SGU Episode 456

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SGU Episode 456
April 5th 2014
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 455                      SGU 457

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

My personal philosophy would be don't whine, don't let opportunities pass you by, be willing to work hard, and remember that you don't know as much as you think you do, ever.

James Marsters

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

This Day in Skepticism (2:20)[edit]

S: But before that, Rebecca, you're gonna tell us about Today in Skepticism.

R: Whatever I want to talk about, yeah.

S: Whatever you want to talk about, go ahead.

R: Yeah! I want to say Happy Birthday to Hattie Elizabeth Alexander, born April 5th, 1901. Hattie Alexander was a pediatrician whose ground breaking work on influenzal meningitis cut the number of infant deaths to a negligible amount. It used to be that if an infant got influenzal meningitis, then they were as good as dead. And after she devised a syrum against it, she cut the mortality down to something like twenty percent. And this was before the advent of antibiotics.

Once antibiotics came on the scene, she switched things up, and she learned everything there was to know about antibiotics, and then she started working with them to fight bacterial meningitides, is the way I'm gonna pronounce that.

S: Meningitities.

R: Thank you. That sounds much better. Meningitities.

S: You're welcome.

R: So, yeah, she was an awesome woman who did a lot of great things. But more than anything else, she saved countless lives by coming up with that syrum.

S: Yeah, she was uber-cool. She also figured out the whole idea of bacterial resistance. You know, random mutations evolve in resistance to antibiotics. So she was, yeah, pretty accomplished. On a somewhat related note, I read a couple articles recently about a survey in the UK where they asked people to name a famous, just name a female scientist. Name a female scientist. Anybody. Two thirds couldn't do it.

E: Whoa! That's bad.

S: Most of the people who actually named a female scientist

E: Marie Curie

S: said Marie Curie. When they were asked to name a living female scientist, most still said Marie Curie.

E: (Laughs) Oops!

S: Or they named a dude.

R: Yeah

E: Named Chris, or

B: Leslie.

R: No, a specific dude.

S: Yeah, twelve percent named Isimbard Kingdon Brunelle, an eighteenth century mechanical and civil engineer, and a guy!

R: That's pretty embarrassing.

S: It is, it is interesting. All right, so occasionally, we'll mention female scientists on the show. Just ...

R: Occasionally.

S: Thirteen percent.

(Rebecca snickers)

S: All right, let's go on to some news items. I'm gonna beat that dead horse. I'm just gonna do it.

R: I know.

News Items[edit]

Medical Conspiracies (4:51)[edit]

Autism Onset (12:00)[edit]

Artificial Yeast (18:44)[edit]

Conflicts of Interest (25:15)[edit]

S: All right,

J: Powered by batteries!

S: one more news item. Rebecca, you're gonna tell us why Republicans are against transparency, apparently.

R: Well,

S: Sort of

R: not all Republicans. In fact, some Republicans, or at least one, has been very vocal in being for transparency. But yeah, this is something that I saw in the Daily Beast, originally. Lawrence Lessig wrote a great article about it.

Basically, what is happening right now, is, we've talked about transparency in the past, on this show, and how it can be kind of a red flag that you might look for when you're looking at scientific studies, and you're trying to work out what is valid, and what might need to be looked at more skeptically. It's not something that would immediately debunk a study. It wouldn't immediately discredit it. But it is something that would say, "Hey! There might be a slight problem here, that you should look more closely at."

So, financial conflicts of interest are normally something that you have to declare when you publish a scientific study. Like, "I was looking into the greatest paper towel of all time. This study is sponsored by Bounty. Bounty won." You know, that's something that might tip you off. Like, "Oh, this is something that we should look into, to make sure that it's scientifically rigorous." It's a standard thing.

It's not a standard thing in government though, when government in the US, when the US government is looking at scientific studies in order to make a decision. So right now, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is considering a rule change that would apply stricter standards to the amount of silica that can be found in the workplace. Silica is a thing that when you drill into minerals, silica can be released as particles that you might inhale. And it's known to cause cancer, and other problems.

So, because of this, of course, they are looking at the science. David Michaels heads of OSHA, and he requested of the corporations that are against this rule change, corporations like Halliburton, or the American Petroleum Institute, they are submitting scientific studies that they believe would support their viewpoint, that these rules do not need to be stricter, that employees are perfectly safe as is.

Michaels has requested that when they submit scientific studies, they simply disclose any financial conflicts of interest that might exist, like, for instance, if they themselves sponsored whatever study they're submitting.

E: Right, it's not like they're rejecting it, they're just asking to make that disclaimer.

R: Correct. Yeah, it's a pretty reasonable request. And it's not even a hard and fast rule. It was literally just a request. But it was enough to apparently frighten sixteen senators, who drafted a letter to Michaels, objecting to several of the things he asked for in this case, but particularly, at the end, they say that they are uncomfortable with the idea of a company having to disclose their financial conflict of interest in a study. They're scared that by disclosing the financial conflict of interest, it might actually bias OSHA against the corporations. So, by declaring a bias, OSHA, might be biased against them, if that makes sense.

It doesn't make sense, by the way. It's pretty ridiculous, and kind of offensive. But what makes it even more offensive is that it turns out in the one hundred and twenty days before that letter was drafted, the sixteen senators who signed the letter have received more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars fromt he very groups that are arguing against the rule change.

So in other words, those senators had a financial conflict of interest that they failed to disclose when arguing against disclosure of conflict of interest. Ta-da!

E: Isn't it what you call lobbyists at work, and that whole system? It's a wonderful, wonderful system.

R: Yeah! It's not exactly, like, the more cynical of you will think it's not very surprising that our senators, first of all, come so cheap. A hundred and fifty thousand dollars. But yeah, that they are in the pocket of big business. But what was surprising to me when reading about this was that it's not already common practice for the US government to insist that corporations declare conflicts of interest when submitting scientific studies, when the government is about to make a decision.

Personally, I think that it shouldn't just be a request that one administration makes in one case. I think that this should be a standard thing that everybody should do, like all aspects of government, when they are making a decision based on scientific evidence, they should understand the conflicts of interest that are behind the scientific studies, because we have a long history of corporations promoting pseudoscience in an attempt to get their way. Steve mentioned one earlier, the tobacco industry

S: Right

R: for a very long time, promoted studies that seemed to show that there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of in their products. And time has shown that to be completely ridiculous. One corporation that is a part of this silica rule change that I already mentioned, the American Petroleum Institute, previously argued that lead in the environment was perfectly safe, and that all medical studies to date showed so. It was a complete lie that ignored two thousand years of knowledge about lead.

So these corporations aren't new to this game. They've done this before. And this request is really just like, the first small step towards making corporations more accountable for the science that they're submitting, and helping government officials separate truth from fiction, when making really important decisions. Like, this decision impacts impacts the lives of workers who work regularly with materials like silica. So,

S: Yeah

R: check out the article, and if you live in one of the states where these senators are, I mean, if I lived in one of those states, you can be sure that I would be calling my senator, and asking them why they're specifically working for these corporations that donated to them, as opposed to working for more scientific transparency.

S: Yeah, I mean, in this context, to this degree, it's hard to argue against, as you say, transparency. Just disclose any conflicts of interest. It's not a big deal.

R: Yeah, it's so obvious, and so basic to me, that it's ridiculous that anybody could think that it was a moral thing to argue against.

S: One last point with this, Rebecca does have no conflicts of interest to declare in this (inaudible).

R: Well, I do own a silica mining corporation.

S: Ah, okay.

R: Besides that.

S: Thanks for disclosing that.

R: No problem.

Who's That Noisy (33:04)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Dennis Kusinich

Name That Logical Fallacy (36:10)[edit]

What would you call the tendency to inappropriately lump together ideas according to theme or association? For instance, I frequently find it nearly impossible to take a conservative or liberal position on a topic without the other person arguing against related views I do not share. So in the lead up to the Iraq war, taking the position that Saddam didn’t have WMDs meant people would respond with 'yeah, but the war will pay for itself' or perhaps some nonsense about terrorism. Similarly, if I argue minimum wages laws reduce income over the long term, I find I might have to convince the person that I dont think the free market solves everything, that there should be no welfare, etc.Ryan McNamara Defiance, MO

(Commercial at 41:49)

James Marsters (43:00)[edit]

(Commercial at 1:02:31)

Science or Fiction (1:04:24)[edit]

Item #1: Sex is not allowed during the Sabbath. While 'modern' orthodox Jews allow physical interaction short of actual penetration, most orthodox Jews do not allow even simple touching of ones spouse since that may lead to intercourse. Item #2: Tearing toilet paper is not allowed. Even if the roll is perforated the detaching of squares is considered 'work' and not permitted. Item #3: Killing lice on the Sabbath is permitted and not considered 'work' since, as the Talmud notes, lice don't have parents and are created from dust and thus not real animals and may be disposed of as desired. Item #4: While all religious Jews do not open a refrigerator that has a light bulb in it, many go a step further and add restrictions to opening it even when the light bulb was removed prior to the Sabbath.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:24:13)[edit]

'My personal philosophy would be don't whine, don't let opportunities pass you by, be willing to work hard, and remember that you don't know as much as you think you do, ever.'- James Marsters

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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