SGU Episode 416

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SGU Episode 416
6th Jul 2013
Crop circle history.jpg
SGU 415 SGU 417
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
RS: Randall Snyder
Quote of the Week
The pursuit of truth in science transcends national boundaries. It takes us beyond hatred and anger and fear. It is the best of us.
Arthur Eddington
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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 Tuesday July 2nd 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: Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello Everyone.

S: And we have a special guest rogue this week, Randall Snyder. Randall, welcome to the skeptics' guide.

RS: Good evening everyone, it's great to be here, it's a dream come true.

E: Hey, Randall.

RS: How have you guys been?

J: Pretty good budy, how have you been man?

S: Good thanks.

E: Yeah, we've been good, it's been a while right?

RS: Yeah, it's good to be back.

J: Randall, we haven't talked in what, three weeks, it's good to have you back on the show, man.

R: You guys are really selling this by the way. This is totally believable.


S: So Randall is a loyal listener of the SGU and we brought him on because we wanted to talk about his experience in the Mormon Church. Now we're going to talk about that after Rebecca tels us about this day in skepticism, but just to start a little bit, were you in LDS? Is that the version of the church that you were in?

RS: Yeah, i only had one wife.

J: Is that what that means?

RS: LDS means fundamentalist Later Day Saints and they are an offshoot of the main one in Salt Lake City and they never accepted polygamy being abandoned in 1890 and 1905 and so they're the ones that live on those secluded communities.

E: Mhm. Big love and all that.

R: Warren Jeffs was there, leading it right?

RS: That's the ones where they kick off all the young men so that the old guys can have 13 and 14 year old girls to marry. Not what I was associated with. I was in the mainstream one.

This Day in Skepticism (1:45)[edit]

  • July 6, 1885: Pasteur injects the first rabies vaccine.

S: Well Rebecca, tell us first about Louis Pasteur.

R: Way to ruin the surprise, Steve.

S: Oh, sorry.

R: yes on July 6th 1885, Louis Pasteur successfully tested the first rabies vaccine, did it on a little boy that had taunted a rabid dog, was bitten by the dog and was thereby in danger of dying a truly horrible death. Pasteur had previously worked that that he might be able to prevent rabies from taking hold using a weakened rabies virus that he had weakened in rabbits but he had tested it only on dogs prior to this so at this point he tested it on his first human, Joseph Meister who lived so he saved his life.

RS: Much like Brad Pit on World War Z.

R: Not yet. Not ready. It was a good attempt, we're not quite there yet, but yes.

S: We call that a premature segue.

R: Happens to most men at some point.

S: Meister was 9 years old at the time. Rabies has like a 100% mortality rate, and he lived to be 74, I mean Pasteur saved his life.

R: He lived to be 64.

S: Oh you're right, 64. I can't add. 64.

R: He became the caretaker of the Pasteur Institute actually and he served as caretaker until his death. He died quite tragically, he committed suicide on the occasion of the German invasion of Paris. Kind of a sad end, but it was kind of cool that he did live as a young kid and he went on to care quite a bit about what Pasteur was doing.

S: Pasteur was uber-cool, his career was just unbelievably amazing, all the things that he did. He sort of broke through with the whole notion of microbes, little germs causing disease. Once you have that insight, he ran with that ball really far.

R: He was one of the first microbiologists. It didn't really exist as a discipline before him.

E: Hey Steve, quick question, when something has a 100% fatality rate, it's OK to do experimental vaccinations and stuff on people right?

S: Well it's ethically easier, there's something called compassionate use, there are normal ethical rules for experimentation and for using drugs off-label, for using experimental treatments, are relaxed significantly if somebody has an unavoidably terminal illness. The rationale is, what have they got to lose? If they're willing to try some desperate experimental treatment, it's reasonable to do that if the only alternative is certain short term death.

Speical Report (4:05)[edit]

  • Leaving Mormonism: Ex-Mormon and guest rogue, Randall Snyder, discusses his experience.

S: Alright, so Randall, LDS. Tell us about this. Now first of all, you do credit the SGU with saving you from the Mormon Church right?

RS: No you didn't save me from the Mormon Church, you saved me from the aftermath, after leaving the Church.

S: Ah. We eased your transition.

J: I'll take it.

E: You're welcome.

RS: Yes, you were the soft cushiony pillow that I landed on when I took the "leap of faith" to leave the church because it's an very all-compassing church to be a member of, it consumes every part of your identity and there's a lot of social cost to leaving it which is what makes it difficult for so many people to leave.

S: Just like a cult.

RS: It is like a soft cult. It's cult0like but I'm not, the term "cult" there is no definitive definition that I know of out there for a cult, there are characteristics, kind of like the psycopath test.

S: Yah exactly there's the demarcation problem with a cult in that there are features and the more of those features you have the more cult-like you are but there's no one sharp demarcation line.

RS: Yeah, it would have to be arbitrarily determined so therefore that's where it's problematic. So what happened was I was born in the Church, I grew up in Southern California. A big Mormon family, one of 7 kids. Went on a mission, just before I went on my mission, my older brother came out of the closet so to speak when he left UIU and went to Van Der Bolt (sp?) to get a PhD in philosophy, which is toxic to religion. And it came out that he was an atheist just before I went on my mission and that was a really seminal moment in my life and it was pretty traumatic. So we became estranged for several years because of that and then when I went through my "faith crisis" I did it without any assistance from my brother, I just wanted to do this on my own but once I determined that I didn't believe any more I finally called my brother up and he's very intelligent, very erudite individual and he could have referred me to a million different things and the first thing he referred me to was the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: Cool

R: Nice

J: Wow

E: Wow

J: That is awesome.

RS: The genius behind it was because he did not want to teach me what he thought I should think, he wanted to teach me how to thing, he wanted to reboot my brain.

B: It's a good idea.

RS: Because he knew where I came from and the epistemology I'd used my entire life.

S: Hey I like that, we're going to use that as a catchphrase now. "Reboot your brain, listen to the SGU."

RS: I'm going to patent that.

E: Ooh.

R: Pay you a nickel every time.

J: Hey Randall, did your brother have a strong emotional reaction to this?

S: I smell a t-shirt.

E: Is that what that is?

J: When you called him?

RS: Yeah we actually talked for a bout 5 hours. He'd be estranged from the entire family, no one really knew how to relate to him, no one would talk about things he was interested in so he just sort of separated himself from the family, and now after I've left I understood why, I basically regained a brother and that brother became my best friend, so.

S: But did you lose the rest of your family?

RS: No it was tough, one of my sisters did tell me when she first found out that it felt like a death in the family, when I left the church. That was hard but they've all since chilled out. My mother who could not even be in the same room as my brother when he left the church without crying, she died of cancer back in 1996.

S: I'm sorry to hear that.

RS: She would have taken it the hardest, my sisters took it hard but they've all been really good after the fact and my dad has been awesome all along.

S: Do you think that because of your older brother that it was a little bit easier? Did he blaze the trail for you a little bit?

RS: No actually he acted as a cautionary tale, he probably prolonged my stay in the church.

S: Oh, because you saw how hard it was.

RS: Well, I just didn't want to become an atheist. I was petrified of becoming an atheist and all the things that believers think that when you lose faith in god then you're just going to want to go out and rape and pillage and end up in a ditch with a needle in your arm because you have no moral compass.

B: Of course.

RS: Being a cautionary tale was like you have to be careful about Satan, that's one of the things they inculcate into the membership is that Satan is very cunning and you've got to be careful, his arguments are going to sound convincing but you've got to stay within the guidelines of the church to be safe. So as a cautionary tale he didn't really blaze the trail and that's probably why I didn't involve him in my process of de-conversion from the Mormon Church. Because I didn't become a skeptic, a secular humanist and an atheist all at once, it's really started with this show.

S: Yeah, it's a process.

RS: right.

J: Randall, I'm curious to know, do you remember the early thoughts about questioning your religion, how did that happen in your head?

RS: I've read to many books on cognition to believe my memory any more.


S: BUt you have a narrative. What's your narrative?

RS: My narrative that I've confabulated, it stated with... one thing that's great about the Mormon Church. There's two things that's great about the Mormon Church. Number one, it's young unlike Christianity. It's not hidden by the cloak of time, it's a fairly new religion, there's a ton of documentation around its origins. The other thing I like is that Joseph Smith had balls and made some really falsifiable claims that science can answer like claiming that the native Americans are Semitic in origin. Well, we have DNA now (laughs) and you did actually mention that back when Perry was alive, you mispronounced Angel Moroni, you pronounced it More-own-ee which sounds like an Italian Mafia guy and I remember Perry getting a kick out of that.


S: It's Mor-own-eye?

RS: It's Mor-own-eye, yeah, not More-own-ee. The other time you guys mentioned Mormonism was when you had that guy who was a Professor from Connecticut, some university in Connecticut, that was an archaeologist.

E: Ken Fader, most likely.

RS: He talked about the pre-Clovis sites

E: Mmhmm. That would be him.

S: Yeah.

RS: that showed that migration across the Bearing Strait was earlier than was originally thought with the Clovis sites. And then you guys asked him, what do you think about the claims of some people about the Semitic origins? And his answer was, and I quote, "oh God, no."


RS: That was hilarious. Those were the two times I can remember you mentioning Mormonism because it kind of intersected with science. I went on a mission in Phoenix and they have a really impressive Easter pageant. My job was to work the crowd. I was to look for people that didn't look Mormon and go up and talk to them.

R: They were the people who weren't wearing ties?

RS: Mormons value conformity above all else and so very conservative, they're stuck in the 1950s culture-wise. Short conservative hair, shaved, you know All-American.

R: did you get any converts?

RS: On my mission I had about 40 baptisms.

R: Wow, I mean I want to say well done, but at the same time...

RS: At the same time I want to go back and call all those people but I think most of them left anyway. The church has a really poor retention rate of its converts. But it's really funny that the growth of the church is almost exclusively in third world countries so if you go to South America you'll come home back with like 200 conversions, if you go to like Denmark, like my cousin, he came home with a goose egg.

J: Sucks to he him I guess. So Randall, what was it? One day you woke up and you weren't yourself any more, you were an atheist, like what was that day?

S: Was there a moment that you can remember where you made some kind of mental transition, or it really was imperceptibly slow.

RS: It was pretty slow but there are moments that you remember. It started in 2006 when I learned about Joseph Smith, this is one of the things that I wanted to talk about is that the Church whitewashes its history so that the members are woefully ignorant of their own history because they're only taught the whitewashed version on Sunday and the Internet has caused problems with that.

B: Damn Internet.

RS: But in 2006 I learned that Joseph Smith had married eight women that were already married to other men and I already knew that he was a secret polygamist, I didn't know that some of them were 14 and that some of them were already married to other living men at the time and that sent me into a very private, secret spiral because I didn't want to deal with the secret consequences, I didn't even tell my wife. And that lingered and I was actually at the time, one of the leaders of the congregation, not the bishop, but I was the high-priest group leader which is one of the lower leaders of the congregation and I had a practice that had a lot of Mormon dentists referring to me. I didn't want to deal with the costs so I suffered in silence up until the fall of 2008 when prop-8 came out and all of a sudden I was like, this does not resonate with my moral, internal moral compass. And that's when I decided to take my faith seriously and that was a process of about six months of reading insatiably all of the stuff that I could get my hands on of actual Mormon history and getting angrier and angrier that I didn't know this stuff and I was 34 years old. I let my wife know and she didn't react very well at first but she came around after six months but during that six months I remember sitting on the patio going, I don't think I believe in God any more. We were out by the pool in Phoenix, and she says, It was hard enough that you left the Church, but now you're an atheist? So that was her reaction but she's since become an atheist as well so I've been extremely lucky.

J: yeah that could have went really bad.

RS: It goes really bad all the time, I have many friends who have lost their marriage over this issue, it's very intense.

J: Now I know it's not as simple as this but your story makes me think that it was just the necessity of having the information there, your brain was being analytical, you just didn't have the information to stitch together the real story and then once that information was in there your intellect took over and said, look this is just not, this can't be real.

RS: Well even though I did have the information, it still was a process because it is a constant inculcation and indoctrination from the time, the earliest you can remember, you just constantly reinforced that this is the one and only true church and that anything outside it you'll find misery and then you know unconsciously, I could lose my marriage over this, I could lose my kids, I could lose my family, my practice could suffer and so you kind of drag your feet, sometimes you drag your feet.

S: Yeah you could think as you say that it's all from the devil, right? So the Internet is the devil and that solves all problems.

RS: Yes. Right. And the church growth has significantly dropped since 1998, Harold Bloom wrote a book called The American Religion back in 1992 and he declared at that time, because growth rates in the late eighties and early nineties were looking like the Mormon Church was going to have 100 million members by the middle of the century and be the first world religion since Islam. Boom, the Internet hits and now the church is grown in the United States at a slower rate than the general population is growing, so they're growing absolutely, but relative to the general population they're contracting, if that makes sense.

S: Well Randall, thanks for sharing your story with us, we all find that really fascinating and we're obvously happy that we've played some role in your transition to a religion-free life.

News Items[edit]

Crop Circles in History (15:27)[edit]

S: Let's move on to some news items, Evan it's crop circle time of year again.

E: Yeah.

S: There's a new twist on the whole crop-circle story.

E: There is, but first I have a question for Randall. Because you were a twelfth-level high priest.

RS: (laughs) We're not the Masons.

E: Seventh-level spells or something.

RS: Although we stole a ton of shit from the Masons for our temple ceremony, like verbatim.

S: Oh is that right?

E: Cool, yeah.

RS: So I was a high priest, that just means that I had the highest level of priesthood that you can have, it doesn't mean that I had the highest level of authority.

E: So what is the official position of the Mormon Church concerning crop circles?

RS: The Mormon Church does not take positions on anything that they don't have to, so there is no official position by the Mormon Church on crop circles. But if you're talking about the alien twist on crop circles, the Mormon God lives on a planet near a star called Kolob, so there's a little bit of sci-fi in Mormonism, and alien worship.

S: Not exactly Scientology, but yeah.

E: So here is how the headline read from the Huffington Post. Crop Circles Are No Hoax, Concludes Historian After Studying Google Earth's New 1945 Overlay. Well, this is actually an older news story I found an article by the Birmingham Mail from the United Kingdom in January of 2013 so the Huff Po is a few months behind on this one, I'm not sure why they're reporting on it now. Research by archaeologist, cereologist Greg Jefferys of Tasmania and by the way a cereologist is a person...

B: Special K!

E: ...who devotes a large chunk of their time studying crop circles and Special K cereal. And he has revealed evidence of the strange circles in the English countryside that were captured in photographs dating as far back as 1945. Jefferys used Google Earth's new 1945 overlay technologies in which you can look at old aerial photos from the past of a given location and we're kind of assuming that the photos are properly placed into the correct location, I'm not really sure how they verify that but they must have a means for doing that, we'll have to take Google at their word for that. Jefferys spent more than 300 hours scouring the English countryside using the technology and he found a large number of things that he is describing as crop circles.

S: Well they are circles in crops.

E: Definitely, they definitely are.

B: But there was the issue of the anomalies in the images themselves that he had to weed out, so there's also a chance that this could just be artefacts of the image, the age of the image or the imaging technique.

S: Yeah.

E: Photographs can be altered by the ravages of time and elements right? Causing images to become compromised, little marks, dust, watermarks and other physical subjections must be accounted for. Here's what Jefferys says, the history guy. "This discovery proves that claims by various artists to be the sole creators of crop circles are themselves a hoax, and it just goes to show that the circles remain unexplained."

S: Name that logical fallacy.

E: Straw man.

S: I would say a non sequitur, I don't know that it's really a straw man. There may be a bit of a hasty generalisation in there as well. Cereologists do that a lot as do a lot of pseudo-scientists, like they take one example and they say, see this example has this feature which destroys all of the claims by skeptics that none of them have this feature when they're looking multiple different phenomena. For example, if we look at these photographs, there's 11 of them connected to the article that we're looking at here, of alleged crop circles from these 1945 overlays. Some of them look like photographic artefacts, again I think there's one triangle, the rest are all just circles.

E: Or ovals, there's a couple of ovals.

S: Which actually is an interesting point because some of them look like the picture itself may not be exactly vertical but the circle is and therefore that suggests it's more of a photographic artefact. There's also no shadowing or anything to suggest that it has three-dimensionality. Other ones however, you see like the rim-shadow that matches the shadow of the trees and those are probably actually physically in the crops but then he says, like for example there are, there's no lines, no tram-lines or footprint lines to show how somebody could have access to the circle.

B: Oh god, really?

S: It's like, first of all you don't need to have that, you could walk through the crops without leaving a noticable trace, some of them do have access lines, they are across tramlines or whatever and others are probably just photographic artefacts, what you don't see, what he didn't find a single picture of, is anything that looks anything even remotely like the more contemporary crop circles where there's any complexity to it, these are just circles and rings or either photographic artefacts or just simple things, you know if you piled something up in a field into a rough circle and then it left a patch behind, that could explain some of these circles.

E: Correct.

S: For example. So not compelling evidence at all. The fallacy is in arguing that this means that the modern crop circle phenomenon was not sparked by Doug and Dave who started the modern hoaxing of crop circles, that's the logical fallacy that he's committing, it's just a non sequitur, it does not follow, that argument.

J: Do they think this is a cover-up, what's the impetus here to hide the alien visitation thing, is this a government deal?

B: No, i don't think he was going there, Jay. He's got a quote that kind of rubbed me the wrong way that I think might help to answer your question, he said, "Further I believe that if the mainstream scientific community were not so timid and no so conservative in their view of the universe, that they would not be sitting on their hands pretending this thing is not happening but would be seriously investigating this unexplained phenomenon." I mean come on, the mainstream scientific community is timid and conservative? This is the community that brought us quantum entanglement, magnitars, black holes, superposition; if the evidence is there, they will go to it.

E: Bob, that sentence proves that this guy has no clue how science works.

J: All the people who are interested in science and conducting science, I mean I would love nothing more than to have some type of proof that these things exist, that aliens, as scary as it would be, I would be slightly horrified too, I mean imagine that. But still, how provocative could you possibly get?

B: It wouldn't be that scary Jay, I mean if they've been making crop circles for half a century I mean how belligerent could they be?

S: Yeah, they're probably benign.

J: No Bob, the scary part would be that if they were making crop circles for half a century what the hell is wrong with them, why didn't you come talk to us?

S: Bob, crop circles are just instructions for the invasion fleet.

B: How could I miss that?

J: God, talk about horrible writing. Maybe we should review that train-wreck of a movie.

S: Yeah, we'll get there. Shama Lama Ding Dong that's definitely one of the worst ones.

E: I consulted some farmers about some possible alternative explanations of what the circles are. Steve, you mentioned the crops and stuff, so they also mentioned that if you put an animal, you tie it to a stake, it's going to walk around in a circle and kind of wear out that grass. You stack up some seed or hay, or an old silo they tore down. The farmers, they mentioned many many very plausible explanations about why these circles are there. Real circles could happen yet this archaeologist failed to acknowledge any of those. So thanks to Dave Casball, Rich Lewigg, David Arindale and Nathaniel Stone for helping me out with some feedback on that.

S: Alright, thanks Evan.

Constructing Morality (23:12)[edit]

S: We're going to go on to another news item, this one is really cool. This is a recent study looking at the neurology of morality. To back up a little bit, one of the main sort of skeptical lessons in terms of studying how the brain works is that we all construct our image of reality. Everything that we think we see and remember is a constructed narrative that is highly biased and filtered and flawed. And the same thing is true of our moral feelings. There's nothing objective about our moral feelings, we evolved to undergo a certain subconscious moral calculus that makes us feel a certain way. A sense of justice for example, exists for an evolutionary reason. Another example of the sort of constructed reality is the notion of agency or you can also call this the theory of mind. So that is the notion that other entities have a mind and that therefore they have feelings and ideas and thoughts and plans of their own. So the fact that I know that you are another person with your own thoughts and ideas and feelings, there's a part of my brain that creates that sense that you have agency, that you have your own mind. Now our brains will, again, undergo a subconscious calculus and decides what things out there in the environment likely have agency, and it's not based upon a scientific or rational understanding of how things actually work, it's just based upon a simple set of rules about how things are behaving. One of the primary rules is that something which is moving in a non-inertial frame is presumed to be an agent, to have agency. If it looks as if it's moving under its own power somehow...

RS: Like not a projectile or something?

S: Yeah, it's not just something that's falling or rolling, it looks like it's moving under its own power, a non-inertial frame, then our brain immediately slots that as something that probably has agency, as something that's acting on its own. We've talked about this sort of thing before, if you hear the bushes rustling you're likely to assume it's a tiger rather than the wind or we evolved from those cave-men who jumped to the conclusion that it was probably a tiger because the ones that went to investigate probably got eaten, at least more often.

R: It's also the reason those iPets sold so well.

S: Exactly. Stuffed animals, cartoons, we imbue emotions and agency to these things because they're acting as though they're alive, the fact that they're two dimensional or they can't possibly be alive doesn't affect how we feel about it, it may affect how we think about it, but we feel about it as if it has agency. There's a cool experiment, I don't know if we talked about this on the show before[1], where psychologists took a, they have a two dimensional animation. It's like a little room, and there's a big triangle, a little triangle and big square, and they're moving around on the two dimensional screen. And they're moving in a non-inertial frame, they're moving as if they have agency and subjects were asked to construct a story about what they're doing. And if you watch it, you guys have to watch this video, we'll link to it in the show notes, you construct this whole narrative around these two dimensional regular shapes, it's like oh yeah the big square is the daddy and he's being really mean he's abusing the mommy, and then the little triangle is the baby and he's running away and hiding. You have no problem constructing an elaborate emotional narrative around shapes moving simply on the screen. In this new study, what they did was they looked at the relationship between how our brain assigns agency to things and how we feel about them morally. What they found, they did two basic experiments, they exposed people to things that traditionally we do not assign agency to, one was a corpse and another was like a robot.

B: Zombie!

S: But something that was not animate, was not animate or moving in a way that would imbue this sense of agency. And then the object was the target of abuse. What happened was that seeing the object that was inanimate the focus of moral abuse caused people to imbue it with a certain amount of agency, meaning to think about it as if it had feelings or a mind.

RS: Steve, does it have to be something that has to meet a certain threshold to being close to having agency, like a robot looks like a human, a corpse was a human. If you're abusing a rock you're not going to imbue it with agency and feel empathy towards the rock.

S: Yeah that's a good question, they didn't do enough follow up experiments to find out where that line was.

RS: Because I wonder if like a tree, a lot of people if you start beating up a tree, they might endow it with agency and suffering.

R: This actually occurred on the most recent episode of the comedy Bang Bang TV show, if anybody is watching that. They just had the first episode of season two and there's an entire joke around a tiny ladder that Scott Ackerman needs to throw into a furnace and he can't do it because it's adorable and it's like cooing at him and it continues for the entire show and you actually, and maybe I can just identify very easily with inanimate objects, I don't know, but I was actually feeling very sorry for the poor little ladder. It was the subject of both physical and psychological torment and both were equally painful to watch and literally, it was a step ladder so it was a pretty funny example of what you guys are talking about.

S: So the researchers concluded that because you can only behave immorally towards something that has a mind, if someone is behaving immorally towards something then therefore it must have a mind. So we assign agency to something because it is the target of an immoral act or immoral behaviour. The other end of the spectrum, they looked at, exposed subjects to images of people, so people who obviously we assign agency to, who are also being victimised, who are being the target of abuse and what happens is people tend to assign them less agency or less mind which is interesting and the hypothesis there was that perhaps it causes mental anguish to see somebody who we know is a fully feeling human who is suffering under abuse and therefore we downgrade their humanity, we dehumanise them in order to relieve our anguish or cognitive dissonance over the pain. So and we know this from other experiments, that you can, we tend to dehumanise out groups for example, so the threshold for causing them goes down, we have the ability to kill other people even a non-psychopathic, average person can bring themselves to kill somebody else under the right circumstances, one are those circumstances? One in which the other person is dehumanised and one of the biggest ways in which we do that is to view them as a member of an out-group.

R: Actually there is another really interesting study that just came out that was about that very thing. SO there was a group of psychologists that did a study where they gathered a group of white people and had them watch video clips of a needle touching someone's skin and they showed images of the needle touching white skin and touching black skin and they measured their reactions using skin conductance and whatever, and what they found was that viewers who saw white people receiving a painful stimulus responded a lot more dramatically than when they saw black people receiving the same stimulus and the thinking is exactly what you just said. They're othering black people and it so, it's not an outward racist reaction, it's something that's been completely and utterly internalised, that they've othered this entire group of people.

RS: One tragic area of society where this manifests itself in America is the war on drugs. And there was a recent book that came out that showed that black individuals that are almost always placed in front of a white judge suffer, I can't remember the number, but it was almost like 20-30 times more severe punishments than white people with the exact same drug offence.

R: Yeah.

S: Mmhmm. So one other thing, another wrinkle about this that also does foreshadow an upcoming segment, we're going to review the movie World War Z which is about zombies of course, but have you guys ever heard of this unwritten rule about science fiction that the good guys or the heroes essentially have unlimited ability or with abandon they can kill an unlimited number of certain kinds of things without them being any moral judgement against them.

E: I read that unwritten rule, yeah.

S: Yeah, it's robots, insects, un-dead, monsters and Nazis.


E: Nazis, definitely, they are the all-time villain, yeah.

S: You can kill as many robots as you want, but not people.

RS: What about Nazi zombies?

S: Well there was actually a movie where there were Nazi Movies. Sucker Punch, yeah Sucker Punch it was awesome.

R: Wait, what? No. Not Sucker Punch.

B: Cyborg Nazi Zombies. Red Snow yeah.

S: Well Sucker Punch also had Zombie Nazies.

R: Get that shit outta here, Sucker Punch. Go watch Red Snow it's one of the greatest zombie movies ever.

B: Is it really? I've got to see that.

S: Nazis is a stand-in for a generic enemy soldier, i think we tend to portray enemy soldiers as a uniform, literally as a uniform. Think about storm troopers from Star Wars. They weren't people they were just the outfits.

R: I wasn't even sure the first time I watched Star Wars that those were people. I thought they were like droids.

S: Exactly.

E: They certainly weren't individuals.

R: I was only like 7 at the time, but.

S: Right they're not individuals, they're drones, they're just enemy-solider-drones. And that's so that we can enjoy the hero killing hundreds or thousands of these things without the moral pain of thinking that they're killing things who have agency.

E: A father, right?

S: Yeah right.

E: Oh my gosh you just killed someone who had ten children!

S: Which is why more contemporary movies where the enemies are humanised can be so poignant, it's so different than the more jingoistic classic movies where the enemies are always anonymous.

R: And it's also movies like District 9 are so powerful because they take that traditionally othered species that looks like a giant bug that you could just squish and turns it into something that has emotions and feelings.

E: Prawns, yep.

S: Exactly. Think about classic cowboy and Indian movies where the Indians are essentially dehumanised and anonymised as well, just enemy drones to be mowed down. Interesting. So I find this kind of research fascinating, looking at how our brains construct how we think about things and morality is just one of those things that our brains absolutely construct based upon evolved rules and then people get very self-righteous about it, about what their evolved moral sense.

Movie Review: World War Z (35:17)[edit]

Who's That Noisy? (55:45)[edit]

  • Answer will be revealed next week

S: So Evan, you're going to do one more Who's That Noisy and then on next week's show you're going to get us all caught up.

E: Absolutely, I promise that I will do that, but here's the brand new fresh-off-the-presses Who's That Nosy. I enjoyed this one a lot, I found this one myself, and I'm very happy that I did.

J: Happy!

E: I hope you'll enjoy it, I think you'll enjoy it too, here we go.

There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium

And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium And gold and protactinium and indium and gallium

And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium

B: Awesome.

J: That's Doctor Ataz(?).


E: Good reference. Yeah, so you know, that one's all voice, you've got to recognise the voice on that one, it's the only way to get it. The email to send your answers to is and our forums are

S: Alright, thanks Evan.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question 1: Podcast Patent (56:42)[edit]

S: One quick follow-up to last week and then we're going to go on to Science or Fiction. Jay, you were talking about the podcast patent and reading about it further, and there was, a lot of pople pointed us to the Planet Money segment covering the podcasting patent troll. So I just wanted to clarify a couple of things, the patent is actually one that was filed for in 2009 and issued in 2012 and that patent itself does essentially describe modern podcasting but of course this was years after podcasting was well-established. But the patent troll is using as his precedent the fact that in 1996 he developed this service in which, if you liked a certain magazine for example, then you can subscribe to that magazine and then you would be mailed cassette tapes with somebody reading the articles from the magazine. And he's saying that was the germ of an idea for podcasting, podcasting came out of mailing cassettes af people reading magazine articles.

R: Sounds legit.

RS: Makes sense.

B: Oh boy.

S: Totally ridiculous.

R: Let's just cut him a cheque right now.

S: Yeah, we owe this guy money for podcasting.

E: So there's no real threat is what we're saying.

S: I don't think so.

E: This is going to crash and burn.

S: I really don't think, after reading that, I was like that, really? Mailing cassettes? That's the basis? But it also shows what a total jackass this guy is, to try to rape money from people who are doing real work because of that precedent, ridiculous.

J: Of course, it's all about money, Steve.

S: Of course. Alright, let's move on to Science or Fiction.

E: Yeeeeaaaaahhhhh.

Science or Fiction (58:28)[edit]

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. We have a theme this week and four items.

R: Ugh!

E: Ooh.

R: Ugh!

S: The theme is cheetahs.

R: Oh!

E: Oh!

S: OK? Here we go.

E: Cheetahs never win.

R: I like cheetahs.

S: Item #1: The Cheetah genus, Acinonyx, is the oldest of the extant big cats, dating back about 11 million years. Item #2: Cheetahs make several vocalizations, including a warning roar that is often mistaken for that of a lion, which they use to scare larger predators from their kills. Item #3: A recent study using gps enabled tracking collars clocked cheetah hunting speeds at up to 58 mph (93 kmh). Item #4: The name "cheetah" comes from an Indian word meaning "spotted one." Randall, as our guest this week, you get to go first.

RS: Well how the hell can I GWB?


E: You can't.

S: Perhaps they'll GWR.

RS: I heard GWR is the better bet this year, apparently.

R: Yeah, actually just sent us...

B: Jay. Jay and Rebecca are tied.

R: Yeah!

E: The half-year stats, yeah.

R: What was her name?

B: I think Hell just froze over.

J: Bob, I Think she confuses me and you.

B: (laughs) No I'm doing crappy this year.

R: It's really the only explanation, isn't it? What's her name? Oh, Lara Polterack (sp?) sent us in Science or Fiction statistics, and according to her stats this year since January 1st, Jay is tied with me for the lead at 67% followed by Bob at 55%, Steve at 50% and Evan at 48%.

S: And the dice got 50%.

R: Oh the dice got 50% so Steve, you're even with the dice, Evan yeah, sorry.

E: STill beathing chance though.

J: I really don't even know what to say, do I get an award or what?

E: DOn't say it.

J: What's happening next?

R: You get nothing but pride.

E: You get two things...

S: What happens next is Randall tells me his guess for this week.

RS: Alright well without the benefit of GWR/GWB I'll do my best. I do like watching big cats on Animal Planet. The one about cheetahs being the oldest extant big cat, I guess that makes sense, Lion prides, they require a lot of food and cheetahs are kind of solitary so I can see them lasting longer. Cheetahs making several vocalisations including a warning roar, I've watched a lot of Animal Planet and Discovery and NatGeo, I've never seen them roar. It's more like a chirp from what I remember so I'm a little suspicious of that one. A recent study using GPS shows that they run up to 58 miles an hour, that's about what I thought they ran. The name Cheetah comes from and Indian word meaning spotted one. Cheetahs are from Africa, what are Indians doing... are you talking about Native American or India Indian?

S: India Indian, not American Indian.

RS: India Indian, well that makes more sense than Native American, they being an African big cat. I'm going to have to go with cheetahs, the vocalisation one being the fiction.

S: OK, Bob.

B: The 11 million years, that seems like a long time, but probably not for a genus, I'm not sure, yeah that's plausible I guess. The tracking collars, yeah when I first saw 58, I always thought it was in the 60s but you wouldn't make this fiction just for a few miles per hour, so that's close enough I guess. And the cheetah one with the Indian word, yeah I guess. That's possible as well. They don't have to be endemic to the continent to name something so that's fine. But the vocalisations, I can't ever remember hearing the cheetah making much of a noise, especially one that would sound like a lion, it seems to me that they wouldn't even have the anatomy to pull off something like that so I'm going to go with the vocalisations as well.

S: OK, Rebecca.

R: it just so happens that cheetahs are my favourite, were my favourite animal when I was like 10. So I know quite a bit about cheetahs. I did not know that their genus is the oldest, so I'm not sure about that one. I do think the Indian word meaning spotted one makes sense because, Bob and Randall I'll have you know that according to the encyclopaedia I had when I was 10, cheetahs do or at least did exist in India. They spread well into the Middle East and Asia, so that makes sense. Their hunting speed of 58 miles per hour is only surprising in that I was always under the impression that it was 70 miles an hour at a top speed, but of course that's well inclusive of 58 so that's believable. Which leaves us with the warning roar thing. I could be wrong about this, and I haven't kept up to date on my cheetah facts, I no longer subscribe to Ranger Rick so this could have changed, but I was under the impression that cheetahs are one of the only, if not the only, large cats who cannot roar. They can purr and make other interesting vocalisations but I don't think that they can roar so I'm going to GWR on this.

RS: Woohoo!

R: And say that the roar thing is fiction.

S: Alright, Jay.

J: Everybody covered it, I think that it's crystal clear that the word cheetah, the name cheetah comes from the Indian word meaning spotted one is the false. The fake.

R: (laughs)

S: OK.

R: OK.

B: Holy shit, didn't see that coming.

E: I think that I have a distinct advantage on this one because thanks to my daughter I've seen all Cheetah Girl movies.


J: Cheetah girl?

R: Cheetah girl?

J: Cheetah girl!

R: What is that?

B: That's with that Simon Romone girl, right?

E: Yeah that's right.

B: Oh my god, that I know that. Steve, edit that out. Edit that out, Steve.

E: Bob, I caught you, totally snagged you.

R: I'm going to watch that.

B: There's not cheetahs.

E: Well I will just get right to it like Jay did except I'm not going to say the spotted one, I think it's the vocalisations one as well, I think that one's going to be the fiction.

S: You're going to leave Jay hanging by him self, huh?

E: Sorry.

S: Alright, well let's go through these, we'll start with number one, the Cheetah genus, Acinonyx, is the oldest of the extant big cats, dating back about 11 million years. You all think that one is science and that one is science.

E: 11 million.

S: 11 million yaers, yeah. It actually took me a while to try to figure out how far back they dated. I found lots of references. Definitely they are the oldest extant genus of big cats, that is crystal clear but different references gave different dates for how far back the genus goes and they branch off pretty far back from the other cats, in terms of the oldest common ancestor with the other big cats, they sort of branch off first. Yeah there were lots of different species and they ranged all ove the place. North Amreica, Asia, Europe, Africa. There was a giant cheetah that weighed, it was twice as big as the modern cheetah, weighed like 200 pounds.

B: Wow cool, I wonder how fast he could run.

S: Yeah. A really big boy. Well, I mean probably the fastest cheetah is probably the current one. It's really fine-tuned for speed.

RS: Yeah the arms-race with its prey.

S: They've sacrificed a lot, I mean they're small, they're not as strong or as powerful as the other big cats. They really do rely heavily on their speed, faster hunting strategy. And they often have kills taken away from them because they're just not big enough to defend them. So as soon as they kill a prey, they drag it under a tree to hide away so that they could eat it without being bothered.

B: And it's not just speed Steve, I think there was a recent news item saying that their manoeuvrability is also another key aspect, not just raw speed.

S: Yeah. They maintain their manoeuvrability even at their top hunting bursts of speed, absolutely. Let's go on to number three. A recent study using gps enabled tracking collars clocked cheetah hunting speeds at up to 58 mph (93 kmh). You all also think this one is science and this one is... also science.

B: That seems low though, I thought 65.

S: It does seem low, Rebecca's right, the most common reference you'll find is to 70 miles an hour, people claim to have clocked cheetahs running at 70 miles per hour but that's like... OK it's about 300 yards from that tree to that tree and stop watch it... so you we can assume that maybe the GPS tracking collars were more accurate than the previous clocking methods so at their fasted bursts of speed while hunting, 58 miles per hour was the fastest any of the cheetahs were clocked and that was a pretty good sample.

B: That stinks! That pisses me off actually.

R: What?

S: WHy, because they're not as fast.

B: It's just not as impressive.

RS: Myth busted.

E: But Bob, this is how science works, though.

B: I know, but science pisses me off sometimes.

R: They could still run you down and kill you very easily.

B: I know!

S: They measured 367 predominantly hunting runs of 5 wild cheetahs.

B: Oh my god, that's solid then. 58 is like, that's it. They're not breaking 60. Ugh.

R: That's not true because it depends on their prey and how fast they ahve to go, the're not going to be like "OK guys this is for the record".


B: You would think after 300 runs you'd get a bunch over 60 you would think, but they're not breaking it.

S: Maybe the collars slowed them down.

B: Weighed them down yeah.

R: Maybe.

S: Let's go back to number two.

R: In fact they could test this by rigging up something like what they do at greyhound racing parks, like a motorized prey that they can drive at 70 miles an hour and see if any of the cheetahs can catch it, then you would see what their actual top speed is.

B: Well wait, what about a radar gun, I just assume that's what they probably would have used, I mean they're cheap enough.

E: Yeah but they're inconsistent depending on which radar gun you use.

R: Yeah and if there are several cheetahs running near each other it would screw it up.

S: Bob, you can't deny the GPS man.

J: OK what are we doing here let's keep going.

S: Alright number two, cheetahs make several vocalizations, including a warning roar that is often mistaken for that of a lion, which they use to scare larger predators from their kills. Everyone but Jay thinks this one is the fiction and this one is... the fiction.

B: Yah!

E: Ooh I'm back to 50%.

R: Good job Evan.

RS: I'm retiring batting 1000.

R: Well done Randall.

R: 100%

R: Wait, that means I've pulled ahead of Jay, that's the most important thing that happened just now.

S: That does mean that. But cheetahs do make several different vocalisations but they are the one big cat that does not roar, they absolutely do not roar. They do make chirping noises, purring and a variety, several other noises.

R: And other big cats can't purr, they can only roar. Cat facts.

S: Which brings us to number four, the name "cheetah" comes from an Indian word meaning "spotted one" and that one of course is science. Of course, the word, there is no literal translation for the word so if you look up the etymology of cheetah you'll get variations on spotted one, one reference I read just said spots or distinctively marked many-coloured, variegated, spotted, speckled, whatever you have to translate it somehow, but it basically means "spotted one", the word chita.

R: I was totally OK with this as a theme. Let's stick to animals Rebecca loved when she was 10.


S: I'll take animals Rebecca likes for 1000!

RS: So Jay, why didn't you GWR man? You an anti-dentite?


B: Anti-dentite!

RS: You're a rabid anti-dentite.

J: You've got to understand something, for the first time, someone could appropriately say "I'm going to GWJ".

R: That would never be appropriate.

J: I was in the lead, I had to live that role for the brief moment it lasted.

R: Is that what just happened? Success went to your head and you immediately lost?

S: So you're basically saying that you choked Jay.

B: Are you surprised, Rebecca?

J: I brazenly picked where everyone else dared to tread. I went there.

S: Yeah, you choked. Alright but good job Randall on your first, and you headed the lab. You had no help on this one, good job.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:11:59)[edit]

S: Allright Jay, but you get your weekly consolation prize of getting to read the quote.

J: A listener named Stuart Kergian from New Jersey sent in the quote, he said this quote is from Arthur Eddington, does anyone know who Arthur Eddington is?

S: Is that from True Blood?

E: No. Arthur Eddington was the Astronomer.

B: That's Edgington.

J: you're right, Evan. You got it.

E: He photographed the eclypse that Einstein used to verify his.

S: Theory of Relativity?

E: His theories. Yes.

J: Exactly, good Job Evan. He was a professor of astronomy at the University of Cambridge. He was arguably the most important astrophysicist of the early 20th century. Friend of Einstein and I have a quote that Stuart sent in and it's from the HBO special about Einstein and Arthur Eddington and we're not 100% sure where the quote comes from but I searched and I searched online and I'm only finding this one source but if anyone has a correction send it in, but it's a great quote so that's why I decided to use it.

The pursuit of truth in science transcends national boundaries. It takes us beyond hatred and anger and fear. It is the best of us.

J: Arthur Eddington!

Announcements (1:13:17)[edit]

S: So this is our last show before we will be at The Amazing Meeting, we'll be at TAM 2013 next week, July 11th-14th. There are two SGU events we want to remind our listeners about who are going to TAM. You have to sign up separately. The SGU dinner is Friday night, we'll have several hours to just sit and chat with our listeners and we are going to be doing an auction during the SGU dinner including auctioning off a coveted guest rogue spot and we are also going to be doing a skeptical quiz show with our listeners playing and the winner of the quiz show will get a free VIP access to TAM 2014, and that's a $1000 value. We also have Saturday night, the SGU poker tournament, there are still a few seats left for that so sign up. You can sign up for these two evens through the website or you could sign up for them at the event so when you arrive at TAM and you register, just sign up for the SGU dinner or the SGU poker tournament at that time.

S: Alright guys well Randall thanks for joining us this week, we had a lot of fun with you this week on the show.

B: Thanks man!

RS: It's been a pleasure and I've checked something off my bucket list thank you very much.

R: T Hanks Randall, it was fun.

S: Excellent, you can die in peace.

E: THank you.

S: And thanks to the rest of you for joining me this week.

R: Thank you Steve.

B: You're welcome.

E: Doctor.

J: Thank you.

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptics' 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.


  1. Episode 367: Science or Fiction
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