SGU Episode 386

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SGU Episode 386
8th December 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 385                      SGU 387

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


PP: Phil Plait

Quote of the Week

When a man eminent in science tells us of something in his particular sphere, into which no fraud can intrude, and which can be verified under scientific conditions, he is entitled to a respectful hearing, but if he states that on a particular night his cow jumped over the post office, his testimony on that point is no more valid than the testimony of other persons. The mere fact that a man is noted in his particular field of research, astronomy, physics, or mathematics should not be considered as presumptive evidence of his ability to see correctly things outside his experience.

Joseph Rinn

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, December 5, 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 rogue this evening, Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. Phil, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

PP: I don't think I'm a special guest rogue. This is like my eight billionth time, so

S: You're always special.

PP: But it's always nice to be here. Thank you for having me on again.

S: Rebecca is Down Under, at the Australian Skeptical Conference, and so she will not be joining us this week, so Phil is kindly sitting in. And this is a good week. This is one of those weeks where there was a ton of news items. So it was really hard to choose, you know, sometimes it's a little bit of feast or famine with the science news items. This was definitely a week when we had more to choose from than we really could, and a lot of astronomy news, so, it's great to have you with us for those.

This Day in Skepticism (1:11)[edit]

S: But, Evan, start us off with This Day in Skepticism.

E: Yup. December 8, 1953. So, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the President of the United States, when he went to the United Nations building in New York City to deliver his famous "Atoms for Peace" speech. In the address Eisenhower spelled out the necessity of repurposing existing nuclear weapons and nuclear technology for peaceful ends rather than destructive ends. And he stated that it must be humanity's goal to, and I quote "discover the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life." Very well said. And they think, there's a bit of an argument, or a debate, as to how much Albert Einstein might have influenced this speech that Dwight Eisenhower had given because they, some would argue that it's kind of similar in letter and tone to some letters that Albert Einstein did send to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940s talking about the potential of the atom and the positive potential as opposed to the negative destructive potential. The debate is ongoing about how much Einstein had sort of an influence over this particular moment and where it went from there.

S: Yeah, and there's also debate about what Eisenhower's true purpose was. Not long after that he started building up our atomic weapon reserve. Certainly didn't lead to disarming the United States and the Soviet Union in terms of their nuclear weapons.

PP: Well what happened there was that while giving his speech, actually, Eisenhower kept saying "nucular" and so everybody made fun of him, and he was so upset he came back and built more weapons.

E: These presidents, uh . . .

News Items[edit]

End of the World (3:02)[edit]

NY Times: In Panicky Russia, It’s Official: End of World Is Not Near

DailyMail: 'The only place that will survive the Mayan Apocalypse': Residents of French mountain crack open End of the World wine (and offer house rental at $1,600-a-night)

S: Well that's actually an appropriate item, talking about the prospect of nuclear annihilation, because we are coming up on the end of the world!

B: About time.

S: It could be our last show; maybe we could squeeze one or two more shows in

E: Hope so.

S: before the end of the world. Some people think it's gonna be on December 21st, although there is that movie that came out that said it was going to be on December 12th, I think just to go for the 12-12-12 thing.

E: 12-12, yeah.

B: Yeah.

PP: What movie was that?

S: 12-12-12?


PP: No, I'm serious. Was it 2012? The movie 2012 never gave a date, though, did they?

S: No, there was a movie 12/12/12.

PP: Oh, I didn't know that.

S: Yeah, it was like a cheesy movie.

B: I mean why the hell am I even doing this podcast? I mean, I wanna, you're lucky I had nothing better to do today, 'cause, you know, if the end of the world is so close I got better stuff to do. I should anyway, but I don't, so here I am.

PP: You know, that's a good point. If anybody out there listening is scared about this, there's nothing that is more indicative of my attitude of the long, plodding life I have ahead of me as spending an hour and a half talking to you jokers instead of, you know, going to New Orleans or something and partying down.

E: What are you saying, Phil?

S: Yeah, it's interesting to think, who's freaking out? I certainly don't see a lot of it around me. I don't think there are many people who are taking this seriously to the point that they're behaving as if they really think the world's gonna blow up in a week or so. I think, those people who are taking it seriously apparently are all gathering in one town in the south of France. You guys have heard this about the,

E: Bugarach.

S: Bugarach? Wonder if they're playing baccarat there.

J: Yeah, the town is actually preventing people from congregating at this point because they're worried about way too many people showing up and of course that makes a very dangerous situation. You know, bathrooms, food, all that.

S: Yeah.

E: Well, it's a very small town. The population is 176 people. We're not talking about Paris or anything.

J: There's no McDonald's in this . . .

PP: Why there? What's going on there?

S: Well, Phil. . .

J: Phil, that's a good question!

PP: South of France is nice and all.

J: The UFOs are coming there, Phil, and they're gonna basically take care of those people that were smart enough to trek to the top of this mountain.

S: They're already there. Apparently they're parked in an alien space garage in the mountain. They will emerge on the eve of December 21st, kind of like the Great Pumpkin . . .


E: Or the Hale-Bopp Comet.

S: Right. Take the people who are close at hand, 'cause, why not, and save 'em.


PP: Well, that's ridiculous. I know that's not true because the lizard overlords told me a completely different location.


S: Oh, yeah. You sure it wasn't misdirection?

PP: Uh oh. They don't want me on that long flying saucer ride.

S: They wanted to make sure you were nowhere near Bugarach.

J: Did you guys expect there to be a lot more press and a lot more silly media hype and everything? I'm actually pretty happy to see that there isn't all that garbage going on that I was absolutely predicted this a year ago. I thought there was going to be a massive onslaught of ridiculous articles.

E: Do you think that Y2K had more of an impact on people, at least in this country?

S: Oh, yeah.

E: As far as the panic.

B: Absolutely. That's not to say, though, there's definitely isolated instances if lots of weirdness going on, although there's not as much media attention yet about it. I read one, some teacher in California was saying that he had a student that was saying that his planets, (his planets, ha!), his parents, were saying that they were planning on killing them and, the kids and themselves, because of this.

E: That's not cool.

B: Yeah. And there was this one guy who said he got contacted by an elderly person who said that her best friend in the whole world was her little dog and this woman asked him, when would be a good time to put the dog to sleep so that he doesn't, you know, the dog doesn't suffer when the world ends.

J: Oh, boy.

B: And I'm sure that's happened probably over and over many many thousands of times. Little stories like this that we're not even aware of yet. Just, people take this so seriously and it's just amazing that they don't think about it. They don't think about all the thousands of other times the world was supposed to end and it didn't. And they don't care what the scientists are saying.

J: Yeah, but this one, this one is real, Bob. This is the real one. Guys, on Sunday, I'm in Denver right now, visiting family and on Sunday I went to a Broncos game, which was really

E: Cool! Oh, wow.

J: cool. It was a lot of fun. Yeah, it was great. So I’m riding home on the train with my brother-in-law and we're sitting across from these two people, and they were very friendly, and the girl just basically said "So what do you think about the world ending?" and I'm like "Oh, my god, you don't know who you're talking to."


PP: Well, in six billion years . .


J: I said "so what do you think about it?" I just wanted her to go for it, you know. So she just launched into Nostradamus, like just went for it. "I don't really think it's gonna end but Nostradamus predicted Hitler" and she just went on this ramble. And I said "Well, look, you know, there's a lot of people out there that predicted the end of the world, and I could name a few for you, but the fact is, the Mayans, they didn't know anything special. They didn't have any magical powers. They weren't in contact with aliens. They just were building calendars and documenting things, and there's nothing strange here to worry about."

S: You know the country that is having a celebration about their lack of worry about the end of the world is Mexico.

B: Mexico, yeah.

S: 'Cause they know it's all BS! The Mayans never even pre-, it's not like they predicted the end of the world and we just don't think the prediction's gonna come true. It's a myth -- they never even made the prediction. I mean it was, it's completely a modern myth, misunderstanding of the Mayan culture and their beliefs.

PP: I think that's about right, yeah. The closest you can come here is that, yes, this particular roughly 400-year cycle—they had different cycles like we do; we have decades and centuries and millennia—and they had these different units, and this one's called a baktun, and it's three hundred ninety something years. And, you know, it's coming to an end this month. But they had bigger cycles, the piktun and these other ones, so, it's just one of things where, what do you do at the end of the year? You throw away your calendar and you buy a new one. It's the same sort of thing with them. In this case, the only thing that's of interest is that this particular cycle has a number to it that's relatively mystical to the Maya. But even that is kind of a stretch. They didn't write about, anything about this. To them it was just another thing that happened.

B: I love how they're planning on this big orgy on the 21st; well, I guess it's not an orgy, but it's this big party

E: Celebration.

B: Big festival, or whatever. But they also made a point to say that they're also planning the same thing next year. So that was very important.

E: That's perfect.

B: They said that. (he laughs)

PP: I was at Chichen Itza last year. My family and I went to Mexico and we went down to the Yucatan and it's amazing. I would highly recommend everybody go see the Temple of Kukulcan, that stepped pyramid, it's magnificent. And, yeah, I was talking to our guide about all this, and he knew all of this stuff. He had the math down perfectly. Every unit, how it divided into everything else and how many days were left over and how they did this and that and the other thing. It was great. So, you know they're getting a lot of tourism out of this, which is great for the economy.

B: Good for them.

PP: But everything else about this is total baloney.

S: It is amazing how much other made-up stuff gets woven into the mythology. Like, some people think, oh, yeah, what's going to destroy the Earth is this planet Nibiru, or Planet X, which is going to collide with the Earth, or get so close to the Earth that it's going to stop its rotation for 5.9 days. How do they come up with those details?

PP: Really? I haven't heard that one, not 5.9, I haven't heard a number. It's always just some sort of: "PLANET . . . CLOSE . . . GRAVITY . . . BLAH!"

S: Yeah, right.

B: Steve, I love that one, because if Nibiru was out there, it would be like the brightest thing in the sky right now.

S: Yeah.

B: It would be, like, in our face.

PP: Yeah, I'm wondering how many people are gonna go outside an see Jupiter right now, which is at opposition. Which is when it's opposite the sun in the sky and it's as close to the Earth as it gets. So it's pretty bright, and it's up all night. So if you go out at 9, 10 o'clock, it's up pretty high. And I wonder how many people are gonna look at that and think it's Nibiru. Steve, I have a 45-minute talk I give on the baloney astronomy involved with this nonsense. And I had to cut back on that, because my talks were always running long. The good news about that talk is that I think I've given it for the last time. I was in Arizona a couple weeks ago and gave it, and said, yeah, I'm wrapping this one up. There's no reason to give it. On the other hand, I was giving Planet X talks ten years ago. I gave one at TAM talking about Nibiru and Planet X and saying how this doesn’t exist, and even then I was saying when this comes and goes, when the date comes and goes at least, this thing's supposed to swing by the Earth and destroy us all in 2003, they're gonna recycle it. This is too good of a thing to just give up, and sure enough, a couple of years later they started weaving it into the Maya apocalypse. There's also solar flares, people talk about asteroid impacts, they're talking about Planet X. My favorite is the sun aligning with the black hole in the center of the Milky Way. Because there's just enough truth, if somebody looks that up, they'll find that that's roughly true. There is a black hole, and it is in the center of the Milky Way and the sun does pass it every year in December. But the sun passes it every year in December. It's actually closest on December 19.

S: It's like saying the sun is going to reach its low point in the sky on December 21. Yeah, like it does every year.

E: Okay.

PP: Like it does every year. It's like I say, every murder is committed within two weeks of a full moon.

S: Right.

PP: Plus or minus. It's the same sort of thing. Plus if you add up the gravity of that black hole, it's like a trillionth of the sun's. So when a mosquito flies past your head, that has more gravity than that black hole does on you, it's crazy.

E: Is that what I felt?

Denver Bug UFO Update (13:27)[edit]

S: Talking about bugs, Phil. Let's move on, Bob.

PP: Oh! Segue! Nice work.

S: Thanks. Although if you point it out it takes a little bit of something away from the segue. You have been following up on the Denver bug UFO hubbub.

PP: Yeah, sadly.

S: Sadly?

B: What the heck is that?

E: Well, it's in your back yard, Phil, so you're kind of responsible for this.

PP: Yeah, it's my fault.

E: If you really think about it.

PP: I released the hounds. Well, what happened was, a local TV station did a report on what they were calling UFOs. Basically, some shadowy figure sent them a, I think they said a videotape, but it might have just been a video, I don't know, with this guy pointing out all of these things that are flying over a field in Denver. And you can see these things that are out of focus, they're making these sharp turns. They're moving in ways that planes, for instance, cannot move. Which, hey, I'm all, you know, I agree with that, what it looks like to me on the video as well. But then they started making all these claims. They went to an aviation expert, who said these are not planes, they're not helicopters. I'm looking at this and thinking, I don't think they're planes or helicopters either. I mean, they're birds and insects. Mostly insects. But you can just tell, I mean, it's one of those things where, you know, I feel like you should do an investigation and you have to be truly skeptical, you have to seek out more evidence, everything. And I'm looking at this and saying, you know, at some point, if it's quacking like an insect and flying like an insect, you know, it's an insect. The story was just pretty silly. And I emailed, after it came out, I got about a hundred emails from people. I sent a note to the reporter and said listen, there's a great way to figure this out. It's very simple. You just take two cameras, you sync 'em up, you separate by 20 feet, you aim them in the same direction, and you let 'em run. And if these things are objects in distance, miles away, they'll show up in both cameras. If they're insects five feet away, you'll see it in one camera and not the other. Boom. Done. And at least, at that point, you've established that they're far away. Well, she sent me a note back really quickly, to her credit, saying You know, I don't think my bosses are gonna let me do any follow-up on this, but if you wanna do this or you somebody who will, let me know. And I thought that was great. But I didn't have time. Well, it turns out some people did go out there, some skeptics did, the Rocky Mountain, I don't know if the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Society went out there or not.

J: Yeah, they did. As a matter of fact they did a phenomenal write-up on their website about it. I gotta give these guys a lot of credit. They did some excellent skepticism and criticism on this. So go to and take a look at it.

PP: Yeah, it's a good group of guys. And, well, guys, men and women. Generic guys. Yeah, so, I was kind of pleased by this and then, the fact that the reporter was willing to follow up. And then, this was four days after the segment aired, that I sent her the email and we had this exchange. A week later, eight days later, they air a second segment. And this time they go and talk to, they kind of rehash everything, then they went and talked to an entomologist, a local insect expert, and they show her looking at the video for a couple of seconds. And she says, "I can't identify these as insects. I don't think that's what they are." And I thought, how long did she really look at this video? We didn't really see much of her. We don't know what they showed her.

S: Yeah, she also seemed very unsure of herself on the video. She was like, "Um, yeah, I'm gonna have to say I don't know what these are."

PP: Right.

S: Wasn't convincing at all.

PP: And that's, that's fine. You can't say anything either way, but it's certainly enough to make me want to talk to her. So they gave her name, and it turns out she works at a local butterfly pavilion. If you look up, I think it's If you live in the Denver area, it's a wonderful place. So I called her, and said "what's going on?" And she said they showed her some of the video, but they said that these things are really far away.

B: Oh, wow.

PP: And they say that in the segment as well. They're invisible to the naked eye. And I'm thinking, well you know, an insect 15 feet away is invisible to the eye, it's really hard to see it. And I talked to her about and so she was primed to think these things were far away, so that they should be in focus. But she couldn't detect any wing motion or any legs. No segmented body parts. So as far as she was concerned, what she told me was "I cannot positively identify these as insects." Which is true. They're out of focus and too close to see. And she seemed to be admitting that freely. That she just couldn't tell. But the segment ran, and I watched the segment, and I talked to my editor at Slate. Now that I'm writing for Slate Magazine, I talked to her and said "You know I wanna run this really kind of a snarky article making fun of the segment, but I feel bad, because, you know, she really did try to investigate this." But then they ran the second segment., where they talked to this entomologist for two seconds on the air. And then they spent five minutes, just about, well not five minutes, but several minutes, with this reporter talking to the two anchors, saying how she's a great investigative reporter, she's not a crackpot, she's not saying they're UFOs, but everybody's making fun of her, and I'm like, you're spending all this time on the air when you could have been showing a one-minute segment with two cameras next to each other. And it's like, this is not investigative reporting.

S: It was a total fail.

PP: Yeah, basically. And so I lost all my inhibitions to not come down pretty hard on this. Because if they want to call themselves investigative reporters and they come back and say "we're interested in the truth" and then they put this kind of fluff piece up a second time, where they don't really talk to enough people; they don't really do any investigation. You know, I think they were honestly trying to do a good job,

S: I don't.

PP: they just didn't.

S: I don't. I think you're giving them too much credit. I think she was stung by the criticism, and she was looking to do a follow-up piece that

B: Vindicated her.

S: vindicated her, exonerated her, as much as possible. She got a bug expert to say it wasn't a bug. But it was a total put-up job. As in, you know, the information that you added about them priming her that these are far away, et cetera, that they completely abused their expert, in my opinion. Got her to say something that was very misleading, that really wasn't her field of expertise; she is a bug expert, not an expert on identifying things on a video or understanding the implication of distance and focus and all those things.

E: Or giving her testimony to further their opinion.

S: I also think that she was not savvy in dealing with the media and she laid an egg on that interview is the bottom line. So it was a fail all the way around. I don't give them any credit or benefit of the doubt on this one. 'Cause the first time, you could say, all right, they're just naïve reporters, they got snookered, it was bad, but it happens. The second time, they had people telling them the answer. You and others told them, this is exactly how you resolve the issue. And they didn't do it. What they did do was cover their ass, and the doubled down on their original stupid and journalism fail, and it really made it much worse.

PP: Well, let me jump in, and mention two things. When I talked to the entomologist, she said she didn't actually talk to the reporter. So it was, it may be an intern or whatever, I don't know. But somebody else talked to her and that's the person who told her that these things were far away. Now, again, I think that there is a possibility, Steve, that you're absolutely right. But I don't know. I try not to necessarily ascribe motivation to people. It could have been a cover-your-ass situation, or it may have just been a little bit of a motivation that way. But she still thought she was doing honest reporting. Either way, though, it was wrong, and the point that you make of them not really making any sort of effort to do this right is what's galling to me. After a bunch of people told them exactly how to do it. And it wasn't that much of an effort, and they wasted all that time on the air just chatting about it when they could have been showing real stuff.

J: Well, it makes you think that if they're doing it for this, they're doing it for other things as well. Because we're skeptics and we've trained ourselves to be able to think critically and we can clearly see, wow, there's massive gaps in their logic and in their methodology. Right? This is our sweet spot. But they could report on dozens of, hundreds of other things that I have no clue about that I'm just hearing what they're saying, and I can't judge how true or false their statements are. It, to me it's scuttles her entire career. I hate to be that dramatic about it, but if she's that bad at a simple report like this, she must be horrible at everything else that she's doing.

E: The Daily Mail called her and they want to hire her.


PP: I would say that's true of any news source. I mean, certainly you should be skeptical of any news source, even experts. You know, I make mistakes when it comes to astronomy, it happens. But in this case, it's not really an ad hominem when somebody who is putting themselves up to be an expert in whatever field they are, an investigative reporter or whatever, and then they make some sort of egregious error, it's not an ad hominem to then trust them less the next time they say something. It's okay to bring up something like that in someone's past if they didn't deal with it well. To cast doubt on things they're saying now, at least in your head, if you're trying to weigh all the evidence, that's, I think that's perfectly legitimate.

S: Yeah, we all make mistakes. Obviously we make a point of pointing that out on this show all the time, yes. It's hard to talk about scientific topics at length without making errors or just being slightly off in how you're representing things, or, Phil, you and I know this blogging on a daily basis, it's the same keep, you run into those kind of errors all the time. The trick is how do you respond when it's pointed out to you.

PP: What are you implying, Steve? Steve says that because he sent me a correction to something I wrote the other day. And he was absolutely right.

S: No, but, you corrected it. You said, okay, yeah, this is wrong.

PP: Yeah, I made a mistake.

S: People point out my mistakes on my blog all the time.

J: There is no excuse anymore. Google exists, the internet exists. Everyone is connected, we're all wired in, we all have cell phones. She was getting contacted by Phil and probably a handful of other people.

S: When they went for a second bite of the apple, they had all the information in front of them, there was no excuse the second time around.

J: No excuse.

S: That's the bottom line.

J: Nope.

S: I do think that journalists deal with these kind of stories as fluff pieces and they give them less time and attention and so they may actually have a double standard where they hold other kinds of news stories to a higher standard than this kind. I don't find that acceptable either. But it

J: Wait, wait, wait. No, but Steve, that's still, I don't go for that either because on numerous occasions, Heidi [the reporter] says, I'm a seasoned reporter, I've been doing this for twenty years. Basically I don't make mistakes.

S: You're right, you're right. She was putting her credibility behind this story,

Inattentional Amnesia (24:46)[edit]

S: All right. Let's move on. Let me ask you guys a question. Think about the place that you work or have worked in the past, your office, your desk. Can you remember where the closest fire extinguisher to your desk is? And of course, everyone listening at home, I invite you to do the same exercise.

J: Yeah, absolutely.

PP: Yeah. I work at home, so it's easy. It's in the kitchen.

S: Right. Well, yeah. At home is probably, is a different situation. So, how many people, when asked that very question, do you think are able to locate the fire extinguisher closest to their office or desk?

J: I'd say at least 75 percent have no idea where it is.

E: 50 percent.

PP: Wow, I think that's optimistic. I bet it's less than five percent.

S: Five percent.

PP: Less than five percent know, I mean.

S: Twenty-four percent were able to locate the nearest fire extinguisher.

PP: Oh, well you nailed it then.

S: In a recent study.

J: Oh, wow, you did it.

S: Twenty-four percent. Thirteen out of 54 subjects in the study. But now this is, the subjects were people who have been working in the same place for years. So these are people who have walked by the fire extinguisher multiple times a day for years. And three quarters of them could not remember where it was.

J: Yeah.

S: So of course it seems, you know, how could you not know, it's right there, it's red. It's designed to be noticeable. To be in a very prominent place to get your attention. So we've talked in the past about inattentional blindness. This is the famous gorilla video. You guys know, all know

B: Oh, yeah.

PP: Oh, yeah.

E: Yeah.

S: There's also something called change blindness, which is related. Inattentional blindness is essentially, if you're focusing your attention on one thing, then you can completely miss even obvious things that are happening right in front of your face because your brain is simply not processing the information. It's filtering it out, and it's attending to a different subset of the information that's coming in and so you miss the obvious right in front of your face. Inattentional blindness.

J: But, Steve, there's a reason why, I think, that we have that. That's to focus on things is important and we need to cut out all the background noise and –

S: Oh, sure. People who can't do that, because let's say they have a thalamic stroke and that's sort of the relay center of the brain. Or they have damage to the brain so they can't process sensory information properly, and they essentially are being bombarded with all kinds of sensory information and they can't filter out most of it and focus on only a tiny slice of it. It's debilitating. So, what this research, though, is pointing out yet another type of information processing. So we have inattentional blindness, change blindness, which is related. That's like Richard Wiseman's color-changing card trick. You will not notice even significant changes to a scene or to something that you're looking at, especially if there's a blink phenomenon. Meaning, if you're looking at a picture, and then it winks on and off, and something changes in the blink, you're much less likely to notice it. So this new phenomenon is called inattentional amnesia. So even when you do notice something, like the fire extinguisher near your office, you simply don't remember it. You don't log it away as a significant piece of information. And so, when asked to recall it, the information just isn't there. The researchers who did this study gave as other examples, things that you've looked at hundreds of times in your life, such as money. Can you describe in detail features of a one dollar bill, or a coin. Like, in which direction is George Washington's head facing on the quarter? Do you guys know? Without looking?

B: Yes. To his right?

J: To my left.

E: I think we see his, I believe we see his right.

J: No, I think he's facing to my left.

PP: He's always looking right at me.


S: He's facing to your left, so you're seeing the left side of his face, yeah. Or, is "In God We Trust" on the front or the back of a one-dollar bill, or et cetera, et cetera. Those kind of details you just, unless you've made an effort to particularly look at them and recall those details for whatever reason, you're not likely to remember those sorts of details 'cause they're not important.

E: Well, a fire extinguisher is supposed to be important.

S: Well, that is important, but still, if you didn't make an effort or if there wasn't something that it was anchored to, like an event. So, for example, when doing, doing fire drills, for example, is really effective. So these same group of people were asked three months later where the fire extinguisher was near their office, and a hundred percent of them knew. So just going through the exercise of saying "Where's the fire extinguisher?" actually went from 24 percent to a hundred percent of the people knowing where it was. So the thing that's funny is, I've often been irritated at those little drills that occur in certain situations, like on an airplane: "Please take a moment to locate your nearest exit." And always, it seems cheesy, but in fact, it works. And if you don't take that moment to make a conscious effort, say, okay, there's the exit, especially in a panic situation or in an emergency situation, that information may not be there, even though you may have seen it a hundred times. So, those little drills actually, this study suggests, that doing those sort of drills or exercises or reminders, as annoying as they are, can actually be quite effective.

J: Steve, I was, this happens to me every once in a while. I'm in the shower and I reach a point

B: You shower only once in a while?

J: No.

E: You reach what in the shower?

J: So,

S: You reach around, yeah?

J: It occurs to me I can't remember if I shampooed my hair or not.


S: Yeah, that's happened to me every now and then.

PP: Well, I can't remember the last time I shampooed my hair, so


E: It's one thing you don't have to worry about.

J: So, what's that about? I mean, am I just on autopilot to the point where I'm not paying attention?

S: Yeah.

PP: I'd like to see a study like this done with, where it's done between men and women, where there's some sort of gender or sex division, depending on which way you use either of those words. My wife constantly tells me, you know, I don't notice things 'cause I'm a man.

E: Toilet seat?

PP: She does that as a joke. I mean, we're just screwing around, but she's right. I don't notice a lot of things after my brain says, "that's not important." "This is no longer a part of the scenery you need to worry about." It's gone. And so I don't notice when, or I might notice when something changes in the house or something like that, but after a day I just forget. It just gets filed away in whatever part of my brain forgets old phone numbers or something like that. And I think that would actually be very interesting. There are some differences between brains that way, and it would be interesting to see how that plays out.

S: Yeah, it's certainly plausible that men and women may tend to notice or remember different things. It's so almost a joke, like if two couples get together, and one woman says "Oh, those are lovely shoes." That's like, it's a cultural thing, but I would never, forget about saying, like if a guy walked in with nice shoes, forget about saying "Hey, there's a nice pair of shoes." I would never notice. In a million years. The shoes that the other guy was wearing.


J: That explains a lot, Steve.

S: Jay, you're metrosexual, you're kind of in the middle, so it's different.

J: Yeah, but shoes make the outfit, man. I mean, that's, you know, either way, it pushes it in one direction or the other. Steve, don't just look up at the pretty buildings, gotta look down at the grass every once in a while.


E: That's one way of putting it.

S: Obviously it's not strictly a gender thing, but different people will notice different things. You notice what you think about, what you care about, you know. And you don't notice things that are not part of your mental map of the world.

J: What about the Terminator? He said he sees everything, Steve.

S: Artificial intelligence. All bets are off.

E: --a computer brain, yes.

Curiosity Kurfuffle (33:06)[edit]

S: So, Phil, you're gonna tell us about a recent announcement that NASA made regarding the Curiosity probe.

B: I don't wanna talk about this.

E: It killed the cat.


B: I'm totally disgusted.

S: The Curiosity kerfuffle.

PP: Right. Speaking of media running wild. Basically, NPR did an interview with one of the scientists involved with the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory. And, apparently, what the scientist said was "We have some things that we've got here that are going to be earth-shaking and this data will be one for the history books." And this was reported in the NRP website. And everybody ran with it, everybody started speculating, and I ignored it. I know better than to speculate on something like this because we've seen it before. Every time NASA says "We're gonna have a press conference and it's gonna have to do with astrobiology. Wooo! And everybody goes "It's life!" And I'm thinking, yeah, you know, probably not. (laughter) I don't think they'd introduce it this way.

E: It's, like, the history of this, huh?

PP: Yeah. And you look at it and this happened over and over again, so I didn't even want to talk about it. But then it got so big, I had to put up one of my "everybody slow down" kind of a post. Saying we don't know what this is, we don't even know if it's geology, biology, whatever. And it turns out, it wasn't even anything. What happened was, the scientist was talking about the mission itself. He was saying "Everything we're doing here, everything we're learning about Mars, all of this data is gonna be saved forever. They're gonna be mining it for centuries." Data mining it, that is. And so, this whole mission is one for the history books. So it was basically, as I understand it, this was just basically a misunderstanding by the reporter. So in the meantime, Curiosity's up there on Mars as it has been for a few months now, and it's doing all kinds of cool stuff. They had a press conference a couple days ago where they talked about, look, we scooped up some of the regolith, some of that ground-up material, the dusty material on the surface, and they found sulfur, they found chlorine perchlorates, which is sort of a chemical that, it's not an acid, but it can, it very reactive, and they also found what could be a trace of carbon. Maybe a simple organic compound, some sort of methane-based compound, which is, you know, interesting, but they don't know, they didn't see very much. The carbon could have been from Earth. This machine, it's a scoop, which scoops up the surface and then shakes it and can investigate it in a couple of different ways. It may have had some contamination from Earth, so what they did was they scooped up some sand and dust, shook it around the machine then dumped it out. They did that several times to try to sort of scour the inside of it. But there may have still been something in there. This detector that figures out the chemical composition of what it's scooping up, is extremely sensitive. I'm very impressed with the spectra the stuff comes out with. And, look, you know, if there was a little tiny bit of dust, or somebody sneezed or whatever, near this thing, you know, maybe that was what's in it. We'll see with time. They'll keep doing this and keep looking for more stuff. It's all very interesting. It's all very cool. But it's more interesting scientifically than something that's gonna get the public excited. And I've seen a couple people trying to capitalize on this saying, "See, look, the public's really excited about this!" And it's like, well, I don't think they're excited about finding perchlorates in the Martian sand. I think the misunderstanding at NPR is probably what drove, the reason that this particular press conference was so big. But it's still doing good stuff, and I don't want this kind of stuff to get out of control in the media and the public, because it's always gonna lead to disappointment. No matter what is actually found. There was another announcement a couple of years ago where NASA made some kind of forehead slappy, you know, "We found something astronomers have been looking for for fifty years." It turns out it was a very young supernova remnant. A very young star that exploded. Very cool. But they just made my job twice as hard. Because now I have to say, it's not aliens, it's this exploded star. And I can write about exploded stars. I can make them fun because I love supernovae. I studied supernovae. But you know, walking on stage after "not aliens" is hard.

J: What it does is it diminishes people's excitement and anticipation.

S: Yeah, it's an unforced error on their part.

PP: Yes. That's exactly right.

S: They just, you know what, they need to do a better job of PR. And I don't know what else to say. I mean, it's important. They should not underestimate how important it is to manage the public's enthusiasm for what NASA does, because that's what ultimately funds them, is, you know, if there's not a cold war, it's public enthusiasm for the cool science they're doing. They can't blow the PR!

B: Hey, one thing that I didn’t understand was, how come the next day, within 24 hours, why didn't NASA reply? I didn't see it. It was days and days and days before we heard this. So why didn't they come back a day later? They knew about it. A response, an immediate response, something was required.

J: I totally agree, Bob.

B: What the hell happened?

J: I scour news items every single day of the week and from multiple sources. I'm using Google to assemble things that I'm interested in and NASA and Mars are key words for me. And nothing. They didn't come back with a response. I mean it took a couple of weeks before we started to hear that it wasn't real.

PP: Well, you gotta remember, too, that NASA is a government agency and things have to percolate their way up and it just, it's not the kind of thing, you know. They have to aware of it, they have to talk about it, they have to figure out their best response. It just takes a long time. It's a very conservative organization that way, so I'm not surprised. It's kind of hard for them to come out and say "NO! In fact Curiosity has not found anything exciting." Right? They don't want to say that. So, in some cases it's best just to not worry about it. The problem is whenever somebody says something about NASA it explodes on line. And maybe I'm biased, maybe that's selection effect, because I follow a bunch of people who like science. So on Twitter and these other social media I see a lot of that. Whereas, whatever gems of wisdom fall from Kim Kardasian or something like that I never see.


E: You're missing out. Man.

PP: So, maybe it looks bigger to me than it really is. But it's still big when I write about it and I get 10,000 page views or something like that, that's a lot of people, who are reading the fact that I'm having to say, just, cool your jets for a minute.

J: Well, just on a personal note. I was severely disappointed. I just really got swept up in the excitement of that statement.

PP: I think people in general are supportive of the space program. We've seen lots of polls that show that. And it doesn't have to be. You know "we found life on Mars." NASA kind of thinks that way when it comes to PR a lot. It's gotta be the big story and everything and everything's just hugely hyped. I think a lot of it started with Hubble when Hubble was launched and it was found to be out of focus. And they went into massive, massive, CYA mode. You know, cover your ass. And ever since then every Hubble press release, well, not ever since then, but for years every press release was "THIS IS THE GREATEST THING EVER!" And there may be some lingering wisps of that, but in general, you don't need that every time. There are times when I'm stuff, not everything is the greatest thing ever. Sometimes, just, hey look at this, this is really cool. But I always try to end, every time I talk about Curiosity, I try to end that particular post by saying, you know, don't forget that we have a one-ton, roving, chemical, nuclear-powered, laser-eyed rover, you know, laboratory on Mars, that we sent there. And it's pretty amazing. And that by itself is really cool. I think people, you don't need to tell them why this particular chemical compound is interesting. Just the fact that we're doing it is enough to make people happy.

J: Phil, I agree with you, and believe me, I'm one of those people, I'm right there with you in arms about, look at what we have! Look at what we've achieved.

S: Maybe, Phil, from what you're saying, it sounds like it's sort of bogged down in the bureaucracy.

PP: I think so.

S: They need to have a streamlined PR office that doesn't get bogged down, that can deal with, the news cycle is fast now with blogs and everything.

B: What year is it?

S: They can't have a lumbering press office. It has to be very, very quick.

J: Responsive, yeah.

PP: Well, you know, good luck.


Age of the Grand Canyon (41:43)[edit]

LA TImes: Study challenges presumed age of Grand Canyon

S: Well, let's move on. This is a genuine controversy. It's more of a controversy than I really thought it was before this recent story came out. Jay, you're gonna tell us about the age of the Grand Canyon.

J: Yeah, the Grand Canyon is

E: 6,000 years old. Oh.

J: And so is everything else, so. The Grand Canyon is 280 miles long and it's commonly believed to have formed about five to six million years ago. And it was also, we 've been taught, that it was carved out by the Colorado River over time. Just slowly taking away, taking away, taking away until you have this incredibly huge wonderful canyon. But two scientists recently published these new findings in the Journal of Science. Geologist Rebecca Flowers of the University of Colorado, who, do you know her, Phil?

PP: No, Sorry.

J: You don't know everyone that lives in Colorado?

PP: Sorry. It's a small university, I have no excuse. There's only 40,000 people there or something.

E: They're just news reporters and the occasional entomologist or something.

PP: That's right.

J: She lives in your town, she's in Boulder. She must be within miles of you. Well, anyway. So, Rebecca Flowers and a geochemist, Kenneth Farley of CalTech, found that by measuring helium levels in rocks taken from the western portion of the canyon, they concluded that the gorge was already there and within a few hundred meters of its existing depth. That it is as old as 70 million years. And this is when dinosaurs, guys, were roaming the earth.

B: Wow.

S: The tail-end, yeah, of the age of dinosaurs, yeah.

J: So figuring out with precision when and how the Grand Canyon came to be is a hugely difficult puzzle because there are very few ways for us to collect useful data that can point us in the right direction. And to add to the confusion this latest, these latest findings butt heads with already existing findings. So we're at that stage in the research of the Grand Canyon where the data collection process is happening and we're finding that things are not all pointing in the same direction. And this is very common with studies of anything that, you know, with data coming in from different places and with different methodologies. And it takes quite a while and quite a bit of time and attention to figure out what the actual truth is versus what is just either bad research, mis-findings, misinterpretation of data, all these different things come into play.

PP: Well, obviously if you evolutionists can't even decide how old the Grand Canyon is, clearly, creationism.


S: Right. Could be six million, could be seventy million, therefore it could be 6,000.

E: Anything is possible.

J: No, just in the way that they read, like in this situation they're taking samples of helium that they're reading, and I guess when they analyze these little pieces of rock that they chip away, they're reading the distribution and the density of helium and then just that process alone, you know, where do they collect the rocks from? What rocks do they collect? How are they gathering the information, like what do they do to the rock to figure out how much helium has been trapped in it? And what does the helium density mean? All of that, think about all of those questions. It's just amazingly puzzling,

S: But even if we assume, I was fascinated by this particular item. I've read into it quite a bit. So they were looking at apatite, which is a type of mineral, and the uranium and thorium breaks down into helium. And decays. Radioactively decays into helium. But in the depth of the earth the rock is hot enough that the helium will percolate away. But when it gets below a certain temperature, then the rock will collect the helium, so that's how they can say how long that the rock samples that they have have been at or below a certain temperature, and then they correlate that temperature with how close it was to the surface. So that's the thought process here. There are some assumptions in there, but even if we assume that that chain of evidence is all valid and that the date of 70 million years they're coming up with for the samples of apatite, it still leaves us with a controversy about the age of the Grand Canyon, because that's a very complicated concept. To put this into a little bit more of a background, that part of the United States was under water up until about 80 million years ago. It was a sea. It was an inland sea. And then the ground rose above sea level, essentially, and became dry land as it is now. So for the last 80 million years it's been dry land. At that time, there was a mountain range to the southwest of where the Grand Canyon is now. That mountain range is now gone. It's essentially been destroyed by tectonic activity. And the ancestor to the Colorado River drained towards the northeast, in the opposite direction that it drains now. So, it was a different river, draining in a different way, starting at around 80 million years ago. So these researchers are saying why would we assume that no canyons were being formed back then. Why, suddenly five, six million years ago are we having canyon formation? What happened for 70 million years? The other thing is that, so then, when those mountains went away, what the more modern Colorado River came into being traveling in a southwest direction. So one question is, did the Colorado River entirely carve out the Grand Canyon, or did it just occupy a pre-existing channel? Did the water just flow the pathway of least resistance down channels that were already there? There's also a belief that there's a difference in the age of the western canyon and the eastern canyon. The western canyon is where these ancient mountain ranges were, and that's where this study's samples was from. They were dating the western canyon. It's quite possible that the western canyon is ancient, but the eastern canyon formed more recently by the more modern Colorado River. So there could be pieces of the canyon that are old. But it could have been joined together or expanded or deepened by the modern Colorado River five to six million years ago. So both could be correct. Both lines of evidence could be correct. The history of this canyon could be really complicated. We shouldn't assume that it was all formed at once by a single process. That complexity is probably why we're seeing divergent answers from different lines of evidence. None of this is established to the point, in terms of this new evidence, it's too new to say that we can hang our hat on it and it's absolutely correct, but even taken at face value, it just says the story of the Grand Canyon is more complicated. And that's cool. We're trying to piece together what happened in this part of the country over the last 70 to 80 million years. We may not be able to do it in a lot of detail. A lot of the evidence has eroded away. It's possible that there were canyons cut through strata that have subsequently completely eroded away and those canyons disappeared with them. After reading all of this, I think those that are saying that the canyon was carved five to six million years ago and that's the whole story, I just don't buy that anymore. It just seems too simplistic given everything else that we know now.

B: You know what I can't help thinking about?

S: What's that?

E: Peanut butter?

B: Well, no, that's the first thing. The second thing is that episode of the Flintstones when Fred and Wilma go to visit the Grand Canyon and it's a little tiny stream maybe four or five inches wide. And Fred says "You know they really expect this to become something one day."


PP: I don't remember that at all, that's awesome.

B: Oh, yeah, baby.

PP: It's a living!

Planetary Rings and Moon Formation (49:53)[edit]

ScienceDaily: Planet Rings Could Be Behind the Formation of Solar System Satellites

S: All right. Well, Bob, you're gonna tell us about something else that we're trying to piece together in terms of what happened in the past. This is another astronomical news item, Phil, so I'm sure you're gonna have something to say about it. This one's about planetary rings satellites.

B: Yeah, you know, I really thought we had a pretty decent handle on exactly how moons are formed. And you know, there are multiple ways. Or even rings themselves. I didn't realize how tightly, how tight their relationship could be. And it seems that the rings around planets and moons have an even more intimate relationship than we believed. French researchers have developed and fleshed out a ring-spreading model that can beautifully explain how the vast majority of moons are formed and orient themselves in solar systems. The two primary researchers were Aurelian Crida and Sebastien Charnoz from universities that I will not even attempt to pronounce. Their accomplishment is all the more interesting because it can potentially help us understand two very different types of satellite or moon systems. Think about it, we pretty much have two: the gas giants, Jupiter, for example, and Saturn. They have ring systems and they've got lots of little moons all over the place. And you have the inner terrestrial planets, like the Earth, and they have, you know, we have one moon, one or two moons in the inner solar system for some of the planets, and no ring systems that currently exist. Now, the conventional theories regarding this is that you could have impact by a huge body, like another planet or a planetesimal. A moon can be captured—that's another theory people talk about. And another, the third one was that they coalesced from the gas alongside and around the same time that the parent planet formed. There's a couple problems, though, with these theories. They don't properly account for the location and the compositions of the moons as we, that we see. For example, bigger moons are often farther away from the primary planet, and all the moons are generally farther away than one would think, based on those few theories that I mentioned. So they came up with a model a couple years ago around 2010, twenty ten, and it's based on numerical simulations that they've put together and Cassini probe data, of course, which would be, I'm sure, very, very helpful.

J?: (in a high-pitched voice) Cassini!


B: So, over time, the idea is that over time the rings spread out and they reach a certain distance. The Roche limit, specifically. The rings kind of clump together into small moons and kind of break away and go even farther out. The Roche limit's very interesting; I think we've mentioned this a couple times on the show. This limit is the distance from a planet where the tidal forces allow particles to be bound to each other instead of being ripped apart by the tidal forces. Now this limit depends, of course, on the mass of the planet, the density of the moon, you know, its tensile strength. In other words, is it held together by forces other than gravity? That's, I think that's an important point. And in, this is cool, and in very extreme cases, this can actually cause loose objects, now this is for moons that are very dense, very high tensile strength that are closer than you think they would be able to get to a planet before breaking apart. In those situations the tidal forces can actually cause loose objects just resting on the surface to be pulled off the moon. I'd love to see that. Wouldn't that be interesting? I never even imagined—

S: Not if you were the object, though. (Laughter) Now Bob, it's interesting, because I though, my image was always that moons of large gas giant planets, when they got within the Roche limit they would break apart into a ring system which then eventually would rain down onto the planet. You're telling me the opposite happens, that the ring spreads out and coalesces into a moon. That's weird.

B: That's pretty much what they're saying. And look at the moon. Our moon is moving away, about an inch a year.

PP: I'm not buying it.

S: You don't buy it?

B: No, you're not?

PP: Okay. I should say

B: Say it!

PP: I have not read this paper. The paper is behind a paywall which irritates me greatly.

B: Isn't that annoying?

E: Screw them.

PP: It's not that I don't buy it. It's that, I'm skeptical, as I should be. But I also, without having read it it's hard to say, but it sounds, it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me kinda squirm in my seat a little bit. I have to understand what they mean by "ring system." I mean we know Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus have rings. Neptune has ring arcs. These are tiny ice particles, but there are countless numbers of them, orbiting the planet in a very thin disk. They also talk about the specific mechanism of outside the Roche limit these rings start to coalesce and form moons. Well, we don't think that's what happened with the Earth. Now, maybe this is a semantics thing, but something hit the Earth and blew out a lot of debris. That was a temporary ring, if you want to call it that. I would actually, I might actually call that a disk of material rather than a ring. It was temporary; it was probably quite thick, and it coalesced to form the moon in some models extremely quickly. And it's not that--

B: About a century.

PP: Yeah, in as little as a hundred years, which is incredible. And, that is, that's a little different. I mean, they're talking about having something extrude from the outer extremities of a ring as opposed to the ring itself coalescing into an object. And I suspect those are two physically distinct things. I'm not just splitting hairs here. And it sounds to me like they're also talking about this would have happened when the planets formed themselves. When we know that the moon is about a hundred million years younger than the Earth. And there are a lot of other things. The moon is much less dense than the Earth. It has lighter materials in it, so it seems to fit with the idea that it was an impact that then coalesced into the moon. And there are other problems I have with this. Pluto having rings strikes me as odd.

B: Yeah, that, that's weird.

PP: It just strikes me as odd. I have to think about that. But also, we have, we know that not all moons formed this way because Neptune has, I think it's, god, I want to say it's Neptune, has a retrograde moon. And you can't do that in this way. All the moons would have to orbit the same direction the planet's spinning and the rings are circling. And, why doesn't Venus have a moon? Even a little one. It's closer to the Sun, so it can't have as big of a ring system as the Earth could support, because the gravity of the sun would disrupt it. But it should still have formed a moon this way. See, you start to have to look at the exceptions, and it seems like there are a lot of exceptions. And the Earth's moon is going to be an exception no matter what. No matter theory you have, what hypothesis you use to have a moon formation. I don't know. The current idea of how moons form has enough problems that we need a new theory. In other words, when you have an explanation of something that really seems to do extremely well, and then somebody comes along with an idea that's really different, and maybe doesn't explain as much, you should hesitate, and say "well, I don't know if that's really something we need because we have this other idea that seems to work." It doesn't mean it's wrong, and I'm not saying this one's wrong, just that, without having read the paper, and I'm not even an expert in this sort of dynamics, I wouldn't run away with this idea just yet.

Who's That Noisy? (57:24)[edit]

S: Well, Evan, I think we have a little time this week for "Who's That Noisy?"

E: Okay. I get your point. Very subtle. So let's get right to it. Last week's "Who's That Noisy?" Here it is.

(A long-winded trumpeting sound that changes pitch but is not especially musical.)

E: Yeah.

S: Yeah. It's awesome.

E: That could be a whole host of things. So, we know who Lucy is, in terms of anthropology, correct?

S: Oh, yeah.

E: Lucy's the common name of a skeleton found, the species Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago. According to Marguerite Humeau from London's Royal College of Art. About two years ago she actually created a device that, well, she did a lot of research into it and made it so that we could kind of hear what Lucy might have sounded like. And she, you know, she did a ton of research in regards to this. She constructed synthetic versions of the resonance cavity of Lucy's skull.

S: Yeah, she tried to estimate what the soft tissues would be like based upon human and ape anatomy and the bones.

E: And she was able to create a device that put forth the sound that Lucy likely would have made based on that and that's

S: I'd say that's a huge stretch. It's still a huge stretch, yeah.

E: Look, she took the pieces of the puzzle and tried to put it together and this is what she came up with. For better or worse.

S: It's as close as we can get.

E: And we'll never know for sure. Okay?

S: Yeah.

E: There actually was someone who guessed correctly, who claimed that they saw the article that I actually pulled this from. And, Carl Clark from our home state of Connecticut.

S: Good job, Carl.

E: Well done.

S: And what have you got for this week?

E: Here we go for this week: who's that noisy?

man's voice: In science there's a principle called "Occam's Razor," which means that the simplest explanation for any physical phenomenon is most likely the true one.

S: Okay, well, good one, Evan.

E: But, give us your best guess., is our forums. Give your guess there. Let us know what you think. Good luck, everyone.

S: Thanks, Evan.

Science or Fiction (59:43)[edit]

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science news or facts, two genuine and one fake, and I challenge my panel of expert skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week. And the theme is "Doomsday." All the items have something to do with the end of the world.

E: --a random topic, okay.

S: Yeah. Okay. Everyone ready?

J: Yup.

PP: I'm in my bunker now.

B: Doesn't Phil have an advantage? He wrote a goddamn book on this.

S: Maybe.

PP: I'll be in my bunker.

S: Phil needs an advantage. All right, here we go. Item number one. 2012 saw the warmest July on record, a hurricane season tied for the 3rd most active, and an Arctic ice cap minimum smaller than in any year on record.

B: True! Oh.

S: Item number two.

J: Okay, Richard.

S: NASA warns about "cosmophobia" - fear of astronomy especially among children who have been lead to believe that the universe is going to kill them. And item number three. Despite the fact that there were no major consequences of the Y2K bug, minor computer system glitches were common and were estimated to cost over 2 trillion dollars worldwide. Jay, I'd like you to go first this week.

J: I would be happy to go first. Okay, the first one that gave the stats about the warmest July on record and the third most active hurricane and all that. That's interesting because of the global warming, the pending doom of global warming. I don't doubt it. I don't doubt that. So I'm gonna move on. I tend to think that's true. I love the second one here about NASA's warning about cosmophobia, and you know, all, of course, you know, everyone knows what I'm about to say. It's because of Phil's book Death From the Skies that most of us couldn't sleep for about a month or two. I mean I still get freaked out by the gamma ray blast, like just a (raspberry), like Earth, everything is vaporized in a nanosecond. Thanks, Phil, I really needed to have that in my head.

PP: My pleasure.

J: That was pretty, so I wouldn't doubt that. Okay, the last one about the two trillion dollars worth of computer glitches that needed to be fixed, like the Y2K bug as an example. I don't see, sure, I could see, well two trillion dollars. Not that it cost two trillion dollars to fix the bugs programmatically, Steve, but you're talking like, hey, this thing was screwed up and it screwed these other things up and it cost businesses and government two trillion dollars worth of mistakes and whatnot, right?

S: Yeah, this is after the fact. Not money spent preventing the Y2K bug.

J: This is just the financial aftermath of the Y2K bug.

S: Correct.

J: Okay. I'm gonna say that one's the fake. I don't think it cost two trillion dollars to mop up problems from Y2K bug.

S: Okay. Bob?

B: Start with three, Y2K bug. Two trillion seems a little high, but we are talking worldwide and over a period of time, so I can kinda sorta buy that one. See, the cosmophobia is funny. The universe is going to kill them. That's awesome. Fear of astronomy, though?

PP: You know how many times I was lying awake night in grad school, 'cause of astronomy, so—


B: Okay.

PP: It terrified me.

B: Yeah. All the movies and talk and Phil's damn book, yeah I could definitely see them freaking out. (laughter) To a certain extent. That'd be great if young children--

PP: As sales plummet. Thank you.

B: --read his book. That would be awesome. Well worth the cosmophobia. (laughter)

PP: Too late! You.

B: The first one, there's something wrong with that. Was it the warmest July? I think I kinda remember hearing something about that. The third most active hurricane season? I don't remember that and I'm trying to remember. It doesn't seem quite that active, although Sandy was a helluva super storm. I'm not buying that it was the third most active. And the Arctic cap minimum, yeah, I did read something about that. But the second one I think is, nhh, all right, I guess I'll just have to say that the hurricane one, the 2012 is fiction.

S: Okay. Evan.

E: I didn't hear anything about the hurricane season being tied for third most active? It doesn't sound right. About the cosmophobia. Sure, there's right in our culture and society we don't do really a good job of explaining to our children as well as we should about science and probability and all these things, mainly 'cause a lot of adults don't understand these things either. So, I believe that that's, that that one is correct. The last one, the Y2K bug, two trillion dollars, you're right, Jay, that's a lot of money. Minor computer system glitches were common. I don't know. Recall years ago reading an article about the aftermath of Y2K and they kind of really said it was the dud of all duds. So I think I'm gonna go with Jay, and I think that that one's gonna turn out to be the fiction this week.

S: Okay, and Phil.

PP: Well, as usual, I'm gonna have to guess. And I hate that because I'm always wrong on this show. Well, first of all, NASA warns about cosmophobia. I've been sitting here thinking, I can't remember if it was, I don't think it was Neil Tyson. I wanna say it was David Morrison who talks about that term. He's a friend of mine. He's a NASA astronomer, and he's sort of their lead guy when it comes to doomsday stuff. So he's the one who winds up getting the phone calls from scared kids. And he says he gets email every day from people who are terrified about this 2012 stuff. And I've heard the term before, and I can't remember who said it, but if it was Dave, well, you know, he's a NASA guy, so I'm willing to buy that one. The Y2K thing, I remember at the time thinking, you know this is actually a problem, I don't think it's gonna be huge but, it could cause some grief. And there were some things that happened as I recall but I have no idea what the scope was. So shelving that one for a minute, then going to number one. Okay, 2012 saw the warmest July on record. I believe that is true. I've been writing about this stuff for a long time and after a while we break so many damn records 'cause of global warming, it's hard to remember which month is which. But I am pretty sure that we did have the warmest July for global surface temperatures on record. The Arctic ice cap minimum is true, both for extent and volume. We blew away the 2007 record this year, before the ice started turning around in late September. So I know that part's true. And the hurricane season. I remember reading something about the hurricane season, but I don't remember what it was. And I know Steve. And I know what a nit-picking little bugger he is. And that he'll throw something in, you know: "Here's three things, one of which is mildly wrong, so it's fiction!" (laughter) (Phil makes frustrated noises) So, I don't wanna be caught with my pants down and be wrong about a global warming question.

E: Us either.

PP: Yeah, you say that now. And it's always one of these things where, do you go with the crowd and humiliate Steve, or do you go and be an iconoclast and be the only one who's right and humiliate the Rogues?

B: Uh, uh, I picked one.

PP: Oh, you did?

B: Yes.

PP: I wasn't listening. (laughter) I think, it's funny 'cause I wanna go with three, I wanna go with the Y2K, but I know Steve, and I wanna say number one. Um. And since I just, I just don't know about the hurricane season thing, I think I'm gonna go with the global warming one being fiction. So you heard it here first. Phil Plait says global warming is fiction. (laughter) Oh, my god, that'll be up on every crackpot global warming denier site tomorrow.

E: Slate fires the Bad Astronomer.

S: All right. So, an even split between the global warming stuff and Y2K. Everyone agrees, however, that NASA warns about cosmophobia, fear of astronomy, especially among children who have been led to believe that the universe is going to kill them. This one is absolutely science, and it is also 100% Phil's fault. (laughter) So, Phil, you're right, this was David Morrison.

PP: Okay, good. I thought so.

S: Who wrote the "Doomsday 2012 Fact Sheet." It was actually jointly put out by the CETI Institute and NASA, but it was written by David Morrison, the Director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. And, he writes under the paragraph "Cosmophobia,"

Many young people write to me that they are scared of astronomy. When they read about some new discovery, the first thing they think of is that it might hurt them, even if it is happening in a distant galaxy. There is no reason for such fears, which I call "Cosmophobia," fear of the universe. This rash of concern seems to be the result of too many conspiracy theories and sensational stories featured on the internet and irresponsible news outlets, especially Phil Plait's book Death From the Skies.


PP: Oh, bite me. He did not say that.

S: I may have added that last bit.


E: We will never know, though.

S: He says: "Astronomical objects are so distant that they cannot threaten the Earth. Please don't be afraid of the sun, or planets, or comets, unless they're going to plow into the Earth. The Universe is not your enemy."

PP: Okay. Dave and I have given talks about 2012. And Seth Shostak, and we've been on panels together about this kind of stuff.

S: Yeah. Is he under-calling it a little bit, though? I mean saying that we're not threatened by asteroids. Really? I mean, you're gonna say that?

PP: You know, I've written about this, and I always get to that point where I say "Should we worry or not?" and it's a difficult, how do you say this quickly? There are no asteroids, none, that we know of that are going to hit us. But that doesn't mean that tonight we're not gonna get hit by one a hundred meters across, that'll wipe out a city. We just don't know. So it just, (sigh) yeah, it's a tough one to call.

S: Yeah, I know, I read your book. (laughter) The odds are small, but they're non-zero. I agree with Jay, the one that freaks me out is the cosmic ray burst.

E: The gamma ray burst?

S: The gamma ray burst. Because there's nothing you can do. There's absolutely nothing you can do. You're going to be fried. That's it.

J: The thing is too, we wouldn't even know, Phil, right?

PP: That's right. It would approach us at the speed of light.

S: Well, if it hits the other side of the planet first—

E: You get a couple seconds or something.

S: You get hours, right?

B: Well, guys, don't forget, we're not gonna be burned to a crisp like a laser. If it hits us it's gonna be so far away that yeah, it'll be bad, like we could lose most of the ozone pretty quickly, but it's not like we're gonna be a burning cinder.

S: No, it'll be a slow agonizing death, is that what you're saying?

E: Oh, great, torture.

B: Yeah. It's not like everything will die on the planet either. This is not as horrific—

S: Yeah. The bacteria twenty miles down will live. It depends on how close—

PP: There's none within killing distance.

S: Yeah. As Phil pointed out, there's nothing within killing distance.

J: Phil, before we shift gears, real quick, Phil, which was the thing that you were most afraid of in your book?

PP: The one, you know, I'm most worried about asteroid impacts, because that's the most likely thing. The one that makes the hair on the back of neck stand up are magnetars. They're hugely magnetized neutron stars, and there was one that was 50,000 light years away, so it's literally halfway across the galaxy, decided to throw a hissy fit, and blew out an explosion so huge it actually physically compressed our magnetosphere. And, you know, the magnetic field of the Earth. That's crazy—from 50,000 light years away.

B: Holy shit! Wow.

PP: And if this thing were ten times closer, the effects would be a hundred times stronger.

S: Well let's move on. Let's go to number one. 2012 saw the warmest July on record, hurricane season tied for the third most active, and an Arctic ice cap minimum smaller than in any year on record. Bob and Phil think this one is the fiction. Jay and Evan think this one is science.

E: I actually hope it's the fiction.

S: And this one . . . is . . . don't try to cover your bets, Evan.

E: I'm just saying, it's a bad scenario.

S: And this one is . . . science!

(lots of background chatter)

PP: Now mind you, mind you, I voted for this one only because I don't trust Steve.

S: Yes. Always a bad reason. You're metagaming and that's always a bad way to go.

PP: Yeah, that's true.

S: So July was the warmest July on record since 1895, when we started keeping records. It was three degrees warmer than average. 3.3 degrees above the 20th century average for July.

E: Wow! That's significant.

S: That is significant. The hurricane season, that would seem to be the one that tripped up you guys. So, yeah, there 19 named storms. This is an above-average year. It's tied for third most active season since 1851.

PP: Wow.

S: Tied with several other years.

E: Where there've been so many, you know, they go A through Z in naming them, they start again.

S: Yeah, there's a couple of years where they actually went through the alphabet. We got to Tony this year. And yeah, the Arctic ice cap is a-melting. It got smaller at its summer minimum than in any previous year on record, although we've only been keeping really good records for the last thirty years. But still, it was half the size it was in 1980. Half.

J: That fact alone. That should be it. We don't need to debate whether or not, that there's a temperature change on the planet, just because of that.

E: And the ocean levels have risen accordingly on that?

B and PP: Yeah.

PP: About a centimeter.

B: I think it's a straw man though, Jay.

J: Yup.

B: That's a bit of a straw man. I don't think anyone's really debating whether it's actually warmer. Their main contention is it—

S: Man-made.

E: Human made.

J: Bob, that's not true at all. I mean, without naming names, I have recently spoken to people that believe


J: What? What?

S: (tries to say something but he's laughing too hard)

E: (translates for Steve) Dad.

PP: There was a letter signed by 125 quote unquote scientists,

E: I saw that.

PP: Sent to a right-wing newspaper recently, saying that the world has not warmed up over the past 16 years. That is complete and utter . . . stuff that comes out of the back end of a bull.

S: It's bullshit.

PP: It's, yeah, and, so there are still people trying to argue we're not warming. But in fact, the ice is melting in the North Pole faster than the worst rates that were predicted even a few years ago.

S: Yeah. And the remaining ice is much thinner. Which means next year is gonna be even worse.

PP: Yup.

S: But then, the whole 16-year thing, Phil, I know you wrote about that, a lot of other people have written about that. That's, it's such blatant pseudo-science. What they did was, very quickly, is they, so you have the temperatures jumping up and down on the short scale, and over the long period of time, you know, you could draw a line through it and you can see that it's increasing. So they just took one year where it was at a maximum, and so if you start with that local maximum, and then you look at the current temperature, which is at a minimum, and then they're the same. Can you visualize that? You're sort of taking the top part, if you imagine a graph where the temperatures are going up and down, up and down; you take one peak from 16 years ago, and you compare that to a trough from today, it looks flat. But it's such a blatant graph manipulation.

PP: Right. If you push the past farther back, if you put the left-hand side of the graph farther back, you see that the temperatures are going up.

S: Yeah, it becomes visually obvious. But you don't even have to do that. You statistically analyze it and you can see the trend is still up.

PP: That's right.

S: Even in the last 16 years.

PP: And those are surface temperatures, which are not even the thing you should be looking at. Most of the global warming is going into heating the ocean. And that's very clear that ocean temperatures are going up. So it's all, it's baloney top to bottom.

S: Yeah. But the graph manipulation was galling. It was so blatant. Oh my goodness. All right. That means that, despite the fact that there were no major consequences of the Y2K bug, minor computer system glitches were common and were estimated to cost over 2 trillion dollars worldwide is fiction because not much of anything happened for Y2K. For a very quick background for people who are too young to remember this (laughter) the old computer code only allowed two digits for the date when it was created, what was it, back in the '60s? They figured oh, this code won't still be used forty years from now. So they just had a two-digit date so 1968 was just 68. Of course that doesn't work when you go from 1999 to 2000, 'cause then all the computers were going to think that it was 1900 not 2000, and this was supposed to crash civilization. So companies spent billions of dollars, hundreds of billions of dollars correcting all the code, updating all the code, making it four-digit so that this didn't happen. And when 2000 came around, nothing happened. There were glitches, they weren't widely reported. There are no reliable estimates out there. Some people have speculated that companies just weren't talking about it very much afterwards. So maybe there were things that happened that we don't know about, but I just made up the two trillion dollar figure. I couldn't find any, really, estimates about the cost. Basically the articles were saying nothing happened. If anything did happen it was pretty miniscule. I found some articles complaining about the fact that so much money was spent prepping for Y2K and that that money was wasted because nothing happened. And other articles saying nothing happened because we spent all that money fixing all the code.

B: I remember reading back in 2000 that there were some countries that really did squat, they really did not invest the time or money

S: and nothing happened.

B: And even they (lots of chatter and laughter)

S: I found that article, too. The guy, I think it was in Forbes wrote an article saying AT&T spent $500 billion, half a trillion dollars, making sure that they were Y2K compliant, and these countries in Africa spent not a thin dime, and nothing happened to either of them. But again, I don't know. Maybe they didn't have the infrastructure that would have been vulnerable; I mean, AT&T, if their system went down, that would have been huge. I guess, one of those things we'll never know for sure.

PP: Well what I know for sure is that I suck at this game. (laughter) I can't even remember the last time I was right.

J: Phil, don't worry about it.

E: Don't get down on yourself.

J: Don't worry about, I

PP: It's 'cause I don't trust Steve. That's where I go wrong.

E: Well, then, you know, take a lesson.

PP: Yeah.

S: You have to learn –

PP: Stop trusting my gut and start trusting my head.

S: There you go.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:18:49)[edit]

S: I'm assuming Jay's gonna give us a quote. Jay?

J: Yeah, I'm ready. I mean, are you ready?

S: Yeah, I asked for the quote. That's your cue.


J: Bob, who is Daniel Loxton?

B: He's a good friend. He writes for, he does a lot of stuff for Junior Skeptic, right?

S: Yup, he's published a couple of books. Writes for a skeptic blog. Good guy.

J: He's an illustrator. And he's also, he's a Canadian writer. I don't know why they say he's Canadian.

S: I think it has something to do with the fact that he lives in Canada.

J: He's published two books. Anyway, Daniel and I are friends. He sent me a quote. He finds good quotes every once in a while. He sends me one that he thinks would be great for me to read on the show, and here's the latest quote. This quote is from someone named Joseph Rinn.

When a man eminent in science tells us of something in his particular sphere, into which no fraud can intrude, and which can be verified under scientific conditions, he is entitled to a respectful hearing, but if he states that on a particular night his cow jumped over the post office, his testimony on that point is no more valid than the testimony of other persons. The mere fact that a man is noted in his particular field of research, astronomy, physics, or mathematics, should not be considered as presumptive evidence of his ability to see correctly things outside his experience.

Joseph Rinn

PP: Clearly.

S: Argument from authority.

J: (shouts) Joseph F Rinn!

PP: And everything he says is right.

J: Quickly, who was he, guys? Who was Joseph Rinn?

PP: He had that cartoon with the cat.

S: "Stimpy you idiot." (laughter)

J: That's good, Steve. He was one of Houdini's contemporaries that, he actually was offering $5,000 reward for people that could do a proof of the supernatural, and he

S: Oh, really?

J: Yeah, he was a critical thinker of Houdini's time, and they were friends.

S: Now we've got the million dollar challenge. You know, inflation.

PP: Cool.

Announcements (1:20:44)[edit]

J: Steve, it's time again, NECSS is here. It's coming up soon. I'd like to invite everyone to go to, that's N-E-C-S-S-dot-O-R-G. We just opened up registration very recently and we have an awesome lineup, a lot of very good things going on this year. Bigger and better. New location, which is a huge plus for us. We have a lot more seating, there's a lot more open space. You can see our keynote, Leonard Mlodinow, Simon Singh, Michael Shermer. We have the full lineup of our speakers on the website, which I really hope you can go visit and take a look. I hope there's someone on there that you want to come listen to. We have reduced registration for students, which is 50% less than the general admission, and students need to be sixteen to thirty years old. We have single-day tickets available. We have workshops on Friday, so the dates are April 5th, which is Friday, to the 7th. The actual conference itself is on Saturday and Sunday but the workshops are on that Friday.

S: Yeah, we've really done a good job this year. I mean, I must say. I think it's gonna be bigger and better than it's been in previous years. Really looking forward to it. It's gonna be a great start to the skeptical conference season, if you will. So definitely check it out.

Well, Phil, thanks for joining us this week. This was a lot of fun.

PP: Thanks, yeah, it was fun--

E: Well done, Phil.

PP: --as always.

B: Thanks, Phil.

J: (shouting) I love ya, Phil!

PP: Awww. I love you guys too.

E: We'll check you out on Slate.

PP: And I should throw that out, too, I'm at That's where you can find Bad Astronomy now.

S: Yeah, so update your RSS feed for Bad Astronomy. Well, thanks again, and thanks everyone else for joining me as well.

E: Hey good doctor.

PP: Thanks, Steve.

B: You're welcome, Steve.

S: And until next week, if we're still here, 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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