SGU Episode 395

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SGU Episode 394
9th February 2013
RichardIII bones.jpg
SGU 394 SGU 396
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
GH: George Hrab
Quote of the Week
Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.
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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 Wednesday, February 6, 2013, and this is your host Steven Novello. Joining this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson,

R: Hello, everyone.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello, my friends, how are you?

S: Good. How are you, Evan?

E: I'm doing fine, thank you.

S: Jay is conspicuously absent this week. Jay and his wife, just a couple of days ago had their first child.

E: Yay!

R: Slacker.

B: Baby Dylan.

R: You gonna let a baby get in the way of SGU, come on.

S: He's gotta get his priorities straight.

R: Yeah.

S: So Jay is busy not sleeping, and taking care of his wife and newborn.

E: Yeah, well.

R: . . . poop.

E: He had to know that was coming.

B: He's been practicing for that for years.

R: I wonder if the baby will have Jay's unique abilities to pee.


R: Long distances.

E: Reference from two Dragon Cons ago.

S: We'll have to see.

This Day in Skepticism (1:07)[edit]

R: Hey, so, happy Space Medicine Day.

E: Space Medicine!

R: It's not really a day. But it should be. It could be. I don't know. I just like the phrase "space medicine." Because if you put "space" in front of just about anything it becomes more exciting.

S: Space monkey.

R: Yeah!

S: Yeah.

R: Way better. We should talk about that, by the way. That space monkey that Iran apparently didn't send up. I don't know. That's a whole other thing. (laughter) But, not what I'm talking about.

E: There were pictures. That thing was so cute, in a little suit.

S: Strapped down like it was. Oh my god.

R: Yeah, but he didn't take any Instagrams from space. So, I don't know. But no, today, this day in history, 1949, February 9, 1949, the first Department of Space Medicine was established at a U.S. Air Force academy. The School of Aviation at Randolph Field, Texas. You might be able to guess what space medicine's all about. It's making sure astronauts don't die when they go into space, and all of the many things that entails. The guy who was the first professor of space medicine was Hubertus Strughold, and, at this point, it becomes less fun. Because, he was a horrific Nazi, who did horrible, horrible, horrible things.

S: He was a literal Nazi?

R: He was literally a Nazi. There were documents uncovered during the Nuremberg trials that linked him to really horrific medical experiments on concentration camp inmates.

E: Oh, wow.

R: Yeah, really horrific. U.S. space history is unfortunately littered with Nazis, because that was one of the plunders that the U.S. got after the war, was the brains behind a lot of Germany's advancements. And so one of those was Hubertus Strughold.

S: Well, that's that famous line from The Right Stuff, you know: "Our Nazis are better than their Nazis." The U.S. space program beating out the Russian, the Soviet space program.

R: Right. So, yeah, there used to be an aeromedical library at Brooks Air Force Base named after him, but in 1977, when these documents were uncovered, it was renamed.

S: I betcha the whole field of space medicine really took off after people started going into space.

R: You think? (laughter)

S: Prior to that, not that there was nothing they could do, but I mean prior to that, I betcha it was mostly theoretical work.

B: Kind of like Xenu biology?

R: A lot of dunking people in tanks of water. Things like that. I don't know.

S: I actually have a colleague who, while they were at Yale, they're not there anymore, but they were working on space medicine. They had a grant from NASA and they were suspending rats to see how they, if they, how their anti-gravity walking system would develop if they were raised essentially suspended to simulate zero gravity. The thinking being that if you had a baby born in space and they grew up in zero gravity, they would never develop certain parts of their nervous system that are adapted to gravity.

R: Right.

E: Space baby.

B: And they would duplicate that by hanging them?

S: Suspending them from their rear legs.

B: Suspending them?

S: Yeah.

E: Funny they never got to the human trials for that. (laughter)

B: Didn't NASA have those anti-gravity rooms like they showed in I Dream of Jeannie? Do you remember that?

S: No.

R: No.

E: Anti-gravity rooms . . . I Dream of Jeannie?

S: I remember I Dream of Jeannie.

B: I remember, in a few episodes, they had a room where you walked in, they hit a switch and the gravity was turned off. Even as a kid, I was like, that's baloney!

E: I think that was Barbara Eden just blinking her eyes.

R: She didn't have to blink here eyes, that was Bewitched.

E: A nod and a blink.

S: No, no, Bewitched was the twitchy nose. Jeannie was the blinking of the eyes.

R: Oh, right. She did the crossing the arms.

S: Remember when Jeannie had the drops put in her eyes and she couldn't blink and her magic was on the fritz? Come on.

R: No. I don't remember. Why. . . (garbled) What is with you guys and your encyclopedic knowledge of I Dream of Jeannie?

S: Of attractive magical women?

R: I just remembered what Barbara Eden looked like, so never mind.

B: Major Nelson never availed himself of her talents.

News Items[edit]

Russian Lake Monster (5:30)[edit]

LiveScience: Reports Surface of Monster Lurking in Russian Lake

S: Well, Evan, I understand there's a lake monster in Russia.

E: (laughs) Where did you read that, Steve?

S: The Siberian Times.

E: It's true. It's true, yeah, the world is . . .Steve and everyone, the world is full of lake monsters. And it seems that wherever human beings encounter very large lakes, there's bound to be a reported monster that lives in the lake. For example, we have Nessie, the monster from Loch Ness in Scotland; we have Champ, in Lake Champlain in New York, Wally, from Wallowa Lake in Oregon; and Woodsy from Lake of the Woods in Ontario, Canada. Right?

S: Those are imaginative names.

E: Yes. (he laughs)

B: The better to pull in the tourists, my friend.

E: Yes, exactly. And that leads us into this week's news item about the supposed lake monster of Lake Labynkyr in Siberia. And our friends over at, well, I learned about this from, a really good website. And they informed us this week that a team of scientists from the Russian Geographical Society have reported they found the skeletal remains of an animal that fits the description of the Devil of Lake Labynkyr. Now, you see, you've got to leave it up to a bunch of people in the middle of nowhere of some assemblance of an original name for the creature, right. I mean, I waiting to see if anyone was gonna call it, maybe Labia or Nicker or something.

B: Oooohh!

R: Labia?

E: But thankfully they didn't. Well, you know, for Lake Labynkyr, right? That's about all I could think of. But thankfully they did not do that. (laughter) Thankfully they did not do that. They came up with Devil. Now reports of a lake monster here have, began in the 19th century. The stories have not only prevailed for over a hundred years, but they gained traction to the point where scientists seem to be actively looking for something resembling a monster in the lake. And with the discovery of these remains, they think they might have finally some concrete evidence that something unusual is or was down there. Some accounts of this monster in the lake have put the creature as big as 33 feet in length.

B: That's pretty big.

S: Um hmm.

E: The lake is considered one of the more mysterious lakes in the world because of its temperatures. The temperatures in the area can reach as cold as minus 60 degrees Celsius. Yet the waters in this lake do not completely freeze. They stay at a relatively balmy two degrees Celsius. So, or 36 degrees Fahrenheit. And the folks at the Siberian Times proudly wrote in a recent article that, I quote "Scientists struggle to explain this phenomenon."

S: Are they baffled?

E: No, but they're just struggling, apparently. And for the first time, though, divers have reached the bottom of the lake during these very very cold winter months. So this was some kind of record in that regard, and the dive was made at the request of Yakutsk State University in order to take some footage. They actually brought cameras down to the bottom of the lake, and they also gathered samples of some of the water, flora and fauna. Yet they also apparently found these skeletal remains, right?

S: Oh, good, so we have some hard evidence to examine.

E: Yeee-, exac--, wel—no –o-o-, unfortunately

S: What? But they have skeletons!

E: They did. They saw the skeletons. Unfortunately for some reason they didn't actually bring the bones up from

S: Okay, but they have pictures.

E: Well, suur—of course they have pic--, well, not really.

R: Well, obviously the bones were cursed. They couldn't move them and risk angering Satan. And they probably don't show up on film.

S: Ah! Okay.

B: I'm convinced.

E: What we have are more stories about evidence. Now let's see, where have we heard about this before? Gee, in just about every other paranormal and pseudoscientific encounter.

S: Reports of evidence, but never the evidence itself.

E: Never the evidence itself. Yup. And on the other side of the coin, there are some scientists in Russia that are standing up for reason and skepticism, such as Yury Gerasimov at the Institute of Freshwater Biology at the Russian Academy of Sciences. And he said "If we trust the stories about this 'Devil,' there must be about 1.5 meters [or 5 feet] between its eyes. This means the length of its body must be about 8 meters [or up to 26 feet]," And pike, you know, it's rumored that it's a large pike that grew and grew. But pike don't live so long in order to reach such a big size. In general there are two factors that help fish to grow: nutrition and comfortable water temperatures. So even if the nutrition were perfect there, surely the temperatures were not high enough, so in his opinion the view about a huge pike is a fantastic one.

S: Yeah, so it's an ichthyosaur.

E: Yes.

S: Or a plesiosaur.

E: Oh, whatever pleases you.

S: Or it's a labiasaur. We'll name it after . . .

E: Plus, you gotta think about the plausibility. I mean, how could a creature that large, first of all, evade scientific detection and (b) actually survive in an environment like that? What would its food source be, right? Wouldn't it gobble up most of its limited resources that would be under there? And what about the population? You know, there had to be some sort of sufficient breeding population in order for this thing to even be around in the first place. Where are the evidence of more of these creatures?

S: Well, Evan. What about the coelacanth? They dug that up after thinking it was extinct for millions of years. And how do you know there isn't some underground connection that connects to a larger body of water, maybe even an ocean, that's bringing in an endless supply of food.

E: Those are interesting points, Steve. And, you know, I think, perhaps, some people tie the fact that because this lake does not totally freeze in the very frigid, frigid winter months, is that, scientists are not really baffled so much by this. They do have plausible theories, because it's a region of a lot of seismic activity. Fissures can open up and stuff, leading to warm conditions coming up through the bottom of the lake that ultimately heat the lake so there's perhaps some volcanic activity going on in the region. And yes, Steve, I guess it could open up to, one of these areas could wind up opening up underground to some other regions.

S: Essentially, and I'm throwing this out because that's what's they're saying, the believers, but they're just making that up. They don't have any evidence that there's actually some kind of hidden underground connection to another lake. And even that, I mean, how big could it be, especially if they haven't found it?

E: It's all speculation. There is no solid evidence. And, once again, the legend of this lake monster continues, and will continue.

S: Yeah. Well, like all of them, the issue can be easily resolved by just finding some hard evidence. Skeleton, for example. But it'll never be resolved the other way. How much time has to go by, like with Loch Ness, without finding evidence of the actual creature itself before the mystery mongers will give up? Never, it seems, right?

E: Right. Or people admit to having floated the balsam wood out there and taken the photograph of it, you know, admitted hoaxsters. It doesn’t matter. That doesn't dissuade the true believers either.

S: Yeah. Even if 95% are hoaxes, there's still that five percent that we can't explain.

E: No monsters, no remains of monsters, no monster poop. I mean, come on.

Bones of Richard III (13:01)[edit]

BBC News: Richard III dig: DNA confirms bones are king's

S: Yeah, I mean it's not finding the bones of a long-dead British king under a parking lot, or something like that.

B: Oh, boy. Nice segue. This news item was downright ubiquitous this week. It was crazy. Everywhere I turned, there it was. We're getting emails. Every website I went to, everyone's talking about this. And all because a skeleton was found under a parking lot, or car park. And of course, there's a little bit more to it than that. It's a very special skeleton. In fact, it's been confirmed to belong to England's last Plantagenet king, King Richard III. The final monarch to die on a battlefield, and the death that saw the start of the Tudor dynasty that lasted over a century. Now Plantagenet (pronouncing it Plant' a jen et)

S: It's pronounced Plan TA jen et.

B: It's the family name of a line of kings from Henry II to Richard III, that was from 1154 to 1485 A.D., so very long. So clearly this seems to be a significant bag of bones, if it is King Richard, of course. But my first thought upon hearing this was that, was how can they be so sure that it really really is him and not just somebody who was from that time period, or maybe was just related. So I think the best place to start is with his death. What do we know about how King Richard III died?

R: He needed a horse. (laughter)

E: He died o' moidah.

B: He died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and was said to be buried in Greyfriars Church. The location of which has been lost to history, of course, until now. He was defeated by the Tudor forces, which were half the size of his royal army, which I didn't know. I think they all had phaser rifles or something. That much, minus the lasers, of course, is generally accepted. So does his skeleton support that bit of history? Yes, it does. The skeleton shows ten injuries, eight of them to the skull alone, and they occurred at the time of death. The worst injury was this nasty slice taken off like the back of his head, the back of his skull, probably made with a halberd, they think. And there was a smaller hole a little higher up

S: Oo. Critical hit.

E: Oo. Yeah.


B: Actually, two critical hits. The smaller one they think went fairly deep and was probably caused by a sword. One or both of those most likely caused his death, perhaps instantaneously, if they went deep enough, especially that smaller one. There were also smaller wounds to the head, lots of other ones, plus there were humiliation injuries. Like a pelvic wound that was probably caused by a weapon thrust through his butt. Boy, were they mad at him. Clearly this guy, whoever it may be, died in battle, as Richard was supposed to have. And not from, say, a heart attack or slipping on a banana peel or tripping over a peasant or something. This guy was in battle and it was nasty. So what about the time period, 1485. Is the skeleton that old? And again, the answer is yes. Radio carbon dating places it between the last half of the 15th century and the early 16th century, so that's a perfect match. 1485. Then what about the age of the man's bones when he died? You know if they belonged to a teenager or an old guy, game over. It can't be Richard. And again, Dr. Jo Appleby, who's, she's an osteo-archaeologist from

E: Cool.

B: from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History. She says that the bones belonged to a man in his late twenties or early thirties, which if you know a lot about bones you can pretty much definitively say, just pretty much by looking at them, I think. Richard was 32 years old when he died, so there's another perfect match. This was pretty interesting, another piece of evidence derived from the carbon dating was the fact that this person had a high protein diet. And you might say big deal, but it includes a lot of fish apparently, and that points to a very high status person. In that time, you did not eat a lot of fish if you were a peasant.

E: How do you know he's the king?

?: He ate fish. (laughter)

B: Another thing evident from the bones was a distinct curvature of the spine. This person clearly had scoliosis. And this again matches our modern conception of Richard III. You may remember Shakespeare's play Richard III depicts him as a deformed hunchback. He describes him as "rudely stamped" and "unfinished." In reality, the owner of these bones would not have been as bad as that. His height, his height was probably affected, and one shoulder would have been higher than the other one. And even this makes sense, even though it's not a perfect match to how he's typically envisioned. It makes sense though, because, it makes sense that Shakespeare would exaggerate this. He lived during the Tudor reign, after all. And who would want to piss them off? So in a sense his play could be seen as kind of a, like propaganda of sorts.

S: Mocking Richard III a little bit.

B: for the ruling empire, I mean, that's exactly, that was the story that was being put out there, and he went with it; whether he believed it or not doesn't matter. It just makes a lot of sense that it would be exaggerated. But, it's just not as bad as he's often displayed. Finally there's the king of evidence, DNA. At first it seemed unlikely that DNA would be found, considering the age of the bones. Luckily, though, the conditions under the car park were very good for bone preservation, and they did get some from the teeth and his right femur. And this is really cool: a team of enthusiasts and historians did incredibly difficult and detailed genealogical research, just trying to find out can we find somebody that is clearly part of this family line, and they actually did. They found a seventeenth generation descendant of Richard's sister. And they used her and her son. It's funny because they were, I think it was actually, this was like the last generation because they were no more women in the family, so that line was, is over now. It's not gonna be anymore. So they used, I think they got her DNA, and even though I think she had died relatively recently, they got some of her DNA and the son. And they did a positive match. They were definitely related. But how cool would that be to find out that you're a relative of Richard III.

S: Cool.

B: 'Cause I'm sure they didn't

R: Ehh.

B: What?

R: I don't know. There are better people that I'd rather—


E: --a bit tyrannical.

B: You know, you've got to place him in his time. A lot of kings at that time killed a lot of people in order to get to the top. What we know about him does come from the people that won, you know. And they can pretty much say whatever they want. So he's, I don't think he's

S: Well, this descendant, Bob, he should make a bid to take back the throne for his family. (laughter)

E: Absolutely.

R: I don't think it works that way.

E: You're outta here, Elizabeth!

B: It is a fascinating story, 'cause in my research, of course, I was doing some . . .

S: He needs to like arm wrestle with Prince Charles or something.

B: Yeah, right? It's a fascinating story. So definitely check this out on the web. There's so many angles; there's so many different ways and different aspects to this story. And not just the evidence I've discussed. I mean I found that most compelling, and wanted to talk about that, but there's also, they did facial reconstruction and how that works to find out what he maybe looked like. There's also some controversy going on now about who gets to determine where the skeleton is buried, et cetera. There's lots of different things to look at and learn about this. And if you learn a little bit about history like I did it's be worth it. So check it out.

S: This reminded me. Do you guys remember this? Hurricane Sandy, back in October.

B: What is the connection?

E: I kinda remember it.

R: Yeah, I think I do remember it.

S: Upturned a tree in the New Haven Green

E: Yes.

S: A really old oak tree. And a woman looking at the roots underneath the tree saw a skeleton, like embedded in the roots of the tree.

B: Cool.

E: So cool.

S: And it turned out to be a 200-year-old skeleton. The story is that there was a graveyard on the Green, and just like in the movie Poltergeist, they moved the headstones, but they left the bodies behind

B: Nooooo!

E: Whaaat?

S: when they turned it into a green. So there's like hundreds of bodies under the Green in the middle of New Haven.

B: How awesome is that?

R: Creepy.

E: That was a spooky movie, too.

S: Yeah, and this one just happened to be underneath this famous old oak tree. Pretty cool.

B: Excellent.

E: Hey, Bob, I have a question.

B: Yeah?

E: Is now the winter of our discontent? (laughter)

S: What's the next line?

E: Made glorious summer by this sun of York; And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

S: Very impressive.

E: Bosom. Bosom.

B: So many plays on words there, it's great.

Scientific Genius (21:36)[edit]

Scientific American: Is the age of scientific genius over?

S: So, there's an interesting article in Nature and which was then further discussed in Scientific American, which I came across. And it asks a question that has come up a little bit on this show before, and that is: Are there scientific geniuses today or will there be again, like there was in the past? So will we have another Newton, Darwin or Einstein? Or is the age of the scientific genius simply over? What are you guys' thoughts about that.

B: Yeah, Steve, this absolutely reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould's book, Full House. He discusses this idea in relation to the disappearance of .400 hitters in baseball and he goes over lots of the theories. The bottom line was that everyone is just so close to the wall of maximal performance that it's very hard for somebody to stand. 'Cause everybody is just so damned good at it that

E: That's where steroids come in.

B: Well, yeah, the steroids actually move that wall a bit , so you're right, you can stand out. But I would think it would be similar, Steve, that our technology and our theories are so cutting-edge and refined over the decades that it's so hard for somebody to really extend themselves that much farther. But I think, it's not a perfect analogy of course, because all you really need is a new theory, a new way to look at things, and you could really transcend all the other theories. But that's my thoughts, immediately, when you said that.

S: So a few things that are brought up in this discussion as to why aren’t there Darwins and Newtons today. One is the notion of just the fact that we've picked the low-hanging fruit. You can only relativity once; you can only discover that DNA is the molecule of inheritance once or the notion of natural selection as a major mechanism of evolution. So once you establish these basic area disciplines, basic areas of science and all the big revolution occurs that further foundational discoveries or truly revolutionary discoveries become more and more rare.

R: I would just like to pause so I can briefly quote Steve for the record: low-hanging fruit: Steve referring to Einstein's theory of relativity. (laughter)

S: Well, that's the name of this theory that the notion that, the sort of the big questions that were hanging there, we've already sort of plucked those. Now, scientists are chasing more and more finer revisions of those theories. But they're not going to make discoveries that big again. You know, 'cause they're just not there to be had. Some scientists say that there are no crises in different fields that were similar to the crises in physics that were resolved by relativity and quantum mechanics, for example. Although they say that physics really is the one area where there is still a major crisis, trying to

B: Oh, yeah, many of them.

S: resolve the, for example

E: Dark matter.

S: Well, yeah, so, there's still major mysteries out there like what is dark matter, but also just trying to resolve gravity and the other forces

B: Quantum gravity

S: Yeah, quantum mechanics and relativity. You know the theory of everything, string theory versus quantum loop gravity, so those are sort of big fish still hanging out there. But most other disciplines are chasing finer and finer revisions of basic concepts that have already been well established. Another factor is the fact that science is, and this probably relates most closely to what you were saying, Bob, about Gould's point, although I don't think it's, I agree, it's not an exact analogy. But the notion of the lone scientist, self-funded, working in their garage or their basement, making major scientific discoveries, it's just, the world just doesn't exist, work that way anymore; that science is

B: Interdisciplinary.

S: Yeah, it's interdisciplinary, it's often high tech, it's collaborative. You know, it's communities of scientists working together, each adding a little piece to a bigger puzzle. Think about it, like, Darwin, working for decades, by himself and finding

B: It won't happen. It literally won't happen.

S: Literally couldn't happen. You cannot work for decades and not get scooped by twenty other people, who are working on the same problem.

B: And Darwin almost did. Darwin almost . . . Wallace . . . hello.

E: Yeah, he was hesitant until he, yeah.

S: He really took his time. The situation is not the same as it was back then.

R: Those are all reasons why we might not get other great scientists the likes of Einstein and Darwin. But there's really no evidence that that's going to happen. I mean, it hasn't been that long since Einstein. And I don't think that we can take a span of fifty, sixty years and say "Well, we haven't seen another Einstein. . . "

S: We're pushing a hundred years, if you're talking about relativity, though, Rebecca.

R: Yeah.

S: But you're right. It's still

B: Special was 1905.

S: Yeah, it's not enough time. Yeah, it was 1914 for general, or 1915?

B: Yeah.

E: 15.

S: 1915. Two years, it'll be a hundred years from general relativity.

E: We should celebrate (garbled) (laughter)

R: Cake!

E: Relativistic cake, yay!

S: So, but you're right. I totally agree with you. We need a longer period of time to see if this trend continues. I do think that the fact that the way science works, this notion of you start with very broad brushstrokes. And when we first started investigating the universe with scientific methodology, all of the classical about how things work were all systematically overturned. So there was all these revolutionary new scientific ideas establishing basic disciplines and basic notions about stuff. Again, once you largely are through that phase of science, now we're into the institutionalized, almost industrialized, science. We have communities of people working often in institutions like universities or in collaborations, making incremental advances themselves, but combining together to produce these greater and greater detailed refinements on existing knowledge. This also relates, Bob, to a discussion that you and I have had a number times, and that is the nature of scientific progress. Whether or not it follows the singularity type of model or paradigm, where scientific advance accelerates geometrically.

B: Or exponentially.

S: Or even exponentially. Or you get to the point with certain disciplines of diminishing returns where it takes more and more work to make smaller and smaller advances. That's the low-hanging fruit hypothesis. So I think that both are kind of true at the same time. I don't think those are exclusive ways of looking at things.

R: And not even just small advances, but I think you could say that if somebody works their entire life to, for instance, figure out dark matter, that's different than what we currently think of as the great scientists of the past who tackled many different subjects and produced many different kinds of results. As opposed to like, I do feel like, we're gonna have plenty of scientists that we look back on and we say "Oh, that guy was brilliant because he led the team that figured out dark matter." It's just not quite the same as "Oh, he's the guy that figured out 18 different things we didn't know about mathematics before."

S: Yeah. Exactly. That's another thing, you look back at some of the scientific figures in centuries past, like astronomers and whatnot, who contributed in many many different areas, and not just in one narrow area. So that's another thing, scientific experts are getting more and more narrow in their focus, 'cause you have to be. You have to be incredibly narrow in order to stay at the cutting edge of whatever it is you're researching. You can't be a master of multiple different disciplines. It's just not possible. All right, well, it's very interesting discussion, but let's move on.

Without Fear (30:08)[edit]

The Raw Story: Fearless brain-damaged patients are terrified of suffocation

S: As I said, Rebecca, you're gonna talk to us about a bit of neuroscience in the news, actually, having to do with brain damage and fear.

R: Yes I am. As the neuroscience expert here on the podcast, I figured that I would tackle this.

E: Um hm.

R: Okay, no. But I love this because this falls into my file of jobs that I wish I could do. And the job is this: you take some patients; they have a particular type of brain damage; it involves lesions on their amygdala, and the amygdala is responsible for many things, obviously. But one thing in particular seems to be responsible for feelings of fear and anxiety. So you're a scientists; you get these people, just a couple of them because it's a pretty rare condition. Their amygdalae are tiny, shriveled and they no longer can sense fear. They don't get afraid. So your job is to scare the crap out of them. Any way you can.

B: I could do it. (laughter)

R: Well, for a very long time, they failed. There was one patient in particular, known only as "SM" who apparently, a researcher found just wandering down the street in traffic, because she was not afraid of getting hit by a car. And the researchers took them and they took patients like SM and they took them to haunted houses

B: Cool.

R: They showed them spiders and snakes. They showed them horror films. They did everything they could think of

S: Put a gun to their head.

R: Yeah. Literally putting them in situations where they might feel as if their life was in danger. And, yup: nothing. So first of all, super-fun job. Things got really interesting recently, though. Researcher knew about this one particular technique that you can use to induce panic attacks in people with anxiety disorders. And you can do that by having them breath in carbon dioxide, a higher rate of carbon dioxide than normal. And, in people without anxiety, apparently this doesn't really do much. You breath a bit more. People with anxiety disorders it almost immediately triggers a panic attack. So they decided that they would do this to the people with the damaged amygdalae. Because, their hypothesis was, this is a fear response, and therefore our patients should not have any response to breathing in the carbon dioxide. So they had them breathe it in through a mask, and what they found, much to their shock, was that the brain-damaged patients immediately became super panicky. Even more so than a control group of participants who did not have this type of brain damage.

B: Scaredy-cats.

R: Well, they asked the patients with brain damage how they felt, and they described feeling as though they were about to die. And some of them had never felt fear before in their lives. SM in particular had never felt afraid before.

B: Whoa.

R: The others hadn't felt any kind of fear in decades. So, you can imagine; no, you can't imagine. How would that feel to be afraid for the very first time?

E: Terrifying?

R: It must have been absolutely terrifying. Yeah. That is how they described it right afterwards. They described it, when they put themselves back in that moment, they described it as being unlike anything they'd ever felt before, and that they literally feared for their lives. Super interesting thing, though, is what happened later on. They did this test over the course of two days. And so they brought the patients back on the second day, and before they did the test again, they asked them "What do you feel going into this?" Knowing what happened yesterday, or whatever, the previous day, how do you feel? And all of them were completely nonchalant. (She laughs) They'd completely lost any fear that they had felt in relation to the mask. And so they went through it again, apparently, and again all of them completely freaked out and feared for their lives. So, what does this all mean? Well, it could mean a lot of things. Some of the things they think it might mean: our fear response is a bit more complicated than originally thought. Apparently the amygdala isn't the only thing responsible for triggering fear responses in all cases. There's a difference, apparently, between different types of things we're afraid of. For instance, the carbon dioxide mask causes a different physiological reaction than just showing somebody a snake, having them handle a spider or something. And so our bodies, our brains, react differently to those different stimuli. They also said that there could be something to the idea that the amygdala might be responsible for stopping panic attacks from happening, which could help in studies on people with anxiety disorders. So there are a lot of different directions they can go in, but it's obviously going to require a bit more research. But yeah, I thought it was a really cool experiment, and I want that job. I want my job to be scaring people who don't get scared. Steve, what do you think?

S: Yeah, that's cool. Let me give you my quick primer on the amygdala and the whole

E: Aah, what do you know?

S: So it's actually very interesting. Very quickly, the amygdala is part of the limbic system, or limbic lobe, if you will, which is involved with emotion processing and also tied very closely to memory, which makes sense. The amygdala itself is involved with emotional processing, not just fear and anxiety. In fact, people who have these kinds of lesions of the amygdala are generally very flat in affect. They're not just fearless, they're also tend to be a little emotionless.

R: And they also have trouble detecting emotions in others.

S: Exactly. The ability to detect emotions in others is also apparently processed in the same location. The thalamus is the sensory relay part of the brain and very close to the amygdala. The thalamus gives sensory information to the amygdala. And that includes vision, hearing, smells, but also visceral information, from your body. So if you feel discomfort in your body, that also can trigger a fear response. That information also goes to the cortex, and the cortex communicates to the amygdala and the amygdala communicates back to the cortex as well. So, imagine this. You see something out of the corner of your eye that could be threatening, and you have an immediate startle response. That's a fast circuit between your thalamus and your amygdala. Right, so you get this immediate sensory information, it could be a threat so you have a startle response. At the same time, the information's going to your cortex to evaluate the information. And then you realize more slowly, oh, this is nothing to be worried about. It's not a snake, it's a garden hose, for example. So that's why you may startle quickly over something that you then realize is not really a threat. We can actually see why that's the case, because of the circuitry in the brain and how long it takes to process things. The amygdala is also responsible for the memory of emotion. Because it makes sense that you should remember that you're afraid of something so you don't have to learn it every time, and that's why, Rebecca, these people had no memory of their prior fear

R: Aha.

S: Their amygdala's not working, they can't remember the fear response, so it's like they're starting afresh each time. What this adds, this extra bit adds, is that there's gotta be some other circuit that bypasses the amygdala that could then stimulate the fear processing in the cortex, 'cause we experience fear in the cortex, not just in the amygdala. The amygdala's processing and triggering it and regulating it and remembering it, but we experience it partly in the cortex. And so there must be either some other circuit, you know, through this carbon dioxide response, that could do that. Or, just some other way of stimulating the amygdala or those other circuits that is surviving in these patients. They essentially have calcifications that build up in their amygdala, so it hardens and doesn't work very much. But, I don't know if it's a hundred percent gone or not.

E: Do we know about what other effects high levels of carbon dioxide have on the brain? It that established?

S: There's lots of physiological effects. Primarily it is the primary thing that drives your respiration. If you take a deep breath and hold your breath, after whatever, a minute or two, depending on your conditioning, when you're desperate to breath, that's because of high CO2. It's not because of low oxygen. You're actually exchanging oxygen just fine for a long time. It's because you're not moving, you're not blowing off carbon dioxide. It's a much more powerful respiratory drive. So, that's the primary thing. It also dilates blood vessels and has a ton of other physiological effects, but

R: That's actually really interesting, because that explains, I guess, why, when you're a kid and you're holding your breath under water with your friends, I found that, if you're trying hold your breath a little longer it makes it easier when you start blowing air out of your lungs. Like at the very end.

S: Yeah.

R: It feels like a release. It feels much better.

S: Also, exhale as much as you can, and then hold your breath.

R: Yeah.

S: Doesn't last quite as long because then you don't have any air in your lungs to exchange oxygen and so the oxygen drive kicks in much more quickly. But when you take a deep breath, it's the CO2 drive that's kicking in first. But, yeah, very cool. Be interesting to follow this to see what this ultimately leads to in terms of, again, fleshing out the circuitry in the brain.

Feathered Dinosaurs (40:40)[edit]

Neurologica Blog: Transition Denial and Feathered Dinosaurs

S: One more quick news item. We've spoken in the past about the whole feathered dinosaur thing. One of my favorite areas of paleontology because, well, dinosaurs are cool, birds are cool, and birds are dinosaurs, right? And this is also, in my opinion, one of the biggest home runs for evolutionary theory. Birds as a group seems pretty isolated from any other group. Yes, they're vertebrates, and they're related to other vertebrates, but they seem pretty distinct from other vertebrates. They fly. They have feathers, et cetera. And so the feathered dinosaurs significantly fills in the space, the evolutionary space, between non-avian dinosaurs and birds. And so it's exactly what you would predict from evolutionary theory that they must be connected to some other group somehow, and lo and behold, we found all these fossils. Which is cool in that dinosaurs like velociraptor, like, you know, from Jurassic Park, for example. They had feathers. Now we have to completely reimagine what that whole group of theropod dinosaurs looked like. Many of them had feathers.

E: Oh. I smell a remake. (laughter)

R: No, you could just George Lucas it. Go back and do a special edition.

S: Redo the CG.

B: CG overlay.

S: Paleontologists recently discovered another species of feathered dinosaur, again in China. There's a huge deposit of, I guess there were a lot of feathered dinosaurs, _____________, at that time and location, and paleontologists are finding more and more of them. This one is called eosinopteryx brevipenna, which means red and stubby-winged. And he's one of the smallest, a very tiny little guy. A beautiful transitional species. Absolutely beautiful. Looks like a dinosaur: bony-tail, clawed fingers, feet made for running, teeth; except it has feathers. It had feathers all over its body. But it could not fly, its wings were too stubby to fly. So, again, it's beautifully transitional between non-avian dinosaurs and birds. But, of course, that's not a problem for people like Ken Ham from Answers in Genesis who writes:

R: Two more gaps!

S: Not even. Worse than that. He says:

Now, one headline described the fossil as [quote unquote] 'almost birdlike' and the authors of the report in Nature Communications note many features the fossils share with living birds, particularly those that live on the ground. In fact, Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell and Dr. David Mentin, [both doctors from Answers in Genesis, mind you ] both examined the photos of the fossil and the criteria the authors used in classifying the fossil as a dinosaur. They agreed that it is a bird, not a feathered dinosaur.

(garbled reactions)

R: Doh. I mean the creationists looked at some photos and (garbled)

B: There you go.

S: Yeah, and the article notes features it shares with living birds, and other features it shares with dinosaurs! That's why it's transitional. 'Cause it has some bird-like features and some dinosaur-like features. Bony tail, teeth. It lacks all of the evolutionary adaptations to full flapping flight, which all birds have. So, the thing is not just a regular ordinary bird. It is a feathered dinosaur. It's just ridiculous. But what it shows is there is essentially no limit to the denial of transitional fossils that the creationists can do. Complete and utter denial, and it's just mindless.

R: I picture those quote unquote doctors going to their desk and just like opening up the paper and just going "Sh-i-i-i-i-i-i-t!"

S: Yeah, me too. Me, too. Seriously, that's like the one thing, there's like, it's gotta bother them.

R: Yeah, every day.

S: What are they gonna say about this one? Look at the thing? Oh, it's clearly a dinosaur with feathers. How are we gonna rationize that away?

E: Yeah. How do I explain that god created that?

S: Down deep, somewhere deep in their psyche they've got to be bothered by such stunning evidence that they're wrong. It's hard to imagine. But, you know, never underestimate people's abilty to rationalize and compartmentalize, et cetera.

R: Yeah.

E: Um hm.

S: Unbelievable.

Who's That Noisy? (45:08)[edit]

Answer to last week: Carl Sagan, Cosmos

S: Well, Evan, you have to catch us up on Who's That Noisy?

E: I do in fact have to do that, and I will play it for you right now, the Who's That Noisy? from last week. Here we go.

(child's voice) If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

S: Very nice. A very recognizable line. Most people, I think, recognize that as

E: They sure did.

S: Carl

S and B: Sagan.

E: Carl Sagan, yup, from the Cosmos series, episode 9, The Lives of Stars. It is the opening line. It is a wonderful, wonderful series. And it is a series that my daughter, Rachel, really, really admires and has taken quite a liking to. She watches it I would say almost every day.

B: Whoa.

E: Yeah, well, I would say it's kind of

B: What a geek!

E: It's, she's got a DVR in her room, and a TV and she, every night before she goes to sleep, she wants to watch a little bit of what Carl Sagan has to say. So it puts her in the right frame of mind for a nice night of sleep and dreams. And she's actually picked up quite a few things from that. Not bad for a 9-year-old.

S: I've exposed my daughters to it as well. And they've watched a lot of it, and I think they're interested in it, but they're not in love with it. They complain about the fact that it looks so dated.

E: Yes.

S: They're so spoiled, like, oh, the special . . . that's ancient to them. They're having a hard time getting past that, which is disappointing. But I guess we'll have to wait for Neil deGrasse Tyson's remake of the series.

R: In the meanwhile you could pick of Brian Cox's series, Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System.

E: Yes.

R: Which are really well produced.

E: Yeah, until the new Cosmos series gets launched, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, with Seth MacFarlane as executive producer. That is going to be quite a epic series in its own right. I'm sure it'll be fantastic. And yes, a lot of people caught the fact that that was, in fact, a Carl Sagan quote. Nobody picked up that it was my daughter Rachel actually saying the words, but that's okay. I went ahead and put everyone in who said it was the Carl Sagan quote. I put them into the drawing for this week.

S: Aren't you generous, Evan.

E: Yeah, well, you know, I like to share the love with as many people as possible. This week's winner is Adam Bellows. So Adam, congratulations, you are in the final drawing at the end of the year, in which you might be joining us on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe to participate in an episode of Science or Fiction. So congratulations, Adam, and thank you everyone for answering.

S: And now I anxiously await this week's Who's That Noisy?

E: As do I. I would like for the audience to identify the person who is talking. Here we go:

(Woman with English accent) I love oxygen because it plays such an important role in keeping alive the terrestrial animals on this planet.

S: I'm quite partial to oxygen myself.

E: Yeah, I've gotten used to it over the last 43 years or so. Well actually, 44.

S: It does a body good.

E: So, it's a bit, I don't know, a bit nondescript, but maybe some people will pick up on maybe a little hint here or there and figure it out. Go ahead and send us your answer. is the email we've set up for Who's That Noisy? answers. Or you can go ahead and post your answer on, that is our forums. I wish everyone the best of luck this week.

Questions and Emails (48:46)[edit]

Question 1: Tuesday Boy (48:46)[edit]

Follow up to WTN from last week

S: Now, Evan, we had a bit of a lively discussion about the puzzle answer that we discussed last week, the boy born on Tuesday puzzle.

B: Oh, boy.

E: Oh, my goodness. Lively discussion, yes indeed. I'll just say a few things, though. I read a lot responses, especially those on the forums and people who sent in emails and certainly they were also posting them on Facebook. And there's room for interpretation, shall we say. I get some of the points that some people are making that there is ambiguity there. That you can read a few different things into it, and therefore, perhaps, come up with different answers. Some people who started with being so sure, though, that, they were sure this was like 50 percent. No difference. Half. Exactly half. And they sort of went through a process of working it out themselves and conferring with other people, reading what other people had to say, and doing their own back-of-the-envelope calculations. In fact there are some beautiful graphics and things that people posted on the forums, actually, in an attempt to help explain this. Some people sort got the point that 13 over 27, 13 out of 27, or 48.1 percent, might be the most correct answer of the possible answers to this particular puzzle. Would you guys say that that's kind of a fair interpretation of how that evolved?

S: Well, some listeners thought that the questions was ambiguous because saying "I have one boy born on a Tuesday means that both boys could not have been born on a Tuesday, but that's actually irrelevant. That's not the case. The reason you come up with 13 out of 27 instead of 14 out of 28 is because you can't count both boys being born on a Tuesday twice. It was, what you would have to do in order to get to the 14 out of 28 calculation. So, the answer is 13 out of 27, no matter how you interpret it. But that still also doesn't alter the fact that saying, if you say "I have two children, one is a boy, what's the chance I have two boys?" The answer if one-third. As opposed to saying "I have two children. The first one is a boy. What's the chance that I have two boys?" And that's fifty percent. Which is interesting, and that sort of gets to set theory and how you come by the information and how that alters the later odds.

E: What I'll do this week, because I solicited the advice of a few professional mathematicians,

S: Aah, what do they know?

E: Aah, what do they know? And, on the message boards this week, and once the show notes go up, and the forum thread begins, I'll go ahead and post a couple of those responses we got, just to share with other people and how they arrived, these mathematicians basically said that the 13 over 27 answer is the correct one. And let the debate sort of continue online, and let the exchange of ideas continue to flow. It's very healthy, I think. This is a very healthy exercise in that regard.

S: So you're saying don't complain to us, read what the mathematicians have to say.

E: Yeah, well, I'm kinda just the messenger here. I'm not a mathematician by any stretch. I had to rely on other people, and certainly also, Martin Gardner presented this way back, several years ago, and he's one of the most famous puzzle spinners out there. So I was thinking, hey, if it's good enough for Martin it's probably gonna be good enough for me and most people. But we'll let people continue to talk about it.

S: Okay. Thanks a lot, Evan.

E: Yup.

Interview with George Hrab (52:25)[edit]

Quick chat about NECSS 2013 -

S: Joining me for a few minutes now is George Hrab. George, welcome to The Skeptics' Guide.

GH: Oh, it's so nice to be back.

S: How long has it been? Weeks?

GH: Oh, it's been long. It's been long. Yeah, weeks, yeah, minutes, days. It always seems like minutes. So he's back again? Oh, great.

S: Always love chatting with you, but we're bringing you on tonight, just for a few minutes, so that you can tell us about the exciting new developments with NECSS.

GH: Well, we've been plotting, and we've been conniving, and we've been determining what we can do to make the Friday night of NECSS not only spacial, but extra-spacial. In years past it's been kind of a separate event, so last year we had the story collider, in years past it was sort of different stuff, and this year we thought, wouldn't it be interesting if we could get some kind of a performance, but not just a performance. Something that involves and includes the themes of NECSS. And what we've come up with is a program that's called Stimulus-Response. And this is a, we're calling it a nexus of science and improvisation. A question I often, probably the most-asked question, apart from clothing advice, that I get, is where do ideas come from? How do you write a song? Where do you get the inspiration? How does it work when you're writing music, when you're creating art? What happens? And pretty much my answer almost always is, I have no idea.

S: Right.

GH: What this evening is gonna sort of talk about and address is maybe, slightly kind of answer that question, as to what's going on neurologically in the mind of an improviser. It's a kind of a cool idea. And the event is gonna be sort of a three-part, three-act thing. The first act is gonna me and my cousin, Roman Hrab, is a professor of art at Bard College. He and I are gonna take the stage for the first act and I'm gonna improvise and build this real-time massive piece of music. Sort of a 45-minute improvised symphony. Sort of using loops and using all kinds of stuff to make this one-of-a-kind unique in-the-moment piece of music, and Roman is going to paint a huge mural in front of everyone, from a blank canvas to a finished piece of art in that time. I'll see what he's doing, he, of course, will hear what I'm doing. And we'll be kind of inspired and set up by each other and whatever happens, happens. He and I have done this in the past. It's some of the most satisfying performances I've ever been involved in have been doing these kind of art and music projects. So going from a complete blank canvas and a quiet room to a finished piece of art and a 45-minute constructed symphony is the goal. That's the first act. The second act, then, we're gonna get, not only Roman and me, but, the people that will be in act three, which will be improvising comedians, we'll get them together, as well as some specialists that know how the brain works. I don't know where we could find anyone who would be a specialists in, you know, neural. . . do you know anybody? Maybe you know

S: Yeaah. I do know people who actually study the brain and who know the brain.

GH: Oh, cool. So if you could, maybe we can talk later. We can figure

S: Yeah. Might be able to give you a hook-up there.

GH: Well, obviously we'll have a great panel. We're gonna sort of try and discuss: what's going on? What's happening in the brain in the moments of improvisation. What do we think is happening? That's gonna be like a 20-minute sort of panel. Maybe some questions, some answers. And then the third part, the big finale, act three of this, is going to be those improvising comedians, who are going to sort of build a comedic scene, or a sequence, using a inspiration from a noted NECSS attendee, shall we say. I don't want to give anything away yet. 'Cause we're not a hundred percent done, but it'll be sort of like a day in the life of a famous NECSS attendee. And this'll be done; it's members of the Upright Citizens Brigade as well as some other well-known New York comedic improvisers. So, everybody has seen Whose Line is it Anyway? It'll sort of be like that, but "Whose Brain is it Anyway?" That's the approach. So it's gonna be a three-act thing. I think it's gonna be really, really interesting and different from what you normally see at conferences like this. I know, I can't think of anything else that's been done that's quite like this at NECSS, let alone any other skeptic or science or critical thinking conference. I'm really excited.

S: Yeah, it sounds really cool. I'm looking forward to it myself. And there's gonna be some audience, a lot of audience participation.

GH: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Some of the suggestions for the improvising will be taken from the audience. As well as we might have, we might incorporate a Twitter stream into the music that I'm creating. So that I can, maybe I'll get lyrics tweeted to me in the middle of doing something. I'll have to come up with a melody to sing to someone's . . . we're not exactly sure, but there's gonna be all kinds of involvement. And, the most extra special thing about this is the fact that it's going to be a unique, one-of-a-kind experience. This will never be repeated again. What happens on that night will never be repeated again. And it's gonna be monstrously unique and difficult and there's a chance that it might not work. Which is sort of the fun of an experience like this and sort of the fun of doing a performance like that. Kind of the no-knack living on the edge. I have to mention Brian Wecht, of course. Brian Wecht who did the Story Collider last years, and organized that. He's a major, he and I kind of came up with the structure. So I wanna sort of thank him for what he did. I'm, like I said, I'm really selling this, but I'm really excited about it because some of the most satisfying music I've ever created has been in the moment, improvising under pressure. And I think it's gonna be a fun, different kind of experience.

S: Sounds awesome, and this is Friday night of NECSS. April 5. So people can sign up for this as they would for NECSS itself or for any of the workshops or any part of NECSS.

GH: Exactly.

S: And you and I are running a workshop together during the day on Friday.

GH: Oh, that's right! Yeah, yeah. Sort of, how to send your message across in podcasting.

S: Podcasting and other social media.

GH: Yes.

S: So I guess between now and then you and I have to learn something about podcasting.

GH: I'll probably start a podcast. If you wanna start a podcast, and we'll just see how it goes.

S: Yeah. All right, George.

GH: Nice.

S: Talk to you later.

Science or Fiction (58:57)[edit]

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction.

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

B and E: Yup.

E: (rolling the "r") Ready.

S: Okay. Here we go: Item #1: A new systematic review concludes that CT scans in young patients may pose a greater increased risk of cancer than the diagnostic benefits they provide. Item #2: New research shows that people have greater happiness and sense of well being as they age, regardless of when they were born. Item #3: A recent review of research involving 122 personality characteristics finds no significant difference in male and female profiles. Evan, go first.

E: The first one, about the systematic review concludes that CT scans in young patients may pose a greater increased risk of cancer than the diagnostic benefits they provide. Wouldn't that be awful? Greater increased risk of cancer. I'm gonna wrap my mind around that a bit, and probably come back to it, Steve. I'll go on to the next one. New research shows that people have greater happiness and sense of well being as they age, regardless of when they were born. I could see that as being true, certainly. Your set of life experiences, perhaps, plays an overall role in that. Regardless of when they were born; that's the key part of this, which may indicate that they've tested this before, done studies on this prior, and there have been, perhaps, differences indicating when certain people were born. Those certain people do have a greater sense than others. The last one: A recent review of research involving 122 personality characteristics finds no significant difference in male and female profiles. No significant difference. To me that's kind of the most fascinating one of the three of these. I'm thinking that that one is gonna wind up being true. Happiness one, greater happiness and sense of well being as they age, regardless of when they were born. No, I think there'll wind up being differences there. If this is in fact the way the evidence has panned out. I'll say the happiness and sense of well being one, Steve, is the fiction.

S: Okay. Bob.

B: The CT scans. Why would age (garbled) I kind of think that, from what I've read in the past that the younger you are the better you are able to heal and come back from any type of damage. So why would . . . but then there's other unique aspects of being young that could contribute. Aah, man, that one's tough. Happiness and sense of well being. Yeah, I don't know. I'm not even sure I agree with the idea, the kind of like the premise that the older you are, your sense of happiness and well being improves as you get older. I'm not even sure I agree with that. The 122 personality characteristics. That one makes the most sense to me. It kind of reminds me of the differences between the various human races where the differences within a race are greater than the differences between the races. So that kind of strikes me as maybe similar to gender. So I'm not buying the fact that there's, actually I am. I am buying that there's no significant difference between the profiles. So that one makes the most sense to me. It's between one and two. Yeah, I guess I'll go with the happiness one; I've got the most problem with that one so I'll say that one's fiction.

S: And Rebecca.

R: I was leaning in another direction, so this is interesting. Finding no significant differences between men and women in terms of personality characteristics. Yeah. That makes sense. I have seen other studies, small studies, that have claimed to show some kind of difference, but I think when you break it down to just pure personality characteristics and you look at how everything falls, I think Bob's exactly right when he compares this to differences outside of the group being less than differences within a group. I think it's exactly the same for men and women. There's just a huge amount of variation. So yeah, for me it's between the other two. The greater happiness and sense of well being as you age, regardless of when you're born. I don't know, that makes sense to me. Maybe because I often think of a study that I read about. They asked subjects to name the age at which they were their happiest and people tended to pick an age ten years beneath their current age. But that was true for people at every age. So, people who were twenty said ten, thirty said twenty, you know. And the average of the whole study ended up being something like 65 or something. I don't know, I can believe that. And I think that people do tend to get happier. And sense of well being, that makes sense to me. Figure out who you are and where you are in life. CT scans in young patients posing greater increased risk of cancer than the benefits. I was wondering why young patients and that got me thinking, why young patients? Well, differences between young and old patients that I can think of: older patients may have cancer already, have an increased chance of already being, having some kind of cancer issues going on. So I feel like that would kind of fit with the reverse of this. Young patients aren't necessarily at the same risk as older patients. And also younger patients probably are going in for head injuries more. I feel like younger people would be getting more serious injuries that would require CT scans, so how far has technology come along? Are we still, is there still like a huge dose of radiation that they're getting every time they go in? I'm not so sure, so that one is really suspicious. So, yeah, it's between that one and the happiness thing. I'm gonna go against the team. I'm gonna go with the CT scans one. I find it fishy. That's the fiction.

S: Okay. Interesting. So you all agree on the third one, so we'll start there. That a recent review of research involving 122 personality characteristics finds no significant difference in male and female profiles. You all buy this one. And this one is . . . science. Very interesting.

E: Okay.

S: I'll say at this point that all of these items were similar in that they involved a new way of looking at statistics, of looking at data. So you will see how that applies.

R: Fit in with the theme of the puzzle.

S: Yeah. So, in this one, Bob, you hit the nail on the head, that there are lots of studies which say, oh, look, if you look at a thousand men and you look at a thousand women on this personality profile, there's a difference. Well there's an average difference. You know, there's a difference between the average of all the women and the average of all the men. If you look at the data the other way, does the, if you take an individual, their profile of how they rate on all of these different personality characteristics, can you predict from that if that individual is a male or a female? And the answer is no, you can't. Because, as you say, there's more overlap. There's far greater intra-group difference than inter-group difference. And there really isn't any significant pattern that will tell you this person must be a female and this person must be a male. Partly this is because a lot of traits that stereotypically are thought of as being male or female are really not. Like math ability is one that really isn't that different between men and women. It's also the notion that we tend to follow stereotypes and maybe lack, insufficiently appreciate the variability within groups. So like, as you say, how much individual women and individual men will vary on all of these traits. Now there are a couple of caveats here. One is that a lot of this data is survey data. So it's essentially asking people about these characteristics. And the researchers warn that if you looked at behaviors, then you may get some different results. For example, asking men and women how empathic they are does not result in a huge difference. But maybe if you tracked something like how many times in the last year did the individual send somebody a birthday card, then you might find greater differences. Because self-reporting maybe involve some normalizing bias. You know, people will give answers that they think are the correct ones. So that's one caveat to this study, to this data. They also said, this is also, holds only for the U.S. where the study was done, and that cultures, like Middle Eastern cultures, for example, that have much more prescribed gender roles that there would be greater differences, but that's probably, you know, the implication being that it would be cultural. And that in cultures where the gender roles are more flexible, that you don't see that much of a difference between men and women.

R: Where was this study done?

S: This is, the lead author is Bobbi Carothers, Center for Public Health System Science at Washington University in St. Louis.

R: Yeah, I'd be interested in seeing it done in a different culture.

S: Yeah. Yeah, so an interesting study. I like the fact that you sort of get different answer depending on how you look at the data.

B: Yeah.

S: And it's always good to keep that in mind. And in general, this is just a general principle of epidemiology, of this kind of observational studies, when you're looking at average differences between groups versus how predictive a trait is for an individual. That's important in medicine, for example. I often make this point to residents and students. Don't get so caught up in what the textbook stereotypical presentation is, you have to know what the full range of a disease is, or the full range of normal in people. And we sort of fall for the representativeness heuristic. I think we've talked about this on the show before. Where, we sort of overly are impressed by how typical something is or representative it is of a group, a category, a disease. And pay less attention to the statistical predictability, the base rate in how predictive things are. So I said, don't tell me what, like I will tell medical students, don't worry about whether or not this symptom is typical of this disease. I wanna know how predictive it is, that this is the diagnosis. And that's, I think, exactly analogous here. I don't wanna know whether or not math ability is typical of a man or a woman, you look at the data as, does having math aptitude predict that that person's likely to be a man or a woman. And this study is saying basically no. They also looked at physical characteristics, using the same analysis, and physical characteristics do predict whether or not somebody is likely to be male or female because there are non-overlapping, really significant differences, when you look at overall body size, shoulder width, muscle mass, testosterone levels. When you look at things like that they do separate out much more and sometimes fairly significantly with not much overlap. All right, well, let's move on. I guess we'll go back to number one, a new systematic review that CT scans in young may pose a greater increased risk of cancer than the diagnostic benefits they provide. Rebecca, you think this one is the fiction, the guys think this one is science, and this one is . . . the fiction.

R: Ah hah!

E: I'm glad, actually.

S: Good work, Rebecca.

B: I knew it.

E: I'm kinda happy that one's the fiction.

S: Not in time.

R: You did not know it, or you would have said it.

S: So, the reason

B: Actually it came to me after I made my decision. Tell me, Steve, if I'm even close.

R: That happens to me.

E: Me, too.

B: My thinking was that, the younger you are, the more life you have ahead of you for those probabilities to come to fruition.

S: Well, that's part of it. So there's an especial concern for radiation exposure in young people because they are more sensitive to radiation, and because they will have more life ahead of them for that radiation exposure risk to come to fruition. Somebody that's getting exposed to radiation could lead to cancer down the road. Of course if you're 80, there's not much "down the road." If you're 20, or 15, that's a lot more years for that risk to come back and bite you. But also, just, younger people are more susceptible intrinsically to the effects of radiation in terms of increasing the risk of cancer. Now, what the researcher were interested in is prior studies show that people who get, especially multiple CT scans, and especially when they're young, do have an increased risk, lifetime risk, of cancers. Something on the order of magnitude of .1%, which sounds small, but it's not insignificant. That's one in a thousand people. That's a real number that we are concerned about in medicine, especially when you're talking about something like developing cancer. What these researchers did, though, is they said, well, okay, that's interesting, but we also have to look at the other side of the coin. We have to look at the benefit of doing the CAT scan, so it's really only meaningful, that .1%, if we look at the risk versus the benefit. And what they found was that children and young adults who were getting CAT scans for whatever reason, that they had a five-year mortality that was in the 3-5% range. Where normally the five-year mortality would be, taking the population as a whole, would be more like 1%. So, a significant increased risk of dying. Because, as Rebecca, you nailed this one in that, if you're a young person getting a CAT scan, you have something serious wrong with you. You were in a car accident, you had a major trauma, you have a significant disease like cancer already, and we have to consider the benefits to the individual and the management of their very serious illness when considering this small but significant increase in the long-term risk of developing a complication of the CAT scan. They also made the point, and again, did you read the article, Rebecca?

R: No.

S: Okay. But you brought up another point that they make.

R: Nice.

S: Which is that, this study was looking at, they had to look at people who had CAT scans ten or more years ago, 'cause this is a long-term follow-up. And they said since these issues have been brought to attention in the last decade or so, that CAT scans have been deliberately reconfigured to expose patients to less radiation, so this is looking at a cohort that got the older CAT scans with a higher exposure to radiation, but today the risk is even less because radiation exposure has been decreased with the more recent CAT scans. And they're not saying "be complacent"; they're saying absolutely don't do a CAT scan unless it's absolutely necessary, especially in a young person. Try to minimize CAT scans, and, again, using the newer techniques to try to minimize radiation. But if you need to do it, do it. You know, the benefits are gonna outweigh the risks.

R: I had a concussion when I was little; I didn't get a CAT scan.

S: Is that right?

R: Yeah. I was disappointed. I wanted to go in the big machine.

S: Explains a lot, actually. (laughter) The last one is new research shows that people have greater happiness and sense of well being as they age, regardless of when they were born. Bob and Evan think this one is the fiction, but this one is, of course, science.

E: I'm actually kind of happy about this, too.

S: Yeah, now, this is yet another way of saying "Okay, now wait a minute, let's look at this data a little differently now." Prior studies, if you looked at people of different ages, and they found that older people were less happy and had a lower sense of well being. And right, so if you look at young people, young adults, older adults and older people, it looked as if the older you got the less happy you were. But what this study does, did, was it looked at long-term data where there was data available for people throughout their lives, and they looked at individual groups of people, and it turns out if you follow a person or a group of people over the course their lives, they get happier and have a greater sense of well being as they age. The problem was, with the previous way of looking at the data, was that older generations were less happy than younger generations. And that's just because life was harder back then. You know, if you lived through the depression, you generally have lower happiness and lower sense of well being than people who lived in later generations, in the middle of the 20th century, and people who grew up at the end of the 20th century were happier still. But within each generation people tend to get happier and have a greater sense of well being as they age. But subsequent generations had been getting happier and having a greater sense of well being just because life has become overall easier. Now this suggests another interesting notion and that is that perhaps the conditions of your childhood affect your happiness for the rest of your life. 'Cause that seems to be the case. They also wonder about the next generation, is this trend of increased happiness going to hold true or will the prolonged recession and bad job market, et cetera, will that have negative impacts on the current generation? Obviously, we don't know. We'll have to wait and see.

R: I don't want people to be sad all their lives.

S; (laughing) Right.

R: So sad.

S: Good job, Rebecca. Yeah, that was interesting. I think all the items were interesting this week.

R: My happiness has increased.

E: Very interesting. I certainly didn't read any of 'em.

S: Well, good.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:59)[edit]

S: Evan, you are gonna cover Jay for the quote this week.

E: It'll be an honor to substitute for Jay this week. Here we go:

Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.


S: Democritus.

E: Democritus.

R: Hard core, that guy.

B: What about virtual particles? I don't think I agree. (laughter)

S: That's a classical view of reality, right, Bob?

B: Um hmm.

E: You know but not bad for 400 B.C.

S: Not bad.

E: You're kind of, I think, ahead of your time. That was 2,400 years ago.

R: Low hanging fruit if you ask me. (laughter)

S: Yeah, atoms and empty space, and it's mostly empty space.

E: That's right.

R: I could have come up with that saying, if I was born

E: 2,400 years ago?

R: Several millennia ago.

S: A couple thousand years ago. Probably. Well, thank you for joining me this week, everyone.

B: You're welcome.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Thanks, doctor!

R: Happy birthday to little Dylan!

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.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • On February 9th 1949, the first Department of Space Medicine was established at the School of Aviation at Randolph Field, Texas.
    • The first professor of space medicine, Hubertus Strughold was "a horrific Nazi, who did horrible, horrible, horrible things"
  • A new study shows carbon dioxide induced panic in amygdala lesioned patients who exhibit no fear. (
  • A new species of feathered dinosaur has been discovered: Eosinopteryx brevipenna, meaning 'red and stubby-winged'. A good example of a flightless, feathered transitional species. (Nature article)
  • A new systematic review concludes that CT scans in young patients may pose a 0.1% greater risk of cancer. However, children & young adults getting CT scans for any reason were found to have a 3-5% 5 year mortality rate, compared to the overallpopulation's 1%. Therefore the diagnostic benefits outweigh the risks associated with CT scans. (ScienceDaily article)
  • New longitudinal research shows that people have greater happiness and sense of well being as they age, regardless of when they were born. (APS article)
  • A recent review of research involving 122 personality characteristics finds no significant difference in male and female profiles. (ScienceDaily article)


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