SGU Episode 471

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SGU Episode 471
July 19th 2014
Brain electronic (1).png
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 470                      SGU 472

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


G: George Hrab

Ba: Banachek

JR: James Randi

M: Massimo Polidoro

A: Aija Moon

Quote of the Week

We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.

William James

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

G: Let's get started. You all know why you're here. It's the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe! It's you know, it's the best. It's the absolute best. These are my friends. These are my heroes as well. I love the fact that I get to introduce these guys, some of the best. So here is their limerick.

Like the best mob film evers, Good Fellas,
Like the best mushrooms are portabellas
The truth everlasting
They're the best in podcasting.
Here's a Bernstein. And yes, three Novellas.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe!

(Light applause)

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. (Loud applause). Today is Saturday, April 12th, 2014, and we are live from TAM 2014. (More applause). Joining me this week are Bob Novella ...

B: Hey everybody!

S: ... Jay Novella ...

J: Hey guys.

S: ... Evan Bernstein ...

E: Hello Las Vegas! (Laughs)

S: ... and our special guest for TAM this year is none other than Banachek!

B: Great to be here!

S: Banachek, do you have any honorifics? Is it the Astounding Banachek ...

B: No, no, no. It's just Banachek. My wife has a lot of other names for me, but we can't ... (Rogues laugh).

S: Well, I hope everyone is enjoying the conference. So we had a great SGU dinner last night. I think I forgot to thank everyone who showed up 'cause I was brain dead 'cause it's 2 in the morning to me at that time. So, thanks to all of our listeners who came. Thanks to everyone for showing up early this morning on Saturday. I know a lot of people were up late eating bacon and donuts.

This Day in Skepticism (1:57)[edit]

  • July 19, 1104: Happy Flitch Day

S: Speaking of which, today is Filch day!

E: Flitch Day, Steve. That's Flitch Day.

(Rogues laugh)

J: What?

E: Slightly different.

S: It's not Filch?

E: No, no, no. Flitch! You know, the "I" and the "L" get switched around in that word. Very important distinction.

S: So, alright. But it is not Filch Day.

E: No, it's Flitch Day. July 19th is Flitch Day. If anybody knows what Flitch is; Flitch is bacon, and a lot of it. Half a pig's worth of bacon! Which, I'm sure we consumed that and more last night, and perhaps this morning at breakfast!

J: So, filch and flitch are both salty then.

E: I don't know that, Jay. (Audience groans) I don't know.

J: We are in Vegas; so come on.

E: Okay, so, what the heck? Bacon, what is this? Well, this is an old English tradition that dates back to the 1100's, in which they had a ceremony, effectively. If you were faithful in your marriage for an entire year, basically, the community would award you with a flitch of bacon.

S: It was that rare, was it?

E: I suppose (laughs).

S: Or they just had a lot of pigs!

E: Lots and lots of pigs! Each little town or shire in England had their own little way of celebrating it, or bestowing it upon the people. And there's a place called Little Dunmow Prairie in Essex; and it's referred to in "The Canterbury's Tale," for those of who who are familiar with that, by Chaucer. And, what they did is, the couple, what they do is they kneel on some sharp stones in the church yard while taking the oath. And the oath went something like this:

You shall swear by custom of confession,
That you ne'er made nuptial transgression;
Nor, since you were married man and wife,
By household brawls, or contentious strife,
Or otherwise at bed or board,
Offended each other in deed or in word,
Or since the parish clerk said, Amen,
Wished yourselves unmarried again,
Or in twelvemonth and a day,
Repented in thought any way,
But continue true in thought and desire,
As when you joined hands in holy quire.
If to these conditions without all fear,
Of your own accord you will freely swear,
A whole gammon of bacon you shall receive,
And bear it hence with love and good leave:
For this is our custom at Dunmow well known,
Tho' the pleasure be ours, the bacon's your own.[1]

Happy Flitch Day!


J: Evan, did George write that? That's real?

E: That's a real recital.

B: Evan, did they have to memorize that?

E: Hey, there he is, okay!

Ba: In other words, they had to go an entire year without a single argument. And my understanding is that one of the first couples to go get this, they got the bacon, they took it home, they got into an argument over how they were gonna dress that bacon, and they came, and they took the bacon back.

E: Not only bringing home the bacon, but taking the bacon back away from home, yes.

Million Dollar Challenge (4:52)[edit]

S: So, Banachek, before we go on to some news items, can you tell us a little bit how the Million Dollar Challenge is going?

Ba: It's coming nicely, but I say that every year, and I don't know until we get on this stage that day or that evening as to whether we're gonna have a challenge. And a lot of people say, "Well, can you tell us more about the challenge?" And I'm always reluctant to do that because I just don't know what's gonna happen. When we're setting it up for for TAM, it's very different than when we're setting up a challenge and we have a lot of time. We just take our time until we get the protocol in place.

Here, we're setting up the protocol sometimes, and making changes at the very last minute. And because we're making those changes, we don't know if there's going to be a test on Sunday.

S: 'Cause they may not agree to some of your controls that you're trying to put in place at the last minute.

B: Exactly. This guy's pretty easy with a lot of those things, but what we're finding out is some of the things that he told us now that we have him in place, we can't do those things. Or what he said he can do, he can't do. Now, I will tell you this: This claimant claims that he has a power that comes out of his right hand. People feel it different ways. Sometimes it's heat; sometimes it's cold; sometimes it's a numbing; sometimes it's something that seems to be going around their hand. It doesn't matter.

S: Whatever's good for you that day.

B: Yeah, it doesn't really matter what it is, he just has a power that comes out of his hand. And it also, he can work through cardboard. So that helps us just a little bit. But this one's a little different because in the past, we've been able to double-blind the tests, with the audience seeing everything that's happening. In this particular case, there's a portion where we're gonna have to block it from the audience because we don't want him to be getting any cues, or we don't want him to accidently showing up at Whole Fruits meeting, one of the subjects that he's gonna have to use, and say, "Hey, by the way, I'll give you a couple hundred thousand dollars if you wear this little thing and a friend can transmit information to you." So, we have to sort of double-blind it for the audience.

S: Yeah, so is that triple-blind then? Blind the audience.

B: You'll see. Or you won't see.

S: (Chuckling). Right, okay. Alight, good. We're looking forward to that. So, this year, the theme of TAM is skepticism and the brain which is kind of in my sweet spot as a neurologist and a skeptic. (Jay laughs).

E: Really?

S: Don't worry, Jay. Next year, I hear it's gonna be skepticism and porn, so. (Rogues and audience laugh)

J: Great! That'll be my TAM!

B: That'll be Jay's TAM!

E: Can't wait to see that Million Dollar Challenge!


News Items[edit]

European Commission Human Brain Project (7:23)[edit]

S: So, we've in some neuroscience news items. The European Commission on the Human Brain Project, very interesting. There's a little bit of a kerfuffle. It's actually officially now a kerfuffle. 1.2 billion Euros - I understand that's real money – has been dedicated to this project. The project is essentially creating a supercomputer software model of the brain. So essentially a virtual human brain. Sounds really sexy.

There are 80 institutions involved; it's a 10-year project. However, recently – just about a week ago – an open letter was written to the commission signed by 180 scientific leaders in the neurosciences threatening to boycott the project unless they make major changes. The controversy's actually very interesting. There's really two levels to the conflict. One is, of course it all comes down to who gets the money, right? Because there's 1.2 billion Euros at stake and everybody thinks that they need to get funded. So that's what they're really fighting about, but what it comes down to is, should the money be spent entirely on creating the computer software?

So, the complaint there is that it's not really then a neuroscience project; it's really an IT project. You're really just funding computer science, not neuroscience. But it is being promoted to the public as a neuroscience project.

J: But wouldn't they be working hand-in-hand with neurologists to do it?

S: Well, yeah, of course. But what the computer end of it is saying, "Well, the neuroscientists are already doing the research. So, just keep feeding us your data, and we'll computer model the brain." Whereas the neuroscientists are saying, "But, you're nothing without the data. So, give us the money so that we can do the neuroscience to figure out how the brain connects." The connectome, you know, how it's all connected up.

So they're just saying that this project is premature. We were not ready to model the brain. So, you should be funding the neuroscience at pace with the computer science, which is what I actually agree with. I think that the computer science and the neuroscience are sort of tag-teaming, going hand-in-hand. And if you prematurely say, "Okay, let's make a computer model of the brain," and we're not there with the neuroscience, rather than the two ends feeding off of each other, you're gonna create a boondoggle. And that's what the main complaint is. It's prematurely funding research for a specific end when the basic science isn't there yet, which is a huge problem 'cause you get the political clout for – we see this a lot in medicine.

It's like, we want to cure disease X. Okay, so let's fund clinical trials to cure disease X. But we don't know enough about disease X to even tell you what clinical trials to do yet. So you end up wasting a lot of money doing clinical trials that go nowhere because we don't have the basic science to back them up. That's the exact same debate going on now.

J: But couldn't the computer modelling actually help the people that are programming the software to figure out mistakes and pitfalls that they're gonna run into? I actually think there needs to be a division of the money.

S: So, that's what I'm saying. I think that when you try to computer model the brain, that will teach us, 'cause then we have a model! We have a model of the brain, then we can use that to reverse-engineer the brain. And then when we do FMRI, and other studies to figure out how the brain connects up, that feeds back into the computer modelling. That's what's been happening. I think that's what should continue to happen. But that's exactly the nature of this complaint.

The other nature of the complaint, which is a little bit more subtle scientifically, is whether or not they should be taking a top-down or bottom-up approach. So, right now they're taking mainly a bottom-up approach. Let's look at neurons, and how neurons are connected to each other, and go from there. But they're kind of specifically leaving out the cognitive neuroscientists, who are looking at the highest-order functions of the brain, trying to figure out how our neocortex works. And they're saying, "Wait! Oh! You're leaving us out in the cold here. You need to fund our research because we need to know how the brain works, not just how neurons work." Does that make sense?

J: Yeah.

So, the project is an IT project looking at really fundamental neuroscience rather than a neuroscience project trying to figure out how the whole brain works together and connects up together.

J: So you're saying that neurons are at the lowest level common denominator; and then there's layers upon layers upon layers of complexity with different parts of the brain talking to other parts of the brain.

S: Yeah, exactly.

J: I read not too long ago they found out a new way that the brain communicates to other parts. The brain is actually talking to itself a lot more than we originally thought. So, that's the top stuff. That's the top layer?

S: Well, I don't know if it's the top layer, but you're definitely above the layer that they're dealing with with the project. For example – and Bob and I were just talking about this earlier – we've already mapped a cortical column. That's a fundamental unit of the cortex. It's basically just one column of neurons. And you multiply that by billions and you get a human brain. But, obviously, it's more complicated than that. You can't just build a hundred billion cortical columns and have a human brain. There's higher levels or organization. And we need to do the research to figure that out before this project becomes really meaningful.

B: Steve, I'm curious. Did the neuroscientists have enough information so the computer scientists can actually do valuable work? Or is it possible that the neuroscientists could make some potential discoveries that would invalidate all the IT work that had been done up to that point?

S: That's basically what they're saying, is that we have to do more basic neuroscience before this project is meaningful. And they're worried that it's a 10-year project; that's it's gonna get a lot of press; and that 10 years from now we're gonna have nothing to show for it; and it's gonna be politically, from a public opinion point of view, a huge loss. And we see that happen too.

B: AI.

S: Yeah, so AI, or even the Genome Project. The Genome Project was hugely successful, but it was kind of sold with, "And this help us cure all kinds of diseases." And here we are 10 years after the completion of the Genome Project, and we're just now, actually, just starting to see the clinical translation. So if you create hyped expectations in the public that you know you're going to disappoint, it becomes a political PR loss for the scientific endeavor for neuroscience. And they're worried about that as well.

B: It's a balance though ...

S: It's a balance.

B: ... because you have to create hype to get funding; but if you over-hype it and don't deliver, then everyone thinks you're a putz.

J: To play Devil's Advocate here real quick, are we ever really gonna be at that point where they're like "Yep! We got it! Now, make a computer model." It seems like it could be a hundred years before the research gets there, or even longer.

S: Yeah, I don't think there's ever gonna be that moment where we say, "We got it." I do think it's gonna be an iterative process, and the two things are gonna continue to play off each other, meaning the computer modelling and the brain mapping will work hand-in-hand. And this is just somebody putting their thumb on the scale with 1.2 billion Euros. That's the bottom line. Alright, let's move on.

Guru Dead or Meditating (14:09)[edit]

S: So, Jay, you're gonna tell us about this gentleman, who's in a bit of a pickle I understand.

(Rogues laugh)

J: That's one way to put it!

S: Or he is pickelled.

J: He's not pickelled. This is Indian guru Ashutosh Maharaj. And the quick one-two on this guy is that he is believed by his followers to be in a deep meditative state, and then a lot of other people think he's, you know, he's not alive; he's just dead. His followers ...

S: Really deep meditating.

J: His followers put him into a freezer, thinking, "We're gonna put him in here until he comes back, and then he'll lead us again with some profound insights that he got during his Somati, highest level of meditation state.

Ba: So, in other words, they put the "zen" in frozen.


Ba: I can't take credit from that. I got that from a waffle company. (Laughter) It is called the Guru Waffle Company, by the way.

J: No way!

Ba: It's true! Yes, I swear to god!

J: That's awesome.

S: They put the "zen" in frozen, got it.

B: Jay, I don't get it. They think he's in a deep, meditative state, so they freeze him! How is he gonna wake up from that state?

S: They're saying they think that. Some people think they're just trying to hold onto the money so his family doesn't get it.

J: Because he's worth millions of dollars, and there's a lot of court – you know, I just can't but put myself in the position where... okay. His followers are like, "What's up with him? Is he meditating?" "We don't know." "Is he dead?" At some point, somebody has to like, "You know, we will put him in..."

S: Jay, Jay, Jay, we talked about this. (Audience laughs)

J: What?

S: Come on. No accents, just move on. Come on.

J: I can't do this news item without the accent.

S: Jay, you can't do the accent. Just ...

J: Alright, don't worry about it. I was talking to George before we came out here, and George says he knows some one, that I can get permission.

B: How does that work?

J: George, help me out!

G: Steven, in fact, I do have a way for him to do it. I'd like to introduce the JREF Director of Cultural / Ethnic Outreach and Co-ordinator of Linguistic Humor Oversight, Doctor A.J. O'Podden.

S: Really?

J: Come on there, yeah. Over here.

S: Really, Jay?

J: I'm gonna get permission, then you can't ever bust my stones about this.

S: Knock yourself out.

J: Okay? Ever again.

D: Okay. If you want permission, you must first pass a test. Are you ready?

J: Yeah!

D: Okay, first question: Have you ever been to India?

J: No.

D: Have you ever been near India?

J: No!

D: Do you even know where India is?

J: I know it's hot there!

D: Oh my god! Okay, okay, okay! Do you like curry?

J: Oh my god! I love curry! I love Chicken Tikka Masala.

D: Chicken Tikka Masala! Don't say "Chicken Tikkca Masala!" Chicken Tikka Masala is not Indian food! It is your American junk food! Goodness sake!

B: It's my favorite dish!

J: I love Dal, monkey, call it Dal Munchie?

D: Dal makhani?

J: Rotie? Rotie is good.

D: Ooh! It's very tasty, it is!

J: Okay.

G: Did you just say, Tao Monkey? Is that what you just said?

J: Tao Mokey! No, Dal Monkey!

D: You will never get permission! Okay, let us continue. Sign here, please.

J: I got to sign...

D: Yes, yes. Now, initial here.

J: (Laughing). Okay...

D: Here ... here ...

J: Again?

D: Just one more, one more here.

J: Got it! Alright!

D: One second.

S: That was it?

D: Wait please. Open up. Wider, wider, wider!

J: Ah!

D: Well, I will need to ensure that you can speak with an accurate Indian accent. So, repeat after me in your best Indian accent. You do not talk when I talk.

J: (Indian accent) You do not talk when I talk.

D: (Louder) You do not talk when I talk! Did I not explain properly?

J: I am sorry. I'm very sorry!

D: Oh! Pretty good, huh! Not bad! Let me just call this in. Namaste, yes. Oh, yes, yes.

J: Ah.

D: He likes chicken tikka masala. You know. No, no, no. We did not do the love thing. No. (Tsk!) Not on stage! They not allow me. But he likes dal makhani, yeah. And roti also, yes. Okay, okay. Okay! Here is your certificate. This is valid for ... oh, forever. You can – you're allowed to use the Indian accent forever more.


G: Doctor A.J. O'Podden. Thank you doctor! Go for it.

S: Alright, Jay, I guess you can use the Indian accent. You got me on that one.

J: Alright, since that took up most of my time for the news item. (Indian accent) He's dead!

S: That's it?

(Laughter and applause)

S: So, what you're saying is the guy's dead.

J: He's dead. The guy's dead!

S: Alright.

Ex-Exoplanets (19:30)[edit]

S: Bob, I understand there are actually fewer Earth-like exoplanets out there.

B: I gotta follow that? I gotta really follow that?

S: Yeah.


B: Alright.

S: No accents.

B: I can't. I'm genetically incapable of doing that – as Jay is as well. (Laughter). So, I'm gonna talk about exoplanets. As my brother Joe calls them, "Hugs and kisses planets." Exo, hugs and kisses, right?

S: Don't explain the joke, Bob.

B: Joe, I told you that joke wasn't gonna work, Joe. I told you it wasn't gonna work.

E: Just move past.

B: Okay. So, the idea is that two of the most famous exoplanets that we've discovered have been determined to be non-existent. They're just not there. And it's interesting, they think that the atmosphere of the star itself is actually the reason why we thought that there were planets there. So, yeah, this is very odd, because the list of exoplanets has been exploding for years now. Seems like there's a million of them, but I guess there's what, a thousand? They've discovered a thousand?

But these two are kind of special because they're in this rarified group of exoplanets. They exist within the Goldilocks Zone in orbit around their parent star. It's not too hot, it's not too cold. Water is stable on these planets, apparently. At least, that's what they thought. And, of course, if water can exist on an exoplanet, then life can exist. And that makes it incredibly important.

Now, the two planets I'm talking about, you can see they're X'ed out in the image over there, is Gliese 581 g, and 581 d. And G is the one that was really incredible when they discovered that, because this was smack-dab, right in the middle of the Goldilocks Zone. It was a rocky world, comparable to Earth-size, it was very exciting. In a sense, this planet was the culmination, started in 1994, when they found the very first exoplanet. And when you find that first exoplanet, everyone is thinking, the holy grail is to find a rocky world, Earth-sized, that could support life.

J: That has water.

B: Yeah, if it supports life, it has water. So, yeah. So that's what got everybody so excited. This is in 2010. I'm sure there's a lot of people that remember when they discovered this planet. People were even trying to send messages to the planet, which is kind of funny because now, in 16 years, when those messages get there, they're just gonna be like, "Whoa! What? There's nothing here! What's going on?"

S: So, essentially, what you're saying is that we have this image of, we've discovered a rocky, Earth-like planet; but really, we've just discovered just a glitch in the output of a star that we infer from that is that this is the size, and distance, and density the planet must have.

B: Right. I mean, it's important to note that we found these planets. And there's other planets around this star. And the star is Gliese 581 a. They used the radial velocity. So, radial velocity method basically ... as a star is tugged by its planets, it changes the spectrum of light. It changes where the absorbtion lines are. And you can infer from that that there's a planet tugging on it. But that's not the only thing that can change the spectrum. A magnetic event on the star can actually do it.

So, if you guys are the Earth, and this is Gliese 581 a, and if I'm a planet behind it. Of course, masses are not to scale here.

S: Could the planet get closer to the microphone?

B: Yeah (Laughter). So,

E: Wouldn't be a show unless we remind him.

B: So, if I'm tugging on this star, it's gonna change the radial velocity; it'll change the light; and Earth can detect it. But what's happening here, is, as the star's rotating, you've got these magnetic events happening on the star; and as it rotates, it's changing the spectrum that we then receive on the Earth. And it's that spectrum change that can be misidentified as a planet. And that's exactly what happened. So, when they compensated for this new data, the G and D just disappeared from the data. They just disappeared.

S: Bob, by magnetic anomalies, do you mean sun spots? Or are they different than sun spots?

B: They're sun spot-like. They're not like our sun spots as we know them, but they're very similar.

S: Sun spot-ish?

B: Yeah, sun spot-ish. I like that one.

J: Bob, I'm actually a little confused though. So, when you say that they compensated, they made these adjustments in the way that they're interpreting the data; this might sound really stupid, but, they don't see a little dot of the planet in any way? They're just detecting, what? What are they seeing?

B: It's radial velocity method. It's not like the transit method, Jay, where you could see a dip in the light. And, actually, imaging a planet, Jay, is very, very difficult.

S: We've done it.

B: We've done it, but it's incredibly difficult. Jay, imagine seeing a tiny planet next to a huge sun. It's incredibly difficult. So, no, that method isn't viable, at least for Gliese 581 a. So, the bottom line is that they reduce the noise, the signal-to-noise ratio. And when they did that, these two planets just disappear. And that kind of sucks when that happens. But, there's a positive effect of this. Because, by improving the signal-to-noise ratio, the other planets – B, C, and the other ones that they have – those signals really popped. They're clear and confident. So, they're not going anywhere.

And the other benefit is that they could actually, now, with this method, they could find other exoplanets that are hidden in the noise that we haven't detected yet. So that's another benefit.

J: It's all good! So, a couple planets disappear; we're finding other ones.

B: Right. And it's even better because, don't forget, this is four years ago that we discovered G. Now, in four years, we've got 20 other planets that could potentially harbor life, or that probably, or could support water. So, we got that going for us, which is nice.

S: Yeah, which is nice, which is nice.

Buzz Aldrin UFO (25:15)[edit]

S: So, Buzz Aldrin is in the news again. We're in Vegas in July; and July is the anniversary of Apollo. So, we always end up talking about the Apollo missions when we're here, Evan.

E: Yeah. And it's the 45th year, so, nice sort of roundish number, which is kind of why it's in the headlines again. Buzz Aldrin took part in a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" very recently. And he has the UFO community all abuzz over the things he's been saying.

S: Oh, all abuzz!

E: Now, this is nothing new. We know that Buzz has talked about UFO's and Apollo 11 mission in the past; but because it is the 45th anniversary, and he's part of this whole Reddit thing, this is all being stirred up again.

His mention of having witnessed the UFO, as I said, is nothing new; but when does that matter to the UFO believer crowd?

S: Yeah, they're just recycling the same claims over and over again.

Ba: This has been an ongoing thing with a lot of astronauts. You've got Ed Mitchell; you've got Slaytin; you've got Cooper; you've got all these people saying that the've seen UFO's. But in this case, with Buzz Aldrin, again, he's just saying he saw a UFO. He's not saying he saw an alien craft or anything, right?

E: That's right, if they actually took two seconds to actually read what he actually said, they'd realize that this is what he said. "I observed a light out the window that appeared to be moving alongside us. There were many explanations of what that could be, other than another spacecraft from another country, or another world. It was either the rocket we had separated from, or the four panels that moved away when we extracted the lander from the rocket. And we were nose to nose with the two space craft. So in the close vicinity, moving away, were four panels. And I feel absolutely convinced that we were looking at the sun reflected off one of the panels; which one, I don't know. So, technically, the definition could be unidentified."

So, that's it. All you have, is Buzz Aldrin said, "unidentified," and that's it. The UFO community is buzzing.

J: How could someone read that sentence and walk away with the idea that he saw an alien spacecraft?

Ba: Because, they don't read it. They don't read it. They just hear, "Oh! He saw something that he can't explain! Ooh! It must be a UFO." And I'm guessing that if you took a look at many of the other astronauts, and really looked at what they said, you'll probably find pretty close to the same thing.

S: No, that's true. That's what it is. None of them were flying next to an alien spacecraft.

Ba: And also, back then, a lot of them were in a new environment that they had never been in before. So, there was a lot of things they couldn't explain.

S: Their job was to observe for anomalies; and surprise, surprise, they saw a bunch of anomalies, things they'd never experienced before, because they were never in space before. So they reported every little light, and flare, and thing that they saw; crystals forming outside the craft, and all kinds of stuff that now they take for granted. But this just created the noise that the UFO community uses to say, "Look! Unidentified stuff was seen!" So, there you go.

Ba: You think in maybe Mitchell's case, or Cooper, who I understand, and did a lot more research to find out for sure, and dig deeper into it; but I understand that they've said that they believe in aliens; and you think that might come because they did see things they couldn't explain, that weren't necessarily aliens, but just what we talk, anomalies that we didn't know what they were at the time.

S: Yeah, I think people believe things for complicated reasons. And I know with Mitchell, you've got he's come out as some one who believes in aliens. Certainly, the other thing that the UFO community does, is there's always this implication that they know. Like, these astronauts know we're in touch with aliens, and they can't talk about it, so they're hinting about it. So they're always reading for the coded messages, that yeah, they really actually have the inside scoop. That's just the conspiratorial thinking kicking in as well. So, that's all tied up with these ...

Ba: But then you get the crazy stories of where they, "Oh! They saw aliens and made us turn back. We saw them around the crater." And then these crazy stories are so crazy that people go there, but then they jump back to just enough to where it's not so crazy, and maybe he actually saw an alien. But, we don't believe in that, but maybe there was an alien out there.

J: But having to go back to the Apollo missions, to say that some one saw a spacecraft. It's similar to the idea that cellphones and cameras are ubiquitous, right? So, there's billions of cameras floating around the Earth right now, in peoples' hands. Everybody's taking pictures. There's no real UFO pictures being taken.

Right now, we have people living in outer space with fricking big windows! They're constantly filming, looking, and everything. If Buzz Aldrin in a window of that big saw a UFO ...

Ba: You would think that at least on Hallowe'en, an alien would come up to the window and go, "Boo!" or something like that.

J: Somebody would have seen something legitimate by now.

S: Yeah, I would think so. Alright, let's move on.

Alone with One's Thoughts (29:56)[edit]

S: So, what is Jay doing in this picture? (Bob and audience laugh) This is Jay alone with his thoughts. (More laughter). You can fill in the sound track in your head.

E: Like the crickets.


S: So, researchers have actually been asking the question, "How do people respond to being alone with their thoughts?" And they found some surprising things. What they found is that people would rather shock themselves than just sit there and be alone with their thoughts. So these were Timothy Wilson and colleagues at the University of Virginia, and Harvard. They published a series of 11 studies. First, they established that if you bring subjects into your lab, and you say, "Alright, sit there, and do nothing for 10 minutes," people really don't like it. You're telling them, "Don't check your messages. Don't look at your phone. Don't listen to music."

B: Can you take a nap?

S: "Don't take a nap. Don't fall asleep. Just sit there." People rate that experience as very negative. Okay, maybe, it's because they're in the lab. So, let's do it in their homes. And they replicated the experiment, in people's home, and people were even more unhappy sitting with their thoughts at home. So then, as they were discussing the results, almost as a goof, they said, "I wonder if people would be would be willing to undergo negative stimuli rather than sit alone?"

So, they had new subjects come in and say, "Would you want to get shocked with a safe, but moderately unpleasant electrical shock. Like, a strong, static charge. And everyone said, "No." So, "How much money would you be willing to spend to not be shocked?"

They were given a budget, and most people would pay their budget not to be shocked. Then they walked out to them, and said, "Okay, I want you to sit here for ten to fifteen minutes, just alone, by yourself, and do nothing. And they walked out of the room with the person sitting there with a buzzer in front of them that would shock them. And, you see what's coming. Two thirds of the men in the study shocked themselves.

J: Wait, for no reason?

S: For no reason.

J: They were bored?

S: Out of boredom. Out of boredom, they just shocked themselves. One subject shocked himself 179 times.

B: Whoa! Steve, where were the leads attached, on the body?

J: There we go!

Ba: Good question.

S: That's a good question. A third of women shocked themselves. Why more men than women, I don't know. Sorry, a quarter of women, and two thirds of men. So, that was a very surprising result, the researchers said.

Ba: My understanding though, is that a large portion of these people were taken from churches and taken from charity, like, farmer's markets. So, they're extroverts, as opposed to choosing people that are not extroverts, people that aren't used to being around people, and are quite comfortable, like a farmer, maybe, sitting in that. So, these people, they're always around people. So, it could be bias, right?

S: Yeah, it could be that they chose people who would be most uncomfortable being alone or being alone with their thoughts. My reaction also, was, I have no problem sitting by myself and being in my head for long periods of time.

Ba: But I would shock myself just to see how powerful that shock is.

E: But just once! Not 179 times!

Ba: Unless I do it the second time to see if it's stronger the second time.

E: Morbid curiosity.

S: So, I work, part of my job is to shock people, 'cause I do nerve conduction studies, and that involves shocking people. So, for the last 20 years, I've had weekly access to equipment where I could safely shock myself. I've never deliberately done it.

Ba: Never?

J: But do the people that you shock like it?

S: No. No, no, no. It's very unpleasant.

B: So, Steve, if you were sitting by yourself in your head, with your own thoughts, would you be thinking about shocking other people?


S: Well, maybe. But, to follow up to that is, if somebody tells me, "Sit there and do nothing for 10 minutes," I probably would be miserable too. Like, for example, on a plane, where you're sort of forced for six hours to sit there and entertain yourself. Imagine just sitting there, looking straight ahead on a plane, and not doing anything. I could do it when I want to do it, but when I'm told to do it, it definitely would be an unpleasant experience.

J: I hate to ask an obvious question, what do we learn? What's the point?

E: Yes, what is the point?

S: Yeah, it was just surprising how much people don't like just sitting there being alone with their thoughts.

B: I think it's a commentary on modern digital culture. There's so many distractions – your phone, TV, - that when that's pulled away, it's weird! Damn, what am I gonna do?

S: People are willing to suffer pain for curiosity.

Ba: I have a chair. It's a chair, for magic, that actually shocks people. And there's different things you can do with it. And the first time I got it, I needed to know that it was going to work. So I asked my wife to sit in it, (laughter), and she said it hurt. So, I sat in it, just to see if it did hurt, and it did hurt. And then I sat in it again, just to make sure that I wasn't influenced by the fact that she said it hurt, that it hurt. So I shocked myself again.

E: You're part of the two thirds, then.

Ba: Yeah exactly, I am part of that group that would probably shock myself.

J: Did it hurt?

Ba: It hurt.

E: Did you swear?

B: How about the 177th time? Did it still hurt?

Ba: Yeah.

James Randi's Comments (35:31)[edit]

S: Okay. One more news item. We're gonna end on a happy news item.

G: Steve, if I could interrupt for one second, we have an executive, sort of, order. Mr. James Randi would like to comment on this story, so,

B: Absolutely.

G: That's his privilege, I think. So, please welcome James Randi!


G: If anyone is allowed to stop the show, I think Randi's allowed to stop the show.

JR: I have to apologize. I'm very sorry. I got in late in this discussion, and I'm fascinated by it. But I had a couple of comments. If they've already been discussed, then I look like an awful fool, and I'll just slink off. Try not to notice me. Edgar Mitchell, you mentioned Edgar Mitchell. Did you mention anything about his fascination with Geller?

S: No.

JR: He is a total believer in Geller. Declared himself absolutely no question of it, Uri Geller bent spoons before my very eyes and such. Was totally dedicated to Geller, and endorsed him in every way possible. And of course, Geller wasn't shy about using those statements in his publicity campaign, of course. So, that might give you some background into Edgar Mitchell, and his acceptance of woo-woo.

The other thing is, you mentioned extremophiles somewhere along the line, or you didn't. Maybe that's just the note that I made here. But what I'm talking about is, at normal temperature and pressure, we know what that is, generally speaking. There are animals on Earth alone, let alone out in space, that live under the most extreme conditions. Boiling sulphuric acid at depths that would crush anything. You can't possibly salvage these things and take them up to the surface; they explode – rather dramatically, I'm told. I wouldn't mind seeing that. But, I don't think it'd be kind.

I don't know if they have any feelings, and I don't care. (Laughter) The point is that, looking for extraterrestrial life, you've got to be very careful about what you say the limits are.

S: I agree, yeah.

JR: Because, in some of these moons of Jupiter, or whatever, it is quite possible that creatures are living under fantastic conditions, maybe breathing sand or something, we don't know. So, you can't rule out the possibility of extraterrestrial life if you're gonna limit it to what we would accept as conditions.

S: Yeah, we talk about the Goldilocks Zone; that's for people. We could really broaden the range of what could support any kind of life. We don't know! Even if you're right, even if we take the limits of life on Earth, it's a much broader range than what would be comfortable for us. Yeah, absolutely.

JR: Indeed, so, I'm sorry I butted in. It's nasty of me, and stuff like that, so I will slink off now, and try not to notice that I was here. Thank you.

S: James Randi, everyone! Thank you!


S: And just, actually, to follow up on what James was saying about Edgar Mitchell, the reason that the UFO community loves astronauts is because it's an argument from authority. And as James nicely demonstrated, Edgar Mitchell is gullible! So, the fact that he's an astronaut means nothing about his credibility in terms of this whole issue.

BBC Ditches False Balance (38:45)[edit]

S: Alright, very quickly, last news item: The BBC Trust came out with a new statement; and they're teaching their journalists specifically to avoid false balance. Which we had to mention because it's something that we talk about often. False balance is when you're covering a scientific topic, and journalists are trained, "You have to cover both sides. You have to cover all sides of the issue." So they said, "Okay, so we have scientists telling us that global warming is real. We need to find somebody who tells us that it's not real." Even though 97, 98 whatever percent of scientists believe that it's real. Or, we have scientists who tell us that this fossil tells us about the evolutionary history of this animal. We need to find somebody to come on to say that "Evolution isn't real." That's false balance.

So, the BBC was criticized for that specifically in their coverage of the global warming issue, so their response to that was very good. They studied it; the Trust put out a paper saying, False balance is out when you're dealing with scientific issues. We want proportional representation. If 98% of the scientific community believes it, that's what you go with. (Applause) And they're training their journalists to do this. This is absolutely a step in the right direction. We hope this gets replicated throughout the world in terms of journalism.

J: Steve, can I make a quick comment?

S: Yeah, go ahead.

J: But you know how we also say, "The token skeptic?" You've been that many times. The first thing that pops into my head was that guy that said he saw alien spacecraft taking off from Denver, and it ended up being flies. And then they had literally, like, in the whole news item, there was like, one sentence from from a critical thinker.

S: A talking head.

J: Yeah.

S: Ba-a. And that's it.

J: So my point is, I think it's the absolute flip!

S: Well, you're not even talking about false balance. You're talking about really low-grade journalism where they're just promoting nonsense.

J: Exactly.

S: So there's "no skepticsm," there's "token skepticm," there's "false balance," and then there's proper, scientific journalism. So, yeah, you're talking about below false balance, basically.

J: (Chuckling) That's most of the news.

S: Yeah, the local news especially.

Interview with James Randi and Massimo Polidoro (42:27)[edit]

  • Live from TAM 2014

S: We are sitting here at TAM 2014 with James, The Amazing, Randi. James, welcome back. Always a pleasure to have you on the show.

JR: A pleasure to be here, Steve.

S: And, Massimo Polidoro, the other Massimo as we call him. (Laughter). We have Massimo Pigliucci on the show quite frequently, but you're Massimo Polidoro. Last time you were on the show was at NECSS a couple years ago?

M: Probably last year here at TAM? I don't remember.

J: I think it was last year at TAM.

S: Was it? Okay.

JR: I guess you could say you've had a plethora of Massimos.

S: Yeah. (Laughter) And the reason we wanted to have the two of you together is because you just announced that, Massimo, you will be writing James' autobiography... oh, auto-... you will be writing James' biography. (Laughter) Ghost writing his autobiography...

J: It's funny, in that autobiography, he talks a lot about his friend Massimo (Laughter) Go figure.

M: Yes, that's great news. Actually, we have been working on it for quite some time. It all started from an idea from Penn Jillette who in 2005 convinced him that a biography of his life was important to do.

B: Has there been any unauthorized biographies done?

JR: Well, I suspect there have been done such things, but perhaps they didn't get published because it might have been too nasty. I don't know.

S: I heard Deepak Chopra was working on one.


JR: Well how about this? The latest thing from Deepak, isn't that a hoot?

S: Yeah, I know.

E: I guess we're his cronies then.

J: Yeah, we're Randi's cronies.

S: We're cronies, apparently, which is fine. I'm glad to be your cronie. But yeah, he doesn't have a very high opinion of skeptics in general.

JR: I wonder why?

S: Or you in particular, yeah. I wonder why?

E: Does he even know what I skeptic really is? I doubt it.

JR: I think if you asked him to define it, he'd say, "A low form of life," but he couldn't go much beyond that, I guess. Wow! But this latest offer, what do I have to explain, consciousness or something like that?

E: Yes, you must prove it.

JR: How about idiocy? I could work on that, and I'd bring him into the story.

J: Yeah, this whole thing was him saying, instead of you telling us that the paranormal doesn't exist, just explain the normal. Let's talk about the normal. And then he said he wants neurologists, or anyone for that matter, to give him the description and explanation of how the mind creates consciousness without using the latest and greatest information we have today on consciousness.

S: Right.

JR: I see. Okay, we're back in medieval days.

J: He's parodying your Million Dollar Challenge. So he's, "I'll give a person a million dollars [blah, blah, blah]." There is no contract. If you know about Randi's formal Million Dollar Challenge, everything is spelled out; everyone agrees to it. There's formality to it. You know, it's kind of sciency. You know how they go about doing it. But no one's getting that million dollars from Deepak. That's just not happening. A lot of the people that came to do the challenge, I think, believe that they have the abilities, and they're ...

JR: Oh yes! Oh yes! Very true!

J: But I think a percentage of them are just trying to win a million bucks.

JR: Yeah, yeah. Of course, of course. To get them to actually sign the document and get it notarized, you'd think that would be relatively simple! But I've had 8 and 10 pages of long format foolscap, with scribbled writing that starts before the margin. They don't want to start at the margin, you see. They fill both sides of it; and then, on the back of the envelope, that they mailed it in, they'll write, "And further to that, I want to say ..." (Laughter). They'll continue the letter over and sometimes even a little bit on the front to finish it off. And they send me this massive paper. And I write them back and say, "It says 2 to 4 paragraphs." And they can be almost any length that's reasonable. You can't talk to people like this. They don't know what reasonable is, of course. But it's astonishing the amount of verbiage we get. And it just goes on and on and on. Their whole claim is in there some place, if you can find it.

E: Yeah, right, somewhere. That's the hardest part, is them telling you what exactly it is they are doing, and what they can do. They fail miserably on that point.

J: It's funny, maybe they've never really formally thought about it in that manner.

JR: Yes! I think that's true, perhaps.

J: So, to get back to the biography, I'm curious, how did you end up, Massimo, becoming this lucky person?

M: You know, Kim Shayber (Spelling uncertain 47:11), from New York, she did fantastic research job for years.

JR: For years!

M: Researching lost documents and people from the Cave Girl, Friends of Randi, relatives, and Fulls (Uncertain: 47:27) of course. Everyone! And she continued collecting and amassing this quantity of material. But then at some point for various reasons, she couldn't go ahead. So, they asked me if I could step over, because my job is writing. I write books for a living. So I spent a lot of time with Kim, of course with Brian, with David, Justin, was his name. They all shared their own material for the movie, "An Honest Liar."

So I have got the whole research, the whole material that I need. So, the question is to start writing it. I have a couple of chapters ready, to familiarize with the possible writing style. But the idea, probably, we still haven't looked for a publisher yet. But the idea is to probably, we need a fundraising campaign, maybe in the fall.

J: Your writing process, you've mentioned before you wrote a couple of test chapters to see what voice you want to use.

M: Yes.

J: Are you gonna start linearly, you think, from Randi's birth? Is that the way you're gonna go, or do you have any idea of what your path is gonna be?

M: Yeah. That probably is the way I'm gonna do it, because as long as you start from the beginning, things develop and you cannot omit, or go back, of course. But if you write random chapters, you don't have a coherent story from the beginning. It's much more difficult.

J: So, you're not gonna write it like the TV show Lost, right? (Massimo laughs) Just give us the story, please.

M: One of the most interesting things is that going through the research about Randi's life, his stories, when he tells them, that's quite something because many times you see they are different, but the original ones, they're even more interesting, more surprising! And that's how memory works.

JR: And doesn't work!

M: And doesn't work, yes. Fascinating.

S: What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Randi going through the research?

J: (Laughing) They both look at each other!

B: I can't tell that one, can we!

E: Oh yeah, he was like, "A show called Wonderama."

JR: I spent that money already, I might add.

E: On lunch!

M: There are so many, there are so many. The whole escape career is two books! It's filled with fantastic stories, fantastic escapes! Not even Houdini has such stories! Valleyfield Escape, which we are talking about, that's a James Bond adventure. You know about that one?

S: Give us the synopsis.

M: Well, Randi, you want to ... he tells it ...

JR: Why not.

M: ... much better.

JR: Since I experienced it.

M: Exactly!

J: He lived it!

JR: Well before Massimo Polidoro was even born! So there! I did this rather spectacular, I must say, jail escape from Valleyfield, Quebec. Now, Valleyfield, Quebec, a sizable town, in the province of Quebec in Canada.

S: You were born in Canada, right?

JR: Yes, I was, 85 years ago – almost 86 years ago, in a couple of weeks!

J: Massimo, you should write that down for the book. (Laughter)

M: Information that I need!

JR: In Valleyfield, getting back to business, in Valleyfield, I made my way over to the local jail, which I usually did when I was travelling with my little show, you see. My Jeri Dreyer was the wife of my good friend, Danny, and she was a Danseur Claquette – that's a tap dancer in French, French Canadian French anyway. And he was a comedian, and we worked this little three-person show as we traveled all over the province of Quebec, and went into Ontario as well with it. So we were always together, and she said to us, as we drove into Valleyfield, she said, "You want to check the jail?" Because, that's what I usually did.

I would go around, particularly after dark, pretty late at night like 10 or 10:30 at night. If you drop by at these rather small towns, comparatively small cities or towns, you'll find somebody sitting asleep at the desk. Some constable who's bored out of his mind, and he's dozing off, in most cases. Nothing's happening! A couple of drunks they threw into the cells, whatever, so they could sleep off until the morning. And they don't have much to do, and I'd come in there and say, "Yeah, I'm opening at the night club here. Uh, you ever go there?"

"Oh yes! Occasionally."

"And you take the family? Here, here are a couple of passes." And I'd always be equipped with these passes, you see. I'd say, "By the way, I love old locks and such. This jail looks very old!" And so I would talk him into taking me around the corridor, and opening the cell; and I would note whether it was a (52:20 froggit?) , or a lock, you know, that you would use in jail cells in those days. They're all electronic now, dammit! So, I would jolly him up, and maybe show him a quick card trick or something like that. Work my wiles on him, in some way or another. And, when I left, I had a lot of information. I would be well-enough equipped to be able to go back into that jail – not on that visit necessarily! Maybe on the way back a couple of months later. Maybe he was on the desk, maybe he wasn't, you see?

So, I did my preliminary work this way. But when I saw this setup, I was stunned! I saw a wonderful way of doing a jail escape! Just a wonderful ... so I left, and Jeri said, "How is it?" And I said, "Oh, it's absolutely wonderful!" And the very next day, we had a meeting with some press people. And, I told them that this would be a wonderful thing, that I could do a jail break. And it would work very well, and okay, let's plan it out.

I prepared myself with certain basic tools They're little things that don't look like keys at all, but you could use it to open this particular kind of lever lock, you see. And I taped that to the sole of my foot, which was my usual procedure. I'm not doing this any more, so I can reveal it. No, no, not doing it any more.

J: How did the key not make noise? Did you cut into your sole so it's embedded?

M: It's his foot.

J: Is it on the outside of your shoe, on the bottom?

JR: No, no! On the inside under my sock!

J: Oh, it's on the - I got ya! Okay.

JR: In most cases, underneath my sock, so that I could strip down because that's what I always did. I stripped down to my underwear, and sometimes even further, but I don't want to get into that. But the floor is always filthy in these jails anyway. So I was allowed to wear my socks. Ho, ho, ho! And if I wasn't, I would peel them off, and I would peel the keys off at the same time, or the picks, I should say. And I would just lay it on top of the cot , or whatever, in the cell. They weren't looking for anything at that point, you see. And my clothes would be locked into the adjoining cell.

So, let's get back to the jail break, as to how it actually happened now. So I went to see the Chief, and the Chief said, "Oh, yes! We'll gladly lock you up in our jail, ho, ho, ho!" The next day, the media was there, oh were they there. And I needed a lot of people around, you see, misdirection. And the more confusion, the better. The more misdirection, the better. They all provided unconscious misdirection because there was a narrow corridor approaching the cell. And I believe there were four cells. I don't remember ...

M: Six.

JR: Six? Oh, okay. Six. So, I'm a liar. What do I remember?

E: An honest liar!

JR: But I wanted to be taken down to the very last cell. It was near the outside wall, because I found out that by looking out through the little window there, I could look down on the parking lot. And that met my purposes exactly. So they undressed me, did the whole thing. I had my clothes locked in the cell next to it. And, they – clunk – locked the door. It had a peculiar locking system, and I can't describe it in great detail, 'cause we would never finish this program. But it was set up with a bar that was above all the cells. And it was run by a crank outside the main cell door.

That moved this bar along slowly, and took away a couple of little protruding hooks on it that engaged each door. And each door had its individual lock as well, you see. So, to let anybody out of a cell, they wouldn't allow them to get away with it presently. This would be very unsafe, and absolutely illegal. It was a case that they had to turn this crank outside the main cell door there, you see, and that drew back these, and then they could go and open up any individual cell with a key. And the cell door swung away from the wall. So, they all go out, and I -

M: And there's another door.

JR: Another door, yeah. Pretty well solid except the four little bars across the top of it, you could look out on the hall. I wanted as much time as I could possibly use because it's quite possible if I'm well-equipped – and I'm always well-equipped – that to get out of handcuffs, if they're out of sight, underneath the chair, or behind the chair that they seat you on, you see. By the time they were half-way down the corridor, I was already out of the handcuffs, no problem.

J: You picked the handcuffs?

JR: Well, let's not get into the details. I opened them. Let's put it that way. Alright? And so my hands were free, but they couldn't see any of this. They were halfway down. And they're all jostling around, and taking pictures. They used flash bulbs that looked like hundred watt bulbs full of magnesium floss, you know. And boy, when they went off, you knew it! Pow, it lit up the whole damn building, maybe burned a hole in the wall.

So they're going down there. By that time, I was at the door, and I could open the cell door, the individual cell door. And I worked frantically until I got it open just a few inches. That meant that when this rod came down the wall, to lock all of the cells, it wasn't engaging ...

J: Gotcha

JR: ... that particular cell door.

J: That was key!

JR: Oh, that was yes, key, good expression! I'm gonna copy that down. (Laughter) So, by the time they all got down, and got around this door, and went outside, and took the coffee pot to the right place to use it, and whatnot, I was already out of the handcuffs. I still had the leg irons to work on, but I had lots of time for that. And I arranged a chain of handcuffs fastened to the door with the chair on an angle, you see, at the back of the cell in such a way that it was going to bear on the cell door and tend to close it. All this weight hanging on it, you see, to close it after I was out!

So, I got out of course, into the cell corridor. Oh, yeah, and they were instructed by the way, that they should call every five minutes. They should call, "Randi, are you alright?" And I would answer them, you see. Of course, I got the first call, and I said, "Yeah, fine! Working on it, working on it. Thank you." And they all laughed, "Ah ha ha ha!" And they went back to their coffee. So, I first of all got my clothes out of course, right away. And I put them on in a big hurry. I think I got the socks on the wrong feet, but I'm not sure.

Anyway, this was a beautiful set-up now, because all I had to do was go down the cell corridor out of sight. Now, there was a solid steel door, with only a little, barred window at the top so I could easily avoid being seen going by the door. And there was a small space behind it, just enough to accommodate me, because I'm a small guy, you see. So I waited for the next call to come around. And, they called in. "You okay?" There was silence. "Wait, hold on guys. Mr. Randi, are you okay?" No answer. "Oh wait! Better go in!"

Now, I'm behind the door at the end of the cell corridor. I'm all dressed. I'm ready to go, you see. So they open up the door, and of course, all the reporters, and -

M: There's something else happening, by this moment.

JR: Oh, yeah! Thank you. Glad I brought Massimo along. I don't remember my story. No. At about the time that they were about to ask me the last time, "Are you okay," you heard, "Beep! Beep! Beep," on an auto horn, you see. I guess they're saying, "What the hell is that? This is a floor below, and outside, "Beep! Beep, beep," so, they all rush by. They look, and now the cell door has clicked shut, you see. And when it clicks shut, it's effectively locked. They have to use the key to open it up. And it's locked tightly by means of the lock, and by means of the little catches on the bar, you see.

They look inside, they see a chair laying on its side, and this big, long row of handcuffs, and nobody in the handcuffs. And they looked for my clothes; they can't find that. And meanwhile, "Beep, beep, beep, beep," is going, you see, outside in the parking lot, some how. They wondered what that is. So, they're looking around, they look behind the door, too late. I've already gone. And they wonder, what could that "beep" be?

The chief says, "Go and look at that! Whoever that is, stop it! Tell him to stop it!" And he's totally confused of course. And guess what? They look out the window, it's me sitting in the car beeping the horn, apparently having started beeping before they had even opened up the cell door.

J: Right.

JR: Now, it was a very simple system. I had Jeri, my buddy's wife, sitting in the car, and she was "Beep, beep, beeping." Now, they weren't looking outside the parking lot to examine all the cars in the parking lot, and she just started beeping when she got my signal out the window. I waved one of my hands, you see. "Beep, beep" starts. As soon as I heard "Beep," I knew Jeri was on the job. I went, hid behind the door, and when they called, "Are you okay?" I didn't answer, they all rushed by me and such. So I make my way out, down the stairs, and across the parking lot. And I switch places with Jeri, and put her in the trunk of the car. Didn't like that much.

So, "Beep, beep, beep!" They're wondering about all this noise. And they look outside, and they see that it's James Randi, the guy they just locked up in the Valleyfield Jail. Now, that's a hell of an escape.

J: So, what did they say? What was their reaction?

JR: "Wha?" A few things like that. They're very excited; they're all running around and writing down stuff to try to keep up with things now. It was very exciting, and the newspaper report was just full page. And the pictures of Chief looking rather grumpy.

E: What's it like at the moment of the reveal in which the audience realizes, "Okay, the escape has happened," and they're dumbfounded. What are you feeling at that moment? Pride? Or are you feeling excited?

JR: I'm in the car by now, so I didn't quite witness that, you see. But there must have been huge astonishment. They were all making notes. In those days, they actually had a pad of paper. You heard of that? And a pencil? Or maybe a pen. I didn't know whether they're that far ahead at that time.

E: Quill!

JR: Yeah, whatever. So, that's the Valleyfield Jail escape; and we've got details on this that Massimo and I are discussing because shortly after that, I drew a map of the cell doors as I remembered them and such, where the window was. And Massimo just sent it to me. And I find out that my memory of the thing is very bad. The details. The main details, the facts, they are there. But the diagram I drew, it doesn't agree with my memory at all! That's the fault of memory, you see. Where the last time you tell the story, is the time that you ...

S: Every time you tell it, you're recreating the memory.

JR: That's right.

S: And, you're shifting the details around.

JR: That's right. Reinforcing the ...

S: The themes are all there. Randi, it's great getting caught up with you. Always love seeing you at TAM.

JR: Steve it's been too long!

S: Yes, I know!

JR: We've gotta do this more often.

S: Absolutely.

JR: Yeah, I don't know what contributed to this conversation, but you bring 'em along too. Good to see you, gentlemen.

J: You too, Randi. Thank you so much!

E: Bye Massimo.

Science or Fiction (1:05:25)[edit]

Item #1: Neuroscientists have discovered a single brainstem neuron that, when stimulated, can render a subject unconscious. Item #2: Dolphin brains have 61 billion neurons, almost as many as humans (86 billion) and much more than chimps (7 billion). Item #3: The American Psychological Association, after thorough evaluation, deemed 'brainwashing' to be without scientific merit.

S: Alright, we have enough time for Science or Fiction. There's a theme this week for Science or Fiction.

J: Yeah!

S: Everyone loves themes. And guess what the theme is?

J: The brain!

S: The brain!

J: Of course, it's the brain!

S: (Zombie-like moaning) Bra-a-ain...

E: Bra-a-ain...

S: I'm gonna read three items; I'll poll the audience; we'll have our experts give you their opinions; we'll poll the audience again; oh yeah, our guest!

Ba: I'm not an expert.

S: Come on up! We have a guest!

E: A guest?

J: While she's coming up, I would like to thank the SGU crew that are here to help us. Thank you Kate, Courtney, Joel, Phil, my brother, Joe. Joe, stand up real quick. This is our other brother, Joe Novella, everybody.


Someone (1:06:27 Joe?): Hey!

S: Tell us a little about yourself.

A: My name is Ajia Moon. I'm from Vancouver, British Columbia.

S: Ajia Moon.

A: Yes.

S: That sounds familiar.

A: Yes. I was on one of your shows May 17th.

S: That's right.

E: There you go.

S: She was a Guest Rogue, and now she's gonna be our guest for Science or Fiction. So, Ajia, we'll have you go last.

A: Okay.

S: We're gonna go from Bob on down, I know Bob loves that. So, here we go! The three items. The 1st item is, "Neuroscientists have discovered a single brain stem neuron that, when stimulated, can render a subject unconscious." Item number 2: "Dophin brains have 61 billion neurons, almost as many as humans at 86 billion. And much more than chimps, who only have 7 billion." And item number 3: "The American Psychological Association, after thorough evaluation, deemed brainwashing to be without scientific merit."

Okay, so you're gonna vote for the one that you think is fiction. So, if you think that the single neuron that could render a person unconscious is fiction, applaud. (Mild applause) If you think the number of neurons in the dolphin, human, and chimp are fiction, then applaud. (Mild applause) And if you think the one about brainwashing is fiction, applaud. (Mild applause) I don't think everyone applauded!

J: Yeah, I don't think so either.

S: If you didn't applaud, applaud. (Softer applause, laughter)

J: It's all equal!

E: Come on!

S: It's all equal. Alright, Bob, tell us what you think.

B: I thought the guest go first when we do this.

S: No, no, go ahead.

B: Alright.

E: Nice try!

B: Okay, so a single brain stem neuron can render a person unconscious; I can buy that, but a single neuron, though! I'm having trouble with that. Let's go to 2, the dolphin brains. That one kind of makes sense to me. I think it's a matter of just sheer size. Chimps are definitely smaller than humans, and dolphins can be pretty big as well. I don't have too much of a problem with that one. Brainwashing without scientific merit. I'm not buying that one. I mean, brainwashing, it's essentially behavior modification. Yeah, I'm not buying that one. I'm gonna say that one's fiction.

S: Alright. Jay?

J: Okay, the first one, about the single neuron in the brain stem, that's interesting. I would imagine that, sure, it can communicate out, and start a chain of events, so I could see that working. The dolphin one, I have no reason to suspect any shenanigans are in there. Yeah, I think I'm gonna agree with Bob. There is something legitimate about conditioning someone over time, if that's what you mean by brainwashing. I think that that is wrong, that's the fake.

S: Evan?

E: Rendering someone unconscious; in my martial arts training, we talk the Dim Mak, and stuff. Touch some one, boop! And they're down.

S: That works, right?

E: All the time! Never!

B: I thought that was called Tel Shaiya (Uncertain spelling of Shaiya 1:09:27)

E: But how many neurons are there? Trillions? So, to discover one that could render you unconscious, I think that it's possible. The 2nd, one, yeah, I think Bob's right. It has to do with size. So, that leaves me the third one with the brainwashing and no scientific merit. I can see that as being the fiction.

S: Okay, Banachek, what do you think?


Ba: Okay, I think the number 1, there's something there, but yet, I'm almost not going with it. Number 2, I think that's a possibility, and again, because of what you said about size as well. I was thinking along the same lines.

S: You saying size matters?

Ba: Well, I am, yes. Number 3 though, I think even from a psychological standpoint, it depends what you define brainwashing as, but I think there's always something psychological you can actually get out of that. I'm gonna go number, huh, I don't know. 3?

S: The brainwashing one as well.

Ba: Yeah.

S: Alright, Ajia, all the guys went with brainwashing. You have any other ideas?

A: I'm kind of going with the same way I went before with, like Jeopardy, I'm just gonna go with it.

S: Yeah.

A: When um (laughs). I'm gonna say that C is the fiction.

S: The brainwashing one, as well.

A: Yeah.

S: So, the panel is unanimous about brainwashing. Let's poll the audience very quickly again. Who thinks that the single neuron rendering everyone unconscious is fiction? (Applause) Very enthusiastic. Who thinks that the dolphin one is the fiction? (Mild applause) A little bit less. Who thinks that the brainwashing is fiction? (Mild applause) I don't think you guys had much influence.

E: No, I don't think so, yeah.

S: Alright. Well, I think there seems to be the most agreement with the dolphin one, so let's start with that. Dolphin brains have 61 billion neurons, almost as many as humans at 86 billion, and much more than chimps at 7 billion. Everyone on the panel, and the majority of the audience think that one is science. And that one is ... science.

J: Yep!

S: So, sometimes the figure of 100 billion is quoted for the humans, but that is not correct. And there was actually a study fairly recently where they essentially dissolved the whole brain, and they calculated how many neurons there would be. And there was 86 billion. So, you may think, "Oh, 86 billion, 100 billion, that's not that big a difference." But when you think about it, that's 14 billion neurons; that's a gorilla brain. That's the entire gorilla brain. Or, it's twice as big as a chimp brain. That's the difference there.

J: That's funny, real quick, but if you asked me before I saw those numbers which animal is more intelligent, I think I would have said chimp.

S: Well, that's why I thought that was surprising. I think that you could think that chimps are the most similar animals to humans. It's really hard to actually evaluate dolphin intelligence because they're so different than we are. And their brains are constructed very differently as well. Their brains can actually weigh more than human brains.

Ba: They're denser?

S: No, no, our brains are denser. So, it's really interesting. When you try to figure out, how big a brain does an animal have? Scientists use something called, "The encephalization quotient." Which is essentially how far above or below the line you are, the curve that describes the relationship between body weight and brain weight. So, the curve is not linear. So you can't just do a linear relationship. You have to actually look at the curve, and say, "Are you above or below the line?" So, humans have far and away the greatest encephalization quotient. We're like 7.1. And chimps are at, like 2, 2 and a half. So, we're way above even the next closest animal.

Dolphins have a bigger brain than chimps because they're physically bigger, but they also have a higher encephalization quotient. But their brains are just really organized very differently. They have a lot more white matter than we do compared to grey matter. And scientists think that's because they have a lot of their brain's processing is dedicated to processing their sonar signals. So it's not necessarily all thinking processing, the way we have or chimps have.

They may be smarter in some ways, but chimps are smarter in other ways. It's hard to define intelligence as any one thing.

B: Steve, what about the number of connections between neurons? Is that variable ...

S: Yes, that's also variable. And also, the density of the packing of the neurons. For example, a mouse brain has 4 million neurons, nothing! But human brains are much more densely packed. The neurons are configured in a much denser way than mouse brains are. So if a mouse brain was as big as a human brain, it still wouldn't have near as many neurons as we have. Does that make sense?

So human brains are both denser, more efficient, and bigger for our body weight, on that curve than any other animal.

Ba: So, size of the brain doesn't equal intelligence.

S: Well, size of the brain in and of itself does not, because there's other factors in there. You can't just use size by itself. It doesn't matter. And there was also another recent study that showed that. And somebody interestingly asked me this question: That memories take up space. They actually take up physical space in brain. And the more physical space you have inside the brain, the better those memories are in terms of the detail, and how accurate ....

J: Wow! That is awesome!

S: Yeah.

J: That's really cool.

S: Alright, let's go on to the next one.

B: How many petabytes do we have?

S: I don't know. We'll go to number 1. Neuroscientists have discovered a single brain stem neuron that, when stimulated, can render a subject unconscious. I think that one got the most applause from the audience, so that's the audience guess. The entire panel thinks that one is science. And that one is ... the fiction.

J: (Groaning) Oh-h-h!

(Audience applauds loudly)

B: It's the neuron, right?

S: It's not a single neuron.

B: It's not a single neuron.

E: A cluster of neurons.

S: Yeah. Neuroscientists have discovered that single neurons can do stuff, like, can encode a memory. It can be in a single neuron. But not this. What scientists have discovered however, is very interesting! The only reason why I didn't make it a science is because it's one study. And it was in one person.

B: And she was kind of messed up.

S: And she had epilepsy, so it wasn't ...

B: I read it!

S: (Chuckles) Bob read it, and still missed it.

B: I messed it up!

E: Cheater.

S: So, this was research done by ...

B: I hate when that happens.

S: Mohamad Koubeissi at the George Washington University. And what he found, so previously, there was research looking at the claustrum of the brain. The claustrum is, it's like a thin sheet of neurons below the insular cortex. Here, I actually have a picture. There you go. The blue strip, that's the claustrum.

J: Doesn't help.

S: Yeah, so that, what's interesting about that little sheet of neurons is that it massively connects to the rest of the cortex. It's like a relay station communicating lots of different parts of the cortex to other different parts of the cortex. So, what they did was they stimulated the claustrum in this one patient, and as soon as they turned the current on, like flipping a switch, she would completely lose consciousness. She wouldn't fall asleep. So, her eyes would be open. She would be awake, but she would have absolutely no awareness, no ability to interact.

J: Is that dangerous to do?

S: No. (Audience laughs)

J: So why don't they use that instead of giving people dangerous drugs ...

S: Because they just discovered it in one patient. That's why they don't do that. (Bob laughs) So – it's a good question, Jay. It's possible in the future. I thought of that. I'm like, "Hey, I wonder if 10, 20 years from now, instead of getting anesthesia, they'll just put a stimulator on you, and just stimulate your claustrum, and you go away. And then they turn you back on at the end of the surgery." That's totally plausible.

Ba: So, if they've done it in one patient, how do we know it works in everybody?

S: We don't! That's why I didn't use it as a science, because it's one patient. But, it is a follow up to previous studies, which they speculated that this might be the case because it is so distributed connections.

Ba: So, did that read, I don't remember, but did that read, "found in one patient?" Or it says they found ...

S: It was the fiction, because I said, "one neuron."

Ba: Okay.

S: And it's not one neuron. This is a lot of neurons. It's only 0.25% of the cortex; it's not a lot, but it's a lot of neurons.

B: Steve, can you like, put this in a kid, if the kid doesn't want to go to sleep, or is throwing a tantrum. Just hit a button ...

S: I remember on The Six Million Dollar Man, when he was abducted by aliens, and with Bigfoot ...

Ba: Oh, the Bigfoot episode.

S: The Bigfoot episode.

B: That's the best one.

S: They used a device to make him unconscious during a procedure, while they were probing him or something.

E: Was this?

S: You remember that?

J: That's cool!

S: Six Million Dollar Man. Okay, let's go on to number 3, not that that has anything to do with anything. The American Psycological Association, after thorough evaluation deemed brainwashing to be without scientific merit. That is science. They commissioned a thorough study.

B: Baloney. I'm Not buying it.

S: The head of the study was Margaret Singer. Margaret Singer, who's a popularizer of lots of ideas of brainwashing, and thought control, etcetera. And she actually popularized this idea, of brainwashing. And that's probably why you all think that there's some merit here. But the APA evaluated her research, and said it was scientifically absurd. That was how they characterized her premises, and and the conclusions that she came to. They completely reject her conclusions, and they said that brainwashing is completely without scientific merit.

Ba: What was their definition of brainwashing?

S: What's that?

Ba: Their definition of brainwashing?

S: So, that would be using some kind of technique to change somebody's fundamental beliefs or personality, which is pretty reasonable defnition. But that was the definition. And it is like the Manchurian Candidate kind of brainwashing. So, not that you can't influence people by their situation. But that sort of fundamentally changing their beliefs, or their personality through some kind of system, they said there's no evidence for it.

Not the same thing as saying that it's proven it's impossible or anything. But what their analysis showed, it's "without scientific merit" was the exact terms that they used. Okay, so congratulations to the audience.

B: Nice job, guys.

(Audience applauds)

S: I swept the panel. Ajia, thank you so much for joining us.

A: Thank you.

S: Thank you again; we do really appreciate your support of the SGU, and your coming to the dinner last night. We had a lot of fun, so thanks for everything.

A: It was really fun, thank you.

S: Sure.


Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:19:51)[edit]

'We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.'- William James

S: Jay, you're gonna finish us out with a quote.

J: I have a quote from William James. "We have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood." Very, very pithy, and it really sums up, I think, a skeptical point of view.

S: Yeah, I agree. Truth matters, but you have to be flexible, and remember all conclusions are tentative, is another way of putting that, yeah.

J: You ready? I'm ready. (Shouting) William James!

(Laughter and applause)

S: Alright, Banachek, thank you for joining us. It's been a lot of fun!

Ba: Thanks for having me. I had a good time.

S: Thanks everyone for coming to TAM. Thanks to the JREF and DJ for having us back. Thanks to George for being a great MC. Thank you all for coming. And we'll see you again next year.

B: Thanks everybody.


G: There they are! The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe!

S: George, one last thing.

G: Go for it.

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.


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.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • Buzz Aldrin once saw something outside his spacecraft that he couldn't identify, but he does not believe it was aliens.
  • Jay Novella has received unofficial certification from the JREF to use the Indian accent forever more.
  • James Randi used to do jail escapes when he was young.
  • The potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 581 g turns out to not be real.


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