SGU Episode 467

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SGU Episode 467
June 21st 2014
SGU 466 SGU 468
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate.
Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), 40th President of the United States
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Show Notes
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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, June 18th, 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: Hey, my friends! Rebecca, I missed you last week! Gimme a hug! Ah! There you go.

R: I missed you too. Internet hug?

E: Group hug, everyone!

(Cross talk)

This Day in Skepticism (0:35)[edit]

  • June 21: Summer Solstice

S: So, happy Summer Solstice everyone.

E: I laid an egg on its side today, and it stayed down.

R: It is the day when the tilt of the axis is most pointed toward the sun – at least the Summer Solstice for the Northern Hemisphere, which is why it is also known as the Northern Solstice, or the Solstice of Northern Aggression. It changes days depending on a number of factors, well, mostly just the leap year. But this year, it is today, June 21st. And because the axial tilt of the Earth is at its maximum towards the Sun, that means that here in the Northern Hemisphere, we are currently enjoying our longest day, and our shortest evening. And from here on out, our days will get more or less progressively shorter and shorter.

So, a lot of holidays and stuff sprung up around the Solstice, same as with the Winter Solstice; except for the Summer Solstice, they tend to be a bit more sex oriented. Lots of sex stuff happens. Also, lots of burning things.

B: Burning man!

E: (Laughing) Burning man.

R: Yeah! Is that a Solstice thing?

E: Nah, I don't think so. Didn't it happen last month?

B: That's in July, but it's burning! It's hot!

R: Thank you. It //is// burning!

E: Ouch!

R: Yeah, it's traditional in many Northern European cultures, it was at one point traditional to burn fires to keep away spirits, and things like that. Every region has its different festivals and things. Seattle has the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade; big fan of that. Lots of ... skin. So, yeah! How are you guys celebrating the Solstice?

S: Uh, by recording a podcast.

R: Oh. Well, we're not recording on the day. This is coming out on the day. So right now, as the listener is listening, I am laying on a beach somewhere.

S: Yeah, and I've just finished six hours of post-production.

R: (Laughs)

E: I'm at a larp.

S: Really? You're larping this weekend?

E: Yes, I am larping this weekend.

R: What a perfect weekend for a larp.

S: Yeah, Friday night, I'll be seeing George Hrab's concert.

R: Ah! There you go!

S: A tribute to Sting.

R: Ah!

S: There are a lot of myths surrounding the Summer Solstice. Of course, the one that comes up every year, or the equinox, whichever one, is the whole standing the egg on its end.

R: I think that's usually the Spring Equinox.

E: Spring / Fall, yes.

S: Some people think it's the hottest day of the year, but it's not. It's just the longest light. There's a delay in the heating up of the atmosphere, so the hottest day hits around the beginning of August, sometime, typically.

E: Which makes sense if you think about it.

S: Yeah.

B: And all because of the axial tilt of the Earth! Things would be very different if we didn't have that.

E: Gosh, we'd arguably not be here.

S: And fortunately, the tilt is very stable, probably because of the Moon.

B: Yes.

Special Report (3:39)[edit]

  • Cosmos Series with Neil DeGrasse Tyson

S: Well, guys, are you up to date on Cosmos? Did you guys see the last episode?

B: Of course!

E: Yes, yes, yes.

S: So, we said we would come and revisit the Cosmos series after we saw the whole thing, so what did you guys think?

R: Loved it!

B: I 'effin' loved it. It was magnificent.

E: I enjoyed it more as the series went on. I thought it got better, especially towarsd the end. The subject matter was just wonderful, spot on. The graphics just blows everything else away, as far as I'm concerned with these kinds of shows. Spared no expense obviously, and did a wonderful, wonderful job.

And again, I felt more comfortable with Neil as the show progressed. I guess I had some hesitation in the beginning, or I, just getting a little bit used to him as far as playing the role of Carl Sagan; but by the end of it, I'm like, "Okay, this is Neil's Cosmos." And I had kind of no problem with it, no issues. I wasn't even really thinking about Carl Sagan that much at the very end, except when the very, very cool quote from Carl and the Pale Blue Dot, and that whole famous recite was done, and that was a beautiful, wonderful tribute. It really ended well. I enjoyed the whole series.

B: Evan, I felt similarly about Tyson in the beginning. I mean, he did a great job throughout, but the first couple episodes I was taken aback. I don't know if you guys sensed it or noticed it as well; it was his quirky delivery. Something about the cadence, or his facial express; something about how he was delivering the lines just seemed a little odd.

But then, after just a couple episodes, I think it was endearing; and I really enjoyed that aspect of his delivery. I don't know if you guys noticed that as well, but I thought he was fantastic in that role.

J: Well, I don't think it's uncommon for people that are shooting a TV series to slip into the zone. You know, it took him a while, maybe, to get comfortable, or, you know, a lot of times, there's a lot of head-butting with the director and the producers and everything on how it's gonna be; but he definitely did find that sweet spot. And I'm just thrilled that the TV show is as popular as it is, and was produced at the level that it was; and I'm just really hoping that other shows like this are gonna now come into being because of this.

B: Well, what about, has there been any talk of, like, a "Coscos 2?" Do another round of eight or ten episodes? I mean, there's still so much out there.

R: Yeah, clearly, a huge amount of work went into that.

B: Oh my god!

R: So, I don't know if you would have, even the time to do it again, you know?

S: It would be nice, because the Cosmos is definitely an introduction into the big ideas of science for somebody who's not necessarily already a scientist, or very scientifically literate. So it's good. Another season could go deeper, could take it a little bit further. There's plenty of territory he didn't cover, you know what I mean?

J: You know what really makes me upset though, is I love Cosmos, but having it on TV also gave me a stark reality check; like, this is the only really good science show on TV. And I know there's other science shows out there, but when you think of the vast majority of the crap that's out there, like the reality TV, and everything else, it's pretty much, everything else is reality TV. We have the nighttime TV shows, and then daytime television garbage, and then all the reality TV garbage; and then there's this shining star of a science show, and now it's over.

S: You could also just compare it to the average show that's on the Science Channel, or the Discovery Channel, or the Learning Channel, the History Channel. There are a number of cable channels that ostensibly are dedicated to educational material, and most of that material is crap, or even just flagrant pseudoscience; they're just pandering to pseudoscience in order to, I guess, goose ratings. But, they should try to do that by probably just producing really good quality educational TV.

Hopefully, if Cosmos is a really big financial and popular success, hopefully it'll have some coat tails. Hopefully it'll inspire some TV executive somewhere to go, "Hey! Maybe if we produce //quality// science programming, we could get some viewers that way," rather than just the crap that they're putting out.

B: Think of the effort though, and the skills that went into creating Cosmos compared to Jersey Shore, for example. When you look at the bottom line, it's kind of hard to justify that. But I think there's a sweet spot too. There's lots of science shows on that kind of bridge the gap, try to make it entertaining, but also educational. I just recently found one, and it has the best title ever! "The Science Of Stupid," which is fantastic because it shows people all over the internet of course, doing stupid stuff, but then they tell you the science behind it, and where they went wrong.

And I thought, "What an awesome idea that is! Just try to throw some education. We all love watching those videos, so merge those two, and I thought that was a really good idea; so we need more of those too!

S: Did you guys have a favorite episode?

B: I liked the one when they showed future technology; that was cool. Although, they got it wrong, but ...

S: I did like all the episodes, but I do think that episode 6, "Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still," was one of the best written. It really flowed very well.

J: Steve, you sure that wasn't a porn?

(Evan Laughs)

R: I'm sure somebody's already working on the porn version of Cosmos right now.

E: I liked "Unafraid of the Dark," the finale, quite a bit. That one certainly stood out. And also, I liked "Sisters of the Sun," episode 8. I think, perhaps, I learned ... I learned from all of them, but I learned quite a bit from that one. A lot of things that I hadn't known before, so that one captured me a little more than some of the other ones, and some of the other stories I was more familiar with. So that one, because I it had the most new material for me. That one caught my interest.

S: Yeah, that was a good one. I liked the last episode, of course. I thought it ended the series very well. And I liked the whole Ship of the Imagination, and science and learning as a journey. Then at the end, you see the Ship of the Imagination with the seat empty -

B: Excellent!

S: It's your ship now, you know?

R: Just to note, I was looking up ratings for Cosmos, and it's got okay ratings, by and large, over the course of the series, but nothing spectacular. Basically, it tied with the Bachelorette, which is its big competition, I guess. That said, it's on Fox, which has way fewer viewers in general than ABC, where Bachelorette is. But at the same time, if you're looking at it in terms of pure numbers, reality shows cost nothing to produce compared to something like Cosmos, so yeah. It didn't do well enough that we could say, "Oh, this is definitely gonna spawn a bunch of more cool documentaries.

E: It was an ambitious time slot, 9:00 on a Sunday night is, there's lots of stuff out there for people to watch, a lot of competition.

S: Not TVO, I TVO the whole thing.

E: Sure, as did I, of course.

S: A show like that will also have more life than a reality TV show like the Bachelorette. It's the kind of show, definitely, I'm gonna go back and watch those episodes two or three times.

R: Yeah, and it is the sort of thing that I could see more people buying on BluRay than something like the Bachelorette.

S: Yeah, exactly.

E: Hey, Rebecca, question for you: Do you think they did a good job? I thought they did a fair job of showcasing some of the female scientists that we need to know more about.

B: Oh, yeah!

R: Yeah, absolutely!

E: That's where the original Cosmos, didn't have any episodes that really focused on anything like that. I'm not criticizing the original, in that context, but that's one of the things that was so different, refreshing, and you learn so much new in this new Cosmos series.

R: Yeah, I think it was very clear that they went out of their way to highlight some otherwise overlooked female astronomers. Yeah, I thought it was great.

S: Yeah, and their contributions were fabulous, and Neil even said, "You've never heard of these scientists. I wonder why?"

R: Yeah.

E: Yeah.

S: It's not because their contributions weren't worthy. The bottom line is I think we all agree that it was a great series, and anything that increases interest in science - scientific literacy is wonderful.

News Items[edit]

Chopra Challenge to Skeptics (12:19)[edit]

S: Let's move onto some news items. Have you guys all seen Deepak Chopra's challenge to skeptics?

(Evan Laughs)

R: Oh yeah.

B: Oh my god!

J: I take this very seriously, Steve.

S: Do you?

E: Sorry, I had to get that out of my system.

J: No, I don't.

E: You want that million dollars, huh?

S: He has a challenge to "Randi, and his cronies," so I guess we're Randi's cronies.

E: All right!

J: I'm alright with that!

(Evan Laughs)

S: The point is though, I mean, Deepak has been getting very uppity about skeptics in the last couple of years. We're clearly getting under his skin, you know? And he's been taking pot-shots at us multiple times; this is just the latest one. And yet, he doesn't seem to know the first thing about skepticism, or the skeptical movement, you know?

He knows Randi, and a couple of other famous names, and he somehow thinks that we're all just following Randi around or something. It's like, no, it's actually quite a big community with lots of people and scientists and philosophers, etcetera, you know what I mean? He really has no idea what we're all about, clearly.

So, his challenge, which he's not the first person to offer a fake challenge mocking the JREF's Million Dollar psychic challenge. So, all you have to do ... so Deepak Chopra will give you a million dollars. All you have to do is in one peer reviewed paper, advance neuroscience about a century, and solve the hardest problem of the philosophy of science that exists.

B: Ah, is that all? Alright.

R: Done!

S: One paper. If you can do that, then he'll give you a million dollars.

B: That wouldn't be enough.

S: He actually hasn't established any clear criteria, so it's just fuzzy. So, even if you did do that, he could say, "Meh, not quite enough."

So, this is what he wants you to do. This is an exact quote now from the video. "Dear Randi, before you go around debunking the so-called paranormal, please explain the so-called "normal." How does the electricity going into the brain become the experience of a three-dimensional world in space and time? If you can explain that, then you get a million dollars from me. Explain and solve the hard problem of consciousness in a peer-reviewed journal, offer a theory that is falsifiable, and you get the prize."

The hard problem of consciousness is something that philosophers of mind talk about. The easy problem is figuring out how the brain processes images and sound, and moves your muscles; all the little things that the brain does. The hard problem is qualia. Why do we experience our own existence? The subjective experience of our stream of consciousness. Philosophers don't even agree that there is a hard problem, let alone solving it.

I personally agree with Daniel Dennett, who says that once you've solved all the easy problems, you have solved the hard problem. It's just what you get when you add all the easy problems together. Our subjective experience is just experiencing all of the processing that the brain is doing.

B: It's an emergent phenomenon.

S: Yeah, exactly.

J: I'd like to turn this around 180 degrees, and say to Chopra, like, "Prove anything that you've ever said!"

S: (Chuckles) Yeah, right.

R: Any one thing. Just pick one.

E: Oh my gosh! Just to (inaudible 15:50)

R: You could say right now, "The sky is blue," and then prove it. That would impress me.

S: So, the thing is, he's talking about proof in science, and he doesn't give any criteria. "Explain it!" What does "explain" mean? Explain it to what depth of reductionism are you looking for here? I could explain it right now, on some level, in terms of neuronal firing, and neuro-correlates, anatomical correlates although he says he won't accept the neuro-anatomical correlates as evidence. You know why? Because that's evidence we already have.

R: 'Cause he'd be out a million dollars!

S: (Laughs) He'd be out a million dollars! Right. So, forget all the evidence that already exists. I want some ill-defined other evidence, and I'll let you know whatever that is.

E: God of the gaps.

S: Definitely, that's absolutely. It's his dualism of the gaps approach.

B: The problem is, Steve, you would have to explain it to such a degree that you would convince him that there's no magic involved, and that is not gonna happen.

J: The glaring reality here is that if you do a deep dive on Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, there are rules. A lot of things are agreed upon between the person being tested and the testers. There is an actual visible goal that you need to get to. Everything is agreed upon in advance. With this complete BS Million Dollar Challenge that Chopra's putting up, it's basically him just thumbing his nose at us because no million dollars will ever be paid out. There is no way to actually achieve it.

S: Yeah, it's a farce. You're right, Jay. With Randi's Challenge, first of all, the challenge is for somebody to do what they already claim they could do – not something new. You say you can do X? Okay, just do it. Do X. Do what you claim you can already do under these conditions to this very specific outcome. That's all.

B: And do you agree? Yes. Okay, we'll move forward.

S: Yeah.

B: They agree to it! They agree to it.

S: So, in this case, again, Chopra wants you to explain neuroscience to an arbitrary level of detail that he doesn't even begin to explain what that would be.

The other thing that he goes into in the video, which is something that he has done before, and other dualists have done this; is to say that intention is evidence that the mind is operating without of the brain.

E: What?

S: Yeah, right? It doesn't make any sense. So he says that ...

B: I'm convinced!

S: ... if I ask you to think of a sunset, you think of a sunset, and then that triggers the firing of neurons in your brain. But the thought comes first. Where does the thought come from?

E: From his suggestion?

S: Yeah! I mean, it comes from your brain! My brain hears you say, "Think of a sunset." And then my brain communicates with itself. That triggers an internal conversation going on that's also fed by external stimuli. It's a continuous loop of activity. There's also, now, we have copious amounts of research showing that before you can communicate that you experience something, or act upon some initiative, there are firings going on in the brain previous to that. You know, the brain firing happens first before intention or subjective experience or anything else. That's been clearly established now.

B: And that would blow away everything you're talking about, Steve, if it was the opposite. If it were the opposite, it would be like – oh boy – that's like finding a Chiwawa next to a T-Rex. That would kind of be kind of weird.

S: It would be a mystery. It would be an anomaly, it would be a mystery. But no! It pretty much shows, the brain activity is what comes first. The arrow of cause and effect is so clearly established from brain to mind. In fact, the mind isn't even a thing caused by the brain. The mind //is// the brain. It's just the functioning of the brain. That's what it is. That's the only conclusion that you can come to based upon all of the neuroscientific evidence that we have.

And people who criticize that, and I've written about this a hundred times on Neurologica; I've engaged in that many comment duels. And the people who don't accept that, by and large, are grossly ignorant of the state of neuroscientific research. There's no other way to say it. They just have no idea how much neuroscientists have explored the relationship between the functioning of the brain and mental experience. The link is so clearly established, and not just a correlation, but everything that should flow from the mind being the function of the brain is there.

B: Yeah, Steve, I really liked your analogy in your blog post that if you ask somebody a hundred years ago to describe the functioning of the brain to the level that we know it now, they wouldn't be able to do it, and people would think that would be a strong argument. But, it's not.

S: Yeah, so again, my point was, a Deepak Chopra of the 19th century would say, "Oh, show me the neuro-anatomical correlates! And show me this and that. And show me all the stuff that now we take for granted." So Chopra is just the god-of-the-gaps style is just saying "Show me something that we're not really gonna be able to prove for a hundred years, and then I'll accept it." And then I'm sure a hundred years from now, whatever the version of Deepak Chopra that's around in the 22nd century will be asking for something that we don't have at that time.

"Sure, we have artificially intelligent computers, but ..."

B: And then the A.I. will just jack him into the mainframe, and he'd be like, "Oh. Okay, I was wrong."

J: Steve, in your opinion,

B: Never mind!

J: do you think Chopra's a believer?

S: I think so, but it doesn't really matter what I think, because who really knows? I can't read his mind. He certainly acts like a believer. I think people like him, who are making millions of dollars off of selling pseudoscience, it's some combination. They know that they're cutting corners. They're engaged probably in a lot of motivated reasoning.

B: Oh my god! And rationalization.

S: Yeah.

B: You talking mega-giga-rationalization that we all know the human mind is capable of.

E: Well, if only he had a forum to come on and talk, and further express his opinions. If only we could invite ...

B: Free T-shirt! Free T-shirt!

E: Ooh! That would get him on!

S: Yeah. On my blog, I publicly challenged him to come to TAM to find out what skeptics really say.

E: And much like Ann Coulter – cricket cricket cricket! Cricket!

S: Yeah, Coulter never took my challenge.

E: Yeah, what the hell?

R: Shocked!

(Rogues laugh)

S: It's possible she never heard it, but still!

B: Ya think?

New Computer Architecture (22:38)[edit]

S: Alright, well, Bob... Apparently, Hewlett Packard is teasing us with some brand new computer architecture. Tell us what they're talking about.

B: Oh yeah. This was actually fun to research. As Steve said, HP announced recently – and this was in Vegas – a completely new architecture that they're designing and developing called "The Machine" that could possibly, perhaps, maybe be worthy of the word "revolution."

J: Bob, that was invented in the '70's. Remember La Machine?

B: (Laughs) Yeah, I was thinking that, Jay!


R: What is La Machine?

J: It was like, one of the first food processors.

R: (Laughing) Okay...

B: So, it's fitting though that this latest announcement took place in Vegas, because HP is certainly seems to be betting

J: ... It's French, you know, it makes it sound better, Rebecca.

R: No, I get it. Yeah. I'm excited.

J: Sorry Bob.

(Evan laughs)

B: It's alright. HP certainly seems to be betting the house on this technology. They even used the term, "Doubling down" during one of their talks. So, let's just talk about the name. Come on, "The Machine?" Seriously, guys.

R: It's like, a professional wrestler's name.


E: He's The Machine! Ugh! He's comin' for you!

B: They couldn't think of a name, so they said they started calling it "The Machine," and marketing was all trying to think of a cool name, and then it just stuck. And then of course, that's it. We're stuck with The Machine. Hello!

S: It's good to hear though, that they have as much trouble coming up with marketing names as we do, and they're a big company.

J: 'Cause we were thinking about calling our show, "Podcast."

(Bob laughs)

R: Podcast!

R: The Podcast!

J: La Podcast!

E: Blah Blah Podcast!

B: So, they're point though, was that this isn't the computer, this isn't a server, it's not a mainframe, it's not a laptop; it's all of those, essentially. So, the bottom line then: Why do they think this new architecture is so special? And the number one reason, the biggest reason has all to do with memory, computer memory.

I'm sure almost everybody's aware, computers essentially have two different kinds of memory; that you've got RAM – Random Access Memory. And there's lots of flavors of that. And then there's also Hard Drive Memory as well. RAM and its variants are fast as hell, but they're small, right? They're relatively tiny.

J: Well, it's part of your computer where, that's where like, your brain is doing a lot of its memory juggling and thinking. It's not storage. It's just intended for the operation of the machine.

B: Right.

S: It's working memory.

B: Right, it's manipulating it, and it's doing it at tremendous speed. But the thing is though, it's volatile, meaning that once the power's off, the data goes bye-bye! It's not there. Huge, huge disadvantage for memory like that.

Hard Drive Space, on the other hand, as we all know, is the opposite. It's relatively slow, but it's huge! In terrabytes, we're all sitting next to machines filled with terrabytes; which 10, 15 years ago, would seem amazing. It's just cavernous, but slow, as I said.

So, The Machine - La Machine – consolidates into one memory all of this, called "Universal Memory." So, this has the best of both worlds. It's really fast and gargantuan at the same time, and it's non-volatile, so that when you turn it off, turn it back on, it's all right there. And they're talking, you know, hundreds of petabytes.

But the real elephant in this server room is how they're pulling this off. And, it's memristors. This is the new technology. It's been theorized decades ago. It was actually been mathematically deduced that memristors should exist. And a memristor's actually a fundamental element of simple circuits, along with inductors, resistors, and capacitors. It's fundamental, but it can be used as memory as well.

So, as a memory device, this seems like the holy grail. I mean, it could really, really remove a tremendous bottleneck found in all conventional computers because what they seem to be spending most of their time doing - and I think it's 80 or 90% is one figure I found – they're essentially shuffling data from long-term storage to short-term storage so that they can manipulate it; and it just takes an inordinate amount of computer time to do all of that. And if you can get rid of it, if all your memory is right there, next to the cores, to access immediately, then that's a huge, huge plus – an amazing plus! It's a game-changer, okay?

J: Do you know how they're doing it? Are they using ...

B: Yeah, well the memristors, there's a mesh of wires that meets the other wire going in the other direction, and you apply these special materials to it. If you sent a current through it, it'll change it essentially to a one or a zero, and then, when the current's gone, it's gonna remember that. So, that's a very, very high-level description of what memristors are. If they can get that to work, that is literally one of the holy grails ...

J: What do you mean, "if?"

B: ... of computer technology.

J: Are we talking that they have this? Or is this thing like a ...

B: Well, yeah. I was gonna cover that at the end, Jay. How realistic is this? They've been working on it; I'm sure they've got some nice prototypes, but is it ready? I'll go into a little bit more detail.

S: What do you think, Bob, about 5, 10 years?

(Evan laughs)

B: Well, ha, that's funny. So, memory is one of the big reasons why this is gonna be revolutionary. The other primary reason is data transfer. It's no longer gonna be ruled by electrons moving through copper wire. In The Machine, the electrical interconnects that all computers use now will be replaced by these very slick, very fast optical interconnects. No copper wire, no electrons, all photons. So, of course, it's gonna be a hell of a lot faster; and maybe even more importantly, it's gonna greatly, greatly reduce costs, perhaps by 80% or perhaps one 80th. It's actually kind of odd that Martin Fink was saying that it's gonna be 80 times less expensive, which is an odd way to put it, don't you think?

I'm not sure, did he mean 80% less expensive, or literally one 80th, which would be even better! Regardless, though, it's gonna be a tremendous, tremendous power and money saver that's gonna save millions and millions of dollars – if it works, of course, it all has to ...

S: But, I mean, made out of solid diamond.

E: Yeah, right.


S: It's the only drawback.

B: Well, I mean, people have asked me about it; and from what they're saying, the cost of these ... you could make these with conventional manufacturing technology, so that's huge! None of this technology is ready for prime time.

E: (Groaning) Ohh...

B: It's not even really on their plans to make. This is stuff they're still working on; it's still in the laboratory, especially memristor technology. HP plans for it and The Machine itself to be ready between 2017 and 2020, there you go, right there! That's when they plan, so it's gonna be, that's close though! That's coming!

R: Yeah, you're saying 5 to 10 years. (Rogues laugh). Okay! We could have stopped this whole thing 20 minutes ago when Steve said that.

B: Aw, I know, but you would have missed all this cool shit!

J: Rebecca, those years are 80% less far away than other years.

R: You shot who in the what now?

(Evan laughs)

E: Jasper! I love Jasper.

B: So, I think the odds are against these guys. This is vaporware right now. It doesn't exist now, and they're talking about it. Sure, we need this technology, but memristors, they might not even be workable. These plans can fail for a host of reasons. I hope it works, but it could easily fail; and this revolution will be over even before it even starts. So...

S: You saying this is the Hydrogen economy of computing?

(Evan laughs)

J: Bob, I agree, of course, companies need to be spending money, and putting a lot of energy into things like this; but I really do question the motivation behind putting out this news item.

S: Jay, it's fundraising, getting investment.

B: Oh yeah!

S: Getting investors, creating a buzz.

J: Okay, that's why I want to know. Part of it is, for people like us, the street people who are drooling at technology like this, it really just is a series of disappointments for us. You know, it's always the next cool thing that we've talked about, and then they never come around. You know, we've been doing this ...

S: Well, Jay, I wouldn't say never. I think the history really has been that we get promised all this cool stuff, and some of them never materialize, but some do. But those that do are about a decade behind when the buzz is generated. So, we might see this in 2030 instead of 2020, or something like it.

Because, yeah, we have, as we've mentioned before, our cellphones that we have today are better than what we were drooling over in the 1980's, you know, or the 1990's, about what was coming, what we were promised, you know. It just took a decade longer than what we were led to believe, but it actually did eventually exceed our expectations, you know?

Alright! So we'll revisit this in five years, Bob, right? Keep track of that.

B: Okey-dokey!

Dr Oz Skewered (33:37)[edit]

S: Rebecca, you wrote a blog post and a video here, the title is very interesting: Claire McCaskill Skewers Dr. Oz.

B: This was epic!

R: Yeah! It was pretty entertaining, you guys. About a week and a half ago, or so, people caught on to the news that Dr. Oz, America's doctor, we're all very familiar with him here, was going to testify before a congressional panel on weight loss consumer fraud. This is specifically a panel that is focussed on all types of consumer fraud. But, they decided to have this one session specifically about weight loss fraud.

And, so, they invited Dr. Oz to come to testify. Now, I saw a number of skeptics expressing concern about this. Like, this sort of letting the fox into the hen house kind of thing. But, when I checked out the press release on the website of Claire McCaskill, who leads this panel, I was actually really impressed because they wrote that they were gonna have Dr. Oz come and testify, and that Dr. Oz had previously promoted this green coffee bean diet.

B: Green tea?

R: No, it's actually green coffee beans.

B: Okay.

R: Yeah, I don't know. Oz was promoting it as this miracle weight loss cure, and just a few weeks after he promoted it, a company had been set up, and was charging exorbitant prices for a little bit of this extract that they said, "Dr. Oz swears by it! Dr. Oz says it's a miracle cure."

S: And, Dr. Oz was shocked – shocked!

R: Shocked!

S: see people exploiting his calling it "a miracle weight loss cure."

R: Right.

E: First time he's ever expressed that.

R: His "flowery language."

S: "Flowery," yeah.

R: So, yeah, so this company was set up, and was basically ripping people off so much so that the FTC stepped in, and is currently suing them. So, McCaskill's press release states all this. So, to me, it was pretty obvious that they were calling Oz in to rough him up a bit. But, it not only wasn't that clear to other skeptics, but it also apparently wasn't clear to Dr. Oz.

It happened on Tuesday the 17th of June, and almost immediately, the video went up online. C-SPAN put up the video, so you can still watch it if you go to C-SPAN's website. It might be US only, I'm not sure.

So, what ended up happening was, yeah, McCaskill drilled Dr. Oz on this. She asked him, here's some quotes: "Why would you say something is a miracle in a bottle?" "I'm concerned that you're melding medical advice, news, and entertainment in a way that harms consumers." "The scientific community is almost monolithically against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products you called 'miracles.'" 'Cause this was about, they mentioned the coffee beans, and then there were two other miracle weight loss cures.

And McCaskill wasn't the only one. Other senators jumped in, like Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota. She said, "It's a major problem when people are spending more and more money, and they're gaining more and more weight. Either you don't talk about these things at all, or you're going to have to be more specific, because right now, this is not working."

The whole thing is great. It's an hour and a half long. Feel free to check it out. There's a lot of great quotes. But they basically didn't back down; and Dr. Oz seemed actually taken off guard. And I read somewhere, oh, I think Orac posted a rumor that Dr. Oz actually was blind-sided according to the New York Daily News, who writes, "A production source close to the 54 year old cardiologist said he was perplexed. We were invited down to Washington to testify at a hearing about scams, and instead it became about how much we hate your show," (Laughs) the source told the Daily News.

Dr. Oz tried to sort of weakly defend himself in a number of ways. One thing he said was that he really does believe in these supplements. He did say outright that yes, the science is against him, but he said that he recommends this to family; and if he can recommend it to family, he feels like he should recommend it to his audience.

And then, he also said in his defence that he's not personally selling any of the supplements himself, so he should be forgiven for using this, yeah, what he called "flowery language." He talked about how, you know, it's just the nature of television, and how he interacts with his audience is that he has to be over the top and really promote these things, and that that's why he's using this hyperbolic language like, "miracle."

But yeah, the panel wasn't buying it, and they called him out on giving people false hope for these weight loss cures. So, overall, it was really good. It only just happened as of this recording, so I don't know if anything's going to come of this panel. I'm certainly hoping that they come out with some sort of guidelines, or, I don't know, some way to hold people like Dr. Oz accountable. It's clear that they weren't impressed with Dr. Oz. So, whatever comes of this panel will be on the side of skeptics; whether or not it actually goes far enough to really have any impact on what Dr. Oz and others like him are doing, it's too soon to say.

S: Yeah, basically, we need regulation to reign in the supplement industry. That's basically what this is all about. Such legislation has been proposed before; it gets nowhere; so maybe this could turn the tide a little bit, politically, towards protecting the consumer from these kinds of scams.

B: Guys, you've missed it! From what I read, some senator actually used the word "science-based medicine."

S: I was just about to say that.

R: Yeah.

(Evan laughs)

R: I saw Orac wrote about that, and I think it is great. I think Orac is a little too optimistic that skeptics sort of forced this issue. McCaskill, I think, has been really obviously, openly skeptical, and good at checking her sources. But yeah, there was a big push on behalf of skeptics. A number of us asked our audiences, "Hey! Go to McCaskill's website, and let her know what Dr. Oz has been up to."

And I have no doubt that if there was anything in there that she hadn't seen before, I'm sure she read it, because she certainly came across as being very familiar with his brand of scams. And yeah, she did; she said, "science-based medicine," and yeah. I think it's really clear that McCaskill is a skeptic.

And, being the head of a panel on consumer protection, it makes perfect sense. But it's so rare to see a politician actually leading up a committee that they are appropriate for (laughs), that I guess it's a little surprising. But yeah, it's a nice surprise.

B: I was shocked when I read that. 'Cause clearly, no senator is just gonna pull "science-based medicine" out of their butt. From what I read, somebody said something about sending them some blogs, Steve, some of your blogs from Science Based Medicine, something about that.

S: Yeah.

B: So, that's fantastic! How incredible is that?

S: Yeah, we can't conclude that we forced the issue, or changed the way things went down; but clearly, McCaskill and her staff, probably, were using the Science Based Medicine blog as a resource.

B: Yes.

R: Yeah.

S: Because there's no other reason she would use the term "science-based medicine," if she didn't read it. And I invented the term. It's the name of my blog. And, she also – we wrote articles about all the crap that Dr. Oz has been promoting, and they were going down our jot list point by point. So clearly, they were using our blog as a resource.

E: Absolutely.

S: Not surprising. It's not surprising. If you search on it, on Google, our site comes up on the first page almost always. We have very good Google juice at Science Based Medicine.

R: That sounded filthy.


J: Good for you, Steven! Good for all the other people that blog at Science Based Medicine.

E: Hear! Hear!

R: Yeah, this is definitely a win.

E: A victory!

S: We'll keep on top of it and report, see where it goes.

Self-Repairing Teeth (42:46)[edit]

Alright, Jay, as our resident tooth-hygeine-obsessed rogue, you're gonna tell us about a new technology that will be available in 5 to 10 years for tooth decay.

J: Tooth decay! Yeah, here we go! So, most people out there have one or more holes in their head, right?

(Evan laughs)

R: I hope so. (Chuckles)

J: Not the ones you breathe and eat out of. I mean that people have had a dentist drill out a cavity at some point. Some people are lucky enough to not have to have gone through that one or more times, but a lot of us have had rotting parts of our teeth drilled out and filled in with some type of thing that sticks or binds to our teeth, and eventually that becomes horribly discolored, and we have to get it removed, and put back in.

So, the bad thing about fillings is that they don't last forever. A lot of times they do need to be replaced. And sometimes when you have a filling removed, they have to drill out the filling, and they – not deliberately, they're very careful about this – but they do tend to make the actual hole a tiny bit bigger every time they have to do it, because they have to remove all of the old bonding material and put in new stuff. So, part of your tooth gets removed a lot of the times when they do this. It's not like they kind of click it, and it falls out. They have to get in there with a drill, and get it out like it's made out of tooth, but it isn't.

So, good news, everyone!

(Evan and Rebecca laugh)

J: This is awesome! British scientists have found a way to force a bad tooth to fix itself! So, all those British actors with busted teeth can now rejoice.

B: Oh my god!

E: Wow! Okay! Insultin' a lot of people there.

S: The big book of British smiles! Oh no!

J: So, this method is called, "Electrically Accelerated and Enhanced Remineralization." And that was developed at King's college in London. The scientists are saying that it can reverse tooth decay by stimulating a tooth's own repair process. Everybody's teeth uses calcium and phosphate minerals to fix itself, and these are found quite often in your saliva by food you eat. And with this treatment, the same healing process occurs, encouraging minerals to re-enter to the tooth.

According to the researchers who developed the treatment, it could be ready in – Bob – three years.

B: Ooh! Less than five!

J: Not five, not ten, they're saying three years. Any time that they mention a number that's below five, I tend to think that they're already at the next level. They pretty much know it works, and they're just figuring out some minor details, I hope.

S: Or they're lying.

J: Yeah, that's true. They also say, however, that this treatment could be used to whiten teeth; which, again, that sounds like a big statement; but I can understand that if they're remineralizing your teeth, that it could bring back the whiteness, because that's what the enamel of your teeth is made out of!

They describe it as a two-step process. They first prepare the damaged enamel. And by preparing it, they dry it, and they remove any kind of debris that's on your teeth that you can't even see, because they want your whole tooth to be exposed. As most of you know, the enamel is the outer layer of your tooth. And then they use a small electric current to make the tooth absorb minerals and repair the damaged area.

So, like I said, your tooth already can do this, but the electrical current stimulates your tooth to do this more than it normally would, right during when the current is applied. This process does not need any drilling. There's no filling materials, and it's painless. They say that the electrical current is so weak that patients can't feel it. They feel nothing.

Dentists already use electricity today, by the way, to check the health of your tooth's nerve and pulp. So, they're already using an electrical current for other stuff that's a lot more powerful, and maybe you can feel that; but you can't feel this new procedure.

It will be most effective against early stage lesions, and moderate tooth decay. I don't think that they can fill your big cavity that you have on your front tooth, like Jim Carrey. Remember that Dumb and Dumber? He had his fake tooth removed so half of it – he only had half a tooth for that movie? I don't think they could repair that kind of damage. I think it really is for the very beginning stages of a cavity, where you have a loss of enamel, and the underlayer of tooth is being exposed, they can replace the enamel.

So, Nigel Pitts, who is from King's College Dental Institute said, "The way we treat teeth today is not ideal. When we repair a tooth by putting in a filling, that tooth enters a cycle of drilling and refiilling as ultimately each repair fails. Not only is our device kinder to the patient, and better for their teeth, but it's expected to be at least as cost-effective as current dental treatments.

Dental researchers were trying to find a treatment like this for decades, and they finally feel like they've achieved it.

Now, do you guys know how a cavity starts, and what a cavity actually is?

B: It's bacteria making acid.

J: Right. Well, basically it's the breakdown of food and sugars. It's turned into an acid in your mouth. And that acid eats away at your tooth's enamel. Now, typically, it's in the crevaces of your teeth, or between your teeth, where there's a lot of repeat action happening here. Food gets caught, it gets broken down, it turns into acid, eats your enamel, and then every time you eat, it happens again and again and again.

Now, your tooth can repair these spots by using the minerals found in your saliva – and flouride, if it's present. And this is why you need to wash your teeth in flouride, either toothpaste or a flouride rinse, or drink water that has flouride in it. It has to come in contact with your tooth; and your tooth will grab on to it and use it to repair itself. That's why we use flouride.

However, if you have repeat spots of acid on your teeth. Again, this is from either not cleaning your teeth often enough, or properly. You're gonna lose the battle, like most of us have; and finally the enamel gets worn away, and this spot – it just takes a tiny little spot of enamel to go away – and then the base tooth is exposed, and then that starts to rot away. And these spots become the big cavities that the dentist at the point needs to drill out and fill in with some type of bonding agent. Now you're past the curve there, so, you know, take good care of your teeth; and in the future, if you get new cavities, they can pull this device out, and stimulate your tooth, and it'll repair it for you!

R: But you said it can't handle a big cavity?

J: Well, I don't think it can handle a really, big, giant hole that's in your tooth.

S: Jay, you're saying, "It can't handle the tooth!"

J: It can't handle the tooth! (Laughs)

(Other rogues groan)

J: Yes! Thank you, Steve! Wait, now hold on. Let me grapple on that for a moment.

R: It's looking us in the eye the whole time.

J: I've just turned a movie on in my head, and I watched him say it. Okay, thanks Steve. That was awesome.

E: Excellent.

J: So, yeah. I think that there is definitely an issue here with how big it can go. How much of a problem it can solve. Of course, the very early stages, like, when your dentist first finds that cavity, you're going at least once a year, right? You should be going twice a year. But, if you're going to the dentist once a year, I'm sure that whatever they find, they can repair 'em, unless you're just not brushing at all.

But they can't repair a gigantic, gaping hole in your tooth. That's when they have to bring in the bonding agent and drill out all the diseased tissue and put in.

R: Yeah, it's just when you were quoting the researcher, I think, and what they plan for this to be used for, it sounded less impressive than cavities. It sounded more like slight beginnings of, you know, a problem.

J: Yeah, I actually did look that – I wanted to know to what degree they can replace the enamel. I think they can replace a hole in your enamel, but it can't be huge.

S: Well, we'll see. It's still theoretical technology at this point.

J: Three years! Three years.

S: We'll see. Alright, you gotta keep track of that one, Jay.

J: My news item beats Bob's.

B: Thank you.

R: Set one of those reminder emails to his future email.

J: Check about tooth decay.

R: Yeah.

S: Alright, thanks Jay.

Who's That Noisy (50:45)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Gwyneth Paltrow

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Solar Energy (55:05)[edit]

I saw this graphic about solar energy on your facebook page: a little experience with renewable electricity generation, this graphic seemed overly optimistic. So I dug into the numbers a bit more.Apparently this graphic comes from a diploma thesis (…/Ecobalance_of_a_Solar_Electricity… ). On page 11 she takes 250GWh/km^2 as an assumed base yield. This would work out to 250kWh/m^2. But according to Wikipedia ( ) we only receive about 1kW/m^2 of energy at the surface of the earth. Where are those extra 249kw/m^2 coming from?I then looked up numbers for an existing solar generation plant- the 354 MW SEGS solar complex in northern San Bernardino County, California ( ). This plant can generate up to 354 MW but covers 1,600 acres or 6.475 km^2. This suggests a yield of approximately 55 MW / km^2 or 0.055 kW / m^2.Am I making a silly mathematical mistake or is this graphic in error by three orders of magnitude?Paul LaMar United States

S: We have time, I believe ...

E: Time!

S: ... for one question this week. This one comes from Paul LaMar, from the United States. And Paul writes,

"I saw this graphic about solar energy on your Facebook page. Having a little experience with renewable electricity generation, this graphic seemed overly optimistic. So I dug into the numbers a bit more. Apparently, this graphic comes from a diploma thesis. On page 11, she takes 250 Gigawatt hours per kilometre squared as an assumed base yield. This would work out to 250 Kilowatt hours per meter squared, but according to Wikipedia, we only receive about 1 kilowatt per meter squared of energy at the surface of the Earth. Where are those extra 249 Kilowatts per meter squared coming from? I then looked up numbers from an existing solar generation plant. The 354 Megawatt SEGS Solar Complex in northern San Bernardino County, California. This plant can generate up to 354 Megawatts – hense the 354 Megawatt Complex – but covers 1,600 acres or 6.475 kilometers squared. This suggests a yield of approximately 55 Megawatts per kilometer squared, or 0.55 Kilowatts per meter squared."

Jay, did you get all of that?

"Am I making a silly mathematical mistake? Or is this graphic in error by three orders of magnitude?"

What do you guys think? Did you catch Paul's silly mathematical mistake?

B: I know what it is now, but the graphic itself though, they really should have been more explicit in terms of, are they talking about photovoltaics? Are they talking solar concentrators? What kind of efficiencies are they? They could have been a little bit more explanation, but ...

S: So let's back up a little bit. For those who don't know, we've been much more active on The Skeptic's Guide Facebook page. We're posting multiple posts every day; links to news items; as well as two blogs, and lots of memes; trying to generate some more skeptical traffic. And a recent post that we put up a few days ago, was just a picture of northern Africa, and it had a little square that said, "This is how big an area of the Sahara desert you would need to cover with photovoltaics," or as Bob said, it wasn't really specific, "in order to supply the electricity needs of the world."

Then it had a smaller square for all of Europe, and a smaller one still for just Germany. And then a lot of people, including Paul, took exception to that representation, saying, "No! They're back of the envelope calculations," these were overly optimistic; that you would need to cover a much greater area. And Paul sent us the email basically expressing the same thing that a lot of commenters did on the Facebook page.

But they're all making a mistake. And Paul makes it right here. And he does it right in the email. He says 250 Gigawatt hours per kilometer squared, and then when he goes to the Wikipedia page, in terms of how much sun we receive, he's talking about one kilowatt per metre squared. The hours isn't there. He's comparing kilowatt hours over the course of an entire year to just watts or kilowatts of peak energy at any one moment. So, does that make sense?

J: Yep.

B: It does now.

S: Now if you have 8760 hours per year. I sourced – I looked this up multiple independant sources. I did all the calculations myself. Let me focus on one specific point. 8760 hours per year, and roughly a 20% efficiency in terms of the number of hours per day that has sunlight on average per year, and the number of days that have sun vs. cloud cover, ect; and a couple of sites I looked at. Add that all up, and you get to about 20% efficiency in terms of just how much sun exposure you're getting.

So, 20% of around 9000 hours, you're roughly 1000. That's your three hours of magnitude right there. Right? We're just doing what Lawrence Krauss suggested, and we're just talking all in round numbers. Orders of magnitude.

B: (Laughs) Yeah, nice.

S: Yeah, that's your three hours of magnitude. I also completed the calculation, just to see what I would get. The figures I found were for the 2004 world annual electricity demand was 16,600 Terrawatt hours. So, if you go through the calculation, and you assume a solar cell efficiency of 10%, which is pretty reasonable, you end up needing an area about 100,000 square kilometers, which is 316 kilometers on one side. And that's exactly the size of the square in the Sahara that was on the graphic that we put on our Facebook page.

So, to first approximation, using rounded off numbers, I think that that was exactly correct. I tried to work it both ways. I tried to work it as many different ways as I could, and I kept coming up with the same answer. And I think that just the people who were saying that it was way off by orders of magnitude were confusing Watts to Watt hours over the course of a year.

B: Yeah, the other comments that I thought were kind of amusing, people were saying, "Why would you put all your solar concentrators in one country. It's ridiculous and risky!" Dude, the point is to show you how much space, not that we would necessarily, or even could, build it in one place.

S: Yeah.

B: It's so silly!

R: I feel really bad for whoever did that disertation. Like, I hope they never see this meme because I could just imagine seeing like, you know a lot of work probably went into that, and it was one piece of a larger argument. And now it's been turned into a meme, and there are a thousand amateur scientists "debunking" it.

S: Yeah.

R: That would infuriate me!

B: Yeah, Rebecca, I had a similar thought. I was thinking, "This is from somebody's thesis," I believe, this figure, it came from, apparently; and I'm thinking, "Wait. If they made a mistake by three orders of magnitude, not only did this graduate student miss it, but then all her supervisors, and the people that vet her thesis. They would have missed that too?" I was very skeptical just from that fact alone.

S: But, it is interesting. A couple things here may be worth a little bit further discussion. One is that we're using Facebook for outreach, which means we're getting to beyond our listening audience.

B: Oh my god! I love you listeners! I love you guys!

S: And the comments are amazing! So now we're getting comments from just your average Facebook-goer, not necessarily a skeptic or a science enthusiast. And the kind of stuff people are throwing out there are just unbelievable. It is mind boggling. But here though, Bob, you're right. The funny – I think what's happening is that a lot of times people are just getting the image in their own Facebook feed, and they're not reading the articles they're attaching to.

E: (Laughs) They're just coming up with their own thing!

S: They're completely misinterpreting what the whole thing is about! This is just one example. They're saying, "Where are you gonna store, how are you gonna transmit all that energy around the world? It's like, dude! It's just putting it all in one space just to show you how big it would be!

There are serious proposals to break this up, obviously, into 40 different solar farms in the deserts around the world. Australia, China, Africa, South America, the western United States, ect; and to obviously distribute it as much as possible. And, you know, it certainly could take up a huge chunk of the electricity that we need. We could generate a lot of it building solar panels with current technology. It would be cost-effective if you put it in the right place. You know, peak energy's during the day anyway when this would be generating. Obviously, we would need other ways of generating electricity when the sun isn't shining.

B: Or a way to store it.

S: Or a way to store it, but, a way to store it is new technology. So, we don't really have an off-the-shelf, existing technology right there where we could store that much power. So, if we just assume current, existing technology, this would be good to just offset peak production. We would still need to have nuclear power plants or whatever to generate electricity at other times.

B: Steve, real quick, back to the comments. I calculated an average. On average, every nine comments, I say to myself silently, "Did you even read my post?"

S: Yes, exactly. That's being a little generous, I think.

E: (Laughing) Yeah! Hey! Traffic, traffic, traffic.

S: We need more skeptics in there balancing out the comments a little bit more, I think.

Science or Fiction (1:04:05)[edit]

Item #1: The average American uses 80-100 gallons of water per day, mostly from flushing toilets. Item #2: There are 19 known phases of ice. Item #3: A new analysis of the surface of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, and its orbit around Pluto concludes that it likely harbors liquid water beneath its surface.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

“We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate.”- Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), 40th President of the United States

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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