horrible sort of picking on people in the audience and all of that. I honestly think that they absolutely could not give a monkey's about their audience . . . their humor doesn't come from a nice place.

J: Yeah, okay.

RW: Which is why they're all so weird.

J: Actually I've had some experience. I've gotten to know comedians, and I, I have to agree with you. I think that, what you're saying, there's a, there's a note in there that I can agree with. It's that, the psychopathic thing about them is that they actually just don't give a shit.

RW: Yeah.

J: Which is kind of scary when you're talking to someone, they're just "whatever, whatever, tomorrow, whatever, I don't even know where I'm gonna be." I agree with you.

RW: There we go.

Type Ia Supernova (45:19)[edit]

S: We're gonna change pace a little bit here. We're gonna get away from the social sciences for a moment, and Bob, you're gonna tell us something about supernova.

B: Yeah. This news item caught my attention. I found it very interesting. There's a new idea, new theory or model for the progenitors of a very special class of supernova, a one, a supernova 1a. I don't know how many people have heard of this type of supernova. If you're familiar with it it might not be what you think, 'cause when you think supernova you think a sun explodes, a star explodes and it's usually a super-giant star but, but these are actually different. The supernova 1a type of star, or explosion, happens when a white dwarf, which is a burnt-out ember of a star, when it accretes matter from a stellar companion that is in orbit, they're in orbit around each other. And when this matter is siphoned off, and gathers on the white dwarf, it reaches a certain critical threshold and the outer layer of the white dwarf just explodes into a supernova giant explosion. These are very special supernovas because they're standard candles using, because the, everything about it is based on laws of physics that are pretty much invariable so that the explosion, no matter where it is is pretty much identical, right? So by examining these types of supernovas you can determine how far away it is. So it's a standard candle of distance. And this was really huge in the news, I think it was in 1998 when they-

S: Yeah.

B: -when they found that using this type of supernova as a standard candle, they determined that the universe is not only expanding but it's expanding at an ever-increasing rate. Expanding faster and faster and faster. And that brought in the whole idea of dark energy which it looks like is the major constituent of the entire universe, so it was a huge, huge discovery.

RW: Who comes up with these words, though? If you discover something, and you call it a white dwarf, what, "it's a green elf". (laughter) "I got a pink pixie". Who comes up with these things? Is there someone who decides what is and isn't acceptable?

J: You mean: is there a committee for the naming of ...

S: There is. There's the International Astronomical Union.

RW: So you go up to them and you say "I've got, I've come up with this idea. And I'm gonna call it a turquoise elf."

S: Um hmm.

RW: And they go, "No." (laughter)

E: Right. That's exactly correctly.

RW: You can have a white dwarf, no (inaudible). (laughter) The thing is so arbitrary.

S: There are red giants as well.

RW: You say red giants. These are all things that sound impressive.

E: Black holes.

S: Black holes, yup.

RW: Got a slightly effeminate elf. (laughter) If you have a slightly effeminate elf, (in a feminine voice) "why, hello." (laughter)

S: The Keebler elves, I think, all fit that description.

RW: The what?

S&E: The Keebler elves.

J: They make the cookies.

S: Blank stare from the Brit, nothing.

E: They live in the tree and make the cookies.

"(extreme laughter from audience)

E: Richard is looking puzzled.

S: Biscuits, you call them biscuits.

RW: No, no, that wasn't the bit that I was querying. (laughter) Out of that sentence it wasn't the cookie bit that I was querying. It was the elves in the trees. There's a mythical creature,

S: Yeah.

RW: that lives in a tree.

S: and makes cookies.

RW: and makes cookies.

S: The Keebler elves.

RW: The Keebler elves.

S: It's not really mythical, it's more of a marketing thing.

RW: I see. The Keebler thing is a brand or something.

S: Yeah.

E: Exactly. Now you're getting it.

S: Apparently not in the UK.

RW: No.

J: It's so weird to like, something that I've been seeing my entire life, since I was a kid, and you look, it's like you live in another country, we know each other, and you're like no f---ing idea what you're talking about.

RW: No idea. At all.

J: (laughing) It's so weird.

RW: So would the astronomical committee allow a Keebler elf? (laughter)

E: Potentially.

RW: Could we brand these? That would be great!

S: It's just that

RW: Could Nike like brand a black hole?

J: Yeah.

RW: Look at the Nike hole. (laughter) Make some money.

S: You could create a fake organization, and then sell the naming rights to things you don't have the right to name and people would give you money.

RW: Yeah, but why can't we go to the astronomical people, and say that we got, a million from McDonald's if we called it the McDonald's Nebula. They'd take the money, wouldn't they.

E: McNebula.

RW: McNebula.

S: McNebula!

RW: And we could order one. You could go in and say "I want a McNebula!"

E: with cheese.

RW: Yeah. Then they can super-size and you go, it's already big enough. (laughter)

J: I really don't want the corporate

(laughter and people talking at once obscure what is being said for awhile)

RW: . . . America . . .out there in the universe. I think that'd be great.

J: One of my big ridiculous fears is that someone's gonna create a laser that's big enough to cast advertisements on the moon. I don't wanna look up and see, like

E: Coca-Cola

J: Billion dollar advertisements in the sky. I don't

RW: I don't want that, but I think they should be able to name things. I think that would be all right.

J: If they gave an amazing amount of money.

E: Well, sure, that's


S: That reminds me of a short story, science fiction short story I read, really quickly, where our first contact with aliens, and they come in and they offer us some international currency, I forget what it was. Not international, inter-galactic

E: Qwatludes?

S: Yeah, qwatludes, whatever. And to do, they wanted the right to do something in Jupiter, and they wouldn't exactly explain what it was. And we went along with the deal for whatever reason. And what they wanted to do was they wanted to plaster an advertisement across Jupiter. And they did it, they put some kind of laser effect, or whatever. And it was in an alien language so you couldn't understand what it said, but they wanted to use Jupiter as a bulletin board.

E: Go for it.

S: An inter-galactic bulletin board.

RW: I think that's all right.

S: Yeah. I think it's good.

J: All right. I would go with that if everybody got rich, right, so now we're all rich?

S: In the end, well it was good for us, yeah. Of course it was probably like the beads to the Indians.

E: Right. Where are you gonna spend these qwatludes?

RW: You see I think if aliens came down and visited us, and, they'd have to judge us. And the question is, would they judge our society because we'd found the white dwarf somewhere, or would they think better of us because we typed in "sexy goat"? (laughter) And got a picture of a sheep wearing women's clothing. (laughter) I put it to you, any alien worth its soul would go with sexy goat.

S: That reminds me of another science fiction. This is a little short. I saw it on RV. It was Penn and Teller, where the aliens came down, they were gonna destroy the earth unless, we had like 24 hours to prove to them that we deserved to live.

E: Yup.

S: You saw that one?

RW: No, I haven't but

J: I saw that, it's awesome.

B: What was the series?

S: I don't know, it was some science fiction series.

B: Okay.

S: And then Penn and Teller saved the planet by showing them the invisible string trick. And they thought that was the best thing, that if we as a species could be entertained by the invisible string trick, we deserved to live.

RW: I think sexy goat is better.

S: Sexy goat is better?

RW: What happens when you put "sexy goat" into the world's greatest search engine? I think they'd respect that.

S: Yeah, I think so.

J: But, Steve, I think that, Douglas Adams, his idea that they wanted to put a super inter-galactic highway is more likely than

S: Yeah. So, Bob, what's the new bit with the supernova?

B: You know what. When I prepare these news items I try to anticipate tangents that we can go on and have fun with. (laughter) I never would have thought of McNebula or sexy goat, I never would have thought of that, but

S: You lack imagination.

B: Yeah. I'm lacking something.

J: Richard, Richard

B: Shut up!

J: A company could name one of the oceans KF C (groans)

RW: Oh, that's good! KF Sea would be fantastic, we should let them do that! The money. The Atlantic – how much should we charge them? I'm flying over KF Sea.

J: Yeah.

B: All right, so there's two problems. You remember what I was talking about, 'cause I don't. (laughter) There's two problems with this kind of supernova. You've got the white dwarf. Everyone pretty much agrees that there's a white dwarf in there, but there's something else in orbit that are in orbit around each other – what is that thing? They're not really sure exactly what this thing is.

S: Isn't it just another sun?

B: What kind? I mean, there's lots of different possibilities. There's the single degenerate model, which means that there's one degenerate star, which is the white dwarf, and there's a younger star, and it's siphoning matter off of that. So that's one possibility. The other one is a double degenerate model, where you have two white dwarves around each other and they're, either they collide

S; They're feeding off each other.

B: Yeah, they're feeding off each other. They collide and create this titanic release of energy. Something like that. But there's a problem with these two models: they don't match, when you look at the spectra of these supernovas, it doesn't match what these degenerate models say the spectra should be.

S: Yeah.

B: They're looking at all the squiggles and they're not lining up. There's a progression that it should match and they're not matching up. So there's a problem with these ideas. We don't know really what's going on over there. So this Craig Wheeler, he's an astronomer, he came up with a twist on the idea of this degenerate model. He's saying that it's a white dwarf and it's an M dwarf. Is it "M" or "W"?

S: Class M dwarf.

B: It's an M dwarf. Which is a red dwarf, but much more common. Very, red dwarf is just lots of infrared heat. Very, very tough to see. There's good reasons why this model makes a lot of sense. The red dwarves are the most common star in the sky. If you look up in the sky, well, you're not gonna see any of these 'cause they just too dim, but if you could see them (laughter) there's lots, there's 70

S: If you look up in the sky, the most common star you won't see (laughter)

B: Yeah. But if you could see them, if you could see the infrared better than the Hubble can, you would see, 70 percent of the Milky Way is red dwarves. I mean, so, all right, they're all over the place.

J: Now, why, why can't we see them?

B: Because they're too dim. They're too dim even for the Hubble

J: But what if you took a boat way out on the KF Sea? (laughter)

B: Yeah, okay, whatever.

J: Try to leave it in, Steve, he's not listening.

B: All right. So, these are very common. White dwarves are very common. So this is one of the ways that his theory is much more plausible. And there's also this other thing about the red dwarf being magnetic, and because it's magnetic, and if the white dwarf was magnetic it would siphon this material much faster and create these supernovas. So, this is just an interesting idea. I liked what he called it, maybe, Richard, you might like this. He calls it a white widow system. (laughter) Isn't that fascinating?

E: Not to be mistaken with the black widow.

B: No. Something else. This is a play on words on a black widow system, which is two neutron stars that annihilate each other, and that's called a black widow, so this guy thought it would be amusing to call this a white widow 'cause it's a white dwarf.

(Many comments at once)

B: So, the interesting thing is that if we learn more about these 1a supernovas then we might learn more about the standard candles, we might learn more about the expansion of the universe and dark energy, which I think would be pretty interesting to know.

J: Cool. What've we got next?

Fecal Transplants (55:56)[edit]

S: All right. A little different. We're going to talk about fecal transplants. I know you guys' favourite topic.

B: Just a little different.

S: Richard was looking over my shoulder at my topic and made a very funny facial expression of disgust, a very common basic human emotion, disgust. So one of the problems with antibiotics is that it wipes out your intestinal flora, it kills not just the bad bacteria but it kills the good bacteria that keep your ecosystem in balance.

RW: Do you ever do a good news story? Every time it's doom and gloom.

E: Or poop.

S: Nah, it's pretty much doom and gloom.

RW: It's all doom and gloom. Do some happiness.

S: Well if there wasn't a problem, we wouldn't need a scientific solution right? We have to start with a problem. The problem is you take antibiotics, it kills your good bacteria and then you get bad bacteria take advantage of that situation and you get an infection and the most common and difficult one is Clostridium difficile, C. difficile and they're very difficult to treat because what do you do? You give more antibiotics to kill that bacteria...

E: Compouding the problem.

S: Potentially compounding the problem, so it's tough, it's a very difficult problem in hospitals.

J: So of course this doesn't happen to everybody, it's....

S: No, but it's common.

J: OK.

S: Like it's really, really common.

J: Tell me what happens when you get it, like do you feel sick?

S: You get diarrhoea, yeah. So imagine you're in the hospital sick with something, you get antibiotics for that and now on top of it you get horrible diarrhoea, and then you have to go into isolation if you weren't already because you've got C. diff and you know, everyone has to glove up when they go into see you now. So it's a big problem, one of the approaches to treat this is, well is there anything we can do to establish or restore or support the gut bacteria to help fight the C. diff infection, and there's been a lot of studies with probiotics right, you take the yoghurt with the bacteria in there and can that decrease the C. diff infections? And the data on that is pretty weak, the answer is generally no, maybe in some studies where they use like the highest colony counts and early, early on like before it even sets in, maybe it helps a little bit, but it's not really the answer, you still have to take antibiotics to treat the C. diff, it's still a problem. One step beyond probiotics is a fecal transplant where they take a stool...

B: I think it's obvious.

S: ...donation from a family member.

E: It has to be a family member?

S: Family members will tend to have the same ecosystem as you so...

J: But I thought your ecosystem was replaced by the bad stuff, the antibiotics killed it, now some other crazy-ass thing came in and took its place.

S: Well it was there, and now it just goes out of control because.

B: The balance has been lost.

S: The normal flora's not keeping it at bay.

J: OK, so you want to get people back to where they were.

S: Yeah, you want to give them back their ecosystem quicker by giving them some bacteria, now that that the antibiotics are gone. So you give them a fecal donation from their family member that probably has the same ecosystem, the same combination of bacteria and it works. It does help.

J: All right, so question number one. What's the delivery mechanism?

S: You liquefy it, you dilute it in water and then you give it through an NG tube down the nose into...

E: Aaah.

J: Does that mean nose tube because that's nasty.

E: Aaah, down the nose!?

S: Nasogastric tube, yeah.

J: They actually pump shit through your nose?

S: Yes.

J: Why don't they do it the other way?

E: Go backwards?

S: Well, it's because it's too close to the, you want to get it from the top so it will work its way all the way through your system.

J: Oh OK so it's starting from the top. OK. That's disgusting.

S: Everyone has that reaction, you know. It is disgusting.

E: Well correctly so, they have that reaction.

J: Now not to get graphic here, are they pumping shit into your stomach?

S: Well, into the intestine.

J: So they actually go past your stomach into your large intestine.

S: Yes. Which is what we do most of the time.

J: OK. We, meaning you've done this?

S: I haven't done a fecal transplant but I've put NG tubes in people. So they did a recent study in mice where they were looking at fecal transplants and they were tyring to identify the bacteria that were most helpful and they identified six bacteria in the Bacteroides/Lactobacillus species and they found that giving these six species of bacteria was very effective in shortening and even curing the C. diff infection, so that's a good step forward, and what we were talking about before, with the probiotics is that you give one or two different bacteria, it doesn't really help that much, my favourite quote about that is from Mark Crystal who said it's like planting corn in the rainforest, you have an ecosystem, planting some corn is not going to change the ecosystem. But what if you give more? How many bacteria do you ahve to give? How many different species do you have to give in what numbers before you are influencing the ecosystem, you are bringing back the normal flora? Well they found six may be enough, and if that's the case, the hope is that you can culture those six bacteria, you don't need a fresh stool sample, you just culture the six bacteria and you could just literally give a pill with the bacteria in there and not the fecal down the NG tube.

E: Much better.

S: Yeah, much better.

B: and they can survive the gastric acids?

S: Well that's why you give it in the intestine and not the stomach. Some bacteria can survive gastric acids but they're different from the bacteria that live in the intestine.

B: Right, so how would a pill help then?

S: Well because the capsule wouldn't dissolve until it's past the stomach, yeah.

B: OK.

S: So this is a mouse study, it really was identifying the bacteria so now hopefully they could develop like a probiotic type of treatment with those six bacteria in a pill form or something like that, not having to require stool and still have the effectiveness on the C. diff infection. But that remains to be seen, that is now the next step in terms of researching this, but...

RW: I used to, in my younger days I used to do quite a lot of reasearch in India. And once I got Campylobacter.

S: That's nasty.

RW: And so I had chronic diarrohea and I had to fly, and so I took off, as we were going along the runway, I thought "well I need the bathroom" and the attendant said, quite rightly, "you need to sit down". And I said, "if I sit down, we're all going to regret this," and he realised what was wrong and let me in the bathroom. And so I took off, inside the bathroom, as the plane climbed.

E: The angle, yes.

RW: With chronic diarrohea.

S: Yeah.

J: Oh god.

RW: You don't want to be doing that.

J: Yeah, it's amazing how having a horrible biological even on an aeroplane makes it a million times worse.

RW: A million times worse. In retrospect I should have shut the door on the toilet.


RW: When I was in India...

S: Before or after the C. jejuni?

RW: It was probably before actually, this was 20-something, 26 years ago.

S: And you didn't get Guillain–Barré from that, you're lucky.

RW: Oh really? I don't even know what that is.

B: (laughs)

E: Oh that's a bad thing to get, a neurological disorder.

B: Maybe he does have it.

S: Inflammation of your nerves, and that's a bad form of it, if you get it after a C. jejuni infection.

RW: Oh right, so anyway so this interesting thing, this was about 26 years ago in India, I'm sure it's changed now but at the time it was a very very poor country so they had to come up with very novel solutions some of the time, and this was the best one they ever came up with. The security guards used to search your bags before you got onto the plane. And boy they were thorough, they were really thorough and I could not work out why they were so motivated because clearly they weren't on very much money, and the answer was so brilliant. They got on the plane with you.

B: Oh, I like it. That'd motivate you.

RW: So they really cared. And this was a time when there was a lot of terrorism going on so I though it was a really interesting solution to motivation.

S: They had some skin in the game, huh?

RW: Absolutely.

Science or Fiction (1:03:30)[edit]

Voiceover: It's time for science or fiction.

J: Each week we come up with some questions that are truthful and one or maybe more which are not. I'm not gonna . . .


S: Are you serious?

E: He's only been saying it for 330 episodes.

J: Oh, you wanna say it again, go ahead.

S: No, but I mean "one or maybe more"???


J: Hey, I'm in charge of science or fiction this time.

S: All right then do it. Do it, then.

J: All right. So we have a theme this week and the theme is sharks.

S: Okay.

J: So I'm going to be telling you guys, I'm going to read off five shark facts, one of

S: Five.

J: Five. And one of them is fake. The reason I went to five is, there isn't like a big explanation for each one of these.

E: Okay.

J: It's either true or not, I have a little bit . . .

S: Five.

J: Yeah.

S: Breaking new ground with this.

E: Setting a precedent. That's unprecedented.

J: I am. I am.

S: Unprecedented, hence, breaking new ground.

J: So, okay. First one is, ready? Some sharks can change their shape by inflating their bodies with water or air to make themselves bigger and rounder.

RW: True.

(Pause, then laughter)

S: So we need to explain to you how this game is played.

RW: I have no idea. I have no idea what's happening.


S: Jay's gonna read all five items. And then we'll go one by one.

RW: Oh, yes.

S: And then you can give your thoughts on all of those items and which one you think is the fake. Is the fiction.

RW: Okay.

S: Right, so hold your comments until we read all five and it's your turn.

RW: Do you have a game over here, where you say, it's like a letter, and so you say, "What D is an animal?" and you have to say "Dog."

S: No.

J: Yeah, yeah, we do that. No, we do that.

RW: Okay. Well, I was playing at Christmas with my family once, and it was B, letter B, and it was, and the question was "What B turns women off?" And the answer is body odor. My dad said "blindness."


RW: And then went on to justify it through the entire Christmas day. Horrible.

(laughter continues)

J: (still laughing) Okay. So, the second one.

RW: It's true. My entire life's like this, you know. Nothing makes sense

S: You are a cliché, you know that.

RW: Yeah. I amuse myself, endlessly, all the time. I love, everywhere I go, I giggle. (laughter)

J: Some sharks' poop comes out in a spiral pattern.

RW: True.


E: Steve, explain.

S: He'll go first.

J: Some sharks can vomit out their own stomachs.

RW: True.

J: Number four. Number four. Sharks do not get cancer which is why cancer researchers frequently study them. Five. Sharks are affected by the Moon, leading them to kill more people. The moon. Do you want me to interact with the audience on this, Steve? Do you want me to get their opinions?

S: Sure.

J: You guys, okay. I'm gonna read the first one again. Before any of, other than Richard, who can't keep his mouth shut, we're gonna talk and ask you

RW: You did invite me onto a radio show. So, opening seemed to be reasonable thing.


J: Some sharks can change shape by inflating their bodies with water or air to make themselves bigger and rounder. Who here thinks that's true?

S: No, no, no no. The fiction

J: Oh, who here thinks that's the fiction?

S: Applaud, please, if you think that's the fiction.

E: Applaud.


S: Nobody.

J: Okay, everybody thinks that's true. Some sharks' poop comes out in a spiral pattern. Fiction.


J: Okay.

S: This is just the audience, Richard.

RW: Okay.

J: Some sharks can vomit out their stomachs.


J: Sharks do not get cancer which is why cancer researchers frequently study them.

(some applause)

J: Sharks are affected by the Moon, leading them to kill more people.

(some applause)

J: Okay, now Richard.

RW: Oh, it's obvious.

J: Which one is the fake?

RW: I would go with, not with the audience, but with the last one. I can't believe a shark's affected by the Moon, causing them to kill more people. I think that rubbish.

J: Gotcha. See, this is gonna go quick. Okay. Go ahead, Steve, which one do you think is fake?

S: You want me to go next?

J: Yeah.

S: The audience is correct. Sharks do get cancer. I am dubious about the Moon one, but I strongly feel that the sharks don't get cancer one is fiction.

J: Evan.

E: You said, the last one, Moon or moonlight?

J: The Moon.

E: The Moon. Okay. Then it's the cancer one that's the fiction.

J: Bob.

B: I was thinking the Moon, and that didn't make much sense to me because look. For a full moon, extra light wouldn't matter 'cause they don't really use their sense of sight anyway, it's all about, they can detect parts per billion of blood or parts per million. It wouldn't matter. But the cancer one, yeah, I've read different things about it but I think the current understanding is that they do get cancer, even though for years people thought they did not. So I'm gonna go with the cancer one.

J: Okay. So, I'll ask the audience again. Do you think the cancer one is the fake?


J: Okay. Three holdouts. There's thousands of people here, three people didn't, okay.


J: Okay. All right, so, I'll just take them in order. The first one about some sharks can change shape by inflating their bodies with water or air to make themselves bigger and rounder. That is true. And, it's very interesting. One of the sharks that can do this is called the swell shark.


E: Wow.

B: So creative.

J: And the reason why they do it is to prevent predators like seals and larger sharks from pulling them out of the rocky reefs where they live, or under ledges or crevasses, so

B: Oh, cool.

J: So, the predator will come near them, and then they will expand their bodies so, in essence, making themselves impossible to pull out of that crevasse.

E: Snug.

J: Yeah.

S: They wedge themselves in.

J: Yep. They can suck the water in, and they significantly change the size of their body, which is very cool. All right, the second weird one about some sharks' poop comes out in a spiral pattern. This one is very interesting, I learned a lot from reading this

S: Is it true?

B: Is it true?

J: Yeah, it's very true. A spiral valve in the lower portion of the intestine of some sharks, which is a modification of the ile'um

S: Il'eum

J: Thank you. It's my job to pronounce things wrong. This valve is internally twisted and coiled to increase the surface area of the intestines, to increase nutrient absorption. But a few more things are very interesting about shark intestines. The shark intestines are much, much smaller than most mammals. The sharks have compensated for this by having it be a spiral effect and what that does is it increases the surface area inside, and a couple of other things. The sharks can't pass large and hard objects, like bones, through their, their

B: Yeah.

J: They can't absorb them and they can't break them down. So what happens is sharks will actually have a build-up of material in their stomachs, and they can actually invert their stomach and push all that stuff out.

B: Whoa.

J: Now sharks will do this for a couple of different reasons. Sharks will do this

S: Well now you're getting into the next item.

J: No. I am, yes.

S: Yes.


S: So it was funny, the first time you said sharks can vomit out their stomachs, what I thought was, well what else are they gonna vomit out of, their ass?


J: I'm sorry. Because, yeah, actually these two items are connected, so I'm gonna

S: Yeah. But you meant they can vomit so their stomach is outside their body.

J: So they can, they can actually vomit their stomachs out, meaning that their muscles are able to do it.

E: . . . inside out

J: Right. But check this out. Sharks don't, they do that like I said, to expel matter that they can't digest. They also do it when they get anxious, and some predators go after the things that are in their stomach and not them. So they could actually have some legitimate food

E: Oh, it's a defense mechanism.

J: Yeah. And they're actually pushing out food into the water, and then they swim away and then a bigger predator will come and eat that.

E: That's a good idea.

S: Yeah.

J: That's a really, really cool evolutionary

B: Well, maybe they need help with their intestinal __________ and that's why they're going after that.

E: It's like launching countermeasures.

S: Yeah, it's countermeasures.

B: The spiral though, the internal spiral, how is that gonna influence the spiral when it exits?

S: It's like, don't you ever watch Bugs Bunny when they shoot the cannon and they twist it and the cannonball goes in a circle

B: Yes. So why would it continue in spiral

S: Wait, that's not real?


J: Bob, Bob, it's literally, if you think about it, think about a spiral, right? And there's the butt and the poop comes out and it just comes out in that spiral.

B: Oh, in the shape of a spiral.

J: Yeah. The poop comes out

B: Oh, I thought it moved, not the shape.

J: No, no, no, it's shaped like a spiral.

B: I'm glad I misunderstood

J: All right, so well quite obviously, sharks do get cancer. The cancer thing started in the 1970s when Henry

E: So that was fiction.

S: That's the fiction.

J: Yeah, that's fiction. Henry Brem and Judah Folkman

S: I've taught the audience well.


S: Better than my brother, apparently.


J: These two guys from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine first noted that the cartilage prevented the growth of new blood vessels in the tissues. And what happened was that study that they did led another doctor, Dr. I. William Lane to write a book called Sharks Don't Get Cancer: How Shark Cartilage Could Save Your Life. What happened from the writing of that book is terrible. Because that guy wrote the book, 80% of certain shark species have been fished, and there are a lot of shark species that are on the brink of extinction because

E: Misinformation.

J: people are trying to eat the shark cartilage.

S: Shark cartilage became a snake oil treatment for cancer. In fact sharks get cancer of the cartilage.

E: Right.

S: Yes.

J: So, there's a lot of interesting information on that particular chain of events that led to people taking that as a supplement and everything, which I think, I suggest that you read. There's a lot of interesting nuances in there that I found. But, the end result is that, you know, ridiculous supplementation of animal body parts and what not, it causes a lot of damage. And there, here, and this is the other one that I love, that sharks are affected by the Moon, leading them to kill more people. I wrote that one kind of funny because I just wanted to be difficult. But they tracked shark movements, scientists used devices to track where sharks go and when. And they observed that large congregations of sharks, during specific lunar cycles, have intensified feeding habits and the other big thing is that, depending on the phase of the Moon, it pushes the sharks into shore because of the tide.

B: The tide.

J: So when these things combine, so the Moon, and the, so these two effect basically have to coincide in order for, so the Moon has to be pulling the sharks because of the tide, and the sharks are affected by the, I guess,

B: the light?

J: I think it is the moonlight. It makes them feed more intensely.

B: Interesting.

J: It doesn't happen that often, but when those two things kinda happen

E: Perfect storm.

J: and there are people in the water, yeah. It happens.

B: Cool.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:14)[edit]

S: Jay, do you have a quote this week?

J: I have a quote sent in by a listener named Joseph Miñones, he basically gave me how to pronounce his name and I can't pronounce it. Miñones. Check out this quote: "The aim of science..."

B: He wrote it phonetically for Jay and he still can't say it, I love it.

J: He did, and I still can't read it.

The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom but to set a limit to infinite error.

E: Hear, hear.

RW: Yeah, I agree with that.

B: You'd agree with anything.

J: And this was a quote written by Bertold Brech? Bertold Brecht? Brech?

E: Brecht?

J: Why don't you come here and yell his name?

S: Bertold...

Audience member: Bertolt Brecht!


B: There you go.

J: Awesome. Thank you!

S: Richard, thank you so much for coming on the show.

RW: A pleasure! Thank you guys!

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

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


  1. On the Origin of Species, 1st Edition by Charles Darwin
  2. On the Origin of Species, 6th Edition by Charles Darwin
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