SGU Episode 414

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SGU Episode 414
22nd Jun 2013
SGU 413 SGU 415
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
DL: Daniel Loxton
Quote of the Week
Everybody has opinions: I have them, you have them. And we are all told from the moment we open our eyes, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Well, that’s horsepuckey, of course. We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions. Without research, without background, without understanding, it's nothing
Harlan Ellison
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, today is Wednesday, June 19th, 2013, and this is your host Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey, everybody

S: Rebecca Watson,

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey, guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Salutations, everybody

R: Hello...

S: Salutations and felicitations, Evan.

E: Oh, and felicitations, how could I forget the Squire of Gothos? Shame on me,

S: I don't know (chuckles)

E: shame on me.

R: The hell you guys talking about?

E: Well, Rebecca, aren't you watching the Star Trek series?

R: I guess I haven't gotten up to that point, yet.

E: This is the original series.

R: I'm watching The Next Generation.

S: You know what I saw recently? "Star Trek Continues".

E: Hm?

S: which is a a

J: Wha?

S: fan.. "Star Trek Continues", it's a fan episode, a fan video, where it's as if the ep... the seasons continued as if it wasn't canceled after three seasons. So it's not, it's not like a parody, and it's not an update or a reboot or anything it's like what would a fourth season have actually been like,

B: Oh, cool.

S: and and they do their best to reproduce, the production value, the sets are identical, all the sound effects, the music the acting

R: Hm

S: the whole culture, was definitely embedded in that late '60s, you know, in terms of everything. And some of the actors are damn good. The guy who's doing Kirk has his mannerisms down, absolutely down.

B: And it's not a parody of his mannerisms?

S: No, no it's not, it's not a parody, it's an imitation. And it like things like it's like "Yeah, Kirk does do that!" You know, it's like, (laughter) you things you wouldn't even think of. Like the

R: That is so Kirk.

S: ways he moves his arms when he walks. Yeah, it's just amazing.

R: Hey, remember that Star Trek episode where poisonous gas covered most of the planet, and murdered millions of people?

E: Ahhh.

R: Oh, wait, no, that was real life. Oh, my God!

B: (laughs)

E: That's worse.

This Day in Skepticism (1:58)[edit]

R: On June 22, 1783, a poisonous cloud caused by the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland, , finally reached France. So this is kind of, I really could have picked any date. It's very interesting, it's something that I didn't even realize was the thing. It was one of the most deadly if not the most deadly volcanic eruptions in human history. As I said, it happened in Iceland, but it spread all over the globe. First of all though, in Iceland, it killed about 50% of the livestock, which lead to a famine, which killed a quarter of the population of Iceland. So, that was pretty immediate but then it also went on to possibly cause droughts in India and Africa, which lead to millions of more deaths, as well as crop failures in Europe, and air pollution and this deadly gas... from this deadly gas. So, all told, it killed probably over 6 million people ...

?: What?

R: globally. Yeah, 6 million.

E: That's a lot.

R: It was a pretty big volcanic eruption.

E: 1783, that's (chuckles) quite a bit.

B: Holy crap.

R: And the cloud was sulfur dioxide, that ...

E: Oh, that'll do it

R: and also the hydrogen... the hydrogen fluoride apparently, I think killed most of the people in Iceland but the sulfur dioxide is what drifted into Europe to start murdering people there. But yeah and it also caused severe global temperature change. It was the hottest summer on record followed by really violent winter with hail and storms and all that good stuff which probably lead to more deaths.

S: It was the longest period of below zero temperatures in New England.

R: Oh, yeah, the US... the US area just had some severe weather. They don't... I.. I didn't find a whole of talk about deaths that resulted in it, but I think people were just dying left and right anyway, at that point, so

S: A bad winter in 1783 was no joke.

R: Exactly, yeah, that's... that's what I'm sayin'. But...

B: So this gas release, it wasn't part of like a.. a pyroclastic flow? It was just this gas that came out and went ...

S: Just a bubble of gas

B: all over the place

R: Yeah, like a volcanic fart, silent but deadly.

E: Probably wasn't too silent, either

R: Too soon?

E: Too soon (laughter)

S: Volcanoes are no joke, that superheated gas that kills people - it's not just the lava and the ash. I mean, it's usually the gas. Even if it's not poisonous gas, if it's superheated, it's like your lungs explode, you know. Well, let's move on.

News Items[edit]

Osteoarthritis (4:40)[edit]

S: Have you guys heard that the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has released their 1200 page report evaluating evidence for the treatment of knee osteoarthritis?

R: Now, the last time you led us into one of these, and we made all made light-hearted jokes about how boring the topic was, we got a bunch of angry letters from botanists. So, no, Steve; not gonna fall for it; this sounds fascinating, tell me more. (laughter)

S: Yeah, but like last time, I convinced you how cool botany was. Now I wanna convince you how cool osteoarthritis is.

E: Here come more letters (laughter)

S: Oh, boy. (laughter)

S: So osteoarthritis is, essentially degenerative arthritis of a joint, mainly from wear and tear, but there are other obviously biological factors involved, and so knee osteoarthritis, very common, as people get into their 40's and 50's, their knees start to ache, and they just wear out. They just don't really last 80 years unfortunately. There are lots of potential treatments for osteoarthritis including many that are not evidence-based.

This report is interesting for a number of reasons, not just for the specific recommendations that are made. Harriet Hall writes about this on Science-based Medicine, and I recommend that for those who are interested. But I just want to highlight some of the interesting things.

First of all, it shows that science-based practitioners actually care about evidence. Despite all of the propaganda about "Oh, those doctors only want drugs and surgery," here we have a major, professional organization in the United States dedicated to orthopedic surgery reviewing thousands of published studies, putting out a 1200 page comprehensive report looking in-depth into the evidence for many different approaches. And here are the highlights of what they found; where there was strong evidence for or against. So, glucosamine chondroitin - you guys are familiar with this, right - this is a dietary supplement that has been, and still is promoted, has been for years, for arthritis. What do you think they found?

E: It doesn't work.

S: It doesn't work. So that was one of the few things where there was strong evidence against its effectiveness. Glucosamine and chondroitin doesn't work, there have been large studies. Exercise, strong evidence for, in favor of it. Weight loss, moderate evidence in favor of it. Acupuncture, what do you think they concluded?

R: No evidence.

B: Overwhelming evidence.

S: Strong evidence against its effectiveness. So very nice to see that they took a science-based approach to acupuncture research and didn't fall for the bait-and-switch of "Oh, it works like a placebo!" They didn't fall for that business. And also, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, strong evidence they are effective; that's not surprising. And here's one: arthroscopy with lavage and debridement --- strong evidence against.

B: Really?

E: Lavage, huh?

S: So lavage is like, just washing it out. So arthroscopy is putting the scope into the knee and looking around, for diagnostic. But if you take anything out, then it becomes a therapeutic procedure, right, that's debridement, you know, cutting away any fraying pieces of cartilage and then washing out those pieces, that's the lavage part.

So, this is a pretty lucrative, popular procedure for orthopedists to do. And here they are, the official organization of orthopedists coming out with a statement saying there is strong evidence against the effectiveness of this procedure. This is something that we've written about on Science-based Medicine previously. When a review came out, I think now about two years ago, showing that arthroscopy was not effective, and there was some push-back from some orthopedists, and we said "Hey, this is the evidence, baby, this is, this is what it shows". So it's nice now to see the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons looking at the evidence and honestly saying "Yep, our beloved procedure, that we would love to have work, doesn't work". So it's hard in the face of this, if you look at the bigger picture, it's hard to justify the typical knee-jerk criticisms that alternative medicine proponents have against mainstream medicine ...

R: Heh, knee-jerk

S: Yeah, knee-jerk. That they only care about drugs and surgery. Well, here they are saying their favorite surgical procedure doesn't work; that they don't care about other things - here they're strongly in favor of exercise, moderately in favor of weight loss; and that they don't care about actually treating people. Well, I think this shows their dedication to the evidence to what actually works regardless of what the modality is, and this is what we see in mainstream medicine all the time. This is a Herculean effort and it's great document, but this is what we see all the time, you know, the academic, professional physicians looking at the evidence objectively, and the chips fall where they may, in its direct contradiction to all the anti-mainstream medicine conspiracy theories that you're going to hear from the alternative medicine side. So I thought that was worth pointing out. Also, Harriet pointed out something interesting. Things like homeopathy didn't even make the list, it wasn't even worth their time to take a look at.

B: Oh, awesome.

E: Good.

S: Yeah.

R. Good, yeah.

E: I don't know if we'd be able to say that if this were British Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, right? That probably would have made that list.

S: Homeopathy probably would have,

E: Yes

S: just because homeopathy is more popular across the pond, yeah.

B: Steve, did they mention why it wasn't on the list?

S: No, just didn't even make the radar. Just wasn't even, yeah, not mentioned one way or the other.


Quickie with Bob (10:29)[edit]

E: Oh, hey, wait, wait. I would like a Quickie with Bob right now.

B: Really?

E: Yes, right this moment.

B: Thank you, Evan, I'm almost certain you will not regret this.

E: (laughs)

B: This is your Quickie with Bob. Astronomers in Chile, guys, have discovered a new type of variable star. It was pretty interesting story. They did detailed observations of 3700 stars in this specific cluster over 7 years, and showed that they found 36 of these stars had very minute changes in their brightness of about only about a tenth of a percent over an hour, or as much as over 20 hours. And this is big news in the community because variable stars are incredibly common; there's lots of different types of variable stars; and it's always interesting to add another one to the group.

Actually the list of variable stars, the types themselves was much bigger than I remember them being. But just to break it down real quick, there's two different main types of stars that are variable. There's the intrinsic and extrinsic and it's kind of obvious what that means. The intrinsic stars that are variable are variable because of that's just the way they are; something about their internal dynamics makes the light output variable, whereas the extrinsic stars... variable stars are variable only because, you know, say something might move in front of them, or there might be something in the way that changes the light that reaches the Earth. So within these intrinsic stars there's... there's just a few categories. There's the pulsating variables, there's the eruptives, and there's the cataclysmic or explosive variable stars. This new one that they found I think is pretty obvious that it's within the pulsating variable star category

S: Is there a throbbing category? (laughter)

E: Is there a grooving category?

B: So like I said these variables are most certainly they'll be within the pulsating variety. They haven't actually named this type of variable yet, but I'm sure it's gonna be within that category. They're not sure why they pulsate, either, basically because current models say that they should not be variable. So, this was a real surprise that that these varied so much. But one clue that they found is that many of these variables rotate very very fast.

S: Yeah, that seems pretty telling

B: Yeah, more than 50% of their critical velocity, in fact, and the critical velocity

E: Wow

B: is a velocity that, if they reached 100%, they would actually start throwing off mass. So they're spinning very very fast and this spinning may have an effect on the dynamics of their interiors, which then would result in the variability of the light output. So, keep an eye on it. I'm curious to see what they're gonna call it and, you know, what more they can determine about these types of stars based on these studies, these very detailed studies that they're doing. So, all I got guys! This has been your Quickie with Bob, I hope it was good for you, too.

News items continued[edit]

Patenting DNA (13:10)[edit]

S: Thanks, Bob. OK, Rebecca, you're gonna tell us about a major Supreme Court case regarding patenting genes.

R: Yes, you are correct, Steve. There is a huge decision that just happened in the Supreme Court on, June 13th, the Supreme Court ruled that companies, particularly Myriad Genetics, in this case, cannot patent a human gene. So in this specific case, it was this company Myriad Genetics, which was one of the patent holders on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Now, astute listeners might recall that we were recently talking about these very genes, in the case of Angelina Jolie,

S: Yeah.

R: who came out and said that she had the mutation in her BRCA gene that said she was much much much more likely to get breast cancer and ovarian cancer and so she had her breast removed. Now, we also mentioned that Angelina Jolie had spoken briefly about the fact that not everyone has access to the genetic testing required to find out if you have the mutation, in order to get the life saving operations you would need.

Well, the reason why many people don't have access to this genetic testing is because Myriad Genetics was one of the patent holders,.and they were the only company that was allowed to perform this testing on these genes. So, if you wanted to find if you had the mutation, you had to go through Myriad Genetics. And that increases the price dramatically so they could charge thousands of dollars to people who wanted the testing. What this ruling means in this specific case it's a huge win for women particularly because this means that women can go get genetic testing anywhere to find out if they have this mutation. They don't have to go through Myriad in order to find out.

So, now you have companies competing against each other, prices go down, etc., etc., and more lives are saved because of it. So that's one result of this and one of the reasons why women's rights groups were a huge part of the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court decision. It was a unanimous decision. The case was led by the ACLU representing women's rights groups as well as scientists and other interest groups. But also scientists win from this case because it means that any scientist can now pursue research on these genes where prior to this only Myriad and the other patent holders would technically be able to do that. Basically the court ruled that you can't patent a human gene however they did leave it open that you could possibly patent a gene that had been fiddled with.

S: Yeah.

R: So, if you

B: That was huge

R: come up with your own gene, like a synthetic gene like cDNA, that could still be eligible for a patent. But because Myriad the company did not actually create anything, they just researched the gene they're not allowed to patent it.

S: Yeah. So

R: So

S: products of nature cannot be patented, and what this decision was exploring specifically was how much modification is necessary before a product of nature is an innovation. Yeah, this that needed to be explored for this specific case of genes. And it seems that everyone, with the possible exception of Myriad, is happy about this decision. I've seen nothing but universal praise for this decision.

E: Myriad shouldn't be too sad, their stock rose that day

S: Is that right? (laughs)

E: as a result, yeah.

R: They have been fighting this

E: That will fade.

R: for a very long time, so this is a huge loss for them, but it is a great gain for humanity. We're

S: Yeah, for humanity.

R: literally talking about lives being saved

E: Yeah, absolutely.

R: and more research being done.

B: Yeah, it does seem...

R: So it is a good thing.

B: it does seem that there's lots of benefits. But what about the idea, the one negative thing that I've heard, that I've seen in a couple of places was that some people are afraid that companies like Myriad, of course, will scale back investment because they're not gonna be rewarded with patents for this so I just wonder how much of a genuine concern that aspect of this is.

R: Consider how much research is done by private companies compared to the huge amount of research that's currently being done through government institutions and universities. Private companies have always focussed on what's going to make the most money, and that's why we have government funding for scientific endeavors. There's one other thing I wanted to mention, a bit of myth-busting. This thing was going around that Scalia doesn't believe in genetics, or in molecular biology. So, it was a unanimous decision, but Justice Scalia wrote a separate thing... ruling...

S: Separate opinion.

R: opinion, thank you, that's the word.

E: Opinion, yeah.

R: Scalia wrote a separate opinion saying that he agrees to vote with the majority, but he does not agree with one part of the opinion that has no effect on his final vote. What he said was that he wouldn't sign on to Part 1a and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology because he can't affirm those details on his own knowledge or his own belief. So, Part 1a... it's just a list of basic facts about DNA, about genetics, it's all kind of just basic level genetic stuff.

E: So was he basically saying I don't know what this is?

R: Yeah, you know, so some...

E: and therefore I can't really

R: some people were

E: say anything about it.

R: taking that he wouldn't affirm those details on his own knowledge or his own belief to mean that he didn't believe in genetics or he didn't know about genetics and so he didn't believe them, something like that. But, I've heard from lawyers who have said that this is a bit of legal-speak in a way, that there's this sort of ongoing argument on whether or not judges should include basic information that's not necessary to the final ruling, and so that's kind of what he was saying, is that this chunk, I'm not a scientist, I'm not going to sign my name on this and say that as a Justice I approve of this because I have no idea; I'm not a scientist and it has nothing to do with the case.

S: He's being a legal stickler,

R: Yes.

S: not a science denier.

R: Exactly.

B: Oh, OK.

R: That...

E: Right.

R: that's what I'm hearing from lawyers, and

S: That makes sense.

R: it makes sense to me.

S: And that's kind of his shtick, too,

R: Yeah.

S: is to be a legal stickler.

B: Hmmm, OK.

Foot Fungus (20:07)[edit]

S: OK, well thanks, Rebecca. Bob, can you explain to me why my toes occasionally itch? (laughter)

R: Ew, bugs, probably.

B: Well, guys, at the end of last May, the issue of Nature, they discuss the very first census of skin-dwelling fungi (fung-ee), that's -

S: Fungi (fung-guy)?

B: Well, there's three ways to pronounce it as far as I can tell

S: Fungi (fun-jee)?

B: Fungi (fung-ee), fungi (fung-eye), fungi (funj-eye). Those are the three that I came across

R: But "fungi" (fung-eye) is the only one that works with that "mushroom walks into a bar" joke.

B: OK.

S: What about... what about "fungi" (fun-jee)?

B: That's actually my preferred pronunciation and I didn't find it. So, whatever, I'll just go with one of the ones that I found. So their study reveals ...

E: (chuckles)

B: there's a fungus among us. OK, somebody had to say it, it's out of the way, I said it. So, actually, it...

E: (laughs)

B: reveals that there's a little variation... there's very little variation in the fungal communities on our bodies except for our feet which calls home to 80 to 100 different types of fungus. They're just like all over the place down there. So, for... just for a quick, high-level refresher, fungi (fung-ee) are the third type of multi-cellular organisms. They're neither plant nor animals. One major difference between them and the other two is that their cell walls contain chitin, now that's like the exoskeleton of a crabs and lobsters or even the beaks of squid are made of chitin.

Fungi play a pivotal role in decomposing organic matter and cycling nutrients in the environment and they also appear to be inordinately fond of feet. So here's a quick quote from the study: "A human's skin surfaces are complex ecosystems for microorganisms including fungi, bacteria and viruses which are known collectively as the skin microbiome."

So I was surprised, like I said that this initial study was the first of its kind. It seems, I guess, in terms of human cohabitation that bacteria and viruses get all the press and all the research dollars. So one reason why the lowly fungus I guess may have been neglected is that it's notoriously difficult to culture. I didn't know that, unlike bacteria which is really easy, culturing a fungus from say, the toenail can take weeks for it ...

S: And yet it's hard to kill when you wanna get rid of it.

B: (chuckle) Right. So how did they do it? They looked at the DNA, of course. They took ten volunteers and they swabbed 14 sites on their bodies including taking toenail clippings apparently. They then put them in a DNA sequencer, which of course is one of the key technologies advanced by leaps and bounds by the Human Genome Project. They used these molecular tags that stick only to the fungal DNA, so they wouldn't have to worry about all the human DNA and the bacterial DNA and viral DNA, that was mixed into the samples.

So now that they have this pure sample of just the fungus DNA. They then examined the tiny bits of fungal DNA called the phylogenetic markers to tally up all the different types of fungal species and bam, they were done. They had a tally of all the different types of species. So, if you look most anywhere on the head or the torso you're likely to find one genus, and that's called Malassezia.

Different areas have different species though, like the crease behind your ear or on your forehead there's little variation there. Surprisingly, your hands have tons of bacteria but very few fungal communities. So your feet, though, it's completely different ecosystem. On your toenails alone there's forty different fungi varieties, sixty between your toes, and eighty live on the bottom of your heel, which I wouldn't think that would be the most plentiful spot. I would think between your toes would have more but apparently there's lots of 'em on the bottom of your heel. So why is... how come? Why is this so? And it...

E: Gravity.

B: Yeah, gra... (laughs)

E: (chuckles)

B: Well it's not hard to imagine one reason, right? Your feet are often on contact with surfaces that fungi like to hang out on like your socks or locker room floors. I never walked barefoot at the gym, never would do it. So also

E: Gosh... It's so bad.

B: I didn't know this; your feet are cooler than other parts of your body, and fungi like cooler places. apparently, to hang out. So should we all be grossed out? Are you guys like really grossed out... about this stuff?

R: (inaudible) obviously

?: Ahhh...

E: (inaudible) more grossed out about...

R: It takes more than that to gross out Steve.

B: Yeah, I'm not...

S: Oh, yeah...

B: Yeah, I wouldn't think Steve would be, but I'm not

S: I've had my head inside of a corpse

B: Cool, um...

R: Okay! Thanks for that...

E: Wait, a human corpse?

S: Yeah.

B: Of course.

S: So has everyone who has gone through medical school.

E: You put your head in the corpse?

S: Well, you gotta get into the anatomy, I mean you gotta... you know you're disecting something...

E: I don't...

S: So, you get so grossed out in your first year of medical school you're basically done getting grossed out for life.

E: Yeah.

R: Yeah.

B: Totally desensitized.

R: I don't find what you've said so gross, Bob, but when you were talking, I was thinking of that... toenail fungus, commercial where...

E: Oh, yeah.

R: where the germ, like, lifts up

E: Little critters.

B: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

R: the toenail and then climbs inside and that's like the worst... worst commercial ever made.

B: Oh, my God I remember that! Something about detaching a toenail, yes ... I cringe

R: Yeah.

B: every time I saw that, nothing to do with the

R: It's awful.

B: fungus or anything but it's just the lifting that toenail

R: Yeah, like the fungus didn't help

B: was nasty. Yeah right, yes. I mean, it doesn't gross me out, thinking that there's potentially well over a hundred different types of these guys all over us. It's good that we're colonized by these critters because they're likely to prevent other nasty... guys from taking hold on our skin. So it's good that they're there. Likewise, this research can actually help improve our treatment for skin disease and maybe even help with some types of cancers, some people were saying. So, I say embrace the fungi living on your skin, you really don't have much of a choice until we replace them all with nanobots.

Chinese Fake Alien (25:52)[edit]

S: All right, thanks, Bob. Evan, you're gonna tell us about a fake Chinese alien.[1] (laughter)

E: (Chuckling) Oh, God! Now that could mean several different things. I'll do my best to clarify. Now, there are times when news outlets totally, totally botch their headlines right, I mean really botch ...

B: No.

E: We've talked about some real doozies on the show. But rarely do we give them credit when they actually get it right. Let's give The Telegraph its due, because they got this headline spot-on. They wrote: "Chinese farmer jailed for making rubber alien."[2] That kind-a says it all.

B: OK.

E: (Chuckles) So it's being reported out of the Shandong province, that local police recently arrested someone named Mr. Li, a farmer slash alien enthusiast by day and an alien enthusiast farmer slash farmer by night. And here are his versions of the event, this is Mr. Li.

S: Mr. Li's a pseudonym, probably, by the way.

E: He said:

"I was setting an electrical trap for rabbits by the Yellow River, when I saw a bright light. Above my bike, a UFO was floating. One by one, five aliens came down, but one of them stumbled onto one of my rabbit traps and was electricuted. The others went back into their ship and flew away."

So that's his story.

S: Quite a tale he's got there. So this alien from who knows how far away, from another solar system flies here in super advanced technology and then dies in a rabbit trap.

E: Exa...

S: And his friends leave him behind!

E: And they leave him behind.

R: Was he rabbit shaped?

E: (Laughs) No.

R: Maybe he was a rabbit, like from another dimension.

E: Well, then rabbits look an awful lot like little grays with Chinese accentuations around the eyes ...

B: Yes.

E: ... and head and stuff. But -

B: Plus only mice are from other dimensions, Rebecca.[3]

E: But how did he go about backing up his claim, alright? Well he does what any true believer does and he posts pictures of the ET on the Internet. And in three days these pictures happen to go viral! So after five days of having posted the pictures, the local police show up at his door and he's taken in for questioning. Now during the questioning, Mr. Li admitted, willingly or otherwise, that the whole thing was a hoax.

S: Shock, shocked.

E: He made an alien, he constructed it himself out of this gluey rubber sort of substance tied together with ropes and other things and a few ...he drew his inspiration from the Simon Pegg film, "Paul." I don't know if you guys have seen that.

B: Hall?

R: Yeah, the one where they go to Comic-Con.

S: Yes.

E: Right... right.

S: Yes, I saw it.

E: And the alien does a little bit sort of kind of look like that I suppose.

S: But you're right, Evan, the alien head looks Chinese.

E: It does! (Chuckles).

S: It does! So I mean it's his cultural bias leaking through in his sculpture and he's not aware of it; but to these Western, American eyes it has this... it looks like something... that it... like a piece of art that a Chinese person would create.

E: Right.

S: You know, it's not just the eyes; it's the mouth, it's everything. It's just there's a subtle sort of Oriental appearance to it, which is always, I think, a very telling sign to look for when people are imagining or faking alien phenomena and their cultural biases come through, and of course you're much more attuned to them when it's from another culture.

E: But why did he do it? Why did you think he did it? Well, he says it with the intent of helping more people believe in aliens. Which is ...

S: Yeah.

R: Weird.

E: ... an interesting way to go about doing that, I suppose. He claims that, and these are his words again:

It's still disputed whether or not UFOs and aliens exist but we believe

not sure what he means by "we"

we believe they do and we want to expand our group

I don't know what group he's part of...

and make more people believe that aliens do exist.

So that's ...

R: Was this him ...

E: ... the approach.

R: saying this or was this ...

E: That was him.

R: the government saying that he said that?

E: That is the report from The Telegraph, which is quoting him as saying that.

R: Hm.

S: Who knows?

E: Yeah you who really knows? It's for the conspiracy theorists ...

S: (Chuckles)

E: I guess to sort of figure it

R: Well, you know I mean you don't have to stretch far to come up with a conspiracy involving the Chinese government making a guy say something (chuckle) I mean

E: (chuckle)

R: making a Chinese prisoner say something that they want him to say.

E: That's true.

B: Yeah, my mind all bets are off

R: Yeah, especially if they wanna

B: soon as the government got a hold of him, I'm thinking, well, nothing he says now... really (chuckle) you know whatever!

R: Even if it was just a case of they wanted to trump up the charge a bit so they didn't look like they were just hassling some farmer, now they've got like a cult that they can

E: Yeah

R: pin on him, you know?

B: Yeah, yeah

E: But

R: 'cuz they hate the cults.

E: Mr. Li spent five days incarcerated! The crime was fabricating lies and disrupting normal social order.

B: Oh, boy, wow!

E: Yeah, that doesn't sound too Orwellian or anything.

S: Yeah, "disrupting the social order" that yeah really Orwellian, I agree

B: That's scary

E: Now, guys, to wrap this up, I'll say that the rubber alien was examined by scientists and deemed to be a hoax. The dead giveaway is when they broke open the alien and pulled out a slip of paper with a fortune, that's right

S: (laughs)

B: Oh!

E: And it read "Help I'm being held prisoner in a Chinese bakery

R: Hm, hm.

E: and your lucky numbers are 4, 14, 22, 31, and 49". So

B: Jesus!

E: that sort of sealed the deal.

B: Oh, boy.

R: The joke fails, though, on the fact that fortune cookies aren't Chinese.[4]

S: Yeah, that's true.

E: No, that enhances the joke and the... gaw.... (inaudible, possibly expletive) (laughter)

Who's That Noisy? (31:33)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, you also have to tell us about Who's That Noisy.

E: I will do that. Now, what we'll do is next week we're gonna reveal last week's winner.

S: We're recording a little ahead of schedule 'cause we're on our TAM recording schedule. So, we're gonna have to get caught up on the Who's That Noisies towards the end.

E: Right

R: We might all be dead right now.

S: (Chuckles) That's true.

E: Maybe, I mean who knows, another volcano you know might spew

R: Hm

E: sulfur dioxide or whatever the hell's

R: Could happen.

E: gonna come out of it. However, we do have a puzzle for this week, so that will be this week's Who's That Noisy, is a puzzle and, here we go. So, there is this machine, OK? Now this machine does one thing. It shuffles playing cards. However, this machine always rearranges cards in the same way relative to the original order of the cards. OK, we're talking about a deck of playing cards here. Now all of the hearts arranged in order from ace to king were put into the machine. The cards were shuffled, and then they were put into the machine again. After the second shuffling, the cards were in the following order: 10, 9, Queen, 8, King, 3, 4, Ace, 5, Jack, 6, 2, 7. So you need to tell us, now, what order were the cards in after the first shuffle.

S: That's very tricksy.

R: Eh-hm.

E: It is tricksy, yeah.

E: I don't know if Bilbo would have gotten that in the cave while he was dueling it out...

B: Hahhh.

E: with wits with Gollum.

S: Not without a pen and paper, I don't think.

E: (Laughs) that's for sure! (Laughs). So... think about that ...

S: Or quill and parchment

E: Yes, of course, Middle Earth and all... or is the forum's website... so... think about it, give us your best answer, and good luck to everyone.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Can We Know Everything? (33:32)[edit]

S: All right, thanks, Evan. We do have one email for this week. This one comes from Mark Dennehy from Melbourne, and Mark writes:

I have been listening to the show for 4 years, and although I have always been a sceptic

with a C

I have learnt a great deal from your show. I would like to hear the rogues' view on whether science has the potential to explain the physical world in such a way that we understand everything. Is there a limit to what we can comprehend? For example a dog has no concept of quantum gravity and wouldn’t ask the question of himself "Is space-time fundamentally continuous or discrete?" We have gone from asking ourselves how to grow food to "why is there far more matter than antimatter in the observable universe?" Our brain appears finite in capacity, so I would assume that would limit our ability to understand the world around us. Reaching a limit at some stage seems inevitable. Or will our brains develop as we need to solve increasingly more difficult questions? After all, our brains appear not to need to store every bit of information we discover, perhaps more the ability to solve a problem, and the capacity to grasp the variables at that time. I could be wrong though. Your opinions would be greatly appreciated and interesting.
(Mark Dennehy, Melbourne)

Thank you, Mark. So, what do you guys think?

R: I already learned everything there is to know

B: Ha!

R: when I was a teenager, so...

S: Yeah.

E: So you're done.

R: Q.E.D.

E: You maxxed out.

R: Um, hm.

B: I think we're definitely not smart enough to understand everything, I mean, I think there's always gonna be some ways to explain aspects of nature that could be beyond us. It's amazing that we've come this far, but I think as we progress I think there's definitely areas that we'll hit that will be just... it'll be similar to a dog trying to think about quantum gravity. But the thing is that it's not just our brains anymore.

I mean we'll have you know aids, we'll have supercomputers and eventually even artificial intelligence that will help us and work with us and probably eventually completely outclass us in understanding this stuff. So, then they'll also be, I believe, we'll not evolve our brains but we'll artificially enhance our brains. There's lots of ways to do that.

S: We'll probably do both.

B: So, yeah, so I think there'll probably be very little that we won't eventually figure out. Who knows how long that'll take ... but I think, we have and we will have the ability to understand as much as can be understood.

S: Well, yeah, I think there's two ways to look at this question. One is, what you were discussing, Bob, which is the finite limitations of the human brain. I agree that there are probably limitations to our ability to understand the universe, but, we will augment, evolve, supplement, our brains as technology progresses. That there's no, I guess, theoretical limit to that, so, through those tools I think that that limitation is something that we can surpass. The other way to think about that, though, about cognitive limitations. I'm not sure, I've never liked the analogy to the dog. Maybe

B: Why?

S: it's apt but, I'm not sure because it seems like there is not just a quantitative but a qualitative difference, between a dog and a human brain that maybe once you have the ability to think about things at a certain level then you're there, then, that gives you qualitative abilities of investigation, of asking questions, of exploration, right? So it's not just that we're a certain amount more intelligent than a dog therefore we can understand a certain amount more about the universe

B: Uh, huh.

S: It's that, we can engage in a kind of introspection and exploration and questioning that a dog can't even engage in at all.

R: Yeah, but, I mean there are apes who can engage in a certain level of that much more than a dog but less than humans, so, I mean, surely we can imagine a level up from us, right, where there's something we're missing. Like there're very few things that humans are capable of, that apes or other animals can't do in some capacity.

S: I agree, that is possible, I'm not convinced that has to be the case, though, that's my point. It's possible that our current abilities are limited and we won't be able to figure out the universe but it's also possible that we have the tools necessary and now it's just a matter of applying them.

B: So we've passed some sort of cognitive threshold, where we

S: Yeah.

B: could eventually figure out everything, but... so what you're saying is that we could pretty much figure out most anything but what I'm taking away from that, though, is that it might be so fiendishly difficult that it could take an extremely long time for us to finally wrap our heads aroung something.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: Right, so, so far we're talking about the one approach to this problem which is the human capacity. And, again, there's a couple of ways to look at that which we explored. The other way to look at this question is "Is it even theoretically possible to understand everything about the universe?" There may be limitations to the ability of any intelligent creature to gain certain bits of knowledge, and I think, first of all, I think that is absolutely true, there are things that we will never know, because the information is lost. It's just lost to the universe... but it depends on what you mean by understanding everything about the universe.

E: Right, that's what I thought too, yeah.

S: Yeah, so like, what, like what color

E: It's nebulous.

S: was a certain dinosaur? Again, that information

E: Right.

S: may be lost to the universe. But let's put that aside so that, we'll say OK obviously we can't know about information that's lost to the universe. You could frame questions about the universe that cannot be explored by science.

B: Yeah, and I would add to that, Steve, chaotic systems, sensitive dependency

S: Yeah.

B: on initial conditions. Those things are inherently unpredictable no matter how smart and no matter what technology you have, so, I would add that, but that's kind of a... maybe a trivial addition, an obvious addition.

S: Right. And there may be other questions like "What happened before the Big Bang" that we just... we may never figure out a way to answer that question.

R: But, of course, you know, even with that we've already started reaching back before the Big Bang, and making some observations

E: Inferences,

R: so

E: yeah.

S: Yeah.

R: yeah...

S: Yeah, I agree, we've started to make some inferences, but there may be limits.

R: Yeah, I agree with that. I feel though, that in general, I think that there's also a difference between... "Can we find out everything there is to know about the things we know about," and then, if there's a gap in our understanding that we can identify will we have the tools to fill that gap, but also, are there... are we constantly surrounded by gaps we're not even ever going to realize just because of the limits of our own

B: Yeah.

R: senses and things. I

S: Right.

R: think that's a possibility as well.

S: Yeah, it's sort of the ... things that we don't know we don't know.

R: Exactly.

S: Yeah. All right, guys, well, let's go on to our interview.

Interview with Daniel Loxton (40:27)[edit]

About his new book: Abominable Science

S: We are joined now by Daniel Loxton. Daniel, welcome back to The Skeptic's Guide!

D: Hi guys! Great to be back!

B: Hey!

E: Hey, Daniel!

D: Hey ... (Chuckles)

S: How have you been?

D: Busy! Busy ... workin' away.

S: Daniel is a skeptic and an author. You're responsible for illustrating the Junior Skeptic, which is part of Skeptic Magazine.

D: Yeah, and I do the writing and research for that thing too, of course.

S: You, of course, are most well-known for your prior interview on The Sketpic's Guide to the Universe.

(Rogues Laugh)

D: People (Inaudible 41:09) to me on the street about that.

S: Yeah, I imagine. Ah, but you have been on many other skeptical podcasts as well, For a Good Reason, for example. And I understand from reading your Wikipedia page that you used to be a shepherd.

D: (Chuckles) Yeah, I was a shepherd for about ten years, just up on the BC side of the Alaska panhandle.

S: That sounds like exciting work.

D: It could be! The old line about war always sounded sort of familiar, that there's long periods of boredom punctuated by periods of terror.

S: Mm hmm.

B: Yes, I love that expression!


D: It was really long days; we were out with the sheep for about 16 hours a day; and a lot of the time, it was just kind of nice. The sheep eat the grass, and everything's cool, and every once in a while you've got an emergency that you have to deal with really quickly.

S: Now, Dan, you have a couple of children's books that you've published, that we've spoken to you about previously. Evolution, which I greatly enjoyed, and Ankylosaur Attack: Tales of Prehistoric Life.

D: And then there's a sequel to that one now, Pterrasaur Trouble; which is just a couple of months old. And I'm just wrapping up the third one in that series, although that won't be out until next spring. The Plesiosaur Peril.

S: Hmm, I see a pattern there. Nice alliteration.

E: Nice!

B: I love alliteration!

(Rogues laugh)

D: I'm getting hassled a lot for not making it Pterrosaur Trouble with P's to start both words, but I didn't think my publisher would go for that.


S: We have you on tonight to talk about your latest book, Abominable Science.

D: Yep. This is a book I co-authored with paleontologist {w|Donald Prothero}. And it's a great big, thick, straight down the line skeptic's book for Columbia University Press on the topic of legendary monsters – cryptids.

S: Cryptids, like the animals that don't exist?

D: Yeah, that's right. The subtitle of the book: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. Don and I have somewhat diverging views on the value of cryptozoology, and the likelihood of these creatures existing. I mean, not so much the likelihood. We've spent 400 pages explaining that probably, none of them exist. But we'd both like them to, and I am not personally convinced that it's all that damaging that people believe them.

E: You say, "probably do not exist." So what kind of thread can you offer people who do have some lingering hope that something out there does exist? What could they attach on to?

D: Well, some of the more obscure ones, the real headliners, like Bigfoot, and Nessie, in particular, I think we can pretty much close the case on Nessie. There are bound to be animal discoveries in the decades ahead. Some of them still could be large verebrates. There have been attempts to estimate how many large vertebrates might still be out there. The ocean is very big. So, if you're looking for cryptids, I would maybe keep my eye on the sea.

S: Does one stand out, of all the ones that you cover in the book, that is most likely to actually exist?

D: {w|Cadborosaurus willsi|Cadborosaurus} is my personal favorite. I don't know how likely it is to exist, but it's a large marine cryptid. It's a North American, it's like, 80 feet long. It's a big sea serpent. It's the Pacific Northwest iteration of the Great Atlantic Sea Serpent. And it's a big one!

And it's named for a bay right here in Victoria, so as a Victoria boy, I was always extremely keen on searching for Cadborosaurus, and particularly because my parents were witnesses of Cadborosaurus, so that planted the cryptozoology bug deeply when I was a child.

S: Did any of the themes crop up, because these are all individual legends. Bigfoot, again, Nessie, sea monsters, lake monsters, etcetera. Did anything surprising crop up as a recurring theme when researching the book?

D: Well, I've been looking at these topics for a really long time, so there isn't that much that surprises me. But I think that readers will be surprised by a number of the themes that come up. One recurring theme that I come back to again and again in my work for Junior Skeptic and also for Abominable Science is that very typically, these mysteries, they have this huge kind of edifice, this famous mountain of evidence for Bigfoot, or Lochness Monster, whatever, that is intimidating to a newcomer approaching that mystery. There are hundreds of books sometimes, or decades of research. There are hundreds of personalities involved. And it looks like a lot.

But if you just clear all of it away, and just go down to the original roots of the legend, very often the whole thing is just an edifice built on sand. The roots are rotten. And it becomes clear pretty quickly if you can just take apart the artificial chronology that grows up around these things, put everything in the order in which they come into the historical record, a lot of it becomes clear right away.

Another surprising theme I think will take many people off guard, skeptics not so much, is that there is a long-standing relationship between cryptozoology and creationism. A lot of the cryptids are primarily sought, they're primarily funded, they're primarily advocated by creationists who hope that by discovering these creatures, they can bring down evolution once and for all. Why they think that is a complete mystery.

E: Wow!

S: Yeah.

E: They're really grasping at straws there, aren't they?

S: Right, 'cause there's some kind of impossible hybrid or something, is that why?

D: Well, if Bigfoot turns out to have angel DNA, I guess that could be a problem for standard biology, but if a Sauropod dinosaur showed up in the Congo somewhere, that really does nothing to evolution at all! Why is a Sauropod more damaging than the crow in your back yard, who is actually a surviving dinosaur that we know about. Or, (Unknown word: Sealocans 47:03) or crocodiles or sharks, or horseshoe crabs, or any of these creatures. It's a forlorn hope that this would be a game-ender for evolution.

S: Is it just a simplistic notion that anything that shows that scientists were wrong calls into question evolution, or whatever scientific theory they don't like?

D: Yeah (Laughs). Basically, I think that's it. They're looking for kind of smoking gun evidence against evolution, when what they should be doing is, over the course of decades, slowly chipping away at their own research program, and building a case for their own position. But they think that one smoking gun's gonna kill the enemy.

S: I agree. They're always looking for that single stroke that will completely and utterly slay evolution.

E: (Inaudible 47:55) easy.

B: Yeah, the problem is they're confusing the million little pictures with the one big picture. You could take out a little picture, but you're not taking out the big picture.

S: Although there are potentially pieces of evidence that could do that if they found ironclad evidence for the iconic horse in the Cambrian, then that would certainly be a massive problem for the fossil evidence for evolution.

B: But it's like, they're not even thinking about that. They look at this little stuff, these little arguments between scientists that, it's good science, but it's not gonna damage evolution at all.

D: You know, all of these creation-oriented cryptozoology people are not typically scientists. They're people from just kind of general backgrounds. So, in one sense, we can kind of forgive them for not framing this in really scientific terms. And I try to be generous with that sort of thing, because I'm not a scientist myself.

The book hammers some of these guys, mostly in passages that were drafted by Don originally. As a credentialled paleontologist, he's sensitive to credential-mongering. But I'm an artist; I'm not a scientist. So I try not to be too heavy-handed about that kind of thing. But when you've got people who are presenting themselves as scientists who in fact are not, or they have degrees in Divinity, or something like that, it's a problem in terms of the integrity of the case they're making to the public.

S: Daniel, what's the most obscure cryptid you covered in the book? What's one that I haven't heard about, even as someone who's been reading skeptical literature for decades?

D: The book grew quite long, okay? So, it was originally contracted for something like 200 pages. It's over 400. Columbia University Press has been very generous about the whole thing. It's full color throughout. They've let us really make a lot of room for endnotes. There's something like 60 pages of endnotes and citations.

Even at that, we had to cut at least a couple of chapters. We cut the chapter on the Chupacabra, and we also cut the chapter on lake monsters, for length. And on the cutting room floor went one of my own favourite cases, one of my favorite obscure cryptids, which is the Thetis Lake Monster.

This is another local mystery here in Victoria, which I was able to get pretty much to the bottom of. So it's one of my favorite cases because it makes me look fairly good.

(Steve chuckles)

B: What was it called again?

D: It's the Thetis Lake Monster, and it's essentially the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Gill-man lives in a tiny, artificial resevoir lake here in sunny Victoria, British Columbia. It's a really small lake; it's 20 acres or something. But there's apparently a primordial fish man living in the (Chuckles) lake.

That case, like many of them, again, when you get to the roots of the mystery, they turn out to be really, really shallow, really rotten. And in this case, there were hardly any eyewitness accounts of this creature. And when I tracked down one of the original eyewitnesses, he just plain told me it was a hoax; they made it up.

B: Oh my god!

E: Ah, gee!

D: Yeah.

S: There you go.

D: And see? That's the thing. Nobody goes to the roots. I was the first person in decades to talk to this guy. And that's a case for all these mysteries. People, they look up at the mountain of evidence, and they don't look at the roots of the case.

S: Yeah, the mountain of evidence is just all confirmation bias and mythology, really.

D: Once you've got these ideas kind of out in the wild, they take off under their own power and people just copy one from another. The literature grows plagiaristically very often. It's kind of the fox terrier thing. They just borrow one source to the next.

S: So, Daniel, I understand you are going to be at TAM this year.

D: I will be. I will be back at skepticism's big event this year. I'm pretty excited about it. My wife's coming down with me again this year.

S: Awesome!

D: And having missed a year, it was really ... it's fun to follow the hashtag on Twitter, but it's a whole different experience from actually being there with 1 to 2000 inquisitive curious minds.

S: It's always an awesomely fun event. And I also understand that you and I are going to be sitting on the same panel at some time during the weekend. I don't have the final schedule.

D: Yeah, we're doing a panel on the scope of skepticism, if I understand correctly.

S: Yeah, it's gonna be me, you, and Jamy Ian Swiss, and not exactly sure how we're gonna frame it. I'm more interested in talking about skepticism as an intellectual discipline, which is sort of the same thing as the scope of it. But I don't want to just, the scope argument's been played out a little bit in my opinion. But rather than rehashing anything that's been discussed before, I want to talk about what skepticism can be, what it should be, almost.

D: I love that!

S: Yeah, as a vibrant intellectual discipline, this is, I guess, my idea about where we really should be heading.

D: Yeah, I think you and I are probably on the same page about that. There's this distinction to be made that grassroots people overlook sometimes, I think, between a historical research program, a project which has been underway for a long time, that some of us are working on; and then a kind of sub-culture that's grown up around that. And those are not the same.

But the part that I care about the most, like, it's fun to participate in a subculture, but I'm a professional; I have research priorities of my own, and I want to pursue those; and I want to talk to other serious-minded people who also want to pursue those without being derailed too much.

S: Yeah, I agree. And I think it's kind of a good problem to have, that we've grown so fast, so big, that what skepticism is, has kind of become this moving target, and it's good, I think, every now and then, to take stock of where we are, and where we can go with this movement.

D: Yeah, I've never been too sympathetic to the argument that it's kind of a shameful waste of time to do this navel-gazing. I mean, serious disciplines, they talk about what they do. We sit down, we talk about our practice, and the roadmap for further development, and so on, like that.

S: Yeah, there's a certain amount of time needs to be budgeted for introspection, especially in such an intellectual endeavor. We can't proceed thoughtlessly because then what happens is that differences of opinion fester because no one's talking about it. And there are differences that people aren't even aware are there because no one's talking about it.

Alright, everyone's just assuming that we all are on the same page, even though there's lots of areas of potential disagreement.

E: Oh yeah.

D: Yeah, in recent years, I think a lot of the problem ... if there's been a certain fierceness to the scope debates in skeptical circles in recent years, and a lot of that, I think, is just because a lot of the grassroots people are actually in different movements, and they don't know that. (Chuckles) There are these large traditional movements, which are, in many cases they're older than scientific skepticism; they have their own legacy; they have their own goals. And in many cases, those are the goals that that individual might be most interested in. So, yeah, just clarifying terms can be very, very helpful.

S: Yeah, it's actually a surpisingly complicated landscape ...

D: It is, yeah.

S: that, I think a lot of people just see as just one big, mish mash when in fact it's actually a pretty complicated multi-facited movement, which I'm kind of fascinated in sort of the sociology of skepticism, and how it overlaps and intersects with other related, similar rationalist movements.

And it's all 100% ground up, is the other thing. There's ... no one has their hand on the tiller at all! It really is completely chaotic and completely organic, you know?

B: Sometimes I think each and every skeptic is in their own movement.

S: (Chuckling) Yeah, right! It does feel that way.

E: It's a good observation, Bob, yep.

D: You know, I've often talked about it being like a neighbourhood. We have our own property lines around fences, and to some extent, the better the fences, the better the neighbourhood can get along. We can have barbecues in each others' backyards, and share cups of sugar and things like that. If we're not constantly arguing over whose pear tree is growing a branch over the other guy's fence ... things reset.

But what's fascinating to me is that, you know, those property lines, they emerge naturally over, and over, and over again, generation after generation, it just turns out that people tend to break more on one side or the other of these various fences.

S: Yeah, they're kind of natural lines. They're not artificial at all.

D: Yeah.

S: Because they do just sort of spontaneously emerge out of different ways of looking at skepticism.

D: Yeah, and the people who think that, for example, religion is a very important topic to be discussed, a major area for criticism. I have no particular problem with that. The fact that they organize around that idea, that seems awesome to me. Any portfolio people want to naturally kind of congregate around will tend to emerge in time. The less conflict around that emergence, the better.

S: Yeah, our approach here, this is obviously my personal approach, but the SGU in general is that it's all good! I don't really understand the reason for any of the cross-criticism. It's like, okay, however you want to slice out your approach to the skeptical movement, that's good for you. Go for it! Do it! Go! It's all good!

D: Yeah, if you build it, they will come.

S: Yeah, basically.

D: Erect your own tent, and people will gather around the fire.

S: Well, Daniel, I'm looking forward to seeing you in Los Vegas in July.

D: Yeah, I can't wait to see all you guys.

S: Look forward to your book. So, the Abominable Science is ... you can order it now from Amazon.

D: You can pre-order it from Amazon, it was officially out August 6, but I would suggest that anybody attending TAM should swing by the Skeptic's Society table. There's a possibility of a preview of the book.

S: Awesome.

E: Oh, great!

B: Ah! Cool!

S: And you'll be there to sign them, of course.

D: Yeah, yeah, I'll be there. Don's gonna be there. We're gonna do a panel Sunday morning talking about Bigfoot skepticism, but ...

S: Alright, thanks Daniel!

B: Thanks Daniel.

D: Good talking to you guys.

Science or Fiction (58:46)[edit]

Item #1: New fossil evidence reveals the presence of kangaroo ancestors 25 million years ago in what is now Europe. Item #2: Researchers find that male guppies can reproduce up to 10 months after they have died. Item #3: Scientists have discovered a material that gets larger under pressure, in apparent defiance of the laws of physics.

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Just have three regular, old news items this week, no theme.

Here we go: Item number 1: New fossil evidence reveals the presence of Kangaroo ancestors 25 million years ago in what is now Europe. Item number 2: Researchers find that male guppies can reproduce up to ten months after they have died. And item number 3: Scientists have discovered a material that gets larger under pressure in apparent defiance of the laws of physics. Bob, why don't you go first.

B: So material that gets larger under pressure. So instead of getting of getting more dense, closer together, it's doing the opposite. Wow, that's messed up. Rearranges the bonds, I don't know. That's pretty bizarre, I'm trying to figure out how that would work. Let me go to two. Male guppies can reproduce up to ten months after they have died. So are we talking about zombie guppies with good game, is that it? Wow, so that's kind of bizarre. So if their sperm can last a really long time and be used after the death of the rest of the body. The kangaroo ancestor, 25 million years in what is now Europe. There's something about that. Australia was isolated for millions of years. I don't think you need to... that one is rubbing me the wrong way; even more than those other ones. I'm gonna say the kangaroos are fiction!

S: Ok, Rebecca

R:That's where I was leaning too; because, if that's true, that completely rewrites the history of not just kangaroos but all marsupials. Right? I feel like that would be big, big news. The presence of kangaroo ancestors, that could mean anything really though; something really far back. But, I mean, kangaroos and other marsupials, evolved after Australia broke off right? I think? So, that seems really suspect to me.

Male guppies reproducing after they died. It's not, it doesn't surprise me they could reproduce after they die; I can picture their sperm being somehow long-lived.and being able to swim out and fertilize eggs. But ten months! I didn't know that guppies could live for ten months, let alone their sperm. So the length of time there is what's really crazy; but I can buy it. The thing that gets larger under pressure, for some reason I can completely believe that. I don't know why. Like in my head I'm thinking of non-Newtonian liquids and other things that react weirdly in non-intuitive ways when you interact with them. So that one I buy. So for me it's between the guppies and the kangaroos. And I'm gonna have to GWB on this one. The kangaroo thing is just way too bizarro for me so I'm gonna say that one's the fiction.

S: Alright, Jay

J: Hey guys

B: Hi Jay

E: Hey Jay

B: Jay, you've been so quiet all show, what's goin on?

R: Really well behaved.

J: I've been very contemplative. I liked everything you guys said tonight though.

R: You agreed with absolutely everything?

J: Uh oh, I don't trust you Rebecca, so I don't know.

(All laugh)

R: That's too easy.

J: I was doing auditions for Occ the Skeptical Caveman.

S: How did it go?

J: It went great! It took a lot longer, but tonight was a very good night. But in regards to these news items, the one about the new fossil evidence about the kangaroo ancestor. So the key here is that they found a fossil that was in Europe. That one I really, I don't know. And I don't know if 25 million years is way too long or way too short. It sounds reasonable though. The second one, researchers finding about the male guppies can reproduce ten months after they've died. I agree with Rebecca.

Okay so maybe the corpse of the guppies is there and their sperm can last up to ten months. That might even be like a built in thing that they evolved to be able to do. You know and as the carcass is there something happens and the sperm is able to feed off of it, I don't know. I have no idea, it's weird but I could see that happening. And the last one about the scientists discovering there's this material that gets larger under pressure, that one out of the three of them I really do believe is true. So now I'm down to the first two, alright I'm gonna say that the fossil evidence ... one about the kangaroos, is false.

S: And Evan

E: The kangaroo, I mean we always think of kangaroo as an Australian or what is it

B: Australasia?

E: I'll move on to the guppies. They can reproduce up to ten months after they have died. So you've got this dead guppy and something perhaps comes along and is able to extract some ... thing from it so it technically reproduces. Unless its, do guppies reproduce on their own? Or is it one of these creatures that doesn't need a partner in order to reproduce? I don't know, it seems unlikely. The material that gets larger under pressure, I don't know what it is, I was thinking plasma but that's probably already well known, the properties of plasma. Um, but maybe Rebecca was on to something there.

J: I get larger under pressure because I eat more when I'm stressed out.

R: I was sure that was gonna turn into a dick joke, I was so sure. How did that not even?

(All laugh)

J: Rebecca can't even believe it!

B: No, I liked it because everybody went there mentally, every one. And he didn't even have to say anything!

R: Everybody was like, "here comes Jay's dick joke."

J: Wow you think I'm that decultured?

R: Well I think if that was a word then, yes. You're not just uncultured, you've gone through some process of deculturing.

J: I have invented the process!

E: Alright thanks to Jay's suggestion, I have come to the determination that this one's gonna, the material that gets larger under pressure is going to be science. Therefore, guppies or kangaroos... I'm gonna go with the guppies. One, I don't know what's goin on here. Ten months after they've died? Boy that's something! I'll say the guppies, I'll hang out there by myself.

S: Alright, good for you Evan for being brave. So I guess we'll start with the third one: scientists have discovered a material that gets larger under pressure in apparent defiance of the laws of physics! You guys all think that the laws of physics have been broken, and this one is ... science!

E: Yay!

S: Materials we're used to, I guess materials doing all sorts of weird things. But the scientists were really surprised by this, so much so that they spent a couple of years verifying it to make sure it was really really true before they

B: A couple years! Wow,

E: That's good.

R: How many times do you have to punch someone before they get bigger

S: They had to make sure that there was no anomaly here or error, this is absolutely true.

E: I thought they need to do a press release and announce it in a journal, and then go and figure it out.

S: So this is researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory, and they found a class of materials that becomes more porous under pressure. So, Bob you're right in that the pressure forces a reorganization of the molecules which makes the substance more porous, thereby increasing its' size even while it's under greater pressure. So that may seem like just an interesting anomaly but this could be potentially useful. Porous materials like this are used in drug research and drug manufacturing. It also may be useful in carbon sequestration or in material separation and catalysis.

J: What's catalysis?

S: Catalyzing reactions, making them go faster. So, yeah, probably not the kind of thing you're gonna be purchasing at the store, but useful in industry, producing things that you'll find useful. Alright, I guess we'll keep working our way backwards. Number 2, researchers find that male guppies can reproduce up to ten months after they have died. Evan, you think this one is the fiction; the rest of you believe in zombie guppies and this one is ... science!

E: Wow.

J: Whoa!

R: Zombie Guppies!

S: So how do you think that works?

R: Zombie Guppies!

J: I think it's what Rebecca and I were saying all along.

B: Nah, you're all wrong. The females hold onto it.

S: Yeah, the sperm can survive in the female for up to ten months which is a lot longer than anybody thought was possible. So, even ten months after a guppy, a male guppy, has died theoretically they can still reproduce with sperm they have pre-deposited in the female.

J: That was really cheaty.

S: It was a little cheaty but I knew that, I agree with that

R: So wait does that mean, shut up I have questions, does that mean that a female can hold on to different male sperms, like collecting different ones and then using them as she pleases? That's like a conscious decision on her part?

E: Holding on to sperm! I mean come on.

B: I don't think they can necessarily hold on to multiple different dads' sperm at the same time

S: The research article I'm looking at does not comment on that one way or another.

E: No comment

B: But there's a real benefit to the species, because, say there's 10,000 breeding males; with this ability there's more than 10,000. There's 12 or 13,000, whatever. You could have advantageous traits still being propagated even though there's no living specimens with that trait. Like I think they mentioned color, the guppy's color has ... the female guppies are attracted to certain patterns of color and they could kind of rejuvenate that line that you know those genes, two generations after the dad died out.

S: Yeah, so they're saying that the effective population size is greater than what it appears and so is the genetic variation, the genetic diversity.

B: Yeah, which is a huge benefit.

J: Alright, guppies!

S: So the female guppies live for about two years, male guppies only live for 3-4 months.

B: Oooo nasty!

S: So, you're right Rebecca, male guppies don't live for ten months.

R: Huh, called it. I'm not just terrible at taking care of fish.

S: But the headline, Jay, was "research shows male guppies reproduce even after death." That was the headline.

J: Alright look, I won science or fiction this week, so I don't care.

S: So I feel justified in propagating that little bit of misdirection. Which means that new fossil evidence reveals the presence of kangaroo ancestors 25 million years ago in what is now Europe, is complete and utter bollocks and fiction. Because, when did Australia break off from

J: I thought it was like a couple of hundred million

E: Yeah hundreds of millions

B: No, no not that long

R: I never!

S: About 110 million years ago. Yeah so, Pangaea broke up into Gondwana and Laurasia. And then Gondwana, which is the southern of those two continents so Australia broke off from there with Antarctica which then broke off from Australia; I think that's the order in which it happened. So for about 100 million years or so Australia has been its own continent. Pretty much isolated from everything else. So there's no possible way that an ancestor of kangaroos could be in Europe 25 million years ago, the timing doesn't work out. So I just totally made that up.

This was the main split between mammals, marsupials and placentals. The marsupials were isolated to South America and Australia and the placentals everywhere else and then when the land bridge opened up between Panama land-bridge, between South America and North America, that's when those mammal populations mixed while Australia remained isolated. Which is why the only native mammals in Australia are all marsupials. The few placentals were introduced at some point. I remember when we were touring in Australia, you guys remember this, and our tour guide said that fruit bats are the most closely related animals to humans.

B: Yes, I'll never forget that

R: Yeah that's right.

S: Really? Fruit bats are more closely related to humans than any other animal. But what he meant was of animals that are currently native to Australia.

J: Well that's a pretty key thing there at the end of the sentence

S: That's because it's the only placental. Any placental would be more closely related to humans than all of the marsupials.

J: When you say placentals, Steve am I hearing the reference correctly?

S: Yeah yeah

R: To a placenta?

J: Rebecca, I don't wanna make any assumptions on this show

S: Mammals are pretty much divided up into marsupials and placentals, yeah. With an occasional duck billed platypus thrown in there.

B: Monotreme

S: Monotreme yeah

R: Monotreme, Jinx!

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:13:21)[edit]

Everybody has opinions: I have them, you have them. And we are all told from the moment we open our eyes, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Well, that’s horsepuckey, of course. We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions. Without research, without background, without understanding, it's nothing.

Harlan Ellison

S: Alright, well, Jay, how about this? Do you got a quote for us this week?

J: I got a quote.

R: What's a quote got to do with me?

J: The quote that you need, baby, here it is. Anybody know who Harlan Ellison is?

S: Oh my god, yeah.

B: Of course!

S: City on the Edge of Forever?

B: Yeah! He wrote an episode of classic Trek, which pissed him off mightily, because (Laguhter) ... there's a couple other things. The Boy and His Dog, is a book he wrote, I think.

E: Oh yeah, not a good movie.

J: Born1934, American writer. Principal genre is speculative fiction. And the quote is: " Everybody has opinions: I have them, you have them. And we're all told from the moment we open our eyes, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Well, that’s horsepuckey, of course. We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions. Without research, without background, without understanding, it's nothing."

S: Do it. Come on.

R: No?

J: I'm gonna do it!

E: I'm ready.

J: Harlan Ellison!

E: Let's get the hell outta here.

J: That was sent in by a listener named Alex Merges.

S: Thank you, Alex.

B: Thanks Alex.

S: And thank you for joining me this week, everyone.

B: You're welcome, Steve.

E: Oh, yeah.

R: Thank you, Steve.

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

S: 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, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • Star Trek fans have created "new" episodes of the original Star Trek series in a project they call Star Trek Continues
  • The eruption of the Laki volcano caused death in numerous places around the world.


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