SGU Episode 41

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SGU Episode 41
May 3rd 2006
SGU 40 SGU 42
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
P: Perry DeAngelis

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Show Notes


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, May 3, 2006. This is your host Stephen Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me tonight are Bob Novella, ...

B: Hello.

S: ... Rebecca Watson, ...

R: Hey.

S: ... and Perry DeAngelis.

P: Righto!

S: So happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone, or almost Cinco de Mayo.

B: Tres de Mayo.

S: By the time this is published.

R: It's a tough date to keep (unintelligible).

S: I know. When's the Fourth of July, again? I always forget.

B: Ha, ha.

Toxic Cruise (00:50)[edit]

S: But speaking of Mexico, Bob — we'll do a quick segue — you were recently on a Mexican cruise.

B: Yes.

S: And you had a run-in with pseudoscience on the cruise ship. Is that right?

B: Yeah, it was a little discouraging. Overall, though, I must say the cruise was fantastic. Everything was awesome, from the food, the service, the amenities. The ports we stopped at in Mexico were all great, and especially ...

R: Did you see any of those wrestlers with the masks?

B: No, I did not. I was looking for them. Didn't see anybody.

S: Like Nacho Libre?

R: I love those guys.

B: Oh, I can't wait for that movie. One of the high points, of course, was the casino on board, in which I won $1000 playing blackjack.

S: Yeah, we talked about that last week, because Evan went gambling last week, too.

B: How much?

S: $1300 I think.

B: Oooh. Nice.

P: Yeah, that's right.

R: Yeah, like a slot machine.

B: So, my biggest problem, as Steve said, wasn't the seasickness, and it wasn't not getting to the top of that damn rock wall that they had on board, but it was the pseudoscience. I couldn't believe it. I went into the gym, and they had a fat-burning seminar, and so I was waiting for that. I looked at some of the brochures they had and listened to this woman, this trainer, who was talking about how to lose fat, and I just couldn't believe what she was saying. Well, I was hoping she'd say, I guess, the obvious stuff. You want to lose fat, you've got to get more active. You've got to eat less, and just all the obvious stuff that actually takes some effort and not that much money, but she was really going off on the whole idea that in order to really burn fat, you've got to "remove the toxins from your body," and she said some ...

R: The toxins being Twinkies.

B: Right, right. So she said things, and, Steve, maybe you could address some of these things, some things that I never heard before. She was saying that your liver cannot properly metabolize fat, because the fat cells have around them water. Well, that's not very surprising, but also not only water, but acid. I assume she meant lactic acid, but because of that, the liver has limited access to your fat cells, and these toxins have to be removed before it can be metabolized.

S: That's just pure nonsense.

B: Yeah, absolutely.

S: The liver is the biochemical factory of the body. It does — there's a portal venous system which, basically, drains nutrients and things absorbed to the gut directly to the liver, so it gets passed through the liver before it goes to the rest of the body, and that's where the fat and cholesterol and everything, a lot of that does get metabolized. Fat-soluble whatever, chemicals or toxins, absolutely can get metabolized by the liver. That's just mumbo-jumbo what she was saying.

B: Yeah

P: Bob, did you jump forward and start shaking the woman?

B: You know, I definitely had a skeptical attitude and asked questions and stuff, but I didn't really go to town on her, because — and I knew it was all junk, but I really didn't have facts, really hard facts to say "Hey, what about ABC and D all this stuff." So basically ...

R: Well, she didn't have hard facts either, so.

B: Well, no, she didn't either, but I didn't want to refute her ...

P: That didn't seem to stop her.

B: ... unless I really had some good stuff to back me up. I just have kind of like ...

S: You knew it didn't sound right, but you didn't have the facts at your fingertips to counter her point by point.

B: Right. So I took good mental notes, because I knew I was going to discuss it and research it after the cruise and stuff. But there's other things. It didn't end there. I grabbed all their brochures that I could find, and everything, and they were offering some stuff that was really, that was really out there. I've got a list of a couple things that they were offering. They had something called — they had a special massage that included shiatsu, reflexology, and aromatherapy in a package. They refer to these as "cultural touches." Now I'm not sure what they were getting at by calling them cultural touches, but it's obvious baloney.


B: They also had chakra stone therapy, and let me give you ...

S: Chakras are just a life force bit.

B: Right. Let me just read you what it says here in the ....

P: Uh, Deepak Chakra.

S: Deepak Chakra.

B: Hah! It says "In Bali it's believed that stones are filled with the vitality and energy of the water that flows over them in an eternal stream. Harnessing these properties, we bathe the stones in warm water, anoint them with spicy aroma of the Orient, and blah blah blah, and then using aromatherapy techniques to release muscular tension." You get all that: 50 minutes, $120.

S: Nice. It's a nice round number.

B: Now here — have you guys ever heard of this? This is called, let's see "Iona Theramy". Iona theramy is a figure-corrective and firming therapy from France. It's a "unique detox treatment which works with stimuli and algae to reduce cellulite and fatty deposits from the stomach, thighs, and buttocks in women and the stomach region in men. You will lose ...", get this, "... 3 to 8 inches of external toxins in one session."

S: Do you know what removes cellulite really well?

B: A sharp blade?

R: Cheese grater?

S: Nothing! Nothing removes cellulite. Anything that claims it removes cellulite is bogus.

B: I mean, just lose weight, lose fat, and your cellulite will be less noticeable. That's really the only thing you could do.

S: You could lose 3 to 8 inches of toxins, uh? That's a lot of toxins.

B: Yeah.

P: What does that mean? 3 to 8 inches of toxins.

B: Yeah, does that mean that they measure your waist, your legs, and your arms, and your neck, and if they all go down an inch, therefore you've lost 8 inches. Is it one location, or is it multiple locations?

S: Oh, probably they add it up to make it sound more impressive.

B: Yeah. So, um ...

S: The alternative medicine gurus and quacks have a few shticks. They really only have two or three themes, and everything is pretty much a permutation of those themes. One theme is just the life energy, the life force, and doing something to improve the flow or balance of it. Another one is nutrition. That's always a big one. Nutritional deficiencies cause everything, and you can cure anything with good nutrition. And another one is toxins. Your body's not working because it's being assaulted from the outside by toxins, and you could make anything better by getting rid of the toxins. That's all. This is not surprising at all, because the spa industry, which for hundreds of years has been on the cutting edge of pseudoscience, caters to wealthy people with lots of disposable incomes, who are enamored of these touchy-feely, feel-good kind of treatments, who are motivated to believe all these pie-in-the-sky claims. So it's a marriage made in heaven.

B: Yeah. But one other thing. I went to the — the catalogue the woman gave me was for products called — it's E L E M I S — "elemis," and they've got all sorts of stuff and creams and lotions and all sorts of things to help detoxify yourself. So, it's a little bit unique in that they're not saying "fast for a week," "just eat strawberries for seven days." They actually have these creams and things to help detoxify yourself. So the products are a little unique in that regard. But also, in the fine print on the website, it says "in addition, try to drink at least eight glasses of water a day to flush your system (blah, blah, blah), exercise a few times a week, concentrating on affected areas, eat a healthy balanced diet, including fruits and vegetables." Now to me — we've all seen these things before, but to me, that's like telling somebody with a tumor on their kidney: "take my special antitumor pills, bathe in my alien rock bath, and in addition to this, have surgery to remove the tumor."

S: Right.

B: You know, it's like, okay ...

S: One of those will work, you know.

B: Right.

S: And then they usually roll it together with some basic, common-sense advice: stay well-hydrated, eat a good meal, and get some activity, and that makes it seem like they're holistic ...

B: Right.

S: ... and they know what they're talking about.

B: So spend hundreds of dollars on these worthless things, but also do these commonsense things that we know work.

S: Right.

P: Well, I'm taking a cruise to Alaska in 10 days.

B: Are you?

P: I will keep my eyes open for such cultural anomalies.

B: You will see it. You will absolutely see it.

P: I'm sure. I'm sure I will.

R: Tell us all about the cultural touch.

B: Yeah, right.

P: Indeed.

S: Maybe they'll have some ancient Eskimo healing modalities available for you.

P: It's possible.

S: From the Inuit, we should say.

P: That's right.

News Items[edit]

Bosnian Pyramids (9:24)[edit]

S: Well, let's talk about some Bosnian pyramids. I'm sure you guys have heard about this. So a self-styled archaeologist by the name of Sammy Osmanagich claims that he has discovered a ziggurat-style or step-style pyramid in Bosnia, and this pyramid's, in fact, larger than the largest pyramid at Giza in Egypt. He first noticed it from photographs of this area, this town in Bosnia, and there is a mountain Visocica ...

R: I'd call it a hill.

S: Yeah, a hill. It's more of a hill. That is shaped kind of pyramid-like, and ...

R: As hills are known to be.

S: As hills are, sometimes. So he's now claiming that he's found proof or least evidence from excavating on the hill that it is, in fact, a man-made structure, a pyramid. Now what's interesting about this claim is that the press has largely perpetrated this story, or perpetuated the story, reported it without even a bit of skepticism, without a bit of background investigation, without doing any investigative journalism whatsoever. Or even, ...

P: I'm shocked! I'm shocked!

S: ... even fact checking, or even like chatting with an expert: "say hey, is this on the level?" They just report it. This is true. I've found credulous reports. A lot of them are the same. A lot of them are just reprints of AP, but credulous reports on Fox News, the New York Times, MSNBC, ...


S: ... CNN, the BBC News, which is usually a little bit better. They're all just saying just flat out as if this is a straightforward archaeological story. Now, at first, you might think "all right, so there's a pyramid in Bosnia. Big deal." You know, it's doesn't sound like that fantastic of a claim. There are pyramids in other places of the world. Although, this would be, if true, the first pyramid discovered in Europe. So it would be significant for that.

R: And, Steve, who does he think built this pyramid?

S: Well, there you go. If you do even a little bit of background, ask those obvious questions: "Who is this guy? What's he claiming?", then you uncover a can of worms. So this guy, Osmanagich, believes that the pyramid was built 12,000 years ago. Do you guys recognize the significance of the 12,000 year figure?

R: The significance that that area was under ice at the time?

S: That's the scientific significance of it.

R: Oh.

S: The significance is that 12,000 years is the alleged date of Atlantis. That Atlantis sunk.

B: Ooooohhhhh.

R: There you go, right.

S: Plato writing 3000 years ago said that it was 9000 years prior to his writing, so that would make it 12,000 years ago. He thinks the Atlantans built the pyramid, and that the Atlantans are, in fact, aliens who came here from the Pleiades between 12 and 27,000 years ago. They were responsible for multiple ancient cultures, all of the ancient pyramids, Mayan culture.

P: It's a little Chariot of the Gods (unintelligible)

S: Yeah, a little chariot-of-the-god-ish.

P: Yeah

R: What's unique about this is that he combining these huge worlds of crap and bringing them together to form one huge ball of crap.

S: I wouldn't say that is unique. There are other people who do that.

R: It's pretty ballsy, though. To not only say that the Atlanteans built the pyramids, he's not content to just ...

S: Right.

R: ... stop there. No. Do you know where the aliens came from? That's right, the Pleidades.

S: The Pleiades. A lot of people lock in on the Pleiades. Billy Meyer claims that his aliens are from the Pleiades as well, and I've heard ...

R: What's up with the Pleiades?

S: Yeah, what's up with the Pleiades? In fact, the Pleiades are probably the last place aliens would come from, because that is a birthplace of very new and young stars. It wouldn't have been enough time for any life to evolve in the Pleiades.

B: Yeah, the Pleiades, it's a group, I believe, of 7 visible stars that are gravitationally related. They're also called the Seven Sisters, I believe.

S: Right.

R: Oh, yeah.

B: And it's just a famous grouping of stars. You know, sounds nice.

S: You know why they pick on the Pleiades? Because the name is cool sounding.

B: Right, exactly.

R: It is a nice name.

B: That's it. That's the only reason.

R: And they're visible, too.

S: They're naked-eye visible. So, anyway, if you read this guy's website, he has this elaborate mythology and fantasy about who built this pyramid and about worshiping of the Sun and how we're destined to become in-harmony with the Sun's vibrations. He really goes off into La-La Land, and you would think that any reporter who just like did a Google search on this guy's name in five minutes would see that he's a complete fruitcake. But apparently no journalist did this. Now the only report that I read that was skeptical of this was from Archaeology magazine. Now, of course, they were appropriately offended at this whole affair. They're planning a detailed exposé in their upcoming issue, but they did write sort of a quick debunking of it that you can ...

P: Problem is that nobody reads Archaeology magazine, and ...

S: Yeah

P: ... everybody reads the New York Times.

R: Yeah, and you know if you go to Google and you search for Bosnian pyramids, you're still going to come up with not only this crazy guy's website, but also you'll come up with the original news stories from the BBC and ABC News with no correction.

S: There's even The guy has his own website.

R: Yeah.

S: You're right, and buried in there somewhere might be the Archaeology article saying "Oh, yeah, by the way, this is all bogus." And maybe, hopefully, eventually, there'll also be a little link in there to this podcast, where we discuss how bogus it is.

P: Yeah, that's right.

S: But very, very, very little skepticism about this, and I think eventually the news cycle will catch up with this. It will be behind the times by weeks or months, but eventually the news cycle will catch up with "But, by the way, this is all bogus." But by then it will be in the popular consciousness. It will be a permanent fixture ...

P: Too late. It will be too late.

S: ... in the halls of pseudoscience.

P: You can get anything in print if you've got the guts to claim it.

S: That's right. The other little wrinkle to this, other than the absolute falling down of the press, is that this hill actually has a lot of legitimate archaeological sites on it. There was a Roman occupation there, a Paleolithic occupation. In fact, as Rebecca mentioned, at the time he alleges this pyramid was built, there was maybe 100 hunter gatherers with stone tools living in the area. No way did they have the resources to build a pyramid. And this guy's basically tromping over this legitimate archaeological site. So a lot of people are trying to get him to stop before he destroys all the ... yeah, he wants basically remove all the dirt from this hill. He thinks there's going to be a pyramid underneath. But the city of Sarajevo, which is nearby, and the federal government in Bosnia are supporting him, because they want this to attract tourism. They don't care if it's true or not, they just know it's bringing in the tourist dollars. So that fight's going on right now. Now his recent findings that are what made this hit the news cycle: he found some rocks or something that look like they're man-made, and he claims this is part of the outer wall of the pyramid. He's probably just digging up some legitimate archaeological sites, whatever, from Roman structures or whatever. Again, there are known stuff up there. Either he's completely misinterpreting natural formation, or he's just discovering older, legitimate ruins, just not 12,000 year-old pyramid. So, incredible.

R: I think I need to come up with a crap plan like that and see if I can get on the BBC.

S: You're a lot more famous doing that than skepticism, I'll tell you that.

P: That's for sure.

R: I think maybe I'll try it. I'll come with the exact opposite of SkepChicks. It'll be lik PsiChicks, maybe.

S: We'll do an experiment.

R: We'll see how far that goes.

S: Yeah, if you did PsiChicks, forget it. That would be a hit. That would be a hit.

P: Yeah, that would be big.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Bubble Universes (17:24)[edit]

S: Well, we... let's move on; we have a lot of e-mail, and some excellent questions we've been getting in e-mail, so I want to try to cover a few of those this week. The first question comes from Elias Luna in Bronx, New York, from nearby. He writes:

I have a couple of questions which I would love to hear you guys discuss. What's your view on Michio Kaku's [pronounced kuh-ku] view of the universe as a multiverse, that we are nothing but a bubble in a sea of bubbles.

B: I believe it's pronounced "Michio Kaku".

S: Is it kah-ku?

B: I believe.

If there is a so-called multiverse, when did it begin? I'm not speaking of our universe, because we all know the universe began with the Big Bang. But let's say there is a multiverse. What is beyond the multiverse and beyond what's beyond the multiverse and etc.? You see, it's a paradox and the only way to escape is to say there's always been something somewhere, literally for infinite and will be, so there is no end or beginning in the grand scheme of things. And if there is an infinite amount of universes or multiverses there, there's an infinite amount of civilizations.

Then he goes on along — basically, that's his question. He asks a couple of other questions. So let's talk about that first. Bob, do you want to start?

B: Well, yeah, his main question in the beginning is: if there is a multiverse, when did it begin? And you really can't ask that question, because, by definition, you have no contact to any of these other bubble universes within the multiverse or meta-verse. So how could you determine how old it is. I mean, our universe could have been created 15 billion years ago, but it might be a baby compared to other universes. Or we could be the first universe in a bubble universe. So you really can't know how old this multiverse might be. You just can't get outside of your universe, by definition.

S: Right. And just to clarify, that's because, by definition, our universe is everything that we can interact with. Anything that can affect us, everything that we can affect, everything that we can see is, by definition, part of our universe. So, from a theoretical point of view, another universe that was part of a grander multiverse would be forever inaccessible to us.

B: Right. And imagine if somehow you could contact another bubble universe within the multiverse, even that wouldn't help you, because who knows how old that universe is and how long that bubble has been around. You'd have to literally examine every one and find out what the oldest is and say, "OK, this is how old the multiverse is", so it's really inconceivable.

S: The other possibility is that — and Stephen Hawkings [sic] wrote about this — that the age of the universe or the multiverse may be finite but unbound. This is kind of a hard concept to get across, but it's kind of like the surface of a sphere. It's finite. The amount of space that it occupies is finite, but there's no beginning or end that you can point to. It's continuous. There's no specific boundary, but it is finite. So the time dimension of our universe may be the same thing. Maybe we didn't have a beginning and we won't have an end, even though the amount of time that it occupies could still be finite.

R: So does that mean that we're going to get around to the beginning again at some point?

S: I don't know. I don't know. When you start to talk about cosmology like that, whenever physicists write about that kind of cosmology, they always say something to the effect "you could really only express these ideas in, like, 12-dimensional derivative calculus, but I'm going to try to sort of paraphrase in English".

B: (chuckles)

S: So I mean, these are concepts that you can't really even understand, except on a very sophisticated mathematical level. So who knows what it all really means. This is also, by the way, Kaku is the guy — he was one of the co-originators of string theory, right? That's what it says on his website, anyway.

B: OK. I'm not sure if he was one of the originators.

P: So what is the point of positing the hypothesis?

S: That's exactly what I was going to get to next, Perry. This all very interesting, but unless you can derive from these notions a testable hypothesis, some way to test it, then it doesn't really enter the realm of empirical science. At best it's a mathematical construct, and it's just a mathematical theorem. Now, mathematical theorems can be the beginning of a scientific exploration or a scientific investigation. It could say, "well, here's a model that's internally consistent and is consistent with what we observe". But you still have to then test it against something. You have to find some way to find out if it's actually real or not. And no one's been able to figure out a way to test string theory or the multi-universe theory or any of these other sort of big ultimate cosmological questions. So, at the moment, they still lie in the realm of theoretical mathematics and not empirical science.

Limits of Black Holes (22:16)[edit]

S: So let's go on to the second e-mail. This one's a lot shorter. This one is from Dan Hanch in California, and he writes:

Is there a limit to the amount of mass that a black hole can consume? Why don't the super-massive black holes in the center of galaxies gobble up all the surrounding highly dense stars, gases, etc.?

B: Let me grab that one again, Steve.

S: Oh, go ahead, Bob.

B: If that's all right. I know of no limit, and I can't think of why there would be a limit. As you just keep feeding a black hole matter, there's no reason why it's just not going to just keep sucking it up. Now I've heard — I've read estimates of super-massive black holes that have millions of Solar masses, and of course, a Solar mass is the matter equivalent in our sun. That's generally how they rate them, by Solar masses. I've seen them listed as millions of Solar masses and even billions, but recently, they found a super-massive black hole that is generating energy at the rate of 20 trillion suns. I've never heard an amount that huge. They never went into the trillions; I've only seen billions. But 20 trillions is truly staggering.

P: That's a lot of suns.

S: Was that part of the recent discovery, Bob, that some black holes generate more energy than they consume?

B: No, that's unrelated to Hawking radiation.

S: Yeah.

P: Are you talking about free energy there?

R: Yeah, are you saying we could have black-hole-powered cars one day?

P: Is that what you're talking about?

B: That would be interesting.

S: Theoretically. It was a recent discovery that's also been on a lot of the news sites recently. So-called green or energy-efficient black holes. But the implications of that, obviously, are unclear.

B: So I don't think there's any limit. I mean, a black hole could conceivably hold the entire universe worth of matter. There's no reason why it couldn't do that. So there is no limit. The other question that he had was: why doesn't it just keep on sucking up everything. People seem to think that black holes — I mean, they do have immense gravitational pull, but they seem to think that their reach is just beyond what anything else with mass has, but that's not true. If our sun turned into a black hole at this moment, I don't see any reason why the Earth wouldn't still continue to orbit around it. It wouldn't necessarily increase its gravitational pull and suck us it. Now, of course, it would have an event horizon and things like that. It'd have all these wacky features of a black hole, but it doesn't mean it's going to reach out any farther than anything else with that much gravitational pull. So, generally a black hole will clean out the area around it, and it'll create and produce lots of energy in the form of X-rays and things, things that — it's not leaving the black hole, it's just being created and emitted before it crosses the event horizon. So once it sweeps out that area, then the black hole becomes quiescent and pretty much just waits around for more matter to slowly get a little closer and closer and closer.

S: Right.

R: So it really is — it's more like a hole and not like a vacuum. Some people seem to think that it kind of acts like it's sucking, but it's really more of a hole.

S: No more than any other object with similar gravity, basically.

B: Right. Exactly.

S: And the gravity still falls off as the square of the distance, which is ...

B: Right. Exactly. That's not violated with a black hole.

S: And also, another way to think about it is that, well, it kind of is sucking in everything that's around it, that's close to it, as you say, but also, things are really far away in the galaxy and outer space, and there's still the speed of light that can't be violated. So, even if things do move towards the gravitational pull of a black hole, it would take a long time to draw in things that are very, very far away.

B: Right. And beyond a certain distance, you're essentially — it's just not there to you, gravitationally, because once you go a certain distance away ...

S: You would orbit around it, but it wouldn't draw you in.

Origin of Life (26:15)[edit]

S: A closer question — this one regards the origin of life. This one is from Jeremy Freeman of Springfield, Illinois. Jeremy writes:

I recently discovered your podcast and just got caught up to your most recent episode. I'm disappointed that now I have to wait for you to release a new one, but you guys put on a great show, very interesting and entertaining.


In one of your podcasts and in your article, "The Starchild Project"

That's an article, by the way, that you could find on the NESS website, on our Articles page.

You refer to a point that Carl Sagan made and said that it would be incredibly unlikely that human and alien DNA would be compatible because it would be from two completely different evolutionary genetic code sequences. I agree with that line of thinking, but it got me thinking about a related question that maybe you could shed some light on. If I understand correctly, we share a genetic code with every other known form of life on Earth.

That is correct.

Therefore, we assume that an alien life form would have a genetic code from its planet of origin. What prevented multiple starting points of life on Earth? I mean, why is there only one set of genetic code? Why on a planet as hospitable to life as Earth, wouldn't life have started from multiple points? Why doesn't life spark even now, to create a new random microbe with different code to start a new evolutionary chain? I would like to know if scientists have attempted to answer this in the past and what their conclusions or theories were. Without an answer to that question and no evidence that shows that this has happened and that life died out, the likelihood of life on other planets decreases dramatically, at least in my mind. I'm not ready to go to the creationist route, but without a good answer, it's really bugging me.

R: We've got one on the cusp here, guys.

S: We need to draw him in.

R: We need to pull him back and save him from the creationists.

S: So let me start with this one. So it is true that all life on Earth shares the same genetic code, and what we mean by that is the DNA sequence — you know, DNA has four base pairs, like four letters to the alphabet, and each sequence of three base pairs codes for a specific either amino acid and then there are a few that regulate the transcription of that. Like, for example, they may tell the transcription process to stop at a certain point. So that's the code. Which three letters equal what amino acid. There is absolutely no reason, by the way, why any two different species on this planet would have the same genetic code, except because of heredity. So, therefore, we can conclude that all life on Earth is related to itself, to each other. Life that evolved on another planet — first of all, we wouldn't even know that they would have DNA. They may have some completely other molecule serving as their genetic code.

B: Could be a triple helix.

S: Whatever. It could be proteins. It could be something other than deoxyribonucleic acid, right? It could be some other chemical compound. And even if it was something like DNA, there's no reason why they would have randomly come up with the same genetic code, the same three letters equaling the same amino acid. They may, in fact, use a different... we use twenty. All life on Earth is derived from twenty amino acids. They may have a different set of amino acids then what we have. They may use some that we don't and not use some that we do. Now, in terms of has life arisen multiple times on this planet and why doesn't it. Well, one reason is that the conditions which were suitable for the origin of life on the early planet are no longer present. For example, there probably was a lot more electrical storms early on. There was no oxygen in the atmosphere. There were probably lots more ammonia and methane and other compounds. So the early Earth, which may have been more suitable for the generation of life, is not the conditions that exist now. Also, once life did arise, it would use up a lot of the resources in the environment. It would basically fill all the niches pretty quickly on the planet. And that would crowd out any new life trying to get a foothold. So whichever life arose first would have probably just crowded out any other later attempts at life arising.

Also, interestingly, there is one form of life that has a slightly different genetic code than everything else. Do you guys know what that is? I know Bob does.

R: A fundamentalist?

B: (chuckles)

S: That's not a bad guess. It's actually mitochondria. Mitochondria, which are organelles inside of our cells — they're the energy factories of our cells. They were probably a primitive form of bacteria that then formed a symbiotic relationship with larger cells. And they have a slightly different genetic code than does all other life. So, probably mitochondria represent a very early side branch of the branch of life that led to all existing life today. It's possible that they were a completely separate branch of life, but probably not, because they're still too similar. The genetic code's not totally randomized. It's very similar to other life. There's just a few differences. So, but what that also implies is that — well, you know, there could've been multiple origins of life, multiple early branching points with different genetic codes, but only one branch survived, the one that later gave rise to all of life. So the early sort of chaotic biological systems on this world may have been competing, and one branch survived. And that's why we only have genetic code at this point in time. So, those are some possible answers. Probably the most far out answer, which is still a possibility, is that life on Earth was actually seeded from outer space. If a meteorite landed on Earth that had some templates of DNA or whatever, that could have then seeded this planet with life. And then, of course, if life on this planet arose from one point of seeding, it would all have the same genetic code. That's still very hypothetical, but that's another sort of possibility compatible with that. So, interesting question, and yeah, there's quite a bit of speculation that is compatible with what we see.

Iridology (32:34)[edit]

We received another e-mail from Kim, who asks:

Please talk more about alternate medicine on your podcasts. I know that's one of your primary interests, and I'm dying to learn more about it since I know so little about it. I have a co-worker who believes very strongly in diagnosing people's ailments by reading the iris of the eye. I believe it is the iris.


"Iridology", I think he calls it.

Yes, it is called iridology.

P: That's it.


Do you know anything about that? I had thyroid cancer and he told me he could see it a mile away in my eyes. I thought he meant I looked sad or something and was stunned when he explained what he meant. Nice of him to tell me after the fact.

B: Ha-ha!


Thanks again,

Well, yes, I'm very familiar with iridology. Iridology is a pseudo-science which basically involves making diagnoses by reading the color variations and flecks of color in the iris of the eye. This was cooked up about 150 years ago in the mid-1800s by a Hungarian physician called Ignatz von Péczely (I think that's how you pronounce it), and he said — he based it on an anecdote, where when he was a child, he found an owl who had broken his wing, and he noticed a dark fleck in his iris, and when he fixed his wing, the dark fleck went away. And he said "hmmm". So then he started looking at the irises of his patients and thought he could correlate the flecks with what diseases they've had.

P: Sadly, he was wrong.

S: Apparently. Now this was popularized in the United States by Bernard Jensen, D.C., Doctor of Chiropractic, who actually passed away in 2001.

P: Terrible, terrible.

S: He wrote several books about it. He was basically the leading American iridologist. He wrote, for example, "nature has provided us with a miniature television screen showing the most remote portions of the body by way of nerve reflex responses". So what he and other iridologists believe is that the iris is connected to every other part of the body through nerve endings, and whenever any part of the body is diseased, those nerve endings will change the iris, and you can read that by looking at the iris. Of course, these nerve endings have never been discovered. You can dissect the eye, and there is no such structures. They just simply don't exist. And there is absolutely not a single bit of science to support any of the claims of iridologists. I was reading an iridology website, and it's incredible how they just make these bold-face statements, which are completely false. Under "what is iridology", they write, "iridology is the scientific analysis of patterns and structures in the iris of the eye which locates areas and stages of inflammation throughout the body". So that's — first of all, it's not a scientific analysis, because there's zero empirical evidence that there's any correlation between how the iris looks and any disease or health state.

Further, despite the fact that this is utter and unmitigated nonsense, it has actually been researched to test the claims. Now, in 1979, Bernard Jensen — again, this is like the leader of American iridology, so you can't claim this guy didn't know what he was doing in terms of iridology — and two other proponents failed a scientific test in which they examined the photographs of eyes of 143 persons. Basically, some of them had clear-cut, proven kidney disease. The others were normal controls. And they could not do any better than chance, just to say who had kidney disease and who didn't have kidney disease. Surprise, surprise. And there have been other studies, very similar, where they basically do no better than guessing. In fact, there was one great study where they actually sent some iridologists photographs of, like, monkey eyes and glass eyes, and they couldn't even tell that they weren't actually human eyes. They were, like, diagnosing the glass eyes.

P: (chuckles) The main problem with iridology is it's not as funny as phrenology, reading the lumps on your head. So it never made it into the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

S: (laughs) That's true.

P: That's the main problem with it.

S: So Bugs Bunny was never able to ridicule iridology. Basically, what it comes down to, it's a cold reading. You know, the iridologists look at your iris and they give you a medical cold reading. And they also write that if — the changes may not show an existing disease, it just shows that you might have a predisposition to a disease. So of course, if they say ...

B: Hedge your bets.

S: ... "Oh, I see kidney disease in your iris", and you don't have any kidney disease, they can say, "oh, well you might get kidney disease in the future".

R: Or maybe your mother has kidney disease.

S: Right. So does that sound familiar? That's exactly what the psychics do.

B: Yup. Absolutely.

S: "Oh, this isn't true of you? Well, it may be in the future. Just hold on to that. That's something that may come true in the future."

B: So they could never be wrong.

S: That's right.

B: But there is something that I learned about irises that are very fascinating. Did you know that your iris is the most unique, you know, "fingerprint", quote-unquote, for you, more so than even your DNA? The pattern that your iris makes is so unique, it's more unique than your DNA. And that's why the ...

S: Well, technically, Bob, you can't be more unique, because unique means one of a kind. So you're not using that term exactly correctly.

P: Very good.

B: Well, I mean, you could be a twin and you're not unique but still your iris would be unique. Right?

S: Right. I know what you're saying. There are more points of difference between the irises of two people than there are points of difference between their DNA.

B: Right.

S: So that's what you mean to say. But anyway, so let me read you — that is true, and iris scans may become a method of identification in the future. And the reason for that is because ...

B: Well it is now! It is now.

S: That's true. You're right.

B: With biometric scanning. If you do one iris, it's unbelievably accurate, but if you do both irises, it's like one in 20 billion or 50 billion or something crazy.

S: Well, that's because — the reason why there could be more detail in the iris than in your DNA is because our bodies are more complex once they develop than is encoded in the DNA.

B: Right.

S: The DNA just has rules for how things develop, but by following those rules, you can actually get more information than is in the DNA itself. This is why our brains contain more information than our DNA does, right?

B: Exactly. Right. Exactly.

Name That Logical Fallacy (39:12)[edit]

S: I do want to — now, last week we began the Name That Logical Fallacy segment, and I want to continue that this week. And I was reading through our list of logical fallacies. I also had written an article for the New England Skeptical Society — again, that's on our website — about logical fallacies, and I realized that I really need to update it. So I've been doing that for the past week or so, and hopefully fairly soon, I'll publish an updated article on arguments in general, premises, etc. and also a greatly expanded list of logical fallacies. I searched for other peoples' lists of logical fallacies just to see what they contain. Some people have — the longest list that I found was 43 different logical fallacies. We have our top 20 on the website. But actually, when you read them, the vast majority of the new ones or the extra ones that are not on our list are really just sub-types or derivations of existing ones. So, it depends on whether or not you want to lump various fallacies into one type or general type or you want to split out even fine differences between them. So, the list could be longer or shorter depending upon that. But anyway, so keep an eye out for my expanded description of logical fallacies. But while I was reading the iridology site, one paragraph struck me. I thought that would be a good one to try to identify a subtle logical fallacy.

Now on this same site, and, of course again, we'll have the link for you, it describes how iridology works, what it shows, and there's also a paragraph on what iridology will not show. Let me read this for you guys and tell me if anything strikes you as a logical fallacy. It says:

Iridology will not show or name a specific disease, but provides information about the body tissues which indicate tendencies toward conditions of disease, often before symptoms appear. Iridology will not reveal surgery performed under anesthesia, as nerve impulses are discontinued. Iridology cannot locate parasites, gallstones, or germ life but will indicate the presence of inflammation and toxic conditions. It will not show pregnancy, as that is a normal function of the female body.

So what do you guys think about that? Now I admit you have to have that into a little bit of context of the claims for and against iridology. Well, why do you think they go out of their way to say that having your kidney removed surgically won't cause your iris to change, to reveal, for example, kidney disease?

R: To cover their ass? (laughs)

S: To cover their ass. Exactly. Because wouldn't that be an obvious test of iridology? So if I get my kidney whacked out, why doesn't my kidney fleck show up, you know?

R: Right.

S: So what logical fallacy do you think that is? (pauses) That is special pleading.

R: Wait, wait, wait! You didn't give me a chance to think about it! (laughs)

S: Gotta be quicker than that, Rebecca; come on. That's special pleading. All of these are special pleading: pregnancy, the surgery. So why don't these things show up in iridology, you know, because they've been proven not to. And they say, "oh, that's because under anesthesia, the nerve impulses are discontinued", which is false, by the way, so it's also a false premise. You don't discontinue nerve impulses under — that doesn't mean anything. And they certainly don't anesthetize your eyeballs when you had your kidneys taken out. So that's a false premise, but it's also just special pleading. There's no particular reason, based upon anything that anyone is claiming about iridology, that it wouldn't change your iris if other things would. Same thing with pregnancy. The fact that it's normal versus a disease state doesn't mean that it wouldn't have an effect, physiologically, on some other part of the body, especially if it were intimately connected to it the way they argue that it is. So those are just forms of special pleading.

The Scope of Skepticism (43:06)[edit]

S: That's all for the specific e-mails for this week. However, I did want to bring up next in a separate segment a discussion that is in response to some e-mails that we've been getting. I just want to basically lump these e-mails together into the bigger topic and discuss it. And that's basically "what is the scope of skepticism?" What kinds of things does skepticism cover? And specifically, some people have asked us what is the scope of our show. What topics do we talk about or not talk about, and have we made specific choices or decisions about what kind of things we will talk about.

P: I was hoping people could discern that by listening.

S: Yeah, to some degree, I mean. Basically, to lay it out, our philosophy is what we call "scientific skepticism". The earliest reference to that phrase that I have been able to find was Carl Sagan in The Demon Haunted World. But we basically use that to refer to our philosophy, which is the notion that all claims to truth, to factual truth, should be subjected to appropriate scientific analysis, to analysis for logic and evidence, and that acceptance or rejection should be apportioned to the evidence. It is certainly dependent upon a naturalistic and materialistic philosophical worldview, which basically means we operate in a realm in which we deal with the material world functioning under natural processes. We do not allow for magic or supernatural explanations. Now, within the skeptical community, there's a bit of — and I'm sure within philosophical circles — there's a discussion about whether or not science requires that we live in a naturalistic, materialistic universe, whether science can be used to prove that we live in a naturalistic or materialistic world, or that science just makes the arbitrary choice to limit ourselves to that because that's how it works. And I think, in fact, we discussed this topic to some degree on one of our early, early podcasts when Massimo Pigliucci was on with us. And, basically, our position is that we cannot know, basically, if we live in a purely materialistic or naturalistic universe, because any hypothesis that deals with something outside of the natural world, that deals with the supernatural, cannot be investigated scientifically.

P: By definition.

S: By definition. Now this is where — not by choice. Some people have said, well, we choose to limit ourselves to the natural and to leave out the supernatural. It's not a choice; it's by necessity. The scientific methodology, empiricism, requires that, because supernatural causes, causes that are outside of nature, cannot be held to any kind of laws or any kind of restrictions. The best example is God, you know. Does God exist or not exist? Well, that's not really a scientific question. If you define God as an all-powerful being that lies outside of the laws of our universe, you can never use the laws of the universe to prove that he doesn't exist. So you can never use any kind of empiricism or scientific method, because whatever outcome of any experiment or observation you choose to make, you can always say, "well, God intended it to be that way." There's absolutely no constraint you can put on it.

P: Gods and deities are a matter of faith, and that is not our bailiwick.

S: That's right. So you could say that questions that are outside of the realm of science are properly dealt with as matters of faith, and, basically, meaning that they're not knowable. You can only just have an arbitrary personal or subjective decision about those, but there is no sort of empiricism that you could bring to bear, and therefore, all we say is that that's outside the realm of science. It's outside the realm of scientific skepticism. It's important to define it as such, but we don't specifically deal with it. Honestly, we don't care what people believe. What we care about is the processes of logic and science. However, I think where people get confused is they say, "well, so you don't deal with quote-unquote 'religion'". And we clearly do deal with religion and with religious topics. We deal with creationism, for example. It's hard to get us to stop talking about creationism. But we deal with religion to the extent that it intrudes upon science.

P: Right. When it crosses the line.

S: Right. So if you say you can scientifically prove the existence of God, well, you're in the realm of science. Then we can address whatever arguments you're making that are within the scientific realm. If you say you have faith in God, well, good for you. What could you say about that? You can't disprove someone's arbitrary faith. So we do deal with religious topics, and, fortunately, modern religions freely trample on science and logic, so it's not like we have to restrict ourselves in any way. The other questions that come up — we deal with politics or with sociological questions, and, again, because this is our interests, this is where we think our talents lie, we like to restrict our topics to ones that have some kind of scientific angle. Where politics intersects science, we'll talk about that. But not purely ...

R: Yeah, for politics in general, I've seen skeptics just tear each others' throats out, because it's always, "you know, you're not being skeptical enough about X or Y," ...

P: I think it's true. Yeah.

R: ... and you can't. You just can't. It's not going to (unintelligible)

P: It's true. Emotions intrude into all of this.

S: And in my logical fallacy article, I talk about this a little bit too, that there are some questions that require a value judgment. Right? And whenever you have to make a value judgment, then you're outside of the realm of pure empiricism or objectivity. And those questions are inherently irresolvable, because it comes down to some kind of personal choice that you make, some kind of personal judgment that you make. What things do you value in your life? So we don't deal specifically with those issues, and that's very much the realm of politics. Politics is about making those value judgments. We feel that politics should be informed by science, and that politics should not intrude upon science, and to that extent, we do talk about it. I know Chris Mooney, who was on our show — again, he wrote the book The Republican War on Science, and he defines his realm very much as the intersection between politics and science. And, again, those are issues that we address as well.

P: In our own country, I wouldn't personally limit it to the Republican party. Our entire government is shockingly lacking in scientifically literate people.

S: Right. I was just giving that example because he was on our show, but you're right. I mean, every — if you have a political agenda, or a sociological agenda, or a religious agenda, chances are you're going to put that ahead of logic and evidence, ahead of science. And if the social structures are such that you have the power to do so, you'll probably oppress the process of science. We feel that that is our bailiwick, as you put it, that whenever that happens, whenever anything intrudes upon science, then that's a topic that we will happily discuss.

P: Well, you know, we discuss these other topics, by the way: faith, politics, very passionately. We just don't do it when we're wearing our skeptical hats and certainly not during The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: Right, right. Of course, personally, we have political opinions, etc. Just not part of the show, as interesting as they may be. So, that should address those questions of, you know, we don't deal specifically with faith, we don't deal specifically with politics, but they copiously intrude upon science, and whenever they do, we're there. Anybody have any other observations they'd like to make about that before I segue to another topic? So let's move on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (51:50)[edit]

S: So every week I come up with three science news items or facts. Typically two are genuine and one is fictitious, and I challenge my panel of expert skeptics to sniff out the fake. A couple of times, and I'm going to do it again this time, instead of science news items, I've come up with common misconceptions. So what I'm going to do: I have three common scientific misconceptions. Two of these are false, meaning two are actually misconceptions. One of the following statements, however, is true. Got it? So two of these are false, and one is true. And you guys have to tell me which one is true. Ready? All right, so number one: reentering spacecraft are heated primarily due to friction with the atmosphere. Item number two: the sky is blue because air is blue. Item number three: the Earth's magnetic poles lie just beneath the surface near the north and south geographic poles. Perry, why don't you start us off. So which one of those is true?

P: Ah, you know, the one that sounds simplest and most true to me that I've always heard is the first one. Spacecraft encounter tremendous friction by the particles in the atmosphere and their tremendous speed. The other two don't sound correct. I would say number one is true.

S: Okay, Rebecca.

R: Yeah, I agree. (unintelligible) It's more complex than that. What was the third one?

S: The earth's magnetic poles lie just beneath the surface near the north and south geographic poles.

R: I don't like the sound of that, either. I'm going to go with Perry.

S: Number one is true?

R: Number one. Yeah.

S: Bob?

B: Say the third one again. Magnetic poles.

S: The Earth's magnetic poles lie just beneath the surface near the North and South geographic poles.

B: Okay. That is false. There a little bit aways off of the geographic poles. They're not right there. The geographic pole ...

S: That's consistent with what I'm saying.

B: Right. That is false. So that's not my answer. Right? That's false.

S: I did not mean to imply very near. They're just near. They're not right on the north and south geographic poles, they're just nearby.

B: Okay.

P: Bob just rings the joy of of these things.

B: All right. Calm down. Friction with the atmosphere? Yeah, that's a common misconception. It's not really friction with the atmosphere. It's because it's compressing the air in front of it, which is then heating up, which is then transferring that heat to the object. A lot of times they show fiery meteors — the meteorite's on fire in the ground, and generally that's not the case. Sometimes they can even still be pretty cold, because it's really — they're not really heating up because of friction. It's because they're compressing the air. And sky is blue because air is blue: that is absolutely correct. That is true. Number two is the answer.

S: All right. Let's start with number three. So Perry and Rebecca both thought that number one was true, and Bob believes that number two is true.

B: No, I know it.

S: So everyone agrees that number three is fiction, that number three is a myth. And it is a myth, although not for the reason that you thought. So the magnetic poles are indeed allied — you know, "near" is a vague term.

B: Okay.

S: It is "near" the north and south pole. It's not right on it. It's not near meaning like feet away. It is miles away.

B: Many, yeah, right.

S: But I think, in fact, the north magnetic pole points somewhere in northern Canada or something. But the bit about that which is incorrect is that they're not just beneath the surface.

B: Right. Yeah.

S: They're actually deep within the earth's core, and the reason why this comes up a lot is because if you look at high school science textbook, they always draw the magnetic field of the earth as if the magnetic lines are coming out of the surface of the Earth. And they're not coming out of the surface of the Earth, they're coming out of the core of the Earth.

B: Well I wouldn't — I don't think you need to go quite that far, though, Steve. I don't think it's the actual core that's generating the magnetic field. I think that it's the movement of the molten rock, the molten elements that are actually generating it. So I don't think you need to go quite to the core. Maybe the mantle or the lower mantle.

S: No, that's not what I read.

B: Really.

S: It is the core. It's not the very center of the Earth, but it is as deep as the core.

B: Okay.

S: If you actually had to draw the bar magnet, which a little bit inaccurate in any case, it would actually be short and within the Earth's core. So when you draw those magnetic lines, it should be close to the center of the Earth, not coming out of the surface of the Earth.

B: Yeah, definitely not the surface, but I don't think it quite gets to the core. I'm actually going to look into that. But you're essentially right.

S: I have a reference. I have a reference that said the core.

B: Okay.

S: But it's not the surface.

B: Right.

S: That's the common misconception.

B: Okay.

S: Perry and Rebecca thought that reentering spacecraft are heated primarily due to friction with the atmosphere. You thought that was true.

R: Apparently we're wrong.

P: Obviously.

S: That is incorrect, and Bob nailed this exactly. It is, in fact, due to compressing the air in front of it, which is partly why the capsules are shaped the way they are.

P: They press the air, thus creating friction.

S: No.

B: No.

S: Friction implies rubbing one thing against the other. There is a little bit of friction, but it causes an insignificant amount of heat.

P: So you admit there is a little friction.


P: Well, there you go.

S: I said it was heated primarily — primarily — due to friction with the atmosphere, because there is a little bit of friction. But it is far and away mostly due to compressing the air, and when you compress a gas, you heat it. And that creates the heat which then heats the tiles or whatever the ablative surface. That heat — basically you're transferring the momentum of the spacecraft to heat energy, which then goes away, and that's what slows it down. And number two, Bob is absolutely correct, is true. The sky is blue because air is blue. The common misconception is that it's due primarily to the scattering of light, and that, of course, does take place, but it's more accurate to just say that the atmosphere, air, is, in fact, blue. Now it doesn't look blue when we're looking through it the same way that a glass of water doesn't look blue. If you're looking through just a small amount of water, it looks clear. But if you look at the ocean, it looks blue, because that's what the color of water is. And the same is true of the air. You just have to look through a lot more of it before you can see the blueness of it. So when you're looking through the entire depth of the atmosphere against the black of outer space, you can see it's blue color. But when you're looking across the room, it just looks clear to you.

B: Steve, I hope you don't intend to minimize the importance of Raleigh scattering. To me, the whole idea that the sky is blue because air is blue is kind of like a more general way kind of like standing back and saying "Yeah, the sky is blue because air is blue." It's a more general way to look at it, but still, Raleigh scattering is still a key component to why that's so. But it's like saying the rose is red and then start talking about molecules and frequencies and things. You don't really have to go — you don't have to be that technical. You can just it's reflecting red light.

S: Yeah, I mean I think you're right. Just looking further donw at his explanation, he then goes on to say — if you do then say "why is the air blue?", then you do have to resort to things like Raleigh scattering ...

B: Okay.

S: ... to explain it. Well, Bob, good job. I think Bob gets the credit for getting this one correct. And that is our show for this week. Bob, Perry, Rebecca, thanks for joining me again.

P: Very well. Very well. We'll see you all next week.

B: Good show, Steve.

R: It's been a blast.

S: Next week, we have Eugenie Scott on our show.

B: Woo-hoo!

S: She is the foremost offender (sic) of evolution in this country.

B: Offender? Foremost offender?

S: Defender. Defender.

P: She's an awesome (unintelligible)

S: We'll talk to her about ...

P: She's great.

S: ... creationism and intelligent design. It will be a good discussion. So until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society. For information on this and other podcasts, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the 'contact us' page on our website, or you can send us an email to 'info @'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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