SGU Episode 450

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SGU Episode 450
February 22nd 2014
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 449                      SGU 451

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Ignorance is nothing shameful; imposing ignorance is shameful. Most people are not to blame for their own ignorance, but if they wilfully pass it on, they are to blame.

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell.

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality. S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday February 19th 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: Good evening my friends, how are you?

S: Anything new in your lives?

J I mean you can’t, Steve, you can’t leave the floor open like that cuz I’m gonna talk about my son.

S: What’s he doing this week?

J: His pseudo-talking, the babble thing is happening quite a bit and it’s so adorable. Oh my god it’s epic!

S: Yeah it’s cute when they start to babble in their protolanguage.

J: And he’s so skeptical, it’s ridiculous

B: Ha ha

S: What you should do, Jay, is for the bedtime story, you should read him the dialogue concerning the two chief world systems.

J: I’ll get right on that

R: What a strange thing to suggest one read a baby. Especially considering that book was placed on the index of forbidden books not too long ago. Hmm

E: Not too long ago?

This Day in Skepticism (01:10)[edit]

R: Hey, happy publishing of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems Day, everybody.

E: Yay

R: On February 22nd 1632, Galileo delivered his manuscript for Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, as it is known to his patron, Medici. And if you’re not aware, this was the book that did in fact get Galileo busted by the authorities for grave suspicion of heresy; which led to his house arrest which he was under until he died. And it was all because he wrote this book that some say is slightly in favor of a heliocentric solar system; as opposed to a system in which the Earth remains at the center of everything and does not move. He couched it as best he could, ya gotta give him credit for that. Instead of just coming out and writing a full reasoned book on why, obviously, the Earth is moving around the sun and not vice versa, he created basically this dialogue between several parties. On one side arguing for the idea that the Earth goes around the sun and on the other side arguing that the sun goes around the Earth. The party that was arguing that the Earth goes around the sun though was pretty obviously the winner in this dialogue.

S: Mhmm

R: He even named the party that believed the Earth was the center of the Universe was called Simplicio.

E: Ha as in simpleton

R: So he says that he named him after another philosopher that was known at the time; but yeah, it didn’t look good. And considering that Simplicio was the loser of the dialogue, it also wasn’t good that Galileo used the Pope’s words in his argument which was then defeated. Because the Pope had been a supporter of Galileo, and after that the Pope thought that people were making fun of him and he got a little peeved about that. Galileo, on his part, claimed that he did not mean to cause any offense to the pope, but it was too late. He went on trial, it did not go well, he was forced to recant his beliefs and yeah placed under house arrest. And the book was banned and also any other publication Galileo put out was also banned at that point. So, yeah, things didn’t go so well for him for simply presenting the scientific argument. S: Mhmm. I actually took a full college course on this book.

R: Did you?

E: Oh!

S: Yeah

B: How awesome

S: It was really fascinating.

B: Did you read it?

S: Of course

E: Did you get a B?

S: Of course

E(?): Of course *laughing*

S: And you know there was other stuff about Galileo but it really focused on this book. So what’s interesting… I gotta give you a couple of little tidbits about it.

R: Yeah

S: Galileo’s main arguments were all correct. I mean he they were mostly…there were two major flaws with the book. He counteracted arguments like if you drop something on the surface of the Earth why does it not fly to the West you know, and he essentially described the whole notion of frame of reference. Like if you were inside of a ship and you drop something it falls straight down, you can’t tell if the ship is moving smoothly like at a uniform rate or if it stopped if it’s stopped in the dock.

B: Shades of Einstein

E: Yeah

S: Yeah absolutely

E: Some foreshadowing

S: And he also deconstructed the competing philosophy showing that ya know there are mountains on the moon ya know, Galileo’s famous discover of the moons of Jupiter proving that there are objects revolving around something other than the Earth. But here are the two very interesting flaws: Galileo correctly argued for why what we observed was consistent with a sun centric solar system, but he wanted there to be evidence for the fact that the Earth moving and he had a theory as to why the Earth’s movement caused the tides, and that was just wrong. That piece of his argument was just incorrect.

R: Which is fine because while he was writing the book, apparently he had called it Dialogue on the Tides.

S: Mhmm

R: So it went to the inquisition first, apparently and they had to grant the title approval. And at that point it was called Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea, but he was asked to remove all mention of the tides. Because apparently if they had allowed the book to be published with that title, it would have looked as though it was an approval of his theory on the tides. So instead it was named, well it just went apparently under the title Dialogue and it was only much later that gathered the name Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Which was given it to by an I think a theologian who was attempting to give it a kind of a very balanced sort of title.

S: The other main criticism is that Galileo did not even discuss Tycho Brahe’s alternate system, which was that all the planets revolve about the sun but Mercury and Venus revolve in small circles about the sun and the outer planets (Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) revolve about the Earth and the sun but the sun goes around the Earth. Do you picture that? So that was as consistent with the observation of the time, as was the Copernican system of the sun at the center and the Earth going around the sun. So at the time Galileo really couldn’t put an argument forward for why the Copernican system should be preferred over the Tychoneon System. He could say that the

B: Ooo I like that

S: That the yeah the Copernican system was a philosophically scientifically possible and that it was equivalent, but that he couldn’t prove the Earth was in fact moving. So Foucault Pendulum, that was the experiment that proved that the Earth was in fact moving. And it required later observations that didn’t come for a hundred years or so

B: More rotation than you know orbital motion

S: Well the one thing, the one difference between the Copernican System and the Tychoneon System, other than the fact that the Earth is moving, was Stellar Parallax. And at the time of Galileo, there was no observation demonstrating Stellar Parallax. So it’s basically the stars, nearby stars moving with respect to the background stars as the Earth goes around the sun. Observations demonstrating Stellar Parallax did not exist until the nineteenth century. So that did confirm the Copernican System and Galileo’s predictions. They weren’t contemporary to Galileo, it’s interesting.

News Items[edit]

Genovese Myth (08:35)[edit]

S: Alright, let’s move on to some news items. Uh Jay you’re going to, at least partially debunk a very old myth about the murder of Kitty Genovese.

J: So right Steve yeah this is a long story so I’m gonna condense it as best I can. But I think a lot of people will find this interesting because this happens to be something that a lot of us have in our heads and the information is wrong. So the back story is on March 13th 1964 around a quarter after three in the morning, the twenty-eight year old Kitty Genovese was on her way home after working at a bar in Queens, New York; and she lived in a neighborhood called Kew Gardens, and unfortunately for Kitty there was an absolutely, horrible murder-rapist literally looking for his next victim. Winston Moseley, and he was prowling very close nearby and he ended up spotting Kitty, he stabbed her twice. He quickly retreated after hearing a neighbor yell down at the commotion. The neighbor wasn’t quite sure what he had saw, but it looked like a woman may have been in a somewhat threatening situation so the guy yelled down. But Moseley soon came back to the wounded Kitty and he stabbed her several more times then raped her. He left her for dead, but she wasn’t actually dead. And she soon of course died in the arms of one of her neighbors. So the story became a legend around the world, and it’s not because the fact that it was this horrible rape-murder. And unfortunately for today’s world, these types of things happen enough where it’s not even ya know we hear it and we’re not surprised. But because of the then police commissioner, Michael Murphy, who irresponsibly leaked information to a New York Times editor named Abe Rosenthal, this story kind of went crazy. What happened that time during their lunch conversation was the police commissioner casually said over that lunch was that thirty-eight eyewitnesses saw the crime, saw this particular murder, and they didn’t do anything about it. And he put it in such a way where Rosenthal believed, at the time, that they were literally perched in their windows watching the entire even unfold for its ya know from beginning to end and they just were happy to observe it and they weren’t willing to raise a finger to help in any way. About ten days later the New York Times had a front page article that started with “For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” First there was a factual error in that statement, there was only two attacks made; although that’s not incredibly significant to the story, it’s important to note that there’s a lot of misinformation going on in this story. So this began a media frenzy that contorted the story until New York City was vilified as a city filled with people who not only don’t care about their neighbors but was thought to be a lawless city that everyone there…it was like hell on Earth, that’s one way it was described. The entire world read stories that were being regurgitated by all of the news outlets all over the world. And it was thought that this event sparked the end of decency in the civilized world, that’s the way it was reported. The facts are that most of the neighbors had little information on what was actually going on, those who saw any of it were still not clear on what was exactly happening. It wasn’t like anyone was 100% sure at all, or not even close to that, that this woman was being raped and murdered. It just looked like there was a commotion going on to what is believed to be maybe maybe sixteen people laid eyes on one or more of the situation that was going on in the street. The police were called by neighbors and they didn’t respond, one neighbor actually put herself in harm’s way and ended up holding Kitty as she bled to death in one of the foyers like ya know the alcove foyer outside. And she entered the crime scene very soon after Moseley departed, so she could have been actually walking onto the scene as she knew. She just knew that something was going on and she wanted to go out and help. Now these events were not known to the public because everyone sadly loved the alternative story, which is the wrong story and it’s a story about apathetic neighbors who only care about the events that were happening and they were supposedly watching them like a movie.

S: What’s interesting, Jay, is that you know as you’re saying that there was a narrative and people went with the narrative and didn’t question the facts. This has played out multiple times since then. You guys remember the Duke rape case?

E: Oh absolutely

S: What ends up happening is that the media and the pundits start speculating about what this means for society rather than actually question is it actually happening. One of the interesting things I read was that this was 1964, there was a lot of speculation that this was partly the result of TV. That you know people were used to being spectators and watching stuff happen on their TV and they were basically sitting by their window watching this rape/murder as if they were watching a TV program, they were just sort of ya know mummed into apathy and inactivity. It’s kind of a naive psychological speculation about this newfangled technology about these TVs that were destroying the moral fabric of society.

J: Yeah it’s interesting when you look at a story like this or stories that are similar to this one, and the narrative that gets created on the spot gets picked up and people really wanna believe that or seem to be only interested in that narrative. Where there was actually a real story going on here that in a lot of ways could have made the neighborhood look good instead of bad. I thought that some people acted commendably in this situation. But unfortunately with confirmation bias turned up to 100%, as soon as people hear the type of thing that they wanna hear, they just latch on to it. Sadly what was going on in the world at the time, sure things were down. The United States in particular wasn’t doing well, I mean Kennedy was murdered four months prior to this, there were worsening racial tensions going on in Harlem not too far from Queens. Guys, which one of you has heard this story, maybe not knowing the person’s name other than the fact that a bunch of neighbors watch somebody get raped and murdered. I remembered hearing it and I knew this story very well.

S: Oh yeah

J: I fully believed this up until two days ago

E: Wow

R: Yeah this is the story that you hear every time another psychologist does a study on the bystander effect. Every single time it seems to come back to Kitty Genovese. And what’s interesting though is that the origin story is not what everyone thought it was. Does that throw a new light on all of these studies that have come up after this, Reporting to show that the bystander effect is real? I mean you can’t really dismiss all of the studies but maybe we should be taking a more critical look at them? I don’t know.

J: I agree. Sure I mean a lot of research has been done, psychiatrists and psychologists went nuts after this, guess that’s a funny way to put it. They did a lot of testing, they did a lot of speculating, a lot of articles and books were written in response to this murder. If there are ya know if anything to do with human psychology, everything is so subjective, everything is so ya know it’s difficult to say this is the exact way that people are going to behave. Ya know maybe this crowd of thirty-eight people or thirty-six people are going to act this way and a crowd in another part of the country or world or whatever would act completely differently than those.

S: Yeah. But to clarify, the number thirty-eight is wrong; that was a misinterpretation of the record. Probably the chief of police there was dealing with thirty-eight entries in the eye witness record, but they were not individual interviews. So that number is just made up, it’s not it doesn’t affect reality. Very few of the people in the area would have seen, were in a position to see the second and fatal attack. Most people, again this is three o’clock in the morning and ya know a lot of the neighbors were elderly; imagine getting woken out of your sleep at three o’clock in the morning by some noises outside. A lot of people figured it was just a drunk or it was a fight or ya know a lover’s spat, or they didn’t get aroused by it or ya know some people may have seen her staggering after the first attack but not seen the second attack. The second attack took place in a location that very few people could have seen. You should mention also, Jay, there are two people in this story who did behave very badly.

J: Absolutely, yeah.

S: We saw the full range of some people doing everything they could, some people just not being sure what to do, some people being scumbags. Ya know it’s basically the full range of human reaction that you would expect, not a consistent thirty-eight eyewitnesses peering out their window and doing nothing as this attack took place.

J: Yeah as a matter of fact one of the people that could have gotten involved, that knew enough of what was going on, of who fearfully hid in the back of his apartment with his bottle of vodka, he coined the phrase “I didn’t want to get involved”. Maybe of course somebody else probably said that, but that’s what made that statement popular.

R: This story makes me think of a recent news item. I mean have you guys heard about the Ethiopian pilot who flew a plane to Switzerland? It was on its way to France but the copilot basically took control of the plane while the pilot was in the bathroom before takeoff and he took off and just basically flew the plane to Switzerland so that he could try to get amnesty and escape Ethiopia. And the news reports first were reporting that none of the passengers knew that the plane was being abducted basically, but passengers have made it clear otherwise. They said that the copilot announced that he was cutting off the oxygen in the plane and so they sat there for like six hours thinking that they were all going to die. And my first thought was like wow ya know post 911 you would think they would all get together and storm the cockpit somehow. But I read an AMA on Reddit with one of the passengers on the plane and the situation just becomes so complex because the pilot was there on the other side of the door talking to the copilot and being reassured that he was going to land the plane safely. And ya know there are all these moving parts and when it gets down to it, a real-life situation is so much more complicated than just well it was the bystander effect, everybody else just hopes somebody else will do something. It’s not quite so simple as what we want it to believe. Because I think a part of that is us wishing that well if I were in the same situation, I would do something different, I would step up and I would actually do something, even if it results in my death. But the truth of the matter is that it’s just not that simple. It’s not that simple.

S: That is something that is very consistent in the psychological research, is that peoples’ predictions about how they will behave in a certain situation are not very accurate to the way people actually behave. Ya know everyone thinks they’re the exception, but obviously most of us have to be wrong. You’re right, that’s the bottom line, the situation is always more complicated than the simplistic moralizing narrative that emerges and that gets spread around.

Pseudoscience Vandalism (20:45)[edit]

S: Well, let’s move on. Evan, you’re going to – this is another sad case, this is a case of pseudoscientific vandalism.

E: Yeah it is. The question is I pose to you, listeners and to my friends here on the show, how far will you go to support your deepest held beliefs? So let’s say for a minute that you have this belief that technologies and religions of many people in the ancient civilizations were given to them by extraterrestrial beings who were welcomed as gods at the time. Right? Let’s also say that artifacts were left behind by these extraterrestrials; including things like Stone Hinge in Britain, and the Moai humanoid statues of Easter Island, the Nazca lines in Peru which are supposedly landing strips for extraterrestrial vehicles and of course, perhaps most famously, the pyramids of Egypt. Right? How far will you go to support your beliefs that these things are fact? Would you, for example, gain access by any means to the inner chambers of the great pyramid of Giza? Which is a place usually reserved for Egyptologists and archaeologists. Would you vandalize and steal some artifacts and conduct your own tests on the materials in attempt to validate your personal belief system? Well, if you said no then good for you, you actually have respect for property and you have some modicum of self-control. If you said yes, then you’d probably get along quite well with a pair of chuckleheads from Germany who did just that, gained unlawful access to the inner chambers of the pyramids of Giza, they vandalized the site, they stole artifacts in an attempt to prove to the world that extraterrestrials built the pyramids over twenty thousand years ago, or at least they gave the locals the knowledge on how to build the pyramids twenty thousand years ago. Despite all scientific evidence to the contrary.

S: They’re saying it’s not just aliens but they make a connection to Atlantis, so the people from Atlantis built the pyramids; even though Atlantis doesn’t exist.

E: Right, right Atlantis is a tale created by Plato. So let’s give a hat tip to Ben Radford for publishing an article this week at about this very story. According to the press release from the Ministry of State for Antiquities in Egypt, amateur archaeologists Dominique Goerlitz and Stefan Erdmann, they are accused of having stolen samples of a cartouche of Khufu from a small room on top of the king’s burial chamber inside the great pyramid. In addition, they are accused of damaging the world heritage monument and stealing and smuggling parts of it. Apparently Goerlitz and Erdmann scraped away some ancient writings to prove that the great pyramids are twenty thousand years old. And how were they caught? Well they weren’t caught red-handed at the time of the trespass or vandalism and theft, nope. They were caught because these two clever folks recorded themselves gaining access to the chambers, documented all their activities on video, and put it up on YouTube and other places. And the title of their show was called the Cheops Project.

S: They had a camera man with them, it was a third gentleman with them.

E: Yes, correct, who is one of the people in big trouble for participating in this. Now if you go to their one of their sites, in which they talk about their activities, they describe exactly what their documentary is about. They say in 1837 the British pyramid researcher, Howard Vice, discovered hieroglyphs and the cartridge of Cheops in the reliving chambers of the great pyramid that prove him as the principal, this is Cheops. The authenticity of the cartridge has been contentious, has been a contentious point for a long time. While Egyptologists are confident on the authenticity of the cartridge, Vice very quickly came under suspicion for having faked it himself so he could claim the sensational discovery for himself. And if this could be proven then a lot of questions would be added to the speculations of the builders of the Giza Pyramids. So that’s their stated position as to, you know.

S: Evan, you’re calling it a cartridge, is that just a translation of the word cartouche?

E: I don’t know, I don’t know. Uh the

S: Because I think this is a German site translated into English.

E: Is that what that is? Okay

S: I know what a cartouche is, I’ve never heard of a cartridge

E: Huh. Yeah

S: Anyway I just assumed that was just a loose translation of the word cartouche, but I’m not sure. We need Egyptologists to tell us.

E: They wanted to determine the cartouche’s authenticity by using a new examination and dating method. And a sample of the cartouche was actually taken out of the country and is now in an institute in…is now in a laboratory in Germany undergoing analysis supposedly. So a total of three Germans, these two guys and their camera man, and along with six Egyptians are being held in connection with the case. Although I don’t think that they actually have the two guys, I think they fled; the Germans are not in the country but they’re wanted. But the folks in Egypt who apparently allowed this to happen, including several guards and inspectors from the Antiquities Ministry, who apparently gave these people the access to the pyramid, they are being held and this is a big to-do, this is a big problem.

S: I mean the big problem here is that they’re making an end run around the process of science, which you know exists for a reason. If they have a case to be made, then they should make it. They should do the scholarship, publish the papers, have it be reviewed by other experts. They don’t have to necessarily convince the community they’re right, but they should at least make a valid enough case that they would be given access to or at least you know they would…they’re claiming that again you know these inscriptions do not date to the time the pyramids were built but to only a couple of hundred years ago; if they could make that case sufficiently and convincingly then that could force a transparent dating of those writings. But by doing it the way they did it, first of all they haven’t earned the right to get access to these artifacts, they’re essentially stealing them, they’re not doing it with any kind of transparency or legitimacy. So who cares? If somebody, if they claim that whatever lab they gave this who knows who they gave it to, and would some legitimate lab do this kind of experiment on essentially stolen, ill-gotten goods…No one’s gonna believe the results! So this whole endeavor is doomed to failure from the beginning because there is no proper process and transparency to it. You can’t steal evidence and publish results about it, you know what I mean?

E: And you’re right. Like you said, doing it around the legitimate pursuit of science

S: And they’re wrong. And their ideas are nonsensical. That’s why nobody would listen to them.

E: By the way, if you want to read some stuff about this there’s a website called a hot cup of joe; Archaeology, anthropology and skepticism. They have written about this and made some really good points such as when these guys went in there to scrape away the pigment samples they basically pointed out that look the pigment isn’t going to reveal what you’re looking for; pigment is difficult to date. They say that you don’t really date the pigment, instead what you wind up doing is you get enough of a sample you separate the pigment from the binder in an emulsifier and hope that those binders and emulsifiers are organic and that’s what you can date.

S: Yeah. I mean essentially they’re saying the Egyptians didn’t build the pyramids. But there’s an archaeological record showing that they did. As (?) pointed out when we interviewed him about this on the show, there are documentations of the development, of the evolution of their weeks of failed pyramids before they learned how to build them. It’s all documented, it’s not like they just pop out out of nowhere, it’s ridiculous.

B: It’s similar to technology we have today. People say they have this invention or whatever and you’re like well you’re just making thirty of forty steps ahead, you’re just leaping ahead. Where are the intermediary steps that are generally required for something like that? And the evidence is there if you look at it, at technology, you can see the progression. And I remember one picture, Steve, of a pyramid, and I remember clearly the angle was too steep and a I think that the thing just collapsed in on itself. Woops! Okay we learned our lesson here, let’s do it again over here. You can just see the progression, it’s beautiful.

S: Exactly. And they just ignore all that. So these guys Goerlitz and Erdmann are definitely in the running for the pseudoscientific jackass of the week; but, they have stiff competition from this next news item.

Subway and Azodicarbonamide (30:05)[edit]

S: Uh have you guys heard about the whole Subway sandwich kerfuffle? About Subway is adding a chemical to their bread

E: Ugh my daughter even brought it up to me the other day. She said they had been talking about it in school.

S: What were they saying about it?

E: Uh that it’s very bad and that people should not be eating the Subway sandwiches until Subway corrects the problem and takes this chemical out of their bread.

S: Yeah… Yeah it’s total bullshit. Okay here we go. So the Food Babe is a blogger, her name is Vani Hari but she blogs under the Food Babe, started a petition to get Subway to remove the use of the chemical azodicarbonamide from their breads. This is a chemical that is used to make bread sort of fluffier and as a preservative and as a bleaching agent. It certainly isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s used by not just Subway but lots of I think McDonalds uses it lots of places use it. The Food Babe makes the following claims about this chemical, she writes: azodicarbonamide is the same chemical used to make yoga mats, shoe soles and other rubbery objects. It’s not supposed to be in food or even eaten for that matter and is definitely not fresh. So she’s arguing that because this chemical is used in the manufacturing of things like yoga mats that it somehow, like that’s supposed to make it seem like it’s not really food; like there’s rubber in these sandwiches and in these breads which is not accurate. So this is I’d liken this to the dihydrogen monoxide parody. You guys

B: Hahaha yeah

S: For those listeners who may not have heard this just go to the website dihydrogenmonoxide and read about how awful this substance is, I mean it’s the major component of acid rain. If you breathe in enough of this it will kill you; it’s a really toxic horrible substance. Alright when you’re done reading about that. Dihydrogen monoxide of course is water, is H2O. But the purpose of the parody, which is brilliant, it’s an iconic parody, is to show that by giving factoids out of context you could make anything, even water, seem scary. That is exactly what the Food Babe does; is give these factoids completely out of context in order to make azodicarbonamide seem like this scary chemical, when in fact it’s perfectly safe.

E: There’s a lot of letters in there so it must be scary, it must be bad for you.

S: Yeah yeah. So it’s partly the naturalistic fallacy, it’s just fear mongering. So here are her specific points (other than the yoga mat gambit which you know doesn’t mean anything): Says the World Health Organization has linked it to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma. A lot of these points are true but misleading. Related to this is the UK Health and Safety Executive has recognized azodicarbonamide as a potential cause of asthma. So here’s what they’re talking about, this chemical is used as a blowing agent. It’s used to help sealants; like if you like whenever you seal metal to glass. It’s actually used for baby food, you know sealing baby food jars. And it’s used as a blowing agent. So if you’re a worker in the factory where this stuff is being used or you directly breathe in the gas, then it’s actually a mild asthma trigger. It’s actually

J: How mild?

S: It’s not that bad! I mean it’s probably not as bad as flour, you know. It’s the flour that’s being used to make the bread. You know you shouldn’t breathe that stuff in either.

E: True.

S: So some countries like the UK have in fact banned its use in order to protect the factory workers, not because of any risk to people eating any food that’s made with it. But the Food Babe doesn’t inform her readers of that. She just says it’s linked to asthma. But this has absolutely nothing to do with bread. So if you’re working in a factory and you have asthma, wear a mask.

E: Water is linked to drowning.

S: Yeah exactly.

J: So, not to be ridiculous here Steve, but if you smell the cooked bread are you breathing in this chemical?

S: No! No no no no. Not at all. You have to be in the factory in order for this to be any issue.

J: Okay, so it’s the pre-cooking, pre-delivery phase of the raw dough.

S: Yeah well certainly you can have say working practices where it’s not an issue. There’s certainly a lot more toxic things used in factories you know. This is not even a particularly bad substance; it’s just something that could be breathed in that could be a mild asthma trigger.

J: So what’s her beef then? I mean what she just heard about this and now?

S: Yeah! This is how she makes her living. So another point, when a truck carrying azodicarbonamide overturned on the Chicago Highway in 2001, it prompted city officials to issue the highest hazardous materials alert and evacuate people within a half mile radius. Many of the people on the scene complained of burning eyes and skin irritation as a result. Yeah, the pure chemical; I mean a truckload of the pure chemical spills, you don’t want to get exposed to it. That’s probably true of anything. You take just about anything you eat, and you take any chemical out of it and you have a pure concentrated form, you don’t want to be directly exposed to gallons of the stuff. Sure

B: Even peanut butter cups?

E: Oh especially those

S: Pick out any chemical! I mean you know, it says nothing about…Again this out of context, she’s trying to make it seem like a scary chemical. Then she says when azodicarbonamide is heated, there are studies that show it is linked to tumor development and cancer; then she gives a reference. Now of course you know this is one of those situations where you have to actually click through to the references. They don’t support the position that she’s taking; but I also independently investigated that point. Now it is true that one of the breakdown products from heating is semicarbazide, which has been known to cause tumors in rats. Just like just about everything. A high enough dose, mice will get tumors from just about anything. The question is the dose, right? It’s always the dose, just the mere fact that in a study mice got tumors when exposed doesn’t say anything. So here’s what the most recent review article of this data concluded: that this chemical, this breakdown product this semicarbazide, is not classified as to its carcinogenicity to humans; so it’s not recognized as a carcinogen. Based on an estimate of exposed infants consuming baby foods, again this is using azodicarbonamide as a blowing agent, with the assumption of (?) levels at the 95th percentile in all of the consumed ready to eat foods compared with a no observed adverse effect level in developmental toxicity studies. The margin of safety is more than twenty-one thousand times. So, that was a little technical but the bottom line is that the amount that you’re gonna get exposed to, even if you’re eating this every day, is twenty-one thousand times lower than the amount that’s been shown to have any ill effects.

J: Now if you were to convert that into bread calories, that sounds like enough food for a year.

S: Yeah I mean you, even if you were living off Subway like Jared, you’re not going to be exposed to enough of this stuff to get anywhere a level that’s gonna have any toxicity. Alright but she goes on: not only is this ingredient banned in Europe and Australia, but you can also get fined $450,000 if you get caught using it and in Singapore you can serve 15 years in prison. Again this is because of the risk to factory workers, not because it poses any risk in food. She has a list of the scary sounding factoids taken out of context, she used that to make a petition for Subway to remove this chemical from their breads and guess how Subway reacted.

J: They didn’t do anything.

E: They’re pulling it.

S: They’re pulling it.

J: Oh no

S: They’re caving into the petition. Now you know you can’t really blame them because kids in school you know parents are being told don’t eat Subway until they pull the chemical. People aren’t going to dig down and get all the facts, they’re just going to remember there’s something scary there’s some scary chemical in Subway.

E: It’s a PR nightmare.

S: Yeah it’s a total PR nightmare and they just want it, they’re just doing damage control; they’re thinking about their bottom line. But this is caving, I think this is food terrorism, that’s what this is. Because she is attacking a company for using FDA approved substances well below the allowable limits, the evidence shows overwhelmingly this poses no risk to human health, there’s nothing this is completely safe. And she is trumping up this completely pseudoscientific scare-mongering case and forcing Subway…I’m sure that this is hurting their bottom line. And this is forcing them to change their practices, not because it makes sense, but just to minimize the damage that she’s doing to their reputation.

J: Steve, you’re a total shill for Subway.

S: Oh yeah! Subway, as you’ll see Monsanto the pharmaceutical industry, pretty much anybody who’s the target of pseudoscientific fear mongering.

J: It would be pretty cool though. I mean you’d get free sandwiches, ya know with a couple of extra bags of chips.

S: Well that’s the thing, Jay, I’m the worst shill in the world because I get paid nothing.

R: Well some would say, that makes you the best shill in the world. It depends on which side you’re on.

E: Steve, you know what I thought about when you were talking about this part about Subway is kind of forced to change despite the scientific evidence?

S: Yeah

E: Remember back in the 80’s when the Audi Corporation, the Audi cars, a woman had an accident in an Audi car and then the lawsuit came up “unwanted acceleration” became the buzz term. And Audi, even though they had all the science on their side, they caved and they had to start implementing features in their cars to prevent this unwanted acceleration when all the time

S: Not just Audi, it became a standard feature in cars that you can’t shift into drive unless your foot is on the break; and that feature was added to cars to address this completely fictitious phenomenon of spontaneous acceleration, which doesn’t exist.

E: Driver error is what was happening

S: Driver error. It was a completely fabricated false claim. Yeah but it changed the industry, just because it’s easier to change than to try to educate people about why this is pseudoscience.

E: Right. And, Steve, this is also going to embolden this gal to do more of this kind of stuff

S: Oh yeah!

E: She’s gonna…ya know whose next on her list?

S: Exactly! You have this essentially unqualified, non-expert blogger dictating food policy in this country based upon these fear mongering tactics. You know there is a science-based process. I’m not going to say that regulatory agencies are perfect, or they don’t make mistakes, or there’s no tradeoffs, and they’re thresholds are all perfect. But there is transparent, science-based, evidence-based process they have in place. They spend a lot of time deciding what safety intervals there are in doing tests; and to have this person trumping all of that with just some pseudoscientific nonsense. It really is a scandal and the media is not telling that story, that’s not the narrative that they’re telling at all. Their narrative is this crusading blogger has brought Subway to its knees; not that she’s a food terrorist trumping science with her own nonsense, without the slightest bit of process or expertise on her side.

E: That’s very bad.

S: Very bad.  

Petawatt Laser ()[edit]

AIDS Denialist Silence Critic ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Atoms moving

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: Scientists report new evidence that purports to find the missing mass from galaxy clusters – a previous 40% discrepancy between observations and predictions from cosmological models. Item #2: New research finds that people make better decisions when they believe that outcomes are predetermined by fate. Item #3: Archaeologists report on the oldest human footprints found outside of Africa, from a UK site dated to 0.78 to 1 million years ago, pushing back the earliest known humans in northern Europe by at least 350,000 years.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'Ignorance is nothing shameful; imposing ignorance is shameful. Most people are not to blame for their own ignorance, but if they wilfully pass it on, they are to blame.' - Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell.

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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