SGU Episode 400

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SGU Episode 400
16th March 2012
Fossil diatome.jpg
SGU 399 SGU 401
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
Our inner weighing of evidence is not a careful mathematical calculation resulting in a probabilistic estimate of truth, but more like a whirlpool blending of the objective and the personal. The result is a set of beliefs - both conscious and unconscious - that guide us in interpreting all the events of our lives.
Leonard Mlodinow
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


<beep> S: This is Rogue Leader, checking in from Sierra-Golf-Uniform Mission Control. I need a news item status report, please identify.

E: Echo Three to Echo Seven. Han, old buddy, do you read me? Uhhh, I mean, Steve, this is Rogue Four, copy?

R: Yeah, Rogue... Five? here, I guess? I don't—I don't know, I'm here. Why do we have to talk like this, Steve? Steve?

<beep> S: This is Rogue Leader, Rogue Five. Call me Rogue Leader. Can you please identify? That means use your code name. Over. <beep>

R: Yeah, I'm refusing your stupid order. Over.

B: This is Rogue Mandelbrot. Over.

<beep> S: Rogue Mandelbrot, I don't recognize your callsign. Use your issued designation. Over. <beep>

B: (exhales, indignant) This is Rogue Two. If any of the other Rogues want to call me Rogue Mandelbrot, feel free; it's much cooler than friggin' Rogue Two.

<beep> S: Rogue One, come in, Rogue One. Do you copy? Over. Has anyone talked to Rogue One recently? <beep>

R: You mean Jay, right? Is Rogue One Jay? We have names already, Steve. I seriously do not understand this.

J: This is Rogue One. I copy. I'm at 42,000 feet coming in over San Diego.

<beep> S: Rogue One, are you go for a news item? <beep>

J: Roger that, Rogue Leader. I'm covering the death of Duane Gish. Over.

B: Over what, his dead body?

<beep> S: Cut the unnecessary chatter on this frequency, Rogue Two. What is your news item? Over. <beep>

B: I'm talking about carbon nanotubes and solar panels and new battery technology.

E: Are they charging those new batteries with solar panels made out of carbon nanotubes? How cool!

<beep> S: That's a negative, Rogue Two. No one wants to hear about any news items on those topics from us ever again.<beep>

R: Rogue Two should push that idea out the airlock. Over.

<beep> S: Rogue Four, will you give me a news item status update, please? <beep>

E: Uhhh. Roger that. I've got plants talking to animals.

<beep> S: That's a negative on that one, Rogue Four. <beep>

E: I've got latest paranormal belief statistics from the United Kingdom.

<beep> S: That's a negative too.

E: I've got bee venom killing the HIV.

<beep> S: Mmmm, nope. Over.

E: Uhhh, 3D printing replaces 75% of a man's skull.

<beep> S: That's a negative on that one, Rogue Four.

E: Uhhh. (exhales) How about people can live to be 150 years old?

<beep> S: That's a go on that last one, Rogue Four. <beep> Rogue Five, I still need a status report on your news items. Over. <beep>

R: Yeah, I wanna talk about a sloth that got its makeup done. Uhhh, on a TV show. It's great.

<beep> S: A sloth on a TV show. Over. <beep>

R: Yeah, it's like—it's a sloth that they brought in from the zoo, and they put it in a makeup chair and they put makeup on it. That's what I'm gonna talk about.

<beep> S: Maybe we'll put that on the back burner there, Rogue Five. <beep>

J: Rogue One to Rogue Leader, come in.

<beep> S: Rogue Leader here. Go ahead, Rogue One. <beep>

J: Permission to fly my ship into Rogue Two. Over.

<beep> S: That's a negative, Rogue One. Cut the shit. Over. <beep>

R: This is overdone. Over.

E: (As Sean Connery) I'll take Rogue Four for a thousand. Over.

J: Oh yeah? Over.

<beep> S: We are ready to go with Mission 400. <beep>

(rocket launching)

(theme music)

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

This Day in Skepticism (6:54)[edit]

  • March 16, 1912: Historical badass Captain Lawrence Oates sacrifices himself for Scott's Terra Nova Expedition in the most badass way possible.

S: Well, we do have a great show for you, our number 400. We're gonna start, as we usually do, with This Day in Skepticism. Rebecca.

R: Yeah. Alright, let's set the stage, you guys. It's early 1912. You are part of the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole, an effort led by Robert Falcon Scott.

S: Wait, wait. I thought Terra Nova went back in time to the time of the dinosaurs.

R: No, that was just a terrible short-lived TV show.

S: Oh, that's right.

R: Is that still on?

B: No.

R: No. Can't be. Yeah, okay. So, you arrived at the South Pole in December of 1911, only to find that the Norwegians beat you to it by a solid month. So you turned around and you march back, only to find horrific weather, scurvy, other illnesses, injuries and diminishing food supplies. And come March, one person is already dead, and if the rest don't make it to safety soon, everybody's going to die.

S: And that's when The Thing attacked, right? 'Cause they already killed the Norwegians. (laughter)

R: Yeah, yeah. That, I think, did happen in the recent Thing adaptation, but I'm not positive, because much like everyone else, I didn't watch it.

B: I don't know what it is, but it's weird

E: unintelligible) – the rest of the world, nobody saw it.

R: So, Captain Lawrence Oates, who was on the team to handle the ponies, had become weak and ill and frostbitten, and he told everybody else "Go on without me." And they refused.

E: They said "Alright."

R: So on the morning of March 16, 1912, Oates got up and walked out the tent, never to be seen again. And before he left, he said "I'm just going outside and may be some time." Thereby giving English folks for the following century the best possible thing to say when going out for milk during a particularly bad rainstorm. So his sacrifice was awesome, but ultimately all for naught, since everyone else in the party died twenty miles later. But it was still pretty badass.

S: So, how do they know he said that if everyone else died?

R: They kept diaries. You dummy.

S: They wrote that down, before they…?

R: Yeah, and in fact, according to Oates's diary, he loathed Scott.

S: Yeah, I remember reading that.

R: Despite his sacrifice.

E: He mother-fracked him up and--

S: Although, he also said at one point that, maybe I'm just in a bad mood because I'm in friggin' Antarctica.

R: Right. Maybe it's the frostbite talking. (laughter) But I feel like the person leading us is incompetent.

E: Maybe it's the slow embrace of death talking here. (laughter) This suuuccckks!

R: I think you could forgive him for being a little cranky.

S: Worst expedition ever.

R: It really was, like, oh, can you imagine, you know, embarking on this grand expedition that will very likely cost you your life and you make it. You make it to the South Pole, only to find out that some Norwegians beat you there. Ouch! And then dying on the way back. I mean, that part sucked, too.

J: Right before the guy dies, he's like, this really sucks! (laughter)

S: But they had that exploration spirit.

R: They did.

S: That excelsior spirit.

B: Excelsior!

E: Yeah, that

R: For whatever's that worth, which is exactly nothing.

S: So they got that going for them.

B: Which is nice.

S: Which is nice.

E: That's a nice footnote.

News Items[edit]

Meteorite Fossils (10:23)[edit]

Astrobiologists claim meteorite carried space algae

S: Bob, on a much happier note, though, you're gonna tell us about life on meteorites. Maybe even alien life, or maybe not.

B: So here's the news story. The first nanosecond you read it, you're thinking, holy crap, I mean, is this, could this be possibly true? How awesome would that be? Some of the titles were: Astrobiologists find ancient fossils in fireball fragments; another one was: Astrobiologists claims meteorite carried space algae. And, but then you think, well, if, really, if that were true, right, that would be the news item of the century, at least, if not the millennium. And people, everyone would be talking about it. It'd be all over the internet, which it wasn't. So, you know, I'm thinking, well, what the hell is really going on here, 'cause I'm used to these news items that seem pretty awesome but clearly aren't. But that is the claim that's being made by scientists at Cardiff University in the U.K., and it all started with this fireball that blew up over a Sri Lankan province called Polonnaruwa on December 29, 2012. I didn't even hear about that one. I looked at some of the police reports that came out of that. People were claiming that they were burned by meteorites and that they were, there were fumes; these weird fumes that even caused someone to pass out, apparently, and had to be taken to the hospital. And right there, that's gotta raise some skeptical eyebrows because

S: Because (unintelliglble)

B: Yeah, meteors generally are not hot. (laughter) They're travelling in space and they're close to absolute zero, so a brief little journey, fiery journey through the atmosphere isn't gonna make that much of a difference, and it conducts heat very well

R: Yeah you definitely need to preheat those first. (laughter)

B: Right. By the time you get there, they are not hot, they are generally pretty cold. And the fumes, the whole thing with the fumes is silly. I just think of these weird science fiction movies from like the '50s and the '60s where a meteor hits and they're hot and they've got these weird alien fumes coming out. Just like, just those two things right there, whoa, what's going on here? So what happened was they found, allegedly, they found 628 of these little meteorite fragments that allegedly came from this meteor, and they sent it off to Cardiff University. And the scientists there were studying it. They used electron—

R: That's where Dr. Who is. (laughter)

B: That's right.

S: He's called "The Doctor." He's not actually called Dr. Who. (laughter)

R: Thank you for stopping that flood of emails.

B: We'll still get 'im. So, they're looking at these little bits of meteorite and they find fossils of algae deep inside. Specifically, they were diatoms. I think that's how that's pronounced.

S: Diatoms? [long o]

B: Diatoms? Really? Specifically, these are single-celled plantlife. All over the planet. The cell walls specifically for these are made of silica, so it's kind of interesting. So what came from this was the declaration by these scientists that life on earth must have had some extraterrestrial origins, so-called panspermia. And, I think that seemed a little bit, you know, jumping the gun a little bit. But the science fails here are pretty, pretty big. There's so many red flags. And signs that, yet again, it's just way too premature to go to public with something like this. I keep thinking of cold fusion and other similar things where these guys just, they just like totally jump the gun and did not do their due diligence.

S: Two things, Bob. Two things. First of all, I confirmed it is diatoms [long o], thank you.

B: Okay.

S: This is worse than being premature. This is bad science. These guys did a crappy job.

B: Exactly, and now I'll go . . .; I'll explain why it was actually, not only premature, very bad science. One of the key things they should have done, but maybe one of the first things they should have done, is to show that these things came from a meteorite. Without a shadow of a doubt, or as conclusively as can be done. They didn't even really even do that, let alone show that it came from the one from Sri Lanka. Now I think that they looked at over 600 and only three of them did they say came from a carbonaceous chondrite, which is a type of meteorite, but in the opinion of many, they didn't even do that to a sufficient degree. So that, that was key. You have to show like, hey, this is from a meteorite because these diatoms are everywhere. They're all over. They're all over the place. You can't just find them, find these fossils and say "looks like it came from a meteorite. So therefore, panspermia." Blah, blah. The other big thing that they totally blew was the whole concept of contamination, which is a huge, huge problem. And they did not seem to take that seriously enough at all. They were saying that the fossils inside were too deep inside the rocky fragments. And, but the thing is, that doesn't matter. If they even just consulted somebody who's familiar with this stuff, they'd say that doesn't matter. The tiniest little crevice or crack these guys can get into. You could crack it open and find something in the very, very middle of it, but it doesn't matter 'cause they could still get in there. It doesn't mean that it's ancient and been accreting around these fossils for a millennium and thousands of millions of years. So related to that, they didn't consult with the experts in the relevant fields. Bring in a meteor expert. If you're gonna convince the world that you found life from another planet, algae, no less, similar to Earth's algae, you've gotta cross all your t's and dot all you I's. Bring in some experts; consult with outside labs. Don't do this all on your own because you just look really silly, especially when, you know, the overwhelming probability that people are just gonna say "no, you're just way off and here's why. 1-2-3-4."

S: Bob, how'd they get this published in a peer-reviewed journal?

B: Ah, there you go. I call this section the "Journal of Doubt." They published it in the Journal of Cosmology. I mean, we've mentioned this before. It's not a respected journal. They're known to have very, very loose submission guidelines.

S: It's a rag.

B: Absolutely. They published a paper in 2009 about the meteor with a fossil-like cyanobacteria in it. I mean, this is like the same journal. And I think the same people that actually trying to push this stuff. So, there, right there, another huge, huge red flag. Don't go to the Journal of Cosmology. Sounds kind of authoritative, maybe. But if you know anything about it, it's not. Also, another interesting point that should be considered I think is one of the co-authors, Chandra Wickramasinghe, was the first guy to actually propose, that I'm aware of, to propose this whole idea of panspermia, back in 1981, and from what I could gather, a lot of skeptics claim that this guy is somewhat fanatical about this. I mean, alright, it's your idea, of course it's gonna be your pet idea, and very protective of it, but apparently this guy's really got some blinders on when it comes to this, and he often, or has been shown in the past, to ignore evidence that's contradictory. Which is just really human nature, but, and this is what science and critical thinking are designed to protect against. When you insulate yourself from the process and procedures of real science, you run the risk of being laughed at sometimes, and having people call it tabloid science because you just have not done your homework. This has happened before with this guy, and with this Journal. But a lot of people, I wonder if a lot of people are thinking that we've been invaded by algae. So I'll close with my favorite title from Red Orbit. It was "Algae From Outer Space? It's Probably Just Bad Science." Exactly.

S: Probably.

E: Wow. Prophetic.

R: Thank god, 'cause it'd be like Day of the Triffids but more boring. (laughter)

J: Guys, when bad science like this comes out, to me it smacks of people wanting to believe in something. There's a lot of conclusions that they could have jumped to that weren't so crazy or so wonderful, for lacking a better way to describe it. 'Cause it is pretty wonderful and amazing.

S: Well I mean, I think it's reasonable to assume that that's the base line. Every scientist wants their theory to be true; wants to find something interesting and important, and we just assume that that's the case, that everyone's biased. But the point is to design rigorous studies so that you minimize the effects of that bias and you rule it out as much as possible. And that's when, if you haven't done that, of course your bias comes through.

B: That's what science is designed to protect against.

Duane Gish Dies (18:46)[edit]

S: Speaking of motivated reasoning, Jay, you're gonna tell us about Duane Gish.

R: Can I just say that somebody on Twitter said that I was literally Hitler for constantly pointing out when Steve makes a bad segue? (laughter)

B: Literally Hitler! Awesome.

E: Really?

R: Well, they were kidding.

B: Oh, okay.

J: The young Earth creationist Duane T. Gish, he died on March 5, 2013. He was 92 years old.

B: Whoa!

J: He had a good run.

R: He galloped into heaven.

J: Yeah, right? You coined that phrase, Rebecca, I read that.

R: Yeah. So I thought I'd just throw it out there again.

J: He was born on February 17, 1921 in White City, Kansas. He served in the U.S. Army from 1940 to '46, in the Pacific theater of operations. He became a captain, which I didn't know. In 1949 he earned a bachelor's of science in chemistry from the University of California and in '53 he went on to get his Ph.D. from Berkeley. He spent the next fourteen or so years as a researcher until 1971, when, what guys? He became the vice president of . . .?

S: The ICR, the Institute for Creation Research.

J: That's right. Which was founded only a year earlier by Henry Morris. Gish retired in 2005. He still, of course, kept busy. He was still writing. He was a Methodist from the age of ten, and he later became a fundamentalist Baptist. He wrote a lot of books. He wrote, the one he was most famous for was titled Evolution, the fossils say no! That was published in 1978.

S: I actually have and read most of that book.

E: Oh, you did?

R: Masochist.

E: Did you lose a bet?

S: No. Gotta read what the other side's saying, too. You know what I mean?

E: That's true. This was in the time before the internet, I know.

S: Yeah, back in the early '80s, when I read it.

J; In 1995, he also wrote Evolution: The Fossils Still Say No! (laughter)

B: He's not listening very well.

J: It seems to me that's his "Oh, yeah?" book, you know. But, of course, guys, and everyone listening to this show, or at least most of the people, know that he is best known for the mighty Gish Gallop, which he, which is described as his technique that he used during a debate to quickly fire off tons of misinformation that can't possibly be properly discussed by the person that he's arguing against. Right? So he brings up one idea that would take someone maybe ten or fifteen minutes to go over and to disprove or discredit, but he'll come up, he'll spill out 30 or 40 of these things in a series, in a very short amount of time. Guys. I didn't know this, and I'm surprised that I didn't. Did you know, do you know who coined the phrase "Gish Gallop"?

R: Genie Scott.

J: Genie Scott.

B: How awesome!

R: Genie mother f—Scott.

J: She is so awesome.

B: She coined that?

J: This is her quote: "It's where the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn't a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate."

R; A prayer.

E: Hey, Steve, remember when we had Dr. Michael Park come and lecture for the New England Skeptics Society and he told us about his experience in debating Duane Gish?

S: Yeah, I remember that very well. Yeah, Gish also debated Michael Shermer. I actually listened to that entire debate on tape. And he debated Massimo Pigliucci five times.

J: Yup.

B: Whoa.

J: That's right.

E: Five!

R: I know he debated Shermer a bunch of times, too, didn't he? I thought he was one of those

S: Maybe.

R: like Hitchens-DeSousa sort of things, fool around.

J: Gish claimed that he entered into more than 300 debates during his career, which is quite a bit. I wouldn't have been surprised, though, if he said 800, because it just always seemed like he was violently debating someone. You know, overall, I classify him as just someone that was phenomenally misguided that had a belief that he was trying to qualify for his entire life and could never admit to himself that the science does disprove it.

S: Yeah, but you know, he was intellectually very dishonest. Because he would be factually refuted; he would say things that were factually wrong. Those factual errors would be pointed out to him in no uncertain terms and the next night he'd give the same talk and repeat the same error that he was just corrected. He just didn't care about the facts.

R: He obviously wasn't stupid. So, I mean, there's really only one option left. If you're not stupid but you're continuing to repeat the same false information over and over and over again, then you're just dishonest.

E: He would have throngs of followers travel around in buses from one lecture to another, and they would help pack the auditoriums and have his own cheering and rooting sections.

B: Wow, isn't that nice.

R: Groupies.

E: With bibles in hand, sort of, cheering him on as he would go. So it always maybe seemed like that at least half of the audience, maybe, is in sync with his points of view on these matters. But it was staged, they were essentially shills.

S: And he made popular, I don't know if he originated a lot of these arguments, but he made popular a lot of common creationist arguments like evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

B: Awwggh.

S: Which we've spoken about: it doesn't. Or that archaeopteryx was just bird. Just one of the forms that birds take. With teeth and tails.

(more than one person speaking – unintelligible) (laughter)

S: It flew.

J: Those are good examples of a comment that's so easy to hear an even believe. And it's also a comment that would take quite a bit of information to show why it's wrong. And he spewed these things out during debates and was blowing the hair back of the people that were trying to respond to him and respond to the things that he was saying. They just couldn't keep up with the guy.

B: If he showed one, you know, one good thing that came out of that was he really proved that these types of debates are horrible forms. This is not the kind of thing you want to get into unless it's set up properly and focused and designed not to allow people to go off on tangents and do the Gish Gallop.

S: Yeah, he made us, he made skeptics get better at debating and better at choosing the venue and the format of confrontations like that.

B: He evolved our approach.

S: Yeah.

R: That's probably the nicest thing you could say about him.

S: Donald Prothero wrote about it and he debated Gish as well, and wrote about it on Skeptic Blog, if you want a first-hand account. He talks a lot about how intellectually dishonest he was, as well. So, no more Duane Gish, but I can almost guarantee you we have not seen the end of the Gish Gallop. Imagine, that that's your legacy. That's his legacy, the Gish Gallop.

J: Well, to skeptics and to scientists.

Acupuncture Meta-Analysis (26:04)[edit]

S: This week I wrote a couple of articles about acupuncture. Acupuncture is just the alternative medicine that won't go away. I think it, from my perspective I think it's the one that has managed to gain the most respectability among the mainstream scientific community.

E: More than chiropractic?

S: Yeah, I think so. I think even, perhaps, more than chiropractic. Although that's probably, they're probably close. In terms of, you ask the average physician, what do you think about acupuncture, a lot of them say, they probably don't think about it too much, but they think that, oh, yeah, you know, there's some evidence to show that it works. And physicians are increasingly referring patients with pain for acupuncture. The biggest scandal, in my opinion, about a year ago, I'm pretty sure I talked about this on the show, was that the American Headache Society actually now recommends, or lists, acupuncture as a recommended treatment for migraines. And even when the evidence they cite to support that recommendation shows quite clearly that it doesn't work. Just absolutely astonishing. So about a year ago, a paper came out which was a meta-analysis of acupuncture for various conditions, and the authors who did the meta-analysis concluded that acupuncture is effective and that it was reasonable to refer to an acupuncturist. Even when their own data showed that there was no clinically significant difference between acupuncture interventions and sham acupuncture. They thought that there was a small but statistically significant difference. That's what they concluded. And, of course, we roundly criticized the paper. I focused on their interpretation. David Gorski had a lot of questions about the methods that were not really carefully spelled out in terms of the details of the analysis. But even if you grant them the analysis that there was a small statistically significant difference between sham acupuncture, meaning either to stick needles in the wrong place or you're not sticking it to depth, or eliciting the chi, you know that sensation that is supposed to indicate that you're manipulating the chi, or the chi, or whatever you're supposed to be doing, versus quote unquote real acupuncture. Multiple reviews have shown that essentially there's no difference between the two, sham acupuncture and placebo acupuncture and true acupuncture all have about the same effect. A couple of reviews now, including this one, the lead author was Vickers, so this is the Vickers acupuncture meta-analysis, they found a small but statistically significant difference. My point at the time was the difference between the sham and the true acupuncture was not clinically significant. And it simply isn't, by any analysis. It was such a tiny effect. Therefore, when you have such a small effect, and we've said this before in multiple contexts, that it's essentially within the noise of doing clinical trials. The clinical trials are not rigorous enough that you can be that precise that a tiny difference you could say is a real physiological difference as opposed to just noise in the data. Well, the authors, Vickers et al., the authors actually published a response to the blogposts that were written criticizing their original article in the published, in the peer-reviewed literature. They actually got a response published. Which is a first as far as I can tell. A peer-reviewed, published response to our blogpost. They specifically referenced my blogpost about them in Science-Based Medicine, David Gorski's and a number of others. It was really, it was really very whiney. (laughter) It was unbelievable, I mean.

E: Oh, yeahh?

S: So, this is what they wrote in their article:

Although there was little argument about the findings in the scientific press, a controversy played out in blogposts and the lay press. This controversy was characterized by ad hominem remarks, anonymous criticism, phony expertise and the use of opinion to contradict data predominantly by self-proclaimed skeptics. There was a near-complete absence of substantive scientific critique…

R: In fairness, you are self-proclaimed.

S: That's the only thing they got right, was that we are self-proclaimed. That is complete hogwash, that entire characterization. And they cherry-picked the responses. They were characterized, first of all, by ad hominem remarks. Some of us pointed out the fact that one of the authors was a homeopath. I'm sorry, but that's a legitimate piece of information.

E: Absolutely.

S: If you're evaluating a scientific paper, the fact that somebody is a blatant pseudoscientist is relevant. They specifically referenced me to support their assertion that they were characterized by ad hominem remarks because I said that their discussion showed a pro- acupuncture bias. That was their example.

R: That's an ad hom?

S: That was an ad hom.

B: Whoa.

S: I was being charitable by saying that it reflected bias, because it was blatant nonsense, is what their conclusion was.

J: But that's an ad hom?

E: In their own minds.

S: It's just whiney. The anonymous criticism, most of it was not anonymous. All of us at some point in time put our real name to our criticisms. But, you know, a couple of medical blogs, like Orac, you know, they blog anonymously so they can get snarky and have a little bit of protection. But to say that it's characterized by anonymity is ridiculous. Phony expertise, that's an interesting one. So they claim that because we are not published in, we haven't published acupuncture research. Yes. They miss what our actual expertise is, we are experts in the difference between science and pseudoscience. And it's that expertise that they lack that precisely is what bit them in the heinie and why they utterly failed in their original article.

B: Rebecca, did he say "heinie"?

E: Heinie.

R: I think he said "heinie."

E: That sounds like an ad hominem to me.

R: Sounds like something a six-year-old would say.

J: Heinie-ho.

S: It's an ad heinie attack. (laughter) We focused on a couple of things where I think they went profoundly wrong. So, first, one thing they did, is they defended themselves by saying "Well we're not saying acupuncture works, we're saying that referring to an acupuncturist works."

R: What?

E: Distinction? No difference?

S: What they're do . . . that's one way to sell placebo effects. Right? They're saying that, well, because if you get referred to an acupuncturist, you feel like you have a benefit. Even if it's sham or real acupuncture, it doesn't matter. The referral to an acupuncturist is effective. But you could say that about anything that doesn't work. You could say referral to a hypnotherapist makes people feel better, even though hypnotherapy for whatever specific indication that you [unintelligible] doesn't work.

B: A referral to a bloodletter works.

S: The homeopaths made the same argument. They wrote an article a couple of years ago saying, homeopathic remedies don't work but referral to a homeopath works. That's just, it's a way of trying to package the placebo effect.

J: It's intellectually insulting. Really. It's like putting a wrapper around bullshit and saying this is not a bullshit sandwich because there's a very think foil wrapper around it. But as soon as you bite into it, there's shit in your mouth.

B: The shit hoagie. (laughter)

R: It's a fecal taco. (laughter)

E: It's a crap trap!

B: It's an unfossilized copralite sandwich.

S: Are we done? So

R: I think we did it, yeah.

S: Okay. We didn't miss any crap humor.

R: I'm pretty sure we got them all.

S: So here's the thing.

E: Turd burger.

R: Turd burger!

J: Thank you!

S: Turd burger. Very good, Evan. The acupuncturists are desperately trying to say that the placebo effect's real, real and, remember all this real and fake acupuncture both work. The point that they're missing is that that comparison between no intervention and any of the forms of acupuncture: sham, placebo or real acupuncture; that comparison is unblended. And therefore, it's unreliable. We cannot make conclusions based upon that. Because it's subject to all of the bias and illusion and statistical effects and everything that gets mixed in with the measured placebo response in a clinical trial. So, I liken this n-rays. N-rays are there when you have an unblended observation and then as soon as you put in proper scientific blinding, the phenomenon vanishes.

E: So does dowsing, right? You know where everything is when you're dowsing, yeah, a hundred percent accuracy. Now blind it. Random chance.

S: Exactly. Phenomena that vanish when you properly blind the observation are not frickin' real. They're not real. That's how things that are fake behave. When you blind the observation they completely go away. And that's what all the acupuncture literature shows when you

B: But they can still be helpful.

S: When you blind the comparison for needle position for insertion of needles, they have no effect. Now, the vast majority of reviews say that there is no difference between sham and real acupuncture. A couple like theirs say that there is a small effect. And here's the other point of contention. So I wrote that the tiny clinically insignificant effect that they are claiming that they found is indistinguishable from no effect at all. That it overlaps with zero effect. And Vickers, he tried to address that by saying that, well, there are ways of calculating statistical significance and whether or not the competence interval overlaps with zero. So he completely missed my point, which I then spelled out in great detail in my follow-up blogpost about it. That is, we're talking about two entirely different things. He's talking about statistical significance. I'm talking about bias, systematic bias. Statistical significance does not address systematic bias, because it's systematic. It introduces a measurable difference in the outcome because there's some bias towards a positive result, which we know exists. And I gave examples of it, so even he, if you were really paying attention, he should have known what I was talking about. I gave specific examples of it, like the authors that published a study on the researchers' degree of freedom and they specifically applied it to Bem's ESP research. They showed that even with a zero effect, there's no real effect, you can generate a false, statistically false, positive outcome by just manipulating certain variables like how many data points you collect and what statistical analysis you use, things like that. So, the point is, these tiny effect sizes are not reliable because the documented, known sources of systematic bias would show a small statistically significant effect. This is why p values and statistical significance is insufficient. This is also why we advocate a Bayesian approach where you start with a prior probability and then you calculate how much the data changes the prior probability, as opposed to just statistical significance. This is why statistical significance fails. This is why evidence-based medicine fails when you apply it to unlikely things, like acupuncture. This is exactly why we need science-based medicine. A proper science-based medicine approach to this data shows it's implausible to begin with, and you don't have the kind of evidence that is necessary to significantly move us from "it probably doesn't work." Which would need, what we would need is, not only a statistical significant effect size, but a clinically significant effect size that's reproducible and stands up to proper blinding. We don't have that with acupuncture. You could take everything I just said and apply it to ESP research, and we haven't done that. This is exactly the same story with ESP research. Right? It's, they don't have those same, those things at the same time. They don't have a statistical significant and a large enough effect size that we know it's greater than just the bias and systematic noise that exists in research in general. And that's why they don't hold up to replication. One more point, one last point. I don't like meta-analysis. I know some people do it really well. I know that Edzard Ernst has made a career out of doing excellent meta-analysis, systematic reviews. That's why when he does it of alternative medicine they're negative. But there are approaches that are better because the meta-analysis is still subject to the garbage in-garbage out problem. There is a, you could do what's called a "best evidence" analysis where you look at the quality of the evidence and how that relates to the outcome. And what you do, what you see with homeopathy or acupuncture or any of these modalities, when you do that kind of analysis, is that there's an inverse relationship. The better the study, the smaller the effect size, and the best studies are negative. Or you get down to effect sizes that are clinically insignificant and that are totally in the noise of the base line of bias that exists in clinical research. Acupuncture is not real. But Vickers dug his heels in, didn't really understand or address our criticism and just made this whiney completely unfair smear campaign against his critics. It really was very unseemly.

J: You know, another key thing here, Steve. There's two things I can pull out of this. The first one is that they truly don't understand science and they're being fooled by their lack of understanding. The second one is that they have skin in the game. They want to believe, and that's the thing that's fueling this. This is why, if you were to demonstrate to me that something is false that I had some skin in the game on, I would be very willing and able to very quickly admit it and move on and let it go. I don't actually like anything that much that I have to completely blind myself to reality, but

S: I don't know how much all that is true in this case. I mean, maybe the homeopath, but I think it's more, 'cause I think that generally what we see with acupuncture is a lot of people involved are scientists who generally know what they're doing; they're just not skeptics. They're failing at these subtle aspects of how to interpret the literature and they're not adequately taking into account things like researcher degrees of freedom and these other sources of subtle error in the research. So that's where they fail, and it's really no longer acceptable because we are pointing it out to them in excruciating detail. So they, rather than engaging, where they start to move in the direction that you were painting, Jay, is when they dug in their heels and got really whiney.

R: Yeah, and there actually are things that you, Jay, would need to be blinded to. I mean no matter how open-minded we think we are; no matter how open we are, we think we are, to changing our minds if we discover something, all of us have implicit biases that need to be controlled for, and that's the key bit of education that's missing. Not just the general idea of how to do science, but how easy it is for us to be fooled.

J: Absolutely.

R: How easy our brains are tricked.

J: I totally agree with you. I guess what I was saying, Rebecca, was that under the correct methodology, if something was disproved to me, something came out to be false that I recently or long-term believed, it doesn't matter. I'm capable of letting it go and not holding on for one reason or another, right, and I think that we see examples of this over and over again. You know, homeopaths and chiropractors pop into the front of my mind as people that are holding onto these dear beliefs of theirs. To the end. It doesn't matter; science is irrelevant to them. They don't care about the facts anymore. S: Yeah, but Jay, I agree with you, but there are different flavors. And you're talking about one flavor of people who don't get it right, of pseudoscientists, the true believer, if you will. I'm talking about scientists who are just not skeptics. So these guys are not aware. They haven't made a career examining ESP research. And finding out why proponents of ESP, for example, think that they have found evidence of extra-sensory perception when they haven't. And examining all the subtle ways in which they manipulate the data and their analysis and why they fail. Where they twist their logic. So these guys are falling into the skeptical traps because they're not skeptics. They don't understand the principles of science-based medicine. They're just, they're naïve. They're frankly naïve about that degree of problems, you know, the subtle problems that creep in. It's interesting the different flavors of cranks and pseudo-scientists and just legitimate scientists who get it wrong sometimes. You know, the ways in which that happens. That's what we study. That's what we are, in fact, experts in. So it was interesting that he sort of criticized all the things that are actually the reasons for why they completely failed. This might have been a good dialog. I might have learned something out of this exchange. But it's an opportunity for us to explain their failure at least, and that is a teaching moment, I guess.

Quickie With Bob: The closest solar system (44:14)[edit]

J: I would like a Quickie With Bob.

B: Ooo. Thank you, Jay. I will be gentle. Welcome to this week's Quickie With Bob. An astronomer has, for the first time in the century, discovered the closest solar system to our sun. It's a meager 6.5 light years, or about 38 trillion miles away. Just around the corner, really. So we've got Alpha Centauri, which is about 4.4 light years away, Bernard's Star, six light years, and now the third closest at 6.5 light years is called WISE J104915.57-531906. I really hope they come up with a catchier name soon. So what took so long to find it if it's so close? Well, it's a binary brown dwarf star system. Brown dwarfs are very dim since they can't fuse hydrogen like real stars. They're considered sub-stellar objects, actually. They're in the zone between the lightest stars and the heaviest gas giants, the biggest being about 80 or so Jupiter masses, which is pretty huge, but even then, still not quite a star. Most would appear not brown, but magenta, to the human eye. I think we should call them "magenta dwarfs." It was discovered by Kevin Luhman, using the WISE satellite data. This has been your Quickie With Bob. I hope it was good for you, too.

S: Okay, thanks, Bob. Bob, one quick question. I always am a little uneasy calling them brown dwarf stars when they're not fusing hydrogen . . .

B: Well, actually, the brown dwarfs at the higher end of the spectrum can actually fuse deuterium and possibly lithium. So yeah, they're doing a little bit of fusion.

S: At the high end, but not all of them. Some of them are not fusing anything.

B: Not all of them, right, and it's still controversial, you know, where the demarcation is for these types of things.

S: Shouldn't they, aren't they just really big planets? Or give them their own designation. I think fusing

B: Yes.

S: should be the cut-off for a star. You have to be fusing something to be a star.

B: Right. I agree.

J: Then what are you, a proto-star?

S: Yeah, maybe a proto-star. But something. Something else, other than just a star.

B: Yeah, they're clearly not main sequence. They're not fusing hydrogen. But, yeah, I think that's a really good way to classify them. If you're fusing anything, deuterium, lithium, whatever, then I believe you deserve the moniker "star."

S: But I'm sure astronomers can come up with some category.

B: Yeah, they'll figure it out.

S: They figured out the difference between planet and dwarf planet, I think they can figure out the difference between

B: Right

S: a real star and

E: It took 20 years to agree on, though.

News Items Continued[edit]

Live to 150 (46:46)[edit]

Who's That Noisy? (54:44)[edit]

Science or Fiction (58:08)[edit]

Item number one. A new study finds that those infected with HIV have no increase in mortality if they are well controlled on medication. Item number two. Recently published research finds that screening colonoscopy did not increase survival. And item number three. Engineers have built a self-healing integrated-circuit chip able to repair itself and resume function even after significant damage.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:11:26)[edit]

Our inner weighing of evidence is not a careful mathematical calculation resulting in a probabilistic estimate of truth, but more like a whirlpool blending of the objective and the personal. The result is a set of beliefs - both conscious and unconscious - that guide us in interpreting all the events of our lives.

Leonard Mlodinow


NECSS 2013 (1:12:42)[edit]

  • April 5th-7th 2013

Rich Binder's Artwork (1:13:05)[edit]

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.


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