SGU Episode 403

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SGU Episode 403
6th Apr 2013
SGU 402 SGU 404
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
IO: Ian O'Neill
Quote of the Week
Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose.
Michael Pollan
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Monday, April 1st, 2013, and this is your host, Steve 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, my friends. How are you?

S: Good evening, Evan.

J: Hello!

R: Super.

S: So is this the first time we're actually recording a show on April 1st?

B: I think so; I think we would've remembered that if we did.

R: I don't know; I would have forced myself to forget it. I hate today; today's the worst day of the year.

S: (laughs)

B: Well, come on.

J: Why; what's going on, Rebecca?

R: In much the same way that St Patrick's Day is amateur night for drinking—

B: (laughs) nice, nice.

R: April Fool's Day is amateur night for comedians

S: For pranksters?

R: Yeah, pranks. You know what? Like 99.9 percent of pranks? Not funny or at all interesting and it's gotten even worse in recent years because it's now become this day for corporate viral videos. Like, what corporation is going to win April Fool's today?

S: Yeah.

B: Did anybody experience a good prank today or hear about one?

S: No, nothing.

B: Yeah, I got squat; what the hell's that about?

E: Didn't Google try to say that they were taking YouTube down? They were going to cease YouTube for the day or something?

R: That was a—I'll admit that was a funny video.

E: That's about all I heard.

R: They said that YouTube was just a giant contest and now they're ready to start sorting through all this submissions and they'll announce a winner in 10 years and they're taking...

E: Ten years? It'd take them a lot longer than that, I would think.

R: It was a pretty funny video.

J: Turns out it's that cat that can talk; you know, the one that was like, "oh no no". You know that one?

R: I'd be OK with that as a winner.

S: It would definitely be a cat video.

E: Yeah.

S: Just by odds alone.

J: I don't like the ones where it's actually something that gets you really upset; like, it's one thing—you could pull a prank that is just funny, but Steve is a douche for doing this, where he'll pull a prank and it'll be like, "I'm moving out of the state." You know, that's not funny.

S: I did that once.

E: That was the Perry prank!

J: Yeah, but it still sucked.

S: It took me months to build up to that prank.

E: Yeah that wasn't a one-day thing; that was a long...

S: I totally got everybody. Perry was mad at me 'til the day he died for doing that joke.

E: (laughs) He never forgave you. Never.

R: Good prank.

S: Now that's a prank worth doing.

S: (inaudible) Piss somebody off for the rest of their days; that's a good prank.

E: Steve, I would be together with Perry; we'd have lunch or dinner or something; he would be... this was years after that prank and he would be like, (imitating Perry) "Evan, how are we gonna get that guy? We really gotta get that guy for having done that. Oh, doesn't it burn you up?"

S: (chuckles)

E: He never let it go.

S: And he never got me back, unless he's somehow still alive and that was the prank.

R: (laughs) Best prank ever.

J: That would be.

R: Kaufman-esque

S: All right; well—

This Day in Skepticism (3:08)[edit]

April 6 1992: Isaac Asimov Died

R: I avoided April Fool's day in choosing This Day in History because I hate it so much. So, the day that this podcast goes up is April 6th and April 6, 1992 marks the day that Isaac Asimov died at the age 72 from complications of AIDS. Asimov is best known for his science fiction novels but he may be quote beloved by our audience for being one of the founding members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal or CSICOP, which these days goes by CSI. He was a brilliant man; of course, he edited or wrote nearly 500 books in his lifetime across a huge variety of disciplines, including a children's book and nonfiction guide to Shakespeare. He was also a professor at Boston University, which I attended, though he was in the school of medicine. And he died 6 years before I got there.

S: At the time that I really got into Isaac Asimov, he was in his 20-year period where he was writing exclusively science books; nonfiction. He had written in science fiction when he was younger, then he took a hiatus to write nonfiction. He didn't come back to writing science fiction 'til later. So I knew him exclusively as a writer of nonfiction books until he started taking up writing fiction again and then I got into the robot series and the—

R: You're like, "who's this new writer?"

S: The Foundation series; he was awesome. The Foundation series is still a classic of science fiction. I highly recommend it for anyone who's into hard science fiction.

R: I wouldn't. I read it for the first time a couple months ago and I thought it was terrible.

S: You're missing out.

E: Just really unenjoyable

S: Really?

R: Heinlein: Way better.

S: You're insane.

R: Yeah.


R: I'm not contesting it.

E: Are you going to say April Fool's now, Rebecca?

R: Nope; this is 100% my true opinion. Let the hate mail come.


R: It was just—you know, I didn't like it because it was just this really broad view of a universe with no... there's no feeling of place or culture or character. And it really came across as what I later found out it was: was just a serialized collection of short stories that were originally just posted in a magazine.

S: Well, the story takes place over generations; yeah, there's no doubt. But you have to stick with it a little bit, first of all. And he does—

R: I read the whole first book.

S: I mean... the second and third books were much better; it just keeps getting better. And then he brings it all the way back around to his robot series earlier. It's just great. You know, he connects up the whole timeline and everything. And... what was different about it was that it took such a long view of history; it was about history. That's what the series was really about. But there are enough characters that have continuity through the stories to hold your interest.

R: Are there any women in the later books?

S: Yeah, one of the primary characters is a female, although she is a robot.

R: (laughs)

S: But you know, she's indistinguishable from a human.

E: Fem-bot.

S: And she is a heroine of the later novels. Yeah. Absolutely.

R: 'Cause I was—that was one of the annoying things about it.

S: Well, I think what you're seeing is the difference between his earlier writings from, like, the '50s and then, when he picks up again in his 70s, it's more—

R: He's a bit more mature.

S: A bit more modern in that regard and in other regards and that's when it really gets good, you know? His end-of-life science fiction writing was just epic. But yeah, if you're reading the stuff he wrote in the 1950s, you're probably going to see it as a little dated in those respects.

News Items[edit]

Fairy Circle Update (7:02)[edit]

S: All right; well let's move on. Evan, you're going to tell us a scientific breakthrough that might totally resolve this enduring controversy and mystery over the fairy circles.

E: If you'll recall, back in July of 2012, I had brought up a news item about fairy circles[link needed]. Fairy circles are what the local population in Namibia call the mysterious circular shape pattern which appear by the thousands in the desert grassland regions. Some people can't help but look at the pictures and think crop circles, right? However, when I first read the article, I couldn't help but think about a phenomenon known to skeptics as "fairy rings". Fairy rings are growths of mushrooms, or fungi, which appear to grow in a deliberately designed ring-shape pattern and fairy rings typically grow in these wooded grassy locations. And according to various folklores dating back hundreds of years, these ring-shaped designs were deliberately designed by magical creatures such as fairies, elves, pixies, and Argonians. I threw that one in for all the Elder Scroll fans out there, by the way. And supposedly these rings are portals or gateways to the magical realms, although we might I think that an enlightened people of the 21st century are well beyond believing in such fantasies; as skeptics we know better than to overestimate peoples grasp on reality sometimes. So... and scientist have been studying these ferry circles for some time; they were having hard time figuring out the cause but the mystery might finally have been solved. Because just a few days ago, post a follow-up on the story that they ran last summer. The news report states that a species of sand termite called Psammotermes allocerus—and this sand termite could be behind the mysterious dirt rings. The study was published on March 28 in the journal Science. Part of what we talked about before had focused on prior studies suggesting that it might have been some kind of insect activity; perhaps ants; perhaps termites. Scientists from Germany measured the water content in the soil at the center of the circles, and they determined enough water in that soil to support termites, even in the driest season. The surveys also looked at the organ—other organisms found in the fairy circles, but the sand termite was the only creature found consistently in the majority of patches.

S: Yeah. So they said, "consistently in the majority of patches", which means not in every patch.

E: Right. So I think they're still hedging their bet a little bit here.

S: Yeah, that's the impression that I got.

E: Yeah

S: That this is pretty compelling evidence that the termites are a good candidate; they can be eating the roots of the grasses; killing them off. They're definitely changing the soil. But I don't know; I'm not convinced by this evidence that the termites are not just living in these fairy circles. I don't know that they've really proven that they're creating the fairy circles.

E: Right. And they're... The soil in fairy circles seems to be altered so that plants can't survive, whereas termites usually enrich the soil; I imagine through their poop. Yeah. Which would make it more hospitable to plants. So there's still things to be figured out about these fairy circles but the termites are present; they're the most commonly found creatures in these circles, so they are working along those lines of going with the termites.

S: Yeah, I know I've said this before—made this observation, but there's a few questions that to we cover from time to time that essentially is a genuine scientific controversy, where there's two schools of thought and they debate back and forth. What I find a little annoying is that everytime the mainstream media reports on a new study on one side of the debate or the other, they always talk as if it's settled. Like the debate's now over; this is the right answer. Meanwhile, it's just one in a long series of back and forths between the two sides, and it's a long way away from settling the debate and I wonder if this really is fitting into that same mold; if we're just hearing about the pro-termite side 'cause they're the ones who published the latest study, you know?

E: Right. Right.

R: God-damn termitists.

S: The termitists?

E: Big Insect is behind it; I'm sure.

S: OK. Thanks, Evan.

Retraction Watch (11:26)[edit]

S: Rebecca, you're going to tell us about published papers that disappear from the literature.

R: Yeah, and I'm going to do it less boring way then you just implied.

S: (laughs)

R: So, Stephen Lewandowski is an Australian psychologist who writes about and researches science denialism, amongst some other topics. The SGU audience may best known him for coauthoring The Debunking Handbook, which was a free PDF essentially about how to be a good skeptic and how to communicate facts your audience and correct misconceptions. So, last year, Lewandowski released a paper titled, NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science. This study used an anonymous survey of climate blog readers to show people who believe in an unregulated market that predicts whether or not they will deny global warming—they're more likely to deny global warming, which isn't huge news. But it also showed that people who deny global warming are also more likely to believe that the moon landing wasn't real and that the government and doctors are lying and they say smoking causes lung cancer, that the government created AIDS; other conspiracy theories like that. This isn't exactly groundbreaking, in that we did discuss this study last year[link needed] that showed a similar sort of result about how people who believe in one conspiracy theory tend to believe in many conspiracy theories; that one—that study was called Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories, but this study—the fact that it included denial of global warming as a conspiracy theory was pretty controversial, especially amongst the people who think that global warming is a giant hoax. Lewandowski's study has been replicated since it was first done and was officially published a few days ago in Psychological Science, but he released it last year. So it's been out there on the Internet. What makes this study particularly interesting is the reaction to it and also Lewandowski's reaction to the reaction. So obviously, climate change deniers were furious about the study, by and large. Many of them accuse Lewandowski of purposely fudging in the data to fit his liberal bias or they accuse climate scientists and quote-unquote "climate science believers" of pretending to be denialists in order to take the survey and make them look crazy. So in other words, they were inventing new conspiracy theories to deny the results that showed that they were more likely to be more drawn to conspiracy theories.

S: And denial.

R: Yes.

S: Right.

R: Lewandowski did not miss the irony of that, but instead of chuckling and moving on, he published another paper about that reaction to the first paper, this time titled Recursive Fury: Conspiracist Ideation in the Blogosphere in Response to Research on Conspiracist Ideation, and in that paper examines reactions and points out that some of the denialist conspiracy theories included not just the original authors of the paper but, and I quote, "University executives, a media organization, and the Australian government". He tried to trace the various theories and determine how quickly they caught on amongst the other climate deniers. So, the new paper was just published in February in Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences. But now everything but the abstract has disappeared with no explanation as of this recording. Ivan Oransky, a blogger at Retraction Watch, which is, asked the journal why it was removed and the editor told him that there was going to be a meeting this week to find out, which is odd. Odder is that when Paul Matthews of University of Nottingham asked them, he was told it was taken down just for typesetting. So now people online are clamoring to find out what's going on; if the paper hes been retracted; if it's then disappeared for good; if it's coming back. Particularly the climate change deniers are arguing that the paper should be disappeared for good because of a number of problems with it. Some are arguing that Lewandowski has a conflict of interest because the second paper is specifically looking at critical responses to his own work. But to me, the more interesting criticism they're bringing up is that—they're maintaining that Lewandowski conducted an experiment on subjects who did not consent to participate in that study. Which may not seem like a big deal, because he's dealing with blog posts and comments that were published and freely accessible. But then when you think about it, you realize that he actually names the bloggers that he discusses in the paper and then he goes on to discuss, as a psychologist in a psychology journal, those bloggers' mental states. So, I'd say that this one could at least be considered a gray area and it's certainly exploding online with a lot of anger and frustration. And, you know, the journal itself isn't helping things by, you know, just making the entire paper magically disappear with no explanation. It's only feeding into probably more conspiracy theories about what's going on. So it'll be really interesting to find out exactly what they're going to do and if the papers going to be retracted or not.

S: Yeah; it is interesting gray area; the whole notion of transparency, first of all; also, writing a—publishing a paper naming people but about things that they've put in the public domain online. You know?

R: Yeah.

S: So when you put something in the public domain, you're basically surrendering any expectation of privacy. I think that is the standard. Right?

R: Well, I would agree with that. And that's why, when I first read these accusations of consent, I didn't really give them much credence. But the fact that he is a psychologist commenting on their mental state—

S: Well, that's different.

R: —and naming them by name; you know, yeah. Like the fact that it's in a published paper in a psychological journal would imply that his summary of their mental state is accepted and complete, which I don't think is fair. So I feel like it would have been fine, so long as he had made them anonymous. I think that that probably would have taken care of a lot of those criticisms.

S: I mean, I think—at the very least, you could say it was perhaps unprofessional of him to speculate about the mental state of named people in psychological paper.

Zombie Parasites (18:31)[edit]

S: All right. Well, Bob, you're going to tell us about two of my favorite topics: Zombies and parasites, all rolled into one.

E/B: (laughs)

B: Awesome. Nice. Not only that; free will may have taken another hit with this latest research.

S: Oh boy.

E: Ouch.

B: Half of us may be zombies and not even know it. I know that sounds pretty cool, but I'm not talking about Walking Dead-style zombies. But the new research on parasites that infect the brain, or neuroparasitology, conclude that up to 40 percent of people—40 percent—may have parasites in their brain that at some level can actually control their behavior or as The Daily Telegraph puts it, "zombie reprogramming"[1].

(sounds of scoffing)

B: You know—you know there was a committee and they're like, "OK, we need a nice little sound-byte phrase that everyone's going to pick up on: zombie reprograming". Bam. All over the place.

J: So you're saying that you can have—what is it, a bacteria? What is it?

B: It's a parasite. They hitch a ride—

S: Protozoan.

B: Yeah, single-celled protozoan. They're parasites, like—

R: Like toxoplasmosis.

B: Right; exactly; I was going to talk about that and... how this can happen is that the brain—I wasn't really quite aware of this—the brain is actually a very parasite-friendly place when you consider that, once you're there, you're pretty much protected from the full power of the immune system. So once they set up shop there, they are relatively protected and you're in the brain, so you've got access to the mind. So it kind of makes sense that they will—that they can actually have some effect. And there's a lot of precedence for this too; one of my favorite examples from nature are worms that need to get into sheeps—into sheep's guts to continue to their life cycle and reproduce. So the parasite actually takes over the ant brain and makes it climb to the tippy-top of a blade of grass and just kinda hang out there and not do anything. And this is where the sheep will graze, and if it's eaten then it gets injested and it goes through and that's how it reproduces. If the ant doesn't get eaten, then by the time the sun rises and it gets really strong, it'll just go down the blade of grass; go about its business and then the next day it'll do the same thing until it gets eaten. Toxoplasmosis is another great example; I'm sure most people—you guys have heard of that, right? I mean, who hasn't heard of that?

S: Yeah.

B: This is a single-celled parasite that needs to get into the stomach of cats. So, to do that, it infects mice and it changes their brain so that they're not freaked out when they smell a cat. Instead, when they encounter a cat or cat urine, they react like it's a really hot female mouse and dopamine is released and they're not afraid of the cat at all. So they get eaten; bam—the parasite gets into the digestion and finishes its life cycle. Now, the parasite infects people too, but instead of making us think cats are really sexy, it may, according anyway to Jaroslav Flegr, who's a professor of evolution biology at the Charles University in Prague. He says—he thinks that toxoplasmosis can cause people to be more reckless and risk-averse, so they actually—from his studies he kind of showed that they get into more car accidents, for example. Or you might—these people might be more prone to—or a higher suicide risk, just because they've got this parasitic infection.

J: Can you get rid of it?

B: Once you have, I don't think we do have a way to get rid of it. Steve, have you ever heard of a way to get rid of toxoplasmosis?

S: There are antibiotics to treat toxoplasmosis, but generally, it just staves off the progression of the infection; it doesn't get rid of it. If you have AIDS, for example, and you have toxo, you may need to be on antibiotics for life.

B: All right.

S: But Bob, are you sure that this doesn't explain the raging popularity of cat videos on YouTube?

B: (laughs) Right. Oh my God, that's funny.

R: Only if you're scooping the poop of the cats that you're watching.

B: Well, actually—at least from Flegr's studies, he said that infected men become introverted, suspicious, and more likely to wear rumpled old clothes. Wow. Didn't see that one coming.

R: That's awful specific.

B: Yeah; isn't it really? But infected women are just the opposite, apparently. In one study, he says they were usually well-dressed when they arrived at the lab or for interviews. Also more trusting and sociable. And if he's correct, all because they've got this parasitic brain infection. This latest research shows that it might be related to the influenza virus itself. Binghamton University researchers infected 36 of their staff, using their staff as controls. They used a vaccine and

R: That seems like an ethical problem.

B: Yeah, but the results are cool. They studied their behavior before and after they got the shots and they were really surprised what they found. the people became social animals, going from an average of a number of... from social interactions of 54 a day to 101 a day; they doubled their interactions almost with people. But, the time spent with each person went from 33 minutes to two and a half minutes. So it seems like the virus, if you want to interpret it this way, was making them see as many people as they can and not for long; just enough time, possibly, to transmit this. And one researcher said, "Subjects who normally had very limited or simple social lives were suddenly deciding they needed to go out to bars or parties", which of course would be a great way to pass this on. The more we learn about this, the more we can learn, potentially, how to rewire ourselves, in a sense, and making—make more effective psychiatric drugs. And of course, I can't help but extrapolate a little bit more and imagine designing parasites that can enhance attributes of humans, like making us smarter or more ambitious or perhaps learn how to appreciate how good brains really taste. Interesting to see where this goes.

S: The toxoplasmosis thing is really interesting. So, first of all—

B: Oh, man.

S: —about a third of humanity on the planet is infected with Toxoplasma; about 30 percent of people worldwide and they show—there's research now showing that it's associated with the development of schizophrenia. That some people with schizophrenia may have it because of—at least it might be triggered by toxoplasmosis. Also, {w|Obsessive compulsive disorder|obsessive compulsive disorder. And what's really interesting is that some drugs which are typically used to treat schizophrenia, like haloperidol and depakote, actually have anti-toxo effects. So they may work—

B: Oh my God.

S: —quote-unquote "work against schizophrenia" because they're actually counteracting Toxoplasma itself. And that may allow us to identify which patients with schizophrenia would respond to these drugs.

E: How do we know somebody has the parasite. Blood test?

S: You can measure it. Yeah. Or—or CSF.

J: But Steve, don't a lot of people have this? I mean, a lot of people have outdoor cats—

B: Cerebrospinal fluid, Steve?

S: Yeah.

R: 30 percent of the population.

E: I heard 30 percent somewhere.

R: Yeah.

S: That's right. Can you imagine that this is actually dramatically increasing the rates of certain psychiatric diseases?

E: That means one or two of us might have it.

S: Yeah!

R: I've always assumed I had it...


B: I'd just assume it.

E: Explains a lot.

R: I had cats growing up that were outdoor cats; that's why.

B: I'm telling you: bacteria, viruses, parasites; they rule the goddamn world.

E: Wow, they sure do.

S: 'Cause they're thiny.

B: And us, yes.

E: They are our overlords, apparently.

R: Tiny and evil.

B: That's why I love these science fiction weapons that are these big powerful, like, guns and weapons, and it's like, no. A lot of these weapons in the future are going to be so tiny, you don't even know that they're there until you're completely overwhelmed and disassembled, right? Go small; don't go big.

S: Yeah, the superadvanced alien invasion where they actually send, like, people-sized soldiers down to the earth? It's like, nah, they would just release the nano-cloud and just convert us all.

B: Yep.

E: Yeah. Poof!

S: We would have no chance; zero chance against them. All right—

B: Unless you have it yourself.

E: But wouldn't the solar wind kind of push it all out of there? Oh well, let's not talk...

S: Eh, we're not there yet.

Genetic Transistors (26:34)[edit]

S: Jay, tell us—talking about hacking our cells, Jay's going to tell us how to do that with genetic transistors.

B: Ooh!

J: In a paper recently published in the journal Science—now, Steve, is that a good journal?

S: Science? Yeah, I've heard of it.

J: Just checking.

R: It's so good they named an entire field of study after it.


B: Jay, are you sure it's a journal Science and not Science-ish?

E: Science-y?

B: Now, be careful. (laughs) Yeah, Science-y.

J: So, a paper that was recently published within the last week by a team at Stanford University outlines a system of genetic transistors. I think I can just stop right there.

B: That's awesome.

E: Genetic transistors.

J: I was waiting for somebody say something.

B: But I want more!

J: These genetic-like transistors that they came up with can be inserted into living cells and turned on and off if search certain conditions are met. And this should be a major step forward in the emerging feel the synthetic biology. So, as most of you guys know, an existing transistor, the kind that we're already familiar with, is the fundamental component for modern electronic devices. It was originally developed in the 1950s and the transistor recreated the field of electronics and future computing potential; I mean, that was the beginning of all the devices that we have. In essence, the transistor allowed to have logic. In a computer, there's three functions that a computer does: it performs logic, it saves data, and it recalls data. So the real heavy lifting, in my opinion, of course, is the logic part of it; is the processing part of it. So imagine, guys, that we'll be able to have some type of logic that's happening inside our cells; inside our DNA. The researchers call their work "transcriptors" and they will be able to do things like detecting toxins in the environment inside of a cell, determine the effectiveness of medications, monitor cancer cells; the potential applications are vast. Of course, if they really fully realize this and fully achieve it, but they've hit a milestone that they think is so significant that they put the paper out. So once the transistor determines the conditions—certain conditions are met, say inside of a cell, it could then be used to make the cell do things. Like, it could... one of the biggest things I would imagine it would be able to do is just give information to your doctor. Like, this is what's happening on the cellular level—the level of toxins have hit this this marker. You know, then maybe the doctor can instruct the programming to do something, maybe to release other chemicals or, you know, how many cancer cells are you detecting? Things like that. I would imagine that would be the beginning of it.

B: Yeah, so we're talking about more than just a transistor in the cell, though, right? You need more mechanisms surrounding it; more computer components than just a transistor, I would think.

J: Yeah. I agree, Bob; I don't know how they're going to be communicating with it. I don't know if it's going to be on autopilot. I'm not quite sure of those details.

B: OK.

J: Some of the information I got: they said that... they use enzymes to control the flow of RNA proteins along a strand of DNA, and this is similar to a computer using transistors to control the flow of electrons, and that's why they're calling these these things... they're like transistors. Truehdr a lead researcher at the Stanford University of Engineering said "we're going to be able to put computers into any living cell you want. We're not going to replace the silicon computer; we're not going to replace your phone or your laptop, but we're going to get computing working in places where silicon would never work."

S: Yeah, it's a cool concept. You know, it's one of those technologies that is just very, very difficult to extrpolate into the future to see how we're going to really make the best use of it. It's interesting but almost pointless to speculate, you know, about...

B: It can go in so many different directions.

S: How it will be used, yeah. But any way we have of interacting with the body; getting information from it; closing that loop where we're reading information from it and then using that in order to do something at the cellular level has tremendous potential. But also, obviously, tremendous risks.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: 'Cause they talked about, for example, having these transistors inside cells and then when they detect the conditions that indicate that the cell is a cancer cell, they will then trigger apoptosis; basically, give the kill command for the cell to kill itself—

B: Cell death.

S: So you just basically instruct every cancer cell to kill themselves. But you know, obviously, if that went slightly awry, you know, every cell in your body decided to kill itself that would be suboptimal.


B: Might look cool if it all happened at once, though.

E: Something from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Final scene. Aah!

R: Steve, you're definitely the doctor I want at my bedside. Well... "How'd it go, doctor?"

E: "That was suboptimal; yeah."

R: "It was suboptimal."


R: Is that why my guts are eating myself from the inside out?

E: Note the time. Suboptimal.

J: It's a little scary, too; right, guys? I mean, imagine—

E: Oh gosh, yes.

J: We're going to be making these changes. Weren't we just talking on the last show about how we're going to be merging with machines, you know? Who knows if that's going to happen. Seems like it's going to happen.

R: Are we talking about that on every show?

S: It's happening.

E: (laughs) What are you saying, Rebecca?

Prescribing Placebos (31:45)[edit]

S: All right; well, one more quick news item. What do you guys think of this headline—this comes from Medical News Today—generally decent medical news outlet. Their headline is: "97 Percent of U.K. Doctors Prescribe Placebos".

J: I find that very unlikely.

E: I think there's a problem there.

R: I'm all right with it.

S: Sciencedaily was a little bit better. They wrote: "97 Percent of U.K. Doctors have Given Placebos to Patients at Least Once."

E: OK. That's more believable, I think.

B: What kind of placebo, though?

S: There, Bob; that's the million-dollar question right there.

B: Yeah. Come on.

S: Yeah. How do you define, "describing placebo"? So this was a survey that was rigged to produce to the exact results that the authors wanted it to produce; tried to maximize the percentage of doctors who could be said to have ever prescribed placebos, so that, we suspect, this is a way of saying, "Well, see? So alternative practitioners who prescribe placebos are just doing the same thing that regular physicians are using." Right?

B: Oh, they're so clever.

S: So clever. So here are what they consider—they divided placebos into pure placebo and impure placebo. Pure placebos are sugar pills; they are treatments that have zero physiological effect. Impure placebos are treatments that may have an effect but are being given in sub-therapeutic doses or for conditions for which they are not effective. But here's the list of what they considered to be impure placebo: positive suggestions; so if you ever say anything positive to the patient—

R: What?

S: That's a placebo.

R: Well, now I'm alarmed that the percentage is so low!

B: (laughs) Yes!

S: Yeah, who are the 3% who never said anything positive to a patient?

R: Right; those guys should be fired.

S: Nutritional supplements for conditions unlikely to benefit from this therapy. Probiotics for diarrhea; peppermint pills for pharyngitis; antibiotics for suspected viral infections; sub-clinical doses of otherwise effective therapies; off-label uses of potentially effective therapies; complementary and alternative medicine—ooh, see, that's a placebo—conventional medicine whose effectiveness is not evidence based; diagnostic practices based on the patient's request or to calm the patient, such as nonessential physical examinations; nonessential technical examination of the patient. So the few in there that were the most problematic for me—one was the positive suggestions. Really? That's use of a placebo? "Off-label uses of potentially effective therapies". Off-label use has nothing to do with whether or not it's scientific. Companies—you know, the pharmaceutical companies usually only go for one or two indications for a drug. They're not going to spend the tens of millions of dollars it would take to get every possible indication. They only would do that—you know, extend the indications for a drug if it was going to expand their market. But if the evidence is there and doctors are already using it, they're not going to bother getting an FDA—a separate FDA indication for every little thing that the drug is used for.

R: Yeah, I can't tell you how many of my friends in high school were on birth control pills for their acne. So that would've counted as a placebo?

S: If it's off-label; you know, that's it. So...

R: It was at the time.

S: And the other one is "non-essential physical examinations". So... if I do a little bit more neurological exam than I absolutely need to, based upon strict evidence-based criteria, just because it's part of the interaction with the patient; it's part of their visit; you know, they kind of expect a little bit of hands-on, that's a placebo. So anything that is just a normal part of the therapeutic relationship between the doctor and the patient but that isn't a strictly evidence-based intervention, they're counting as a placebo. It's total nonsense.

B: Oh, my God.

E: They forgot to list tricorder readings on here!

S: Yeah; I mean, it's designed to maximize that number. Now, if you look at the real number; you know, how many physicians have prescribed actual placebos, the surveys said it was 12 percent ever and only 1 percent on a regular basis. 1 percent. That's the real number.

B: Survey said!

S: 1 percent of U.K. doctors prescribe placebos.

R: Not as good a headline.

B: Well, they were close. Ish.

S: Not as good a headline as 97 percent.

E: Yeah. It's almost a polar opposite.

S: Right.

B: That's pathetic. Pathetic!

S: It's just survey abuse.

B: What are we going to do about this?

S: And every outlet that I can see lapped it up uncritically.

E: Oh gosh; these editors.

S: Except for Science-Based Medicine[2].

B: Of course.

E: Clearly.

S: —showed what was really going on.

E: I would say these editors are subobtimal.

S: Subobtimal. Yeah, I mean, they're just re-printing press releases. So you can just put whatever propaganda you want into a press release and then it'll get propagated through the interwebz on science news sites.

B: Propaganda propagation!

Who's That Noisy? (36:42)[edit]

S: All right; well, Evan, you're gonna get up to date on Who's That Noisy.

E: Last week we had a puzzle:

Three scientists: Albert, Isaac, and Marie are talking to each other about a collection of scientific books owned by Jonas.

E: Yes, did you notice the pattern there with the names?

B: Very good.

E: I was hoping someone would.

Albert says "Jonas has at least four books by Maxwell." Isaac says, "No, he has less or fewer 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 right, how many books by Maxwell does Jonas possess?

E: Well, let's go through it. If Albert were to be right, at least—at which he claims at least four, then Marie, who says at least one would also be right. So you have to cross that one out. If Marie were right, at least one book, then Albert, at least four or Isaac less than four—got that?—so Albert or Isaac would also have to be right. So you have to cross that option out and therefore it means only Isaac can be right when he says he has less—fewer—than four books by Maxwell, and in fact, the number of books he owns is zero. So Isaac was correct.

S: Very nice.

E: That make sense to everyone?

B: Way to go, Isaac.

E: Pretty straightforward; it was a relatively easy puzzle. And judging by the number of correct answers we got from our listeners, that proved to be true. So good jobs, everyone. Michael Willick is this week's winner for getting the correct answer, drawn randomly. So well done; you're in the final drawing at the end of the year. Well done.

S: And what do you got for this week, Evan?

E: I'm doing another logic puzzle. I've decided to make it a little bit more difficult, little more challenging:

Mark is visiting a psychic, the Great Griftina. The Great Griftina tells Mark to think of a number 1, 2 or 3. The Great Griftina tells Mark that she will ask one question of him and he must only reply with "yes", "no", or "I don't know". So what one question should the Great Griftina ask Mark to find out exactly which number Mark has chosen.

E: I expect a lot of creative replies to this one. WTN @ the skeptics or is our forum and let us know. Good luck everyone.

S: All right. Thank you, Evan.

E: You're welcome.

S: Well, let's go on with our interview.

Interview with Ian O'Neill (39:33)[edit]

S: We are joined now by Ian O'Neill. Ian, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

IO: Hi there, Steve. Thanks for having me on.

S: And Ian is an astronomer with a Ph.D. in solar physics and he's also a science producer for Discovery News. And Ian, you agreed to come on the show to talk to us tonight about the solar wind.

IO: Yes.

S: So can you just start by telling us what the solar wind is?

IO: In the most general terms, solar wind is just an outflow of particles from the sun. I mean, they go very, very fast—they're ions, so they're very, very highly charged particles, so it's not like the wind here on Earth, but it's certainly a wind nontheless. It's a very steady outflow of particles, and these particles go all the way through the solar system and they blast as far as we know, they kind of expand in this bubble called the heliosphere. And that extends to like over 120 astronomical units, which is 120 times the distance between the Earth and the sun. So basically, the solar wind takes up our entire solar system environment and it's constantly blasting out from the sun pretty fast.

S: And there's actually two components to the solar wind, right? The fast solar wind and the slow solar wind.

IO: Yeah, the imaginitively termed "fast" and "slow". Yeah.


IO: All it is is, as it suggests, just a fast stream, which is —I forget the numbers entirely, but we're probably talking 1.5 million miles per hour is the fast solar wind, and under a million miles per hour for the slow solar wind. And they kind of interact in complex ways close to the surface of the sun and as the sun spins, it sends these two components of the solar wind out and they interact out in interplanetary space and we can detect those interactions from Earth. In fact, they do actually affect the Earth and they do affect the planets. And the solar wind in general does affect planets and we can actually see those impacts down here on Earth.

S: How do they affect the planets?

IO: Well, for a start, the most obvious one for Earth is the solar wind will interact with our magnetosphere, 'cause our Earth has got this big magnetic field which covers the entire planet. And when any particles—any charged particles from the sun hit us, some of them are deflected away from the Earth, so the Earth's magnetic field acts like a force field; this invisible force field. And if you get high-intensity radiation coming from the sun, if you get lots of these particles hitting at the same time, they can funnel down into the poles of the Earth, and you will see these amazing aurora at high latitudes. So if you've seen those pictures like in Norway or Alaska, you'll see these green lights, and amazing light displays, really. One of the most—I've actually seen it; I actually lived in the Arctic for a time and actually saw these—oh, it was incredible. Honestly, in your lifetime, if you ever get a chance to go to say, Norway or even Alaska—that's a bit closer to home if you're in the States—go and see it. If you're lucky, you'll see a geomagnetic storm, and that's when the sun's magnetic field interacts in such a way with the Earth's magnetic field, you may get this amazing light display. And basically, it's just caused by charged particles coming from the sun, getting funneled down into the atmosphere by the magnetic field of Earth. And it basically is just particles colliding with our atmosphere, and they generate different light depending on which chemical components of atmosphere they interact with. And that's what is the aurora; it's an amazing sight.

J: Hey, Ian, is it true that it makes noise?

IO: It can generate radio waves, and yes, you can detect quite high-frequency waves. Not sound waves, I don't think. I think there's an idea that it might, in very very intense geomagnetic storms. But I think that's—I think it's based on, really, eyewitness accounts; perhaps coincidental noise with the solar wind hitting the atmosphere, but I'm not entirely sure. I don't think there's been any definitive study on that.

B: Jay, Steve, do you guys remember seeing that in Connecticut, like what, 20 years ago? It was actually so active that it—it came that far south and I remember seeing those green lights in the sky. It was amazing.

IO: Yeah, that's awesome. When that can happen—during periods of really intense solar activity, and when you have transient events like coronal mass ejections and flares, that can kick-start these incredible displays. And depending on how powerful the impact is from, say, a coronal mass ejection—I can talk a bit more about them later—it almost acts like a magnetic punch. It will hit our magnetosphere, and depending on how hard the punch depends on how deep these particles go. And so the deeper the particles go, the lower latitudes they can hit. There's been all sorts of eyewitness accounts during extremely powerful events like this; you can actually read the newspaper at night because the aurora is so spectacular. And also occurring very close to the equator. So you know you're in for a big solar storm if you start seeing these light displays over Washington state or something. That would be crazy.

S: So Ian, part of the reason why we wanted to really talk to an expert on the solar wind is last week[link needed] we were chatting about these two guys from—I know I sent you the link—who claim that the solar wind is what's pushing the planets around in their orbits. From my reading, it seemed to me that the primary vector of the particles in the solar wind was radial out from the sun, although I know it's more complicated than that. But tell us what's the bottom line; what is the path, what is the vector of the particles in the two components of the solar wind?

IO: (chuckles) Well, that theory is very interesting. But with the solar wind, I think you just gotta look at the scale of the solar wind. I mean, the solar wind—the media certainly likes to make it sound like this ferocious tornado that's slamming into Earth. And it's certainly not that. We're talking about particles with a density of less than a puff of cigarette smoke, so we're not talking like this massive hurricane that's slamming into us, having any measurable effect on our orbits. But as you said, the solar wind is acting radially outward, and of course, when the sun rotates, it's kind of got this sprinkler effect. So if you imagine those spinning sprinklers in the middle of your lawn, the solar wind kind of goes out in that spiral fashion. And there's some complexity there as well, 'cause as we already mentioned, you've got this fast and slow solar wind. So if you imagine when the sun's spinning, the fast solar wind will collide with the slow solar wind, and it creates these dense regions that can be measured by a spacecraft near Earth. But these events, they're all interesting in a scientific standpoint, but they can't have any measurable effect on the orbit of a planet.

S: Right.

IO: I'm really clutching at straws, and I did do some research, thinking, "OK, what kind of force would the sun need to put out?" And the sun would have to go supernova, which it can't do, but it would have to blast out an awful lot more than the solar wind's got, going at the moment.

S: But the solar wind does have—will have a measurable effect on the path of probes that we've sent out into the solar system.

IO: It's more, I think, the radiation from the sun. So basically, the sunlight can affect the path of astroids, and it certainly can affect the path of spacecraft. And of course, NASA and the Japanese space agency have put that to use; they've created these solar sails; these big, very light-weight spacecraft that can collect the photons coming from, basically, the sunlight, and provide a push. I think there's been some studies into using particles—the solar wind particles—as a means of travelling around the solar system, so using this gargantuan solar sail to capture the energy from these particles. But I can't imagine it being particularly effective at small scales. But yeah, there will be a negligible effect—I mean, there probably is a measurable effect, but certainly nothing major; certainly nothing you'd have to correct your course for; let's put it that way.

S: Just to clarify one point—'cause I think this is where the authors of the morethangravity site—to me, it seems like they got confused. You spoke about the sprinkler effect and how the solar winds emerge from the sun in this spiral fashion, but the individual ions that make up the solar wind—their path is not curving around in a spiral, right? They're pretty much going straight out from the sun?

IO: Pretty much, yeah. They're pretty much going out in a radial fashion, yes. And obviously, we're talking about ions here; so they're electrically charged. They will interact very strongly with magnetic fields, and of course, the sun is the biggest magnetic field in the whole of the solar system. So they will travel along magnetic field lines. But generally speaking, yeah, they travel out. I mean, there's no real—I mean, you'll see on the picture; you can see that the magnetic field goes off in a spiral pattern. But yeah, the individual particles are going outward. So—

S: Yeah. Right. So that's basically where they were—and some of our listeners, I think, were confused on this point as well, because if you see pictures of the magnetic field of the sun and the solar winds, it looks like there's this spiral structure to it, but that's just the density structure, right? That's not the individual particles; they're still flying pretty much in a straight line from the sun.

IO: They are, yeah. And it is interesting; I mean, there's some great science to be done here, because you... if you could have a spacecraft that could look from the top of the solar system, you could see the spiral pattern, if it had some sort of magic filter that could actually see these density points. You should be able to see these very dense regions, which would be a spiral pattern, because it's almost like at these dense points, it's almost like, you know, a traffic jam for these particles, all building up and forming shocks. I mean, it's incredibly wonderful science, and the instruments we've got on the ground, out in space right now; we're only just really beginning to understand how the solar system works. But, of course, then you have the side effect where people get a little bit too excited and start interpreting science in a very strange way. And then they start coming up with these weird theories. So I think you've just gotta use some caution.with some of these—some of these ideas.

S: Obviously, yeah. Any force that solar wind would put on something would be out away from the sun.

IO: Yes. Yes. Yes. I couldn't imagine any force acting, and apart from gravity, that's it.

J: Ian, would you say that their theory blows?

B: (laughs)

IO: Got it. Blows. Blows faster than the fast solar wind. Absolutely.

E: Wow, that's fast.

B: Maybe this is a silly question; maybe I'm underestimating the size of coronal mass ejections, but it always seemed quite unlucky and a rare case for a CME to actually hit the Earth, because if you look at the Earth and the sun; I mean, Earth is 93 million miles away, super tiny. It'd be like hitting a bulls-eye as big as an atom. So my question is: how does a coronal mass ejection hit the Earth if it's so tiny and so far away?

IO: Yeah, it's—again, it's a sense of scale. I mean, 360 degrees around the sun; you would think it's extremely rare, and it is kind of rare if you look at the number of CMEs the sun puts out. And we've actually got two spacecraft that are actually in orbit around the sun and they can see the far side of the sun. So the first time in human history, we've actually got a 360-degree view of the whole of the solar surface.

B: That's cool.

IO: This is incredible, because now we can actually know for sure how many CMEs the sun is putting out. And we know most of them are just fired out into space and they don't bother us. But you gotta remember with these CMEs, they are generated on a very discrete location on the solar surface in a region called the active region. Generally where these magnetic fields all converge, and it's a very angry place, where you often see sunspots as well. So where you see these blotted areas you'll see on lovely images from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory—that's one of the newest solar observatories—you'll see there's like little pock-marks in the sun. And this is called an active region, and often around these regions will generate a coronal mass ejection. But these coronal mass ejections will explode from the surface of the sun; they will expand, like a bubble, and this bubble is just a massive bag of magnetic field. And it carries these high-energy particles from the surface of the sun into space. And it rapidly expands; I mean, this thing will blow up like a bubble and it will accelerate away from the surface of the sun. And this is a very active region; active area of solar research, because we don't fully understand the acceleration mechanisms. I mean, these are very basic questions that solar physicists have, and we don't really know how the solar wind is accelerating. We don't really know what triggers solar flares. We don't really know what causes the expansion and the very rapid acceleration of these coronal mass ejections either. But with the scale of these coronal mass ejections, they will blow up and they can get as wide as the disk of the sun—

B: Oh! Whoa!

IO: —and that's why it hits us. These things can get huge. So if you imagine, it's almost like a storm that starts off the size of a pea, and it will expand to across the size of a city. And obviously, if it's coming out in our direction, it doesn't have to be a direct hit, and often they aren't direct hits; they're often glancing hits. And you'll often hear NASA saying, "OK, so Mars, Earth, and Jupiter's all going to get hit by the same coronal mass ejection", and it's just because it takes up a massive area.

B: It's amazing; you get enough hydrogen in one spot and all this complexity that—

IO: And also, if you think—the sun is, you know, an average star; everybody talks about it's an average star; it's actually a dwarf star. So there's some bigger monsters out there, and there's—but they all operate—all stars operate by similar rules. I mean, our star is an average star, but we've actually got it as this laboratory, if you can imagine; we're actually sitting in the environment of a star. I mean, we often hold stars to very high—you know, put them on the pedestal, but we are living right next to a star. And we've actually got this unprecedented means now of actually analyzing what goes on with this particular star that's on our doorstep. And then we can scale it up or down for other stars out there.

E: But Ian, because we can see 360 degrees all the way around the sun now—so is there a prediction; can we time when these CMEs are going to happen? Do we have a good clock on it?

IO: Oh, that is the mill—well, the billion-dollar question. That's the thing. We've got a good idea about the cycles of the sun. So we know when about these high-intense periods of storms are going to happen. And it just so happens we're right in the middle of a solar maximum right now. And it's kind of a surprise, because solar maximum isn't quite as dramatic as we thought it was going to be. So the sun's still got a lot of surprises. But as for individual events, obviously NASA and European Space Agency and other space agencies around the world, and also NOAA; everybody's looking at the sun to try and predict space weather. You always hear this term and it's coming up a lot in politics now, and it's coming around because we live in a very high technology society, and we depend on electronics. And there's been a few isolated events over the last few decades where power grids have gone out, or satellites have been knocked out, because of the sun. So obviously, there's a lot of money riding on if we can predict these events and how we can avoid damage here on Earth. And a lot of money's being put into it; a lot of money's being put into actually looking at these active regions and trying to guess, and then predict, and then actually put some sort of model to how and when these flaring events will happen, and coronal mass ejections will happen. They're very similar but they're not the same event; flares and coronal mass ejections. And we are getting somewhere; we are able to identify regions on the sun which are ripe for a flare. But sometimes it doesn't happen; it just disappears for no reason. But the ones that they have predicted, they've got it pretty good; down to a pretty high level of precision as to when these things are going to blow. So you know, I'd say we are 90 percent there; actually having some kind of mechanism in place where we can say, "all right; that area's looking very angry; we should prepare for a flare or a coronal mass ejection." It's just—the configuration of the magnetic field lines—we're able to actually see the magnetism roiling on the surface of the sun as well, which is incredible. So yeah, we are getting very close, and there's a lot of money riding on it.

S: Ian, let's change gears a little bit, because you wrote an article recently about a topic that we discussed, and it'd be interesting to get an astronomer's view on this—about the comet that may hit Mars in 2014 and whether or not this would be a good or bad thing.

IO: It would be awesome.


E: Wait, don't hold back.

IO: My God; can you imagine? I mean yeah, you kind of gotta feel sorry for the rovers, 'cause obviously {w|Opportunity (rover)|Opportunity}} isn't going to come off very well. 'Cause Opportunity is a solar-powered rover, so whatever the outcome, it's not going to be good to put dust in the atmosphere and stuff. But can you imagine; we already live in a golden age of astronomy; I mean, the stuff we are learning about the universe is just mind-blowing; I mean, I'm very privileged to be in the science media at this time, because probably people have said this all times through human history, but I think now we are sending robots to other planets; we are on the verge of a big human movement into space, I hope. And we've got the technology now to actually analyze these events in great detail. And if you can imagine this comet that's colliding with a planetary body not too dissimilar to Earth, not only will we be able to understand what would happen when a big comet hits a rocky planetary body, but it may—I wrote about this recently—I suddenly thought, "well, wouldn't that motivate human exploration of Mars; wouldn't it be amazing to send a manned expedition to a fresh impact crator by a comet on Mars?" I mean, it's just... and just for the "oh, wow" factor. Imagine just seeing that; we would almost be able to monitor it live; we've got eyes on the ground; we've got eyeball in orbit around Mars. This is kind of a prime time; if Mars was going to get hit, this should be the time. I mean, obviously bad news for the rovers, but ultimately, science, yay. I'd be very keen to see that happen on Mars. Sorry, Mars.


IO: Rather Mars than us.

B: And sorry, probes on Mars.

IO: Yes. Absolutely.

S: It'd be worth the loss of NASA equipment.

IO: Absolutely. And we've got another Mars rover going up in 2020 anyways, so we don't need to worry too much about Curiosity.

S: Yeah; you've actually said that it might affect Mars' atmosphere and climate for a while.

IO: Yeah. I was kind of thinking this through, and although comets carry a lot of water ice and a lot of other material, we still don't really understand what material is in a comet; I mean, are they more rock than they are ice, or do they carry more methane than water? We don't really know. But NASA was fairly upbeat that comets contain a majority of water, so it could be a great—we could see a minor climatic change on Mars, because Mars has got a very thin atmosphere. If we were to, say, terraform—imagine the sci-fi theory that we're able to terraform Mars, we'd need to thicken its atmosphere. So the solar system's already helping us out there a little bit at a time by dropping an ice-rich comet into the Martian surface. So there could be some changes. I'm kind of dubious as to the scope of the change; I think we'd mainly just see a lot of dust in the atmosphere. But I don't know. I mean, it could thicken the atmosphere, at least for a short period of time.

S: Would that be a viable mechanism of terraforming; just to steer a couple of dozen comets into Mars and then have a cumulative effect add water and atmosphere to Mars?

IO: Yeah, I'd say so. If we were a sufficiently advanced race, I'd say the first thing you need to do is go to the Oort cloud, which is approximately a light-year away from the sun—this cloud that surrounds our solar system; it's pretty much hypothetical, but we know it should be out there. And it's like the—it's a huge population of these comets that have been sitting there since the dawn of our solar system. If we can fire a few of them and be really precise and drop them onto Mars, absolutely; it would thicken the atmosphere. But then this would circle back to the sun and the reason why Mars' atmosphere is so thin is partly due to the sun. Not only is Mars got a very weak magnetic field—sorry, not only has it got a weaker gravitational field than Earth, say, it also—for some reason it doesn't have a global magnetic field. So it can't—it doesn't have this force field surrounding it like Earth does. So when the sun throws the solar wind at it, at Mars, and hits it with coronal mass ejections, it actually strips away the atmosphere into space. So, any terraforming stuff that we do with Mars—

B: Temporary.

IO: —it would be temporary, yeah, unless we could, you know, become some kind of super all-powerful race of humans and somehow switch on its magnetic field again. To be honest, Mars will always be at the mercy of the sun. So it would be a very temporary fix.

S: Well, we'd just have to turn on that alien machine they left behind on Mars.

B: (laughs)

IO: I know; you'd think.

B: (as Arnold Schwarzenegger) Get your ass to Mars!

E: Quaid!

IO: Hey, on that note—but Total Recall the reboot was such a let-down; I was so annoyed.

B: I never even saw it. So it's not worth seeing, huh?

IO: Oh, it's all based on Earth. I mean, how can you have Total Recall just on Earth? It makes no sense.

B: Yeah, right?

S: Well, Ian, it's been really fun talking with you. We appreciate you giving us your time.

IO: No; thanks for having me on the show. I really appreciate it.

J: Thanks, Ian.

B: Thanks, Ian.

Science or Fiction (1:01:50)[edit]

It's time for Science or Fiction

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

B: Yes.

R: Yep.

E: Si.

S: All right, Bob; you gotta turn things around, man.

B: Yeah, this is like my worst streak ever.

S: Yeah. All right; here we go. Number 1: A new study finds that wearing a special contact lens for even a single night can correct for loss of near vision in adults with presbyopia. Item number 2: New research finds that most fame is not fleeting – people who become famous tend to stay famous for years or decades. And item number 3: Researchers analyzing the fossil record find that thousands of Pacific island bird species went extinct following first contact with Europeans. Rebecca, go first.

R: These are good. Special contact lens... I don't know what presbyopia is.

S: Yeah; OK, I'll tell you what presbyopia is. So it is the—as people get into their 40s, typically they lose the ability to focus close-up. It's just the old-age vision. Just the inability to focus near that develops with age; it's called presbyopia.

J: Is that your muscles or your lens—your lens becomes more rigid, right, Steve?

S: Right.

R: Well, that's helpful.

B: Very helpful.

R: Because yeah... I can see that working, then, if it's a case of your lens becoming more rigid, then maybe there's a contact lens that moistens it; softens it and makes it squishy. Grosses me out; eyes gross me out. But that's really cool and I hope it's true and... but it seems reasonable. Less reasonable is the idea that people who become famous tend to stay so for decades. I mean, that implies that most people stay famous for decades, so... I don't know; these days, I mean... if it's for decades, this is a study examining people from at least the late '90s. But yeah, I'd say that's about when we started getting to the point that... your 15 minutes of fame was becoming more and more true. So my common sense tells me that that's BS. I can think of many people whose star has dropped. But I mean, what is—what are they qualifying as famous because—

B: Ding ding ding.

R: Yeah, like if it's just the fact that I can remember these people still, then, OK. But yeah, like a YouTube star that nobody cares about anymore could still get recognized at a bar. So if that's what it means then it's dumb and pointless but it could be true. Thousands of birds going extinct following the first contact with Europeans; that's the thing that seems really easy to believe at first blush for me because... I mean, thousands of species is a lot, but Europeans were really good at making things extinct. Or at least, Europeans' rats were very good at it. Thousands is a lot. Yeah, 'cause I think—and part of me—I'm pulling that whole "that one seems more reasonable to me so I feel like that's actually going to be that fiction". So I'm going to go with the bird one.

S: OK. Bob?

B: Yeah, I agreed with a lot that Rebecca said. The contact lens one; at first blush I was like no effin way, but if you have your special contact lens; well, yeah. What the hell does that mean? That's, you know, "special" is an annoying word; it can mean so many different things. How awesome would that be, though, because I've just started to take a hit in my vision just in the past couple years. The fleeting fame one; yeah, what the hell do you mean by famous? I mean, you reach a certain level of fame and then afterwards you never really recapture that level, but you're still recognizable; you still have some level of fame. Like Gary Coleman; I mean, he never had that—maintained the fame he had when he was a kid, but if you saw him or heard of him or whatever, you totally would recognize him and still say, "yeah, he's kind of famous".

E: What you talkin' 'bout, Robert?

B: Yeah. Oh, God; I guess somebody had to say that. So yeah; this is way too ambiguous. It could... you know? Let's see... and the third one; thousands seems like a lot. Surely, they were very efficient at making animals extinct but thousands is a tremendous amount. It sounds like they wiped out every bird on these islands. You know, I think I'm going to go with the bird one as well.

S: OK. Evan?

E: Is it OK if I take the bird one first and say that that one's the fiction?

S: Go right ahead.

E: OK. Well, the bird one is the fiction.

B: You're not supposed to do that!

R: He can sound confident; it's fine.

E: I think the issue here is the part about "following first contact with Europeans". There were people on these islands well before Europeans; a long time before Europeans; I mean... populations of people and I'm sure that they were perhaps really the cause of a lot of the species going extinct. I think it's not the Europeans at all; I think it took place prior to them being there.

S: And Jay.

J: I agree with everyone; I think the contact lens one is science. Putting in maybe a shaped contact lens that's reshaping your eyeball or whatever. The one about the famous people staying famous for a long time; I don't see what the big mystery is there. I mean, once you get into the public consciousness, it takes a while for it to go away. So that one I think is science as well. So I'm going to agree and everyone—it's everyone, right? Everyone thinks that the one about the birds—yes, so this is either clean sweep for us or for you, Dr. Novella!

E: What does the die say?

J: The die says... (die rolling) it's number one again.

S: OK. So I guess I'll take these in order. Number one: A new study finds that wearing a special contact lens for even a single night can correct for loss of near vision in adults with presbyopia. you guys all think this one is signed send this one is... science.

B: Yay! Talk to me about it.

S: So far so good.

B: How does it work?

S: So, here's the...

R: Where can he get a prescription?

S: It's not as good as you think, Bob. I was a little excited, too, when I was reading it. Here's the title of the paper: Refractive Changes From Hyperopic Orthokeratology Monovision in Presbyopes. Sounds exciting.

J: Oh, of course! Yes, it makes perfect sense.

S: So—

E: What religion do you have to be? Presbyopes?

S: (chuckles) They had subjects wear a special contact lens, which changes the shape of the cornea and corrects for this inability to see near—to focus very close in; it added essentially a diopter to the magnification potential of the cornea. And it just reshapes the cornea temporarily, but it would have an effect even after a single night of wearing it. And you don't wear them during the day; you just wear them when you're sleeping at night; you take them out during the day; you don't wear contacts. But your cornea has changed shape. And then they had them wear it over—every night for a week and the effect got a little bit—increased a little bit further towards the end of the week. They also measured the effect in the morning and in the evening; it was greatest in the morning and it was even wearing off already by the evening, although it was still there to a significant degree.

B: Sweet! That's cool; all right, one day. Get a full day for just a night; when you're asleep.

S: But, here's the worst part about it...

J: It gives you cancer.

B: It makes you blind in a year.

E: It costs $50,000.

R: Anal leakage.

B: (laughs)

E: Oh, that is the worst.

S: The whole monovision thing.

J: You can only see out of one eye?

S: They're only doing in one eye because it ruins your far vision in that eye. So you have one eye for far vision and one eye for near vision.

J: Forget that. Just gimme the cyborg implants, for Christ's sake.

E: What do pirates do?

S: Some of the subject found that a little disconcerting.

R: But can't we adjust to that? I don't know; I feel like that's the thing that your brain could adjust to pretty quickly.

S: Maybe for some people, not for others. So the binocular distance vision was a problem. So... I don't know. Didn't seem that impressive to me once I read the whole study. The whole monovision thing didn't...didn't like—it's just basically like the end result is you're just wearing a permanent reading lens on one eye, you know? That's essentially the effect. I think glasses are probably better. But I agree with Jay, the cyborg implants—I'll hold out for those. All right; let's go to item number 2: New research finds that most fame is not fleeting – people who become famous tend to stay famous for years or decades. You all think this one is science—so did I get you all or is it a clean sweep?—and this one is... science.

J: Aaah!

B: Yay!

S: Got it. You guys totally got me this week. I even tried to make this one a little bit harder.

R: This was hard.

S: The definition of fame is actually pretty reasonable on this one; they were trying to be reasonable. What they found was they looked at the mentioning of names in newspapers, you know, as a measure for fame, so it's not just—can you recognize—"oh yeah; you're that guy from 20 years ago".

B: Are you actually—people are talking about you.

S: Yeah, people are talking about you in the press.

B: OK. That's a fairly good indicator.

S: What they found was that the people who got named the most often, let's say during a period between 2004 and 2009, were already famous. So they—the most people that are being talked about are people that have been famous for a long time; they weren't people who were just famous over a short of time. What they found was that about 96 percent of people who are famous people who are being talked about have this long-term fame. There are exceptions; that's the 4 percent, but most people... are not fleeting; they developed their fame, and as Jay said, once you get into that—in the public consciousness, you tend to stay there. So, this does however go a little bit against previous thinking—you know, the whole 15-minutes-of-fame concept was sort of accepted as true; that there's constant turnover of people that we consider to be famous, but they found that that's not true. There's actually not a lot of turnover; it's very —the turnover is actually quite slow; that most people have stable fame over a long period of time. Pretty interesting. You guys want to guess at who the 10 most famous people were in 2004-2009, based upon their name appearing most frequently in the media?

B: Uhhhh...

R: God.

B: Jackson. Michael Jackson.

E: Well, they're probably older people.

S: Nope.

B: No? He's not in the top 10?

S: No, didn't—

R: Well, do world leaders count?

S: They said this hold up for politics, entertainment, and sports.

R: I don't know; like, would Bush be in there?

S: So, here are the names: Jamie Foxx, Bill Murray, Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Naomi Watts, Howard Hughes, Phil Spector, John Malkovich, Adrien Brody, and Steve Buscemi.

R: Really?

E: What?

R: Howard Hughes?

E: Phil Spector?

B: How is that possible? Howard Hughes...

R: Phil Spector did murder his wife, so... I guess he's really earned his place, but...

E: Adrien Brody?

J: There's gotta be a reason why those people are coming up, you know? There could've been a meme about them; something.

S: Right. But they found that they were already in the media 3 years earlier, so it wasn't just a brief phenomenon. Anyway, let's move on to number 3: Researchers analyzing the fossil record find that thousands of Pacific island bird species went extinct following first contact with Europeans. You are all correct that this one is the fiction, but which one of you figured out why this was the fiction? What do you guys think?

R: I liked Evan's.

S: Evan nailed it.

E: Yaaay!

R: Yeah.

S: It's not the thousands of species; that's accurate. But it was all before first contact with Europeans; it was all in the 3,000 years before first contact with Europeans.

B: Plus, 3,000 years is a hell of a long time where you could do—where you could do that.

S: It was still—it completely devastated the native populations of the Pacific islands. More than just birds, but this is what the recent survey was looking at; most specifically, prehistoric bird extinctions, and it was greatest—this is not a big surprise—it was greatest in birds who could not fly; it was greatest in birds who were on very few islands, as opposed to more islands. Non-flying, non-passerine seabirds, close to a thousand species just for them alone, but they're going complete the tally of all land birds and sea birds. Which totally numbers in the thousands but they're still completing the survey. Very interesting. About two-thirds of the populations of these islands went extinct in the period from first human settlement to first European contact. Yeah. So the people that we now think of as the gentle natives who live at one with nature; no, they completely devastated their environment when they got there.

E: Right?

S: Right.

E: They have to survive, too.

S: Interestingly, again, just a lot of headlines used the Dodo as the reference, you know...

R: Which wasn't in the Pacific Islands?

S: No, just that that was from Europeans. Dodos went extincts from European hunters, not—so this isn't quite the dodo effect. It is, in a way, in that the dodo is sort of the prototypical bird susceptible to extinction by humans, but different in that the Dodo is post-European and they're talking about purely pre-European contact. From human settlement. So yeah, humans—wherever humans go, extinction of local populations follows. Especially islands are very susceptible to that, because you have lots and lots of species with small ranges, because of they each adapt to their island or small cluster of islands.

E: We are an invasive species

S: Yeah, right, absolutely. We're the ultimate invasive species. Absolutely. So good job, everyone. Thought I would get you with this one.

B: (affected voice) Good job, everyone.

S: (affected voice) Good job, everyone.

E: Well done.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:16)[edit]

S: All right; Jay, finish us up with a quote.

J: This is a quote that was sent in by a listener named Sebastian Beckwat from Canada. This is Michael Pollan from a book the Botany of Desire. Very sexual.

Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose.

J: Michael Pollan!

S: Right. Design in nature.


R: Good underwhelmed response. Whatever, Michael Pollan.

E: We're all absorbed in the moment.

S: It was better than last week's Kierkegaard quote; I'll him give that.

B/E: (laughs)

R: Poor Kierkegaard; no respect.

E: Yeah. I tell ya.

S: All right, guys.

Announcements (1:16:07)[edit]

S: Well, the next two episodes will be—are the shows that will be recording at [http:// NECSS]

R: It's exciting.

S: Always fun; very exciting. One live show; one private show. But that'll be the next two weeks. So—and we'll be seeing you guys next weekend, which'll be while this—when this episode does up, we'll be at NECSS having a good time.

B: Oh, I can't wait, man.

E: One of our rare moments when we are all together at the same venue.

S: This will probably be the only time this year, actually, that we'll be at the same place same time.

R: Wow

E: We've gotta make the most of it.

S: Absolutely.

J: We're going to go crazy.

S: All right, guys; thanks for joining me this week.

R: Thank you, Steve

B: You're welcome, Steve

E: Thanks, Steve

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

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


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