SGU Episode 422

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SGU Episode 422
17th August 2013
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(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 421                      SGU 423

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

It’s funny when people accuse science of being narrow merely because it asks for proof. Science expanded the number of elements from four to over 100. It expanded treatment options from bloodletting, herbs and purgatives to the untold riches we have today. It expanded the universe from a series of armillary spheres to the current, nigh-endless void. It expanded the number of worlds from two to billions upon billions. It expanded the age of the universe from 7,000 to 13.5 billion. Science expanded our senses from a tiny range of sound and light to an endless modulation of wavelengths revealing whole worlds we knew nothing about. It extended our senses from millimeters to angstroms, from kilometers to light years. Science discovered volcanoes under the oceans, terrible lizards who ruled our murine predecessors, asteroids that shattered the world, glaciers that circled the globe, the origins of man in ape rather than god. Science exposed the lie of vitalism, extended lives, cured cancer, discovered vitamins, discovered radiation (then found it was bad for us). And in the last group of discoveries, quacks were poised to kill the discoveries and loot their corpses.

William Lawrence Utridge

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to he Skeptics Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday August 14th 2013 and this is your host Steven Novella. joining me this week are Rebecca Watson.

R: Hello everyone.

S: Jay Novella.

J: Hey Guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening everybody.

J: Hey Ev.

R: Where's Bob?

S: Bob is apparently busy with work. Occasionally he has to work through the night on, he calls it "deploy" I guess they're getting a software package out there and he's got to be available to do it.

E: Wow that CIA terminology is very...

S: Yeah. I'm sure it's code for something nefarious. And we just couldn't move the record day this week, we were just locked in, so.

J: To substitute for Bob we're going to have my son Dylan. Now hold on I'll turn on his baby monitor so he can join us.

(cooing noise)

J: You hear that? Alright he's very skeptical about many things.

R: And just about as concise as bob.

J: Exactly (laughs).

S: And more coherent.

R: Aw.

J: And he doesn't talk as long.

This Day in Skepticism (1:12)[edit]

R: Hey, happy birthday to Hazel Gladys Bishop.

J: Hazel!

R: Hazel, born August 17th 1906. Have you guys ever heard of Hazel Bishop.

S: Not until tonight.

E: Uh, yeah.

J: Never.

R: Neither had I.

E: Neither has anyone.

R: Bishop was a chemist and she started her career working for oil companies. She actually, apparently she helped discover the cause of "deposits affecting superchargers of aircraft engines" during World War 2. But after World War 2, she decided to go into the cosmetics industry in her kitchen which she refitted as a lab, she developed the world's first long-lasting lipstick.

S: Wow.

R: She found the formula for lipstick that would actually dye your lips the colour that you wanted instead of just smearing stuff on top of them.

E: How long is long-lasting?

R: Well just the kind that doesn't immediately wipe off on glasses and men's collars, things like that.

J: So that was apparently a problem with the original lipstick formula, right? It just wore off very quickly?

R: Yeah and some lipsticks today too. There's differences in different lipsticks but yeah and she said at the time that she was partially inspired by the fact that at the time, women were entering the workforce in droves and she thought that it would be important for them to not have to constantly have to worry about reapplying their lipstick throughout the day when they're at the office or the factory or wherever they might be. So yeah. That's why she did it and it sold for a dollar a tube and her company did extremely well. Unfortunately she was forced out of her own company just a couple of years later and luckily though she went on to do a bunch of other cool stuff. She was obviously super smart and very adaptable. And so she, from there she became a financial analyst for companies who were interested in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

J: Multi-talented.

R: Yeah and then later, in 1978, she left Wall Street and she took a job teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York where she taught about chemistry and cosmetology.

S: Where NECSS is held, at least this year and probably last year.

R: That's right, yeah.

J: She sounds awesome.

R: She was pretty awesome.

S: Rebecca, I understand your soft spot for successful scientific women, but you did pass over a lot of really cool stuff for August 17.

R: Such as?

E: Here we go.

S: You want me to list some things? Well it's also the birthday of Thomas Hodgkin who discovered Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer.

J: Yeah but if he didn't discover it then nobody would have it today so I think he's a jerk.

S: Pierre de Fermat, Fermat's last theorem? Come on.

E: Oh yeah.

S: A lot of probing and space exploration going on on August 17th.

R: Also Paul Camera who I was considering talking about because he is one of the guys who claimed to have scientific evidence to prove Lamarckian inheritance. The reason why I didn't choose it as the main item is because it's kind of depressing. He was accused of dummying his results and he later got depressed and shot himself. So.

J: Yikes.

E: Wow.

S: That is depressing.

News Items[edit]

Near Death Experiences Explained (4:58)[edit]

S: Alright well Jay, apparently there was a study recently which has explained, once and for all, near death experiences.

J: Oh come on, I wouldn't say once and for all. This would probably be one of the...

S: What are you skeptical?

J: ...of the phenomenally early studies that would encourage a lot of other studies to be done and maybe 20-30 years from now we'll have a much clearer idea. But this study is pretty cool. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


J: Researchers... thank you... researchers have investigated the state of the brain during the dying process. It's a common belief that when we're about to die our brains aren't functioning or at best operating at what has been called a significantly diminished level, right. So you see someone dying, maybe they're bleeding out, or you're having a heart attack or whatever. You don't expect their brain to be working in overdrive in any way or at peak performance. And all these stories about near death experiences are part of the background noise that we all hear and I'm sure most of you guys have heard about these stories as well. I actually know two people who had them, approximately 20% of cadiac arrest survivers report having a near death experience during what they call clinical death, which means that they weren't actually dead but their heart wasn't beating.

S: They were mostly dead.

J: Yeah.

R: I got better.


J: And a lot of these near death experiences are described by those who experienced them as hyper-real or super-intense, vivid colours, everything seems to be much more present than normal reality. So researchers at the university of Michigan wanted to learn more about this phenomenon so they conducted experiments with 9 rats as they were dying. Alright, so they weren't really dying, they were, I think from what I read...

S: Cardiac arrest.

J: ...they were giving them cardiac arrests probably through chemical means, more specifically though they analysed the 30 second period after the animal's heart stopped breathing. And their reasoning was that if near-death experiences are a result of brain activity, which I can't see any other reason where near death experiences would be coming from, then the brain activity can be measured. So if they brain is doign something then they can measure it, somehow. They have to find out what's happening. And what they found was pretty fascinating. The researchers recorded and analysed the rats' brain activity through an EEG, through an Electro Encephelogram, and there was a sharp increase in high-frequency brain waves that are called gamma oscillations. And these gamma oscillations are thought to measure the brain activity and are also suspected to be the backbone to mammalian conciousness, which I was really hoping, Steve, that you could talk a little bit about.

S: Well I'll tell you basically what goes on. So brain function is a matter of lots of neurons firing together. You don't imagine just like one little neuron firing and connecting to another little neuron. There's also a lot of inherent background rhythms in the brain, the brain stem activation system sends this constant oscillation of activity to the cortex, like activating it. That's why there's something like alpha rhythm when you're in a relaxed state and your eyes are closed, there's this 14Hz or so alpha rhythm going on in the background. And that's just the inherent background activity of your brain with lots of neurons firing together. Yeah, and it is thought that that is necessary for conciousness. You know, you do need this sort of endless loop of these large groups of neurons firing in order for conciousness to be happening.

J: yeah I kind of think of it like, what do they call it, the gamma oscillation or like a computer that's pinging a million other computers on the web, like there's a constant back-and-forth communication.

S: Well gamma oscillations specifically, I mean they're not really fully understood, but they appear to be due to local networks firing together, like a local network maybe even paced by a single neuron which is firing at its own frequency, it's not a distributed pattern of communication among the brain. At least that's what it seems to be at this point in time.

J: So in the test rats, the gamma oscillations were higher after cardiac arrest than when the animal what at, considered to be awake and healthy position or a place before they started the forced heart attack on the animal. So in other words, all the rats displayed a widespread momentary surge of highly synchronised brain activity that had features associated with a highly aroused brain while they were post-heart attack.

S: Yeah.

J: One of the researchers said that it was feasible that the same thing could happen in the human brain in similar circumstances and that these spikes could give rise to near death visions. And here's a quote: "This can give us a framework to begin to explain these. The fact that they see light perhaps indicates the visual cortex in the brain is highly activate and we have evidence to suggest this might be the case because we have seen increased gamma in areas of the brain that is right on top of the visual cortex."

S: Yeah it's a definitely interesting study, it's just one small rat study, it's just one small rat study so obviously you need replication, it would be a lot harder to do this in people, you would have to just get lucky and be studying people who are at risk for having a heart attack.

J: yeah that's what they said. They were saying that in order to confirm that this is happening in humans, they would have to be studying someone that's about to die and monitor them in the same way.

S: Yeah. But there was a couple of things that come to mind in terms of this as an explanation for near death experiences. It may be playing a role. I don't think it's the explanation for NDE. I agree with you Jay, obviously I think that NDEs are brain phenomena. So people often say that, people have this heightened awareness or out of body type of experience while they were undergoing CPR, while their EEG was flat and could not possibly be generating any concious effects, but the thing is, people are remembering this much later after they've fully recovered enough to be concious from the whole thing. They have no idea when that experience took place. It could have taken place in the moments after the cardiac arrest started but before their brain shut down when it went through this hyperactive phase, it could have occurred afterwards when they were slowly recovering. They have no way of placing that memory in time. There's no way for them to say that the memory occurred while their brain was flat, while there was no EEG activity. One other wrinkle to this, so this is assuming or taking the premise that the amount, the raw amount of brain activity correlates with the intensity of experiences of people. And that's not unreasonable but it's also possible that decreased overall brain activity may result in increased or heightened experience because you're decreasing inhibitory parts of the brain. It's kind of like drugs that give you hallucinogenic experiences or heightened experiences. They're doing that more by inhibiting parts of the brain that have a massive inhibitory effect, like your frontal lobes. Your frontal lobes, they are a complex, energy hungry, slow processing that adds a lot of higher cortical function, advanced function, but it slows everything down and it has a huge inhibitory effect on more simple and primitive parts of the brain that might give you heightened experiences.

J: That's counter-intuitive though isn't it?

S: Not if you understand how the nervous system works. It has a basic inhibitory function, you know. So that's often the case. And when you inhibit or decrease an inhibitory function you get an increase in function so that's basic neuroscience.

J: well let me ask you a clarifying question. So are some parts of our brains, or the functionality operating at a particular level, and that's the norm, when that's thing's on it's on at this level and then instead of the brain, the brain dials that down, instead of... it's not like lowering the volume right? I'm trying to visualise it? How do you see it, like what's actually happening?

S: No it's not really all or nothing. I mean certain circuits might be it's either they're firing or not firing. For example, neurons tend to fire at a certain rate. A neuron's not on or off, a neuron is firing and that rate could go up or down. So it is like a volume, very much so. The rate at which the neuron is firing is increased or decreased. And then you have lots of networks all interacting with each other and you're getting some net effect of all of that, both excitatory and inhibitory feedback and networks and connections, and there's some net effect of all of that so yeah, different parts of the brain, different networks can be functioning, operating at multiple different levels, it's not just like it's on or off.

E: NDEs to me seem like one of those phenomena where even if we do entirely have a grasp for it and have mapped it out front to beginning, we absolutely understand it scientifically, it will not stop people from believing that they're having some kind of out of body experience.

S: Yeah I mean like evolution, like pretty much anything. If there's a pre-existing sort of religious mythological belief, yeah, the science is not going to make that go away for some people, you know?

E: For a lot of people.

S: yeah.

R: Jay, did any of the rats get booked for Oprah?

J: Well three of them did and three of them asked for too much and they didn't let them on the show, unfortunately.

R: I see. I look forward to that.

S: I imagine they're all dead.

R: Shut up, what? No.

J: Yeah, I thought about that.

R: How can they have near death experiences if they're dead?

E: Yeah, I thought they'd have...

J: Yeah I mean Steve, how did they know what the rats experienced if they didn't bring them back and talk to them afterwards?

S: Yeah that's true, that's a good salient point, Jay.

R: Yeah, like did you see your dead grandmother, etc.

TV Watching (15:07)[edit]

S: Alright well Rebecca, let's shift gears a little bit. You're going to tell us why it's a great idea for all children to watch lots of television.

R: Yeah, you should watch as much TV as possible, in fact TV: better than babysitters. Just plop your kid in front. Or maybe not. There is a study that is being reported on quite a bit that claims to show that TV just an extra hour of TV beyond what is recommended by organisations like the American Academy for Paediatrics is enough to make your child stupid and bullied and fat. I think that covers.

E: Are those technical terms, by the way?

R: Um, no. Those were not the terms used in the actual research. But yeah, according to a researcher at the University of Montreal named Professor Linda Pagani, they studied almost 2,000 kids whose parents reported on their television viewing habits from the time that they were very young. They had parents report on their kids' viewing habits from the time they were very young, like pre-kindergarten, up through kindergarten and beyond. And that's what they found, that more than 2 hours of TV viewing a day was enough for kids to have their grades suffer, to have them be less athletic, to have them be bullied, picked on by other children, and the researchers say that this is because TV, first of all, will make a child less likely to be going outside and running around and getting exercise, the kind of exercise they need to maintain a healthy weight and healthy lifestyle. And also because TV is a solitary pursuit, children who engage in a lot of television watching are less likely to form social bonds and to learn how to get along with their peers which, the researchers say, can lead to them reacting poorly to other kids and not getting along well with them in school. So yeah, they are basing this on the parents' self-reporting how much TV the kids watched and the kids' teachers filling out surveys on how the kids behaved. Now it's kind of tough for me to give a lot of insight into this because the study has not even been published yet but I did look at a previous study that shows pretty much the exact same stuff from the exact same researcher, it was published back in 2010 in the Archives of Adolescent Paediatric Medicine. So same researcher, Professor Linda Pagani and a few others, published a study called "Prospective associations between early childhood television exposure and academic, psycho-social and physical well-being by middle childhood. And this study seemed to be almost exactly the same, there were about 1300 kids studied in this one and the same sort of stuff were looked at like how much television are they watching and what are the results on their behaviour.

S: Ah, I wonder if they're trying to get two papers out of the same data set.

R: I don't know because it actually sounds like the numbers were slightly different.

S: That doesn't matter. Same researchers, same methods, got to be curious. I don't know.

R: OK because I was wondering because I started out by doing a search to see what else this author had done and I found articles in the popular press that had the exact same headlines as the present-day ones so yeah, OK. So in this study at least, they did have some controls in place because I know that a lot of you are probably thinking the same thing I'm thinking: well correlation, causation, you know. They did control for certain things that lend this study a bit more credence that I originally gave it, things like they had parents start out by reporting on their children's behaviour at the start of the study when they were very, very young in order to rule out the idea that behavioural problems were the cause of parents putting their kids in front of the TV for instance and those same behavioural problems would later be reported on and seen by this study as being a result of being put in front of the TV when they existed before hand. So they asked parents at the start to report on any behavioural problems from the time their kids were babies. They also controlled for gender to eliminate the idea that, for instance, boys would be sat in front of the TV more often, things like that. So they did take into account several factors like taht. It's still not, by any means, perfect and conclusive. I do think that there's plenty of chance that a kid could develop in some way to be both more antisocial and therefore want to just watch more TV, it doesn't necessarily mean one follows from the other and I don't think their controls necessarily can completely rule that out as a possibility and they also admit some variables that they weren't able to study that would have been better to study, so things like: what are these kids watching? Like what's the quality of television? Are they just watching Saturday morning cartoons? Are they watching Sesame Street and other educational television? They don't distinguish in this study. Also the reports done by the teachers were very broad and there's a chance that the teachers weren't able to really tease out what these kids are like and what their real problems are or what they excel at. And also they didn't test the kids' verbal and maths scores to see if maybe watching television increases one but decreases the other. So there are some details that they weren't really able to go into in this study that presumably they will try to do in future studies or maybe someone else will, hopefully.

S: Yeah so I agree, Rebecca. I think evaluating a study like this, the weakness of these kind of observational studies where you're not randomising kids, like subjects, to exposure or not exposure or placebo or whatever, so we're not taking kids and saying "alright, we're going to force these kids to watch 2 hours, I'm going to force this other group of kids to watch 3 hours, and this other group to watch 4 hours" and they're randomised.

R: Yeah.

S: That's not happening, it's observational. So there's always the possibility that there's some intangible factor here. Like maybe parents who are bad parents in some other way also let their kids watch more television and it's hard to control for every possible factor that could correlate with increased TV watching. So it's not just the arrow of cause and effect, there could be tons of other factors that could be influences, so it's just hard to make causal conclusions, I would really be cautious about that. So how do we know from observational studies what a likely causal arrow is? What the direction of causation is? And that's by I think by triangulating multiple studies to see if it all consistently adds up to kids who watch TV have increased problems. So I did review some of the recent literature on this question. The most recent other study I found by other researchers, this is published in 2013 in the Archives of Diseases of Childhood. They look at 11,014 children. Similar study. Quantified TV watching, used the standard questionnaires for hyperactivity pro-social activity, relationship problems, etc., etc. And they found that TV but not electronic games predicted a small increase in conduct problems but not any other problem. Not psycho-social adjustment, not relationships, none of these other things that this study that we're talking here showed. So very inconsistent with the current study. And then the most recent review I found in 2009 concluded this: This systematic review found insufficient, contradictory, and methodologically flawed evidence on the association between television viewing and video game playing and aggression in children and young people with behavioural and emotional difficulties. So not exactly the same question, but I mean just trying to dig through this research, it's actually a fairly large and complicated set of studies, it seems like that's what I'm seeing. There is insufficient, contradictory evidence, mostly observational, some showing that there's this effect, some showing a different effect, some showing no effect. So I don't think we can make any firm conclusions at this point is the bottom line.

R: Yeah I agree and what I took from this is basically the advice that I think most sense in pretty much every situation, which is don't do too much of a thing.

S: Common sense I think still holds. Moderation, parents should have, I tell my kids, alright you've had enough TV watching for today, get out of the house and do something else. That's just common sense.

R: And sort of, I think it's find to ignore the more headline-grabbing news that... oh more than 1 hour a day or more than 2 hours a day and your child is ruined!

E: As if that's going to make a big difference, yeah.

R: I think that's going a little far.

S: I also agree the type of television makes a big difference. If my kids are watching something educational, let them alone. I don't care how much educational TV they watch, honestly. It's really when they're just vegging in front of cartoons, I say alright, let's do something else.

J: What about the social interaction element though, Steve?

S: At least in the most recent studies I found there didn't seem to be an effect, so I don't know what to say. If you assume there is a correlation there you could make sense of it either way, kids who are less social will tend towards activities that are less social like TV watching but also they get into a comfort zone entertaining themselves with video type of entertainment and therefore they're not pushed to form social skills.

E: There's less available time.

S: You could make sense of it either way and I don't think the data separates those two out.

Labor and Autism (26:13)[edit]

S: We are going to go on to another study and it's a similar situation where you have an observational study reported in the media as showing some cause and effect when really you can't get that from the data. This one found that association between autism and induced labour or what they're saying, induced vs augmented labour. Meaning using some medication like pitosin to try to get women who are not progressing or who are late to start to deliver their child. They found that women who, children who were born as the result of a labour that was either induced or augmented had a higher risk of having autism, especially among males, which... males are more suceptible to autism than females so that kind of makes sense. OK so you have an observational study like this showing a correlation between A and B. The first question is, is the correlation itself real, reliable or is it an artefact, is it weak, is the data rigorous or not? So this looks like a pretty rigorous study, the authors looked at 625,000 live births including 5,500 children with a diagnosis of autism and the methodology seems pretty good, I'm not a statistician so it's the one thing I just have to rely on them, that they did the stats right. But it looks like the methods were fairly reasonable. They also tried to control for known factors that might affect it like for example socio-economic status. Again you could think that there are a lot of third factors that may make it more likely to get a diagnosis of autism and also have procedures during delivery. They tried to control for those things. So if we take as a plausible conclusion of this study that there's an actual association between autism and induced labour, we are left with the generic interpretations of that. Does inducing labour actually trigger autism to some extent in some individuals, or do autistic kids, are they more likely to require induced or augmented labour because they don't move as well or whatever, something is different, or maybe their head's bigger, there's multiple factors that people have thought of. Or is there some third thing. Does the environment of the womb both increase the risk of needing induced labour and also increase the risk of developing autism? this data doesn't answer that for us. It just shows that there's a correlation, but what's interesting is that a lot of the news outlets reported this study and they chose one or the other interpretation as if that's what the study showed. So a lot of them said, study shows that autism is present even in the womb. And another paper said, study shows that inducing labour induces autism. And they're both wrong in the opposite direction. The study shows a correlation and you really can't make any kind of causal conclusion from the mere correlation alone and there hasn't been enough of this research into this question to really infer or triangulate to what the likely causal direction is. It is interesting though, I do think that of the three possibilities, that autism may increase the risk of delayed delivery or that there's some womb-environment factor that's both increasing the risk of developing autism and also increasing the risk of delaying delivery and requiring induction, those are I think the more plausible explanations.

E: How do doctors induce labour, Steve?

S: Mainly with medication. Pitosin which is oxytosin. If that's the case though, if this is a sign that autism, changes in the brain are present in the womb of course that scuttles any notion that autism is significantly caused by any environmental factor like vaccines.


Magenta Planet ()[edit]

Spontaneous Baby Combustion ()[edit]

Special Report ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy? ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Richard Feynman

Name That Logical Fallacy ()[edit]

Clinical observation by experienced practitioners with a discerning mind frequently occurs decades before the sheep mentality of specific collective academic fraternities is able to satisfy itself with these new theories.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: A new study finds that medical testimonials that contain irrelevant information may lead to inappropriate medical decision making. Item #2: A recent study finds that listening to an emotional sermon can induce an out-of-body experience in susceptible people. Item #3: A new paper warns against “chemophobia,” the irrational fear of the ubiquitous and non-toxic chemicals found in our food and environment.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

It’s funny when people accuse science of being narrow merely because it asks for proof. Science expanded the number of elements from four to over 100. It expanded treatment options from bloodletting, herbs and purgatives to the untold riches we have today. It expanded the universe from a series of armillary spheres to the current, nigh-endless void. It expanded the number of worlds from two to billions upon billions. It expanded the age of the universe from 7,000 to 13.5 billion. Science expanded our senses from a tiny range of sound and light to an endless modulation of wavelengths revealing whole worlds we knew nothing about. It extended our senses from millimeters to angstroms, from kilometers to light years. Science discovered volcanoes under the oceans, terrible lizards who ruled our murine predecessors, asteroids that shattered the world, glaciers that circled the globe, the origins of man in ape rather than god. Science exposed the lie of vitalism, extended lives, cured cancer, discovered vitamins, discovered radiation (then found it was bad for us). And in the last group of discoveries, quacks were poised to kill the discoveries and loot their corpses.

J: William Lawrence Utridge!

Announcements ()[edit]

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.


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