SGU Episode 402

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SGU Episode 402
30th March 2013

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SGU 401                      SGU 403

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


K: Karl Withakay

Quote of the Week

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

Søren Kierkegaard

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, March 27th, 2013, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey, guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, everybody.

S: And we have a special guest rogue this week: Karl with a K. Karl, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

K: Thanks, guys. Hey howdy, everyone.

R: Hello, Karl.

E: Welcome.

J: Hey Karl, what's up man? Karl, why are you here?


E: How did you get on this channel?

K: Well, I won the auction at the TAM 2012 Skeptics' Guide to the Universe dinner for a guest rogue appearance.

S: Awesome.

J: Well, here you go. See, we're actually folllowing through.

S: We usually try to do it at the end of June, right before the following TAM.


R: To build trust.

E: Hey, remember? We did that—

J: Actually, this is the fastest we've ever done a guest rogue slot.

K: Faster than last year's guy.

J: Yeah, definitely.

R: That's really not something to brag about.


J: No, it's the anticipation; we don't want them to get it a week or two afterwards. We want them to think about it.

S: Karl, tell us a little bit about your journey into skepticism.

K: My journey into skepticism—into actual skepticism, rather than just scientific inquiry really kinda started with a friend of mine's blog called Polite Dissent. It's a blog that's he—it's not really skepticism-related at all. He covers basically pop media, comic books and medicine topics and also, for many years, wrote a very well-followed review of House, M.D. the show, and he had some links to some other web sites, one of which was Respectful Insolence. Checking out other blogs he linked, to I found respectful insolence I started following Orac's site and then from there it kinda spread out to Science-Based Medicine and NeuroLogica and Skeptiblog and things just kinda grew from there.

S: It's like the Borg collective; you just sort of got assimilated into the whole—

K: Exactly.

S: —The whole network, right.

E: How's your implant going?

K: I can't talk about that

S: All right. Well, now your journey is complete, right? Because you're on the SGU.

K: Yes.

E: I like how you say that, Steve; reminds me of a certain Emperor once who said that.

S: Yes, exactly. That's what I was thinking about.

This Day in Skepticism (2:39)[edit]

March 30: Happy birthday to Mary Whiton Calkins and happy death day to Ellen Swallow Richards. Two BAMF ladies for the price of one.

S: All right. Well, let's get started. Rebecca, you're going to tell us about March 30th.

R: Yes! Happy birthday to Mary Whiton Calkins and happy death day to Ellen Swallow Richards. That's right; it's a twofer. March 30th, 1863, Mary Calkins was born in Hartford, Connecticut not too far from you guys.

S: Yeah, just around the corner.

R: She developed an interest in philosophy and psychology, which at the time was a new discipline and was considered a part of philosophy. She studied at Smith and then she went on to teach at Wellesley but she wanted to learn more about psychology so that she could teach it. And so Harvard, nearby, was the perfect place for her to go because they were one of the few schools with a psychology lab at the time. Unfortunately, it was not the perfect place for her because they didn't admit women. She ended up getting permission from the professors there to sit in on their lectures despite the fact that the president of the college stated that she would not be considered a true student; that it would be informal learning. But she did it anyway and after a year there, she figured out enough stuff so that she could go back to Wells and set up her own psych lab but she returned Harvard to continue her education. And once again, she petitioned the Harvard president who said, "nope. You cannot be a real student; you can only sit on lectures informally". So she did. She conducted experiments; she sat in on lectures; she presented a thesis, which her professors unanimously agreed was more than sufficient for her to get her doctorate, but Harvard continued to refuse to give it to her. After many years, Harvard agreed to allow Radcliffe College the right to give doctorates to Calkins and a few other women who had informally studied at Harvard, but Calkins refused, due to the unfairness of it all and the symbolism. She still had a pretty great life; she went on to become the first female president of the American Psychological Association. She delivered several major contributions to psychology, mostly concerning the psychology of the self. Her discoveries are now a bit dated, but she did at the time, further the field quite a bit. She was also notable for openly questioning accepted scientific ideas about the differences between men and women, pointing out that her colleagues weren't adequately controlling for the environment when they made bold pronouncements about biological differences between men and women.

S: Good thing that doesn't happen anymore.

R: I know, right?

E: We've grown up since then.

R: So yeah. She was an early awesome woman in science. And the other person of the day is Ellen Swallow Richards, who died on March 30th, 1911, and she is the woman who came up with the idea of home economics, as she believed that women who worked in the home deserved to be educated and to be important contributing members of society. She had a ton of firsts for her life, so forgive me for a reading directly from Wikipedia for a moment. She was the first woman admitted to MIT; MIT's first female instructor; the first woman in America to be admitted to a school of science and technology, and the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry. So, Ellen Swallow Richards and Mary Whiton Calkins: two bad-ass women in science for the price of one.

S: Trailblazers.

News Items[edit]

Homeopathy Debate (6:11)[edit]

S: So, did I tell you guys that I actually participated in a debate at UConn last week?

B: No, I had to read about it on your blog.

R: No, you did not.

E: I didn't get my invitation.

R: Yeah, thanks for nothing.

S: Yeah. It was about homeopathy; I debated a homeopath.

R: Was the homeopath's strongest argument just remaining silent?


E: That's called the homeopathic argument.

R: Thank you; I'll be here all week.

S: The homeopath was Andre Saine, who is a naturopath; a member of the Canadian naturopathic society and also a homeopath; also practices homeopathy. Actually, I did this—a similar debate in 2007[1] at UConn.

E: Yep.

S: Yeah, but then there was three on three. But this time was just one on one. Andrew Saine [sic] was there too, 6 years ago

E: Roy Rumsten, I think, was one of the—

S: Rustum Roy was there; absolutely. So, very interesting; it's always—not that there's anything new in the world of homeopathy, but it is interesting to see what they're saying now to—and how they handle specific arguments. Essentially, his approach was this: he would quote me from one of my many articles that I've written on homeopathy, saying that there is no critical evidence to support homeopathy or whatever, just some statement about homeopathy—homeopathic remedies have no active ingredient, whatever—and then he would present some study that contradicted my statement.

B: And they were really good studies that he pointed out, right?

S: (laughs) Yeah, right.

E: Oh yeah; ironclad.

S: Each step of the way, it was the most patheticly crappy study you could imagine that he found entirely compelling. As if this is established—he even said that at some point—"this is done; this is established; this is now—we can take this is a fact".

B: And that's the crux of the difference—isn't it, Steve—between pseudoscientists and normal real people.

S: And normal people? That was certainly the difference between me and him, in terms of how we defended our positions. I think that... there are probably other differences in terms of where we're coming from—for example, I can't go over everything, 'cause it was a long debate, but one new thing that homeopaths are saying these days—there was a paper published in India in the last year where the researchers found that even so-called "ultra-molecular dilutions"—ultra-molecular means greater than Avogadro's Number, so there shouldn't be any active ingredient left—that's what they do to get their papers published, you know? 'Cause if they say "homeopathy", no respectable journal will look at them. So now they call it "ultra-molecular aqueous dilutions".

E: That's a creationist tactic!

S: Yeah. Or, it's like cold fusion is now "low energy nuclear reactions", right? So they—to get away from the stink of cold fusion. It's the same kind of—

J: So, the new—the new homeopathy terminology is "ultra-molecular"?

S: Yes. Ultra-molecular dilutions.

J: It sounds kinda comic book-y to me.

S: Yeah. It should be "delusions". Yeah.

E: (laughs) Ultra-molecular delusions! That's awesome.

S: They published a paper where they ultra-molecular dilutions and they still found "nano-particles" of the starting ingredient.

J: Nano-particles? Are those molecules? What are they?

S: So, here's the thing: the study was small, uncontrolled, and of course, because it's uncontrolled, it's un-blinded; there's nothing to blind; there's no control; it was uncontrolled!

E: (laughs) A study's a study, isn't it?

J: So Steve, explain what that means, though, when you say "uncontrolled", give me specifics.

S: There's no control group. There's no control group. So, the researchers knew what they were looking for, and lo and behold, they found it.

E: Yeah.

S: They didn't compare it to anything. So they have no idea if this is a contaminant; what it actually is; where it comes from; what it means. It's just they found an anomaly and that was it.

E: That's the dowser knowing which pipe has the water running through it. It's like, "Hey look, the sticks point that way."

J: And the reason why that sucks is it totally skews the results.

S: It invalidates the results.

K: I think I remember reading about that. They didn't even do a test of their water before to compare to the after to determine if it already had the contaminants in it to begin with.

B: Oh, nice.

S: Now don't get crazy now.

J: Karl, come on; you're getting all science-y on us over here.

S: Interestingly, one of the authors of this paper wrote an email to Harriet Hall at Science-Based Medicine and saying, "hey, look at our paper. we know you guys are skeptical of homeopathy, but we've proven that there's actual stuff in there and would be happy to engage with you in a dialogue about this new exciting scientific evidence" and Harriet wrote back—very polite, as she is, and said "that's nice. can you—here's my opening question for you guys: can you tell me why there were no controls—no control samples in your study." The author wrote back and said, "We don't discuss things with nasty skeptics. This is the end of the conversation."

R: What?!

E: Oh! There's your scientific debate.

S: There we go. End of debate.

J: Did they actually use the word "nasty"?

S: I might have paraphrased that.

J: All right. That being said, though, that was their "oh yeah?!" Right?

S: They basically said "oh, yeah?" Excuse me; you emailed us and now you don't want to have a discussion 'cause we asked you one question: why did you not include a control group? That was it; end of discussion. That's the... that is the study that Andre quoted as contradicting my claim that ultra-molecular dilutions don't have any active ingredients.

J: Steve, you know what Gollum would say to all this? (imitating Gollum) "You nasty little skepticsss!"

B: (laughs) Nice.

R: Well, Steve, did you tell that story on stage?

S: Yes, I did. Course I did!

R: Good. That's hilarious.

S: It is hilarious; of course I did. Yeah, so then that was it; that's like—that was the exchange, you know. He had one crappy study after another. And then I went to the clinical evidence and I presented the systematic reviews. Now I deliberately chose a systematic review that was not authored by Edzard Ernst, 'cause I know they hate him. But then I also included his systematic review of systematic reviews from 2010, 'cause it's still the most current thorough systematic review of clinical studies—of Cochrane systematic reviews of homeopathy and it's completely negative; I mean, he came to the conclusion that homeopathic remedies do not have any effects beyond placebo, and his response to that was "Edzard Ernst is not a real homeopath. He only took six months or whatever, not two years of homeopthic training, and he lies about being a homeopath and he's a nasty person"; just basically launched into an ad hominem attack against Edzard Ernst and against me for relying upon Edzard Ernst for my analysis, which is not true.

R: Yeah, it's hardly reliance, quoting him once.

S: Also, I know how to look at studies myself. But in anyway, Edzard was conducting a systematic review of Cochrane reviews. He was just collating what they said; he wasn't doing research; he wasn't even doing a systematic review, he was just co—directly; he was just summarizing the results of all the other systematic reviews that were high quality.

E: Yeah, he was shooting the messenger. Ernst the messenger.

S: That's ridiculous. And then I—all right, so we did—what's fun about this debate is we were able to ask each other questions. So I asked him: "what is the indication for which homeopathic remedies have been shown to be effective in multiple high-quality reproducible clinical trials?" And you know, he did sort of try to dodge that a little bit but he says they exist, like Jacob's review[link needed] of homeopathic remedies for diarrhea. That was his best case. That's the one that he threw out there. So I sort—again, he can throw anything at me; I do remember the details of the homeopathic clinical studies for diarrhea; I just didn't, like, review them right before the debate, so I couldn't cite them chapter and verse, but I did afterwards, for my blog review of it. Even at the time, I was able to say we're talking about several small methodologically flawed studies with mixed results. So Jacobs reviewed three studies of homeopathic remedies for diarrhea and—this is a homeopath; this is a guy trying to spin it in a positive direction, and he said that, you know, it indicates that there's possibly an effect here. Other authors reviewed the same three studies and said these results are mixed. So you have three studies with mixed results; that's not compelling evidence. And Jacobs did a follow-up study that was more rigorous and was dead negative. So once again, we have this pattern of the better studies are negative; you never get any consistent signal; you know, a consistent effect from the clinical research. It's just these mixed results and then when you finally get around to doing a rigorous study, it's negative. And this is studies done by homeopaths. That was the best evidence he had to offer, clinically. Saine's thing is that he has studied the historical evidence for homeopathy. So he goes on and on about this plague in the 1800's; you know, where homeopaths treated cholera and cured everybody, you know. It's like, "really? 100-year-old anecdotes is compelling evidence?" If the claims that they made for the effectiveness of homeopathy during those plagues were true, it would be absolutely trivial to demonstrate that homeopathic remedies were effective against those epidemic illnesses. Right? It would be trivial. And if it's not as effective as they say, then they're lying. The the results are not reliable, which is the easier explanation. 150-year-old pre-scientific reports—anecdotal reports of homeopathy or all of physics, chemistry and physiology on the other side. What's more likely to be wrong?

R: I've always thought that their best options were talking about times when homeopathic hospitals—people weren't dying as often because the doctors were bleeding people to death or doing... or having terrible sanitary conditions. And that's it. Like, it's not that they were doing any kind of effective treatment; it's just that they weren't killing them quite as quickly when doctors were using terrible techniques.

S: Yeah, 200 years ago, doing nothing was an advantage. So... that's the update on debating homeopathy.

J: So did you have a good time?

S: Yeah, I always enjoy doing that. It was fun.

R: And what was the audience response?

S: The audience was packed with homeopaths.

R: Oh.

E: (laughs)

Small Pterosaur (17:10)[edit]

So Evan, you're going to tell us about a tiny fossil hunter and a tiny fossil.

E: Yes I am. But first I'm going to ask you all this: so what were you doing when you were nine years old?

J: Four foot one![2]

E: (laughs) That is a long time. Karl, what were you doing when you were nine years old. Can you remember?

K: Wow. That would have been '81. Probably thinking about Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.

S: Sounds about right.

E: Right? Typical. As best as I can remember myself, I was in some kind of fog, right? I was just constantly daydreaming, in this prepubescent state and that I had a healthy fascination with fire, to put it lightly. Well, you know, you're nine years old; you're a boy; you know, these things fascinate you at that age. But I'd like you to meet Daisy Morris. She's nine years old. She hails from the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom and she just had her first prehistoric creature named after her. Daisy's mother says that her daughter has been a fossil hunter since the age of three and by the time Daisy was 5 years old—so this is 2008; she's already into her 3rd year of her paleontology hobby; she's walking along the beach, looking for fossils and sure enough, she hit the paleo jackpot: some dark-colored bones were protruding from the sand in her path; she stumbled across the remains. And with a gleam in her eye that could only be generated by that of a five-year-old girl, she took a deep breath and she said aloud, "Look at the bones!"[3]


J: That had to come out at some point.

R: It's like you're there.

E: (laughs) OK. So she carefully collected the bones and together with her mother, they brought the bones to Southampton University. There the professors studied the bones, did their tests and they were able to determine that these fossils were a new genus and species of a small pterosaur.

B: Holy crap.

E: That in its—look, you're finding—finding fossils is exciting enough. Discovering any kind of fossil is a rare experience for anybody. But to have found the fossil remains of a new genus and species I'd say is practically beyond belief.

S: Yeah. And you get to have it named after you.

E: Absolutely.

B: I was a total loser when I was nine.

E: Pterosaurs, in case you don't know, were flying reptiles from the Lower Cretaceous period, which... ranging from 65 million to 220 million years ago. And they're saying that this particular find is estimated to be around 125 million years old and the reason that it was in the news just recently is that this new species name was officially confirmed in the scientific paper published just a few days ago. So the SGU would like to officially welcome Vectidraco daisymorrisae to the collective sum of human scientific understanding.

S: Awesome.

B: That is so cool.

S: Pterosaurs are cool. Their wings are other mainly supported by their pinky that just is hugely extended. Very different birds or bats. Birds, bats, and pterosaurs all evolved flight, but with completely different anatomy. Bats have all her fingers support their wing; their wings are basically their fingers; Birds—their wings are their arms, and pterosaurs, it's just their one finger—hugely elongated finger. Isn't that cool?

R: That doesn't seem like a good idea.

B: Sounds painful, too.

J: So what are these what does this creature actually look like. Do they have a drawing of it or anything, Ev?

S: Oh yeah.

E: Yep. They do have some drawings of it. Had a wing span of about two and a half feet and was just over a foot from snout to tail. So, picture the size of a gull or large crow of today. So, pretty small, especially when you compare to its larger cousin, Quetzalcoatlus, which had a wingspan of more than 30 feet. Huge.

S: It's very small but its close cousin was the largest thing to ever fly on earth (that we know of).

E: It's cool for lots of different reasons. Obviously the age of the person involved, Daisy. It's fantastic that—

S: It's cool

E: —she's hunting bones at that age, you know. Like I said, where most of us don't even remember what we were doing back then. And I think it drives home the point that there's a little bit of luck involved in the scientific process, right? I mean, timing is... was essential here. This... these bones on the beach eventually would have found their way into the ocean; they would have been swept away; eroded away and set adrift or whatever.

S: One question about the situation is that... like, normally if you find a fossil embedded in rock somewhere, and you're an amatuer—whether you're just a fossil hunter or not; you're not a scientist; and you come across fossils, you're probably better off leaving the bones where they are and... because the scientists are going to want to investigate where the bones are embedded, not just the bones themselves. They may date them based upon the rock that they're in, but this situation was a little different because she found them on the beach, right? So these are probably already washed away from wherever they were deposited.

E: Right.

S: And... So probably the... if it was just the sand on the beach, that doesn't really matter.

E: Right; there's nothing to be gained by finding those bones in that beach. It doesn't tell you much about it—about when or the surrounding area or anything.

J: You know, when something is fossilized or goes through that process and the tissue decays around the bones and everything, I mean... is there anything in the immediate ground right where... that's touching the bones that gives any DNA or any kind of samples for scientists to find out more about the tissue of the creature, or is that all just completely obliterated?

S: When bones fossilize, by definition, minerals around the bone replace the calcium in the bones, and they literally become stone but they retain their structure. But fossilized bone can still retain some DNA, and we can extract tiny amounts of DNA even from afar slides cost wise bones up to tens of thousands of years old.

J: Not where the actual real tissue used to live outside off the bone, like the meat of the leg or whatever. There's nothing in the dirt right there were that use to be, right?

S: Oh, no, no, no; I'm not at— by the time it fossilizes, any soft tissue is completely destroyed.

B: That's why we'll probably never pull a Jurassic Park and get DNA... and grow a dinosaur because DNA just does not last that long. There's an upper limit where... where DNA will survive. I don't know what that limit is now, Steve; do you know what the limit is?

E: We talked about that recently

S: Yeah, it's thousands of years.

E: Six million years?

B: It's certainly not 65 million years.

S: Yeah

J: You would just think bacteria would gobble it all up as food.

S: I mean, it has to be very special conditions; low-oxygen conditions, for example; like, things that's fallen to the silt at the bottom of a river. Yeah, that's where things get fossilized. Most of the stuff that just dies on the surface somewhere, it does get completely decomposed and does not fossilize. Only a very tiny percentage of bones end up getting fossilized because they wind up in some special environment.

B: Same reason why we don't see—we talked about this—same reason why we don't see bones laying around everywhere outside because it's taken away by rodents and aliens and things.

S: Yeah. Very efficiently destroyed, yeah.

Fracking Earthquakes (25:05)[edit]

S: All right. Well, let's move on. Jay, you're going to tell us how fracking is causing earthquakes

J: So the question here is, "to frack or not to frack"—or should have said, "to frack or not to frack; that is the question," right?

E: Yes. Yes, you should have.

J: I thought at least you'd appreciate that, Evan.

E: Absolutely.

J: The basic idea of fracking, just to quickly remind the audience, is—fracking is when you inject water, sand, or chemicals into the deep shale formations and you're trying to break them apart underground. And what what you're doing is trying to release gases or oil or whatever it is that you're trying to pull out of the ground; you're trying to release it from breaking up all of that shale that's under there. So, it's like a big pressurized well; in essence, that's exactly what fracking is. The problem is that fracking uses quite a bit of water to do what it does. So on Tuesday the 26th of March, researchers from University of Oklahoma, Columbia University, and the US Geological Survey published their latest findings about hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, also known as fracking. They published their findings in the journal Geology. And what they found was—they referenced a earthquake that happened on November 6, 2011; it was a 5.7 magnitude earthquake that happened in Oklahoma and they say it was linked to drilling and the injection of water that, as I explained, is part of the fracking and drilling process. That earthquake was followed by an 11-fold increase in seismic activity across the central US in recent years. The earthquake was the biggest in the state's history and could be the largest link to the injection of water from the drilling process. But all the experts don't agree. The state's geological office said it was likely the result of natural causes, which I find interesting; I mean, they're still not 100 percent sure what's causing it. You know, we have different parties coming up with different conclusions. It seems to me, though, that there's a lot of people saying that fracking definitely can cause earthquakes. I thought that was really strange when you think about it. Like, you think an earthquake is kinda like a tornado; it's like a really big thing that can—how can humans have any real effect on that? But from what I read, the idea is that the injection of all of that lubricant, as you can think of it—essentially what water is doing is all that liquid that's in that region of the ground is loosening up; it's giving—it's making things able to slip in slide. And that can cause an earthquake. You know, I guess it is a little bit—it's not as stable as I thought it was, or would assume that was. The research paper warns that disposal of the millions of gallons of fluids from the hydraulic fracturing is most likely the cause and they propose that the government needs to have better monitoring and have oversight involved with all fracking procedures now. I thought this was interesting, so it—from 1970 to the year 2000, the seismic activity in the US's midregion averaged about 21 incidents in a year. That number went up to 50 in '09. It went up to 87 in 2010 and 134 in 2011. So you know, OK, it seems like that's a smoking gun. I don't really know what those results mean because who knows; there just could be some type of thing going on that we don't understand but they're using information like that to try to come up with some answers here. And because of concerns over earthquakes caused by fracking, the UK had stopped the practice of fracking temporarily until the late—until late 2012 and then at that time they said, "well, we're going to allow it again, but we're going to put some standards in place", so the oil and gas industry in the United States are now looking for other ways to deal with these waste waters for the same reasons. And that's where we're at with fracking.

S: So, I did find another recent study, Jay, that showed that increased earthquakes only happen when the water injection is near a fault line, which makes sense. And that other areas—so the fracking itself without the water getting access to a fault line doesn't cause earthquakes.

J: That makes sense; yep.

S: I didn't find anything that addressed this question; maybe we just don't know the answer yet. Because it seems like—you know, the fluid near a fault line is making it easier for... you know, the rock to slide against each other—the different sides of the fault to slide against each other. So are we essentially triggering a lot of little quakes that would have inevitably happened anyway? You know what I mean?

J: I don't know; I think it's an interesting point—

S: Are we getting twenty small quakes because we're lubricating the fault line, which would have been one bigger quake if we had let nature take its course?

J: I don't know. It's a hard question; I couldn't even begin to answer it. My only comment is: is it better to have these smaller earthquakes than one big one? Are those easier to deal with? Or maybe is the aggregate amount of damage from 20 small quakes versus one big one? Is there a big difference? I have no idea. It is very interesting topic, though, and I think I'm glad that people doing research into it.

R: I don't know that there'd be any way for them to tell what the timetable would be in that circumstance, though, Steve. Like, you know, it—even if the answer were "yes"; that this is many small earthquakes instead of one large one that will eventually happen, I don't know that they could tell you when it would happen. You know, two years from now or a million years from now.

S: We're just doing statistical information about how many quakes of what magnitudes are happening and just trying to correlate that with fracking activity. But it's hard to... obviously, you can't do a controlled study, right? You can't replay events and see what would have happened had we not fracked. You know, I think... they keep looking at this... sounds like they're showing that yes, there are more earthquakes, but only if the injected water is getting access to a fault line and now they have to do a lot more statistical analysis to see what the effects are and maybe compare areas that aren't being fracked over a longer period of time. Just keep gathering more data, you know?

R: They better not accidently trigger that Yellowstone supervolcano because I will be pissed.

B: That's scary

J: That's like on Phil-Plait-level of destroying the Earth; like, that's some epicly scary stuff.

S: Not the Earth, just the United States.

J: No, Steve; that could create a winter of sorts; you know, putting so much junk into the atmosphere.

B: Oh, my God; effects would be world-wide, but it's not the worst volcanic eruption, though. Flood basalt's worse; much worse.

J: What's that?

B: Oh, my God.


J: Well, what is it?

R: Oh my God; you don't even wanna know.

E: Can't say; it's that bad.

B: I read a description: imagine looking at—of an eruption from horizon to horizon, like a mile in the air spewing lava, and it lasts about, you know, a few thousand years and then it stops and then it starts again for like another thou—it like creates a—

J: Wait, wait; has this happened on the Earth?

B: Oh yeah. Look at the—what's it called—the Siberian Flats? What's that called?

J: I think we talked about this[link needed]. Oh, man.

B: They like... cover a continent in a kilometer, you know, of basalt. I mean, that makes a supervolcano look like, you know, not that much.

J: My question is: how long will it take for me to die if I see that mile-high magma wall?

B: Oh, my God.

J: Seconds? Minutes?

B: It depends how close you get, Jay. But it's like—it's a crack in the crust. It's nasty, nasty, and...

E: Crust crack. Yeah.

K: As much as I like a good fracking story... I read a couple more articles on this and even followed the abstract on the thing and it looks to me like they're not actually talking about fracking in this case but they're talking about wastewater from injection wells, which is a little bit different than hydraulic fracking, in that this particular quake was created by injecting wastewater into depleted wells. Wastewater used in a slightly more conventional form of oil extraction, but nonetheless would have major implications for fracking because fracking produces a large amount of wastewater that need to be disposed of.

J: Yeah, I agree, Karl; the article was a little unclear. They are predominantly talking about what they're going to do with fracking wastewater because there's so much of it and they are currently pumping all that water into the ground.

K: Yeah.

J: Another interesting thing: they said most of the water that they use doesn't even make it into the ground but it's still a phenomenal amount of water that's left in the Earth.

Never Eat Again (33:40)[edit]

S: All right; well, Karl, you're going to tell us about the man who never has to eat again.

B: Cool.

K: Yep. Well, Rob Rhinehart has a blog or website—

E: I remember him from All in the Family! Oh, wait.

K: —website that at least it has a nice name of "Mostly Harmless"; something somebody posted about on Facebook and I found the link and... he apparently decided that he was really just tired and resentful of all the money and time he invested in having to prepare and consume food and then having to clean up after himself. And so he decided he was going to reduce his diet to just all the essential nutrients and was going to create himself a simple beverage containing all the essential elements and nutrients he needs and he would call it "soylent".

R: Good name.

S: I like the name.

B: That's awesome!

S: And he put some green food dye in there...

R: Well, soylent was tofu, right? And Soylent Green was people[4].

K: Yes.

R: So, calling it "soylent" doesn't necessarily indicate that he meant the green variety; there were several varieties.

E: Still, there's a certain image...

B: Yeah, you can't help the association. Yeah, technically it wasn't, but...

J: It's a cool word. I mean, it you know it's in the sci-fi thing and it's fun but—I think it was—it's not a bad name for it.

E: You wouldn't name your kids "soylent" and say, "oh, well, it's OK".

K: Not their first name, anyway.


K: The thing that really fascinated me about it was fairly unscientific way he went about doing it; he basically he read a few books, searcher the Internet for nutrients and just kinda started hodgepodge putting in what he thought were essential nutrients and trying it out on himself, then tinkering with and adding things and when he started feeling sick or something and realized that he forgot to put iron in, he added iron in after the fact, 'cause I guess simple research on essential nutrients didn't mention iron. He didn't do what I would do in a situation like that where, I'd find a nutritionist and... one of my medical doctor friends and discuss with them what they thought I needed to do; he just kinda went out on his own. I think he has a bright future in the supplement industry.

S: Or you know, he could have gone to the supermarket and bought a six pack of Ensure.

K: Oh well, sure. But reinventing the wheel is fun!

S: Yeah, he just reinvented in his kitchen something that already exists on the market; multiple brands. You know? Someone's already done all the science, has already completely balanced all the nutrients and put it all together for you and it actually tastes good, too.

B: Is Ensure meant to be a complete diet replacement?

S: Yes. That's exactly what it is. It's meant to be a complete diet replacement.

E: Wow.

S: Or Boost, or whatever; there's a number of specific ones. They are for people who can't eat and to who need to live on milkshakes, basically

J: I see what you're saying, Steve; I mean I don't... from an entrepreneurial perspective, like go ahead. I think it's fine that he's trying to do this and as long as he finally does get FDA approval, if he ever wanted to take it that way. But I think he's just cooking this up in his own kitchen for now, and I'm not—

S: For himself, yeah.

J: Karl, did he say in the article that he was going to try to sell this or go anywhere with it?

K: Since he posted his original blog, he's had many people contact him for information and apparently he's got numerous people now also trying this out at the same time.

J: You know, it's an interesting mentality, when you think about where the guy's coming from. He doesn't want to waste the time and the expense of eating; he just wants to get it over with as soon as he can, for the most part. I don't think he was eating this 100 percent. Wasn't he having a few normal meals here and there?

K: He was something like—well, for 30 days he said he ate only this and then he kind of started going back to eating mostly this but, you know, when he gets together with friends he'd still dine and appreciate dining. But he still, I think, more than 75 percent drinking his soylent.

J: Yeah.

R: It's interesting, 'cause there was a thread a couple years ago on the SGU forums where some people were talking about—a surprising number of them all hated eating. Like, it's not that they found it painful or anything, but they were—what I imagine it must be like to be asexual, you know, they just—they found absolutely no pleasure in eating. So they were talking to each other, trying to find a solution, because it was just a wasted expense, because they weren't getting anything out of it, so they wanted something that was basically like a shake that they could make, you know, days in advance and just keep in the fridge and drink as needed, you know, to save the time and the money. But the weird thing is that—and so that's what I thought of when I first was reading about this guy. But it doesn't sound like he's actually like that, it sounds like he's just like a nerd who wanted to do this for the hell of it, you know. 'Cause he says he likes eating. So it doesn't really make sense to me in that regard, but it does make sense to me for the people who take absolutely no joy in eating—

B: No joy?

R: Or people who... yeah, I mean, it's really bizarre to me—

B: Even peanut butter? Have they ever tried peanut butter?

R: I know! But I that's just the way they're built, I guess, so...

B: That's kinda sad.

J: But we're all—come on, guys; there are times—you get home from work and you just want to eat, like, a bowl of cereal for dinner; you don't want to have to go through the hour-long—

B: There's no problem with that.

J: —cooking, cleaning—

R: Right; so just—

E: That's OK.

R: Eat a bowl of cereal; don't—

K: That's what bowls of cereal are for.

R: Don't develop a new formula (laughs) and spend weeks making yourself sick over something that you haven't researched properly.

J: He said something interesting, where he was tweaking it like a chemistry experiment and he would plus or minus the calorie intake to regulate his body weight and he was—he kinda called it "hacking"; he was like hacking his body, in a way. That was the terminology used in the article. Overall, I find it interesting; you know, I think it's more—it's culturally interesting to me to find people that are finding eating inconvenient and everything. And I couldn't disagree more. You know, I would... like I said, yeah, I'll throw down a bowl of cereal here or there but for the most part, I want to sit down have a warm meal and overeat and enjoy myself. I love it way too much. Meat balls all the way.

S: I can't believe that in all the articles about this, no one mentioned that this product already exists. I just found that... you know, very stunning—

J: Don't be a party pooper, Steve.

E: Yeah, right? Why detract from this guy's—

R: Not only do they not mention that it exists, but a lot of the articles go on about how this is this solution to impoverished—

S: World hunger.

R: Yeah, hungry people.

S: Really?

R: Yeah. And it's like, no! Obviously, this is not the solution.

J: I came up with something not too long ago. Like, I was at my desk and I'm like, "I'm thirsty but I don't want to have to put my lips on the faucet. Like, I need something... I don't know—"

R: What?!

J: "Some type of thing to put liquid in."


S: Where you going with this, Jay?

J: So I invented, like, this container for liquid. Now I keep it at my desk...

R: You invented the cup.

K: Was it cubical in shape or was it cylindrical?

J: It's cylindrical shaped; it fits into my hand nicely. I'm going to run with this.

K: Is it open on both ends?

J: Only one end. No, no. Karl, one end is open, right? Then you put your mouth open end and just lift it up. It's really cool. It works. It works!

R: I think you just solved world thirst!

K: It's closed on the other end. Oh...

J: That's right. Can't have a hole on both ends.

K: I think you need to get a Kickstarter campaign to fund that.

J: I'm already—I'm doing it right now.

S: And you drink from the near end, right? Not the far end?


E: Well...

K: Unless you've got a drinking problem.

R: More tests have to be done.

E: Yes.

J: We're working on it.

Voyager at the Edge (41:52)[edit]

S: All right. Bob, you're going to give us a quick update on the Voyager probe.

B: Yeah. Voyager was yet again in the news. This past week or so, a paper published in the American Geophysical Union's website claimed that Voyager 1 appears to have traveled beyond the influence of the Sun and exited the heliosphere, but it turns out that the celebration was perhaps premature. NASA quickly rebutted the announcement, saying that it's the consensus of the Voyager science team that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space. So what's happened here and who's right; who's wrong? Well, first of all I think you gotta know what a heliosphere is. It can be considered a boundary of the solar system; kind of a bubble surrounding our solar system, well beyond Pluto that contains essentially the Sun's solar wind and its magnetic field. Those are its two main things; kind of like this plasma bubble. Now signals from Voyager in the fall of 2012 indicated two things that seem consistent with the idea of it being outside the heliosphere. Number one was anomalous cosmic rays dropped to a hundredth of their former levels and I wasn't too aware of these, but apparently these are cosmic rays that are trapped in the outskirts of the heliosphere and can't get out. So they dropped to one percent of what their former levels were, and the number two: galactic cosmic rays greatly increased. So you put those together; kinda makes sense. You know, things that are within the solar system kinda went away and things that are kinda outside increase, so seems reasonable to assume that hey, it's gone—it's left the solar system. But NASA apparently has a number three on its list and according to them, this linchpin indicator of the... the end of the solar system is a reversal of the direction of the magnetic field in the solar system that's created by the Sun, and this reversal has not been detected. And that's the bottom line for them. If that—if it hasn't been—if it hasn't reversed, then we're not outside yet. So then, where is Voyager, right? If it's not outside. NASA believes it's in this new region of the solar system called the "magnetic highway". This is kinda where the magnetic field of the Sun connects to outside and... So, it's not surprising that we'd find a new layer to the solar system once we actually send our instrumentation out there. So that's—that doesn't—that's not very surprising and it's very interesting. And that's pretty much all I've got on that. One thing I wanted to cover; Steve, I think you made an egregious mistake—was it last week or so when you said that? You said that the player on the Voyager—you know that Golden Disk with—

S: The record.

B: —the music and images. Yeah. There is no playback mechanism on Voyager.

S: Yeah, so when I was reading about that, they said that there are instructions for how to play the record on Voyager. I assumed that meant there are instructions for how to use the player on the probe itself.

B: Oh, I see.

S: But the instructions are how to build a player.

B: Not even that; not even that. It's really how to play it. There's an image in the upper left of the record itself that seems pretty clear what it is. And also apparently there's a stylus—it said that there's a stylus actually there that they can use and it shows how to use the stylus; how to orient it so that you can play it back. And it also says things like what the rotation speed needs to be: one rotation per 3.6 seconds. Of course, they didn't express it as seconds; it was some fundamental unit of time—

J: See, Bob, I thought they had an actual funk band in Voyager.


B: Yeah, right.

R: No, I'm picturing like, an IKEA-style instruction booklet and bunch of aliens scratching their heads and wondering where slot B is.

B: I thought they just threw an iPod on there, but I forgot that it was actually well before iPods.

K: We don't have to worry about it, Steve; we know from Star Trek 5[link needed] that the Klingons destroy Voyager as target practice.

B: Oh I knew somebody was going to bring that up! (laughs)

E: Oh yeah; that's right.

B: Awesome, awesome.

S: No, but there were two Voyagers; the other one, V'Ger[link needed], became sentient; don't forget.

B: (laughs)

Who's That Noisy? (46:01)[edit]

S: OK, Evan; It's that time again where you're going to tell us about Who's That Noisy.

E: Yes indeed, Steve, and I'm going to play for everyone last week's Who's That Noisy. Here we go:

it's more when I started to talk to him I started to learn there are a lot of misconceptions about the dangers of vaccinations and, in particular, the association with autism and I found it to just be sad that—

B: Is that Jim Carrey's new wife?

S: No.

E: Several guesses—yeah, no; I mean a lot of guessed came in thinking it was Jenny McCarthy.

S: Well, the thing that's interesting, Evan—the clip that you have there—it's not obvious if this person thinks it there is an association between vaccines and autism or that there isn't.

E: Right. She words it in such a way that it's a bit ambiguous.

S: Unless you have the context of the rest of what she said.

E: She was definitely defending the practice of vaccination and taking a swipe at the anti-vaxers. So that is none other than our friend Amanda Peet

S: Who is awesome.

E: Who is awesome. In 2008, Peet volunteered to be a spokeswoman for Every Child By Two, which is a non-profit organization that advocates childhood vaccination. And she's been praised for her outspoken stance in those efforts.

R: Cool

E: Well done. And there were a handful of people actually got that correct and from our random drawing, this week's winner is none other than Fred Bremer!

J: Fred!

R: Good ol' Fred.

J: That was random? Fred got picked on random?

B: Yay Fred!

E: Random. Well, there were four correct guesses. Four.

J: Oh, OK; I thought there was going to be like a hundred or something.

E: Naaah, I kinda hoped but... nope; four correct guesses and Fred, you got it this week. Well done, my friend.

J: In case our audience doesn't know, Fred Bremer is the guy that has made it to every single SGU dinner that we've had.

S: All right, Evan, so what have you got for this week?

E: OK. This week we have a logic puzzles for everybody. Three scientists: Albert, Isaac, and Marie are talking to each other about a collection of scientific books owned by Jonas. Albert says "Jonas has at least four books by Maxwell." Isaac says, "No, Jonas has less than four books by Maxwell." Marie says, "Well, according to me, Jonas has at least one book by Maxwell." If you know that only one of the three scientists is correct, then how many books by Maxwell does Jonas possess?

R: I know it's not Isaac because you should've said "fewer" instead of "less"

S: Fewer books.

E: Fewer books. You want me to re-say that?

S: Nope. I want to make fun of you for saying it wrong.


E: Well, I didn't say it wrong; it's how the puzzle was presented to me.

S: Yeah. (laughs) That's a common one: "fewer" versus "less".

E: All right, so wtn @ is the email address and is our forums. Go ahead and post there; send us an email; however you like. Good luck, everyone.

Questions and Emails (49:12)[edit]

Question 1: More than Gravity[edit]

S: All right; well, we're going to do one email this week. This one comes from Julia Burke. Rebecca's, do you know Julia?

R: I know Julia Burke. Julia Burke's awesome. She's written several guest posts for Skepchick.

S: Julia writes:

I'm a friend of Rebecca's, a former CFI employee, and a huge fan of SGU, so let me start by thanking you for all that you do!

E: You're welcome.

S: I always find it interesting when people thank me for all that I do. Really? Everything? For cleaning out my garage?

R: Not that fart that you let out.

J: Skeptical activities.

E: You picked that hanging thing —well, never mind.

S: We'll assume they mean all of my skeptical things that I do. All right; anyway, she writes—

E: Not that banana tree you killed, by the way.

S: Oh, don't get me started on my poor banana tree.

E: (laughs) I just did! Love it. Go ahead.

S: The core is still alive, though; thank you. All right. Here we go. She writes:

My editor at Buffalo Spree magazine sent me a press release about two local scientists affiliated with Ecology and Environment, Inc. just outside of Buffalo, New York. They have apparently established something called the "More than Gravity" theory. I did some Googling and had trouble finding anything about this that didn't seem to come right from the press release; if two local scientists are using a prominent Buffalo company to promote woo, I want to know about it and write about it; that said, if there's something to this I am obviously interested in covering that as well. Have you heard anything about this? Having no physics background I don't have a lot of frame of reference, but the lead to the press release prickled my skeptic senses: "Through 50 years of research and observation, scientific and engineering experts, Gerhard and Kevin Neumaier, have developed a new theory that refutes the 400-year-old assumptions currently held by the scientific community." Any help you could give me would be much appreciated!

S: So, I know you guys had to take a look at the more than gravity website. My oh my, this is like... this is Neal Adams territory; this is—it's not quite quantum jumping but it's getting close. Their theory, if you read their executive summary, is that —here, I'll just read you some of it: "The planets are positioned in a quantized order. We found a simple equation that accurately predicts the velocity of planetary orbits and distances from the Sun." So, basically they're saying that what governs the movement of planets around the Sun and moons around planets is not just gravity. There's something else going on and one of their main pillars of evidence is the fact that the orbits of the planets around the Sun appear to exist in some kind of mathematical sequence. You guys heard about that claim before, right?

K: Bode's law?

S: Bode's law; right. Which is interesting... you know, I've talked about this with astronomers before as well; it's like, "is there anything to Bode's law? Is it just a coincidence?" And... reading about it some more—and another thing is now that we're finding lots of exoplanets, well now we can test Bode's law. If you look at other solar systems, then... Bode's law is a law and not just a mathematical numerological coincidence, then it should hold up. But we haven't really gathered enough data yet. We don't really have complete solar systems, you know? Enough to know. But what some astronomers are saying now is that—well, it's essentially pattern recognition. If you have any solar system, one thing you can say is that planets are not going to be right next to each other. Right? 'Cause they wouldn't be stable; they would bump into each other eventually. So by necessity planets have to space them out to some degree. Once you settle into the remaining planets in stable orbits, they have to be somewhat spaced out. And if you have any system like that, you're going to be able to find some factor that—some ratio that will match the orbits. So it's not that there isn't a pattern; it's that there's always going to be a pattern, just by random chance alone. So the fact that there is some kind of Bode-like pattern to any solar system doesn't mean anything. That's essentially, I think, what the astronomers are saying, now that we even have some additional data from exoplanets. But these guys say, "nope; this is a law. It's quantized like electrons are quantized in an atom and there's some relationship there". Then they do all this numerological stuff to try to show that it's—that there's something meaningful there. So you guys know what the extra thing is that is governing the movement of planets and moons?

K: (chuckles) Solar wind!

S: The solar wind.

J: So why doesn't the wind just blow everything away?

S: Yeah. Don't get technical, Jay. So they think that the solar wind—all right; did you ever watch Bugs Bunny? Where Bugs Bunny takes the cannon and he twists it and then when the cannon ball comes out, the cannon ball continues to travel in a helical pattern?

J: Yes.

E: Oh, sure. Classic.

S: So that's what they think is going on. They think that the solar wind doesn't travel straight out in rays from the Sun; that it travels out in like an expanding spiral from the Sun.

E: A Fibonacci-sort of thing.

S: And that these spirals are pushing the planets in their orbits around the Sun.


E: Well, they'd have to overcome a lot of science saying the contrary if any wants to take them seriously, I suppose.

K: Come on. Newton? Einstein? Kepler? All those guys are morons. They don't know what they're talking about.

E: Lightweights.

S: Newton? Einstein? Morons!


J: That's what I thought. My first question is: why? Why? Why would you even speculate on this? I mean, it's not—I don't know; I don't want to say that—

S: Because they're cranks, Jay. Because they thought they saw something profound and then they ran with it rather than finding—you know, asking the question "is this really real or is this just a pattern which seems to be real?" They didn't honestly ask that question. And then before they finished going down that rabbit hole they've completely reinvented physics and astronomy and everything and you know... It's just unbelievable; just the nonsense these guys are spewing forth but with mathematical equations and precision and everything. So—but they're just fundam—there's so many—the interesting thing here's is, like, count the fundamental scientific problems with their theories. You know? The solar wind doesn't travel that way. The other thing is: even if the solar wind followed the path they said it would still be pushing the planets out. It's not a lateral force; it still would be a net force away from the Sun.

J: So are they thinking it's more like water going down a drain, as far as the movement of the solar wind?

S: I guess but reversed; going away from the Sun, not towards the Sun. They also used this to explain why the moons—most of the big moons in the solar system are in a locked to orbit; like our moon always shows the same face to the Sun—to the earth. They also think that the solar wind is what's pushing things down to the planet.

E: Oh.

K: Yeah

S: I don't know that works when it's nighttime; you know, when you're on the opposite end of the planet. But apparently the solar wind is what's pushing you down to the ground. Here's some other fundamental problems with this: if they're right; if there's this other force at work, the solar wind, and gravity doesn't explain—precisely and completely explain the movement of the planets or the moons, then the theories by which we have been sending probes out to other planets would not work. We would not have been getting pretty pictures back of Jupiter and Saturn. Those probes landed precisely where we wanted them to. Our theories could not have been profoundly off, as these guys claim. Period! Just impossible.

K: I read through all 43 pages.

R: Holy crap.

S: Good for you.

E: Masochist.

K: I mean, there's just way too much to even get all the highlights. Just a couple points: if it's solar wind that keeps us on the planet, they don't even explain how galaxies are bound together gravitationally, because there's no star in the center there. But like, just basic errors, like at one point, they start talking about dark matter, and they're equating "dark matter" with "black hole".

S: I think they're saying... What I took from that was that dark matter is really a manifestation of the fact that our theories of gravity don't work. That Newtonian gravity doesn't work; that's why we have to invent dark matter. So that's actually the least crazy of the things that they say, because it is—some astronomers have been thinking, "well, maybe modified Newtonian gravity is really the solution to dark matter", but it turns out that in the ensuing years, we discovered actual dark matter. We don't know what it is but we could see that it's there; it's not just that Newtonian gravity has to be modified. But that's at least they have an argument there, is that our equations about gravity might be incomplete and that's the real explanation for the missing gravity. It's not this dark matter; it's that our equations are off.

K: Well, I got that, but when they're talking about dark matter, they were talking about "scientists were searching for dark matter" and equating that to "searching for black holes", as if they thought scientists thought dark matter was black hole.

S: Yeah. I found it very hard to follow their arguments; they were not coherent and I always felt like I was left hanging. Did you have this feeling, Karl? Like they're building you up for this explanation and the explanation never comes?

K: Yeah. It's like, "and here's the explanation: it's this way". Well, no; that's a statement; you haven't actually given any explanations for what you're talking about.

S: It's just an assertion; it's not evidence; it's not... and the ego woven throughout this is also unbelievable. So here's—it's just fun to think on how many things completely and utterly, by themselves, contradict these notions. One is comets! How do comets fall in towards the Sun if the solar wind is what's moving things around the Sun. And the pathway that comets take are perfectly explained by a gravitational theory.

B: And wouldn't the comet's tail be shaped differently if the solar wind had that effect?

S: Yeah. That's right. All right, here's another thing. At one point in the paper they say that no one's ever measured the gravitational constant. So apparently they never heard of the Cavendish experiment, where we—where scientist measured... the gravitational constant! They directly measured it.

R: Do you think it's that they haven't heard of it or do you think that they're trying to snow someone?

S: So they have an interactive part of their website and other people brought up some— "uh, what about the Cavendish experiment?" and they—again, they had some response to that but it was incoherent. It didn't make any sense; it's like, "that's just looking at the effect of iron balls on each other". Yeah! The gravitational effect!

E: (laughs) Gee, observation.

K: But Steven, they say there's a one-in-a-30-billion chance that the planets all orbit the Sun in the same direction could be the result of random chance.

S: Right, right, right. So—

K: Completely ignoring the fact that they will all rotate the same direction because they were part of the same rotating swirling cloud of gas that collapsed.

S: Yeah, but that's just— you're just invoking something that happened in the past.

K: (inaudible) big planet.

S: Nobody was here to see that happen. This is literally what they say when you say, "yeah, but what about the swirling discs?" "Oh, scientists just invent stuff that happened in the past in order to explain what's happening today. But our theory beautifully explains it without having to invoke these invisible forces or things that happened in the past." I mean, it's just unbelievably ridiculous. Well, let's move on. We're going to go on now with Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:01:48)[edit]

It's time to play Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Karl, are you ready for your first Science or Fiction?

K: Yeah. I guess so.

E: Wow.

S: OK. That's the spirit.

J: Karl, come on. Really?

B: You're not ready.

R: Good to hear.

B: (laughs)

K: I have a love-hate relationship with Science or Fiction, 'cause it forces me to do something I don't do, is that—

J: Think?

K: —speculate on things that I don't know about without researching them first.

R: It is painful at times.

E: Ever play poker? We'll talk later.

K: Not for long time.

S: OK, here we go. Item #1. Scientists report the discovery of new lizard species, Tetrahymena, that exists in seven distinct sexes. Item #2. Nature recently reported that two counterfeit scientific journals successfully scammed hundreds of researchers out of author fees. And item #3. New genetic evidence suggests that primates evolved trichromatic color vision while still nocturnal, rather than as an adaption to diurnal living, as previously believed. Karl, as our guest, you have the extreme privilege of going first. You didn't know it was a privilege, did you?

K: No.

E: Good luck.

K: The first one: scientists report discovery of new lizard species that exists in seven distinct sexes. That's an interesting one. That could be kinda complicated.

J: Right? Imagine like... those are some complicated relationships.

K: How do you pair up at dances? That's one of those ones that seems so crazy you almost think there's gotta be something to it but... I don't like that one but let's move on to the next one. Nature recently reported two counterfeit journals successfully scammed hundreds of researchers out of author fees. That one seems very plausible. I don't really have any problem with that one. New genetic evidence suggests primates evolved trichromatic color vision while still nocturnal. That's interesting because I always thought that color vision with pretty weak under low-light conditions, and I wonder how you would evolve color vision in low light when you're mostly nocturnal. So that one seems problematic. But now, that first one is so crazy. The seven distinct sexes thing—if it's true, that'll be fascinating and I need to read about that, but I just have a hard time buying that one. Unless there's something subtle here that I'm not thinking of I'm going to say that the distinct sexes one is wrong.

S: OK. Bob?

B: Ahhh! I don't want to go now. The seven distinct sexes. Lizards just seem too evolved; too complicated for that to make sense, you know, if it was something much more simple, I could buy that so I'm having a big problem with that one. Counterfeit journal scamming? Yeah, sure, why not; I mean, what problem could I have with that? It's probably easy to do and get away with. Yeah, the trichromatic color vision evolving during the the night; yeah, that makes no sense because color vision is essentially useless at night, which is—and because the cones are close to the fovea of the retina—that's why people say at night, if you want to see something really sharply, don't look directly at it. Look a little away from it so that your rods com into play for night vision and that how you could see things more clearly at night. And so that makes no sense, unless perhaps those primates, you know, you—I guess you can you could be nocturnal but still have minimal activity during the day and you would have a benefit if you had color vision during those brief periods of time. So I can kinda justify that. It doesn't make much sense—I mean, I could make a case for all of them, so I don't know what the hell I'm going to do.

J: Well, you're going to pick one, right?

B: I know.

R: Sometime tonight.

B: I'm going to go— to go with the scientific journal. Fiction.

S: OK. Jay?

J: All right. The one—seven sexes... I've lots of questions about this one; it's a really provocative Science or Fiction item. Like is it—can only two of the—like, there's seven of them and can sex one and sex two only mate and sex 3 and sex 4 only mate? But there's an odd number. Maybe like three of them can only mate... it's very complicated relationships going on. It's kind of weird. Nature; the one about Nature reporting that there were scam journals scamming people. I have no reason to doubt that; there are scams all over the web; that one is absolute fact. The last one about the genetic evidence that is suggesting the color vision one. So between the first and the last one, I think I'm going to go with the one about the lizard species as being the fake.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: Am I the only one? I feel like color vision is perfectly helpful to nocturnal animals, because there are plenty of times when it's bright enough at night to see in color, like dusk, dawn, and full moons. The counterfeit journals; yes, totally makes sense. We talk about crap journals all the time and they always have really fancy-sounding names and they're just crap and so I can completely believe that some having counterfeit and have made off with lots of money. The lizard species; Bob totally said the right answer and then, I think, and then continued on. He said lizards are too complex; maybe a smaller organism and I agree with that. I don't agree with Bob's final answer, but I agree with that. So I'm going to say that the lizard species one is the fiction.

S: And Evan.

E: I'm going to go with the lizard species. I'm going to say that that one's the fiction.

B: Oh, big mistake.

S: So you all agree that new genetic evidence suggests that primates evolved trichromatic color vision while still nocturnal rather than as an adaptation to diurnal living as previously believed. You all think that one is science and that one is... science.

R: Woo-hoo!

S: Thought I might get some of you guys on that one. That was surprising to me.

R: I feel like I read this ages ago.

S: There may have been some previous studies about this, but this is a new study looking at the genetics of tarsiers. Tarsiers branched off very basally from the primate tree.

B: Basally?

S: Yes, so very close to the beginning of the primate tree and so therefore, by looking at their genetics we can say something about how—what early primates may have looked like. What the genetic analysis indicated was that they had a common ancestor with the rest of primates with trichromatic vision. So that would suggest that trichromacy evolved before monkeys and apes became diurnal and that therefore it evolved even while early primates were still nocturnal. It's not the only possible interpretation of this, but it does strongly suggest that. And Rebecca, they do hypothesize what you said: That rather than primates became diurnal and then that provided the selective advantage for trichromacy, or greater color vision, that primates evolved trichromacy probably because of vision at twilight or during a full moon. They gave those examples. And that—

R: There are other animals that are nocturnal that have color vision, right? That's the thing that I remember reading before and I always thought the reason for that was because it is a useful adaptation, even for nocturnal animals.

S: Well, most other vertebrates have tetrachromacy, so they just haven't—they could be nocturnal, but just never lost their color vision. Most mammals are... just have two pigments, but primates and marsupials—

J: Part of the marsupial family, yeah.

S: Yeah, right (chuckles) are—have trichromacy; all the mammals are dichromats. Right.

R: OK.

S: So yeah, maybe it was the other way around; maybe it was the fortuitous development of trichromacy, which was selected for because it will be an advantage during a full moon or during twilight, that then allowed primates to become diurnal. So just the cause and effect was reversed. You know, the adaptation came first and then that led to the ability to shift to more of daytime activity.

B: Yeah, they hit the ground running, so to speak.

S: All right. I guess we'll take these in reverse order, so let's go to number two: Nature recently reported that two counterfeit scientific journals successfully scammed hundreds of researchers out of author fees. Bob, you think this one is the fiction; everyone else thinks this one is science and this one is... science. Sorry, Bob.

J: Sorry, Bob!

R: Sorry, other scientists that got ripped off.

S: Yeah, so...

K: Now I feel bad for saying yay.

S: These were counterfeit online web sites of real science journals. That's why they were counterfeit; they weren't just crappy journals, they were... So one journal was the Archives des Sciences, which is published by the Society of Physics and Natural History of Geneva in Switzerland. So what these counterfeiters did was they mocked up a website of a real journal, but a journal that doesn't have its own website. So these were paper-only journals that don't have a website and then—and they did a really good job of making it look legitimate. And then they would—authors would submit papers through the online site; 'cause who wouldn't? You know, you go online; look at the journal; there it is. They would pay the author fees for—some journals can't afford—they don't have enough revenue to print the journals, so they just make authors pay a fee to publish their paper, which I always thought was cracky, but whatever. And then they would take the fees and then they would just abscond with them. Now, the editor of the real journal was getting inquiries from scientists saying, "hey, when's my paper going to be published?" And they had no idea what they were talking about. "What paper? You never submitted a paper to us." And then an indexing—Thomson Reuters indexes—so this is an index of scientific publications—they were using the website in order to index published articles and they started to notice discrepancies between the articles that were being published on the website, that the website said were being published in the journals, and the articles that were actually appearing in the print journal. But for a while they were actually indexing the fake websites. You know, before they figured out that it was all a fraud. Then, of course, they quickly removed it once that uncovered. So, Nature reported that hundreds of researchers were scammed out of their author fees and apparently, they tracked the money to Armenia. The journals are trying to get these sites shut down but they can't do it.

R: Why not?

S: I don't know.

R: Because of international law?

S: I guess; they just can't get them shut down.

R: That sucks.

J: Well, part of the problems are in another country is it's complicated.

S: Yeah. So I think one of the lessons here is: even if you're a print-only journal, you gotta scarf up your URLs with your name on it and you gotta park a website on your brand. These were targeted because they had no web presence. So it was a vacuum that these counterfeiters were able to fill.

K: Come on; It's 2013.

S: Yeah, right? OK. So let's go number one: Scientists report the discovery of a new lizard species, Tetrahymena, that exists in seven distinct sexes; that one is the fiction, but Tetrahymena does exist and it does exist in seven different sexes, but it's a protozoan. It's not a lizard. The new study that inspired my fake news item elucidated the genetics of the different sexes. So this is actually a really interesting protozoan species that is used a lot in research. What they found was that just two genes determine which of the seven sexes an organism—one individual Tetrahymena would be. And they also found that—so when two Tetrahymena to come together to mate, at that point they essentially decide which of the seven sexes they're going to be and then they mate and then their offspring also is—the sex of the offspring is also randomly determined.

R: It is really awesome.

S: Yeah.

R: I actually read this paper this morning and I was going to write a post about it on Skepchick, but I couldn't think of the perfect joke. So I ended up not doing it and I'm really glad I didn't. 'Cause otherwise you would've seen and it wouldn't have—

S: Yes. I always check Skeptic before I decide my Science or Fiction.

R: But yeah; it is really cool, particularly because it's randomized; like, the fact that you have two different sexes making a baby and the baby's sex has nothing to do with the parents sex; like, they don't get it from the parent's sex. It's bizarre and interesting.

S: Also, what's interesting about this species and partly why it's used frequently in genetic research is that it has two nuclei.

B: Whoa, what the hell?

S: It has a germline nucleus and a somatic nucleus. So, the genes are separated out and that allows for experimental manipulation. You can control for things a little bit more 'cause you know that only some genes are in one nucleus and other genes are in the other nucleus.

J: All right; Steve, I'm going to hit you with some randomness; I'm going to roll the die; Are you ready?

S: OK.

J: Here I go. (die rolling) Number one!

S: Number one. Got it right! Very good; very clever. I think the die cheats. I think that's the only explanation.

R: Yeah, it's always on Wikipedia.

S: All right; well, good job everyone but Bob. A rare solo Bob loss. But Bob, I admire your courage for going against the herd.

R: G.W.K.

E: Good job, Bob.

R: Good job, Karl. 100 percent.

K: Perfect record.

B: I'm never going to meta-game again.

S: Don't meta.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:04)[edit]

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

J: I do; I have a cool quote this week. This quote was sent in by a listener named Jim Kelly from Austin, Texas. The quote is from someone named Søren Kierkegaard. He was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author. And the quote is:

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

Søren Kierkegaard!

E: Gezundheit!

J: Thank you.

S: That's a bit obvious, isn't it?

K: I think I've heard that one somewhere before.

J: You don't—

R: It's fine. Let's wrap this up.

J: Steve, you don't like it?

S: It's fine; it's just that observation... yeah? And then what?

R: What are you saying; you're smarter than Kierkegaard? Steve, is that what you're saying?

S: It just seems a bit obvious; yes, you could believe that's not true or not believe something that is true. OK.

J: I mean he—guy was walking around in the mid-1800s, so that was pretty progressing thinking.

K: Maybe it's only obvious because he thought of it a long time ago.

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah.

S: That's true; I'm standing on his shoulders. Is that what you're saying?

R: Yeah, exactly.


NECSS (1:18:02)[edit]

S: So hey; next week we are at NECSS in New York City. There is still time to get tickets if you're going to be able to come and join us. We'll be doing a live show as well as a private recording. And don't forget that there are four tickets left for the private SGU recording Saturday evening. Two of these will be raffled off to anyone who pre-registers for the show by midnight Monday, Eastern Time—that's April 1st—and two are available for auction on eBay. You could find the links to those in the show notes as well as on the NECSS homepage, and also on my blog, NeuroLogica.

Rebecca at Academia Film Olomouc (1:18:58)[edit]

R: Speaking of—I have a plug. Speaking of events, I am going to be in Prague April 16th to 20th at the Academia Film Olomouc. (coughs, clears throat) Sorry. I will be at a science film festival along with Richard Saunders, apparently, and maybe some other fun skeptics doing talks and watching movies and seeing what there is to be seen. I don't think it's in Prague; it's near Prague. That's—that's all I know.

S: Don't go by any windows.

R: I don't understand what that means.

S: Yeah. You don't want to get defenestrated.

B: Oh! Nice one, Steve. Nice one.

R: What does that have to do with—

E: I knew that word would eventually sneak its way into the show.

R: I don't get it. What does that have to do with Prague?

B/S: The defenestration of Prague.

S: It's a famous historical event.

R: Oh, really?

S: Yeah. Threw some kids out the Tower window to their death. Look it up; defenestration of Prague.

Cordial Deconstruction (1:20:00)[edit]

K: Can I just throw out a little shameless self-plug for my—

B: No!

K: —for my blog that may or may not exist anymore now that the TV show Fringe is off the air, but my blog, if anybody's interested, especially if you like the show Fringe. Mostly what I did there was do scientific reviews of episodes of Fringe.

B: That's cool.

S: Well, you just have to move on to some other series.

K: Yeah. I'm trying to find one that works, and... there's shows like Revolution and stuff, but Fringe just had a great variety of new stuff every week to cover.

S: Well, thank you all for joining me this week, and Karl, thank you for joining us.

K: Oh, thank you for having me.

R: Yeah, thanks, Karl.

J: Thanks, Karl.

B: Thanks, man

E: Thank you, Karl.

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

Voice-over: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can also check out our other podcast, The SGU 5x5, as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune, or your portal of choice.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Jay invented the drinking cup
  • Ellen Swallow Richards was:
    • The first woman admitted to MIT
    • MIT's first female instructor
    • The first woman in America to be admitted to a school of science and technology
    • The first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry
  • Quetzalcoatlus was one of the largest known flying animals of all time
  • Tetrahymena is a protozoan that exists in seven distinct sexes


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