SGU Episode 458

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SGU Episode 458
April 19th 2014
SGU 457 SGU 459
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
“Science: If you don't make mistakes, you're doing it wrong. If you don't correct those mistakes, you're doing it really wrong. If can't accept that you're mistaken, you're not doing it at all.”
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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 Saturday April 12th and we are live from NECSS 2014. Joining me this week are Bob Novella.

B: Hey Everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson.

R: Hello everyone.

S: Jay Novella.

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello New York!


B: What the hell is that?

S: And we ahve a special guest joing us this week, Dr. Paul Offit. Paul, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

P: Thank you, thank you.

S: Dr. Offit, of course as everyone knows because he's already giving his lecture here at NECSS, he's a paediatrician with a special in infections diseas. He's a co-inventor of the rotovirus vaccine and the author of many books debunking myths about vaccines and promoting good scientific understanding of vaccines and medicine. So again, welcome back Paul.

P: Thank you, I really appreciate it.

S: So our, the episode that we do from NECSS every year is always our Perry De Angeles memorial episode. As long time listeners of the show know, we lost Perry a number of years ago. He was one of the founding rogues of the SGU, his presence had really a dramatic effect on the character and the quality of our show. We tried to keep his memory alive and really try to keep who Perry was alive through the podcast, always remembering the role that he had to play so take this moment to remember our good friend Perry.


This Day in Skepticism (2:08)[edit]

  • April 19, 1971: Salyut 1 Launched

S: Rebecca, so this show will go up on April 19th. What happened then?

R: I would love to tell you what happened then. Lots of stuff. But one thing in particular that I thought we could all appreciate. In 1971, April 19th was the launch day of the world's first, or I guess I swhould say, the solar system's first, space station. And I think it's right up there. It's called the, is it pronounced Salyut? It's the Russian word for salute, so something along those lines. The salute 1. And yeah, it was launched on April 19th, it wasn't the most successful space station in history, but it did pave the way for the next big project that they did which was Mir. But the Salyut 1 was launched unmanned and a couple of days later they sent up a ship with three crew members to board the space station but they forgot the front door key so...

S: oops

J: No way.

S: Did they knock?

R: Yeah. They knocked but there was nobody in there. So yeah, no. OK, not exactly. But they managed to dock with the space station but then the hatch was stuck and they couldn't get inside the space station so they just went home.


B: Really, really what happened?

R: They just went home. They went home, yeah.

S: They didn't have any duct tape?

R: I don't think duct tape fixes that. I think it's the one thing.

S: It fixes everything, Rebecca.

R: Like a hammer might have fixed it, I guess. They did send up another crew a short time later and they were able to get onto the space station. They spent about 30 days on board and then they came home and unfortunately something went wrong on the return trip and because at the time cosmonauts didn't wear full protective suits when re-entering they all perished.

J: Do you know what happened, did it catch on fire?

R: Yeah I Think there was a wiring issue. But speaking of things that paved the way, that paved the way for important safety regulations to come.

B: And I forget what happened to the Salyut itself. Did it just burn up on re-entry.

R: Yeah, it only lasted another few weeks I think and then they purposefully de-orbited it and it dropped into the Pacific.

Interview with Paul Offit (4:40)[edit]

S: So Paul we wanted to chat with you for a little bit. This is the cover of one of your books "deadly choices, how the anti-vaccine movement threatens us all" I know that you've said that this book has made you very popular.

P: everybody loves me, there have been no problems.


P: One thing I thought was interesting recently, I don't know if any of you followed this story, but there was a massive outbreak of a particular type of meningococcus that occured on Princeton's campus that affected nine people, it was meningococcus serogroup B, and similarly there was a huge outbreak at UCal Santa Barbara. So the CDC and the FDA did something that had never been done before, which was the CDC sort of took the lead, became the principal investigator, they basically did this through an investigation into a drug license with the FDA which was to bring a product into this country that not only wasn't licensed but hadn't even been submitted for licensure here yet, although had been licensed in Australia, in Europe, in Canada, which was a serogroup B vaccine. So under a "compassionate use protocol", that vaccine was then given to about 95% of students on Priceton's campus and about 50% or so of students on UCSB's campus, not in a coercive way, just whoever wants to get it can get it. I mean we have compassionate use protocols, certainly for children who have cancer, or people who have cancer, where drugs have not been licensed yet, often, usually they're submitted for licensure. I've just never heard of a compassionate use protocol for a problem, for something that you give to healthy people. So it was I think kind of a breakthrough moment. Hopefully it will move this product along more quickly through the FDA now that these data have been generated. But I was surprised by that, pleasantly, that we've done that. It's never happened before in vaccines, it's never happened before really in drugs, where you're giving something to healthy people, to protect them against the theoretical possibility of meningococcal disease. Although the best t-shirt by the way, so serogroup-B meningococcus, there was a t-shirt. There are a lot of t-shirts on Princeton's campus. My favourite one was: "would have been meningitis A at Harvard".


S: So we were chatting about the fact that we think, anti-vaccine movement is largely based on fear. Fear and a complete misunderstanding of the precautionary principal and it's a lot easier to stoke fear than to reassure people with abstract scientific data, and some of my colleagues and I, like David Gorski had predicted several years ago that the anti-vaccine public opinion is really going to start to turn around when the illnesses that vaccines prevent start to come back and then people get more afraid of the diseases than they are of the vaccine and I think that was a little microcosm of that effect. I think meningitis scared the crap out of everybody so they were all willing to take this unlicensed vaccine.

P: Yeah and it's interesting, so there was a difference between Princeton and UCSB, Princeton was like 95% immunisation rate and UCSB was 50%, and it wasn't just because UCSB is a significantly larger university, the reason was is that Princeton had just had a case and so it was easy to get students to take it whereas at UCSB it had been about five months since the last case so the fear had died down to some extent. But you're right, if you look at the way that the media covers this story now, it's all about outbreaks. I mean outbreaks of pertussis and mumps and measles and, to a lesser extent, bacterial meningitis and so we sort of stoke the fears again and that's helped, you're right.

J: Paul and Steve, do you guys see any effect of the increase of like Measles going around now, is there anything happening in the public eye that you know about where people are changing their opinion?

P: Yes, if you look at the blogs, you look at the comments to these articles, people are getting angry, angry that parents are making a choice not only for their children, but also for children who others come into contact with, I think that the tide has turned.

S: Yeah, it's created a "thanks for the measles" kind of meme, that's what you need for PR. Something that people can easily wrap their head around.

R: I was talking to Sonia Pemberton who made the documentary "Jabbed" and she told me that certain surveys showed that as people get younger, they are... not... people don't get younger.


R: Poor way to put this. In surveys of people's feelings toward vaccines, younger people tended to be more likely to be anti-vaccine and some researchers do think that because older people have seen polio, they know what it looks like, and so they're more likely to vaccinate.

P: Yeah that's a great movie actually and it should be coming out on Nova pretty soon. I'm actually in the movie, I play the role of a vaccine expert, which I've been pigeon-holed as...


P: I wanted to be actually Gus the amiable chimney sweep, but it just didn't happen.


J: Speaking of that, can you do a British accent?

P: No.

R: Neither can Jay.

S: Neither can Jay, yeah. Paul, you're working on your next book. Can you chat about that, or not?

P: Yeah sure, it should be out early next year. It's surprisingly called, "The Unholy Act, the clash between modern medicine and religious belief" you got a little glimpse of it at my talk. I'm going to take the unusual position that I think that when people deny their children life-saving therapies in the name of religion, that that's not religious. I think the term "a religious exception to child abuse and neglect laws", if it's child abuse and neglect then it's not religion. It's an unusual position for me to take because I'm not a terribly religious person, but I'm trying to take it so therefore I figure I will anger everybody on both sides, I'll anger you, I'll anger the few people that actually were on my side, but what the hell.

S: Because you want more death threats.

P: I want to expand my circle of hate.


J: Real quick, Paul how bad is it? You're getting death threats? Give us a synopsis of what your day-to-day is.

P: Sure I get hate mail, I get hate email. Yeah, yeah sure, but it's not nearly what it was, it was actually much worse... I published a book called "Autism's False Prophets" which really got me a lot of hate mail and did actually get me the occasional death threat, enough so that the FBI was involved. But I choose denial as a way to handle this, I just don't think that anybody's really going to kill me, but people who are going to kill me are probably not going to bother to email me first.


News Items (11:00)[edit]

Liquid Light ()[edit]

S: Alright, so one of our listeners sent us a picture of this

Geocentrism ()[edit]

The Continuity Field ()[edit]

Light on Mars ()[edit]

Ancient Asteroid Impact ()[edit]

Ant Complexity ()[edit]

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: 25% of Manhattan rests on landfill. Item #2: Mayor La Guardia banned pinball machines in the city and spearheaded raids in which the machines were destroyed with sledgehammers. Item #3: The Dutch did in fact purchase Manhattan from the local natives for beads and other trinkets of little value. Item #4: In 1906 the Bronx Zoo kept a human on display, an African presented as 'the missing link.'

Live Q&A ()[edit]

Question #1: Skeptical Parenting ()[edit]

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

“Science: If you don't make mistakes, you're doing it wrong. If you don't correct those mistakes, you're doing it really wrong. If can't accept that you're mistaken, you're not doing it at all.” - Anonymous

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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