SGU Episode 45

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SGU Episode 45
May 31st 2006
SGU 44 SGU 46
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
P: Perry DeAngelis

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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 31, 2006. This is your host, Stephen Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society, and joining me this week are the skeptical rogues Perry DeAngelis, ...

P: Right!

S: ... Jay Novella, ...

J: Hey, what's up guys?

S: ... Rebecca Watson, ...

R: Hey, everybody.

S: ... and Bob Novella.

B: Good evening.

S: Perry, welcome back from Alaska.

P: Yes, I'm back now.

R: Perry, you're brimming with energy.

P: Ha, ha.

S: How was your trip?

P: It was fine. I kept a lookout for any aroma therapy salesmen or things that accosted Bob on his trip, but there were none such on my boat.

B: Wow!

P: The median age for an Alaska trip is considerably higher than a Caribbean trip.

J: So there were some hot babes there, huh?

P: With walkers.

J: Yeah.

P: Bob has been to both, so you can probably do the comparison, Bob, but I certainly noticed it was considerably more elderly crowd. So, Bob, you went to the Caribbean and to Alaska.

B: Yes.

P: Do you remember there being crazy salespeople on your Alaska cruise also?

B: Oh, yeah. They had a bunch of that baloney on both cruises. So I'm kind of surprised you didn't.

P: No, I really did not. A couple of cooking demonstrations, you know.

J: Perry, maybe they saw you coming?

P: Dance lessons, ...

J: And they were like "This guy is — you can't bullshit this guy."

P: I went to a movie trivia game, you know, bingo.

S: But is was a pseudoscience-free trip.

R: Bingo?!

J: Well, that's good.

R: You went to Alaska to play bingo?

B: Party animal!

P: I did indeed. I almost won, too, but not quite.

R: Wow!

J: That sounds like the shittiest vacation I've ever heard of in my life.

P: It was awesome.

R: "I went to Alaska and almost won at bingo."

P: It was awesome.

J: "Ain't that right, granny?"

P: I had a very good time.

News Items[edit]

New Skeptics Guide Forum (2:11)[edit]

S: Now in the new this week, the first is item is the fact that the Skeptics' Guide Forum is now open. After a long delay, we finally have our message board online. People are already signing up and sending messages, and a lively discussion has begun. So just go to our homepage (, and there's a link to the message board from there. Sign up and start taking part in the discussion.

R: Or else!

New 9/11 Footage (2:39)[edit]

S: The second news item is from a couple weeks ago. The Pentagon has made officially public some new 9/11 footage of Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon.

P: Fabricated!

S: Now this footage — I mean it's a little anticlimactic in that this footage was already — some frames were already released, and this footage was already leaked on the Internet. So it had already made its rounds among the conspiracy theorists. So it really hasn't changed the landscape of the 9/11 conspiracy nuts, but it does show from, I believe, the parking lot, one wall of the Pentagon and really on the far right side of the camera-view you can see just a blur, just a streak come in from the outside, and then the explosion, which is huge.

J: Steve, what I thought was a little odd — I'm not going to bring up the big conspiracy theory crap — but it does seem a little odd to me that that plane looked to be like within 10 feet of the ground, coming in very horizontally.

S: It actually hit the ground before it hit the Pentagon. It came in very low. I guess the pilot was aiming for the base of the Pentagon.

P: Don't forget the pilots barely knew how to fly planes.

S: Right, right. And they didn't know how to land, because they didn't bother.

J: How come the grass in front of the Pentagon wasn't disrupted then.

S: Well sure it was.

R: It was.

B: It hit. I'm sure it was.

J: I didn't see pictures of that.

R: You can see pictures of that all over the Internet.

P: Who is this guy, huh? How did you sneak in here?

R: I don't know. If you go to, they have a pretty thorough debunking of all of those myths, and they include a picture of the Pentagon that shows damage to the the front of it. It's pretty obvious.

P: What are you alleging, Jay?

J: I'm not saying anything. I'm telling you from the pictures that I've seen out, I don't know, I am not the master of all things 9/11, but ...

R: If you want to see a picture of it, you just need to look for the picture of it.

J: Don't get snappy with me.

R: No, I'm going to get snappy with you when you're being so completely un-skeptical about something. To say that it's not there because I didn't see a picture of it?

J: I am being totally skeptical.

R: What kind of response is that? "I don't see a picture of it, so ..."

P: Describe the logic underlying that conclusion, please.

J: Look, I never claimed that I am a expert at these things. I certainly believe that ...

R: You know what? I'b never seen a picture of your mother, so I guess she doesn't exist.

J: Don't you dare bring my mother into this. Look, all I'm saying is that of all the pictures I've seen, all the footage I've seen taken, I've never seen what I would expect to have happened to the ground if an airliner hit it.

S: Well, that's a good point in that: what is your expectation based on?

B: Right, exactly.

S: And the point is, and I think that the conspiracy theorists make this huge mistake, is they actually have the arrogance to think that they have any idea what would happen in such an unprecedented and unusual event as a passenger jet loaded with fuel crashing into one of the biggest, most heavily reinforced buildings in the world. This is literally an unprecedented crash, a very high-energy, chaotic event, and ...

B: The same thing with the twin towers, Steve.

S: ... nobody knows what is supposed to happen.

B: It's the same thing with twin towers. I've listened to many mechanical engineers who said that they were watching the twin towers, and they were saying that they're not going to go down. They're just built too strong, and they were in shock when they went down.

S: Yeah.

B: It's just a completely chaotic event and unpredictable.

S: Yeah. And there's no prior history really to base it on.

B: Right, exactly.

S: It was a unique event.

B: That's it.

S: And what the conspiracy theorists do, and I do think the scientific sites that are reviewing the specific claims of the conspiracy theorists — I think Rebecca is right, the Popular Mechanics article, which we'll have on our notes page, was the best one that I found. They really went point by point and took the most common claims of the conspiracy theorists. But what they basically do is make unwarranted assumptions about what should have happened during these crashes and say "Well why is this the case? Why is that the case? Why isn't there this? Why isn't there that," and they're basically just mystery-mongering and trying to somehow roll that into a conspiracy. For example, many of the sites notice that the windows next to the location where the plane hit the Pentagon were not shattered. And they just throw that: "Why weren't those windows shattered?", as if that is supposed to be like this big mystery that should make us question the basic events of that day. Well, they didn't shatter because they were blast windows.

R: Yeah, we're talking about the Pentagon.

S: Yeah, they were designed not to explose. They're blast windows!

J: Yeah, but I haven't seen any pictures of these blast windows. I don't know if they exist.

B: Ha, ha.

R: You're so lucky we're not in the same room, because I would punch you in the face, I swear to God.

B: Did you guys know that the Pentagon — the prior years to 9/11 — was they went through like a multimillion dollar job of reinforcing ...

S: Yeah.

B: ... of a lot of the building and structure, and a lot of more people would have died and a lot of the building would've collapsed, or more than did collapse, if it wasn't for that. It's like they just finished, too, right before the plane hit.

S: Yeah, of course, that's one of the coincidences that the conspiracy theorists point to ...

B: Right.

S: ... and say the jet hit the one side of the Pentagon that had just been renovated and reinforced. Like, "What are the odds?" Twenty per cent?

J: One in five?

B: Pentagon!

R: Actually, they're a hundred percent. The odds were a hundred percent, because it did.

S: Because is happened, right?

R: Right.

S: So it must have been a hundred percent.

R: The conspiracy theorists also say that — they just make some stuff up. They don't just ...

S: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

R: ... leap to conclusions. They just say things like "A Boeing 757 was never found in the Pentagon wreckage." Yes there was.

S: There was.

R: And we have plenty of people who say that there was, and if you're going to say that all of these people are somehow conspiring together, I mean, you've got a conspiracy theory that just the scale of it is just incomprehensible.

S: That's right, and that's why these grand conspiracy theories, as I say, collapse under their own weight, because every time you come up with a problem with a conspiracy, it means that more people had to be involved in the cover-up, and the conspiracies grows and grows and grows and grows. All these people who were involved with the cleanup at the Pentagon, people who were picking body parts with American Airlines uniforms on them off the ground ...

J: Yeah but they killed all those people.

S: But they accounted for all of the people except, I think, for one passenger on that plane.

J: They really did? They found physical material for everybody?

S: Yeah, they found all the body parts of all the people on that plane except for one person I think they couldn't find.

P: Is there a basic alternate hypothesis? What do they think: it was missiles?

S: Yeah, the missile is the most common one I hear.

B: Or a bomb.

S: I heard one person advocate a truck with explosives in it, but too many people heard and saw something in the air crashing into the building.

B: Right.

S: Most people say it was a jetliner. Some people did not say that.

R: I've also heard military cargo jet as opposed to passenger plane.

S: Yeah, either some kind of either another kind of aircraft or missile is the most common thing that I've heard.

B: I tell you though, guys, if I truly believed that my country was capable of doing that, I'd be moving to Sweden.

R: Yeah, right.

B: Come on, would you even live here if your country is capable of doing something like that? Come on!

J: Well, Bob, honestly, and please don't take me as being the big conspiracy theorist, but governments do really screwed-up things to get their agendas done. I'm not saying that this was an example of that, but Bob, yeah! Governments kill people; governments bribe other countries and blackmail people and do — you know, 007!

R: That's the same kind of thinking that leads to, say, homeopathy getting accepted, because doctors sometimes do messed up stuff, because big pharmaceutical companies are after the almighty dollar and do screwed up stuff, so ...

J: But Rebecca, it's true!

R: ... they assume therefore they're capable ...

J: You can't argue that ...

R: No, I'm saying it is true, and that's what leads to ...

J: Oh, okay.

R: ... people to believe these grand, just completely stupid conspiracies that make no sense.

S: Yeah, I mean, it becomes a logical fallacy in that, yeah, sure, governments sometimes are deceitful. Sometimes they do bad things. There are coverups, but you have to think — it depends. If you're living in 1960s Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain, there's probably almost nothing that the Soviet Union was not capable of pulling off and hiding from the public at large. They didn't have a free press. They had a very well-run and efficient spook force in their country. But we live in an open society with a free press, and it's traditionally very difficult for politicians to hide massive conspiracies from the American public. It's basically just not possible.

P: I believe the former president couldn't even keep his BJs in the oval office secret.

J: There's no way. There's no way that our current administration could've artfully pulled this off.

S: Right.

B: No, and the risk is just far — just considering risk alone, it's far too great to even risk getting caught. Even if you could somehow justify it in some twisted logic, just the risk alone is a deal killer.

S: Right.

B: Hello! Okay, we get found out, then that means, okay, no Republicans get elected for a half a century ...

J: Or more.

B: ... because of what I did. Come on! Who would risk that.

S: It's absurd. It's absolutely absurd.

B: It's beyond absurd; beyond absurb.

S: And you're right, Bob. They have to invest in the conspirators' absolute evil genius that they could pull something like this off, you know, the timing of — if you look — like I saw Spare Change today — this is one of the conspiracy videos — and they say — they show the slow-motion video of one of the planes crashing into one of the twin towers, and they say "Look at this frame. There's a flash of light on the twin tower, but it's a little bit in front of the nose of the plane. Therefore, it wasn't the plane hitting the tower; it was a missile that they shot right at the exact moment that the plane was just about to crash into the twin tower.

B: Oh, okay.

S: And they managed to switch the plane and deceive all the passengers, and they had the missile on the plane somehow, so it was a military operation. They invest absolutely supernatural genius and capability and power in the conspirators in order to be able to pull off the kind of thing that they believe that they pulled off. It's really incredible.

J: You know, it's kind of like the OJ trial, and they were trying to say that there was a conspiracy. The LA Police Force had a grand conspiracy to frame him, and simultaneously the LA Police Force was being ridiculed for how ridiculous and stupid they were, ...

S: Right.

J: ... and all the missteps that they took. You can't have it both ways.

S: That's right.

P: Apparently you can with that jury, but, you know.

S: Conspiracy theorists do want to have both ways. They are evil geniuses, but they're absurdly stupid in certain ways, and, of course, all the ways that the conspirators figure them out, right, because they're even smarter than the genius conspirators, because they can see through the veil of darkness that they've spread.

J: Steve, this would be a really good topic to discuss in detail on our bulletin board.

S: That's true. Well, I'm sure we'll start to get some posts about it. It's an interesting topic, and I don't think it's going away anytime soon. Another thing about the conspiracy theories is no matter what evidence comes to light — any evidence that's too inconvenient was just planted by the evil geniuses or was manufactured, and any evidence that's missing was covered up and hushed up by the government. So you basically end up with a closed belief system that can't be disproved.

J: Well whoever Bush put on the evil genius tip to come up with 9/11, I'd love for him to have that guy spend some time on our economy now.

S: Right.

B: Yeah.

S: Yeah. where are these evil geniuses when you need them?

J: Yeah.

UK Docs fight against Alt Med (15:25)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on. Rebecca, you had mentioned the homeopathy, and that sort of leads into our next news item. Several doctors in the United Kingdom, our friends across the pond — I think it was 13 physicians — wrote an open letter to people involved with the National Health Service, basically protesting the use of alternative and complementary medicine in the national health service, and they were specifically protesting two initiatives. One was an NHS policy in terms of promoting the use of homeopathy. Another one was a commission, which was supported by the Prince, who is very fond of alternative medicine — I think this was the Smallwood report, which basically concluded that broadening access to alternative health modalities would reap benefits in the UK.

J: Now we know for certain that Prince Charles is an idiot or a drunk, right?

S: As if we didn't know it before.

J: (English accent) "A little bit of the bubbly, eh governor?" Come on, Charlie. Get your head out of your ass. Guys, let me read one quote from the link that Steve sent to me earlier that Prince Charles said, right? "Many of today's complementary therapies are rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies, and the natural world." Why do people believe that ancient people were so tuned in to the Earth and to harmony and to balance in our minds. Where did all this wisdom go in the past few hundred or thousand years?

S: It was all suppressed by our evil modern Western civilization.

P: It's another selling point for their concoctions.

R: I think that it's a grand scale version of "man, things were so much better when I was a kid back in the 80s."

S: Yeah,

R: And you keep going back, and it's like "well, thousands of years ago, things were awesome." I mean, sure we were dying when we were like 28, but ...

P: Life was short, brutish, and nasty, you know, but ...

R: It was short but so sweet.

J: I'm sure the data exists. Do you know of the actual age of death and the average age of death say 100, 200, 300 years ago?

S: Yeah, it basically simmered along at around 35 to 40.

B: Yeah, but is that mean, median, or mode? You have to specify. Shouldn't you specify that?

S: That's life expectancy, which is an average. That's a mean. Lifespan hasn't really changed that much. Probably Neanderthals occasionally would live to be 70 or 80 or older, but on average they were living to about 40, and that goes back even to prehistory. If we, in fact, look at fossil pre-humans or humans, Homo Sapiens, the average age is about 40 when they died. And the same was true about a 150 years ago, and then, basically, when Western medicine became scientific, then the life expectancy began a steady climb, and right now is somewhere between 75 and 80, depending on the country. So it's basically doubled in the last 150 years.

R: I wonder if those two things had anything to do with each other.

S: Yeah, you can always say that there's correlation without causation, but the correlation holds up pretty much everywhere. Whenever you introduce Western medicine into a third-world country, their life expectancy starts rising.

J: So you take someone like Prince Charles.

S: Yeah.

J: Probably the opportunity for him to go to school, right? He probably went to some of the best schools, I'm just assuming, right? Someone in his position. Very worldly type of a person. The guy's probably traveled all over the world, and he is completely stuck in the mire of pseudoscience.

S: Right.

J: That's very depressing to me.

S: Yeah, but why wouldn't he be? In fact, a college-level education, if anything, increases the chance that you'll be favorably predisposed to alternative medicine. You really need to get to the point where you have some kind of advanced training in science, or you need a generally skeptical outlook before you realize that this is all bunk.

B: Or you need to listen to this podcast.

S: That would go under the general skeptical outlook.

P: The skeptics' guide through this universe, appropriately.

R: Look who you are really talking. It's Prince Charles. The only reason why anybody listens to what he says is because he had the good fortune to fall out of the right womb. I mean ...

P: He has the proper inbreeding.

J: Rebecca, my point is it's just sad someone in his position — you just would expect him to be more educated. The guy's leading a life of what? What does he do with his time?

R: Quiet desperation?

S: Of privilege, but not necessarily intellect. You also have to understand that just historically homeopathy has been very popular with the royal family and is much more popular and influential in Europe in general and Great Britain in particular than it is in the United States. We have our pseudoscientices like chiropractic that are much, much more popular over here, but homeopathy really is a European pseudoscience. We have a very, very small amount of it over here compared with to what they have.

J: I hate homeopathy.

S: Homeopathy is just about the worst alternative medicine pseudoscience around. It's the most demonstrably absurd of the bunch, and we've talked about it before on this podcast, but I don't know that we really have gotten into the nitty-gritty of how absolutely absurd it is. So let's talk about a few things about homeopathy. Homeopathy was invented a couple of hundred years ago by this guy named Hahnemann. So basically before scientific medicine. In fact, at that time, doing nothing was better than going to a hospital and getting whatever the standard of care was at that time. Basically, if you went into a hospital you were going to get poisoned and diseased. At that time any alternative was probably a good thing. But when Hanemann came up with homeopathy, he basically made it up out of whole cloth based upon just a couple of anecdotal observations, and then he spun that into an entire belief system. It wasn't a science. It was never tested in any empirical way. It's really a philosophy-based alternative modality. And basically he had his three "laws". They're not really scientific laws; they're just sort of really just magical laws. The first is the law of similar, that like cures like. And, again, there's nothing scientific about that. This is pure witchcraft and magical thinking.

P: It's like the four humors. It's nonsense.

S: It's worse than the four humors. The four humors at least were stuff that was in the body, like blood.

P: Okay.

S: So he, bascially, says that if an onion makes your eyes water, then some homeopathic extract of onion can cure diseases which make your eyes water. That's magical thinking. There's no basis to reality that would make that happen, that would make something which causes your symptoms to also relieve them in "tiny doses."

S: Well, Steve, don't they call that process "proving," don't they, where they actually try to determine "If I give you this little tiny, dilute solution of whatever and see what it does to you, then that's what can be used to cure it."

S: They give you an actual dose of something and see what symptoms you get.

R: Yeah. The beauty of it is they usually tell you exactly what sort of symptons you're supposed to get first, so that way you what to look for.

S: Right, right.

B: Can't you just see them standing there with their little notepad and saying, "Okay, he's scratching his nose. Okay, 'itching.' Itching is one thing."

R: Yeah, they really do. They take everything.

B: "Oh, and he's got gas! He's got gas."

R: Everything that happens to them they record.

J: Steve, isn't homeopathy one of those things that could very easily be tested? Why don't they, you know ...

S: It has been tested, and it doesn't work. It's been tested many, many times. It doesn't work.

J: Did you know that — I don't know if this is still true — but I think I remember reading that homeopathy is the only category of products that are legally marketable as drugs that are like ...

S: It got grandfathered by the FDA in the 1940s. It was political. Homeopathy was much more popular in our country back then.

P: So, Steve, you said there were three. The first was a law of similars.

S: Yeah, so the second law is the law of infinitesimal's.

P: Oh, this is the best.

S: This a good one, right. I love how Randi summarized this in a lecture once. He said "So the first law says if you want to cure a symptom, you take something which causes those symptoms, and the second law is you don't do that."


B: Awesome!

S: The second law is that you dilute it to such a degree that there's nothing left, so what you're actually taking is nothing. Now, of course, this is partly because Hahnemann lived before Avogadro, right? I mean he lived before we knew that you couldn't just dilute something infinitely, that stuff is made of molecules, and once you get down to one molecule, you can't dilute beyond that.

R: Wouldn't his common sense have told him? I don't think Avogadro really needed to say "Hey, no, if you dilute that enough, eventually there's really nothing left."

P: Common what now? Come on!

S: It is antisensical to think that the more you dilute something, the stronger it gets. I mean, come on!

B: Guys, my research showed that Hahnemann did realize that there is no chance of even one molecule remaining after all these dilutions, and it further said that he believed that vigorous shaking or pulverising with each step of dilution leaves behind a spirit-like essence no longer perceptible to the senses which cures by reviving the body's vital force. So he did try to take that into account.

S: I don't know. I don't know about that. I'll have to check that out. My understanding was that — I think that's more of a modern reconstructing of what he was saying to fit better now that we know that there is a dilutional limit. My readings suggest that at the time Hahnemann wrote that law, that it was not known that there was a limit to how much you could dilute something. We could check that out to confirm that.

P: He thought it made it stronger, in essence. He did.

J: You know what's funny? This guy really what wasn't a quack in the sense that he wasn't trying to deliberately hurt people and take advantage of them. I guess he was a quack, but he really ...

S: By modern standards, but at the time this was prescientific medicine.

R: Yeah, he was a quack with his heart in the right place.

J: Yeah, exactly. I know it's funny, but it's true, Rebecca.

S: You can't blame him for not being a scientist before there were scientists.

B: Oh, yes I can.

S: But you can blame people today for believing in something that was nonsense 200 years ago.

P: Right.

S: When we have the benefit of 200 years of science to know that it's BS.

J: Steve, do you remember Randi — I've read a lot about homeopathy since I saw Randi talk about it.

S: Yeah.

J: And I also like the way he really did go to the process of describing how they make a homeopathic remedy.

S: Well were getting to the third law in a second, but when we talk about infinitesimals, I did some calculations. The dilutions are really, really, really big. One of the common dilutions you'll see is 30 C. A 'C' is a one to 100 dilution, so if you have a ten C, it means you dilute something 1-to-a-100 ten times. 30 C is 1-to-a-100 thirty times. So I did some calculations, and this has been done before, but I just wanted to do it myself to see what I got. And if you start with 1 cc of material, or one cubic centimeter of material, and you dilute it 1-to-a-100 thirty times, the volume of water, the equivalent volume of water that you were ultimately diluting that substance into is a sphere with a diameter of 800 lightyears.

B: Okay, so that's 800 times 6 trillion miles we're talking about.

J: Why is that significant, Steve? Do homeopathic remedies typically claim to be diluted to that degree.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: That's what they're saying: 30 C.

R: That's one of the highest ones, 30 C.

S: But even if you go significantly less than that, you're still dealing with incredibly large volumes of water.

B: I could beat that. I have one right here: 200 C "For relief of colds and flu-like symptoms," and it is pronounced oscillococcinum, I believe.

S: Right.

B: So 200 C, wow! How many light years is that? You have to go into megaparsecs.

S: It's probably bigger than the known universe at 200 C.

J: Steve, when they prepare these remedies, how are they claiming that they're creating something that dilute?

S: Well because you just serially dilute it, and you just do the math. That's how ...

R: Yeah, what they do is they just take out a little bit, a little drop, and ...

S: You take out one CC and put it in 10 more CCs, and you take a CC out of that and put it into 10 more CCs or a hundred more CCs.

B: Don't forget, you've got to shake. You've got to shake it.

S: And each time — so that's the third law, which is "succesion" I guess they call it, where you have to shake it 10 times in each axis" up-down, side-side, front-back, and again, 10 times. That's like the magic number. It's ritual, it's magic, it's witchcraft!

R: It's magic, but you end up with some very fit arms by the end of it.

J: Yeah.

S: And you ask homeopaths today, well, you know. You can't deny the fact — there's just math, there is no substance of the original substance remaining in these preparations, and they say, "Well, it retains the essence of what was dissolved into it", and that's what ...

B: Memory, like a memory.

S: That's just — they might as well just say it's magic, because there is no physical, chemical, whatever basis for water retaining the chemical memory or signature of something that used to be dissolved in it. It's nonsense.

J: That also means that anytime you drink water, that that water, because it interacted with other molecules in its past, it's going to have some weird, unpredictable effect on you. Who knows? Come on, just think about it.

R: Yeah, really the entire Atlantic ocean has the memory of my pee.

P: That's true.

J: I thought I tasted something funny the last time I went.

R: Sorry, about that, guys. I had to go.

P: Are you sure the law of infinitesimals refers to dilution and not the IQ of the adherents to this theory?

S: Right.

R: Good point.

P: It's incredible.

S: The lower your IQ, the more likely you are to believe in homeopathy.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

S: Well let's get to some emails. We had our usual large crop of emails in the last week or so.

Cancer Cures (29:46)[edit]

S: The first one comes from Peka Strandroth in Sweden. I think this is our first email from Sweden. And she writes

Hi. Here's something I think you should take a look at:
Ken Nickels claims that he cured himself from stage 4 testicular cancer, bladder cancer, liver cancer, and cancer of the lymph nodes by holistic healing, which included lifestyle changes, diet, exercise, rest, prayer, and a holistic medical regimen including Chinese medicine. He claims that it is much better than chemotherapy or radiation. I'm very skeptical, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter.

S: Well, I read Ken Nickels site. It's pretty sparse, but it's totally typical. You could write this stuff in your sleep. It's the absolutely prototypical "I had this awful cancer. The established medicine just wanted to poison me and cut me and burn me. So I went looking for alternatives, and I found this wonderful thing." It's so — the story is so perfect, it has to be fake. It's totally apocryphal, plus, honestly, there are people out there who had spontaneous remission from cancer who will promote whatever it was that they were doing when they had this spontaneous remission. Or they got the chemo and the surgery but also pursued some alternative modality, and they credit that with whats cured them, or they're in the stage after their initial treatment, but before they get their recurrence. So, a lot of people, they get treated for their cancer. The tumor shrinks, and it goes away for a while, and then they have a couple of years where they don't know if they're cured or not. And then the cancer either comes back or it doesn't. Of course, when the cancer comes back, and they die, you never hear from them again. But if it doesn't, then they go out, they go around proselytizing for whatever it was they were doing.

J: Steve, if somebody had those four cancers, ...

S: Yeah.

J: ... is there any chance spontaneous remission would happen? Does it happen?

S: It's always possible. Spontaneous remissions do happen. Now I don't believe this guy's story, frankly, and I couldn't find any more information about him on the Internet. But it just looks like too perfect a story, plus the guy is on a Christian ministry, and he's trying to raise money for his ministry. So, ...

P: Oh, that's nonsense.

S: I think this is just a way of promoting his ministry and making money. I don't buy it for a second.

R: There's a special place in Hell for people like him.

S: And the only thing I did find was — actually Peka sent a follow-up email when I asked her for some more information, and she said that there actually is some skepticism about whether or not this guy ever had cancer to begin with, which is the other kind of patient, who never had cancer to begin with. It was never really documented that he had it or that he lost it. There's no medical information ...

R: Surprise!

S: ... to document what this guy is saying. Surprise, surprise! Sometimes when the quacks their hooks in you from the very beginning, they could diagnose you with cancer with a fraudulent test, then give you their fraudulent therapy, and then claim to have cured you from cancer. Of course, you don't die from cancer. You live your natural lifespan thinking that you were cured from cancer that you never had. So that's always a good way to generate (unintelligible).

J: Steve, he says on his website "My goal is to not make money with this website."

S: Right.

J: "Frankly, I hate the whole concept of money and possessions. My goal is to be able to raise enough money to support our ministry."

S: Yeah.

R: I hate these guys.

S: Just, too, too perfect.

R: Seriously, they fill me with a bitter rage that is just unmatched by a million suns.

S: They are despicable, totally.

J: This is a guy I would really like Rebecca to see. I love to see Rebecca (unintelligible)

R: I think I could take him. I know I could take him.

P: Well, the guys riddled with cancer.

J: He'll have to change his website to "kissyourassgoodbye".

R: Maybe I'll start a competitive website and try to call him out. See if maybe ...

S: He goes through all of the standard conspiracy theories, again.

P: Like you said, Steve, you can write this stuff in your sleep.

S: You could. About "the pharmaceutical industry doesn't want to cure you. They just want to treat you and keep you sick. Hospitals and doctors don't want to cure you." Yeah, I sit up nights thinking of ways to keep my patients sick so I can (unintelligible).

R: Yeah, and not to mentioned when your family gets cancer. You're going to just let them die ...

S: Oh, it's ridiculous.

R: ... because you don't want to give up the big conspiracy.

S: It's absurd. Think about it. Any pharmaceutical company that came up with the cure for cancer would have their advertising slogan for the next thousand years. "We're the company that cured cancer."

R: Yeah, "We Cured Cancer."

S: That's worth billions and billions! Any pharmaceutical company would jump at the chance to cure cancer. It's absurd!

R: People who work in the mailroom at that company are going out to bars and say "Hey, can I get your number? I work at that company that cured cancer."

B: They would gladly give up all the business, all the contacts, everything they do, they would gladly drop it all, start from scratch curing cancer, and that's all they do. And they would gladly do it.

S: It's silly. I wrote an article about this. It's on our website. I go over all the claims. It's so absurd. Things that most people don't realize is that medicine is not this monolithic construct or industry. It's not like we all get together in the same boardroom and cook of conspiracies, or that anyone could control what I think or do as a physician. Not the AMA, not the FDA, not even the University that I work for, and that the standard of care is pretty much established by salaried, academic, usually university-affiliated physicians, who are not in private practice, do not make money based upon treating patients, and are not affiliated with industry or with regulatory agencies. That they're academic. They make their living doing research and publishing papers and being leaders in curing stuff. Their career would be made by anything even approaching a cure for cancer.

B: They're making you say all that, aren't they?

R: There's a pharmaceutical rep with a gun to his head right now.


S: I'm good, though, aren't I?

J: I think one of the things that a lot of these people believe is that it really is the pharmaceutical companies. That the doctors ...

S: Yeah.

J: It's not that difficult a stretch of the imagination to just assume that all these doctors are not on the take, but you really don't meet the pharmaceutical companies, and those — I always hear people talk about these gigantic, multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical companies.

R: Big Pharma.

J: It all breaks down when I tell people they have to go to the FDA. They have to go through a very expensive, rigorous approval process, and then the FDA over years of testing and everything, you know. It's a very complicated process to get drugs passed. People really believe that the FDA is behind all of this.

P: Some people do, you know, the ones that believe we shot missiles at the Pentagon.

R: Right. It's the same thing, because big pharmaceutical companies do have some underhanded tactics in some of the things they do when it comes to things like patents or when it comes to their lobby. They've got a gigantic political pool.

S: Absolutely. I'm willing to to believe that if pharmaceutical companies would make corporate decisions that are in their narrow financial self-interest. They're not just working for the good of the world. Not being naïve. But none of the conspiracy theories about like hiding cancer cures make any sense.

R: Even with that framework, it still doesn't.

S: Even if you assume the worst about the pharmaceutical companies, how would they have the cure if they didn't intend to use it? They never would have spent the $100 million to figure out that something worked just to hide it.

P: They would make trillions if they had.

S: I think it's true, but even if you don't buy that, that all you could say is that they would never have researched it in the first place. Okay, fine. If you tell me that they are not pursuing certain things because they don't think they can make money off of it, okay, but that doesn't mean they're hiding a cure or that they have it. The other thing — and this is like with the Vioxx thing — yeah, sure, maybe they were slow in getting the information out about Vioxx, but it did come out. And the reason is that you can't hide things forever from the research community, because, guess what, we do research with this stuff. The truth ultimately comes out. Do you know what I mean?

J: Plus, Steve, don't the pharmaceutical companies compete against each other?

S: Absolutely,

J: So let's say, for example, that a pharmaceutical company doesn't want to create a cure for diabetes, because they make diabetic drugs. What about another company ...

S: A start-up will do it.

J: ... that doesn't make diabetic drugs will try to come up with a cure for diabetes, right?

S: Exactly, and, again, you would have to think they are all in bed together in one big, giant conspiracy, in order to make this, in order to have this belief. Again, they think it's a big, faceless, inhuman, monolithic entity. That's how they think of it, even if they don't realize it. No, it's made up of people with families and with people they are close to who are going to die of cancer, and you're right. If the big pharmaceutical companies were hiding a cure for cancer, that would mean that there's a way to cure cancer, and that it's known to our current medicine, our current science. It's possible to come up with it. Some startup is going to come up with it. Some people are going to invest 20, 30 million dollars and get the cure and make trillions. And then screw the other pharmaceutical companies. They do that; it happens.

B: Steve, again like in 9/11, there's the risk. We have the cancer cure. Let's hide it, and some janitor spills the beans, sells it to the National Enquirer, then you become the company that cured cancer and hid it, thereby killing thousands of people.

S: Right. It' so ridiculous.

B: Okay, yeah, you're done. Exactly.

S: Close up shop.

B: It's worth the risk. It's worth the risk. Come on!

S: Right, right. It's just — okay, let's move on.

J: Well, thanks, Peka. It was a good topic you brought up.

P: Please.

S: Excellent. It was excellent.

Dream Interpretation (39:47)[edit]

S: The next one is a little bit lighter: Skeptics' Guide Forums and Dream Interpretation. This is from "bort," who's actually been on our message boards. So, hi, bort. He writes:

Hello. I am a graduate student in Houston, Texas studying cell biology. I have really appreciated listening to your show. I especially enjoy the Science or Fiction segment. The audio quality seems to be improving every podcast. (S: he asks) Have you ever thought about adding forums (S: we have and we did. So thanks. And as I said, bort is already on there). I do have one question (S: he writes). There is a syndicated talk show put on by the Dream Doctor at I have listened to the show a couple of times, and it sounds like it is simple cold reading with a twist. He asked people to describe their dreams, and then he analyzes the dreams. After asking personal questions, he then provides an answer to what the dream is telling the person. Do you believe that there is any legitimacy to the connection of dreams and psychological well-being?

S: Well, I actually sent the Dream Doctor — if you go on to the website, you can email them a dream, and then they'll email you back with their interpretation, although they say "there is no guarantee that we'll answer your dream, and you may have to register, make an appointment for a personal reading."

J: You have to pay.

S: Right. Yes. They never got back to me. We'll see if they do. But, the short answer is "Not really." I mean, you really can't interpret dreams, because they're so quirky and personal. They have to do with your recent experience and just the chaotic stuff that's going inside your head that nobody could know. It's a lot of random associations that are being made in the dream state. Sure, I mean there may be some kind of basic symbolism in dreams, like you might have a frustration dream or an anger dream or a dream that is some basic way acting out some kind of fear that your wrestling with in your life recently. Sometimes counselors may talk to you about your dreams as just a way of maybe giving them a hint about what's on your mind recently or some kind of issues that you may have. But there's no magic to dreams. It's not the magic window into your psychology or into what's going on. There's nothing really big to learn about it. Usually the symbolism is pretty, pretty basic and straight-forward.

B: And don't forget, say, for you, a dog might symbolize, I don't know, your girlfriend or something.

R: Dude, that's sick! I am so glad I'm not dating you.

B: I just pulled

S: What does that mean, Bob?

B: Don't forget, a symol for you — say you have a dream that your dog is your best friend for whatever bizarre reason. That's your symbol. That doesn't mean that your brother's dog symbol is the same thing, and it doesn't mean that a dog in every dream that you have is the same thing. Symbols are different from person to person and between the same person as time passes.

S: Yeah, it's quirky.

B: Symbols are meaningless. Get away from symbols. Don't even worry about symbols, because it's a waste of time.

R: So that dream where I was beating Jay senseless, I don't actually want to beat Jay sensless. Is that what you're saying? Because I'm pretty sure I do.


B: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

R: Okay.

S: But in your dream, Jay may have been a symbol for Perry.

R: Good point, because ...

J: Rebecca, I will tell you what, though. You can smack me in the face with a slice of bacon, okay?

S: Talking about symbols, Bob, on the he has a dream symbols dictionary ...

B: There you go. There you go.

S: ... with a lot of symbols and what they mean. For example, here's the bridge: "The bridge is a symbol of transition. Bridges take us from one location to another, usually across emotional waters."

J: What a jackass!

S: I was reading some of these, and you could literally — I mean, you could write these in your sleep, too. You could make these up off the top your head.

P: Sure.

S: They are just the most obvious, basic interpretation of whatever it is that he's talking about. It's totally (unintelligible)

P: Who's going to correct you? It's totally subjective.

S: Pick anything at random.

P: Yeah.

S: Tornadoes. "Tornadoes are unpredictable and violent storms which often separate families and destroy property. So this means instability and outbursts." Oh, that's nice. I love it when people just make stuff up, basically. All right, so dream interpretation. Thumbs down.

R: I'm going to send in a dream to them, and it's going to be really messed up.

S: I'll let you know. We'll follow up if we actually (unintelligible).

J: That would be fun if we just spam them with totally ridiculous dreams.

R: I'm going to give them the most messed up dream they'll ever read, and it's going to be true.

B: Oh, jeez.

J: You're an enigma. Okay, here we go.

Science vs God (44:25)[edit]

S: The next email comes from Chad Donahue in Seattle, USA. Chad has actually sent us a few questions in the last couple of weeks, but several of them have to do with this basic theme, so I'm just going to read this one as a representative question. He says:

Hi folks.
Love your podcast. I want to comment on what appears to be a slight confusion from your April 11th podcast. Hoping you can clear this up. When you spoke of the astounding odds against two species having similar DNA by chance, you seemed to be saying this as an argument favoring evolution over God. First of all, why make any comment on God at all, since to do so is to immediately leave the realm of science. You then mentioned how God would've had to have deliberately designed species to appear related if such slight DNA variations were in place by design. Fair enough, but in what way do odds to cited actually favor an anti-God view? (S: I'm not sure what he is saying there) I found this a little confusing. Thanks!

S: Well, I found it a little confusing, too. To clarify what we were talking about. We were talking about the molecular evidence for evolution, the fact that if you look at the pattern of relatedness at a molecular level between the DNA from humans, chimps, and other primates, other mammals, other tetrapods etc., that the similarities and differences at multiple molecular levels exactly follow an evolutionary pattern, what you would predict from a series of relatedness, and that there is no non-evolutionary explanation for that evidence, period. There's just no non-evolutionary explanation for it. That doesn't mean that God doesn't exist. It wasn't an argument about the existence of God or having anything to do with it, but creationists believe that God made all life on Earth. So if you believe that, if you believe that God made everything, then you would have to believe that God created life on Earth deliberately to look exactly as if it had evolved. That was really the only point that we were making. From a logical point of view, that's an absurd claim. From a scientific point of view, what that basically means is that creationism is not science, because if you could say that God created life to appear exactly as if it had evolved, then you're basically making an unfalsifiable statement, which is outside the realm of science. So, I hope that that clarifies our position, and we've also clarified in the past that we don't deal with questions that are formulated in such a way that they are purely within the realm of faith, which means that they don't deal with truth claims about physical reality, and they aren't stated in terms of logic or evidence. So if you want to hold some belief as a personal thing, based upon faith without claiming logic or evidence and it's not a testable claim, who cares? That your personal choice. That's our position.

Surface of the Sun (47:26)[edit]

S: We had one correction from last week's Randi podcast. This one comes from Roger Wambheim (I hope I pronounced that correctly.)

I was listening to the May 24, 2006 podcast of The Skeptics' Guide. Again, a great program! I did catch one mistaken comment by Randi and the group. The topic discussed was whether a hydrogen torch could match the temperature of the surface of the sun, and it was quickly 'poo, pooed'. However, the host and guest comments seemed to indicate a misunderstanding of the temperatures at the core of the sun vs. the surface temperature.

S: He then cites a couple of references. One, that the surface temperature of the Sun is about 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and that hydrogen torches can generate temperatures around 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Well, Roger, interestingly Bob and I actually commented about this after the show. We both kind of caught that statement and just didn't have an opportunity to get back to it. Sometimes things get past you in a show like that, but you're right, and that's a common misconception that the surface of the sun is like millions of degrees or is super hot. But actually, the surface of the sun is only about 11,000°F or 6000°C, and that's about the same order of magnitude as torches like acetylene torches. I double-checked some references myself to come up with things somewhere between six and 7000°F compared to 11,000°F for the surface of the Sun. So saying that you have a torch that is as hot as the surface of the sun is not that impressive. That's one of those claims that sounds a lot more impressive than it is. Like my favorite one of those is commercials that say a product uses space-age technology.

J: Yeah.

S: Yeah, you mean from the 1960s?


S: Sounds much more impressive than it is.

J: That's very gee-whizzey, you know.

S: Yeah, right. Now, of course, the core of the Sun is millions of degrees, and, Bob, you pointed out to me also that the corona around the Sun may also be millions of degrees, but the surface itself is actually not that hot.

R: Yeah, I believe that's what They Might Be Giants puts the temperature at in their brilliant song The Sun is a Massive (sic) Incadescent Gas for those They Might Be Giants fans.

J: Steve, is there an upper limit to temperature?

S: There probably is, because at some point energy — if you put enough energy into matter, you just make more matter.

B: Right.

J: Well, if anyone out there knows, I'd like to know. Put it on the bulletin board. Also, have we ever visibly seen any suns that have a ring around them like Saturn?

B: Well, they've found suns with like planetary debris, like a protoplanetary system orbiting the sun. So, the answer would be yes, although it's more of a solar system ring than a planetary ring, but it's similar.

J: Okay.

S: Yeah, it's not a ring like the ring around Saturn. I think that they're called planetary rings, right, Bob? It's basically a disk or a planetary disk. It's a disk of material orbiting around the sun.

J: That eventually will become a planet?

S: That's the belief, yes.

J: Okay.

Name That Logical Fallacy (50:39)[edit]

S: Well we have enough time left for a Name That Logical Fallacy, and then a Science or Fiction. This Name That Logical Fallacy was inspired by another email. This email is from Cecil, and he wrote to me about another quack. This guy sells himself as Dr. Schulze. Dr. Schulze is actually not a physician, he's a naturopath.

P: The guy that used to work on Hogan's Heroes?

R: "Hogan!"

S: Right. Richard Schulze.

J: I love that guy. Steve, didn't Cecil write to us before?

S: He might have. I think Cecil's asked us other questions, year, you're right, Jay. So, this guy's a naturopath, and I'm not saying that they're not real doctors just to be proprietary. Naturopaths are quacks! They are nuts. They believe every completely wacky pseudoscientific ridiculous thing that you can imagine. They prescribe homeopathic remedies. Everything that doesn't make any sense they're into. It's not just using nutrition or natural interventions. They really believe completely absurd anti-scientific things.

R: Well, I don't think you can say that about all naturopaths, though.

S: Oh, yes you can.

R: No, I'm pretty sure that I've met one that's not like that.

S: If you read — listen, obviously I can't; I've not interviewed every single naturopath that exists. I'm not claiming that that's the truth. But, the leaders of naturopathy, the people who run their colleges, and who run their societies, you can base it on their statements, on their textbooks. This is what naturopathy is.

R: Okay.

S: There may be individuals who are trying to be more scientific than the mainstream of naturopathy, but this is what it is.

P: If you met a naturopath, Rebecca, who was a critical thinker, he was a rare exception.

R: I think I dated one, actually, very briefly.

P: You may be slightly biased in your opinion.

J: Not that bozo again!

R: No, I swear, he was studying immunology and working in a natural food store, and ...

S: Yeah, but you've got to delve a little bit deeper than that. We will do a longer segment on it in the future ...

R: Okay.

S: ... and I have some guests in mind to talk about it, and you'll see. It is not tea. All right, let's go onto Name That Logical Fallacy. So here I just pulled a couple of statements off of Dr. Schulze's website. So here's the first paragraph. He says "Dr. Schulze's never takes credit for his healing knowledge. In fact, he often says that his patients or even God taught him everything. Regardless of who developed these programs and formula, one thing we do know is they work." So do you guys notice any logical fallacies in that first statement.

B: Well, how about argument from authority.

S: Exaclty.

B: If God's teaching you, that's a big authority.

S: Yeah, right. So I think the appeal to God is definitely an appeal to the ultimate authority, which is basically saying "my claims are correct because they come from some authority figure." Or in a broader sense, you could say that the logical fallacy is that "my claims are correct because I possess some virtue," which is the argument from virtue, which I consider to be sort of a subset of the argument from authority. And that's also what he's playing to. That's sort of the bigger concept that he's playing to here: "I'm not taking credit for my hearing knowledge. I'm just a good, humble guy, you know. I'm a virtuous, humble guy, so you should believe what I'm saying."

J: "We don't want money. I want your money so I can go travel the world and spread, like,, that other guy."

S: Also saying "one thing we know is that they work", that's sort of Begging The Question. That's not what we do know. That's actually the question, isn't it, whether or not these things actually work. He also writes "We know this because for almost a decade now thousands of people just like you that have never met him and never talked to him have healed themselves of any and all diseases using his powerful and effective, natural healing programs and herbal formula." So, that's a Tautology, right? "We know they work because they work." There's not really any logic to that statement. And there's also another appeal in there, and what's that? Do you guys — there's another logical fallacy.

J: Well the one where the people, thousands of people like you.

S: Yeah.

J: What's that called?

R: Appeal to popularity?

S: Yeah, appeal to popularity. It's kind of like a peer pressure kind of logical fallacy.

R: And then it's also just anecdotal evidence.

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah, thousands of people were healed. Well, okay, do you have any proof?

S: It's an appeal to anecdote. And finally: "Sure, they shut down his clinic and boarded up his windows, but no one can stop this great man's passion and mission. He is alive and well, and his voice is still loud and clear at natural healing publications." I read his newsletter, by the way. His newsletter is basically just a series of ads for his products. So there is kind of like an appeal to persecution. It like this poor guys is being persecuted by the powers-that-be, so, again, he must be right.

B: I never heard of that one: "appeal to persecution." Are you making these up, Steve?

S: If you read my article on it, and there are lots of subsets underneath specific logical fallacies.

B: Yeah. I know, I know.

S: So you can make up more and more, but they're basically just, again, "this guy has some kind of virtue, and that's why his claims are correct." Whether it's that he is humble, that he is being persecuted by evil people, that his knowledge comes from God, whatever. Those are all reasons why we should believe him.

J: Bob, you didn't hear the other day Steve said "That's the Banana Fofanafana Logical Fallacy." That's when I realized he was making them up.

S: I make them up off the top of my head.

J: So, Steve, the link you sent me for Dr. Scholls or whatever, this guy's name is.

S: Yeah.

J: Did you see that gigantic warning on there?

S: Yes.

J: What's that about?

S: That's about sort of following the letter of the law by saying "You can't sue me, because I'm warning you up front not to take my advice."

B: Oh, my God!

S: He's basically saying "But I'm being forced to warn you not to take my advice by the big, powerful powers that don't want me to cure you of all your diseases with my fabulous products."

R: Kind of (unintelligible)

S: He's trying to have it both ways. So, if you sue him, he's like "Well, I warned you that you shouldn't believe me. It's right there on the front of my website."

J: There wasn't, like, from on-high: "You have to put this warning on here because you're such a quack?"

S: It's a legal thing.

J: Okay.

P: Of course. They all do it.

S: I don't know if it's ...

P: Can they cure claims, you know. It's how they run around. How they (unintelligible)

S: Actually, only — a study published two years ago, I believe in JAMA, looked at the claims of supplements, which, in this country, you can make supplement claims, so-called "structure function" claims as long as you put a disclaimer on there saying these claims have not been reviewed by the FDA, and only 50% of websites hawking such snake oils comply to the law. So, 50% broke the law in that they did not have the disclaimer, or they made claims they weren't allowed to make.

P: Let's hope that the Supplement Safety Act one of these days gets passed in Congress.

S: Right, right.

P: I doubt it. It's been languishing for years.

S: Some reasonable version of it.

P: Yeah.

S: Okay, well we have just enough time for a Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (58:01)[edit]


S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine, one fictitious, and then I challenge my skeptics to figure out if they can figure out which one is the fake. So, again, two are real, and one is fake. Is everyone ready?

R: Yep.

J: Yeah.

S: Okay. Recently, a study has proven that hypnotherapy improves the quality of life for people with irritable bowel syndrome. Number two: astronomers have discovered a previously unknown third moon orbiting Mars. And item number three: researchers have identified and traced the origin of a gene for altruism. Jay, why don't you go first.

J: Okay. Number one: I remember reading about that, and I know it's true. Number three: I don't remember reading anything about that, but it seems plausible to me. I don't think that there could be a moon that we haven't discovered around Mars at this point. So I'm going to say number two is false.

S: Alrighty. Perry?

P: You know number three, obviously is false. A gene for altruism? That's crazy. No, that one's false.

S: Okay.

J: You defy me, again.

S: Rebecca?

R: Oh, man! I think ...

J: Steve's crafty. Don't forget.

R: Steve is a crafty fellow. I agree that number one is definitely true. I think I'm going to go with the moon thing being false. I don't remember reading anything about that.

S: Okay. Bob?

B: Yeah, I'm surprised if two is true: the third moon of Mars, and I didn't hear about it. I'd be a little bit surprised, but three seems even less plausible than two.

P: Of course!

B: I mean, one gene? It's almost like one gene for being smart. It's the interplay of many genes, and I would think altruism would be the same way. So I'm going to go with three and be a little bit surprised that there is a third moon of Mars that I didn't hear about.

S: Okay, so two think that the altruism gene is fake, and two think that the third moon of Mars is fake. But everyone agrees that hypnotherapy improves the quality life for people with irritable bowel syndrome, so let's start with that one. That is true. A new study published shows that patients with irritable bowel syndrome had improved quality life when they were treated with both cognitive therapy and hypnotherapy. Now, the interesting thing about irritable bowel syndrome — that's one of those syndromes that is a little controversial. Is it really a physiological syndrome, or is it really a psychological syndrome? Some people think that it's really just some people manifest their stress with bowel symptoms. Other people think that it's an actual physiological disorder.

P: Well, Adriana had it on the Sopranos.

S: Yeah, I have to say, personally, I think that it could certainly be one of those things that's real but ends up getting diagnosed in a lot of people who just have anxiety, basically. It's certainly seems to be one of those diagnoses that tends to get attached to people who have a lot of psychological stress.

B: Now, Steve, you mentioned that hypnotherapy was used in conjunction with cognitive therapy. What is cognitive therapy?

S: It's a standard therapy technique. Basically gets people to think about things differently. Basically, it's a counseling technique.

J: Steve, there is definitely a stress connection to irritable bowel syndrome.

S: There's no question there's a stress connection. The question is is stress just triggering an underlying disorder, or is it all stress. Is stress all you need to have irritable bowel syndrome? It remains a little controversial for that reason. And hypnotherapy is also a little bit controversial, as well. Exactly what is hypnotherapy? And does it really have any validity? So it's kind of two controversial things (unintelligible)

P: When I was a young person, I guess, let's see, I must have been high school. I guess I was a teenager, my mother took me to a hypnotist, a guy who opened shop five doors down from where we lived, and that guy used to "hypnotize" me when I went there. I played along. I was never hypnotized.

S: Yeah, right.

P: I was never hypnotized.

S: And that's the point. How do you know?

J: Steve, what about all those — you ever see those little videos on the internet where they guy puts 20 people into a trance and they all act retarded and all that.

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah, that's generally just — it's just play-acting.

J: Like drunk people?

R: I mean, yeah, it's basically you get people up on the stage who want to be there, and they want an excuse to let go of their inhibitions and do crazy stuff, and so the hypnotist just gives them permission to do that.

S: That's one hypothesis, which is certainly consistent with all the evidence.

R: Well, it's less a hypothesis, and it's more just what stage hypnotists do.

S: Yeah.

R: I mean, you can call it a hypothesis, but the people who are actually doing it admit that that's what they're doing.

B: Well, I've talked to a few people who have done it, and they said that "yeah, that was real. That really happened," and they weren't just playing along with it. I'm not up on the latest thoughts on this, but isn't there — aren't some people more — can't they put themselves into a more of a suggestible state than other people and can really kind of go with the flow and really believe what's happening?

S: Sure, but what does that mean to be in a suggestible state?

B: Right.

S: It just means they do what they think they're supposed to do. And, again, there's no objective way to measure the level of insight they have into why they're doing what they're doing.

P: Well, I'm telling you, for me it was nonsense.

S: So two of you thought that the altruism gene was fake. That was Bob and Perry.

P: Uh, yeah.

S: And this one is true.

R: Ah, hah!

P: Not it's not!

J: Yes, it is.

P: No, it's not.

R: Oh, good argument, Perry.

P: It's nonsense! So if I gave ...

J: Perry, why would it be nonsense? There must be a gene for everything that goes on in our mind.

B: No, Jay! The interplay. You think there's one gene for intelligence? It's the interplay of many, many genes, and that's true for a lot of characteristics. But, I'm surprised. I'm very surprised.

J: Well, go ahead, Steve, and explain it before I stick my foot in my mouth.

S: Well, I didn't say it was in humans.

B: Uh!

R: Oh!

P: Nonsense!

S: "Researchers trace origin of an altruism gene." So, this is, "For the first time, scientists say that they have traced the origin of an altruism gene, possibly shedding light on the nagging mystery of how generosity and cooperation evolved." They were looking at a fairly primitive multicelled creature called Volvox. But it does engage in behavior, and that behavior can involve helping out its fellows. And they were able to trace the gene for that and identify its evolutionary lineage, basically.

B: Wait, so they tested altruism in a multicellular creature?

P: (laughs)

S: Yes. It has division of labor. The behavior they're looking at is whether or not they would forgo reproducing themselves in order to take on jobs for the group, and they were able to trace the gene that would affect their behavior, so that they would, bascially, forgo self replication in order to ...

J: Well, Steve, would you really call that altruism?

S: That's actually the definition of altruism, is that you do something which sacrifices your own Darwinian fitness in order for your relatives to survive.

J: Oh, okay. All right. All right, then. Wow! Then I learned something tonight.

S: So, you're right that in humans, there's probably more than one gene that influences that behavior.

J: I guess what I thought of altruism, I was thinking of it as definitely in the human sense, that was obviously your trick here, but wouldn't you think that some characteristics that people have would be gene-related?

S: I think that all personality characteristics are gene-related, but probably not a single gene.

J: Not a single gene.

S: There may be. Somethings may be that simple.

P: They're certainly brain-related. If you do injury to your brain, you'll change your personality, often.

R: Yeah, like that guy that got the spike through his brain, and he ended up being ...

S: Phineas Gage?

R: Phineas Gage, yeah, good one.

J: That poor dude. I saw a video on that. What an awful thing, right?

S: He was lobotomized. I think that personality, basically, is genetic. I think the evidence pretty much supports that. Basic personality traits. So that means that the astronomers have discovered a previously unknown third moon orbiting Mars is fake. That one I made up. Not totally implausible. Yeah, you probably would have heard about it, but, you know, Mars could have very tiny, captured, asteroid-like moons, and it's plausible that we might've missed a really small one. But, no, not that likely. So that one was fake.

R: So what's this? This is like the fifth week in a row or something that I've won?

S: Yeah, you're on a lucky streak.

J: It's really amazing. We're shocked!

R: Lucky? We're skeptics; we don't believe in luck.

S: You heard me. No, you're doing very well.

R: I think that is might be more genetically-based.

S: You think so? I actually had much more challenging ones all teed up for this week, and I accidentally sent them to Rebecca, so she saw them.

R: But I knew them anyway, so I still would have won.

S: Sure you did.

R: I did!

S: Maybe we'll put those on the website. We're thinking of having some special Science or Fiction segments just for the website, but as soon as Jay can actually get those webpages set up, maybe we'll start doing that. Well, that's our show for this week. Guys, thanks for joining me again.

R: Thank you, Steve. Good times.

S: We had a lot of fun. Coming up in a couple of weeks is Steve Mirsky. Steve writes the Antigravity column for Scientific American and is the host of the science podcast, the podcast of Scientific American, which is usually — it's one of the number one if not the number one science podcasts out there, and he's going to talk to us about his adventures in science recently.

R: Awsome.

S: And next week we have Phil Plait on the show. Phil Plait is the Bad Astronomer, so keep an eye out for him next week. And to everyone else out there, again, sign in to our forums. We want to hear from you. We want engage in conversation with you on the message board. Keep sending us your emails and your feedback. We always like to see it. Well, 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.


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