SGU Episode 43

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SGU Episode 43
May 17th 2006
SGU 42 SGU 44
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
RH: Ray Hyman
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Show Notes


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

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, May 17, 2006. This is your host Stephen Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Rebecca Watson ...

R: Hey.

S: ... Bob Novella, ...

B: Thanks for joining us, everyone.

S: ... Evan Bernstein, ...

E: Good to be here, everyone.

S: ... and Jay Novella.

J: Hey, guys.

S: Thanks for joining me this evening, guys.

J: My pleasure.

B: Surely.

S: So coming up later in the show we have an interview with Ray Hyman. Ray is one of the fathers of modern skepticism and an ESP skeptic. We'll have a good time talking with him, but first a couple of news items.

News Items[edit]

Bosnian Pyramid Followup (0:58)[edit]

S: I've been trying to get some follow-up on the Bosnian pyramid fiasco. Remember from a few episodes ago, ...

R: Yeah.

S: ... the amateur archaeologist who believes that these mountains in Bosnia are actually ancient pyramids built by the Atlantean's, who came ...

J: Steve, don't waste your time. Bob and I flew down there last week and took that sucker out.

S: You did?

J: Yeah, he's done.

B: He's done. We won't be hearing from him anymore.

R: Good job, guys. Good job.

E: Well done.

J: Thank you, Rebecca.

S: I predicted that — one of our discussions was not just that his claims are absurd, that these aliens came down and inhabited Atlantis and built these pyramids. But also, the mainstream media was totally taken in by this.

R: Completely bought in, yeah.

S: Hook, line, and sinker. I predicted, however, that the news cycle would eventually catch up with this, and eventually the mainstream news outlets like New York Times and CNN and BBC would figure out that this was a hoax. But, you know, it hasn't really happened yet, and I did another search today just to see what everyone was saying on it. The New York Times does have a follow-up article that's at least introducing the idea that there are some skeptics to this guy's claim.

R: It's still pretty bad, though.

S: It's still pretty bad. It's not saying "Oh, it was a hoax. This guy's an idiot." National Geographic has an article ...

B: No way!

S: ... saying that it's basically treating the issue as if it's controversial.

B: What? National Geographic?

S: It's pretty skeptical, but it's still presenting it as a controversy, and then Archaeology is the only one saying "Wow, this guy is nuts, and how is the rest of the mainstream media buying this?" But the other ones, the other outlets like CNN and MSNBC and BBC all still have — the only articles they have on their sites on this topic is their original credulous article, so they're a little bit slow catching up to this one.

R: Can I say that my favorite quote from the New York Times is "largely uncritical television newspaper reports have made the photogenic Mr. Osmanagich a national celebrity." They're complaining about the uncritical television and newspaper reports — like themselves! They reported it!

S: Like themselves, right.

B: "Including us."

S: And, of course, Osmanagich, this is the amateur archeologist, his response to all this is "although scientists are just jealous of my discoveries."

E: Aahhh, of course!

R: Yeah.

J: Oh, my God! That is awsome.

R: I so wish I had looked at a hill and said "Oh, it's pyramid-shaped. There must be a pyramid."

S: It's always a big clue that you're dealing with the pseudoscientists when they start disparaging the mainstream scientific community.

R: By saying they're jealous.

J: He's got to be standing at the top of that pyramid hill, ...

S: Hm, hm.

J: ... with the thunderclouds behind him, like doing the cackle. I can see that. That's awesome.

B: Wah, ha, ha!

S: In Jay's world, right, that's where that's happening.

J: I love it.

S: And of course, he's bolstering his claims by saying that they're digging up real worked stone, etc., but, of course, there's actual Roman and other legitimate archaeological sites on that hill that he's now trampling over. One of the archaeologists said "This is like bulldozing over Stonehenge because some kook thinks that there's some hidden treasure underneath."

B: Oh, my God!

S: So they're appropriately outraged, but the rest of the media has not caught up with that. [1]

Mormon Cult Leader on FBI Ten-Most Wanted List (4:31)[edit]

S: Now, Rebecca, you sent me an item about a Mormon cult leader who's getting in trouble with the FBI. Why don't you tell us about that.

R: Yeah, he's hit the big time. Top 10 most-wanted list, which includes Osama bin Laden, among others, now features one breakaway Mormon cult leader. Not, you know, the traditional Mormon church, but they have these sects that are fundamentalist sects, and they're the polygamist ones.

S: Hm, hm.

R: And they are really, really insane. His name is Warren Jeffs, and he has built up this cult of — we're talking like thousands of supporters — and, basically, he controls this whole area where his supporters are judges and police officers. He travels around with a fleet of SUVs containing his bodyguards. He's considered armed and dangerous as he's traveling around trying to avoid the FBI.

S: But what got him on the FBI list, other than the fact that he's paranoid and has lots of bodyguards? What's he — is it the polygamy, or is he doing something else?

R: I think that it's — the polygamy includes child molestation, ...

S: Oh.

R: ... because they're taking very young girls and brainwashing them and molesting them, allegedly.

B: And plus, plus ...

E: I hear that this guy is marrying some of the older males of the cult to the 14-year-old girls.

B: Oh, hundreds. He set up hundreds of these weddings. Can you imagine?

R: Yeah, he also randomly just takes whole families and rearranges them. He'll take the wives and children and homes from one person and just give them to another. And, I was reading — I think there was an article on CNN about him where one guy came out against him, a guy who used to be in the sect but got kicked out, and the guy was talking about "Oh, yeah, what a nut this guy is," and then they go on to say that that man got his seven wives taken away from them or something.

S: Oh, the poor guy.

R: It's like "awwww."

J: We'll, if he had seven wives, he should have kept his mouth shut.

R: Yeah.

S: Well, that's the whole point. They use wives as a perk to keep people in line and also to keep you loyal.

R: Yeah, and presumably this guy who's now a detractor of Jeffs, he was fine when he had his seven wives, but Jeffs took them away, and so now he's running to the media. So it's a really creepy cause, and I think that we're seeing — they're reaching this point where they're going to turn into — it's going to turn into a disaster, if it's not ...

S: You think it's like a Waco, Texas, kind of thing?

E: Branch Davidians?

R: Yeah, you think of all the major headline grabbing cults of the past few years. This is going to be up there. It's huge. He's got like 10,000 supporters.

B: Wow!

R: And, I mean, they believe the craziest stuff. It's scary. So that was kind of a downer.

S: It's interesting to talk about these cults. Again, it all gets back to human psychology.

R: Yeah.

S: And how can they brainwash people into believing the kooky stuff that they believe, and adopting these bizarre lifestyles. It's an experiment in human frailty.

R: Hm.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

S: We do have out usual steady stream of emails coming in, which we always appreciate. I'm going to read a few this week.

The Unexplained (8:10)[edit]

S: The first email comes from David O'Donovan from Dublin, Ireland.

S: (Irish accent) David O'Donovan.

He says

Hi Guys.


S: Any excuse to give a cheesy accent.

J: Of course.


First off, I'd just like to say that I really enjoy the podcast. I'm always fascinated by the paranormal and I happened to came across your podcast by accident while searching iTunes. What a great show. I've realised that I'm also fascinated by the skeptics point of view, and although I really like the idea of a paranormal universe, it's nice to get a slap of reality from you guys. Keep up the good work.

B: I like that: "A slap of reality."

S: Maybe that should be our new byline. "The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe — a slap to the face of reality." What do you think?

B: I like it.


So with that in mind, I'm curious about you guys. Have you ever come across any paranormal claims that made you think twice or that you just can't explain?

Well, that is kind of a standard question that paranormal investigators or skeptics get: anything out there really vexed us. Of course, the short answer to this question is always "no". There really is nothing out there that is passing for paranormal that is at all interesting or that is a genuine mystery. And we've been doing this for 10 years, now. When you get into the field with these people, when we're doing ghost investigation or electronic voice phenomena — we've tested psychics and others — that it's always amazing how much more lame and pathetic they are than what you imagine them to be just from hearing about them or hearing about their claims or even talking to them. The paranormal claims are being made by people who are profoundly scientifically illiterate, who really don't understand how to think or argue logically, have a incredibly bizarre or distorted worldview, and their claims are often really childish. They're paper thin. So we're always surprised at how lame they are. We've never been surprised by how impressive the alleged phenomenon is or how solid all the claims are. As skeptical and cynical as we are, we always still manage to get surprised by how absurd and ridiculous the claims are. They really are childish.

R: The thing is, when I try to think of something that I find completely baffling, the only things I can think of are the edges of science ...

S: Yeah.

R: ... that I just can't quite grasp.

S: Science is baffling.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: Science has genuine mysteries: what's the ultimate structure of the universe, black holes, etc. There's lots of genuine scientific mysteries. There really are no paranormal mysteries out there. You investigate them and "Yep, that's a clear case of self-deception." As soon as you even take a semi-close scientific look at it, it's obvious that it's not a genuine phenomenon.

J: When I was young, I believeed in chiropractic, but to me it was another school of medicine. It literally took Steve to go to medical school and to really, really find out, and then, you know, Steve, I remember you talking to me about chiropractic way, way, way a long time ago telling me its bunk, and I'm like "What? Chiropractic? You've got to be kidding me." Now, to me, after doing this with you guys for so many years, nothing gets by.

S: Yeah, you didn't realize what the claims were all about. You thought it was just a type of physical medicine. You didn't realize that they believed in life energy coursing through your nerves and the crazy stuff that some of them believe.

Science Education Standards (11:49)[edit]

S: But let's move on to the next email. This one comes from Danny McGee from Valdez Alaska, and Danny writes ...

J: (Irish accent) Danny McGee!

E: Not quite. Danny McGee, hey?

S: This ones from Alaska. Danny writes

Hey guys,
Love the show, listen every week, keep up the good work, yada yada, onto the actual issue:

Those were his "yada, yadas," not mine. He says:

I hear a lot of people in the skeptical/scientific community talking about what crummy science education standards we have in the U.S., and how most high school text books water down the teaching of evolution, so I thought it might be worth noting one of the exceptions. In our small town of Valdez, Alaska, the science education is great. My girlfriend is a high school senior, and the longest chapter in her biology book is 'The Theory of Evolution.' There's a separate chapter on human evolution. Also, it doesn't beat around the bush. In the very beginning of the chapter it states that evolution is the single most fundamental theory in all of biology.

Well, first, Danny. You can't "yada, yada" our praises.

J: Yeah.

S: You actually have to take the time to tell us how wonderful we are.

R: Don't be afraid to name names.

J: Yeah, Danny, those praises are what we get paid on.

S: Right.

J: We don't make money on this.

S: We need specifics. But anyway, on to your question. Yeah, sure, education is a very local phenomenon. It's really controlled by local school boards. Individual schools can make textbook decisions. There can always be stellar science teachers anywhere, and they're out there. There are plenty of exceptions, but if you look at the country as a whole, we consistently perform near the bottom in terms of science and math on standardized tests when compared to other industrialized nations. So on the aggregate, we're not doing well. Plus I think if you just look at how scientifically illiterate the American public is, by any reasonable measure, the scientific illiteracy in this country is about 90 to 95%, which is not much lower than the number of people who are not working scientists. So, basically, the only scientifically literate people in this country are working scientists, people who work in some kind of science or technology field, and then maybe a few enthusiasts. So by those standards, overall we're not doing well. I did take a look, after I got your question, just to see what was out there in terms of assessments of high school biology textbooks. And very recently, a couple of years ago, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the AAAS, did an assessment of high school biology textbooks, and they said that across the board they were substandard. Across the board they didn't find any textbooks that were being widely used that measured up in terms of the teaching of biology in general and evolution in particular. And I'll have the link to their assessment on our website. However, I also found — you guys know Ken Miller?

B: Yeah.

E: Yes

S: Ken Miller is the evolutionary biologist who, in my opinion, is one of the best if not the best debater confronting the intelligent design crowd today. He wrote the book Finding Darwin's God. He's an excellent speaker and writer, and he knows his stuff cold. He co-wrote with Joe Levine a high school biology textbook, and I think it's in its third edition, now, and they have a website dedicated to it. Again, we'll have the link. And from what I could see from their website, it looks to be an excellent biology textbook that deals very well and very comprehensively with evolution. So they're out there. Good textbooks are out there, but it looks like, from their website, only a few school districts are using their textbook. This is something that is definitely winnable. The resources to improve science education in general, evolution education in particular, exist, but unfortunately we have to fight this battle in thousands of local school districts and school boards. There's nothing you can really do on a global level to win this fight.

B: Well, it might take something like another Sputnik to motivate the entire country ...

S: Yeah.

B: ... to upgrade our science education.

S: We talked about this a little last week with Eugenie Scott. Something may focus federal attention on the quality of science education, and that would help, but it still comes down to those local school boards to get the right textbooks, etc.

Scientology Super Powers For Real? (16:15)[edit]

S: One last quick email. This is a follow-up to our Scientology superpower topic that we talked about last week. This is from Wendy Bombardi, and Wendy writes

I looked up the article talking about the perceptics course, but unfortunately I only found one article that everyone is linking to. Is it a reliable site? Doesn't seem like it. But great topic to discuss. Very fun. Laughed out loud.

S: Well, Wendy, I did some follow-up research. If you do just an internet search or Google search on this topic, you will come up with the one article that everyone then link to. Unfortunately, that's just the way things are these days. Somebody writes an article, it gets put on the AP, and then all of the news services link to it, and all the websites that talk about that topic end up linking to the same article. But I was able to find some independent resources, some of which come from Rick Ross. You might remember we had him our show a couple months ago. Rick Ross is probably now the leading cult expert, but other sites as well, that independently verify that L. Ron Hubbard did write about perceptics, that that concept comes from his writing.

R: Oh, yeah, you can also check. It's in Dianetics. He calls (unintelligible)

S: Yeah, it's in Dianetics, so that part is real, and that for years, Scientology has been planning this superpower, whatever, facility. Now a lot of the recent reports, and the reason why this is in the news recently, is largely from this one, I believe — I don't know if he's a current or ex-Scientologist who said he went through this training to gain these superpowerful perceptions. That's the article that you're referring to. Did you find any other resources on that when you were searching on that topic, Rebecca?

R: A few. If you search for "perceptics," you have to go really deep into Google, like ...

S: Yeah.

R: ... page eight or nine, and then you start turning up these really weird Scientologist links that are just odd.

E: Oh, they're not weird.

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah, they are.

S: The bottom line is I think this one is for real. And, again, you always have to reinforce that when you're talking about what Scientologists believe, that, yup, they really believe this.

R: And if you go to, you can learn all about Dianetics. I think if you a search for perceptics on there, you'll find some sites.

S: Yeah.

Name That Logical Fallacy (18:39)[edit]

S: So I promised last week that we would do a Name That Logical Fallacy segment, so let's do that before we go on to our interview. And actually Rebecca, you sent this one to me. This is from Don Walton, the Time For Truth Ministries.

R: Oh, the "Don".

S: The Don. This is just a typical representation of a lot of the critics. This is more like a creation science website, not so much intelligent design. I'm taking a couple of excerpts out of what he says. He writes:

Isn't it amazing what today's scientists can deduce from a mere rock or dust particle. Do you remember the Genesis space capsule? Scientists assured us that this important space mission, designed to gather solar atoms, would eventually enable them to explain the origin of the universe. Unfortunately, the space capsule crashed upon its return to the earth. Its parachute malfunctioned due to the fact that it had been put in backwards. Now I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned, scientists who can't figure out which way to put in a parachute have no chance of figuring out the origin of the universe.

This should be a pretty straightforward logical fallacy. What do you guys think about that paragraph? Anyone want to bite?

B: Is that ad-hoc?

E: Non-sequiter

B: Ad-hoc reasoning?

S: The non sequitur is tough, because really, when you think about it, all logical fallacies are non sequiturs. They're all subsets of non sequiturs. Yeah, so non sequitur is always the right answer, but you can get more specific than that. It's not really so much ad hoc, he's not inventing a specific reason to explain a specific result. It's basically, this is an ad hominem. This is an ad hominem attack. So, in its broadest concept, an ad hominem, which basically means arguing against the person rather than the evidence or the logic, is when you say that someone's claims are wrong because of some negative quality they possess, and there are lots of subsets of that basic concept. Here, he's saying the scientists are wrong because they've made mistakes in the past.

B: There you go.

S: So this is the appeal to prior error, which is a subset of the ad hominem attack.

R: And there's so much more that's even wrong with that, because he's not even criticizing scientists, he's criticizing — you might think he is, but he's criticizing who ever put in a parachute on the thing.

S: Right. It's a technical thing. It had nothing to do with the scientific method or the evidence for evolution or whatever.

R: Right.

S: But he goes on. He says

Yet, before we throw our Bibles away, let's remember a similar claim made by evolutionists several years ago. The coelacanth, discovered in fossil remains believed by scientists to be 400 million years old, was once touted by evolutionists as the "missing link" between fish and land animals. This prehistoric creature was believed to have possessed both lungs and gills as well as lobed fins and a skeletal and muscular system that enables it to walk on either the ocean floor or dry land. Today, thanks to the fact that hundreds of them have been caught off the coast of South Africa, the coelacanth has been nicknamed "the living fossil." This so-called living fossil has not only given evolution a black eye, but left evolutionists scratching their heads for an explanation as to why the coelacanth failed to evolve into an amphibian and has remained virtually unchanged for the past 400 million years. Of course, the coelacanth will eventually evolve, evolutionists assure us, just give it a gazillion years or two.

Wow! You could dig a lot out of that.

R: There's just so much wrong with it.

S: Well, let's get specific. Tell me what hits you? What can you dissect out of that?

J: It's bull.

S: It is bull. Along those lines, we talk about logical fallacies, but you also have to examine the premises. His premise about the coelacanth is completely wrong in a way.

R: Right. What really jumps out to me he is his last sentence seems like a total strawman.

S: Yes.

R: Saying that evolutionists will say that the coelacanth will evolve. Nobody's saying that.

S: Right. Exactly. that is a strawman argument. That is not the position of evolution, that a missing link is in the process of evolving into something else, and that it hasn't evolved, therefore evolutionists are wrong. That is a total strawman argument. That is not what evolutionsits say.

E: And why have evolutionists ever argued a missing link of anything. They never bring that up.

S: Missing link is an archaic sort of quaint concept. What we talk about are transitional fossils, and the coelacanth is transitional. All fossils, all animals and fossils, except for currently living ones, are transitional in a way, because everything sits between two other things. Even living species can be considered transitional between related species. And the coelacanth is a fish. It's from, I believe, an order of fish, maybe a family — I'm not sure about that, but it's a group of fish that does have what was close to those fish that did evolve into land animals. That doesn't mean that the coelacanth should have evolved over time itself into amphibians. Because, again, the creationists have this sort of linear concept of evolution. They don't understand that evolution's a branching tree or branching bush. The false premise here is that the coelacanth has not evolved over 400 million years. Again, he's referring to a coelacanth as if it is a species. It's not. It's a higher group of fish, and the coelacanth's that we discover today are not the same coelacanth fossils that are 400 million years old. For example, that would be like finding that there was a dinosaur living in the jungle somewhere, and dinosaur is an order of reptiles. We wouldn't find a triceratops today. We would find something that is 65 million years downstream but still within the dinosaur order. Does that make sense? Coelacanths are many species within a group of fish, and, yeah, there are coelacanth descendents of 400 million-year-old coelacanth ancestors. That group survived into modern times, but not the species.

R: It's like he dug up your great-grandfather's corpse and said it was you.

S: Yeah, right. Exactly.

R: It's just wrong.

B: Steve, granted, though, there are certain species that have changed very little over extended periods of time, such as sharks and alligators. There's really very little change.

S: That's right.

B: And that does happen, but so what? They're well-suited to their environment. How does that go against evolution?

R: One of things he says is that he holds up the coelacanth as the black eye.

S: Yeah.

R: Like that's the only thing that we call a "living fossil," as opposed to things like the ginkgo tree dogfish, the Gar hagfish, lamprey lungfish. It's like they're everywhere.

S: Yeah, there's lots of species that have not changed much over long periods of time, and that's because that happens in stable, outbred, large populations that are generalists. They're not highly specialized to a specific environment. They have a general suite of abilities that enable them to live in many environments.

J: So, Steve, was he supposing that once an organism is alive, that it's on the path of evolution, and it's like spinning a coin, like it's going to happen, right?.

S: Again, he says "why hasn't the coelacanth evolved?" Well, that's ridiculous. First of all, the fact that it still exists doesn't mean it can't have evolutionary descendents.

R: What does that mean?

S: That's kind of a non sequitur, and it's basically based upon a false premise about how evolution works, which also makes it a strawman argument. So often arguments can include multiple logical fallacies at the same time, and creationists are great at doing that.

R: I find that the strawman is the usual go-to for creationists.

S: Yeah. Creationists — they can't argue against what evolutionists are really saying, because what evolutionists are saying is valid.

R: Right.

S: It's logical and based on evidence, so they have to argue against a strawman.

J: What logical fallacy is "Oh, yeah!".


S: That is ...

B: He's thinking about it!

S: ... appeal to personal incredulity, maybe.

J: I love you, man. You're the best skeptic on the planet.

S: It could also be the appeal to ridicule, which is a subset of the personal incredulity argument. It's basically saying "that's nonsense."

J: Yeah, but you've got to say it like that: "Oh, yeah!".

S: "Oh, yeah!"

E: "You, too" might fall into that category.

S: The tu quoque, you mean?

R: Tu quoque?

E: Yeah.

R: It's not a fallacy unless you use the Latin.

S: That's right.

B: Jay, I think that one was grasping at strawmen.

S: "Grasping at strawmen". All right, well, there you go. Let's go to our interview.

Interview with Ray Hyman (27:45)[edit]

S: So joining us now is Ray Hyman. Ray, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

RH: Hi.

S: Dr. Hyman got his PhD in psychology from Johns Hopkins University and taught psychology and statistics at Harvard University. He is an expert in self and other deception, evaluating studies involving humans. He is a prominent critic of paranormal research who wrote the definitive critique of the Ganzfeld experiments. He is the author of at least a couple of books: The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research, and you wrote with another author Water Witching USA. You wrote that with Evan Vogt.

RH: Yeah, Evan Vogt. Right. Evan Vogt. We call him EV.

S: EV.

RH: EV Vogt

Ganzfeld Experiements (28:39)[edit]

S: So, again, it's great to have you on the Skeptics' Guide. So, let's start with the Ganzfeld experiments. We had Marilyn Schlitz on our show a few weeks ago, and she gave us the pro-ESP side of the Ganzfeld experiments. Of course, your name came up. Give us your summary of what you think about these experiments and what they really tell us about the reality of the ESP.

RH: Well, they tell us nothing about the reality of ESP. They tell us a lot about the psychology of parapsychologists.

S: Right.

R: Hm, hm, hm, hm.

RH: The real problem is with the field as a whole, of course. But the original Ganzfeld experiments were started — I think the first one was published about 1970s, I think the early 70s, yeah. By the time — early 1980 — I was asked by two different sources to do something about parapsychology. For example, the IEEE Journal, that's the international — for the electronic engineering journal.

S: Hm, hm.

R: Right.

RH: They were going to publish, and they did publish, an article by Robert Jahn, which created a lot of problems. Robert Jahn was then the Dean of Applied Sciences and Engineering at Princeton University. He's still there, and he runs what's called the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory. So he did a long article on his research and parapsychology as a whole, which was rather positive.

S: Hm, hm.

RH: And that created enough commotion, the editors contacted me and asked if I would write what they called the tutorial on ESP, to balance the ...

S: The proponents.

RH: Yes, to give the other side of the issue, more or less. So I did, ultimately, a very long article for them. But at the same time — this was early 80s — I was asked to participate in the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Society for Psychical Research. 1882 is when they founded it, and 1982 the Parapsychological Association and the Society for Psychical Research, which still exists, decided to have a big celebration, 100th anniversary celebration at Cambridge University in England. And as part of that celebration, they decided to have one whole day devoted to skeptics.

S: Hm, hm.

RH: And they were going to have a skeptic from each continent, and I represented the United Americas, I guess.

J: Nobody celebrates skeptics. Who celebrates skeptics?

RH: And they had Susan Blackmore represent England, and they had some skeptics from other places.

R: Who was Antarctica?

RH: Yeah. I don't know who represented Antarctica, but we had about maybe 5 or 6 of us, and we had all-day sessions where we presented the skeptical viewpoint, and so, to prepare for that, I decided, "Hey, you know, I can't read every" — the one problem that critics of parapsychology had created is that most critics, including my good friends like Martin Gardner and Randi and so on, attacked parapsychological research without even having read it (laughter) or knowing anything about it. And when they do attack it, they attack it at its worst, and that bothered me, because it's always embarrassing to have my good friends attacking for the wrong reasons. By the way, this is one of the real major reasons in the history of parapsychology why it's still around and why it hasn't profited from constructive real good criticism.

S: Right.

RH: Because they are able to dismiss criticism that they get. It's irrelevant or attacking straw people and stuff like that. So I decided, okay, I'm going to do it right, and I decided I would look at their best efforts. I couldn't read everything, so I contacted parapsychologists themselves, and I said "Okay, what would you say is the best, most promising avenue of research in the field?", and almost all of them pointed to the Ganzfeld studies.

S: Right.

RH: There was then about forty Ganzfeld studies had been done, and I contacted Charles Honorton, who had published the very first Ganzfeld study, and he was so delighted to have a skeptic take him seriously that he decided — he told me he would get me a report of every experiment ever done on it, including ones that hadn't even been published.

R: Nice.

RH: And ultimately, he sent me — it took six months, but he sent me 600 pages of documents. I hadn't realized what I was getting myself in for.

R: Yeah, at that point I think you reconsidered how Randi and Martin Gardner were doing it, huh?

RH: So I began going over and reading those, and at first I was quite impressed. You begin reading these things, and each study is getting one significant result after another and supposedly using good sophisticated statistics, knowing about controls and everything else. Many of them with PhDs, many I knew of, like Irving Child at Yale University and people like that. And so it looked very good. But then I sat down and began reading each study and making note of what defects I could find, and I come up with a list of twelve categories. I thought I could (unintelligible). I wanted to be able to say they did or did not do the statistical test right. They did or did not use multiple testing without correcting for it, things like that.

S: Right.

RH: I come up with twelve categories, and to my horror, I discovered that no one experiment escaped at least one of these categories, and most of them just had several of them. And most of these categories I thought were flaws that parapsychologists themselves would say, "hey, if you've got that flaw, that experiment just can't be trusted."

S: Hm, hm.

RH: And that surprised me, because many of these people were people I knew. I had some respect for parapsychologists who had scientific training, and I was surprised that there were so many defects in this body of literature. So I finally wrote up my critique of that whole body of literature, that's the original database, we call it, in 1985. And the Journal of Parapsychology published it, but they held on to my paper for a year, and I wasn't able to change it. While they let Honorton spent time trying to work up his response to it.

S: Hm, hm.

RH: So that whole issue of the Journal of Parapsychology in 1985 was devoted to my critique and then Honorton's equally lengthy response to it. I was so upset with his response, because it was accusing me of all kinds of things, and, of course, he had 14 months to play with his response, and I had no rebuttal. Usually, in fact, all psychology journals, when you have an argument like that, the original person gets the last word.

R: Yeah

RH: So I wrote a very long rebuttal, step-by-step to his thing, and, again, they sent if off to him. They said they would publish my rebuttal, my response to his rebuttal, but they were first going to let him have his chance to respond to it. I met him at that time, while he was still playing with my rebuttal, and somehow we went to lunch, and he was very upset that I had so maligned him in my rebuttal. "I didn't malign you. You're the one who maligned me!" You get around to the book, you know, and you accuse me of things that you, yourself, did, you know. That's your fault. And he was almost like a child, almost read to cry over this. He was very upset over this. Then I realized by then, too, that what had happened was that all these skeptics — Martin, Randi, but also all the academic skeptics, were all just enthused by my article. They said "Boy, you really showed them up. You really destroyed their whole stuff." But all the parapsychologists were saying, "Boy, Honorton, you showed Ray Hyman up." They (unintelligible) his argument, completely. And I realized that neither side, no one but Chuck Honorton and myself, actually thought reading all the details and looking into the nitty-gritty of what we're fighting over. No one else — everyone is taking for granted that either I was completely right, and they wouldn't take my word for it on the parapsychological side, they weren't going to check out all the things we were fighting over. So, at that point I sat down and I told Chuck, "Well, maybe we'll agree we'll do a joint paper", because I was surprised that he was agreeing with me in our talk about several things which I didn't realize he would go along with me. For example, he agreed that no matter how good he thought the original database was, he realized there were enough problems with it we could not conclude that there was anything called ESP or psi based on the original database. So we did a joint paper on how to replicate it: what would be required for adequate replication, what standards would be needed, and so on. And sure enough about 1980 or so he had come up in six years of research in his laboratory and he had come up with what's called the autoganzfeld experiment, which supposedly met all the criteria that he and I had agreed upon and were highly significant, and then Daryl Bem joined him, who's a well-known social psychologist, but decided to support him and use his name on the article — put his name on the article, and they were able to publish in the Psychological Bulletin, which was quite a coup. But the editor of the Psychological Bulletin agreed to publish it, because Daryl Bem's name was on it, but only if I would write a commentary on it. So I did. And Bem — by then Honorton had unfortunately died — and Bem wrote a response to my commentary. And then, the field hasn't stopped yet, because then Wiseman, some years later, Wiseman and Milton, they put together — they did a meta-analysis of all the Ganzfeld studies since the debates between Honorton and myself, and they decided that they all added up to zero effect size and there was nothing there.

S: And these are the experiments that allegedly fixed the specific criticisms that you had made to Honorton.

RH: Well, yeah, supposedly. And then (unintelligible), because Bem and some parapsychologists got together, and they added some more studies to the Wiseman/Milton one, and they reanalyzed and they decided there was something there.

S: Hm, hm.

RH: At the same time Dean Radin, parapsychologist, published his book in 1997 called The Conscious Universe, which if you want to know the best, strongest argument to make about parapsychology, that book is it. That has chapter after chapter of meta-analyses with odds of trillions to one — billions to one or trillions to one, typically, he says against the possibility of this being chance. And he does it in every area of parapsychology, so it's an overwhelming type of thing. At the same time, Wiseman published their stuff, his book came out, and he does a meta-analysis of parapsychology, the ganzfeld experiments, too, up to 1997. And he concludes that with odds of a trillion to one against chance they really have been replicated. This is the same time that Wiseman and Milton came out with their meta-analysis and said the effet size is zero, there's nothing there.

R: How are they seeing things so differently?

RH: Okay, well that was a mystery at first to me. Then I found two things that go on. This is typical of parapsychologism, unfortunately. One thing, of course, is that if you look at the studies each included, there are some that Wiseman and Milton hadn't included in their meta-analysis, and there are some that Radin had omitted and put in, and this made some difference. And that's one of the problems with meta-analysis, it's a very subjecting thing: what you include and what you don't include. But the main thing is what I call "double dipping", and it goes on a lot in parapsychology. By double dipping, I mean they're having their cake and eating it too. Basically, what he did for his meta-analysis, to show that the studies had been successfully replicated since our debate, he included studies before and during that we had debated over into his meta-analysis along with the new ones.

S: Right.

RH: So the ones we debated over, we already know that the effect size is big, and if you do that, of course, they being counted — they raise the effect size. I call it double-dipping.

S: Yeah.

RH: It goes on a lot.

S: Astrologers are famous for that, too.

RH: Right.

S: If you find some random effect, and then you include that in your subsequent data so it perpetuates either the bad data or the random effect through the alleged follow-up studies, so it sort of poisons the data.

B: Isn't that also called the "file drawer effect"?

S: The file drawer effect is not including studies that are negative, yeah.

RH: Okay, well the way they handle the file drawer effect — a better way. The parapsychologists are very sophisticated about all these things. They handle the file drawer effect by using a correction that Robert Rosenthal created, and what they do is they look at the studies that have been published that they have, and they then say "okay, how many studies would have to have been in the file drawer which had zero effect size?", right.

S: Hm, hm.

RH: And to neutralize what had already been existing. And you come up with big numbers like with the original ganzfeld studies there were about 42 studies in the original ganzfeld database. When they applied Robert Rosenthal's correction, they decided that would mean something like several hundred, maybe a few thousand studies, would be needed if there were to be a file drawer to neutralize those published studies. And because it is so difficult to run an individual ganzfeld study, they said just very implausible that the file drawer effect could apply to this. Several problems with that, of course. One is that the use of just assuming that all the ones in the file drawer have zero effect size is unrealistic, because probably several of them have to have negative effect sizes.

S: Right.

RH: And they're just leaving that out by chance. So there's a bias there. But also I did my corrections for file drawer and stuff like that. It's not that clear cut that this is a good correction, that you can correct it that way, anyway. However, it's still means that the existence of a file drawer effect, even if it's small, does add some bais to their effect sizes that they have when they do their meta-analyses.

S: Right.

RH: Most important thing is that meta-analysis is the stupid thing to do. It confuses what we call confirmatory with exploratory research. A meta-analysis is a good exploratory research type of thing, and to give you one example how un-robust meta-analysis is, the very first meta-analysis ever done in parapsychology was me. I did it. I did a meta-analysis on the original ganzfeld data. That's part of my critique of the work, because I did this meta-analysis, and I'm very sorry I did it, because ever since then all the parapsychologists latched onto it, and the only evidence they have now for any evidence that might be psi, is based on their meta-analyses.

S: Hm, hm.

B: So that was all your fault?

RH: What's that? Yes, unfortunately, I did the first one, and then they latched onto it. They latched onto it for a very good reason. Remember I found all these flaws in their research, and the flaws continue. Honorton published a paper one time saying, "Look, a flaw is only a flaw if you can demonstrate that it made a difference." So, let's say a study used the wrong statistical test, or they used multiple testing. They did data mining. They did something that's very wrong.

S: Hm, hm.

RH: Lest the critic, the skeptic — by the way, this another ploy they like to use is putting the onus or burden of proof on the wrong foot.

S: Right, right.

RH: They always like to shift it. And so unless the skeptic or the critic can show that the flaw really made a significant difference, then it's not a flaw. That's what I call retrospective sanctification.

ESP Research (45:50)[edit]

S: So, Ray, while we're still talking about ESP, I did want to just step back a little bit, because we get bogged down, I think a lot, in the details of the research, and, of course, they are all extremely important, but I also think it's helpful to look at ESP research on the whole, and, for me, always one of the big difference's has been that ESP research isn't building on itself. It isn't moving forward. Is that your assessment as well?

RH: Yes, I've always said, going back maybe 40 years, I always kept saying that one of the real problems with the field is not cumulative.

S: Right.

RH: Every generation says "Well, forget about the early stuff that Rhine did, and stuff like that. We know that was bad work. But the new stuff, oh, that's great!" The ganzfeld was like that. That was the new hope that they had, and it's still going. Actually, ganzfeld's been hanging up longer than many other fields. But they've dropped a lot of the areas that were once their big breadwinners.

S: Hm, hm.

RH: They keep changing, and it's not like other fields, where it's cumulative and you build on it.

S: That's right. There's still trying to just demonstrate that the statistical fluctuations in the data are real, and they're sort of stuck on that first step.

RH: Right, yeah, well worse than that, they're the only field I know of that has this premises that they are trying to create anomalies. They are trying to find anomalies. In science, anomalies — by the way, they use this word anomalies ...

S: Right.

RH: ... and they use it in a different way, too. Every word they use, they take from science and use it differently.

S: Yeah, they call it "anomalous cognition", right?

RH: Yeah. But in science, as a whole, anomaly is a very, very well-defined deviation from a theoretical prediction, and you precisely can specify what that anomaly is. For example, when Bouvard was concerned about, and other people concerned about, the orbit of Uranus, he went and rechecked it over and over again. He found very precise deviations, departure from what it should be according to the Newtonian theory (unintelligible).

J: Was that Mercury?

RH: No, Mercury was next, but with Uranus, he finally predicted exactly what kind of a planet, that was Neptune, it turned out to be. It would have to have an orbit, what size it would be, and so on, to reduce that anomaly, to make it no more an anomaly. When parapsychologists use "anomaly", they just simple mean some sort of departure from chance, which can't be explained at the moment.

S: Right.

R: Something "weird".

B: It's an artifact. It's an artifact.

S: Yeah, so it's kind of like an argument from ignorance.

RH: It's an argument from ignorance, but it's worse than that. It's what I call a patchwork quilt fallacies involved here as well. My favorite example is that Rhine, by the middle thirties he had created quite a stir, and scientists were interested because he was for the first time claiming all kinds of highly significant results with his card-guessing experiments. In the middle of our lab, about 5 or 10 years into that, he suddenly announced that he discovered a new effect, that shows that psi is real, ESP is real. And that was the decline effect. Well he'd gone back and looked at his own and other parapsychologist's experiements and found that in many cases he found that the beginning of the experiment they would have more hitting than they should be getting, and at the end of the experiment, they would have less hitting than you would expect, and when you put them together, you usually got average, around chance. And that's why people weren't getting as many successful results as they should be.

S: Hm, hm.

RH: So he declared that, and he declared that since no one was looking for that decline effect that was a real effect. Now, it turns out that afterwords, not many people were finding decline effects, but that didn't bother him. If they didn't get a decline effect, they get an incline effect. That was good, too.

S: Hm, hm.

RH: Or if they didn't get an incline effect or a decline effect but they got something else that was significant, that was fine as well. Which meant that, since they don't specify, they have no positive theory what psi should be.

S: Right.

RH: They can't tell when psi is not there, so any glitch is grist for their mill. And that's where they are today, too. They can't predict what's going to happen, and if you don't get anything, that's fine too, because that means that there is what's called psi-conducive conditions, and they don't know what they are, and conditions don't allow it to happen. So they're in a wonderful situation that nothing can disconfirm their findings. They get something, even though it wasn't what was predicted, as long as it's a deviation from chance, that's okay. That's another sign of psi. Now this gets to ridiculous proportions, because when I reviewed the autoganzfeld experiments that Bem and Honorton published in Psychological Bulletin, I found some very peculiar things in the data, which indicated to me that there's a real artifact going on there. And Bem's response to my finding of this peculiarity in the data, was "Hey, if this holds up, this could be another effect of psi, and we're going to name it the Hyman effect."

S: Right.

B: Oh, God!

S: Any anomaly is a new effect.

RH: This is what's called the patchwork quilt fallacy, that anything that happens can be claimed as a sign of psi, and if it doesn't happen, that's okay, something else can be claimed a sign of psi.

J: Why is it always have to be these little anomalies and stuff. I want someone to read my mind, that's it.

B: That's all they've got, Jay. That's all they got!

J: Read my mind!

B: That's all they've got.

J: Yeah, but somebody should just stand up one day and say "Enough with these little anomalies and all that crap. Read my mind!" Like do something significant.

R: Well, that's a big part of it is that they're going through all of these tests, and in the end, even in the best of possible worlds, what they've got is a very, very, very tiny effect that doesn't really mean anything.

S: It can only exist in very peculiar research conditions, right?

RH: By the way, "significant" sounds like an interesting term. It's a bad term to use, because it sounds like it's something meaningful, right? "Significant."

R: Yeah.

B: Right.

RH: All it means is that you've got a low probability. The problem there is also they rarely, since they don't specify too clearly in advance exactly the whole what I call the outcome space, you don't know exactly what they were predicting. You don't know how many things they would have looked at ahead of time, so we don't know whether that 5% chance, or whatever it was, really is 5%, because you have hundreds of different things you can latch onto, and you test each one at 5%, you've got a very high probability that at least one of those things is going to end up being significant, in that sense.

R: Right.

RH: So, it's interesting, that if you go back and read their own literature, as I do, you find that there are papers by parapsychologists. There are two recent ones that stick in my mind where two major parapsychologists have gone through the data in every area of parapsychology, like the ganzfeld and stuff like that, and what they find, over time, the effect size keeps decreasing, ...

S: Hm, hm.

RH: ... approaching zero. And that's true in all the areas that they have evaluated, (laughs) and now you think they say "Uh, oh, that means we're in trouble. Maybe we've got nothing". No, no, what they do is they begin developing the very elaborate theories of why psi is different, and that becomes a property of psi, that you find something that's useful, a nice effect size, but over time it gradually disappears, and so that's another property of psi.

S: Yeah, it's the "shyness effect." It likes to hide from experimenters. They also talk about now the "experimenter effect," which means when anyone who is not a true believer does the study or tries to replicate them, they come up with a null effect or a negative result, and "well, that's because you're a nonbeliever."

RH: Even believers, even some of the major parapsychologists have been unable to get a significant effect. Some parapsychologists claim "our only real finding is the experimenter effect." But think about it. If that's the only real finding, that means that one of the basic premises of other sciences is being abolished as the (unintelligible) of scientific data.

S: Right.

RH: That means that only some people under some conditions, and not even all parapsychologists (unintelligible) there going to observe what they're studying, which is very, very weird. By the way, another thing they like — there are several sobering things you can raise and say, "Hey, this is something very bad about this field." Three of the most sobering things is that parapsychologists always like to say "well, look, you psychologists also have trouble replicating your data, and you have all kinds of problems. We're just as good as you guys are in someways." Well, complement to that is this: every field, including psychology, that claims to be a science, every field that claims to be a science, has several of what Kuhn call paradigm experiments. In other words, we have experiments that we can take and give to students, new students, and say "go do this experiment and you're going to get these results." We have memory experiments, we have sexual experiments, even thousands of them. And every field has this, except one field. That one field is parapsychology.

S: Right.

RH: Not a single experiment that they can give anyone and say "go do this and you'll get that." Every other field has thousands of them.

S: Right.

RH: And that already means that, hey, this is a very special field.

S: Right. Well, that pattern is very familiar to skeptics who deal with these topics, and that's the pattern you see when there's no real phenomenon at the core of the research, when the research is basically looking for something that doesn't exist. And we see that in homeopathy; we see it in dowsing; we see it in multiple, multiple paranormal fields. You see the exact same thing. The same patterns: the better the experiments get, the smaller the effect size. It tends to vanish to zero as the experimental design evolves.

RH: And the problem here is that the parapsychologist — what to me, the fascinating thing to me being in a field like this is that most of these parapsychologists almost all of them have a PhD of some sort, and some have actually a name in some field.

J: What a waste of (unintelligible)

RH: I'm always fascinated by how these people can fool themselves, you know. How they can convince themselves of this. They have explanations for everything, you know, and so everything you just pointed out, all these weaknesses that we're talking about, this then becomes the property of scientists, and they're using their smarts to outsmart themselves.

S: Yeah, yeah. Now I've also found, and this is definitely true of Marilyn Schlitz, who we had on our show recently, that they really do have a different worldview, and for them, the reason why this little tiny anomaly is important is because if it's real that means the paranormal universe is real. Regardless of how important or big or useful or practical the effect is, it means that all of their belief systems in healing energy, in spirituality, and everything else is justified. It makes everything real to them.

RH: Right.

S: And, of course, there is a lot of overlap. But, again, like Marilyn, who was talking to us about ESP and may have a PhD, may be a serious researcher, but she also believes in a lot of kooky things, a whole suite of kooky things including energy healing, and it's not a coincidence. And yet at the same time she dismissed our skepticism as what she called an a priori, meaning that "well, we just come from a different paradigm, and that's the only difference between us. We have one paradigm; they have another." Well, that's not the only difference. The difference is in the details of methodology and logic, which, I think, are clearly lacking in this field.

R: She swore up and down that she wasn't a true believer.

RH: They love these terms "paradigm", and they love all that kind of stuff.

S: Yeah.

RH: And, of course, they're into all the linguistic aspects as well.

S: Postmodernism in general.

RH: Postmodernism (unintelligible), yeah. There buy all that stuff.

J: It blows my mind that over and over and over again they keep getting, even at their best fake results that they can come up with, it's so incredibly small and weak that if psi did exist, what good would it be anyway?

S: Yeah, but, again, I think it's the whole point is to validate their worldview, not to say that this is a useful, something useful.

RH: Let me defend them against what you said: "what use would it be?" If in fact they could show that there's something ESP that's really going on there, it doesn't make any difference whether it has any practical effect or not. It would be very mind-blowing for science as we know it. It would be a real challenge. So in that sense, if they did try something like that, it really was an anomaly in the sense that it couldn't be accounted for within the framework of the Einstein/Newtonian worldview or whatever it is, then, I think, it would be a challenge to science as we know it. It would be a very serious something that we have to take very seriously.

J: So are they all racing to be the first one to find something substantial?

RH: Now you are touching on another thing, too. That's another thing going on here. I always used to wonder why among parapsychologists, they rarely used to cite one another's work. I realized finally that each one is in it because he or she wants to the "Newton".

B: Right.

RH: The one who makes the breakthrough. It's a low, low probability. It's like hitting the lottery, I think, the way they look at it, I'm sure.

B: But what would it take to turn these little anomalies into a revolution? Something else has to change or be added. You just can't take these unpredictable anomalies and say "Look, I'm going to change science." What else would have to happen?

RH: Well, Bob, that's a good question. But, you know, there's some sophistcated people in this. That's what attrative about the field. There's some very sophisticated people. When I began in psychology information theory was big thing, and coding theory, stuff like that. And some of these parapsychologists could have given you an answer like this: "Well, look, it doesn't matter how small these anomalies are if they're real. Then we can do coding and decode things and stuff like that." You know, you can do redundancy coding; you do other kinds of coding, and you could turn it into something worthwhile. Many of them are into quantum physics and stuff like that, so they're aware of these things.

R: Dean Radin has dome outrageous theories of what we'll be able to do in a future where everybody can read each other's minds that's just, it's kind of ...

RH: He's a fascinating guy to me, too.

R: That's a really nice way of putting it, Ray.

RH: What's fascinating about Radin is that he comes through at first as being very sophisticated. He was one of the first to apply what's called neuroprogramming, where the computer programs learn on their own, to work out the patterns and stuff like that. And he applied it to ESP experiments, to Bob Jahn's work on RNG stuff, and he found, sure enough, that we take the first half of the data and train the computer program on the first half of the data, it predicts the second half of the data. So that shows that the data are real, that's there's really something like psi or something going on in the data. To me, what was horrible about it, two things: one was I was fascinated by using a very sophisticated approach, but it took me a little while to realize that data that you already know — if I take a set of data where I know this set of data, this person's data has a higher proportion of hits, this one has lower proportion of hits. Then I split them in half, I would expect that those halves are going to have higher proportion of hits and lower proportion of hits than the other half. I'm certainly going to be able to clump them together. That's another example of double-dipping.

S: Yeah.

RH: You have to predict new, independent data, not data like that. And he never did that experiment again. And his whole career's been — now I've gone back and looked at a lot of stuff he's done in the ESP field, and he recently has done — he has some very clever, novel application of technology and the latest in computer sophistication and so on. And yet, he gets results and then he never repeats that. It gets dropped and he goes on to other stuff.

R: Hm.

RH: And as a cynic, you wonder what happened there. Why does no one else follow him? Why doesn't he follow-up his own great work, right?

R: Right.

RH: And then I found out some other things. When I went through his presentiment work, I went through it and I found — it took me awhile to find it — that hey, he's done three experiments, each one replicated the other, but when I go down to the fancy way that he was correcting for baselines and stuff like that, the correction was one way in one experiment, the second experiment was a different correction, the third experiement was a different correction. And then I realized and did some simulations, and the corrections from the first experiment would almost — and from the second experiment would cancel each other out. In other words, it would give a different result.

S: Hm, hm.

RH: And why was he always changing his result, his corrections? Ha, ha, ha. And I realized that this was an unsettled kind of, maybe unconscious or conscious, I'm not sure which, way of making sure you're going to get what you want from the data.

S: He's making an ad hoc statistical fix to make the data significant. We call that cheating, right? That's basically just fraud, whether it's conscious or unconscious.

RH: Well, actually, I have enough experience as a statistical consultant for all kinds of people and groups to realize that people do this and fool themselves. It looks like it's cheating.

S: Right.

RH: You can't be sure they literally cheated. I remember being on a program 20-20 opposite Rosemary Altea once, and she kept asking me did I think she's a fraud, and I don't know if she was a fraud. All I can say is that if I were a fraud, I would do exactly what she does.

S: Right.


S: Ray, we are out of time. I hate to say it. It was a lot of fun talking to you.

RH: Thank you. I enjoyed it. I'm sorry I rambled.

S: That's okay.

R: No, we loved to hear you ramble.

S: There's so much more actually that I was thinking of asking you that we didn't get to. We'll have to have you back on the show some time.

RH: Happy to any time.

B: Great.

S: All right. Thanks, again. Take care.

J: Thanks, Ray.

R: Thanks, Ray.

RH: Bye.

S: Well, that was great having Ray Hyman on, and he did tell us that this was his first podcast.

B: Broke his cherry.

R: That's awesome.

S: We got Ray's first podcast.

B: He is awesome or what, but we only scratched the surface with him. We have to have him back.

S: Yeah, we do. We didn't even talk about cold reading, which is his real baliwick, so we have to have him back.

R: For Ray, we need like an entire day. We need a twenty-four hour podcast, and just have him talk.

J: He really comes off as a amazingly friendly, intelligent, fun guy.

R: He is.

S: He is like the good cop of skepticism, which is amazing why there is so much venom against him, now, because he doesn't believe what they want him to believe.

J: Yup.

S: Well we have time for a Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (65:52)[edit]

S: Each week I come up with three news items or facts. Two are genuine, and one is fictitious, and then I challenge my esteemed panel of skeptics to decide which one is the fake.

B: They couldn't come today, but we're here.

S: But of course I encourage you to play along with us. I have a theme for this week. The theme is cosmology.

R: That's great!

J: I guarantee you Bob get's this one right.

R: I don't know, because I went to hair-dressing school, so I think I've got it.

E: Yeah, I was going to say. I think Rebecca has an advantage over the rest of us on this one.

R: I'm going to kick your asses, so let's go.

S: Ready. Number one: physicists have discovered a way to cause light to travel backwards.

J: Oh, come on. That's just stupid.

R: (laughter)

S: Item number two: based upon recent observations of the most distant quasars, physicists have recalculated the age of the universe up from 13.7 billion years to as high as 19 billion years. Item number three: physicists in a recent publication claim to provide evidence for the existence of a contracting universe before the Big Bang. So: light going backwards, recalculating the age of the universe from 13 to 19 billion years, or new evidence of a Big Crunch before the Big Bang.

J: Jesus!

S: Jay, go first.

J: All right, well, of course I'm going first. What sucks about this, and you, in particular, Steve, is that two of them have to be wrong or else I have to kill myself. So ...

S: Oh, you mean you want two of them to be wrong, man.

J: Two of them have to wrong, man. Yeah, the light traveling backwards makes absolutely no sense to me, but I'm going to just have to say it possible that it's true, because I don't know. The third one has to be false; it has to be. We have no concept of what happened before the Big Bang, none, whatsoever. It is blank void never-to-be-known, and that's it. That's my final answer.

S: Okay, so you think number three is incorrect, is fake. Ah, Evan.

E: I'll say that number three is incorrect, as well, for basically the same reason. I don't see how they could have any evidence as to what happened before what is deemed the Big Bang.

S: Right.

E: I just don't understand.

J: Steve did say that somebody published that. That could be true. I think I just caught the snag there.

E: True.

J: He didn't say that — eh, I don't know. I'll stick with three anyway.

E: Light traveling backwards seems not so outrageous. They do, what? Talk about teleporting light from one place to another, and I've read about that a little bit. Recalculating the age of the universe from 13 billion to 19 billion, okay. Seems plausible. I'll stay with three.

S: Okay, Rebecca?

R: Um, okay. I think that I'm pretty sure I read an article, or maybe I heard somewhere the thing about the light traveling backwards, so I think that's true. And number two just seems too plausible. I don't think you would have — yeah, I think number two is the fake one, because number three is just — it's too crazy. You wouldn't have made that up. And it's a cool idea. I like the idea of it, and I think that they could possibly — you know they're doing crazy things with quantum whatnot. I think that ...

S: Right.

R: I like to use the technical jargon. I don't mean to speak above the heads of most of our listeners.

S: You mean the whole sort of general mishmash.

B: Ahhh! Good one, Steve.

R: Quantum thingamajig. So I'm going with number two.

S: Okay, Bob?

B: I'll say that oh, yes, he would make that stuff up. Number one, I could see that happening. They could do some amazing things with light, depending upon what media it's propagating in. They've caused it to essentially stop and re-create itself in some experiments, so, yeah, that's — I'd like to read the details about that, but that seems totally plausible to me. Quasars — the universe 13.7 to 19. Wow! I didn't hear about that, and that's a pretty significant leap. And that would've been my choice, except then you said number three: evidence of a contracting universe before the Big Bang. No. You can't have evidence for that. Relativity and quantum mechanics become nonsensical before — during the conditions of the Big Bang, there's no way you could predict anything before the Big Bang, let alone a few milliseconds after it, so that's definitely — that can't be true, unless you snuck in some weasel word in there that I didn't pick up.

R: So, it's just me, then, huh?

S: All right, so three of you, the guys, think that evidence before — of the Big Crunch before the Big Bang is fake. Rebecca thinks that the revising the age of the universe from 13 to 19 billion years is fake, and you all agree that light can go backwards. You have no problem with the whole — so we'll do that one. That is true. No, that one is true. And you guys all got it. There are lots of funky quantum mechanical experiments that you could make light do all kinds of things under certain conditions. You could make it seem to go faster than the speed of light, to go slower, and, actually, it was predicted that you should be able to make light go backwards, and then, finally, somebody did. This is Robert Boyd of the University of Rochester.

E: Yeah.

B: How did he do it, Steve?

S: It says, yeah, it's weird stuff. Dang if I can understand the actual physics behind this.

J: Did you say "dang"?

R: I think he did.

S: But, uh ...

E: He's from Rochester.

R: Didn't they use fiber-optic cables, or something.

S: Oh, dang, you betcha! They used fiber-optic cables, and what they were able to do is demonstrate that the pulse of light that they were sending through, and, of course, they were doing something to modulate the pulse of light, but the pulse actually gets — it exits the fiber-optic before it actually even enters it. So it actually travels backward from the source, from the receptor to the source. But, of course, like all of these experiments, which appear to make light travel faster than the speed of light or whatever, information is not traveling faster than the speed of light.

E: Right.

S: Information is not traveling backwards, and the laws of relativity really deal with information, but waves can be made to behave or seem to behave in weird ways. So the way they described is that the light wave, the leading edge of the light wave, gets to the end of the fiber-optic cable first, and that leading edge contains all of the information about the light wave itself. Then the light wave sort of gets reconstituted out of that information at the end of the light wave, and it sends a pulse back to the beginning.

J: I totally don't get it.

S: Yeah, there's actually kind of a neat graphic on the website that you can kind of see that happening.

B: It's pretty cool.

S: It's weird. But the bottom line to remember is that they're just sort of making waves do bizarre things — waves of light do bizarre things, but none of these experiments have ever violated Einstein's general relativity, because — or special relativity, because the information cannot be transmitted faster than the speed of light, and that's the real law.

J: Yada, yada, yada. Get to the reveal. Tell us what the ...

S: All right, all right. So, what's it going to be? Let's talk about: physicists in a recent publication claim to provide evidence for the existence of a contracting universe before the Big Bang.

J: What?

S: Now, I must admit I was very skeptical of this one when I first read it. I had to read it, but that one is true.

R: I win.

J: (unintelligible)

S: Now the evidence, of course, is all theoretical, but this was published ...

B: Then is it evidence?

S: Well as much as anything is in cosmology.

J: What did I tell you, Evan.

E: Yeah, you said that Becky would get it right. That's what I said, too.

S: ... published by Abhay Ashtekar, Director of the Institute of Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Penn State University. And he — basically, what he's saying is that rather than a Big Bang, there is what he is calling a quantum bounce. I wonder if that term is actually going to ...

B: Stick.

S: ... take off and replace the Big Bang.

R: So what you're saying is a quantum thingamajig.

S: Yes, but ...

E: Technically. Technically.

S: He says "We were so surprised by the finding, he added, that the team repeated the calculation for months to include different possible values of some numbers representing the current universe, but the results kept pointing to a bounce." So, basically, they're extrapolating from the physical laws of the universe to suppose what might have come before the Big Bang. And their calculations bear out the model that includes this quantum bounce, and they ran the numbers over and over again, and it keeps coming out that way. So, obviously, this has to be vetted, and the implications have to be assessed by other physicists. This is all still highly theoretical.

J: I feel totally ripped off right now.

S: But that's what they're (unintelligible).

B: How do you predict that when you don't really know what happened right after the Big Bang? How do you extrapolate beyond that when you can't even get to the Big Bang? How do you go beyond the Big Bang?

E: It's got to be a guess.

B: I know. "Evidence" was the ...

S: The articles that I read did not really convey that. So I could not learn that from the sources that I read.

B: All right, go ahead, Steve, go to two. That one sounded pretty wacky, too.

S: Yeah, I mean, number two I just made up.

R: Yeah, do you really need an explanation?

B: You know, as wacky as that was, three was even wackier, and you must've known I would have jumped on that one.

S: I know. Three was the bait here. You guys are right. Saying anything about what happened before the Big Bang certainly seems to defy logic, but this is a method of, again, extrapolating from the way the universe is now. And, again, I don't think that you could probably understand it unless you're a theoretical physicist who understands multidimensional differential calculus.

E: All right, let's get him on and interview him. We obviously have to know.

S: Yeah, we have to some degree see what does the scientific community have to say about this. But, again, the item was that there was a paper published claiming this. So, Rebecca is the sole victor this week.

R: Yay!

J: I give you props, Rebecca.

E: As was predicted by both Jay and Evan.

J: You did very good Rebecca. I admit it.

E: So, we get a (unintelligible).

S: But it means I have to try harder next week.

J: Oh, Steve, you did pretty good this week, because I would have bet hard cash on this one.

S: I do try to make it challenging, but it is fun, and Rebecca does get props for getting two in a row correct.

R: Thank you.

S: So, thanks again for joining me. It was a good show. I enjoyed it guys.

J: You, too, Steve.

B: Good one.

J: Ray was fantastic.

S: Ray was fantastic, and I will say that next week we have James Randi giving us an interview.

E: Wow!

R: The bad cop of skepticism.

S: Keep an eye out for that one. He's the bad cop of skepticism. We had the good cop; next week is the bad cop, so look for James Randi next week.

R: Cool.

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

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


  1. Pyramid in Bosnia, National Geographic News, May 12, 2006
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