SGU Episode 449

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SGU Episode 449
February 15th 2014
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 448                      SGU 450

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

The inclination to sink into the slumber of dogma is so natural to every generation that the most uncompromising critical intellect must without intermission stand upon the watch against it.

Otto Pfleiderer, 1902

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Show Notes
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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality. S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday February 12th 2014, and this is your host Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella

B: Hey everybody

S: Rebecca Watson

R: Hello everyone

S: Jay Novella

J: Hey guys

S: and Evan Bernstein

E: Ello guvna

S: Happy Darwin Day everyone!

B: Yay!

R: Happy Darwin Day! I’m wearin my little Darwin t-shirt, available at

B: I’m sitting here all evolved and everything.

E: What exactly is Darwin Day?

R: It’s the day Darwin was born.

S: Otherwise known as his birthday, yeah. Did you guys know, here’s my Darwin Day factoid for the day, a scientist named a new species of beetle after Darwin? The beetle was discovered by Dr. Stylianos Chatzimanolis from the University of Tennessee

B: Wait wait wait, say that again.

S: NO. This is a uh a rove beetle. There are fifty-seven thousand described species, but apparently Darwin collected this specimen when he was on the beetle. And then it sat lost in a drawer at the Natural History Museum in London; and was rediscovered in London in 2008. And then somebody realized hey this was actually collected by Darwin

B: Oh!

S: So it was just described and it was named Darwinilus sedarisi

B: Oh sweet

E: very nice

J: what’s this bug called luv?

B: I would have put that on EBay

E: Imagine if someone would have opened the drawer and said, “Ew there’s a dead bug in here. Let’s dump it out and get rid of it ew!”

R: There are tons of Darwin specimens that are just sitting in drawers underneath the uh London Museum of Natural Science. My friend, Karen James, used to work there and she gave me the behind the scenes tour and it was amazing! There was all of…they have so much incredible stuff. They keep Darwin’s own samples in a basement somewhere. Ya know, not even open to the public.

E: Have you guys seen the show on HBO called Questioning Darwin?

R: Nope

E: HBO’s ran that, I think, starting last week. And I didn’t watch all of it; I watched parts of it. And it had some very parts. Apparently, something I didn’t know about Darwin before, is that during his seminal time in which he was writing the Origin of Species – that he spent twenty years accumulating – all of his notes and everything in doing this… He basically cloistered himself inside of his house and his wife kind of made, ya know brought everything to him. He had his family all around him and the varied species and all the animals and things and plant life and his his green house was immense and everything. But he basically stayed there for twenty years and worked like eighteen hour days like every day for twenty years just in pursuit of this… of of of learning more about the origin of species. And that is dedication

B: How many wives would put up with that crap? Like yeah this is gonna be a revolutionary theory, I need eighteen hours a day for the next two decades.

E: Apparently she was entirely on board

B: Wow

E: and made it possible for him to do the work that was necessary for him to get that book published.

B: Glad she did, but what a hard sale that must have been…

This Day in Skepticism (03:20)[edit]

R: Hey, speaking of…England uh Happy Decimal Day everyone! Uh the day we record this is Darwin Day, but the day this episode comes out is February 15th. And February 15th, 1971 was Decimal Day. Which, personally I think they should celebrate every year; just because it’s a wonderfully dorky sounding holiday. But, in 1971 that was the date when the UK and Ireland switched their currency to using decimals instead of, you know, the ridiculously confusing system that they used to use.

E: Don’t you like having a pocket full of farthings and three pence and…

R: I wrote this down just so I could get it all right. They were two farthings in a hay penny, two hay pennies in a penny (obviously), twelve pence in a shilling, two and a half shillings in a half crown, twenty shillings in a pound, twenty-one shillings in a guinea

B: OH! Twenty-one!

R: And sixty-seven guineas in a pandapiddle(?)

B: You made that last part up

E: Did you make up that last one?

R: I did. I did. It took you guys a minute. So, in 1824 decimalization was proposed based upon the fact that the French did it. So…

B: Wait, I think that’s the first time I have ever heard that word.

R: Decimalization?

B: I like it!

R: It’s a word!

B: I believe it!

R: But yeah, even though it was proposed in 1824, it took almost a century and a half for it to actually happen. Which, you know, should make all of us in the US feel a bit better about our metric system concerns. When it did finally happen, the government broke the pound into a hundred pennies. And they started, actually, in 1968 when they issued 5p and 10p coins. And in 1969 they issued the 50p coins. And then finally, on Decimal Day, they introduced the last three coins which were a half penny, one penny and two pence coins. And yeah, they eventually… they started by marking all prices in stores in stuff with both the old currency and the new currency; and they eventually dropped off the old currency. They also had two full years of educational PSAs and stuff teaching people how to use the new currency system. So that when Decimal Day finally rolled around it was pretty easy, not many complaints about it.

E: Because they realized, hey this actually makes sense.

R: Yeah

B: I don’t have much hope. We’re… There’s only three countries on the planet that aren’t metric, and we’re one of them.

E: Yay…

S: Well we’re semi-metric. I mean we buy two liter bottles of soda at the store…

E: Yeah, we’re hybrid sort of…

B: We’re hybrid. Lame hybrid

E: We are. Look at your speedometer. It’s got both miles per hour and kilometers per hour.

B: How often do you even look at that?

R: Every time I go to Canada

E: For every furlong I drive.

S: Alright, Rebecca I have to point out that we got an e-mail last week by a listener calling themselves Sharon. Who said that they were disgusted and dismayed, that you had turned This Day in Skepticism into this day in feminism…talking about all of your female scientists and everything.

R: Right. And like, pennies are girls so… this one too.

S: Which, yeah I immediately recognize this nonsense. But I did a tally of the last years’ worth of This Day in Skepticism; and it turns out that there were twenty-one males mentioned, seven females, and twenty-eight not mentioning a specific person… Like Decimal Day, they were not about a specific person.

R: Right

S: Right. So you talked about female scientists about 13.5% of the time over the last year.

R: And that is

S: Clearly saying

J: That’s too much

E: Stop shoving it in our faces

R: It’s ridiculous

S: And one third as often as male scientists

R: So yeah, Steve, I really appreciate your response…so much so that I published it on SkepChick. Which inspired another response that I found quite funny. It was actually from, you guys wouldn’t have known this but I recognized the name as somebody who has harassed me in the past on Twitter and Facebook and such and I’ve got him blocked pretty much everywhere. His response was, “If you think about it, men have contributed a lot more to the sciences that women. So really, when you’re talking about This Day in Science, you should talk about men, the preponderates of time. And that proves that I was talking about women way too often.

S: Right

B: Wooooooow

R: Which I just love. This demand that, without evidence, well I believe that man have contributed approximately ninety-nine percent of our scientific knowledge and therefore, you highlighting things people haven’t necessarily heard of that they might find interesting and educational, should also adhere to this ninety-nine percent/ one percent split. It’s

S: a totally made up split. Yeah it’s also saying that we have to perpetuate past inequities.

R: Yeah

S: And also, I pointed out, when I responded to the original e-mail, that part of the purpose – our mission of the SGU – is to promote science…is to create enthusiasm for science. And evidence clearly shows, that women are not as encouraged as much as men to go into the sciences, or to any stem field. And, that when they are encouraged, they go in greater numbers. So, we are getting the message out to the people who need it. That’s part of our mission. It’s just ridiculous

B: I’d argue that we’re not; not at thirteen point five percent.

S: We’re not doing it enough!

R: Yeah

S: I ended it by saying that now that we’re actually running the numbers, we’re actually not doing it enough. Thanks for pointing out the deficiency for us.

B: Hahaha

R: And like, you know even as an aside, I really do…what I try to do when I’m choosing an item, is to pick something people probably haven’t heard of before, something they could learn a bit from. So, today for instance, is also Galileo’s birthday; which is quite notable. I’m pretty sure most people in the audience have heard of Galileo. And it’s also Richard Feynman’s death day. I try to avoid death days, because they’re depressing. And it’s also the anniversary the meteor exploding over Russia last year. You know, these are all things we’ve talked about, you know we’ve gone over them a million times…why not talk about something a little weird and you know…different.

B: That was a year ago? Geez

R: Yeah

J: Ten years ago, Chappelle’s Show Rick James skit appeared.

B: Oh my god, that’s what we should have talked about

J: It’s a celebration bitches!

R: Ten years ago today, I’m Rick James, bitch.

J: It was actually yesterday, but still…ten years ago.

News Items[edit]

Organic Molecules on the Moon (10:15)[edit]

S: Alright let’s move on to some news items. Jay, you’re gonna tell us about why there might be, but not really, life on the moon.

J: Yeah, let’s not jump to conclusions. I mean when we say life, people tend to think of

S: Or life-like molecules

J: Ya know creatures. Yeah we’re talking about molecules here. So let me give you the background. So back in 2009, the lunar crater observation and sensing satellite was sent to the moon; and part of the mission was to crash a used part of the launch vehicle that was still attached to the ship into the moon to help us understand if the moon is actually made of cheese or if it’s a dessert pasty. But it actually also analyzed a plume of debris that the ship that they crashed into the moon’s surface kicked up by the impact. And what we ended up with, after observing the plume of debris that came up, is that there are organic molecules trapped in the moon’s ice. Organic molecules are, simply put, molecules that contain carbon; but these could be solid, liquid, gas or solid chemical compounds. So the organic compounds are often called the building blocks of life. So how strange is it to find them on the moon, right? Which is just a really big ball of marzipan, after all. Thank you Rebecca. So how did those organic molecules get to the moon? Some believe that they came from comets that crashed into the moon’s surface. So these comets, which have been traveling through space for unknown amount of time either picked them up or whatever. But ya know somehow those organic molecules got on the comets and the comets brought them to the moon’s surface. But recently, the University of Hawaii’s Sarah Crites said that cosmic rays are powerful enough to create a reaction that could actually create organic compounds. Cosmic rays you say, huh? Bob, what’s a cosmic ray? B: Cosmic rays are particles, they’re not rays…it’s a funny misnomer. But they’re particles. Alpha particles and protons that come from outside of our solar system and they’re very energetic and can be nasty.

J: Yeah, high energy particles that are mostly protons; and they come from outside the solar system and they exist pretty much everywhere in the universe. So Sarah and her team believe that up to six percent of the moon’s simpler molecules, found in the polar ice, could be converted into organic compounds over a billion years of being hit by cosmic rays. And to put that time scale into perspective, that is approximately one quarter of the moo’s age. And the funny thing is that cosmic rays also break down complex molecules. So once these organic molecules are finally created, they could be damaged by the same rays.

S: mhmm

J: So the first thing to think about, in my opinion, is if this is happening...if cosmic rays are hitting inorganic molecules and creating organic molecules, then this is happing possibly anywhere that there’s ice or water in the entire universe. That was a little…that puts a different twist on the idea of billions and billions. You know what I mean? Like, wow! That blew my mind.

S: Yeah but ya know, I think it’s pretty well established that organic molecules are pretty common out there in space.

J: Well the thing is, Steve, have we really observed or have any information on things that are outside our solar system?

S: Outside the solar system, not that I know of, no.

J: Right, but that’s the point though.

S: Yeah J: So now if by observing this stuff on the moon we can…I’m not saying we’re certain or anything, it’s still something to think about. That’s a pretty profound thought.

S: Yeah. I mean although there is a general principle of, that we’re not unique. Ya know that whatever we see here is probably typical of the rest of the universe

J: So pretty much all over the universe, like movies are really just eye candy now with not much real content? That’s happening everywhere now?

S: Is that a question?

E: *laughs* a rhetorical one

R: Steve, have you ever given a patient a hug?

B: *laughs

S: Why do you ask?

J: I want to hear the answer to that question.

E: Like an inappropriate hug?

R: Cuz my doctor today gave me a hug, and it was fine at the moment. Then when he left the room, I was like that was weird! Why did he give me a hug?

B: How well do ya know him?

R: Uh this is like my third of fourth visit.

J: Rebecca, maybe he surmised that you’re gonna die and he felt bad.

R: Yeah that’s, he wasn’t giving me bad news or anything. It was just like a physical, and then

B: And then he got physical

E: Very physical

J: Have you ever hugged a patient?

S: I have never initiated a hug; but if patients initiate a hug with me I allow it.

R: And it’s always like when you’ve just told them something horrible right?

S: No no! I just…ya know I just have some like older female patients that are very huggy

R: Oook

S: and feel

E: cultural

S: they feel comfortable doing that.

R: He’s an older man who looks like Richard Dreyfuss and sounds like Richard Dreyfuss.

S: Interesting. Doctors have different personalities with their patients. But there are lines that we try to be cognizant of.

R: Yeah

Astrology Belief (15:14)[edit]

S: Um Alright, Evan, you’re gonna tell us about public opinion regarding an oldie, but a goodie…astrology.

E: Oh boy, oh boy. Yeah Chris Mooney, author, long-time friend of the SGU and the New England Skeptical Society; he wrote an article at the other day. A very revealing piece in which he showcases the latest analysis of how well Americans understand science. Or, rather, how terribly Americans misunderstand science. Chris reports that, according to a new survey by the national science foundation, nearly half of all Americans say astrology – which is the study of celestial bodies’ reported influence on human behavior, worldly events and other human centered notions – astrology is either very scientific or sort of scientific. Nearly half of Americans.

S: Mhmm

R: Wow

E: And this was part of a larger comprehensive analysis contained within the 2014 science and engineering indicator study; which has revealed that American attitudes about science are moving in the wrong direction. Skepticism of astrology had hit an all-time high in 2004, when sixty-six percent of Americans believed that astrology was total nonsense. But since then, each year fewer and fewer respondents have dismissed connections between star alignment and personality as bunk.

S: So basically you’re saying right when the SGU started, it was all downhill from there.

E: I hate to have to say that, but that’s correlation and causation, by the way folks.

S: Yeah

E: We can actually not ascribe anything really meaningful to that. But you’re right, Steve, that is an interesting little tidbit. But here’s how it went, they first took this poll in 1979. And at the point fifty percent of Americans were skeptical of astrology as a science, fifty percent were skeptical. And then the skepticism, it crept up it rose and kept rising until 2004 sixty-six percent had skepticism of astrology. But since then, 2012 were the latest numbers, and it’s dropped down to fifty-five percent skepticism, which is the lowest number since 1983. And young people are especially inclined to offer astrology scientific legitimacy. A majority of Americans aged 18 to 24 considering the practice at least sort of scientific. And the 25 to 34 age group was not far behind them. This is extremely disconcerting

S: Mhmm

E: Um remember when Carl Sagan famously wrote in his book, The Demon Haunted World, he wrote that if pseudoscience is embraced it might be argued in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood. I don’t think there’s ever been a more succinct way of putting it. And what he’s basically saying is the understanding of science is in decline; as result, the embrace of pseudoscience is on the rise.

S: Yeah actually the data shows that there’s not a linear relationship, there’s more of a curve there that actually…People who know a little bit of, as you know more and more science you get more interested in pseudoscience and the paranormal. And it’s only as you start to get to the higher levels of science education that it starts to drop off. Isn’t that interesting?

E: That is very interesting.

S: So I think it makes people more curious and open minded and they start to think about interesting things. But you got to get to a pretty high level of science understanding, or you need critical thinking skills. And that, I think it hasn’t really been tracked separately with that same data. But before you can start to deconstruct and understand why the pseudoscience is more pseudoscientific. But there is separate data, just looking at the ability to think critically; and that definitely correlates with rejection of pseudoscience.

E: Right. Very unfortunate. Um

S: Yeah

E: What can we do? What aren’t we doing?

S: Let’s start a podcast.

E: Yeah, let’s do that. What can our society…and we’re talking about Americans. And they did do some research with other places in the world. And surprisingly a place like China, they’re acceptance of astrology as science is low, very low. Only about ten percent in China compared to the numbers over here. Again it’s called the 2014 Science and Engineering Indicator Study. A lot of good information and data collected there from lots of different sources; not only the National Science Foundation but others. And they kind of put it all together there for you in one nice package. So we’ll recommend that folks go there and check it out for themselves.

S: Yeah so we still got a lot of work to do.

E: A lot.

New Burgess Shale Find (19:53)[edit]

S: Hey well let’s move to a really cool science news item. Uh have you guys ever heard of the Burgess Shale?

B: Yes

R: Yeah

E: Uh, yes

R: He was in a Twilight Zone episode with (?)

B,S,E: *laugh

S: Uh Charles Walcott discovered what is now called the Walcott Quarry about a hundred years ago; right after the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century. And this is a uh excellent bed of soft-bodied fossils from the Cambrian Explosion, from the Cambrian era. 570 to 530 million years ago, this was soon after the first proliferation of multicellular plants and animals. Tons of really weird and bizarre species, you know, were pulled out of the Burgess Shale. If you’re interested in this, I think probably still probably the best book that describes the Burgess Shale is Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould. If you haven’t read it and you’re interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend it. Well, recently scientists reported that a discovery of another find – the Kootenay National Park find. It’s in the Burgess Shale, it’s only forty kilometers Southeast of Walcott Quarry; so it’s in the general geographic area. And this is a fossil bed from slightly later in the Cambrian than the Walcott Quarry; so creatures are a little bit more developed. And the early reports are that it could be an even bigger fossil find than the original Walcott Quarry. I mean they’re pulling tons of specimens out of this. And the shale is like these plates; so when you find the fossils you pull the plates apart so you have basically two images of the fossil. You have the negative and the positive image of the fossil. Because of the way the fossils were preserved, it preserves the soft parts. So it’s not just the bones, cuz they’re because early multicellular life didn’t have a lot of hard parts to fossilize. That’s why you need to have these optimal conditions.

E: So when you can see the soft parts you can actually get a sense of what the creature really looked like from the outside.

S: Yeah

B: What kind of preservation are we talking about? These soft parts, what are we talking about here?

S: Well essentially you can reconstruct three dimensional images of these specimens from the two plates ya know. Ya know you may have to get multiple specimens, they do get flattened out. So you have to kind of infer their three dimensional structure. So it takes a lot of work to really reconstruct these fossils, but you can do it. So far they have yielded three thousand and fifty-three specimens, representing at least fifty-two taxa. Of these, half of are known from the Walcott Quarry.

B: And fifteen of them are new right?

S: Yeah, totally new.

R: Wow

B: Amazing

S: And they’re learning new details about previously known species from the Walcott Quarry. So this find, it’s something we’re going to be hearing about for decades I would think.

B: Oh, sure

Boeing Anti-Gravity (23:06)[edit]

S: Bob, you’re gonna tell us about another interesting item. This one, I think this is probably more towards the pseudoscience end of the spectrum. You let us know what you think.

B: Oh yeah!

S: Apparently Boeing has been researching antigravity.

B: Yeah…

J: What?!

B: Jay I mean, how extraordinary is that? If that’s even true. Didn’t NASA, I mean how many government agencies have done like ESP and stuff like that? There are no bastion of skeptics in these corporations and in the government. I wasn’t terribly surprised. So basically, a prominent aero researcher named Nick Cook claimed Boeing is working on antigravity projects. He claims that Boeing is kind of trying to get in on some Russian research that has claimed to produce a gravity-like energy beam that can produce, get this, a force of about a thousand Gs on an object, vaporizing it. That’s pretty heavy stuff, this is I think what you can safely call a game changer, if it’s true. Not only for the military offense and defense but for physics itself. I mean is it any surprise though that my skeptical and physics alarm bells are totally going off on this one. So I wanted to take a look at just some of the players behind this. Nick Cook has an interesting resume; he’s a British aerospace researcher and writer, he’s considered an expert on military black projects, and he’s also the current aerospace consultant and was for fourteen years the aviation editor for Janes Defence Weekly. Have you guys heard of that?

E: Oh absolutely, it’s considered like one of the standards of aeronautics.

B: Well it’s an important, it’s an international defense journal. Which basically covers and analyzes military defense activity around the world. If you want to know what’s going on around the world in those realms, this is one of the most prominent journals to look through. Now Nick of course has some red flags in his resume. He’s been on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast a number of times – DING DING DING!

R: Who hasn’t?

B: Yeah, well

E: Phil Plait’s been on there.

B: But not everyone is espousing their beliefs in zero point and ant gravitation devices, among other things. Regarding the zero point energy, he says that it has a potential and limitless power source that pervades all of science. And, I quote, he says it’s rooted in science. Now we’ve covered that before, on zero point energy. But um, there’s another good quote from him, “some theories say if you spin the zero point energy field that exists all around you, some weird and magical things start popping out, one of which is an ant gravitational effect.” So okay, whatever. He admits though that he’s not a scientist, very good’; but he has enlisted some help. So who do you think he asked for some help? None other than Dr. Hal Puthoff. Puthoff was an, he helped pioneer this whole dubious zero point energy field idea in the first place. And he’s also famous for endorsing Uri Geller, enough said about that. And he also, he had to, get this one, he headed the CIA’s remote viewing program and he actually claimed to send his own mind into the surface of the planet Mercury. So you know if I want a scientist to back up my revolutionary claims, I’ll just say that I would not pick Dr. Hal Puthoff okay. So according to Cook, Boeing has not only confessed to researching antigravity, but claimed… I really I couldn’t corroborate that at all. I found denial from Boeing, but that was from 2002. I couldn’t find anything recent; so I can’t find anything saying that they’ve actually been looking into it. And even if they were, so what? Does that mean that it’s a real science? He also claims that they have a project. He actually has the name of a project that they’re working on called Grasp, Gravity Research for Advanced Space Propulsion. And the aim of the project, apparently, is three holed. They want to enter a collaborative relationship with their Russian scientist who’s behind this new revolutionary device that can project a thousand Gs of energy towards anything. His name is Dr. Eugene Podkletnov. They want to determine the validity of his work; and finally they wanted to examine the uses for such a technology. Clearly, there’d be amazing uses for it; but the thing is, how feasible is it and what’s the evidence like? So, now I looked into Eugene and he’s got some red flags as well, of course. He’s a material scientist, he’s not a physicist like I assumed. He was about to publish his research… I looked into his early years and he was about to publish his research on gravity negation way back in ’96 and scientists criticized his conclusion; and then he withdrew his article. And then somehow this was followed by the University evicting him. Then he disappeared for a while, he went off the grid for a while. So for me, you know if you’re unable to handle criticism, that’s classic pseudoscientist right there. I mean that’s what…that’s an integral part of science. If you can’t handle it then um…that’s just a major red flag I think that you are an actual pseudoscientist. Clearly this guy is bright, but you know how that goes. Just because you’re a smart guy doesn’t mean you’re not gonna get swayed by woo. Also, I’ve been reading about some of the problems with his published research. Typical things I’m hearing are that he doesn’t give out enough information so that you can actually replicate any of his experiments. People mentioned anomalies that seemed to have never been described or analyzed so. Those are red flags as well. And then I tried to look into the, what’s the science have to say about shielding gravity or even gravity weapons? It doesn’t look good. You know you typically can’t say it’s impossible, but it doesn’t look good for some of this. I got some good quotes, George Smoot (he’s a professor of physics at UC Berkley) he said, “If gravity shielding is going to be consistent with Einstein’s general theory, you would need tremendous amounts of mass and energy. It’s far beyond the technology we have today.” Yeah, that kind of makes sense. You wanna mess with gravity, you need a lot of mass to generate it. But then Gregory Benford is a professor of physics at UC Irvine, he said “There’s nothing impossible about gravity shielding, it just requires a field theory that we don’t have yet.” That’s all, a new field theory. That alone would garner this guy a Nobel Prize, that would be an amazing thing. But just saying this guy that all he needs is a new field theory, I mean that seems like quite a bit. So also there’s another final point I wanted to make about this, I think – it just seems reasonable- that if he had a working device, that he demonstrated, that was dramatic as what they’re saying… I just think that the Russian government would clamp down on this guy and not let him out of their sight. I mean that’s an amazing development and I think it’d be obvious that they would pour billions of dollars into anything like that. Especially, if this guy has got a working device. The benefits are just not to be believed, you have amazing weapons that would literally put Russia’s military in a league all its own, if they had things like this. They’d have gravity shielding to protect them missile and light saber attacks and all sorts of things. Flying cars with no conventional food and space ships that literally seem to pop right out of science fiction movies. I mean it’s almost unending what they would have. And they would take quite seriously if he was actually able to demonstrate it. So I was reading Wired article about him and the guy’s looking for funding you know; and that just totally reminds me of the free energy and perpetual motion devices that we have seen in the past

S: Yeah

B: The only thing perpetual about them is the need for your money and just a little bit more time. So I wouldn’t hold my breath on this one. The fact that Boeing, if they didn’t even research it, whatever. I mean companies like that do all sorts of whacky stuff trying to make a revolutionary leap in just one bound. And hey, you know, it’s not impossible, that would be an amazing thing. But I wouldn’t be sinking lots of money into this. Not unless I actually saw his device.

S: I think that’s a very common feature of technological pseudoscience is that it’s like five to ten steps ahead of where we are ya know. And it’s where companies might get in trouble. They’re always looking for the next thing right, the next technological breakthrough; because they want to invest in it and be and own it. But I guess you need some science background to know when that breakthrough is the next iterative step in our development of technology versus someone claiming to have let decades of research ahead of where we are. To the point where you can’t of course predict

B: Right

S: What’s gonna happen. And, with no paper trail to show for it, you know.

Photo Lineups (31:56)[edit]

S: Alright one last news item. Uh Rebecca, you’re gonna tell us about the science of photo lineups.

R: Sure. Or the lack of science about photo lineups. Steve sent me a very interesting article that talks about the fact that more and more United States police departments are using a new method of doing photo lineups; something called double-blind sequential lineups. Or instead of lineups sometimes they say arrays, because that’s a bit more specific. To have crime witnesses identify perpetrators. So most people probably know the traditional lineups that you see in films and the usual suspects where a witness looks over a group of people all at once to see which one is the criminal, while there’s a police lieutenant or someone looking on. Or maybe you’ve seen a Law & Order episode where a witness is looking over a bunch of photos while the detective looks over the shoulder; it’s ya know same idea. But there are a lot of problems with that method. There are decades of research that show that when witnesses are presented with a group of people, they won’t necessarily pick out the perpetrator, they’ll just pick out the person they think looks most like the perpetrator. Which is obviously a huge problem. That can lead to false convictions, false arrests, and false convictions. There’s also the problem of having a police officer standing nearby who knows who the quote un quote correct suspect is. Uh the article Steve sent me, I thought kind of naively stated that uh police officers can unconsciously influence witnesses. But of course they can and have, in the past, very consciously influenced witnesses, as well as unconsciously influencing witnesses to get what they need to make an arrest. So with this new method, or at least newer than that method, the lineup is overseen by an officer who has no idea who the actual suspect is – which is what makes it blinded. And instead of the witness seeing all of the suspects, or all of the photos of the suspects at once, they view each one individually so that they can compare that person to their actual memory and decide if it matches up. As opposed to comparing all of the suspects to one another. Despite the preponderance of research suggesting that this method is superior, most police departments actually, in the United States at least, still go by the old method. Some of that might be due to you know just general slow changing just you know, sometimes making a change like that can be difficult for something that’s imbedded in their procedures. Some of the inability to change is due to the fact that the research also shows that not only does sequential presentation of the suspects lead to fewer incorrect identifications, but it also leads to fewer identifications overall. Just to be clear, the reduction in incorrect identifications is much greater than the reduction in all identifications. But, unfortunately there are many police departments that are happy to accept a certain number of false identifications if it means more identifications overall, which is kind of depressing. And the other depressing news is that even if the majority of departments started using the scientifically proven to be better method of showing a sequential array, there are still a host of systemic problems regarding witness uh eyewitness identification in police work. Eyewitness misidentification is the number one cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. It accounts for about seventy-five percent of overturned convictions according to the Innocence Project, which is a great nonprofit that focuses on providing resources and representation to people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes. So, how a lineup is conducted is just one of what they call system variables that can impact uh accuracy of identifications. Other system variables include who is chosen by the police to participate in the lineup and what instructions are given to the witness before they make an identification, and what they witness is told after an identification. And then in addition to system variables, there are what’s known as estimator variables, which are uncontrollable circumstances that can hamper an identification. Like maybe the crime took place at night, or far away from the witness, or maybe the criminal is a different race than the witness – which studies show make a witness less able to distinguish certain characteristics and less likely to be able to choose the correct suspects. Or maybe the witness, at the time of the crime, was under a great deal of stress, which happens quite often and can negatively influence whether or not they can correctly identify the perpetrator. So fixing the lineup issue isn’t going to account for any of that. So even if police departments do start paying attention to the science on lineups, our court systems need to do a better job of paying attention to the science that tells us eyewitness identifications are extremely unreliable, and in many cases we have to use other methods like DNA testing in order to make a case for criminal convictions. S: Yeah I mean there’s actually a pretty broad literature on eyewitness identification. And you’re right Rebecca, pretty much all the variables that you think would influence people’s choice do influence it. At the very least, you have to have a rigorous, almost pristine process. No bias instructions, nobody present who knows what the quote un quote correct answer is, no forced choices and no post identification feedback.

R: Yeah

S: That all effects their confidence. There’s also… did you come across the term choice blindness in your reading about this?

R: I think so

S: Yeah so people don’t even know why they make the choices that they do and don’t even remember the choices they made when like they’re asked to reproduce them.

E: Wow

S: They basically, we know this from all the psychological experiments and other contexts, but people can be manipulated in pretty much every way you can think of, and these all apply. And the bottom line is yeah these kind of eyewitness testimonies is the weakest form of evidence.

R: Yeah

S: It’s the most biased, easily manipulated etcetera etcetera, and yet juries emotionally tend to invest the most weight on eyewitness testimony.

R: Right. And it’s not to say that eyewitness testimony doesn’t have a place in trials and in the investigation, it’s just that you’re right, we need to… There are so many factors that we can’t control. These so called estimator variables, that the very least we can do, the very least we should do, is absolutely everything we can to make the system variables in line with scientific accuracy. So yeah. And so instituting something like this as a law, for instance, making it against the law to do simultaneous lineups…you know that’s just one small step, but it is still probably an important step on the road towards cleaning up how we think about eyewitness testimonies and how we treat eyewitnesses in crimes. And hopefully that can lead to fewer false convictions.

S: Yeah it’s a minimum, at the minimum we should at least be having blinded examiners, you know.

R: yeah

S: Space and stuff like that, you’re right.

Quickie with Bob: Fusion beats unity (39:55)[edit]

S: Hey you know what we haven’t had in a while?

R: Uh, a quickie with Bob?

S: A quickie with Bob

R: Yeah it has been a while.

B: Well thank you Steve, I appreciate your offer. Um, this is your Quickie with Bob. This is pretty cool guys. Scientists at the National Ignition Facility have broken unity.

E: There’s a National Ignition Society?

B: Facility

E: Facility?

B: Where you been boy? So this internal confinement system focuses five hundred terawatt lasers, one hundred ninety-two of them, onto a pellet with the hopes of heating and compressing to such a degree that they achieve ignition creating a self-sustaining fusion reaction to power our ya know Delorean time machines of course. Um, well maybe that was cold fusion. But still, this is a major milestone guys. For the first time ever they’ve created more energy from the fuel than actually did the fuel. I worded that very carefully, that’s a key distinction. Because, the lasers actually produced a hundred times the amount than the fuel actually used. But still, I mean fusion actually happened. Some of the alpha particles that were created actually heated other parts of the fuel to create more alpha particles and so on and so on. The bootstrapping process, um it’s an order of magnitude more efficient than previously. So uh this is clearly, this is a process that’s working that’s creating more and more energy. Now the caveats, of course we got some caveats, this is not ignition. This achievement does not mean even that this process is the one that will get us to ignition. But still, um it’s the best fusion news that we’ve had in a really long time and uh I think this is really good news. It really shows that the money, you know the millions and billions of dollars that we’re investing in this, is really worth it. They are making some really good gains. For years now they, you know the news items are coming fairly quickly, and this uh this is the biggest one. I mean we actually, fusion actually happened. This hasn’t really happened in any facility like this ever. So uh, so that’s fantastic and hopefully the process that they’re working on now is the one that really gonna, that’s really gonna show us a way to achieve ignition.

S: What do ya think, five years? We’ll have ignition?

B: *laughs* yeah

S: Five to ten years.

B: Yeah so keep your eye on this one. Uh fusion is one of those huge technologies that it, once we have it ya know it would just be one of the inventions of history. This has been your quickie with Bob, and I hope it was good for you too. Discuss

S: Ya see this is the kind of paper trail that I was talking about. When you’re developing something as big as fusion, then there are these incremental advances. I mean the research is there, it’s happening. Ya know it’s not like somebody just says hey I created fusion, ya know.

E: Let’s have a press release

S: I leaped ahead twenty steps and thirty years of research all in fell swoop.

B: It’s not one lone scientist, I mean those days are long gone. Sure you could have ya know a breakthrough, a theoretical breakthrough, in lots of different areas by one person. But typically now, it’s teams and teams and countries. How many times have we had discussions of news items and it’s completely international? Two, three, four five different countries are all working together.

E: Makes sense.

S: It does

R: Did you notice that the uh researcher quoted on NPR was called Omar Hurricane?

B: Yes

R: So the researcher named Omar Hurricane used a giant laser to produce nuclear fusion. That is definitely a superman plot.

S: He’s a super villain!

R: Yeah

B,E: *Laugh

R: Right?

S: Absolutely

J: Is his last name Hiruken? From Street Fighter, is that what you’re saying?

B: *laughs

R: No, it’s actually hurricane

S: Hurricane

R: But that would also be great. Yeah

Who's That Noisy (44:55)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Alan Shephard

S: Alright Evan, light us up with some Who’s That Noisy

E: Light it up, baby. Let’s play for you last week’s Who’s That Noisy. A very popular one, lots of correct answers; but here it is again. *Plays last week’s noisy* Helium atmosphere

S: Where was he, on Saturn or something?

E: Yeah where was he? Well why don’t I read you the e-mail we received from the person who was the winner this week. Uh Abigail Drum, she writes to us and says, “Hi there! The sound clip for Who’s That Noisy was taken from a phone call from the 1960’s between President Linden B Johnson and Scott Carpenter, a former astronaut. Carpenter had spent the last thirty days 200 feet underwater in the Navy’s SEALAB 2 project. However, at the time of the call, Carpenter was in a decompression chamber which has helium instead of nitrogen in the air, hence why Carpenter’s voice is so high it’s barely comprehensible. Interesting fact, Sea Lab 2 was apparently much nicer than the previous Sea Lab 1. It had hot showers, but it was also not completely flat on the sea floor. So they called it the Tiltin’ Hilton.

J: Evan, that makes me feel kind of like, isn’t that dangerous? Like there was enough helium in that guy, in the atmosphere in there, his voice sounded like that.

S: Well I’m sure that was enough oxygen too. There’s oxygen and helium instead of oxygen and nitrogen.

J: No, I know that, Steve. I just didn’t know that you could, I know that helium is inert, I just didn’t know that you could it could be mixed with oxygen like that and you could breathe it like an atmosphere.

S: Well now you do.

B: *laughs*

S: Yeah Jay there’s a whole field of helium diving; divers, deep divers who use helium oxygen mixtures instead of nitrogen oxygen mixtures and they really claim that it’s a lot better. Apparently you can breathe in helium for months without there being any tissue damage, and there’s much lesser a risk of narcosis then there is from nitrogen. So yeah, it’s perfectly safe to breathe helium oxygen mixtures.

E: Now Scott, a little bit about Scott Carpenter right? One of the original seven, bright stuff from NASA’s project Mercury. He was the second American after John Glenn to orbit the Earth, and the fourth American in space following Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn. And he died on October 10th 2013. So only recently departed the Earth. So, very sad but lots of correct answers. A lot of people, very happy to have that one correctly recognized. But congratulations, Abby, you were chosen this week as this week’s winner.

S: Thanks Evan. And what have you got for this week?

E: For this week I got something that I think Bob will enjoy.

B: Ooo

E: Here we go, brand new Who’s That Noisy. *plays noisy* Could you hear that scratching kind of sound?

R: Mhmm, that was Skrillex, the early years.

B,E: *laughs

B: Nice

E: Uh this one is well, like I said, a little hint – Bob would find this one fascinating. Do what they did last week with the Scott Carpenter clip and send us it via e-mail or several answers were posted to our forums, feel free to post there as well. And as I always say, and I mean it from the bottom of Jay’s heart, good luck everyone.

S: You can also send that to that would work also

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Net Neutrality (48:43)[edit]

Follow up discussion on net neutrality

S: Got a couple of e-mails this week. Uh we had a lot of feedback about our net neutrality discussion from the special episode that we had that came out early this week on Monday. So, big caveat, this was a live show, meaning that we were taking questions live without prep. We got asked about net neutrality and we talked about it off the cuff without really being able to investigate the details. Which, I allowed because I figured we’d come back and actually do a more meaty discussion of it on the next episode; so that’s what I want to do. We’re not gonna ready any one specific email, because there was a ton of people who gave us feedback about it. So I wanted to do a follow up to go into a little bit more detail. The issue is the recent decision by a circuit appeals court, I think in the district of Washington DC.

E: Mhmm, yes

S: That ruled that the FCC’s regulation of establishing what is called net neutrality were not legitimate, that the FCC can’t do that. So there was lots of speculation about why they made that decision, what the implications of that decisions is. In short, what net neutrality is, is the notion that service providers cannot discriminate different kinds of traffic on the networks. They can’t give premium bandwidth or throughput to people who pay for their premium access and throttle back throughput for everybody else or give preference to their own services or even keep competitors from providing competing services on their own networks. Proponents of net neutrality say that ya know the internet is a vital resource and we need to protect it and it’s a level playing field for everybody and that if you give a service providers the ability to discriminate against different websites, different content originators etcetera, that they will exploit this to ya know make the internet experience much worse and charge a lot more money for stuff basically. Opponents of net neutrality say, essentially the free market should sort itself out and the government doesn’t need to impose these artificial rules inhibiting the free market. So that’s the debate. But I read a lot of dissections of this recent decision and they all basically are saying the same thing. But actually the best summary was by one of our forum members who goes by Vince Gamer, and this is how they broke it down, they wrote this is now quoting from him “FCC, under Bush, said essentially the internet is not a common carrier regulated under Section 2, but is an information service regulated under the much more lenient Section 1. The FCC under Obama, this is a 2010 rule now, said that we can impose a net neutrality regime on the internet. Verizon sued the FCC, saying that you can’t do that because you don’t have the authority to regulate the internet at all. The court ruling essentially said the FCC absolutely does have the authority to regulate the internet. If they decide to call it a common carrier, under Section 2 they can do what they did. But since they called it an information service, they went beyond Section 1 authority.” Does that make sense? So the court decision actually said the FCC does have the authority to regulate the internet. But the FCC has said that the internet is not a common carrier, but is an information service. And therefor under the FCC’s own rules they can’t impose net neutrality. The court’s basically saying yes you have the authority, FCC, to regulate the internet but you’re trying to have it both ways and you can’t do that, you gotta choose one or the other. Either it’s a common carrier or you can’t impose these net neutrality rules. So the FCC hasn’t decided yet, I think it’s going to appeal. Some people speculate it may go all the way to the Supreme Court, of course this whole thing could be rendered moot if congress just passes a law clarifying everything, they could basically do whatever they want in this respect. There aren’t really any constitutional issues here, this is all just what does the FCC, what authority does congress give the FCC in terms of regulating the internet? If congress clarifies that then there’s no legal issue.

E: So are we saying the FCC can’t change the determination, it has to come through congress? The FCC’s not allowed to go ahead and redefine it?

S: Agencies can’t decide what power they have, they are given power by congress. Like the FDA, you know the Food and Drug Administration, they can’t decide what authority they have to do stuff; all they could do is act with the authority that congress gives them. Uh the FCC is the same thing, congress gives them authority to regulate you know it’s the Federal Communications Commission so they regulate communication services in the country. So they’re you know the law gives them certain powers so it’s only a matter of interpreting that law, does that law five the authority to the FCC to do what the FCC is now doing. That’s what the judges were deciding, not whether or not net neutrality is a good idea. The judges were not deciding on the bigger issue of net neutrality it was just does the law give the FCC this authority. And so since this is granted by congress, congress can clarify or change or do whatever they want to give the FCC greater or less regulatory power to clarify this. Of course the bigger discussion is again between is net neutrality a good idea or not and it’s actually an interesting idea. A lot it comes from predicting what will happen you know, sort of predicting the future. Opponents say that if you free up ISPs, internet service providers, they could make more interesting and varied packages or deals with their consumers; they can provide new and innovative services to their customers.

J: I think that’s complete b.s.

S: Now the proponents of net neutrality, like Jay apparently, believe that they’re just going to exploit it to wreck the internet basically.

E: Of course

R: I agree with Jay.

E: I’m not convinced

J: Guys most of these corporations don’t sit around and go what’s a great product that we can offer people and how can we make as much money as possible

E: yeah but they still need a market Jay

S: They can do both

E: It’s not black or white

J: I’m all for net neutrality, I don’t want the ISP to have any say in what I do online whatsoever. They can’t slice and dice up services or anything. Just give me my bandwidth and go away.

S: My fear, without net neutrality, is that big companies are going to get into these complicated arrangements where iTunes/Apple will make a deal with Verizon to give preference to downloads from iTunes over competitors. You know, that sort of thing.

E: Lock out the little guy?

S: Yeah so it will basically make it impossible for little guys to compete on the internet because they won’t have the money and the power to get the premium special deals. A lot of people, a lot of internet commentators are writing that essentially this will result in there being two internets – the fast lane for the big players that can pay premium prices and the slow lane for everybody else. And that’s what proponents of net neutrality fear the most. But again, it’s always hard to say with these regulations what might happen in the future, because everybody can sort of project their own biases into the future. I do personally find the net neutrality arguments more persuasive; I do recognize it’s actually a complicated area.

Question #2: Placebo Medicine (56:25)[edit]

This is a question perhaps specifically focused at Steve, but I would be interested in hearing everyone else's opinions as well. I am a fourth year medical student about to graduate and enter an internal medicine primary care program with the goal of becoming a future primary care doctor. As such, I will be many patients' first and/or only contact with the health system. I know that I will encounter a lot of pseudoscience in this role, and I already have seen my fair share during my clinical rotations thus far. I am unsure of how to stay true to my skeptical nature while still supporting my patients therapeutically. For example, I recently had a patient with failed back surgery syndrome – essentially, lower back pain status post surgery, now with worse pain dependent on opioids to treat. It's a bad situation – the pain is keeping him out of work, opioids are causing problems of their own (and are ineffectual and inappropriate for chronic pain), and he has exhausted the limits of our medical knowledge – he is on NSAIDs, has done physical therapy, has has had all the imaging and even the surgery without relief. So he comes in and tells me he recently started acupuncture and 'it's working wonders'. I have seen this similar story frequently – patients with fibromyalgia or arthritis, or itching, finding relief from acupuncture, or herbal medications, or homeopathy. Frankly, these particular cases have minimal 'harm' – even though alt med can have harm on a large scale when patients avoid conventional medical treatment or engage in dangerous practices, in these particular cases the patients have tried everything medicine has to offer and are still following up with their physicians. While I feel strongly that it is unethical to prescribe a placebo and would not thus go out of my way to recommend non-proven alternative medicine, if a patient takes a placebo on their own and finds relief, it would only be harmful to their health (both mental and physical) and the therapeutic doctor-patient relationship to disabuse them of the notion that the alt med is helping them. A few things could happen if I did: they stop the therapy and are in worse pain taking meds with more side effects, or they don't stop the therapy but stop seeing me because they don't trust my opinion anymore since the therapy has worked and I don't believe it. So when a patient comes to me, being helped by alternative medicine, and asks what I think, I nod and smile and say 'some patients do report relief from that'. Is that wrong? Should I be more firm to my skeptical roots? What if they ask for my opinion before starting the alternative medicine? It may legitimately be helpful through a placebo effect (which would only be minimized by my telling them the truth), they would be taking it under physician supervision, and honestly, there are a lot of medications that we DO prescribe with actual serious side effects that, on balance, are likely only minimally superior to placebo (SSRIs being a good example). These patients are taking alt med for pain or depression or other more subjective complaints, not for cancer or heart disease or something that could kill them without proper therapy. As you can see, I'm ethically conflicted, sorry for the rather rambling question. I could really use your advice!PS – all the usual: love the show, been listening for years, huge fan :)JaimePhiladelphia

S: Alright let’s do one more email; this one comes from Jamie, from Philadelphia, and Jamie writes: I’m not gonna read the rest of Jamie’s email because it’s very long. But essentially he’s asking this question: what if my patients tell me that they are using some alternative modality (like acupuncture, homeopathy or whatever) but they say it works for their symptoms; it’s working for them. Should I just go along with it and say okay it’s fine that it’s working for you or should I say no that doesn’t work you shouldn’t use it, even though the patient is telling him that it is providing them relief.

R: You can’t just tell somebody it doesn’t work when they say this works for me. Like a response of well it doesn’t work is not going to convince anyone.

E: You’re not gonna influence them, right?

R: Yeah and like Steve will have the ultimate say on this obviously as a working skeptical physician; but from a patient standpoint, I think the best goal is to say well I’m glad that that’s working for you, let’s talk about the

E: But here’s the data

R: Well, yeah, like you know or let’s talk about the ways that we can help you out using modern medicine and make sure that you’re not using anything that could actually hamper your treatment. To me the most important thing that a physician can do is make sure that they’re not actively harming themselves by forgoing real medical treatment or taking something that could be actively harming their health.

B: Yeah but besides that, what else can you do? You have to try to explain ya know the intricacies of the placebo effect

E: Yeah

B: and that’s not

R: It’s a tough conversation to have when someone’s

B: It is it is

R: has like a little paper robe on in front of you

E: And I tell you what, he’s becoming a future primary care doctor, you’re not gonna have you’re not gonna be sitting down with people twenty minutes to discuss these things; you’re gonna be in and out, time is precious when it comes to these doctor’s appointments and they’re becoming more and more so, probably less time to see patients than you have today.

S: So let me tell you what I do, because this happens to me almost every day. Jamie also asks about what if patients ask you should I try acupuncture, I think that’s an even easier question. Let me start there. If patients ask if they should try something, and again I get this question pretty much every day – what about this? What about that? Should I try this? – Acupuncture I think is pretty much the most popular one these days, because I treat migraines and neuropathic pain so for pain it’s almost guaranteed to come up. So there I tell the patients, well I’ve actually explored the research, the literature of that question and what the literature shows is that acupuncture is not effective for migraines so I therefor do not recommend it. That’s easy, that’s an easy one in my opinion. I don’t believe in placebo medicine, I think it’s unethical to prescribe placebos for patients or to allow them passively to with your lack of objection to use placebos to treat their symptoms. Even if they report that they feel better, don’t confuse that with them actually having higher quality of life because those two things don’t correlate, the reporting bias may be all that you’re getting. It may make your life as the practitioner easier, but it’s not necessarily helping the patient; don’t confuse those two things. And I also think it’s very harmful to instill in patients, to allow them to believe that nonsense is effective. Now stuff like homeopathy? If they get a placebo effect from their homeopathic remedy for their elbow pain, then they’re gonna rely upon it when they have an infection or they have something that’s not self-limiting or more serious. And that’s on you, their physician for allowing that to happen. The trickier situation, absolutely, is when a patient tells you hey you know I’ve had this symptom for a long time, nothing helped and then I got acupuncture and it feels much better. What do you tell them? The answer is, it depends, it depends on the patient. There isn’t a one size fits all approach, you really have to titrate your response to first of all is the patient asking me a question or are they just informing me about something? What’s my therapeutic relationship with that patient? And what do I think is their level of sophistication in terms of are they interested in me explaining to them what the scientific literature shows.

E: And do you intend to hug the patient?

R: *laughs* Well you know in my physician’s defense, he spends a lot of time with me and he put me on a drug and I came back and I said I’m having this side effect and I looked it up and a lot of other people have this side effect. And he laughed and he was like that’s a side effect that literally everyone has for every medicine. And then he pulled out his iPhone and brought up like a list of side effects and then showed me and then we talked about very openly with what the research shows. So

S: That’s good

R: I quite like him because of that, because of that openness and because he doesn’t mince words; if he thinks something doesn’t work he does tell me. But I don’t know if that’s his approach to somebody who is not quite as openly skeptical.

S: Yeah so but I have told patients who have told me I tried this and it helped me, I have told them well let me tell you what I think about that. So I tell them the research shows that that treatment overall is not effective for what you’re using it for, so then therefor I don’t recommend it. I understand that you feel better after taking the treatment, but I have lots of reasons why that might be the case. And I want to make sure that we are using treatments that are actually helping you. You can tailor it in a way that patients will accept it and they won’t feel threatened. Of course if they do start to feel threatened by that, then I don’t pursue it. I did my job, I told them what I think, I do redirect the conversation to something that I think is constructive. You know I’m not gonna sit there and berate, I never get negative with a patient, I never berate, I never tell them they’re wrong or you never make them feel like they’ve done something wrong. You have to be very careful, you’re always completely nonjudgmental about the patient. But you know I just bring it to this is my reading of the scientific evidence. They can accept that or not, but I’m doing my job and telling them what it shows. Right they’re sitting in my office, they’re seeing a science-based practitioner, I’m gonna tell them what the science shows. But I’m not going to patronize them and be paternalistic and say you know oh some people feel better with that treatment when I don’t believe it for a second. I’m never going to say something to patients that I don’t honestly believe. So it is… I’ve done fine with that, I haven’t had trouble with that. You know patients are actually thankful for my opinion. But you don’t confront the… I guess the bottom line is I tell the patient what the science shows, I don’t confront their beliefs, ever. That’s the distinction, that’s just not appropriate within a doctor patient relationship.

R: I think that’s a good distinction

S: Yeah. Alright well thanks Jamie that was a good question.

Science or Fiction (1:05:23)[edit]

Item #1: Scientists report the results of the first mapping of a genome of a Clovis skeleton, finding that 80% of present-day Native American populations are direct descendants. Item #2: A new study finds that crocodiles are able to climb trees, some even vertically. Item #3: Australian astronomers have discovered the oldest known star, which they date to 14.5 billion years old, 800 million years older than the age of universe. S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts; two genuine and one fictitious. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Are you guys all ready for this week?

E: I lost last week

J: Yes sir

S: We have an interesting one this week. Don’t take it personally.

E: Well, you know.

S: Item #1: Scientists report the results of the first mapping of a genome of a Clovis skeleton, finding that 80% of present-day Native American populations are direct descendants. Item #2: A new study finds that crocodiles are able to climb trees, some even vertically. Item #3: Australian astronomers have discovered the oldest known star, which they date to 14.5 billion years old, 800 million years older than the age of universe. Evan, go first.

E: Oh, what’s the theme?

S: *laughs* no theme

E: Randomness is clumpy

R: Two benign things and one terrifying thing.

E: *laughs* Okay, alright let’s go with this in order: mapping of a genome of a Clovis skeleton. *sigh* I’m having trouble with this one. Okay but the Indian populations came from Siberia, didn’t they? Or most of them did and there’s not necessarily part of Clovis population? I’m tryin to piece this together ugh. So that one’s a guessing game, basically. Uh ok, crocodiles are able to climb trees…okay, I’ll buy that. Maybe they use their tail uh in order to give themselves you know the extra leverage or strength in order to do it. The rate of ascension might be extremely slow; you know we’re not talking about a bear scurrying up a tree or something. But I don’t see a problem with a crocodile being able to climb the tree. They probably use their tail like other creatures in trees have been known to do. Uh, the last one, the Australian astronomers have discovered the oldest known star, 14.5 billion years old – 800 million years older than the age of the universe. Okay, so what’s going on here? Seems ridiculous on the surface. I’m inclined to think this one is actually science because there’s a piece here that’s missing. I wonder if this astronomer is claiming we have to recalculate what we know of the age of the universe because we do now have the evidence of this star and it’s been confirmed. Therefore, time to push the old cosmic calendar back a bit and say the age of the universe is probably a little maybe, perhaps a little older than thought. Well, I’m having a problem with the Clovis one the most; I guess I’m gonna go with that one as fiction but, ya know I’m not…I’m not at all confident in my pick this week.

S: Okay. Bob you seem to have a pretty strong opinion, why don’t you go next.

B: I’ve got no problem with the Clovis skeleton. They were here before Native Americans, okay they’re related, no biggie. Sure it could have gone the other way, but um nothing crazy… nothing crazy like two two and three. Crocodiles climbing trees… what the hell? I mean, I can’t imagine, their tails are meant to go back and forth that’s all. They really don’t move well up and down cuz that’s not how they swim.

S: You don’t think they could use it like a spring like Tigger?

B,J,E: *laugh

R: The second Tigger reference of the evening? Too many

E: Second?

B: I mean depending on the tree, they could grip it properly; I can kinda see that maybe. But that’s the weirdest thing, but not as weird as… Well I noticed that you saved for the one about the star that they date 14.5 billion years. I mean they could have made a mistake, maybe some weird anomaly with the red shift that is giving them an unusual date, therefor I’ll say the alligator crocodile.

E: *laughs*

R: You don’t even know what the animal is! Oh my god

E: I was gonna say the first one to say it’s an alligator automatically loses.

S: Alright, Jay

J: A new study about crocodiles are able to climb trees, I totally believe that one; that’s the end of that.

E: And that’s that

J: Australian astronomers discovered the oldest known star which puts the date to be older than the universe. I’m just assuming that they’re either modifying the name of the universe or they made a there’s a factual error. Are they saying that that is now the age of the universe?

R: Just say a number

J: I’ll go with one.

S: The Clovis?

E: The Clovis

S: Alright so we’ve got Jay and Evan with the Clovis and Bob with the crocodiles. Alright, Rebecca

R: I’m going rogue! I’m goin with the star!

E: You’re going with the star?

R: Yeah because the Clovis is the one that makes the most sense. Like

J: Why?

E: That’s what makes it the fiction

R: Because that’s what, I think that’s the direction things were heading

B: I agree

J: That’s the only one that doesn’t have a tricky thing in it though, there’s nothing tricky about that. And Steve won’t be like it’s 70%

R: Steve would never do that. I don’t know, that seems really obvious to me. That one is true, I don’t know. The crocodiles climbing trees, I just want it to be true. They’ve been around for hundreds of millions of years, they’re like a perfect killing machine. Surely in all that time they would have learned to kill something in a tree. So, yeah, they’re just they’re reptiles like reptiles climb trees all the time. Why not? But pushing back the age of the universe by eight-hundred million years? I feel like I would have heard of that. Yes I know we lose on that argument all the time; but, I feel like that would have shown up in my RSS feeds…age of the universe pushed back. So I think that one’s the fiction. Done. Go

S: Okay a nice spread, nice spread. Um I guess we’ll take these in order. Number one: Scientists report the results of the first mapping of a genome of a Clovis skeleton, finding that 80% of present-day Native American populations are direct descendants. Jay and Evan you think this one is the fiction and this one is SCIENCE. This one is science.

R: In your faces!

J: Son of a!

E: Now the crocodile one’s gonna be the fiction.

S: Okay so, this is cool. This is really cool.

B: It better be.

S: I’ve been following this Clovis story because I love it. I find it fascinating. Now the Clovis people are known primarily from their, the Clovis culture are known for their points.

J: They’re called Clovis!

S: And you know the Clovis have a certain feature to it. And these were big game hunters, they were hunting

E: Big game

J: *laughs

S: Mammoths, mastodons, giant bison… They had big spears with these big points. The Clovis people, they lived in the Americas about 13,000 years ago and then they all died out.

J: Why? What happened to them?

S: That’s a good question, but nobody knows why the Clovis died out. There are multiple theories, which we’ve talked about before on the show; but that’s not important for this item. Um

E: Clovis, what is it?

S: The other question is where did the Clovis people come from, what’s their relationship with modern-day Native Americans? Did they Clovis people die out and get replaced by the Paleo Indians who eventually became modern Native Americans? Or did they, are they the same people? Did the Clovis people, just their culture change but they actually became Native Americans? Well this Clovis skeleton, a boy actually a young boy, they were able to map the genome and compare it to Native American populations; and they found that it the uh family in which this boy came is the ancestor to 80% of present-day Native American populations. Mainly the ones from South America and Mexico.

E: So not the ones to cross the Bering Strait.

S: No no they are. The Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait and they divided pretty much into two populations – those that stayed in the north in Canada and those that went south to where the US’s Mexico and South America. They just haven’t examined American Native American populations, so we just don’t know their relationships. But, the ones from South America are definitely related to the Clovis people. So it’s probable that the Clovis culture died out, the people – at least enough of them to survive to become or interbreed with or whatever the Paleo Indians that are ya know the ancestors of the Native Americans. So that’s very interesting. So obviously this was a controversy, this was a huge piece of information that helps us clarify that. Cuz there are still people that are saying maybe the Clovis people came from Europe or whatever. There was a separate migration that wasn’t the same migration that ultimately led to the Native Americans. It does bring up the whole issue of who owns these skeletons; and a lot of Native Americans are saying that well they’re their ancestors therefor they should have the right to choose what happens to them. And others counter like, you know well the Clovis people were not necessarily ancestors of your tribe, so you don’t have control over them. So this in away also throws that argument towards the Native Americans that are saying they should be able to determine what happens with these remains. For example, this Clovis skeleton was reburied after it was examined. Lots of interesting implications for that. Alright let’s move on to number two: A new study finds that crocodiles are able to climb trees, some even vertically. Bob, you just cannot believe this one, everyone else thinks this one is true.

J: I mean seriously Bob.

B: I said I could imagine it.

S: Alright so you could imagine a crocodile sitting in a tree, would you believe

R: k.i.s.s.i.n.g.

J: Two crocodiles

S: Would you believe four meters up? Could you believe that a crocodile could get four meters up a tree?

J: That’s what is that thirty feet?

R: twelve feet

E: thirty feet

R: what’s that like a million feet?

  • all laughing*

E: metric system wins!

R: It’s like four farthings right?

S: There have been sightings, people claiming to see crocodiles in trees before but never any scientific description.

B: Until now

S: Until now

R: Ahahaha Eat it!

S: Yeah so there’s a picture and everything. So it’s very interesting. It seems that their tree-climbing behavior is probably not to hunt things in the tree, but to bask. Because you know their reptiles, they’re cold-blooded, they need to bask in the sun and in some places that’s the best place they climb

R: I bet they’ve murdered things though.

S: Eh they might have. They also they tend to like for those some crocodiles tend to climb trees around the waters’ edge, they like will climb out onto branches and then when anything comes by they drop in to the water, to hide.

R: Oh I thought you meant to murder.

S: No they tend to be very skittish

R: Like death from above

S: I guess they feel vulnerable while they’re out basking in the sun on the edge of a tree limb; so they will tend to drop into the water if they if anybody comes by. The researchers also said that the smaller crocodiles are more likely to climb trees and climb higher. The really big crocodiles tend to get to big to climb trees. So yeah the biggest ones aren’t doing this. But it’s not just the babies, some moderately big ones will still climb trees. And yeah they can use their claws to climb even vertical surfaces. So even though they don’t look to be adapted to be arboreal, they can still manage to climb trees. And this is a ya know the researchers made a very interesting observation that when we’re trying to interpret the ecology of fossil species, you know we base it on their claws their bones their teeth etcetera, but animals will make use of their anatomies in lots of different and interesting ways. It’s like even though the crocodiles’ claws may have evolved quote un quote for one particular purpose, they will still use them in other ways. That’s an important concept to evolution. One, that I find, creationists consistently miss. There isn’t this simplistic interpretation that one anatomical structure is for one thing, or evolved for only one purpose. Most structures can be put to multiple use, and that maybe some population of crocodiles might eventually evolve into an arboreal species. And then they’ll say well how did that happen. Well because they can climb trees now even though they’re not specifically adapted for it. Ya know? All of this means that Australian astronomers have discovered the oldest known star, which they date to 14.5 billion years old, 800 million years older than the age of universe is fictions. Congratulations, Rebecca.

R: Thank you

S: Now this is, this in fact was the state of affairs about ten years ago or fifteen ago. Do you guys remember this? Where the oldest stars were older than the estimated age of the universe.

B: Oh yeah it was a big problem

S: Yeah it was a big problem. I remember a creationist threw that up in my face. I was like well we’ll sort it out. I’m sure that one or the other or both of the dating is off. Either the age or whatever method they’re using to estimate the age of the star, or whatever method we’re using to estimate the age of the universe, one or both of those must be off obviously. It’s so plausible it actually was the case not too long ago. But, eventually we discovered that the universe was older than we thought and that everything came into alignment. These stars were like twelve billion and a half billion years old, the age of the universe was pushed back to 13.4 and everybody was happy (or 13.7). Now Australian astronomers did discover the oldest known star, but it’s about point one billion years after the formation of the universe. So it’s 13. Yeah 13.6

E: A hundred million years?

R: And it’s nearby right?

E: Was that like a protostar? I mean were there really

S: Yeah it was a star

E: I thought that was too soon for stars to form

S: It’s probably getting close to just about as soon as it could form. Yeah the astronomer, Kellar, said it was like finding a needle in a haystack; they got lucky. They were using a wide-field telescope to search for ancient stars as part of a research project specifically designed to do this and they found one; 13.6 billion year-old star. So this will help us study what the first first stars to form in the universe were like. Were they any different than the stars that we see today? Alright, you guys really struggled this week.

J: Oh man

R: I didn’t

J: That was really bad, Steve.

E: I’m very sad, I’m very sad.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:21:09)[edit]

“The inclination to sink into the slumber of dogma is so natural to every generation that the most uncompromising critical intellect must without intermission stand upon the watch against it.” - Otto Pfleiderer, 1902

S: Alright, Jay, you got a quote for us?

J: I do. Very strange, I’m not 100% sure who the author is, so I’m going to read um who I think the author is. But I challenge anybody out there to correct it. Um this is an old one. The quote was sent in by a listener named Nathan Dickey and the quote is, “The inclination to sink into the slumber of dogma is so natural to every generation that the most uncompromising critical intellect must without intermission stand upon the watch against it.” And that quote is thought to be from Otto Pfleiderer

S: Otto? Otto Pfleiderer?

J: That’s close enough. German he was a German Protestant theologian, but I am not sure that’s the author so please send in the correction if you can find one.

R: Hey I’m gonna be at SkepTech in April at University of Minnesota at Twin Cities, April 4-6. Find out more at

J: Hey I’m gonna be at NECSS

S: Yeah we have NECSS coming up

R: Mhmm, I’m gonna be there too!

S: April 11-13 in New York City. And the dates for The Amazing Meeting 2014 were announced; Las Vegas South Point hotel, July 10-13th. Well guys thank you for joining me this week.

R: Thank you, Steve

J: Thank you Doctor Steve

B: Yeeeah

E: No crocodile tears here

J: Dr. Huggy to his personal patients

R: Dr. Hugs.

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

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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